ARIF Mohammed Khan has been a man of many parts. As a politician, he has championed the cause of Indian Muslims, urging them to shed their obscurantist ways of thinking and embrace modernity; as a writer, he is known for his scholarly articles on Islamic law and Islamic philosophy. He is also a man known for the courage of his convictions-as a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, he preferred to resign than align himself with the conservative majority during the infamous Shah Bano controversy. Like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, from whom he takes inspiration, the only constant for him is change.
Text and Context: Quran and Contemporary Challenges is a compendium of articles published by Arif Mohammed Khan that ranges across an array of topics-Islam and modernity, Muslim society, Islamic jurisprudence, the politics of terrorism, religious harmony, the rise of the Taliban et al. In the preface to the book, Khan, a trained lawyer, has discussed the Shah Bano case at length and his running battle with the members of the Muslim Personal Law Board, who as one, were aligned against him from the start of the Shah Bano controversy. Ultimately, it was to cost him his political career but it had a rather fortuitous fallout: it sent him on a mission to understand the message and spirit of the Quran. His journey towards becoming an Islamic scholar had begun.
A recurring theme in the book, which can almost be said to the book’s leitmotif, is a debate on Islam vs. modernity. Is the Quranic and by extension, Islamic concept of education, relevant in a modern, fast-changing world? Or has Quranic learning become a prerogative of white-bearded maulvis with reactionary tendencies? Using his formidable erudition, Khan quotes extensively from the Quran and other Islamic texts to show us that the Islamic concept of knowledge is holistic and that Muslims pursue both religious and natural sciences with equal zeal.
The book also touches on another incendiary topic that hits disturbingly close to home: terrorism. India has suffered scores of terrorist attacks during the past ten years. Thousands of lives have been lost to this scourge and it shows no signs of abating. It goes without saying that terrorists nowadays overwhelmingly owe their allegiance to a particular faith but Khan quotes the Quran to show that far from prescribing bloodshed and forced conversion, it underlines the sanctity of human life by equating it with whole mankind.
Harking back to the wisdom of the ancients, the author quotes extensively from Quranic teachings and philosophy and skillfully discusses their relevance to the modern world. It is also a journey through the syncretic past of Islam (one part of the book touches on the intellectual interaction between the Islamic nations and India a millennium ago). Weaving together Islamic history, law and religion among other topics, and peppered with illuminating anecdotes, the book can be said to be a clarion call to the Islamic world to shed their baggage of the past and stride confidently towards a future which has equal space for everyone, regardless of their faith.
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