The first volume of Imam Muhammad al-Asi’s tafseer of the Qur’an, The Ascendant Qur’an, was formally launched by the Instituteof Contemporary Islamic Thought at a function at the Islamic Society of York Region in Toronto on May 24. It was a low-key event, aimed mainly at the local community, rather than a massive event designed to be unmissable by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This was understandable, as Zafar Bangash, the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), who has overseen the production of this tafseer, is also better known to many people in Canada as president of the Islamic Society of York Region and a leading spokesman for the Muslim community in Canada. As Dr Kalim Siddiqui before him did with the Muslim Institute and Muslim Parliament, Zafar Bangash combines his leadership of the ICIT with a commitment to activism in the grassroots of the Muslim community that provides a solid foundation for what might otherwise appear to some to be abstract and theoretical intellectualising with little relevance to the day-to-day concerns of Muslims.
Attending the launch, however, it was impossible to avoid comparisons with the way so substantial and significant a work would have been launched in the West. Instead of a community Islamic centre, it would probably have been held at a university or some other intellectual centre. Instead of the editor of Crescent, it would have been discussed by scholars, professors and commentators of real weight, standing and influence. And instead of a few articles and advertisements in Crescent and half a dozen other magazines around the world, it would have earned headlines and op-ed discussion pieces in almost every publication in the world. Hundreds of thousands of copies would have been bought and read as a result of this effort; we have seen many inferior books on Islam by Western commentators given profiles they do not deserve, thanks to such promotion. In the case of The Ascendant Qur’an, however, although the initial launch was followed by programmes in other centres in Toronto, and will be followed by programmes in other parts of the world over the next few months, it will still be far less of an impact than the work deserves, and is unlikely to give it the profile and audience in the Muslim world that it needs to have the fullest possible impact.
The reasons for this are not difficult to understand, of course, and largely reflect the plight of the Ummah as a whole. The fact is that intellectual organisations that are committed to the Islamic movement simply do not have the institutional support structures, platforms and networks on which such high-profile efforts depend. Like the Muslim Institute before it, theInstitute of Contemporary Islamic Thought is a single organisation of very limited resources operating largely in isolation, disparaged and marginalised by those whose interests are threatened by its worldview and outlook. While some Muslim leaders and scholars are invited to lecture at university events, and to sit on government or international thinktanks, and generally ushered into the peripheries of the Western intellectual establishment, because they are thought to be useful to the West’s agendas in some way or another, those who are genuinely independent, and who challenge the Western worldview, are ignored and disregarded, and are left to work in isolation with minimal resources and other support from the community. In this too, Imam al-Asi is following the example of Dr Kalim Siddiqui and many other Islamic leaders and scholars before him.
Establishing an intellectual infrastructure for the Ummah and the Islamic movement, and identifying and supporting other Muslims thinking and working in isolation elsewhere, was of course part of Kalim Siddiqui’s vision for the Muslim Institute, and for a time in the 1980s and 1990s the Muslim Institute was genuinely at the heart of such an infrastructure. The fact that it could not be sustained -- it declined as a result of resource and other problems even before Dr Siddiqui’s death -- has proved a massive loss for the Islamic movement.
Now that the first volume of The Ascendant Qur’an has been published, however, it is crucial that it be given all possible support to become known throughout the Muslim community and the Islamic movement. As with so many other Islamic works, most of them of far lesser import, it is entirely possible that this tafseer could disappear with hardly a ripple beyond the circles of those who already know Imam al-Asi, the ICIT and Crescent International. This would be grossly unjust for Imam al-Asi, and -- more importantly perhaps -- a serious loss for the Islamic movement, which can ill afford to ignore such contributions. The unique qualities of Imam al-Asi’s insight into the Qur’an, which some Crescent readers may take for granted, having had the benefit of the serialisation of his tafseer for nearly a decade, have been highlighted elsewhere in Crescent International. Suffice it here to say that his ability to relate the lessons of the Qur’an and the context of the Prophetic period in which it was revealed to the contemporary Muslim situation, in language that can be understood by Muslims everywhere at this time in history, needs to be given the opportunity to have the greatest possible impact.
Of course, the main responsibility for achieving this falls on the ICIT and Crescent International; but it cannot be done without the assistance and involvement far greater numbers of people, and far more institutional support, than we have available to us. This is a work for the Muslim Ummah, and just as those involved in the Muslim Institute and the ICIT have always worked at the level of the grassroots Muslim community, as well as in the intellectual sphere, we hope and pray that with the blessings and guidance of Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala, the Ummah will now accept, take on and share responsibility for this task.
And if, in the process, some elements of the institutional infrastructure and resources that the Islamic movement so sorely lacks are also developed and consolidated, including but not only those of the ICIT, then the publication of The Ascendant Qur’an may insha’Allah have an impact even beyond the potential inherent in the work itself.