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Differences in Methodologies of Interpretation among Muslims: Comparing Pre-modern and modern Approaches

By Dr. Adis Duderija,

The aim of this article is to help overcome what this author has elsewhere on this website described the interpretational promiscuity or lack of interpretational consciousness among Muslims, both scholars as non –scholars, who often consider certain views taken by them to be Qur’anic or based on Sunna without even being aware of the interpretational assumptions   their views are based on and the interpretational implications they have. The article describes some major differences in interpretational assumptions governing what I call here premodern and modern Muslim approaches to interpretation of Qur’an and Sunna.

The differences in methodologies of interpretation ( manahij) of the Qur’an and Sunna relate to many factors and are based on certain interpretational assumptions. Here we can address only the most important ones at a general level. We will compare the differences between the pre-modern and modern approaches and their interpretational implications as they relate to: i.) View of the function and the nature of language in Qur’anic text and the nature of revelation itself; ii.) the process of how meaning is determined; iii.) the extent to which texts are contextualised and the relationship between text and context; iv.) the extent to which texts are interpreted as a one unified, coherent whole ; v.) the role of reason in interpretation of Qur’an and hadith texts; vi.) the extent to which texts are interpreted to embody certain values and principles as the main objectives of their message vii.) the extent  to which the concepts of  sunna and hadith are considered to be independent of each other.

3.1. View of the Function and the Nature of Language in Qur’anic and Hadith  Texts  and the Nature of Revelation

The pre-modern approaches to interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith texts are heavily philologically oriented. That is to mean that their interpretation is largely restricted to observable features of language. In other words according to this methodology one arrives at meaning through an exercise of simple retrieval of meaning  which is accessible by following the  rules of Arabic grammar, syntax and morphology. Additionally, the Qur’anic text as the verbatim Word of God is conceptualised as being entirely different from that of human language. It is considered to be operating outside history and that it is not in its entirety subject to rational human methods of analysis. Finally, the nature of Revelation according to the pre-modern approaches to interpretation  is such that it is completely divorced from the mind or the psychological make up of the Prophet and entirely unaffected by it.

 There are two main interpretational implications of these interpretational assumptions. Firstly, they contribute to the idea of fixity of meaning of the texts and secondly they marginalise the historical dimension of texts and their meanings  i.e. their quality of contextuality.

Modern approaches recognise that the Qur’anic text is ,its Divine origins notwithstanding,  basically a text like any other text, specific to a time, place and culture. This approach is also premised upon the idea that Qur’anic language is also socio-culturally produced, i.e. it is an outcome of human convention and not of Divine designation. Furthermore, the meaning of God’s speech is considered by necessity to operate within the framework of human rational methods of analysis. Thus the nature of Qur’anic text as God speech is such that for all interpretational purposes it is to be considered as entirely human. The concept of the nature of revelation, moreover, is predicated on the idea that Revelation is closely intertwined with the mind and the psychological make-up  of its direct recipient, Prophet Muhammad.

The interpretational implications of these assumptions would include the idea that the sacred texts have a historical dimension, that the content and meaning of the same is historically conditioned and affected by socio-cultural  context in which they were revealed  and that in order to interpret them correctly one needs to pay close attention to this. We will say more on this below.

3.2. The Process of How Meaning is Determined

When one interprets a piece of text one can form the view that the reader’s understanding of the meaning of that text is primarily determined either by the author of the text ( and her intention), the text itself or by that of the reader. Furthermore, the reader can believe that the she is either in position to in principle discover the by the author intended objective meaning of the text  or not to discover it but only to be able to continually better approximate this intended meaning. The pre modern approaches consider that in principle they can discover the objective meaning of the text and that its meaning is primarily determined by the author which the reader can simply and objectively retrieve.

The interpretational implication of these assumptions is that the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal further contributing to the idea of fixity of meaning of text. The belief in the  objective existence of meaning  in the mind of the author which is readily accessible again in an objective fashion to that of the reader also contributes to the idea of fixity of meaning of the text and that there exist only one correct interpretation of a piece of text.

The modern approach, in the light of modern theories on interpretation, maintains that meaning is not simply recovered and that the reader is in principle not in a position to discover the intended meaning of the author in an objective fashion. Instead they emphasise that role of the reader, her socio-cultural background, education, sense of morality etc., in helping  produce or create meaning and believe that the reader can only ever better approximate the intended meaning of the author but never completely and objectively capture it.

One interpretational implication of this assumption is that although a text can be fixed in terms of its wording it can sustain a large number of interpretations which are only ever going to be its approximations.  This also means that there can be a number of valid interpretations of texts and that meaning is not  objectively fixed in the mind of the author . However, modern approaches do not accept the idea that each and every meaning is equally legitimate. To do so they talk about the concept of ‘communities of interpretation’ that is, a group of readers who share similar interpretive principles such as  similar educational backgrounds, sense of morality and basic values . These communities of interpretation impose some reading uniformity in what is otherwise considered to be an inherently divergent process of meaning derivation, thus curbing and narrowing down alternative unreasonable readings.

3.3. The extent to which texts are contextualised and the relationship between text and context

We have already outlined in section 3.1. above that the pre-modern philologically oriented approach to interpretation and its view of the nature of Qur’anic language and revelation significantly marginalises its historical dimension. By doing so pre modern approaches do not fully evaluate the contextual dimension of the texts for the purpose of their interpretation. In other words they do not readily recognise that the historical context in which the texts were revealed significantly shaped the nature of their injunctions, including the legal.  Although pre-modern approaches did recognise elements of historical character of the revealed texts as evident in asbab al nuzul and naskh sciences they did not translate them into concrete interpretational models which would utilise them to a full extent.

The interpretational implications of interpretational aspect of the pre-modern embedded approaches are three-fold. Firstly, it is not capable of interpretationally  distinguishing, in a systematic manner, between the  non contextually (or universal) and contextually contingent elements of the texts. Secondly, this approach considers what the modern approaches would  view as the historically contingent dimension of Revelation as part of its  universal dimension.

Critical progressive approaches is premised on the idea that the historical context in which the texts were revealed  significantly influenced  their content , including the injunctions having legal import. It considers that the cultural and societal norms, laws, customs, manners, institutions and values prevalent at the time of revelation were absorbed by the texts and that these texts initially operated within these premises. The modern approach therefore strongly emphasises the role of historical context in the formulation of the revelatory content and the nature of its legal injunctions and employ this in their interpretation of the texts.

3.4. The extent to which texts are interpreted as a one unified, coherent whole

The Qur’an was revealed over a period of over two decades. As mentioned above the process of collecting hadith texts took several centuries. Both were primarily conceived as oral rather than written texts. The traditional “authentic” division of the Qur’an into a particular sequence of surahs (Qur’anic chapters) was neither chronologically nor thematically ordered. The nature of the Qur’anic discourse, however, was such that the concepts, ideas and the moral and ethical lessons internal to the Qur’an were dispersed throughout the Scripture and are often repeated. This nature of the Qur’anic discourse has been traced to the specific linguistic-cultural characteristics/requirements of its first recipients to ensure Qur’an’s comprehensibility and optimize in what in essence was/is the ethico-religious and didactic nature of its message. The premodern Qur’anic interpretation mainly adopted a lemma plus comment exegesis, that is, a word for word, verse-by -verse, surah by surah, linear, segmental analysis of the Qur’anic text.

This interpretational technique has certain interpretational implications. Firstly, it is unable to interpretationally take into account the Qur’an’s thematic coherence and underlying unity of the revelatory message and thus is not conducive to the development of a (more) holistic approach to Qur'anic interpretation. Secondly, it is not capable to capture the very gist or spirit of Revelation to which one arrives on the basis of a thematico-holistic interpretation of the Qur’an.

Modern approaches recognises the internal inter-connectivity of Qur’anic concepts  for a systematic, thematic-holistic and corroborative inductive approach to interpretation of Qur’anic content based on not only the insights stemming from the traditional Islamic scholarship referred to as al-munasaba (i.e conceptual and textual chaining in the Qur’an) and istiqra’ (corroborative induction) but also on that of modern textual linguistics that enable the reader to discover Qur’an’s textual coherence, sequentiality and progression. This approach is based on the premise that a proper understanding of a Qur’anic concept is gained only if all the relevant texts dealing with that concept are analysed and subsequently synthesised into a larger framework of its interpretation by means of a corroborative induction. According to this view the text is conceived as being web-like within which ideas are interwoven and the task of reading is to uncover “the comprehensive constant” as the ultimate aim or the objective of the reading /interpreting process.

3.5. The role of reason in interpretation of Qur’an and hadith texts

The pre-modern approaches heavily restrict the role of reason in interpretation of texts. They allow it to function primarily in its analogical or derivative form. By this we mean that all interpretation must be interpretationally linked to a textual source of evidence and should there be no direct textual evidence available every effort is made to employ what is considered to be a related textual source of evidence with the similar underlying principle and apply it to the new case rather than just relying on pure reason.  Similarly pre-modern approaches are largely  based on the assumption that  in order to know what is ethically right, humans must always rely only on revelation and revelation derived sources and can never know what is ethically right by independent reason. Therefore, according to this view the Divine Will, as embodied in the normative texts, was considered by the majority of  pre modern  legal philosophers as the only determinant in the realm of law and no concept of human reason as being author of ultimate source of law or ethics  was developed.

These interpretational assumptions also have important interpretational implications. Firstly, they infuse the Revelation with a comprehensive legalistic ethos and marginalises of some of its other dimensions such as those which could be broadly termed ethico-religious or didactic in nature.  Secondly, and closely related to the first, these interpretational assumptions also imply a legalistic expression of the Will of God which can only be known from commands and prohibitions. This means that certain Qur’anic injunctions that could be seen as merely ethical or didactic are refashioned into positive legal injunctions and are incorporated into positive Islamic Law.

Modern approaches, on the other hand, emphasise the importance of reason in interpretation and consider both Qur’an and Sunna to be constitutive of reason. They believe that reason can independently make value judgements about what is ethically right or wrong and that the function of revelation in that regard is to merely to ‘remind’ humanity of  their ethical obligations. This approach also rejects the legalistic expression of the Divine Will and considers that the main Message of Revelation is ethico-religious in nature, that the legal aspects of revelation are peripheral to it and are subject to change as society changes. In other words, this approach gives precedence to reason- based  religious ethics over positive law. It insists that law must be in constant service of  reason based religious ethics and that law ought to evolve with evolving ideas about ethics as developed by humanity- and considers that in the post-revelatory period this evolution is exclusively driven by reason/intellect. This reason based religious ethics is, however, firmly anchored in the Qur’anic religious cosmology described above.

3.6. The extent to which texts are interpreted to embody certain values and principles as the main objectives of their message

All of the above discussed interpretational assumptions of the pre-modern approaches  have contributed to  a  conceptualisation of  the nature of Qur’an-Sunna that their teachings and message were  neither seen as essentially and principally aiming to interpretationally  give precedence to  certain ethico religious values such as justice or equality nor as the  embodiment of certain  underlying objectives in form of some ethico-religious principles such as the idea of texts facilitating public welfare or what is commonly known to be good . Instead, like any other non textual source the interpretational force was heavily limited in these pre-modern approaches.

All of the principles of the modern approaches elaborated upon above, are based upon a broader interpretational assumption that the actual nature and character of the sacred texts seek to realise and reach an underlying objective in form of certain ethico-religious values and principles such as the idea of justice and equality or the facilitation of public welfare which are considered as  fundamental principles of the Message of the Qur’an and Sunna.

3.7. The extent to which the concepts of Sunna and hadith are considered to be independent of each other

Pre-modern approaches’ concept of sunna is based on the assumption that the early Hadith sciences which were developed by Muslim scholars are completely adequate to authenticate Hadith and thus incorporate them into sunna. This concept of Sunnah is based upon a number of assumptions two of which are particularly significant. Firstly, it assumes that the scope of Sunnah is epistemologically dependent upon and constrained by Hadith, i.e. that it’s epistemological value is the same as that of each “authentic” Hadith and that the existent ‘authentic’ hadith body of literature is the sole depository of Sunnah and it only vehicle of perpetuation. Secondly, it assumes that Sunnah is methodologically dependent upon Hadith. By methodologically dependent on Hadith  it is meant that the  Sunnah compliance (or otherwise) of certain (legal, ethical  or theological)  practices or principles, is and can only be determined  by sifting through  numerous narratives reportedly going back to  Prophet Muhammad via an authentic chain of narrators (isnad).The interpretational implication of this is that if a Hadith is found to be authentic according to traditional Muslim sciences the value of Sunnah is bestowed on it and  is, therefore,  to be considered part of Islamic law.

Modern approaches, in line with how the concept of Sunnah was conceptualised in early Islam, do not conflate Sunnah and Hadith. Instead, in addition to applying pre-modern Hadith sciences, they have developed or draw upon    several additional methodological mechanisms which are employed to distinguish between Sunnah and Hadith which need not concern us here.

Hopefully this article has demonstrated our need to be interpretationally self-aware when partaking in discussions on what the Qur’an or Sunnah has to say on a particular issue.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a Research Associate, Islamic Studies, at University of Melbourne, Australia