We talk, write and preach a lot, and we quarrel and disagree even more about the importance of the Text in Islam. Some of us have such zeal for the Text that we go so far as to elevate it to the worshipful status of God Himself, as if there were some complete and absolute congruence between the two. Others among us, on the other hand, as some counter-reaction, are impelled to challenge it and lower it to the rank of something created, denying it any status that could unite it with the Creator.
BETWEEN THESE TWO extremes, there are those who question the authenticity of the Text in the first place, claiming that it is just a lie to deceive the simple-minded. In the end, regardless of any of our personal orientations, we all end up spending great time and effort, either defending the Text or attacking it, in the belief that to defend the Text is to defend Islam, and to refute it is to refute Islam. In addition to these, a minority has taken upon itself the task of emending the Text and curing it of its accretions over time, in the belief that their reform of the Text constitutes also a reform of Islam. Given that no one expends time and effort on things that are unimportant, we therefore all attach great importance to the role of the Text in Islam.
What, then, is the role of the Text in Islam? To answer this, let us first of all attend to some legitimate issues.
The text in question was not written by, nor dictated by, the Messenger of Islam and the bearer of the Revelation himself, whether at the time of its revelation or at any later period during the course of his life. And if the Text itself really merits this degree of importance and sanctity that some of us attach to it, and itself stipulates the necessity of writing any contract concluded even between two natural persons –
O ye who believe! When ye contract a debt for a fixed term, record it in writing. Let a scribe record it in writing between you in (terms of) equity. No scribe should refuse to write as Allah hath taught him, so let him write, and let him who incurreth the debt dictate.
– is it not right to pose the following questions:
Was not the Qur’an, as a social contract between God the Creator and all the human beings that He created, something more important to record in writing under the eyes and ears of the Messenger himself?
Is the Qur’an less important than recording a contract of debt between two people? If the Qur’an was as important as we see it now, is this not some evidence of neglect or shortcoming on the part of the Messenger and all the Companions and believers who were his contemporaries not to take due consideration, in one way or another, for the writing down of every Qur’anic verse at the moment of its revelation and connect it with what immediately preceded it? Or was it the case that the few decades that elapsed between the death of the Prophet and the writing and compilation of the Qur’an witnessed some leap of knowledge in the technology of writing, something that was not available at the time of the Messenger, and that this prevented the codification of the Qur’an and the Sunna at their correct time, and explains the reason for the delay for all those years?
One may claim that the Prophet died without even being aware of something called the ‘Qur’an and the Sunna’
If this is the case – that the Book and the Sunna were not written down until many years after the death of the Messenger – then one may perforce claim that the Prophet died without even being aware of something called the ‘Qur’an and the Sunna’ as we know them and make efforts to defend, attack or reform them, and the Prophet himself therefore did not give the Text the importance that we attach to it today. Otherwise he would have written it with his own hand or, if he did not know how to do this, would have had it written down for him at that precise moment and under his very eyes. But the truth is that he did neither.
Does religion – any and every religion including Islam – really need a ‘text’ in order to emerge and progress?
The fact of the matter is that anyone who devotes his energies to defending the Text or attacking it, in the belief that he is thus defending, attacking, or reforming and modernizing the religion, is perforce a person who does not understand the essence of ‘religion’, and is thus wasting his effort.
Religion is neither a concept nor a philosophy for it to need a ‘text’ to emerge or progress. Religion does not have an intellectual (textual) body that you have to support, attack or reform. Rather, it has a different body and nature, and therefore needs different tools to defend it, attack it, correct it or reform it. Religion, like magic, is more about inspiration than persuasion, about symbols and rituals than texts and ideas, it demands readiness on the part of the recipient, more than efforts exerted on the part of a representative of God. And in order for it to reach the heart of its recipient and implant its dart there, it has no need of addressing the mind in the language of persuasion so much a need to influence the conscience through ‘symbol’ and ‘ritual’.
This is what makes clerics of all religions adhere to forms of dress, speech, and facial and physical expression that may seem comical to followers of other religions, yet they produce the desired effect in the hearts of their followers. It is also the same reason why all religions still adhere to individual and collective rituals that are thousands of years old and still persist among us in violation of the spirit of the age.
Can one infer from this that Muhammad was smarter than the rest of us when he did not misplace his effort, and instead invested it in what was of real benefit for the sake of his message, that is, by exerting influence through symbol and ritual?
If the Text is not of fundamental importance, whether for the emergence of Islam or its progress, then what is the reason for its existence and persistence among us to the present day?
Here one could say that the Text is like some ‘foundation system’ – a constitution – that arises only following the emergence and consolidation of legal standpoints for its multifarious parties. Its main goal and objective is to preserve these standpoints and control the relationship between them. This is so that whenever a change occurs in them, it demands in return the introduction of alterations that are appropriate.
As for the nature of the parties to this contract, their legal standpoints, and the nature of the relations and interests among them, this is another story that may not bear much relevance to the belief that defending the Islamic Text is a defense of Islam, or that attacking the Text is an attack on Islam, or that a reform of the Text is also a reform of Islam.
 Qur’an II (al-Baqara), 282.