Is Islam A Profession?

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

Almost without fail, whenever I raise the question of why we Muslims are not allowed to reflect upon the verses of the Qur’an for ourselves, in accordance with God’s command that we ponder over the Qur’an (47:24), I am rebutted with the analogy of the medical profession: “Can you simply read a medical text book,” I am asked, “and then start to practice medicine on your own?”

“No, of course not,” I answer.

“Well, the same is true with the Qur’an.”

This analogy is fallacious. Medicine – just like Engineering, or Computer Science, or Architecture – is a profession. It has a compendium of knowledge that must be mastered, and after this compendium has been mastered, the newly-graduated doctor of medicine must undergo a 3-7 year apprenticeship, during which he or she practices the trade under the supervision of more experienced physicians. Once this is completed, then, and only then, can one practice medicine on their own.

Is Islam a profession such as this? If someone wants to become a Muslim, is her or she required to go to college for four years, then four years of “Islamic school,” then complete a 3-7 year “Islamic residency” in order to be a “board-certified Muslim”? No. We Muslims, in fact, brag about how easy it is to become a Muslim: simply declare “There is nothing worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”

Yet, after one becomes a Muslim, he or she cannot read the Qur’an and reflect about what the verses mean to him or her. No. This is akin to picking up a pair of scissors and performing coronary bypass surgery after reading a surgical textbook. Does this make any inkling of sense?

The Qur’an, speaking about itself, says: This divine writ – let there be no doubt about it – is [meant to be] a guidance for all the God-conscious (2:2). Who are these “God-conscious”? The Qur’an continues:

Who believe in [the existence] of that which is beyond the reach of human perception, and are constant in prayer, and spend on others out of what We provide for them as sustenance; And who believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon thee, [O Prophet], as well as in that which was bestowed before they time: for it is they who in their innermost are certain of the life to come! It is they who follow the guidance which comes from their Sustainer; and it is they who shall attain to a happy state! (2:3-5)

These verses seem to tell me that the guidance of the Qur’an is open to any and everyone. All I have to do is open the book and read it. Yet, if I do so, I am told, it is akin to reading a medical textbook and opening a medical practice. Does this make any inkling of sense?

Now, Qur’anic tafsir, or exegesis, is a profession such as medicine. It has a compendium of knowledge that must be mastered, including thorough knowledge of the Arabic language, reasons for revelation ( asbab ul nuzul), Prophetic traditions, other commentaries made by other commentators, and so on. If I, after reading various translations of the Holy Scripture, turned around and published a book of Qur’anic exegesis, then the medicine analogy would make complete sense.

Yet, this is not what I do. None of the reflections I have made about various verses of the Qur’an was ever intended to be the “tafsir according to Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa.” In fact, whenever I speak about various verses of the Qur’an in my writings, I always first consult the explanation of the Qur’an made by Muhammad Asad. I do this because, as correctly pointed out by my critics, I am not a scholar of the Qur’an.

But the Qur’an is not the property of the scholars alone. The Qur’an is a book of guidance for all. How could reflecting on a verse of the Qur’an on my own be akin to reading a medical textbook and then practicing medicine? Islam – unlike medicine – is not a profession.

What’s more, we Muslims brag that our connection with God is direct, that we Muslims have no priesthood, that there is no intermediary between us and our Creator. Shouldn’t this also apply to the Word of our Creator? If we cannot reflect on the Word of God on our own – because we are not scholars – then how is this different from having a priesthood? I remember being told that – before Vatican II – Catholics could not study the Bible without a priest present. Is the same thing occurring with Islam and the Qur’an?

Yet, I must reiterate that I do not advocate a wholesale abandonment of the scholars. They deserve our respect and admiration. I have consulted various scholars on many issues, including verses of the Qur’an. What must be remembered, however, is that these scholars are human beings with a ethnic, cultural, social, and political context. This context must be taken into account when analyzing a scholar’s opinion about a certain verse of the Qur’an. And the opinion of a scholar must never be confused for the Word of God itself.
So, please, don’t tell me that reading the Qur’an and reflecting over what the verses mean to you or me is the same as opening a medical practice after reading a medical textbook. Reading and reflecting over the Qur’an – unlike medicine – is not a profession that requires training. It is obedience to God’s command: Will they not, then, ponder over this Qur’an? Or are there locks upon heir hearts?

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