— – The Book Review
Juggernaut Books could not have published Tales from the Quran and Hadith at a better time. India in 2016–17 is perpetually grappling with misconceptions about Islam. From ill-informed journalists to self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, it is an open season which has left the ordinary citizens of the country confused, and in some cases angry. The controversy regarding the Triple Talaq has added fuel to fire which does not show any signs of abating as the Supreme Court deliberates on the issue. For people who are wondering about the role of women in traditional Muslim society, these tales will be an eye-opener. Though the book does not provide answers to questions like the rights of women in Islam, as we go through the tales we see strong women characters emerging who also show the same fallibility as a woman from any other society would. Beginning with the beginning, ‘The Creation of Man, Kun Fayakun: Be and it was’—God’s creation of man, breathing of life into him and giving him a soul, Rana Safvi, in a very non-didactic manner, takes the readers through 20 tales which shed light on different aspects and bring out the spirit of Islam. At the very outset the author makes it clear that she is not an Islamic scholar but a believer. That sets the tone for the tales to follow. They are told in a simple, easy to read manner without getting into any historical jargon.
This automatically broadens (maybe intentionally) the target customer segment for Juggernaut. From young adults to serious readers, to people of different faiths the book can be picked up by anyone, who wishes to have a better understanding of Islam.
The preface gives a brief background to the Quran, the holy book, which contains revelations made to Prophet Mohammad, and Hadith, which is based on the spoken word of the Prophet. Both the Quran and the Hadith have tales, and it is interesting to discover a pattern in the selection of tales by the author. I don’t know if this is done intentionally but the author has chosen tales where women play a strong and an influencing role, even if the role is negative. If there is the story of Khadija, Prophet’s first wife and a business woman, whom the Prophet trusted completely, there is also the Prophet’s jealous wife, Ayesha. The author seems to have taken a cue from the first story in which the reason given by Hawwa (Eve) on being asked by Adam as to the reason for her creation is:
So that you may find tranquility in me.
Another tale is from ancient Egypt, of the lustful Zulaikha, who leaves no stone unturned to seduce her husband’s young slave, Yusuf, the son of Prophet Yaqub. Yusuf had travelled to Egypt from Syria, after his jealous brothers had thrown his in a well, and left him to die. Working in the house of Al Aziz and Zulaikha, as he grew up, Zulaikha was overpowered by his charms and decided to take matters in her hands. It is then that she tries to seduce him. Although he manages to escape, she put the blame on him for casting an evil eye on her, in order to save her reputation. Yaqub is imprisoned and only released years later. This tale is followed by the story of Hajira and her struggle to save her infant son, Ismail. This story also throws light on the character of Sarah, Ibrahim’s first wife, her pious and noble nature and how she is instrumental in getting Ibrahim married to Hajira. But, the same Sarah is torn with jealousy when Hajira becomes pregnant. All stories talk of flesh and blood human beings, full of emotions good and bad, with special attention to the women, their lives and struggles. This particular story is an exceptionally important one as it also reveals the reason for the celebration of Eid uz Adha, the building of Kaaba, explaining the meaning and significance of the various rituals around Hajj, the importance of Zamzam and three religions of the world descending from Ibraham.
In the meantime, Ibrahim visited Hajira and Ismail regularly. On these visits Ibrahim received instructions that he and Ismail should build the House of God. They built a structure in the shape of a cube, which is known as the Kaaba, and Ibrahim raised his hands in prayer, ‘My Lord, make this city (Mecca) a place of security and provide its people with fruits, such of them as believe in God and the Last Day.’ From that day onwards this has been a place of pilgrimage.
Ibrahim returned to Palestine and died there but he became a leader of nations as promised by God. The three major Abrahamic religions were born from his sons. Muslims are descended from Ismail, while Jews and Christians are descended from Isaac.
The other recurring pattern that comes through is that the author seems to have consciously chosen stories which are important in the Bible or the Torah (the central reference of Judaism)as well, and hence proves the common trait running through the three major religions of the world. For example, not only is the story of Yunus (and the author does give the reference to the Biblical name, Jonah) there but also the mention of Nuh (Noah) and Al-Yassa (Eleisha).
It is also evident from the stories that compassion is an integral part of Islam. The story of ‘The Dog and the Prostitute’ where the Quranic moral is apparent that one deed of kindness can earn God’s forgiveness and secure a place in heaven.
The spirit of Islam is that of compassion towards all. A message, vital and important, in times like ours.
Saba Mahmood Bashir, poet, author and a translator, is the author of a collection of poems, Memory Past (Writers’ Workshop 2006) and I Swallowed the Moon: The Poetry of Gulzar (HarperCollins 2013), her PhD thesis (IIT Delhi). She has translated Gulzar’s screenplays of Premchand’s Godaan and Nirmala and Other Stories (Roli Books 2016) along with a short story ‘Fear’ which came out in the anthology Pigeons of the Dome (2015). Her forthcoming book is by HarperCollins which is an analysis of the 1975 film, Aandhi.