By Dr. Adis Duderija, NewAgeIslam.com
How often do we listen to or read talks and articles telling us that the Qur'an or the Sunnah stance on issue X,V or Z is such and such ? Most of the time the arguments used to substantiate these claims are based on few Qur'anic verses or Hadith (if we are lucky we might also get some contextual information regarding these). My contention in this article is that it is essential for all of us who partake in these discussions, scholars or not, to be more aware of how our views on the Qur'an and Sunnah are always based on a number of interpretational assumptions that we might not even be aware of and which are playing a very important part in shaping our views on what we consider this Qur'anic or Sunnah X, Y or Z issue to be in the first place.
I will restrict my analysis to the question of interpretation of the Qur'an and will not address the issue of Sunna and Hadith (which I have done elsewhere) but very much similar arguments apply to them as they do the Qur'an. Unlike what many people believe the Qur'an is , by and large, not a text ( or in actual fact a better word is a discourse or even better a number of discourses ) that one can interpret just as a matter of course. Beyond certain ideas which consistently and unambiguusly feature throughout the Qur'an such as those pertaining to beliefs (including the creed and eschatology) or elements of human nature, the Qur'an's stance on other issues is not only not easily reached, it is subject to one's interpretational approach and the assumptions governing them (please refer to my recent article on this website where I summarize my book which deals with these issues extensively).
Let us briefly examine few examples here. Let's start with the issue of free will. A thematic reading of the Qur'an will tells us that the Qur'an is rather ambivalent on this very important question UNLESS one approaches it with a systematic methodology of interpretation. This ambivalence is best attested if we examine Islamic history on this very question and we quickly deduce that the question of free will has engendered a huge amount of commentary and views among Muslim scholars which at times are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE either advocating as QURANIC complete free will or complete determinism or anything in between ( it is worth recalling that the major theological schools in Islam, the mu'tazila, the maturidis and the Asha'rites, were strongly divided on this issue). I am not going to here address this question in detail apart from briefly saying that ,as Shabbir Akhtar has in my view convincingly argued in this context , that the Qur'anic verses emphasising God's Will to determine the destiny of humans including their salvation have been revealed in the context of addressing the arrogant Meccan tribe leaders who emphasised their own free will 'at the expanse' of that of God's which kind of 'prompted' the Qur'an to emphasise the utter Sovereignty of God's Will in response to this discourse. However, Shabbir argues that these Qur'anic verses are not to be seen as THE Qur'anic view on free will but those which actually uphold human free will principle.
Beyond the question of free will, other issue of social, political or legal importance also are highly dependent upon our methodology of interpretation. For example, the Qur'anic principal of shura has been interpreted to mean anything from parliamentary democracy to theo-democracy and from oligarchy and autocratic rule to socialism. Issues pertaining to the role and the status of women in society (this includes this such as inheritance, marriage and divorce laws etc) have been interpreted to suggest that the Qur'an is either highly women emancipatory or staunchly patriarchal. The issue of hudud punishments has been interpreted to endorse the universality of these medieval practices to that of seeing them as reflective of prevalent customs and practices with the emphaisis on justice, mercy and forgiveness as their ultimate aim and concern. If we are brave enough to venture into issues of ethics such as euthanasia, stem cell research , genetical engineering ( including the human species) , or other cutting edge science related issues we stand on even shakier ground as tio 'what the Qur'an tells us' and the need for a systematic methodology of interpretation as well as interpretational awareness assume paramount importance.
In conclusion, unless one first systematically address the issue of methodology of interpretation of the Qur'an ( issue such as pertaining to the relationship between text and context, role of the reader in the process of interpretation, the hermeneutical relationship between the Qur'an , Sunnah and Hadith, the scope of reason in interpretation and others) or at least be aware of one's own 'interpretational embeddedness ' and a number of assumptions one is either consciously or unconsciously making and on which one's arguments are based, one will never be able to make any coherent arguments for reform or otherwise.