The Holy Qur’an: To Recite and To Study

Every 17th of Ramadan, the Muslims in Indonesia commemorate the night of Nuzulul Qur’an (asbāb al-nuzūl, أسباب النزول), which is also known as the Occasions of Revelation, with various attractions ranging from torch parades, kasidah or nasyid art performances, Qur’an recitation and memorization competitions, to religious lectures by presenting preachers.

Nationally, the tradition of commemorating the Nuzulul Qur’an was started by President Soekarno, who received advice from the cleric Buya Hamka. The commemoration itself is carried out at the State Palace every 17th because it coincides with the date of Indonesia’s proclamation of independence as a form of gratitude for the independence achieved by the Indonesian people.

Apart from the disagreements between the scholars regarding the exact date of the release of the Koran for the first time, there is an intriguing question: What can we actually learn from each moment of Nuzulul Qu’ran?

If we refer to the holy book itself, it is clearly stated that the Qur’an was revealed in the month of Ramadan as a guide for humans (QS. Al Baqarah / 2: 185). How do we interpret “a guide” referred to by that verse? The consequences will be different if we take it without modality (bila kayf: بلا كيف), by accepting it while asking: How can the Qur’an be a guide for mankind from time to time, whereas as a text, the Qur’an was revealed 14 centuries ago? Will the book be able to respond to the times?

In fact, it is rare for such a question to be raised by Muslims to initiate a critical study of their holy book. What often happens are conservation efforts to maintain the purity of the Qur’an, nothing more than that. This is because experience shows that critical studies of the Koran always lead to a very large risk that must be borne by the reviewer concerned. The case against the Egyptian author, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943 - 2010) is an example to be remembered. The author tried to approach the Qur’an critically was cut off by the court in Egypt as an apostate, forced to divorce his wife, and finally he had to escape to the Netherlands. Of course, there are many other examples that can be cited, all of which crystallize in the conclusion that in the view of Muslims, the Qur’an is not meant to be studied, but simply memorized or practiced.

This condition explains why scholars of Qur’anic exegesis or tafsir (تفسير) in Indonesia prefer to become lecturers rather than independent mufassirin (مفسّرون) or interpreters. Tafsir departments at Islamic campuses in the country also adjust to these conditions. In general, these departments are designed to give birth to believers and pious people, not to give birth to Qur’an scientists. The future of the alumni of those departments are to become preachers, Ustaz, lecturers, Qur’an teachers, and religious educators.

There is nothing wrong with that. But is that enough to fulfill the expectation of the Qur’an itself as a guide for mankind? This condition is very different from the Western world where the studies of the Qur’an are taking place with great zeal. On campuses where there are departments of Islamic studies, the Qur’an has become a tremendous magnet inviting scholars to carry out in-depth studies of this Muslim holy book.

American Scholar of Islamic Studies, Gabriel Said Reynolds, claimed that in the last few years what he called the “Golden Age of the Qur’anic studies” had occurred in the West. This is related to the widespread study of the Qur’an, the work that was born, the scholars involved, and the various themes discussed. Every time the results of research or conclusions about the Qur’an are born, academic debates are welcomed.

There have been times when Western scholars studied the Qur’an for the purpose of finding fault with, or discrediting Islam and Muslims. Their studies are polemical. However, the development of the scientific world in the West makes such studies obsolete. Since the 20th century there has been a significant shift from polemical studies to academic ones.

In the last few decades there has even been a revisionist scholarly genre in the study of Islam and the Qur’an as an alternative to the traditionalist scholarly tradition. This revisionist scholarship has greatly contributed to the recent development of Islamic studies in the West. One of the pioneers of this scholarly study, John Wansbrough, wrote the book “The Sectarian Milieu, Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (new 2006 edition)”. He criticized traditional works on the origins of Islam which he thought were historically unreliable and heavily influenced by religious dogma. On that basis he suggested a new interpretation that was radically different from the orthodoxy viewpoints of both Muslims and Western scholars themselves.

Essentially, Wansbrough questioned the problems and the historical complexity of the Qur’an about how high the level of truth is presented by the texts that we inherit about the Qur’an that were written not in his time but more than a hundred years after the Muhammad period. The history of the Qur’an, as well as Islam, is presented more as a narrative about how it should be understood, not as a historical document that proves "what really happened." In this way, he said, it is almost impossible for us to get the essence of historical truth from these works to answer the challenges of the present.

Wansbrough’s work has often sparked controversy among scholars of the Qur’an, what is interesting for us is, why was such a tradition born in the West, and not in the academic world of Muslims themselves as owners and heirs of the Holy Qur’an? Why is the Qur’an so fascinating and attractive to Western scholars, why not to Islamic scholars?

The answer can be very simple, that the centers of the study of the Qur’an in the Muslim world, including the department of interpretation on Islamic campuses, were built to produce scholars who are good at the Qur’an, and generations of Qur’anic clerics who are faithful and pious. In Indonesia lately there are even several state campuses that provide scholarships to prospective students who memorize the 30 parts (juz’:جُزْءْ) of the Qur’an. This means that the traditions of tahfidz (memorizing) and iqra'(reciting) are stronger than the tradition of istiqra' (studying).

This is not invalid at all; it just needs to be developed further. The Islamic world needs to strengthen scientific traditions in the field of the Qur’an, including utilizing social sciences and historiography. Thus, the spectrum of study becomes broad, and the vibrational power of the Qur’an is stronger, so that it really becomes a guide for mankind (hudan lin-naas). That is the material for our reflection to welcome the warning of Nuzulul Qur’an today.