By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Revealed in the seventh century to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.),the Quran is a book that is protected by God. The Quran describes the purpose of its being revealed in the following words:
Blessed be He who has revealed the criterion [the Quran] to His servant that he may warn the nations (25:1)
In the seventh century, it was only potentially that the Quran could, in practical terms, be the guide for all of humankind. For this potential to be realized in actual practice, it needed the development of the means of global communication, which were not available at the time the Quran was revealed. Thus, what the Quran says in the above-quoted verse referred to something that, in practical terms, would be realized in the future.
As is known, following the revelation of the Quran, a revolutionary process began in human history. This process went through several stages, and, after around a thousand years, it reached its culmination, in the age of global communications. Now the time had come for the message of the Quran to be conveyed all across the world. The age of global communications was the age of enabling the Quran to reach across the entire globe. In this way, the Quran could, in actual fact, now become the source of guidance for the whole of humankind, thereby realizing in reality what had hitherto existed as a potentiality.
But this possibility did not become a reality. Why this was so is what this essay seeks to understand.
A Historical Analysis
At the time when the Quran was revealed, there were no printing presses. People would memorize the Quran and repeat it from their memory or recite it for others to listen. After the demise of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in 632 CE, the corpus of Hadith and then the fiqh tradition emerged. Muslim histories also began being written. In this period, the Quran and these other texts were either memorized or else written down on paper. Quite naturally, then, it was in a relatively limited geographical area that the Quran was then known.
The printing press was invented in the 15th century. Along with this, paper began being manufactured on a large scale. By the 16th century, the printing of books was widespread in Europe. Printed copies of books were now easily obtainable in that part of the world. But the Muslim world remained unaware of the printing press at this time. For instance, the 17th century Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was a powerful Muslim ruler. He would spend a long time preparing a single copy of the Quran in his own hand. He knew nothing about printing technology.
The printing press arrived in the Muslim world at the end of the 18th century. Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798. He brought along with him from France a printing press. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christian missionaries introduced the printing press in India. In this way, very gradually, the printing press spread across the Muslim world. By the 20th century, printed copies of the Quran were available everywhere—in homes, mosques, madrasas and libraries.
But, despite this, the Quran remained a book for Muslims to recite. It had not, in practical terms, been accepted as a guiding force for the whole of humanity. Why was this? Why was it that despite the opportunities provided by global communications, the Quran was not spread across the world? The answer is this: This work should have been done by Muslims, who had the Quran with them. But the Muslims of this period were completely bereft of Dawah consciousness. In the 20th century, Muslims across the world became victims of negative thinking. They began thinking of the mad‘u communities—the peoples whom they had to invite with the message of God—as their enemies. With such a negative mentality, positive work like Dawah and Tabligh was, of course, impossible.
In the period in which global communications emerged, another development occurred in the Muslim world—what is called Western colonialism. The age of modern communications coincided with the age of colonialism. Modern communications and colonialism entered the Muslim world at the same time.
The Western colonial powers were armed with modern weapons. And so, naturally, they were able to establish their dominance in the Muslim world at large. They toppled Muslim governments and dismantled Muslim institutions. In reaction to this, Muslims across the world were filled with hatred of Western peoples. Almost all the Muslim leaders of that time believed that their first task was to fight the Western forces and drive them out of the Muslim world. Most Muslims got involved in this political jihad—some at the ideological level, others who participated in actual fighting.
This entire period was, for Muslims, one of negative reaction. In this climate of hate and violence, they forgot that the Western peoples were not their enemies, but, rather, their ma‘dus. At this time, for the first time in history, it had become possible to deliver printed copies of the Quran and its translation not just to Westerners but, in fact, to all people across the globe, so that, in accordance with the aim of its revelation, the Quran could become the guide for all of humankind in practical terms. In this way, the prediction contained in a Hadith report about the word of God entering every home all over the world could come true. But because of the negative reactionary mentality vis-à-vis others that Muslims developed in the age of colonialism (and this mentality still remains intact even today), this failed to happen.
The conflicts that Muslims of this period got involved in, branding other communities as their enemies, did not produce any of the results that they hoped for, despite the enormous sacrifices that they made. The negative consequences of their efforts should have been enough to make Muslims review their approach. But, strangely, despite their miserable failure, even today there is no effort among Muslims to review their position.
Failure to Take Guidance from the Quran
In the modern period, when printed copies of the Quran became widely available, Muslims began reading the Quran on a very wide scale. The Quran began being taught in mosques and other places. Through books and magazines, Quran teachings began being widely propagated. Groups and institutions were set up to help people understand the Quran. All this should have made Muslims develop a truly Quranic mentality, a Quranic way of thinking. But, strangely, despite the vast increase in the number of Quran learning centres and the widespread publication of the Quran-related books, this did not happen.
The reason for this is that it is not enough to simply read the Quran. Rather, it is necessary to read it with the right mindset. This is why the Quran says: ‘He lets many go astray through it, and guides many by it’ (2:26). In other words, those who read the Quran with the right mindset will get guidance from it, while those who read it with a corrupted mind will, despite reading its words, fail to get guidance from it.
Principles for Understanding the Quran
The scholars of Quranic exegesis (Tafsir) generally maintain that one needs to be an expert in 15 disciplines to properly understand the Quran. These include several specialized disciplines related to Arabic grammar, religious beliefs, jurisprudence, Hadith and so on. But experience tells that these disciplines alone are not enough to properly understand the Quran. In the 20th century, a vast number of Ulema emerged whose aim was to popularize Islamic knowledge. These Ulema were experts in all the above-mentioned disciplines. But in the very same period, Muslims were unaware of one very important Quranic discipline, indicating that to understand the Quran it is not enough to know only these above-mentioned 15 subjects.
This particular Quranic discipline is what is called Furqan or ‘criterion’ in the Quran (8:29). It means to distinguish between two things. One quality of the Quran is that it produces in the person who reads it sincerely the quality of Furqan. It makes the reader capable of distinguishing between two sides of a thing. For instance, it can enable the reader to see the positive aspects of something as well as its negative aspects.
In the modern period, colonial powers entered the Muslim world, bringing along with them Western culture. There were two aspects of this phenomenon. On the one hand, Western culture helped facilitate the dominance of Western peoples in the Muslim world. On the other hand, along with Western culture came modern opportunities, foremost among which were modern communications. The scholars of the Quran should have seen these two aspects separately. As the Arabic phrase very aptly puts it, ‘Take what is good and leave what is bad’. Accordingly, these scholars could have overlooked the negative aspects of Western culture, and, instead, fully used the opportunities for Dawah that it provided. But they could not do so. One reason for this was that the Ulema and other Muslim leaders of this period were bereft of the attribute of Furqan. And so, they lacked the capacity to distinguish between the above-mentioned two aspects of Western culture. Their study of the Quran—the way they approached the scripture—did not develop in them the skill of distinguishing the positive, Dawah-related aspects hidden in Western culture and of using these opportunities to extending the Dawah of Islam throughout the world.
The fact is that for understanding the Quran, besides the 15 disciplines mentioned earlier, another thing is required, and it was this thing that the Ulema and other Muslim leaders in the Muslim period did not acquire. And this is a divine mindset. In this regard, it is appropriate to quote the following Quranic verse:
Say to them, ‘Everyone acts in his own way, and your Lord knows best who is rightly guided.’
This verse refers to people’s mindsets. Based on the various conditions that a person faces, he develops a certain mindset. He begins to view everything through the prism of this mindset. There is a pre-eminent sort of mindset, which enables one to rise above the conditions one is faced with. It enables one to see things with the light of God, as is indicated in this Hadith report:
Beware the vision of the believer, for he sees with the light of God.
To see with the light of God means to see things from a divine perspective.
To properly understand the Quran, the most important thing is to have this divine mindset, another term for which is a positive mindset.
It is said that to properly comprehend a book, the reader must read it with the mind of its author. Whenever a person reads a book, he does so according to his own mindset. Howard Fast was a communist. Following the famous revelations of the Russian communist leader Krushchev in 1956 Fast left the Communist Party. He was actually a moralist. When he read the writings of communist leaders, he felt that Communism was a movement for social ethics, while in reality this was not so. Later on, he made a statement, saying, ‘I accepted Communism according to my own mindset.’
The same sort of thing happens with every human being. If a person’s mindset is not properly prepared, he will read the Quran in terms of his own mental mould. Despite reading the words of the Quran, he will not truly comprehend it. This is the point that a Companion of the Prophet indicated when he said that he had learnt iman or faith, and then, after that, the Quran. What the Companion conveyed when he referred to learning iman first was that first he had moulded his mindset on divine principles and only then was he capable of properly understanding the Quran.
What is a divine mindset? It is but another name for unbiased thinking. When a person sheds all prejudices and biases and thinks with an open mind, his thinking becomes ‘natural thinking’. In the words of the hadith report quoted above, a person begins to see with the light of God. This is what a divine mindset is. This point is further clarified in a supplication (Dua) of the Prophet (s.a.w.), wherein he asked God to show him things as they really are. This is a vision that is pure, without any admixture, and in its natural form. To see things as they truly are is to see things with the same vision with which God sees them. This is what is called a divine way of thinking. Such a way of thinking comes about through mental purification.
An example of the difference between an ordinary human mindset and a divine mindset is provided by the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, with regard to which the Quran says, ‘God knew what you did not’ (48:27). The Treaty of Hudaibiyah was agreed upon on the basis of one-sided conditions. Because of this, those who did not see it from the divine perspective considered the treaty to be humiliating. But God saw it from the perspective of the opening up of opportunities for Dawah in the future. While some people viewed the treaty from the point of view of the present, God saw it from the perspective of the future. Accordingly, what some people considered as a defeat was given the status of a fateh mubin or a ‘clear victory’.
A verse in the Quran reads:
When you recite the Quran, We place an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter (17:45)
The invisible veil that this verse talks of is a mindset that is not divine. To properly understand the Quran, one has to first do away with a non-divine mindset. In other words, one has to develop a completely objective mindset.
To properly study the Quran, there is a particular method to be followed, the first step in which is for the reader to shed his un-Quranic mindset. Only then is it possible for him to read the Quran in a proper way. As when one testifies to the unity of God—the kalimah tayyiba (‘There is no god but God’)—here, too, one first has to negate something and then affirm something else. That is to say, first one has to remove the veils that cover one’s mind, and only then can one properly comprehend the Quran.
Let me clarify this point with the help of an illustration. Many years ago, when Communism was at its peak, a Muslim who had Communist inclinations read the Quran, and when he came to the phrase, ‘The earth belongs to God’ (7:128), he interpreted it, according to his particular mindset, to mean that the Quran was synonymous with Communism. He argued this to mean that the state could own all property, and that it could grab people’s lands and force them to work on them according to Communist principles. On the other hand, another Muslim, who was of a democratic bent of mind, read the Quran through the prism of his own preconceived worldview. When he came upon the verse that speaks about the believers as those ‘who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation’ (42:38), he concluded that the Quran preaches democracy. A third Muslim read yet another verse that says, ‘burn me bricks of clay, and build me a high tower’ (28:38), and came to yet another conclusion: that the Quran encourages Muslims to set up ceramic factories, or, in other words, to advance in the field of industry and trade!
One can adduce many more such examples to illustrate the point that if the reader’s mindset is not appropriately cultivated, he will read and interpret the Quran according to his own preconceived worldview and mentality. And so, he will claim to discover in the Quran such things that have no existence whatsoever in it but, rather, that exist simply in his own mind.
1. The well-known ‘revolutionary’ Egyptian leader Sayyed Qutb (d. 1966) believed that the principal focus of the Dawah of the prophets was to establish ‘the Government of God’ throughout the world. And so, based on this obsession of his, when he read the Quran, he did so through this political prism and was led to believe that the Quran confirmed his political beliefs.
For instance, in Surah Al-Araf, the Quran says that the chiefs of Pharaoh’s people, reacting to Moses’ dawah, said, ‘This is most surely a skillful magician, who seeks to drive you from your land!’ (7:109-110). Sayyed Qutb read these lines through the lens of his particular political ideology, reflecting his own mindset. And so he concluded that Moses’ dawah was a call for establishing political power. Accordingly, in his commentary on the Quran, he wrote that this affair was all about driving out Pharaoh and his people from Egypt, destroying Pharaoh’s political authority, and declaring Pharaoh’s rule as illegal—in modern parlance, an attempt at regime change.
Now, this explanation was simply a reflection of Sayyed Qutub’s own mindset, and not that of the Prophet Moses (a.s.). Obviously, to understand Moses (A.S.), we should see what he says, not what Pharaoh or his chiefs say. But because of his biased mindset, Sayyed Qutb failed to appreciate this point. And so, he interpreted this Quranic verse in a way that has nothing to do with the Quran but, rather, everything to do with his own mindset.
2. Imam Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328) was a prolific writer. One of his books is titled as-Sarim al-Maslul ‘ala Shatim ar-Rasul (‘The Drawn Sword against those who insult the Messenger’). In this book, he tried to prove that in Islam the punishment for blaspheming the Prophet is death. He claimed that this commandment was contained in several verses of the Quran. For instance, he adduced the following verse in this regard:
Those who annoy God and His Messenger shall be cursed by God in this world and in the Hereafter. God has prepared for them a humiliating punishment.
Ibn Taimiyah contended that this verse made it obligatory to kill a person who seeks to annoy God and His Prophet. But the fact is that this claim has nothing at all to do with this Quranic verse. The verse makes no mention whatsoever of killing someone for vilifying the Prophet. But, because of his particular mindset, Ibn Taimiyah was led to equate the word ‘annoy’ with ‘blasphemy’, and to be ‘cursed’ with ‘killing’. These two things—blasphemy and killing—were present in his mind, and certainly not in this Quranic verse—and that is how he came up with his fallacious interpretation of the verse.
Developing a divine mindset is no simple affair. It is a very serious matter. Without a divine mindset, one will fail to obtain true guidance through reading the Quran. A person whose mindset is not divine will interpret, typically negatively, every issue, according to his particular mindset. On a particular matter where the Quran’s perspective is positive, he will inevitably interpret it in negative terms. And so, he will fail to derive right guidance from the Quran.
Let me cite an example to illustrate this point. An Arabic journal once published an article on Muslim minorities. The writer claimed that Muslims minorities were threatened by absorption into the non-Muslim majorities among whom they lived. Now, this perception about Muslim minorities was entirely a product of the writer’s self-created mindset. If the issue of Muslim minorities is seen from the perspective of a divine mindset, one comes to a very different conclusion. It would reveal that the Quran presents a very hopeful picture for minorities, as this verse indicates:
‘Many a small group, by God’s command has prevailed against a large group […]’ (2:249)
If you ponder on this Quranic verse, you will appreciate that if in a particular territory, two groups live together, one a minority and the other the majority, the latter is a continuous challenge for the former. This challenge naturally engenders in the minority a greater need to think creatively and act positively. And so, the minority becomes a ‘creative minority’. It is but natural that an individual or group that develops its creative potential becomes capable of doing much good.
Ijtihadi or Contextually-Appropriate and Creative Quranic Exegesis
An Ijtihad Tafsir or contextually-relevant exegesis of the Quran is not the same as Tafsir bil rai, or exegesis based on one’s own reasoning. In contrast to the latter, Ijtihad Tafsir is a desirable and appropriate form of Tafsir. While Tafsir bil rai is tantamount to deviation from the Quran, Ijtihad Tafsir is in accordance with the Quran.
What is meant by Ijtihad Tafsir? It means to discover the significance of a particular verse of the Quran anew. It is to discern the re-application of the Quran in changed conditions. It is an expression of the continuing relevance of the Quran. Only through Ijtihad Tafsir, is it possible for the Quran to address the particular mentality of each age.
The Quran tells us that the prophets used to address the malas of their times. The word mala appears around 30 times in the Quran. It means head or chief of a group of people. A characteristic feature of the Dawah efforts of the prophets was that they specially addressed the chiefs of a tribe or nation. This was because such people were opinion-makers. To deliver their message to the chief was indirectly to communicate it to the entire group or tribe.
If this notion of the chiefs of the people is looked at from an Ijtihadi perspective, one will arrive at a very important fact. And that is that the flag-bearers of Western culture had, in the modern age, acquired this very status of malas. They had become, in an expanded sense, the chiefs of the whole world. Using modern means and communications, they had become global leaders.
Now, this phenomenon presented great opportunities for Dawah work. To convey the Quranic message to the flag-bearers of culture at the global level was to convey it, indirectly, to the entire world itself.
The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) had sent a letter to the Roman Emperor Heraclius, inviting him to Islam. Conveying this message to the Roman Emperor was synonymous with conveying it to all his people. In the same way, in the modern age, conveying the Quranic message to the flag-bearers of Western culture was synonymous with indirectly conveying it to the whole world. But this didn’t actually happen. This was because at precisely this time, owing to some political reasons, Muslim leaders were fired with a hatred for Western culture. In all parts of the Muslim world, almost all Muslims began despising Western people. Instead of considering them as mad‘us, people whom they needed to present the Dawah of Islam to, they treated them as their enemies. As a result of this, a great opportunity for Dawah that the modern world had made possible was wasted. One factor for this was because modern-day Ulema were unable to engage in an Ijtihad tafsir of the Quran. They failed to come up with a modern application of the Quranic approach to Dawah. A vision based on Ijtihad is a necessary condition to understand the eternal meaning of the Quran, but these Muslim scholars lacked this vision.
God’s Creation Plan
The Quran is God’s book. To properly comprehend it, it is necessary that one should understand God’s creation plan. There is no contradiction between the book of God and the creation plan of God. It is essential for one who reads the Quran to be aware of this aspect, otherwise he will interpret the Quran in a way that is incompatible with God’s creation plan, and which, therefore, will be erroneous.
One example of this unacceptable sort of interpretation is the claim that someone who vilifies the Prophet must necessarily be killed. This argument is completely un-Islamic. It is not compatible with God’s creation plan. According to the Quran, in this world Man has been given complete freedom. He can do whatever he wants. If he misuses this freedom, he will certainly be taken to task, but only in the Hereafter and not in this world. Given this, the claim that Islam lays down death for those who slander the Prophet is inconsistent with God’s creation plan—and the Quran tells us about itself that it has no inconsistency (4:82).
So, one has to be aware of the creation plan of God in order to properly interpret the Quran. This is a necessary condition for proper Quranic exegesis. Those who lack this awareness will certainly fail to interpret the Quran in the right way.
The Quran and Hadith tell us about punishments for ‘social crimes’—for instance, robbery, defamation, and so on. But as far as ‘intellectual crimes’ are concerned, there is no physical punishment laid down for them in Islam. With regard to these crimes, there’s only Dawah and Tabligh. In this regard, the Quran very clearly states:
No indeed! When the earth is crushed and ground to dust, when your Lord comes down with the angels, rank upon rank, and Hell is made to appear on that Day, then man will be mindful, but what will being mindful then avail him? He will say, ‘Oh, would that I had provided beforehand for my life!’ On that Day no one will punish as He punishes, and none can bind with bonds like His! (88: 21-26).
Purifying the Un-Quranic Mindset
Every human being is born in a particular environment. Based on their experiences, people develop different mindsets. They begin to see things and develop opinions on the basis of their conditioned minds. To understand the Quran properly, then, it is essential to drop one’s conditioned mindset and to read it in the light of a divine mindset.
Everyone faces some or the other negative experience in his or her life, an unhappy situation involving other people. As a result of this, almost everyone falls prey to negative thinking about the external world. It is because of this that movements directed against external oppressors rapidly become very popular. If a person who has this sort of mentality were to read the Quran, he will fail to understand it properly.
The solution to this problem is for one to first find out what God’s creation plan is for the world. God has created this world as a testing-ground. Here, every person has been given full freedom to act as she or he wants. Everyone is free—to use or misuse her or his freedom. In other words, what in philosophy is called ‘the problem of evil’ is really about ‘the problem of freedom’. Because in this world it is not possible to destroy this freedom, it is also impossible to completely destroy evil.
Given this, if someone were to read the Quran with a utopian yardstick, he will not be able to properly understand it. According to the Quran, what is indeed possible in this world is the complete reform of the individual, but a complete reform of society as a whole is impossible. Individual human beings must strive to embody justice in themselves to the highest level possible, but when it comes to society, they must agree to settle with what is called ‘working justice’.
Reading the Quran with a Philosophical Mindset
If someone were to read the Quran with a philosophical mindset, then, too, he would fail to properly understand it. A philosophical mindset is one that wants a complete understanding of things in their entirety. It does not remain content with a limited understanding of things. In contrast, the Quran says:
Say, ‘The Spirit is at my Lord’s command, and you have been granted but little knowledge.’ (17:85)
From this we learn that the themes that the Quran refers to are, broadly, of two types: those that are related to our known world, on the one hand, and those related to the Invisible, on the other. Matters linked to the first sphere have been expressed in clear and explicit terms, so that the words used for them in the Quran literally convey what they indicate. Pondering on Quranic verses of this nature, it is possible to understand their complete significance and meaning.
Another type of Quranic verse are those that in the Quran are referred to as allegorical (3:7). These are verses about the Unseen. They use an allegorical style. They are expressed in allegorical language. In these verses, the subject matter is only lightly touched upon—at the basic level. People must remain content with only this knowledge, and not try to reach their absolute depth, otherwise they would fall prey to confusion.
A verse in the Quran reads as follows:
“It is He who has sent down the Book to you”. Some of its verses are clear and precise in meaning—they are the basis of the Book—while others are allegorical. Those with deviation in their hearts pursue the allegorical, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it: but no one knows its meaning except God. Those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it: it is all from our Lord.’ But only the wise take heed. (3:7)
This indicates that those who have true knowledge do not seek to obtain the unattainable: the absolutely deep meaning of the Quran’s allegorical verses. Instead, they accept their basic meanings and believe in their veracity.
It is absolutely essential to keep in mind this principle while studying the Quran. Without this, it is impossible to comprehend the Quran correctly.
Interpreting the Quran According to One’s Personal Opinions
According to a Hadith report, a person who offers an explanation of the Quran based on his own opinion makes a mistake even if what he says is right (al-Tirmidhi 3183). And so, instead of Tafsir bil rai, what is required is Tafsir bil-Tadabbur, or Quranic exegesis that emerges from deep contemplation. This Hadith report indicates the difference between what can be called a responsible and an irresponsible sort of Quranic exegesis. It teaches us that no one should say anything regarding a Quranic verse without examining it properly. The right way to comment on the Quran is to first properly study and examine the particular verse one wants to explain. Only after fulfilling all the demands of appropriate contemplation should one write or speak about it.
When someone engages in Tafsir bil rai, he does so according to a preconceived notion or set of notions. He reads the Quran according to these notions. Then, he finds a word in the Quran that appears to be similar to what he thinks and exclaims, ‘See! My views are present in the Quran itself!’ Take, for instance, a person who is very politically-minded. He considers political power the biggest thing. Now, he reads the Quran with this mindset and reaches this phrase, ‘judgment is only God’s’ (12:40). No sooner than he arrives at this phrase than he exclaims that the notion of political power, that for him is so important, is found in the Quran, too, and that in this Quran verse it is said that power belongs to God alone. Engaging in a political interpretation of this phrase, he takes it to be synonymous with ‘Divine Governance’ or Hukmat-e Ilahiya. And then he goes so far as to claim that it is the Muslims’ duty to fight with others and establish the political rule of God.
Undoubtedly, this is an instance of Tafsir bil rai, and is erroneous, because in this Quranic word, Hukm or ‘judgment’ or ‘command’ refers to supernatural Hukm, and not political Hukm.
So, one way of interpreting the above-mentioned Quranic verse is to read it on the basis of one’s preconceived views. And so, when you find the term Hukm, you are led to claim that the Quran supports the same concept of politics that you support. This is a clear instance of tafsir bil rai. Another way to seek to understand and explain this Quranic verse is to ponder on it carefully with an open mind. You study the verse in the light of its context. When you do this, you will realize that this verse rebuts idolatry. In other words, when this verse refers to hukm, it is about the domination that God has established on earth and in the heavens directly. Here, there is no mention of political domination at the social level, the domination which some people seek to impose on others. In other words, the word Hukm here is about the supernatural power or authority of God, and not political power established by human beings.
No matter in which manner someone interprets the Quran, it will always entail the use of the opinion of the reader. By opinion here is meant intellectual contemplation. Without this intellectual contemplation, no exegesis of the Quran is possible.
The Quran says:
This is a blessed Book which We sent down to you [Muhammad], for people to ponder over its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed. (38: 29)
Thus, for a correct interpretation of the Quran, correct contemplation is needed. To appropriately contemplate on the Quran, one must read it with an open mind, without any bias. One must ponder on every aspect of it without any reservation. Your intention should be to find the truth, and not to seek to locate something that you want in the Quran. Along with this, you should be apprehensive that if you wrongly interpret any verse of the Quran it won’t be acceptable in God’s eyes and that you will be answerable for it. If one engages in seeking to understand and explain the Quran in this serious manner, it is what is called Tadabbur or deep contemplation. Reading the Quran by seriously contemplating on it is the proper method of Quranic exegesis. In other words, Tafsir bil rai is an irresponsible form of Quranic exegesis, while a responsible form of exegesis is what can be called Tafsir bil Tadabbur.
Understanding the Quran
There are 114 chapters or Surahs in the Quran. The 103rd in the Quran is Surah Al-Asr. About this chapter, Imam Shafi (d. 820) comments that if people contemplate on it, it is enough for their guidance. This claim is indeed correct. This sort of contemplation is indispensable to comprehend not just Surah Al-Asr but, in fact, the entire Quran. But there are two ways of pondering on the Quran: technical contemplation in an academic fashion or fanni tadabbur, and contemplation based on God-realization, or Arifana Tadabbur. The former is useful only in order to get an introductory understanding of the Quran. But a deep comprehension of the Quran is possible only through the latter.
For what can be called a ‘technical contemplation’ of the Quran, it suffices to be familiar with Arabic grammar, the occasions for the revelation (Shan-e nuzul) of different verses and so on. With the help of these subjects, one can obtain a simple understanding of the Quranic text. But this understanding is ‘external’, not deep. It doesn’t reach to the inner depths of the Quran. To reach the inner reality or Batin of the Quran, one requires Ma’rifat or deep realization or intuitive knowledge of the deen. Only those who study the Quran and the Sunnah with utter seriousness can acquire this sort of deep realization. It requires spending much of one’s life in supplication (Dua) and recollection of God (Zikr-e Elahi). It is possible only through continuous pondering and contemplation that takes one to a level of realization that is well above narrow, technical boundaries, making one capable of deeply understanding the Truth. At this stage, one becomes what is referred to in a Hadith report (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3689) as a muhdas or a divinely-inspired personality.
Exegesis of the Quran Based on Ma‘rifat
As mentioned earlier, according to scholars of Tafsir, one needs knowledge of some 15 different disciplines in order to engage in Quranic exegesis. One of these disciplines is called ilm-e wahabi or ‘divine knowledge’. This is synonymous with Ma’rifat. The rest of the disciplines are of a somewhat technical nature. Ma‘rifat can also be termed as wisdom Hikmat) and inner vision (Bashirat).
Let me illustrate how with wisdom, inner vision and ma‘rifat, one can better appreciate the inner, deeper meaning of the Quran, and how this sort of exegesis goes beyond the narrow, limited and ‘external’ ‘technical exegesis’.
Consider the following Quranic verse:
Say, "Do you await for us except one of the two best things […]? […]” (9:52)
Ordinarily, Quranic exegetes have taken this phrase ‘one of the two best things’ to refer to victory and martyrdom. They interpret this phrase to mean, ‘We will either be victorious over you, which is undoubtedly a good thing, or, if you slay us, we will achieve martyrdom, and undoubtedly for us that is a good thing.’
Now, from a purely technical point of view, this exegesis appears to be perfectly proper. But if you ponder on this phrase from the ma‘rifat perspective, this exegesis seems faulty. A purely technical exegesis would take the Quranic ayat of which this phrase forms a part to be linked to conditions of war. But someone who is advanced in ma‘rifat would say that the Quran has to do not only with rules about war, but, rather, with each and every aspect of human life. Accordingly, he would stress that the ‘one of the two best things’ that the Quran talks about should apply to other aspects of a believer’s life, too.
To cite an example of how this phrase applies more generally than those who take it to refer only to war, suppose you meet a person. You get the opportunity of behaving courteously with him and thereby qualifying to receive divine blessings or sawab if you do so. However, for some reason, you do not behave courteously with him. Under such circumstances, you still have the chance of acquiring the good fortune of ‘one of the two best things’. How? By beseeching God, and pleading with Him for forgiveness for not behaving well with the man. You beg God to bless him. In this way, then, the phrase ‘one of the two best things’ has a deeper meaning that many people think it does.
The crux of this discussion is that if someone acquires knowledge of the technical disciplines related to Quranic exegesis, he can get a good understanding of the ‘external’ meaning of the Quran—the literal meaning of different verses, their ‘occasions of revelation’, their contextual significance and import and so on. But this technical knowledge does not suffice to discern the inner realities hidden in the verses of the Quran. A person with knowledge of just the technical exegesis-related disciplines will not be able to access their inner meaning. For instance, he will know the literal meaning of the Quranic phrase Al-hamdu lillahi Rabbil 'Aalamin (‘All praise is due to God, the Lord of the Universe’ (1:2). But there is a tremendous meaning hidden deep inside this phrase, and to reach it mere technical knowledge is not enough. Only those who have advanced on the path of God-realization or ma‘rifat can understand this inner reality. Such are those who have discovered the greatness of God. Through deep contemplation, they recognize God’s role in sustaining the entire cosmos. They discern God’s mercies on earth and in the heavens. When such people utter the phrase ‘All praise is due to God!”, an ocean of deep meaning and significance surges within them. While seeking to explain what the phrase means, they know that numerous volumes of an encyclopedia prove to be utterly insufficient for the purpose.
In contrast to ‘technical exegesis’, Quranic exegesis that is inspired by ma‘rifat or God-realization can be called a ‘creative commentary’. For ‘technical exegesis’, it is enough to have read certain books. On the other hand, ma‘rifat is a Divine gift, something that one gets only if God bestows it. And that can happen only in the case of those who have made God as their sole concern.
Condition for Understanding the Quran
The Quran tells us:
[…] this is indeed a noble Quran, in a well-guarded preserved Book, which none can touch except the purified.
Who are denoted by the word ‘purified’ in this verse? Some take the word to refer to angels. Others say that it refers to pure people who exercise self-control. But such explanations are irrelevant. What the above Quranic verses actually mean is that arriving at the actual meaning of the Quran is possibly only for those who have pure minds. Thus, with regard to these verses, the well-known 12th century Quranic exegete Raghib al-Isfahani writes in his al-Mufradat that ‘He will reach to the deep inner realities of the Quran who purifies his soul’. In actual fact, the purity mentioned in this context is neither moral nor physical, but, rather, intellectual or psychological.
The Quran is the word of One who has a perfectly positive Mind. He—God—is entirely free of negative thinking. Hence, to really understand the Quran, its reader must also have a positive mindset, free of negativity. Without this, he or she will not be able to truly fathom the Quran. Only those with a positive mindset, fully free from negative thinking, can reach the Quran’s inner significance. Only on such people will God open the doors that lead to the deep meanings of the Quran.
Translation of the article titled Feham-e Quran: Ek Muta‘ala, in Al-Risala, August 2013, pp. 10-30