“Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy” by Jonathan A.C. Brown
For Muslims Al Quran is infallable. And Hadiths, despite composed by men, are a close second. But in reality the people who read them are still subject to (mis)interpretation, are prone to errors and human emotions like greed and envy, or can have their own hidden agendas using religious doctrines. This book is about that human fallability.
The book shows the complex intellectual and spiritual debates on the interpretation of Al Quran, and how complicated and political the writings of the Hadiths are. It shows that Islam is where it is today not only through the conquerings and assimilations, but also as a result of many theological frictions occurring for the past 1400 years.
The central message of this book is very straight to the point: we need to read Al Quran wholly, from cover to cover (or Khatam). Reading only some verses of Al Quran or just bits and pieces would take the verses out of context, and thus their individual messages could be highly misleading – the major problem the world has always had since the 600s, especially today.
Chapter 3 was spot on in highlighting this point. The author, Jonathan A.C. Brown, shows the infalibility of the work of Shakespeare, the Bibble, even Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, where each one of them have obvious flaws but were overlooked. So why should we intellectually scrutinise the blank spots of the Quran? The point of this chapter is, if we read the texts separately it will indeed produce oddities and flaws (or blank spots), but if we read them wholly the big picture will make sense in the end, just like the work of Shakespeare and Homer.
Moreover, it seems like everything are being discussed by his book. Everything, including controversial topics like the Hadith about masturbation, the long debate about who is entitled for zakat, and the relevancy of Quranic verses and Hadiths in modern time. It also discusses whether a woman can lead a mass prayer, an extensive discussion and analysis on syariah banking, and those 72 virgins alledgedly “promised” to martyrs.
It also shows the extensive debate between Muslim ulamas and philosophers on reading the Quran and Hadiths in a literal way, including the literal reality of heaven and hell. Most importantly, using many references from various ulamas and scholars, the author also directly answer one controversial verse with another verse that cancels it out, and explains the reasoning and the context for those particular verses to emerge.
For example, the controversial verse “when you meet the unbelievers in battle, smite their necks until you overcome them, then bind them as prisoners, either then setting them free out of munificence or for a ransom, until the war ends….” (47:4) is actually cancelled out by “It is not for a prophet to take prisoners until he has triumphed in the land” (8:67) and “Fight the polytheists altogether as they fight you altogether” (9:36).
Another example is the “wife beating verse” (An-Nisa 4:34) that is often misinterpreted, because the syariah in no way condoned a husband striking his wife, and the Prophet himself never struck a hand on any of his wives. A similar controversy lies in “honour killing”, where the book clearly state that no Muslim scholar of any sect throughout history has sanctioned a man killing his wife or sister or daughter for tarnishing family honour. The author then elaborate the context that honour killing is a product of patriarchal societies in underdeveloped economies, including those not predominantly Muslim countries like Brazil and India.
This is no doubt a truly inspiring book, and it definitely will be my go-to reference book whenever I need to understand any specific matters under Islamic law. The fact that so many briliant scholars debating so many specific aspects of the Quran and Hadiths – as analysed extensively in the book – it humbles me, and show how small I am in the presence of the many experts, and how little I know about my own Holy Book and the sayings of my Prophet. With so much wealth of hard truths and brilliant reasonings this book is a must-read for every Muslims.