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Islamic Ideology ( 31 Jul 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Approaching Qur’an and Sunnah - Classical, Traditional and Progressive Methodologies


By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

31 July 2012

The centrality of the concept of Qur'an and Sunnah in Muslim thought, may it be intellectual, academic, classical, traditionalist or progressive in nature that of a Muslim theologian/jurist or a "lay" Muslim, male or a female, is well attested historically. However, the often invoked formula of "going back to the Qur'an and Sunnah", which has become a cliché phrase in contemporary Muslim discourses, has throughout the Muslim historical experience been an ideological battleground in terms of whose understanding, definition, nature and scope of these textual sources is the most representative of God's Intent/ Will and Prophet's (s) bodily interpretation of it.

An enormous body of literature dealing with this issue has been produced by Muslim and Non-Muslim scholars alike. Although a diversity and plurality of opinions surrounding the interpretative processes employed to derive meaning and formulate guidelines/laws based on Qur'an and Sunnah characterised the early developments of Islamic dogma ( resulting in formation of many schools of thought, within which differences of opinion, also existed ) formed from early on, an ever increasing zest for a more uniform , catholic understanding of the Prophet's legacy , supported by the state and the majority of influential clergy resulted in a formation of a dogma based on certain epistemological and methodological grounds and assumptions.

This understanding was, subsequently, given a quasi-sacred status guarded by the belief in the infallibility of the principle of ijma (consensus of interpretative community at the time) to ensure its continued wide acceptance and perpetuation, the strength of which is felt even today strongly in many parts of the Muslim world as well as in places where a large Muslim Diaspora can be found.

However , during the middle of the 19th century, coinciding with the onset of radical social, political and economic world-wide changes and the emergence of the age of modernity and up until the present  , the strongly -entrenched conceptions of what Islam is and what it stands for, have been increasingly challenged by many influential Muslim figures who consider/ ed themselves firmly grounded in the very tradition, whose many aspects, as understood by past authorities, they were/are challenging.

To do so they have employed /are employing  a number of multifaceted, hierarchical interpretative principles and procedures drawing from a multitude of disciplines in order to establish how well does/did the classical and traditional understandings of Qur'an and Sunnah represent the entire Muslim historical legacy ( i.e. historical vs. normative aspects) and to offer alternative understandings of the same.

This is exactly the central focus of this article. As such it aims to compare, albeit briefly, the methodologies and underlying assumptions governing the epistemology of the traditional Qur'anic and Sunnaic Weltanschauung/worldview and that of some of the progressive approaches to the Qur'anic and Sunnaic method of interpretation / hermeneutics. Thus, in aims to explain, by means of giving few examples, why there have been conflicting claims on the same issue, at times quite diametrically opposed and radically different , yet all claiming to be derived from and firmly based on the principles embodied in the Qur'an and Sunnah.

The article is divided into two parts. The first part examines the methods adopted, or lack thereof, by the traditional/classical interpretative communities of Qur'an and the second that of Sunnah and juxtaposes them with those of progressive interpretative methods. To elucidate the methodological differences and thereby different outcomes between the different approaches concrete examples coming from our tradition will be discussed.


Before discussing the methodological principles employed in Qur'anic and Sunnahic interpretation a definition of two terms is necessary, namely methodology and hermeneutics

Method is "a way of proceeding or doing something, especially in a systematic or regular way"; orderliness of thought, action etc ."

Methodology is " a system of methods and principles used in a particular discipline"

For the definitions given above it can be deduced that methodology is linked to the notions of systematisation, coherence, orderliness.

When applied to interpretation of texts and especially religious scriptures specific terminology in contemporary literature is being used namely that of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics, being a “branch of theology dealing with principles and methodology of exegesis” is thus more "specialized" in its nature. It is perhaps best defined as the underlying principles governing exegetical methodology.

At the heart of hermeneutics than lies a set of systematic, coherent, well-developed set of principles and procedures governing textual interpretation of scriptures whose "historicity" is acknowledged a priori.

Thus, texts are essentially seen as having an organic link with the environment and the peoples' prevailing customs and traditions in which they were revealed/written as opposed to be seen as revealed in a "spatio-temporal vacuum".

This is the starting point of our discussion of classical, traditional and contemporary methodological approaches to Qur'an and Sunnah.

 The very first point of divergence between the two approaches is the strong tendency of or belief in the classico-traditional approach to view Qur'anic and Sunnahic legacy as developed in a ahistorical, spatio-temporal vacuum whilst progressive approaches emphasise the historicity and socio-cultural embeddedness of Qur'an and Sunnah. It is from this very premise that different methodologies emanate when interpreting these sources.

We shall now examine some of these.


Inter-textual methodologies refer to principles and procedures used when interpreting Qur'an through Sunnah and the nature of that relationship.

The traditional understanding of Sunnah is that it is "conceptually identical with that of Ahadith literature judged to be authentic; that Sunnah by definition can only be referred back to the Prophet (Sunnat al-nabi) and that it enjoys a status of revelation (wahy).

By extension of this line of thinking, argues Brown, 'it is possible to achieve knowledge of Sunnah through the study of ahadith" or, put differently, " hadith represents a trustworthy agency for transmission of Sunnah"; and that Sunnah can only be arrived at through the agency of ahadith (i.e. apart from hadith there is no other way of achieving trustworthy knowledge of Sunnah). "

Additionally and just as importantly, as a corollary to this methodology, Sunnah as conceptualised by its traditional understanding (i.e. self-identifying it with that of Hadith literature) was seen as a legitimate, authentic exegetical tool of the Qur’an. Indeed , this Sunnah was elevated to the level of being the most reliable and superior type of Qur'anic exegesis ( tafsir bi l-ma'suri) based predominantly on the traditional knowledge epistemology( ilm -ul- riwaaya) despite the existence of other types of tafsirs such as tafsir bi-l-ray , shi'a tafsir or ta'wil ( esoteric -sufi tafsir) . This approach was expressed in a well known traditionalist jurisprudentic maxim of "Qur'an is in need of Sunnah more than Sunnah is in need of Qur'an" .

These methodological assumptions however are a later development in Islamic history and were not shared by the early Muslim community.

Brown convincingly demonstrates that the concept of Sunnah up until the time of Al-Shafi'i (d.204 AH)was understood quite differently. Evidence in the early Muslim writings testifies to the fact that there existed a number of Sunnahs in addition to that of the Prophet( and as such Sunnah did not have to have the Prophet as a precedent or for that matter that it enjoyed a superior status to other Sunnahs), that to many early Muslims sunna and hadith remained conceptually independent and that many Muslims objected ( e.g Ahl-ra'y and Ahl-kalaam) to the notion of Sunnah being a wahy or the Sunnah being an indispensable exegetical tool and a final/crucial criterion governing Islamic jurisprudence .

Progressive Muslim approaches also question the traditional position on Sunnah and Ahadith and separate the two concepts from one another as having different modes of transmission, scope, formation and nature and are thus more in line with the early Muslim understanding of Sunnah described above. Criticism that is not only based on ulum-l- hadith science (traditional ahadith criticism - which itself is based on certain assumptions and methodologies needed re-examination) but also criticism extending to the very nature and scope of the concept of Sunnah itself, how it unfolded and thereby what position/role it could possibly play in Qur'anic exegesis from a normative point of view. It should be emphasised, however, that the idea and the concept of Sunnah and Prophet's authority per se is not questioned but only how well Ahadith literature and therefore a classical understanding of Sunnah genuinely represents Prophet's mission/message. Additionally, such an approach gives more importance to the Qur'anic exegesis based on Qur'an and the overall spirit of Prophetic Message as a coherent whole rather than that of traditional epistemology which indiscriminately, segmentally and decontextually uses ahadith literature to interpret the Qur'an .

The interplay between Qur'an and Sunnah and the notion of Sunnah as the only authentic exegetical tool has at its core the fundamental question of the nature and boundaries of Qur'anic revelation and Prophetic embodiment of it.

This dilemma is best expressed in the words of Brown who poses a very pertinent question with regards to this issue: "Where does revelation end and interpretation begin?"

To attempt to answer the question we , therefore, need to analyse the methodologies espoused by classical, traditional and contemporary schools of thought dealing with the nature of Qur'an and Sunnah which are directly linked to the nature of their respective interpretational processes. Thus we enter the realm of intra-textual methodologies.


The term intra-textual methodology refers to the processes and principles used in not interpretation of a text but also to the underlying assumptions about the nature of a text as a independent, textually coherent unit by itself. As such this part of the article will discuss parameters, methods and underlying premises governing classical, traditional and progressive Qur'anic interpretation and that of Sunnah separately.

The most fundamental difference, out of which all other methodological divergences emanate between these  approaches is , on the one hand,   the belief in , and the emphasis of, the essential historicity , rootedness and an organic link between  Qur'an and Sunnah and the context in which they operated as a critical aspect to its proper understanding /purpose/ function and , on the other hand , the doctrine of ahistorical, decontextualised view of Qur'an and Sunnah whose function and rationale is largely ( if not totally) divorced form the socio-cultural milieu in which they functioned .

The former is the position of progressive school of thought while the latter is that of the traditiono-classical.

What underlying methodological tools and assumptions govern these approaches? Lets turn to the Qur'an first.

i.            Qur'anic methodologies

a.            Decontextualising Qur'anic Revelation

The first methodological assumption governing classico-traditional view of Qur'anic revelation is its attempt to marginalise the importance of the socio-cultural milieu and the prevailing  norms, customs, beliefs and traditions of pre-Qur'anic Arabia ( i.e. the entire worldview) in its understanding. Some of the most pertinent would include an androcentric, patriarchal , misogynist ( e.g. female infanticide) society based on certain cultural understandings of gender/sex , prevalence of  slavery, wide availability of female concubines and prostitutes, social class distinctions and culturally based notions of proper and improper human conduct, virtues and vices , religious beliefs and customs, tribal economics and rules governing tribal armed conflict.

An inadequate understanding and appreciation of these social-cultural forces and parameters within which Qur'an operated yields an approach which fails to understand the actual nature of Qur'anic revelation and the intent behind the newly developing Qur'anic worldview as result of the process of progressive, purposeful unfolding of  revelation . In other words what was/ is needed here was the comparison of all of the spheres governing the pre-Qur'anic worldview with that of the emerging Qur'anic worldview in order to distil/ extract the ideals/norms Qur'an envisaged and was moving towards.

The case of slavery and female concubinage/orphans/slaves/women rights would serve well as an example to demonstrate this point in more clear terms.

Qur'an's attitude towards these social ills was that of acknowledgement of its existence, at that point in time, as a firmly embedded social norm (mental attitude) on which an entire economic and social structure depended. However it is clear that Qur'an took concrete steps to, firstly, protect the rights of these (Qur'an 4: 1-5) and affirm their dignity as humans and than secondly appealed to the sense of morality of the believers towards creating a class free society where the only worthy distinction between humans is that based exclusively on God consciousness (taqwa)not on gender, class , ethnicity or kinship.

However , classico-traditional  position on these issues based on above mentioned methodology of Qur'anic interpretation , as history testifies, not only resulted in further proliferation of slavery but in curtailment of rights of women in areas of inheritance, public engagements, pursuing of chosen careers and matters pertaining to marital law( such as justification of   husband controlled-polygyny) ; creation of different morality criteria/laws for slave and free women/men; re-affirmation and God-sanctioning of a partriarchical society; the belief in inherent superiority of a male gender; creation of a hypothesis of fundamentally different  male / female natures ( biological determinancy; female as source of moral chaos and constant barricade to and threat to male piety ) all of which were based on the blind acceptance of the prevalent social and cultural norms as universal and quasi -divine, and more often than not disadvantageous to the female gender .

Such an approach, when considered somewhat more deeply, rigidifies , constrains and narrows -down the adaptability and applicability of Qur'anic message, downplaying its universal character and renders it largely irrelevant to changing social, cultural, political and economical conditions.

Thus the revolutionary/egalitarian thrust of the Qur'an , especially in the areas of socio-economic and gender justice never really took on  larger and more universal proportions but it, not only merely re-enforced the given reality, it also, regrettably, gave it a (quasi)- Divine character.

On the other hand the progressive methodological approaches are very cognisant of the critical role the contextualisation of Qur'anic revelation plays in its exegesis.

By analysing the attendant conditions of Revelation and considering them as giving an indispensable insight into character and aims of the newly emerging Qur'anic Message as a whole and by contrasting the two, such a methodology is able to deduce the elan and the foundational principles of the Qur'anic Weltanschauung . This results in breaking of the shackels of the Qur'an's revelatory historicity and freeing it from the spatio-temporal constrains from which it initially operated, thereby recovering its inherent moral universality and adaptability .

An example discussed by Assoc. Prof. Barlas with regards to the Qur'anic verse pertaining to the dress code for women (33:59-60) demonstrates such an approach.

Apart from arguing that these verses( ayaat) are specific rather than general in nature and that forcing " moral praxis upon a person " is contrary to the larger Qur’anic attitude -(a praxis taken for granted according to the conservative interpretation /approach) - she goes on to contextualise this verse by saying that a jilbab served the purpose of  recognition/protection ( "be known and not molested" -in the words of the Qur'an) of women from the still evident Jahiliya mental attitude prevalent among the "Hypocrites in whose hearts is disease" as Qur'an puts it. Berlas goes on to say that

" [In] mandating the jilbab , then, the Qur'an explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative , and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves , who were presumed by jahili men to be non-believers and thus fair game. Only in a slave -owning Jahiliya society, then, does the jilbab signify sexual non-availability, and only than if Jahili men were willing to invest in such a meaning( emphasis hers).

She goes on further to say,

“Consequently, even though worn by Muslim women , the jilbaab served as a marker of Jahili male promiscuity and abuse at a time when women had no legal recourse against such abuse and had to rely on themselves for their own protection. Further as the Ayaat clearly state , at the time of their revelation some Jahili men were involved in a campaign of sedition against the Muslims (which included an attempt to slander the Prophet's wife Ayesha, by impugning her integrity) . Thus, Muslim women had a double reason to fear abuse at the hands of non-Muslim men. "

She goes on to assert that these Ayaat as well as the other pertaining to dress code of men and women (24:30-31) " do not frame the issue of veiling in terms of women's sexually corrupt/ing bodies or nature",-( a well developed and extensive interpretation among the conservatives based on a culturally derived notion of female sexuality) - but as a specific response to concrete socio-cultural  reality in which Qur'an was revealed.

It is clear that Barlas's interpretation draws upon a number of sound methodologies that analyse the verses from a historical, social, cultural and even psychological perspectives , distinguishing between the general and specific , holistic and fragmented. As such it is able to penetrate deeply into the rationale and reasons behind Qur'anic message as a whole rather than it being considered in a contextual vacuum and textual isolation.

This brings us to the next point of divergence in methodologies governing conservative and progressive approaches to the Qur'an, namely that of Qur'anic textual holism versus Qur'anic segmentalism.

ii.            Qur'anic textual holism vs. Qur'anic textual segmentalism

Prof. Izutsu asserts that a Qur'an must be seen as an independent ideological, ethico-moral and linguistic entity with a definite Weltanschauung (i.e. world view).

As such the Qur'anic text in order to be interpreted as accurately/objectively as possible ought to be considered as a coherent whole ideologically, ethically and linguistically/philologically. Qur’an’s individual injunctions , apart from their contextual background, are as such to be seen in the light of its more fundamental principles which form its core. These fundamental principles are to be deduced and extracted by using the principles of corroboration and convergence of Qur'anic evidence relevant to a particular concept or theme and by a deeper understanding of nature and attributes of Allah/God as revealed by Allah/God.

In such an approach a hierarchical model whose upper levels are based on the fundamental Qur'anic ethico-moral concepts such as Justice (al-adl) , freedom of belief, equity (al-qist)and mercy ( rachmah) just to name a few, which themselves, in turn, are based on  , what Prof. Barlas refers to as the  principle of God's "Self-Disclosure" as a concrete manifestation of "Divine Ontology".

These principles then act as guiding principles in interpretation (higher order principles of interpretation) of Qur'anic injunctions to which all other norms/values/ views , especially those which are socio-culturally relative ( lower order principles) , are subservient. Thus if there is an apparent textual conflict between the higher and lower order principles the higher order principle must prevail.

An example of this can be seen in the context of female witnesses.

Despite the Qur'an 's affirmation of  the ontological quality between men and women( for example 33: 35- higher order principle), the giving of presidence of wife's testimony over that of the husband in the case of adultery( 24:6-9) , or even the testimony of a female child buried by her father on the Day of Judgement (81:8-9) , conservative jurists have derived a nearly  universally applicable law based on a "two female witnesses equal one male witness " formula which in turn is formulated on one isolated ayat that allows two women instead of one man to witness the transaction of a financial debt, "because one of them might get confused" . This Qur’anic statement is a clear indication that this regulation is socio-culturally dependent (a lower order principle) and is a likely result of the lack of exposure, experience and prevalent socio-cultural norms and customs regarding those women at that time and their roles in a society . It is a socio-culturally derived norm , as such is valid only in this context and is not an inherent , universally applicable norm for all the times ,as conservative juristic legacy maintains.

With regards to this issue Prof. Berlas maintains that :

[However,] there are a total of five cases of evidence giving in the Qur'an , and only in one does it make a provision about two women , for very specific social reasons. Had this been an across the board formula in the Qur'an , it would not have attached greater weight to a wife's evidence than to the husband's in the far more consequential matter of adultery."

Conservative proponents, however, stubbornly maintain , on the basis of the ayat in consideration ( and in addition to extra -Qur’anic evidence ) that this injunction  is general and is to be applied universally. This view is, however, based on fragmentary , decontextualised, partial evidence (and not on a holistic , thematical approach to the Qur'an) , a methodology dominating conservative interpretation and scholarship.

Thus this legacy is therefore based on a faulty/ inferior/superficial/one-dimentional methodology which does not take into account other Qur’anic evidence directly related to the issue under consideration and is not based on a systematic interpretative model of the Qur'an .

In the words of Prof. Rahman, it is an "atomistic”, isolated, verse-by verse approach to Qur'an that cannot extract and encapsulate the rationale behind its dictates.

This also serves as an indicator of the prevalence of a literal, purely linguistically based , in "vacuum " Qur’anic interpretation that characterises the conservative methodology of the Qur’anic text which is the next subject of our consideration.

iii. Qur'an-Open vs. Closed readings

Qur'an is a Message for the humankind and as such had to be revealed in a medium which humans understand i.e.  in a certain language. Language, of course, is organically linked and functions within a particular socio-cultural understanding of reality( historical semantics component). Additionally, it subsequent documentation as a fixed written document renders it operational within the mechanics of language-(i.e. grammar, syntax, phonetics, factors influencing derivation of meaning-i.e. reading etc ) .

Thus, Qur’an’s philological qualities/characteristics are to be examined from the point of view of the Arabic language and the worldview of people who spoke it in the Hijaz region during the seventh century of the modern era in addition to the consideration of  factors inherently intertwined in the process of meaning derivation (i.e. reading modes/theories) . Therefore, the most important questions being posed in this section are :

How did the newly developing Qur'anic Worldview distinguish itself from the Jahiliya Worldview in terms of language employed and vocabulary chosen to express the emerging rift between the two?

What reading hermeneutics were/are being applied when engaging in reading of the Qur'anic text by the traditiono-classical and progressive schools of thought?

This article will attempt to offer a better insight relating to the second question only as the first question is outside of its scope.

Reading, put simply, is a process whereby a reader derives meaning from a piece of text. The outcome of this  process , referred to as "determinancy of meaning " by Prof. El Fadl ,   is governed by the following factors:

• The nature of the reader ( previous bodies of knowledge -termed schemata- ,gender, experience and personality /character/moral sense/development of the reader, socio-cultural norms governing the society in which s[he] lives/lived)

• The nature and intent of the Author

• The nature of the text (i.e. context and mechanics of language) 

Every time a reader is engaged in the process of reading its determinancy is thus a result of the interplay of all of the above factors. One of them is dynamic in nature ( nature of reader )and the rest two are static Consequently, due to the dynamical nature of the readers it is to be expected that a text, such as Qur'an, exhibits semiotic polyvalence, that is, can withstand various interpretative strategies eliciting different readings of the same [piece of ] text. This is not to say that any and every reading of the text can be justified but it does provide an insight into why and how various readings of the same text developed , thus allowing for its subsequent criticism and revision given new conditions . It should also be noted that when interpreters /readers share many of the factors governing "nature of a reader" ( e.g. same socio-cultural norms) a notion of "interpretative communities" ,to use Prof. El-Fadl's terminology, arises. These interpretative communities impose some reading uniformity in an inherently divergent process of meaning derivation, thus curbing and narrowing down alternative readings. They "objectify the subjective" and marginalise "unreasonable interpretations" , in the words of Prof. Al-Fadl .While this is pragmatic and necessary, it must be kept in mind that when societies and cultures undergo [radical] changes they also have an impact on the readings and interpretations of the  interpretative communities which themselves would require close scrutiny as the new generation of readers might not share the same socio-cultural assumptions , norms and values as the previous ones.

As a corollary to the above it follows that the reader is never in the position to completely identify her [his] opinion with that of the author. In other words one can never afford, in actuality, to monopolise God's Word.

This is even more so in the context of the Qur’an given that one cannot maintain to know the intent of its Author, who, in the eyes of Muslims, is The One True God. Thus, the inevitable element of reading ambiguity and approximation of meaning cannot be avoided.

As far as mechanics of Qur’anic textual language (syntax, grammar, phonetics...) is concerned it must be kept in mind that Qur’an was primarily seen as an oral rather than a written text in a society in which oral perpetuation was considered the more superior method of knowledge transmission. Writing down of the Qur’an in the early Muslim community, was seen more as a way of aiding in its memorisation rather than in the belief that it would help in its preservation, a concept that was given more credence and support only after Prophet's (s) demise. Early Qur’anic transcripts did not include punctuation nor the writing of vowels. Generally speaking this did not affect the meaning of the entire Qur’anic text as a whole significantly although certain variations in the Qur’anic texts did exist, at times causing grammatical and semantic differences.

It is reasonable to say at this point in time that traditional interpretative principles have largely been oblivious to the above principles governing reading hermeneutics.

Traditional thought neither fully recognised/es the inherently subjective /idiosyncratic nature of the reader in determining meaning and therefore undermine [es]d the polysemic nature of the Qur’anic text. The interpretations and readings of the interpretative communities of the past have been taken for granted and rendered beyond dispute and criticism. Authoritarian interpretations of Qur’anic text were/are being formulated and God's Words were/ are being monopolised. Reader's understanding of the text was/is being identified with the Author's intent. A single interpretation is being/was imposed on the basis of selectivity of evidence and lack of scholarly honesty and comprehensiveness.

An example of these practices is the continued patriarchal, andocentric concept of the wife-husband dynamics and marriage in the traditional Muslim society being seen as God sanctioned and only genuine "Islamic/Muslim model" of an "Islamic/Muslim family".

Let's have a somewhat closer look at the definition and underlying assumptions of traditionalists' and early Fiqh view on Muslim marriage law and implications thereof.

According to Ali, the interpretative community of early Fiqh was formulated in a deeply patriarchal society in which social stratification, wide spread of slavery and wide availability of concubines was not only wide-spread but considered as socially acceptable. The conception of marriage and interdependent rights of spouses within it was based on the basic framework of

" ..a type of ownership (milk) granted to the husband over the wife in exchange for dower payment, which makes sexual intercourse between them lawful" .She cites Al-Shafi who in his Al-Umm states: It is among her rights due from him that he support her, and among his rights to derive pleasure from her.

Ali goes on further to say that "the major spousal right established by the contract is the wife's sexual availability in exchange for which she is supported by her husband” and that this basic framework was accepted as in accordance with prevalent social norms at the time but was unthinkable for majority of Muslims in most of the societies of today.

Thus the elaboration of the entire traditional marital law was based on different /discriminatory obligations and rights accorded to men and women in a society were slavery and slave concubinage were seen as accepted social norms so much so that "for elite men in particular, the distinction between concubine, woman for sexual use, and object must inevitably have blurred” . The socio-cultural embeddedness of the traditional Muslim law and its close connection to and reflection of the social practices of slavery and patriarchy is particularly evident by fact that the marriage contract gave the unilateral right to end marital relationship at any time by repudiating the wife for any particular or no reason which as Ali claims was "analogous to the masters freedom to manumit a slave at any time."

The interpretative communities operated within those parameters governing society in which they lived and their readings of the Qur’anic text were heavily influenced by it. They emphasised the Qur’anic injunction of male provider ship (4; 34)to the exclusion of those which encouraged mutual protector ship and harmony( 9:71 ; 2 :187) because their socio-cultural environment was firmly established along those or similar lines . In words of Prof. Barlas they were reading "patriarchy" as the only legitimate reading of the Qur’anic text.

That this concept of marriage developed is perhaps not surprising as it is a natural outcome of the predominant socio-cultural forces and norms that operated at that time which were infused into the Qur’anic exegesis and its worldview . The problem arose when subsequent generations, however, came to accept or were largely constrained by these views, on the whole, as eternally valid and only possible interpretative understanding of the text. The polysemic nature of the Qur’anic text thereby was largely lost and the underlying assumptions and the framework in which past communities of interpretation operated were quasi-sacralised and equated with God's Will, thus creating less and less space for alternative Qur’anic readings/ understandings. Thus the epistemological parameters within which Qur'an was perceived as being able to function were greatly reduced resulting in ,it borrow the phrase of Prof Barlas, textual reductionism of the Qur'anic text and its worldview. This is what is meant by closed reading of the Qur'anic text.

Progressive methodologies recognise the inherent subjectivity of reading hermeneutics, take into account the underlying principles governing the determinancy of meaning of various communities of interpretation including their own; they subscribe to the view of multiple reading strategies of Qur’anic text thereby upholding the principle of semiotic polyvalence of the Qur’anic text. This is not to say that that do not offer their own understandings based on certain methodological tools but that they are aware of the fact that no interpretation of the Qur’an can be said to be final and closed to re-interpretation. This is what is meant by the phrase open reading of the Qur’anic text .

The closed versus open readings of the Qur’anic text; Qur’anic segmentalism versus holism and decontextualisation versus contextualisation of Qur’anic revelation are , in authors mind, three most significant methodological tools which give rise to continued debates over what Qur’an has to say on a particular issue. I have tried to demonstrate the superiority of progressive Qur’anic methodologies over those of classical and traditional ones. These differences in approaches are not limited to the Qur'an only but also to that of the second source of Muslim tradition, the Sunnah, which is the focus of the next part of the article.


The major aim of this part of the article is not to get involved into detailed discussion on meaning of Sunnah, its relationship to ahadith literature or genesis and development of ahadith literature but to give an overview of what the basic methodological principles behind various theories of Sunnah are as espoused by classical , traditionalist and progressive schools of thought  and to compare them.

Classical Theory of Sunnah

The classical concept of Sunnah, according to Brown, had three main features:

• It was NOT exclusively identified with Prophet Muhammad (S) but included the actions of Prophet's successors and the early Medinan community

• Sunnah was seen as conceptually different from and independent of ahadith literature

• There was no rigid distinction between Sunnah and Qur'an in terms of their nature and source of authority

The traditionalists' theory of Sunnah was characterised as follows:

• Sunnah was exclusively identified with Prophet Muhammad (Sunnat al-nabi)

• Sunnah was completely identified with the 'authentic" ahadith

• Sunnah was considered and given a status of revelation although different in kind to that of Qur'an (Sunnah- unrecited revelation; Qur'an -recited revelation) thus being able to abrogate the Qur'an.

The progressive view of Sunnah  is much in line with the classical theory. Some of its main elements are:

• Early concept of sunnah as being the praxis of the Prophet as well as the earry muslim community making it thereby much more dynamic in nature.

• As a collary to the above, it emphasises the importance of the spirit of the Prophetic actions rather than its detailed, blind , literal following

• divorces ahadith literature conceptually from that of Sunnah thereby recognising the different spheres of prophetic actions and distancing itself from the inherent methodological weaknesses giving rise to the traditionalists claim of complete quantitative and qualitative identification of ahadith literature and Sunnah. This is achieved by limiting Sunnah to:

- Only actions in contrast to beliefs

- Considering Sunnah as part of ad-din as an extension of Prophet's qur'anically sanctioned extra- Qur’anic authority.

- Limiting Sunnah to those actions which were incorporated by all of the Prophet's companions and subsequently perpetuated by all of them onto following generations

The first postulate , as espoused by both classical and progressive camps, is based on the fact that the Sunnah was seen as a vague , poorly delienated and defined concept in early Muslim community and that the community's leaders took decisions described or referred to as Sunnah in early Muslim literature because these decisions were in accordance with and " under the direction of the spirit ( not absolute letter) in which the Prophet acted in a given historical situation " and thus, " shall [be able to] authoritatively interpret and assign meaning to Revelation". This view is supported by early Muslim literature as works of Rahman, Brown and Goldziher have shown.

The traditionalists' view of this postulate is a reflection of a much later development of definition of Sunnah in which only a hadith going back only to Prophet himself in the isnad chain can be considered as containing Sunnah. This is in stark contrast with early sources of Muslim literature.

The second postulate of separating Sunnah from later developed ahadith literature conceptually is based on the premise that in early Muslim community there was no need to have an oral tradition ascribed to the prophet in order to consider something a Sunnah. Progressive Muslim definition of Sunnah, as espoused by a contemporary scholar Moiz Amjad for example, circumvents the inherent methodological weakness within which the traditional criticism of hadith took place by disassociating it from ahadith literature on the grounds of the nature of its transmission, its scope, form and starting point.

The implications of equating ahadith literature with Sunnah ;considering ahadith literature in its entirety as only valid and reliable way of knowing Sunnah; deducing Sunnah literally on the basis of hadith reports as contained in the al-kutuub al-sitta,all of them being the viewpoints to which the traditionalist theory of Sunnah subscribes, are as follows :

• All reports contained in the "canonnical collections" are seen as part of Sunnah which is tantamount to saying that every action prophet found in the literature would be legally binding on Muslims ( no separation between Prophet's human and prophetic sphere) thus broadening its scope to cover just about every human action.

• Prophetic actions as depicted in ahadith reports are largely taken literally and stripped of their larger socio-cultural context which introduces  a very rigid, static , and in author's mind, inaccurate notion of Sunnah and its definition.

• Principles governing ulum-ul-hadith, the traditional discipline of hadith criticism, whose product are the al-kutub-al-sitta, are beyond criticism and are entirely whole-proof.

The third point under consideration has to do, like the first two, with the nature of prophet's authority. While classical and progressive largely theories aimed to discriminate between prophet's human and prophetic spheres; to distill the intent and contextualise prophetic action's in order to arrive at the sprit and larger objectives behind prophetic message which would than be super-cultural and universally applicable; to develop a complex hierarchy of principles to enable them to discover the underlying rationale and purpose of Prophetic deeds often giving presidence to the practice (amal) of the community over that of a hadith report;   a tendency to sacralise Prophet's every action and imitate it blindly and literally in a socio-historical vacuum developed in the traditionalist circles. A major reason for this is, of course, the traditionalist concept of Sunnah as given above.

It can be concluded that the methodologies governing traditionalist approach to Sunnah are very similar to those of their approach to the Qur'an. As such they must be considered as inferior to those of both classical and progressive approaches as it was shown in the first part of the article dealing with Qur'anic methodologies .


Calls for going back to Qur'an and Sunnah, frequently repeated statements among the Muslims, are in themselves value statements. One should say to oneself, Qur'an and Sunnah , yes, but how do we interpret these? How do we define them? How do we approach them and derive meaning and guidance from them? What methodological tools and principles do we need to take into account to ,as objectively as possible, extract lessons from these two sources of Muslim heritage?

I have argued that classical, traditionalist and progressive approaches to Qur'an and Sunnah differ in terms of the methodologies governing their definition, nature, interpretation and scope. I have also maintained that progressive and to certain extent classical approaches to Qur'an and Sunnah are methodologically superior to those of the traditionalist one.

Author hopes that the purpose of this article would be fulfilled if readers realise that each opinion and viewpoint that claims to be based on Qur'anic and Sunnaic principles must be evaluated on the ground of its underlying methodology (or lack of it) which yielded it in the first place.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.