The Message of the Quran: A Great Tafsir of the Current Time

I became acquainted with the writings of Mahammad Asad, who wrote the Message of the Quran, in 1963 when I was under training in the Finance Services Academy in Lahore, Pakistan. The library of the Academy had the books of Mohammad Asad. I first read his “The Principles of the State and Government in Islam". It is one of the very first books written in the current time on the Political System of Islam. Then I read his Islam in the Cross Roads where he has discussed the modern and current important problems facing Islam and the Muslims. At this time I read his autobiographical book Road to Mecca. In this book he has discussed his life and experience and also expounded some of his views on Islam. When the First Volume of his The Message of the Quran was published (probably in 1964, translation was not completed then), I read it 1966 or ‘67. I was greatly impressed by the translation and the commentary. I remember that Professor Khurshid Ahmad once told me that this was the best translation of the Quran in English language.

In this translation of the Quran, Asad has not made literal translation, rather the spirit has been presented, same thing has been done by Maulana Maududi in his Urdu translation of the Quran Tafhimul Quran. But in the note of the translation, Asad has given the literal translation of the verses as well where needed. So those who want literal translation, they would also get it.

Asad was such a genius that he knew Arabic and English better than their native speakers, though these were not his mother tongues. This is reflected best in his Tafsir of the Quran.

Asad has added very significant notes in his Tafsir (commentary). He not only presented his understanding of the Verses of the Quran, but also presented the views of the earlier scholars, particularly when he dealt with controversial issues. His tafsir shows his command of earlier Tafsir Literature. He was representative of Islam’s humanistic and rationalist trend. But according to my understanding, he never forsook the spirit of Islam or did not surrender to the other civilizations, though some people say so. One of the characteristics of his Tafsir is that it is free from gender bias. It is his great success. We don’t see it in many Tafsirs.

For example, he has translated the first verse of Sura Nisa as below:
O mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer Who has created you out of one living entity and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women.

His note No.1 of Sura Nisa is as follows:

Out of the many meanings attributable to the term nafs- soul, sprit, mind, animate being, living entity, human being, person, self (in the sense of a personal identity), human kind, life essence, vital principle and so forth- most of the classical commentators choose ‘human being’ and assume that it refers here to Adam. Muhammad Abduh, however, rejects this interpretations (Manar-IV) and gives instead preference to humankind inasmuch as this term stresses the common origin and brotherhood of the human race (which undoubtedly, is the purport of the above verse) without, at the same time, unwarrantably tying it to the Biblical account of the creation of Adam and Eve. My rendering of nafs, in this context, as ‘living entity’ follows the same reasoning. As regards the expression Zawjaha (its mate), it is to be noted that with reference to animate beings the Zawj, (‘a pair’, ‘one of a pair’ or ‘a mate’) applies to the male as well as to the female component of a pair or couple; hence, with reference to human beings, it signifies a woman’s mate (husband) as well as man’s mate wife). Abu Muslim as quoted by Razi interprets the phrase “ he created its mate (i.e. its sexual counterpart) out of its own kind (min jinsiha)” thus supporting the view of Muhammad Abduh referred to above. The literal translation of minha as ‘out of it’ clearly alludes, in conformity with the text to biological fact that both sexes have originated from the ‘one living entity’.

Asad in his commentary has accepted, subject to possible meanings of the Quranic verse, very rational explanations. In this connection we can mention the issue of marriage of ‘slave girl’ and ‘hur’. He has translated Ayat 24 of Sura Nisa as follows (part):

And (forbidden to you are) all married women other than those whom you rightfully possess [through wedlock]

On this he has given note no.26 of Sura Nisa as follows:

“According to almost all the authorities, almuhsanat denotes in the above context” ‘married women’. As for the expression ‘ma malakat aymanukum’ (“those whom your right hands possess”, i.e. “those whom you rightfully possess”), it is often taken to mean female slaves captured in a war in God’s cause (see in this connection 8:67 and corresponding note). The commentators who choose this meaning hold that such slave girls can be taken in marriage irrespective of whether they have husbands in the country of origin or not. However, quite apart from the fundamental differences of opinion, even among the companion of the Prophet, regarding the legality of such a marriage, some of the outstanding commentators hold the view that ‘ma malakat aimanukum’ denotes here “women whom you rightfully possess through wedlock”; thus Razi in his commentary on the verse and Tabari in one of the alternative explanations (going back to Abdullah Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and others). Razi, in particular, points out that the reference to ‘all’ married women (al-muhsanat min an-nisa) coming as it does after enumeration of prohibited degrees of relationship, is meant to stress the prohibition of sexual relations with any woman other than one’s lawful wife.

In this connection note No.3 of Sura Al-Muminun is the Message of the Quran is also very significant which is given below:

“or those whom their right hands possess” ( aw ma malakat aymanuhum ). Most of the commentators assume unquestioningly that this relates to female slaves, and that the particle aw (“or”) denotes a permissible alternative. This conventional interpretation is, in my opinion, inadmissible inasmuch as it is based on the assumption that sexual intercourse with one’s female slave is permitted without marriage: an assumption which is contradicted by the Quran itself (see 4:3, 24, 25 and 24:32, with the corresponding notes). Nor is this the only objection to the above-mentioned interpretation. Since the Quran applies the term “believers” to men and women alike, and since the term ‘azwaj’ (“spouses”), too, denotes both the male and the female partners in marriage, there is no reason for attributing to the phrase ‘ma malakat aymanuhum’ the meaning of “their female slave”; and since, on the other hand, it is out of the question that female and male slaves could have been referred to here, it is obvious that this phrase does not relate to slaves at all, but has the same meaning as in 4:24 - namely, “those whom they rightfully possess through wedlock” (see note 26 on 4:24) - with the significant difference that in the present context this expression relates to both husbands and wives, who “rightfully possess” one another by virtue of marriage. On the basis of this interpretation, the particle aw which precedes this clause does not denote an alternative (“or”) but is, rather, in the nature of an explanatory amplification, more or less analogous to the phrase “in other words” or “that is” thus giving to the whole sentence the meaning, “…save with their spouses - that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock] …” etc. (Cf. a similar construction 25:62- “for him who has the will to take thought- that is [lit., “or”] has the will to be grateful”)
Similarly he has given very rational explanation of hur. He writes in note no.8 of Sura Waqia as follows:

The noun ‘hur’ rendered by me as ‘companions pure’- is plural of both ahwar (masculene) and hawra (female), either of which describes “ a person distinguished by hawar” which latter term primarily denotes ‘in dense whiteness of the eyeball and lustrous black of the iris’ (Qamus). In a more general sense, hawar signifies simply ‘whiteness’ (Asas) or, as a moral qualification ‘purity’ (cf. Tabari, Razi and Ibn Kathir in their explanations of the term hawariyyun in 3:52). Hence the compound expression ‘hur’ in signifies, approximately, “pure beings [or, more specially ‘companions’ pure], most beautiful of eye” (which latter is the meaning of ‘in’, the plural of Ayan).

As regards the term ‘hur’ in its more current feminine connotation, quite a number of earliest Quran commentators, among them Al-Hasan al Basri- understood it signifying no more or no less than “the righteous among the women of the human kind “(Tabari),-” [even] those toothless women of yours whom God will resurrect as new beings” (Al-Hasan as quoted by Razi in his comments on 44:54)

The whole of the commentary of Asad is an extraordinary work. There was always some difference of attitude in the Quranic commentary. This is very natural and it always happens among the scholars.

In the end, Asad has added 4 appendixes on symbolism and allegories in the Quran, Al-Muqatta'at (independent letters), Jinn and Night Journey. These are extremely useful appendixes.

Those who want to enter deeply into Tafsir literature must read Asad’s commentary, as they should read other important tafsirs of the past and present.