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Debating Islam ( 26 Apr 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How to Interpret the Quran? – Insights from the Quran and Hermeneutical History

The Qur'an Contains Two Categories Of Verses: Clear, Decisive, And Unambiguous Whose Meaning Is Obvious And Apparent, And Allegorical Verses Whose Meaning Is Not Clear And Which Require Understanding In The Context Of Other Qur'anic Verses

Main Points:

1.    The Qur’an is a book of light and remembrance

2.    The Qur’an should be taken as a holistic text

3.    Qur’an contextualizes itself firmly within the task of addressing the norms and pressures of Arab society

4.    Qur’an contains two types of verses: normative and contextual


By V. A. Mohamad Ashrof, New Age Islam

27 April 2021

The Qur’an is a book of light and remembrance, and it was revealed for us to ponder upon it and follow its guidance. As the wellspring of Islamic teachings and primary source for Muslim belief, law, spirituality and ethics, it is crucial to ensure that Qur’an is explained according to properly conceived rules and norms of interpretation.

The first major fact to be remembered is that the Qur’an has multi-dimensional meanings. As Imam Ghazali related in his Revivification of the Sciences of Religion: "... the Prophet said that the Qur'an had a literal meaning, an inner meaning, an end-point and a starting point of understanding." He cited other contemporaneous Islamic scholars at the time who said that "every verse can be understood in sixty thousand ways, and that what still remains unexhausted (of its meaning) is still more numerous." (Peters, p. 201) As Talal Asad puts it, “divine texts may be unalterable but the ingenuities of human interpretation are endless.” (Asad, p.236)

The Prophet’s Companions also are said to have had different understandings of some verses, a fact the Prophet is reputed to have known (Rahman, p.144). No reading of the Qur’an “can be absolutely monolithic” or conclusive. (Ibid). We should not confuse with God’s words with human interpretation; it not only violates the distinction Muslim theology has always made between divine speech and its “earthly realization” but also ignores the Qur’an’s warning not to confuse it with its readings (39:18)  “Those who listen To the Word And follow The best (meaning) in it” (39:18) God tells Moses to “enjoin your people to hold fast By the best in the precepts [i.e., the Tablets given to him]” (7:145). What is the best meaning? Those interpretations which are compatible with the Qur’anic core values such as justice, human dignity, human equality and brotherhood.

The fundamental principle of Tafsir is to interpret the Qur'an, by the Qur'an itself. Modern scholars call "intertextuality"; it is the shaping of a text's meaning by another text. This is why comparing verses with others in the Qur’an – exploring immediate and wider context – has been recognized as an essential method of interpretation since the earliest times. Hence tafsir al-Qur’an bi-l-Qur’an (explaining the Qur’an through the Qur’an), can be found in the oldest works of exegesis alongside other styles and approaches. The practice of Tafsir al-Qur’an bi-l-Qur’an is a very rare occurrence in the history of exegesis. These include the exegeses of the Mauritanian scholar Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d. 1972 CE) and Thana’ullah Amritsari of India (d. 1948). Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai (d. 1981), an Iranian Shi‘ite scholar, shared rich reflections on Qur’anic themes in his extensive commentary, Al-Mizan. However, perhaps the most interesting development came with another Indian scholar, Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930), who advanced and applied a theory of Qur’anic coherence (nazm), which was further expanded in the Urdu exegesis by one of his students: Amin Ahsan Islahi (d. 1997).

The Qur’an should be taken as a holistic text; taking one verse when there are so many other verses on the subject cannot yield proper results but this is precisely what is done by our theologians. For example, our ulema generally quote the verse 4:3 to justify polygamy unconditionally; however, there is another verse on this subject i.e. 4:129, which negates it and if both the verses are read together it would yield different result. Verse 4:129 is so emphatic on the question of justice that marrying more than one becomes secondary and justice becomes more imperative and yet our jurists hardly refer to 4:129 and keep on referring to 4:3.

The Qur'an establishes that there is an inherent interconnection not just within itself textually, but between the Qur'anic text, human consciousness, and the universe, all of which constitute an interwoven stream of signs of the Divine Reality (Q. 3:190, 10:101, 45:3-5). The Qur’an further calls human beings to the study of society and history (Q. 3:137). Further still, the Qur’an emphasizes the inward-self, the consciousness of the human being, as a source and subject of knowledge (Q. 41:53). The Qur’an explicitly enjoins a holistic approach in which the Divine text, the Prophetic tradition, and historical, sociological, natural and psychological contexts, are woven together as holistic embroidery of signs which reflect the Divine Reality. Thus, the Qur’an sees itself as interconnected with: 1) nature 2) history/society3) self/consciousness. Thus Hadith, history, natural science, social sciences etc. are all part of the interpretative venture. However, the final adjudicator must be the Qur’anic text.

The significance of context is reinforced by the Qur’an itself; the Qur’an contextualizes itself firmly within the task of addressing the norms and pressures of Arab society: “So we have revealed an Arabic Qur’an to you, in order that you may warn the capital city [Mecca] and all who live nearby...” (42:7). Here the Qur'an specifies that it is an "Arabic" recitation, and that the purpose of its being in Arabic is specifically to "warn" Meccans and local Arabs in the immediate vicinity. On the other hand, the Qur’an puts itself a universal “message for all peoples” (81:27) and pronounces the Prophet as “a mercy for all people” (21:107). Here the Qur'an is unequivocal in clarifying that its purpose is to communicate to all of humankind.

There is thus one universal and transcendental in the sense of being relevant to all times and places; and one contextual in the sense of being specifically relevant to the history and location of the Arabian desert during the time of Muhammad. This institutes a sound textual justification for evaluating the Qur’an as a universal message, simultaneously containing features very particular and contingent to the context of Arab society and culture in which the Qur’an was revealed. Every attempt to interpret the Qur'an and derive its meaning for contemporary challenges must be capable of absorbing the universal Qur'anic principles, norms and values that lay behind the particular and contingent injunctions that appear to be directed specifically at the context of the time. Interpretive differences also reflect the fact that a text “can be read differently according to the different conditioning and cultures of authors and readers, not to mention differences in education, prejudice and a vast variety of other areas” (Neuwirth, p.132).

The Qur'an contains two categories of verses: clear, decisive, and unambiguous whose meaning is obvious and apparent, and allegorical verses whose meaning is not clear and which require understanding in the context of other Qur'anic verses, in particular the verses which are clear: "He it is Who has sent down to you the Book, of it there are some clear Verses, these are the foundation of the Book, and others are ambiguous.” (3:7) The Qur'an describes the clear verses as the 'foundation' of the Book indicating that it is through them that the various meanings of the metaphorical verses can be explored. The Qur'an goes on to caution against interpreting allegorical verses wrongfully: "As for those in whose hearts are deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except God. And no one will be reminded except those who use their intellect."  (Q.3:7)

This verse should not be taken to presume that that the Qur'an is prohibiting any struggle to reflect on or understand these verses, this violates the general Qur'anic statement that it is a "book that we have revealed to you, full of blessing so that you may reflect upon its verses" (37:29). As regards to the metaphorical verses, we should remain open, humble, self-critical, and based on a rigorous approach recognizing the fallibility and limitations of human knowledge.

The verse 3:7 further highlights two special features of the Qur’an: its internal consistency and the reiteration of its meanings throughout. Just as the Qur’an presents the universe as a ‘book’ for study, so the Qur’an itself is a ‘universe’ for exploration.

The Qur’an contains two types of verses: normative and contextual; the first is the universal and permanent values; the other is contextual in nature. The term ‘normative’ refers to the fundamental values and principles of the Qur’an such as equality, benevolence and justice, and these principles are eternal and can be applied in various social contexts. Contextual revelations were tailored to socio-historical problems of the time. The Qur’an may be interpreted based on the its context; in the context of discussions on similar topics in the Qur’an; in the light of similar language and syntactical structures used elsewhere in the Qur’an; in the light of overriding Qur’anic principles; and  within the context of the Qur’anic worldview. The metaphorical language of the Qur’an should be read in the light of our own historical circumstances and experiences. The doctrine of equality is a plain principle of the Qur’an (49:13, 2:187, 33:35, and 9:71). Since men and women are created from a single essence (Q.4:1), the view that the Eve was born from the crooked rib of Adam must be refuted because such interpretation implies the inferiority of women. The Muslim denials of “female rationality and female moral responsibility” derive from “Bible-related traditions” (Stowasser, 28). As Stowasser argues, “Until fairly recently, modern [Muslim] conservatism continued to evoke the medieval theme of women’s innate physical and mental deficiency.” (Stowasser, p.6)


Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reason of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993 Neuwirth, Angelika, “Images and Metaphors in the Introductory Sections of the Makkan Suras.” In Approaches to the Qur’an, edited by G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, New York: Routledge, 1993                    

Peters F. E, A Reader on Classical Islam, Princeton University Press, 1994

Rahman, Fazlur, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982                                                     

Stowasser, Barbara F, Women in the Qur’an: Traditions and Interpretations, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994   


V.A. Mohamad Ashrof is the Joint Secretary of Forum for Faith and Fraternity


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