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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 34: Peeling Back the Layers

By Ziauddin Sardar

June 09, 2008

Now that we are almost half way through our reading of the Qur'an, it would be productive, I think, to pause for some reflections, make some general remarks about interpretation, and draw a few conclusions.

Ostensibly, we have only read two chapters of the Qur'an: al-Fatiha and al-Baqura. But they are sufficient to communicate its essential message, illustrate the extraordinary nature of the text and the special character of its style. Indeed, al-Baqura, as I explained in the previous blog, serves as an overview that encapsulates the whole of the Qur'an: the themes, injunctions and principles addressed in this chapter are further discussed, expanded, and elaborated in the rest of the text.

We have seen that the unexpected has a constantly presence in the Qur'an. We can move rapidly from the highly specific to general advice, from straightforward verses to those requiring a considerable amount of thinking, and from simple similes to complex and vexing metaphors and parables.

We have also noticed that the Qur'an can be read at numerous levels. It can be read simply as an act of worship and devotion - as al-Fatiha is read during daily prayers or the verse of the throne is read for devotional recitations. It can be read for straightforward religious guidance, for discovering the articles of faith, for appreciating the importance of performing certain specific obligations of Islam such as Zakat, the hajj and fasting.

Moreover, the Qur'an can be read, as we have been trying to read it, to tease out the contextual from deeper meaning, to gain guidance for contemporary problems, and principles to think with. It can also be read at a mystical level, as Sufis do, to gain esoteric and metaphysical insights.

And, of course, like all religious texts - the Torah, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, or the teachings of Buddha - it can be studied as the basis of a scholarly endeavour requiring, to use Madeleine's words, "much training and study to understand". How long it takes, and what you get out of the text, depends on how much effort you put in. But a deeper engagement with the Qur'an, as I have learnt for myself while writing these blogs, requires peeling away layers of the text, one by one. One can be satisfied with the initial layer; but moving on to underlying layers obviously requires serious struggle with the text.

We have also discovered that struggling with the Qur'an requires appreciating its context. As commentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and the people, customs, and culture of Arabia during his times, understanding the Qur'an requires knowing something about the life and personality of Prophet Muhammad and the circumstances and background of the Arab community he represented.

To get the kernel of the universal truth firmly embedded in its text, we need to unwrap the context within which each verse is revealed. We also need to consider how individual verses of the Qur'an are connected to and interact with other verses elsewhere in the Qur'an, and how the parts connect to give us a vision of the whole. We need to separate the general and universal from the specific and contextual. And, we need to read the Qur'an, as the text itself demands, with intellectual rigour.

But what we cannot do is to take a given verse, divorced from its context, and say this is precisely what it means. This is not a way of reading the Qur'an but a recipe for justifying one's own bias and prejudices.

Interpretation, of course, is a human endeavour. Any reader of the Qur'an will bring his or her own experiences, cultural background, understanding of contemporary circumstances and intellectual ability to his or her reading. And that reading, like my own reading, will have its natural limitations. So no reading of the Qur'an is a definitive, final word on the sacred book.

The most important lesson we can take from submitting to a careful reading is this: we cannot consider any interpretation of the Qur'an to be universal and eternal; and we must look at any and all such claims with scepticism whether they come from classical commentators or their modern counterparts, Muslim scholars or western experts on the Qur'an.

Our approach to, and understanding of, the Qur'an has to develop and evolve continuously with the passage of time and it must adapt and change with our circumstances. So interpreting the Qur'an is a dynamic, living process. In this process, we have to try hardest to distinguish what and how some things can change, whether and how additions to or the abandonment of some ideas and practises are warranted, as we seek refinement and improvement not merely of interpretation but also of application of the moral and ethical values and principles to the conditions and circumstances of our day.

We have to change things in order to keep ourselves in a balanced relationship with God. To stand steady in the appropriate relationship to the eternal we may have to move constantly, readjusting things in the here and now, the realm of the temporary and transitional.

However, this is not to say that all readings of the Qur'an are necessarily time bound or simply a reflection of a reader's background and circumstances. A socially rational interpretation of certain verses of general and categorical import is possible: we can all agree that a verse such as "there is no compulsion in religion" (2: 256) or "God does not love aggressors" (2: 190) can be read objectively and have common meaning. Appreciating the universal import of certain general verses, I think, is particularly important if our concern is interrogating the text rather than justifying our pre-conceived ideas or pre-existing social beliefs.

There is an objective core of meaning in the Qur'an that is accessible to all fair minded readers.

The exercise we have undertaken so far, exploring the text verse by verse, has some serious limitations. By its very nature, this approach is episodic. We look as diligently and deeply for what is before us in one defined unit. But the fullness of the meaning we seek is not episodic but holistic. What we need to appreciate is how each unit fits together, and the relationship and interaction unlock the meaning and nature of the whole.

Going verse by verse cannot yield insights into the broader themes and universal contents of the Qur'an. To examine themes, such as Qur'anic notion of prophecy, or the idea of community, or nature, we need to look at the sacred text as a whole. We need to look at how the various verses in various chapters of the Qur'an refer to these themes and how, when we read and think of them together, they inform our understanding.

This is what we are going to do next.



Faith and Reason Intertwined

By Madeleine Bunting

June 09, 2008

Looking back over the last few months, I've learnt an enormous amount. It's the subtlety and sophistication of a whole world outlook which has made the biggest impression on me; the way Zia has explained the seemingly random sequence of material in the Qur'an and showed the significance of the shift in tone or subject.

I've also been impressed by the persistent political agenda - the commitment to justice - which threads through so many verses. I can see how the Qur'an is not only about helping individuals to find salvation but about how to order societies and the world.

That leaves me with several new insights into the current debates about Islam and the west. The first is the absurd distinctions between "political Islam" and "non-political Islam": it seems very clear that all Islam is political in the sense that it has huge and quite clear directions for how societies should be organised and run. The attempts of the British government to nurture a quietist, spiritual non-political Islam seem quixotic - a sort of Islamic Anglicanism (Anglicanism used to be very political but that had been stripped out of it by the late 20th century).

The second reflection is how much western attitudes towards Islam are built on willed ignorance as well as a lazy prejudice. The latter is more understandable: we are all swamped by information of all kinds, many people find it hard to discriminate between distracting trivial "junkfo" and things they need to know about. The information superhighway has become a monster traffic jam. But the willed ignorance is more perturbing: in whose interests is it that we are persuaded and encouraged to know little and understand even less?

How is it that we end up trapped in sterile debates such as the false opposition of faith v reason on which Zia wrote in week 20 and on which there were several important posts. It seems to me that faith and reason are so bound up with each other that it is almost impossible to tease them apart. I read a superb essay by the Cambridge scientist Denis Alexander recently which beautifully described how "science and the arts are different types of narrative" both of which "play their role in shaping our understanding of reality". Religion was another of these narratives which addressed the metaphysical questions which science cannot, such as whether there is ultimate meaning or purpose in the world. They are "complementary not rival accounts" as "explanatory layers like slices across a cube". No one is up to the Herculean task of grasping the totality so we need all these types of explanation. And they interconnect in many ways.

The dictionary definition of faith as a "duty of commitment to fulfil trust" may be clunky but it's very useful; it reminds me of the comment that Karen Armstrong, the religious historian, made to me that belief derives from a German word meaning to commit. Belief is less about signing up to a set of doctrinal premises as a commitment to a set of ideals.

Has reading the Qur'an and Zia's blogs made me a Muslim? Am I tempted to convert? No, not even the smallest bit, and I ask myself why. I've noticed talking to Muslim converts such as Yahya Birt that it was a person not a book or an idea which really made him think. I suspect that all conversions happen because of relationships with remarkable people - recognising the being of another person in the tiniest details - their patience, their ease with themselves, their kindness and generosity: these are the most compelling signs of holiness which guide people to belief, not texts.


URL of Part 33:,-a-prayer/d/13230