By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
26 July 2012
Generations upon generations of Muslim exegetes, philosophers, theologians, lawyers (as well as ordinary Muslim people) have concerned themselves with the question of what Qur'an has to say on a particular issue or matter. The underlying interpretational assumptions of interpreters of the Qur'an have produced a vast pool of variant interpretations. However, in author's view, these interpreters have not paid sufficient attention as to what kind of pre-suppositions and assumptions does the actual Qur'anic text exhibit and how they affect the process of the methodology of the Qur'anic interpretation. This article aims to briefly outline some of these assumptions in the realms of socio-cultural, ethico-moral and belief system of the Qur'anic milieu. It further emphasis and underlines the crucial role of these suppositions in understanding the actual nature , aims and objectives of Qur'anic injunctions ( and a Qur'an as a coherent whole) as one essential element /methodological tool employed in Qur'anic interpretation.
At the very beginning of this article the author wishes to highlight that in order to understand (the purpose of / meaning of) many Qur'anic injunctions it is not just enough to know what Qur'an says but what it assumes to be a given fact.
In order to understand this proposition correctly we need to investigate the assumptions governing the worldview of the direct recipients of the Qur'anic Revelation and the ways in which they manifest themselves in the Qur'anic text. In order to limit the length of the text a selected number of assumptions will be discussed. The selection is based on the criteria of the assumptions' importance in overall Qur'anic method of interpretation. Before these pre-suppositions are considered a few preliminary remarks as to how they manifest themselves in the Qur'anic text.
1.) Manifestations of Qur'anic assumptions in its text
As we shall see below manifestations of Qur'anic assumptions are evident in its usage of (to its direct audiences') familiar concepts ( e.g. Sunnah, Allah), peoples stories/people ( e.g. story of various Prophet's such as Lut, Noah , Abraham etc ) , beliefs ( angels, scriptures, etc..) and use of particular words/phrases / grammatical/philological constructs (e.g. male plural form for believers momeneen).
In order to make a better sense of these assumptions we shall categorise them into three fields, namely socio-cultural, ethico-moral and belief-based.
2.) Socio-Cultural Suppositions-The case of Patriarchy
One of the most evident assumptions evident in some passages of the Qur'an is the existence of a all embracing patriarchy in its historically revelational milieu. At the philological level this is evident in Qur'anic injunctions which address/ are directed at men in matters pertaining to divorce and marriage e.g. Qur'an says (5:2; also 2:229) :" You [the men] either keep them/stay with your wives in dignity , or you divorce them in kindness and dignity".
Qur'an (2:230) stipulates that if a man divorces a woman irrevocably, a man cannot remarry her until she is married to another. Similarly Qur'an 65:1 instructs the Prophet that if the men divorce their women they should allow women to reside in their marital home during their 'Iddat (waiting period). Again, in 33:49 the believers [third person male plural ] are told that if they married believing women and then divorce them before touching them , they do not need to count the 'Iddat. It seems that, at least in these instances, concerns pertaining to both men and women have been surrendered entirely to men and that women play only a derivative and passive role. At the level of socio-cultural rights/rules the famous qiwaama verse (4:34) verse gives men a qualified darajat more than women based on the male's socially privileged role of bread-winners. The same would also apply to the inheritance verses in Surat-ul-Baqra which stipulate unequal shares /proportions to men and women in favour of men or the tribal practice of taking the women and children of defeated tribes as spoils of war that is indirectly referred to in the Qur'an and was the practice at the time of the Prophet.
All of the above examples pre-suppose the existence of a social and cultural order which confers the right to entering into marriage [contract], divorce, even possession of women solely to men, the reality of which is assumed and acknowledged by the Qur'an. However, does this necessarily mean that Qur'an endorses the same powers to men or does it attempt to mitigate and limit them? If we examine carefully the above stated verses pertaining to divorce or marriage matters in general , as Prof. El-Fadl astutely observes, they all were performing the function of ""protecting women from the power of men [they]already possess[ed] by the virtue of the customs and practices of the society in which Islam was revealed ."Additionally, argues Prof. El-Fadl verses 52:6, 58:2 and 2:229 could be used to argue for this mitigating effect of Qur'anic injunctions. But is this mitigating process an end in itself or just a means to a more just end? There is no doubt, in author's view, that based on the overall Qur'anic evidence and Prophet's Sunnah this principle of assumption of certain patriarchal practices and their subsequent mitigation was a means towards a moral trajectory of complete justice and equality, in the broadest sense of this word, between the sexes.
3.) Ethico-moral assumptions - the case of free individuals vs. slaves - social dichotomy
Although slavery is a social ill, its repugnance is certainly moral in nature. The existence of slavery (including sex slavery and concubinage) is another socio-cultural reality that Qur'an assumes as evident in for example Surah An-Nisa'. It was a common practice that masters would force their concubines into prostitution and would not set them free if they wanted to get married in order to live honourable lives. Qur’an’s attributed was to make moral appeals to slave owners [exclusively men e.g. 4:25] in order to limit these abuses and alleviate their unfavourable/miserable conditions. Acknowledging the different mentality and conditions under which slaves were brought up and having lived a different set of punishments were instituted by the Qur’an (4:25) in addition to a different set of social and behavioural norms. It is commonly known that setting free of slaves was one way in which Qur'an sanctions the expiration of one's sins. Qur’an, throughout, also stresses kind and gentle treatment of slaves. Prophet's example/ instructions as to the proper conduct when dealing with slaves is in accordance with these Qur'anic instructions. Thus, based on above Qur'ano-Sunnahic indicants the mitigating effect of Qur'ano-Sunnahic attitude becomes evident again.
Given the overall evidence and attitude of Qur'an and Sunnah towards slavery it could be easily argued, as it was in the case of patriarchy, that the moral trajectory taken by the Qur'ano-Sunnahic attitude warrants complete eradication of slavery and thus obliteration of separate moral standards/normative behaviour for free and enslaved human beings.
4.) Belief-based assumptions- Concept of Kufr
Etymologically /Philologically the basic meaning of the root K-F-R is most likely to have the meaning of "covering “or knowingly ignoring the benefits and bounties received , thus it means to be unthankful and show ingratitude. The Qur'an uses kufr in the sense of ingratitude (therefore as antonym of shukr - to show gratitude) in, for example 21:94; 14: 33-34; 16: 112-115;2: 147/152;17:66-69;17:47-48 and several others. At times kufr is also used as antonym of Iman and as such it has the meaning of disbelief, such as in following instances: 3: 63/70; 17: 89/91; 2:26-28;6:29-30 and many others. Therefore the root KFR in the Qur'an is semantically ambiguous in the sense that it can be used in either of the two basic meanings: ingratitude and disbelief.
The concept of Kufr , however, would not make sense if the Qur'an did not assume that it's direct audience already was familiar with the concept of Allah ( as Qur'an actually tells us) as the Ultimate Benefactor and Provider of Bounties to whom humans should be thankful and in whose Tawheed they should believe. Qur'an's direct audience did not question Allah's existence but it strayed from the concept of Tawheed (by putting intermediaries between Allah and humans) and disbelieved in the concept of Resurrection and Day of Judgment.
Given the above understanding of the Qur'anic concept of Kufr it would be entirely unwarranted to apply (or accuse) a person of kufr (as it is sometimes done by some Muslim groups) if that person: a.) does not believe in God at all b.) Acknowledges God's Bounties, is thankful to and believes God's Tawheed (which can take many forms)
Therefore, the concept of Kufr in the Qur'an is based on the assumption that human beings accept and acknowledge the existence of God as source of Providence and it can be applied only to those who, knowingly ignore, are unthankful to this Providence and disbelieve in God's Tawheed.
One important component in understanding the overall Qur'ano-Sunnahic worldview is the taking into account of its pre-suppositions. As it was demonstrated in the case of some aspects of patriarchy and slavery, the Qur'ano-Sunnahic mitigating effect would seem to suggest that patriarch cal and practices of slavery not only do NOT form the inherent components of its worldview but that Qur'ano-Sunnahic principles at the time of the Prophet mitigated these practices and paved the way towards their complete annihilation in future. Given the realities of contemporary societies this 1400 years old "vision" certainly must be realised and the calls to their continued adherence in form of masqueraded "Shariah" ought to be considered as actually being anti-Qur'ano-Sunnahic.
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.