By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
09 Aug 2018
Who can say what the Text means? Understanding why some key issues remain unresolved.
It is often asked which Tafsir one must read, what the Quran really means, or its viewpoint on a host of issues, and who has the authority to legislate/exclude in the name of the Quran. Sects and schools remain bitterly divided on certain issues. Theologians, jurists and philosophers differ although they all invoke the same text. Salafis and Hanafis-Sufis, Deobandis and Barelvis, Islamists and their Muslim critics, Islamic and Muslim Feminists are all claiming respective positions in the name of certain standard reading of the Quran. Even votes are sought or political alliances/slogans legitimized in the name of the Quran. Who can say and then judge on behalf of the silent text? Let us investigate if we can or should have easy answers to such questions.
It is often said that we need to approach things from the viewpoint of the Quran as if the Quran had a viewpoint. The Quran asks us to pay heed to the truth of every viewpoint that has any validity and as such can’t have its own special viewpoint to be contrasted to, say viewpoints of other sacred books, sages and saints across cultures and divinely taught poets whose craft consists in making themselves the mirrors on which shine the higher truths. The root of the problem is that the Quran
a) being the very eye that sees and embraces all views
b) the source of illumination that casts light on everything and not any particular illumined object that writes off other objects, and
c) the text of the very being we are or pointer to the mystery and truth of all that is or could be has no limiting or exclusive viewpoint of its own that we can impute to it.
The Quran invites us to heed the signs or develop the vision so that things clarify themselves and quell all anxiety to mean, to interpret and one indeed witnesses “there is no doubt in it.” It means standing open or making a clearing for the Being to manifest its glory. Seeking to speak in ideological terms on behalf of the Quran is questioned by the consideration that it could be the case that the Quran seeks to erase all attachment to viewpoints and require us to recover openness to the Real/experience/countless faces of truth or limited truth in all viewpoints? The Quran is like a dazzlingly beautiful thing (the Sun) that none can dare to see face to face or claim to have exclusive access to. Its silence and shyness is such that it sees, waits, mirrors and watches whatever is brought before it or sold in its name.
The fact that the Quran calls itself a Criterion and yet we find so many contentious positions within orthodox or traditional setting invoking the same criterion means that the Criterion is such that the contentions may keep blooming without affecting the Truth that includes and transcends all such contentious positions. The Beauty is such that it gives Darshan to all and leaves all more thirsty for closer access and nevertheless the impression that they have been chosen for special Darshan. It is like the gracious Beloved who doesn’t say no to anyone and yet can’t be claimed by anyone as such or a dream that all see and interpret according to their own dispositions and yet don’t cease to dispute its precise meaning. Who knows that the dream may admit all kinds of interpretations in accordance with the dreamer’s diverse stations and the truth of the Criterion consist in reaching a station where dreams are no longer dreams and one’s vision is sharp, an ideal that is fulfilled in the higher world of illuminations (Kashf) or otherworld.
Often it is assumed there is a consensus on what the Quran means especially for the early generations. Muslims are told by some in the name of the Quran, for instance, that the Quran writes off other religions (and not illuminate them from within or higher transcendent “viewpoint”), that most of the verses supporting pluralism or tolerance stand abrogated, that there is a particular state that may be called Islamic, that jurists-exoteric Ulama rather than illumined poets/sages are the best Quran commentators. Is there such a consensus? What is the necessary minimum set of “propositions” – Zarooriyat-I-Deen – required for salvation on which there is consensus? Classical and modern exegetes agree in principle that these are Iman and Amal-i Salih and the former may be divided into faith in God (note, not belief in existence of a being called God) and faith in the next/higher/distant/not ordinarily perceived world (note Akhira means what is not near or not ordinarily perceived) – other details such as faith in messengers/angels etc. are implied/in a way included). One may elaborate these essentials to see how little consensus is there when one, with the sages/metaphysicians, delves deeper into what we mean by our key terms.
Faith in God may well be expressed as faith in non-self, or in terms esoterism/metaphysics would use, witnessing the Godhead (there is huge difference between God and Godhead/Absolute) or attachment to the Absolute. The key focus is not on belief in one God but affirmation of one Reality or what is called making one or affirming divine unity – and there is little consensus between scholars, jurists, theologians, Sufis and philosophers on what that really means and what divides them is such issues as distinction between God and Being, attitude to what is called tawhid-i-wujoodi and the relation between God’s one Essence and multiple attributes. Faith translates into an attitude of gratitude.
Consciousness of accountability (little consensus on how and for how long one has to suffer for failure and whether it is purgatorial in nature. Essentially it means faith in significance of moral choices)
Consequent need for righteous action (with the concomitant realization that God alone is the true Agent of action and one is saved by abandoning attachment to action/God’s grace).
Faith in the prophets is– and not ends in themselves – helping bring to consciousness these three things. One is either grateful/ unconditionally open to love/truth (Muslim) or one hesitates (is Munafiq/Kafir). One knows or doesn’t know. The two can’t be equal according to anyone who cares to think or give things their due. This is the only distinction or binary that it is committed to.
We can only submit what we have understood the Quran to be stating and as such it has to be only provisionally maintained (all great commentators have done this) and one can’t rest complacently and afford to oppose other voices and the need for dialogue on what the Quran means. There are less than 10 percent verses in the Quran with clear legal import that don’t need much wrestling on our part to be correctly understood – that are not, in way, Mutashabihat (involving recourse to non-literal meaning and figurative devices or analogy/ symbolism). There is no uncontested applied Quranic hermeneutics, no standard Tafsir fully acceptable for major schools, few – a few dozen or less – fully ascertained Mutwattir reports (that one could claim are certain and not just probable) from the Prophet (S.A.W) or Companions in most cases to foreclose the need to further interpret/investigate.
What we have is a text and often contested pretext and context that frame the meanings and we have many versions from Aslaf on almost all important debatable (in the wake of modernity) issues. Recourse to received/transmitted exegeses (Masoor) doesn’t resolve many contentious issues and what is demonstrably truly transmitted (or at least its meanings) is not above dispute amongst authorities. Even if we had a consensus on what is transmitted, the problem of synthesizing what is so transmitted would still remain. And more difficult problem of transposing previously understood meanings by our ancestors to changing times keeps us haunting. The battle over the letter and the spirit seems unending and it is not clear for everyone what are the “core” values in light of which we need to interpret and stall atomistic interpretations that don sermons and popular presentations in media or press.
How best to accommodate/ignore Israiliyat or self understanding of other traditions while interpreting the Quran that can’t be understood without taking note of Abrahamic or even non-Semitic context/intertext/shared spaces is a tricky one far from being properly attended by classical or modern exegetes.
The questions of historicity of the text or historicity of its first interpretation by the Prophet continue to be posed with grave urgency and who can say that we have neatly classified Asbab-I Nazool, consensus of community/scholars, agreed upon definitions of key terms or what is the literal meaning that should be privileged in many cases. Efforts to show how the Quran is in practice Qati-Ad-Dalalah (we know for sure that there is only one meaning, the meaning intended by God) have not helped to quell hermeneutical contestations and in fact given rise to new questions. Who knows how the first addressees understood the Quran on scores of points that divide us? So much heated debate on evidential value of Ahad narrations from earliest times coupled with our failure to find more than a few Mutwattir traditions (that alone achieve the level of certainty desirable to foreclose further discussion) in the whole corpus and continued existence of disparate Hadith collections (Shia and Sunni corpus) and reigning debates amongst Hadith scholars on status of many traditions and amongst Fuqaha on their legal import and amongst scholars on what they mean or could mean now in changed historical setup all imply need to renounce simplistic invoking of the authority of Pious Elders (Aslaf) or recourse to classical scholarship to foreclose the question of recovering the meanings of the scripture. What should be emphasized is that the Quran is a difficult text (“it is easy for remembrance,” “for admonition,” of course but what we seek is something different), multilayered text, open text, dialogic text, a text that invites fresh reflections and perspectives on every reading, every new day.
The right of every view or interpretation needs to be recognized by exploring the possibility of moving towards higher all embracing vision that has room for all perspectives that have a legitimacy at certain planes. We need to learn to appreciate why we are constituted to differ on theological-juristic exegetical views (as we are on choice of dress/personal names) but we can’t really diverge even if wish on moral/intellectual/spiritual denominators we seek to attest in diverse ways and it is the later that save. Thank God we don’t agree in applied exegesis (and not even in principles we fix for Tafsir) as it would mean no scope for new conversations, new commentaries, new books, new thinking.