By Zeeshan Reshamwala
October 4, 2014
Many Interpretations are Still Better than One
[Hasan Suroor suggests in an op-ed that one of the causes of Islamist violence is the ambiguity of the Quran and the Hadith, adding that perhaps it is time to develop an “authorised” version of the Islamic tradition. This article critiques Suroor’s assumption that it is possible to achieve a “pure” interpretation of a text, whether it be from a religious tradition or otherwise. In addition, it argues against Suroor’s tendency to imagine violence as a “medieval” phenomenon, and world-history as a deterministic forward-moving arrow.]
Hasan Suroor suggests that the problem of Islamist fundamentalism and the violence that follows in its wake can be solved by untangling the multiple interpretations of ambiguous Islamic texts. In his op-ed in The Hindu (29 September), “Islam and its Interpretations,” Suroor points out this apparent paradox: that although on the one hand Muslims cite verses and Hadith that provide injunctions against violence, on the other hand a more violent strain of believers (such as the Taliban) are also able to cite Quranic verses and Hadith that justify their violence. The problem, he claims, does not lie completely with the manner in which Islamic texts are interpreted, but instead with the fact that the Quran is an extremely ambiguous text, arranged a thematically, and whose meaning is often dependent on the context of each individual revelation. More so the Hadiths, written down from the sayings of Mohammed, are of variable authenticity. The lack of a single authoritative version of Islamic texts, says Suroor, leaves the tradition “open for fanatics to distort at will.”
Suroor laments that unlike Christianity, which surpassed its violent origins through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Islam has been unable or unwilling to revise its traditions, and thus remains not only violent, but historically backward. And so Suroor suggests a remedy: Let us compose a standard version of the Islamic tradition, he argues:
“The way out is for an Islamic equivalent of the New Testament. Learned Islamic scholars need to put their heads together and present basic scriptures in a manner that the meaning and context of every “Ayah” and every Hadith is made unambiguously clear, leaving no room for misinterpretation or misrepresentation. This annotated text should then be declared as the authorised version of Islamic beliefs”
In making this argument Suroor relies on the comfortable fiction that it is possible to produce an unambiguous interpretation of any text. In truth, the question of interpretation is it for the Quran or for Beowulf is always open. Furthermore, Suroor outright ignores the relationship between interpretation and structures of power and authority. Who are the “Learned Islamic scholars” in his imagined conference–from where do they derive their authority? The extremists have their scholars as well. Moreover, Islam and Muslims are not a monolithic, organized entity. Were such an “authorised” version of Islamic tradition to be produced, how would the thousands of diverse Islamic communities be induced to follow that version–and more specifically, what sort of violence (both physical and conceptual) would that entail?
I have one other criticism of Suroor’s argument. He implicitly subscribes to a teleological vision of history that uses the trajectory of Western Europe and Christianity as the normative yardstick for the development of civilization. This is why he is able to pretend that the violence committed in the present day by people claiming to be Muslims is a sign of medieval backwardness unmitigated by the salutary effects of cultural development such as the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. This idea: that extremists are violent because Islam is stuck in a medieval time-warp, is the very one which allows fundamentalists of another sort to tar all Muslims with the same brush and imagine they are all backwards, out of step with the tide of history. Of course, this characterization of “medieval” itself is problematic and does disservice to the individuals and cultures that lived in what we call the medieval period. The pretence that violence is medieval allows us to comfortably shield ourselves from the possibility that the institutions, structures of power, and political formations and decisions of our present supposedly enlightened times are complicit to some extent in the occurrences of violence around the world.
Finally, Suroor’s impulse towards an “authorised” version of Islamic tradition is in itself a dangerous fundamentalist impulse. In my opinion, if we are talking of ideals and fantasies, it is more enlightened to imagine an Islamic renaissance in which the essential ambiguity of the source texts is recognized and celebrated, where multiple and conflicting interpretations are not only allowed to co-exist, but also encouraged. Because, so far as the extremists are concerned, much of their violence seems to embody their attempt to force their monolithic interpretation of the text onto the plural, diverse, disorderly world.
Zeeshan Reshamwala is a PhD student at the University of Denver, Colorado