The Qur’an:The Arbiter of Diverse Interpretations

The Qur’an:The Arbiter of Diverse Interpretations on

Zainab Alwani

The question of Qur'anic interpretation is at the heart of any juristic interpretation.  Some of the questions are ones that have been debated among scholars throughout Islamic history. Other questions, however, are a product of the unique circumstances that face the Muslim-American community in the twenty-first century. Who possesses the authority to interpret the Qur’an? What are the limits of Qur'anic interpretation?  If the Qur’an is universal, then how do its interpretations continue to be relevant for every age and society?  When there is a multiplicity of interpretations, how do we determine which interpretation best reflects God’s intention?

Muslims regard the Qur’an as the last divine Speech revealed by God. Unlike previous books sent by God, the Qur’an was not revealed to any specific group of people, culture, or religion. It came with a message that is universal and to an audience that comprises all of humanity. The Qur’an does not only address those who believe in it as God’s Word, but it also addresses those who disbelieve in it. By addressing Christians and Jews as “People of the Book,” the Qur’an recognizes that there are other religious communities that have previously received divine guidance. Muslims’ identification of Christians and Jews is hinged upon their recognition of the divine truth that was sent to their messengers.

The Creator (subhanahu wa ta'ala) pledged to safeguard the Qur'an when He said: “We have, without doubt, sent down the message; and We will certainly guard it from corruption” (Qur'an 15:9). The purpose behind the command to preserve the Qur’an in its original language was to ensure that the Book would remain able to establish the way of life that God wished for humankind. There is profound wisdom in the fact that millions of Muslims read and recite the Qur'an in its exact original words and in the form that it was revealed.  This remains the foundation on which all Muslims agree, however much their paths may differ.

The Qur'an encourages the readers to ponder its rhetorical and suggestive passages and arrive at the spiritual truths on their own, essentially awakening its readers from a metaphoric stagnation. Implied here is the contention that the intellect should not be constrained by a limited understanding of the Qur'an that imprisons its meaning in a particular period, or ties it to a given generation. Indeed, one of the most effective ways of bringing a person closer to his/her Creator is to read the Qur'an and contemplate constantly on its ayat (verses) and their meanings. Purifying one’s heart and soul is required before contemplating the Qur'an, in order to arrive at the meaning. It is  a process of building taqwa (God-consciousness), and transcends personal spirituality. By contemplation we mean  reciting the ayah, reviewing it, and dwelling on its meanings. This is done in an attempt to understand the possible interpretations, and allowing one’s thought to wander unhampered through it, in order to arrive at the meanings that Allah discloses to people who are seeking the truth.

A consistent feature of Qur'anic interpretation throughout the last fifteen hundred years of Islamic history has been its multiplicity of interpretations. Even the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ, who learned Islam directly from the Prophet, who received divine guidance, understood the Qur’an in different ways.  Scholars have made no attempt to limit, or restrict the number of interpretations that could exist. Every human being will bring his/her own background to his/her reading of the Qur’an.  Muslim or non-Muslim, poor or rich, male or female, child or adult, black or white, every human being will read the Qur’an based upon his or her beliefs, education, conditioning, culture, and a variety of other factors.  Further, as a message that addresses all of humanity, the Qur'an allows room for a myriad of readings, as long as they do not conflict the Qur’an’s main principles. It is therefore impossible to impose a single authoritative reading upon the Qur’an without violating the Qur’an’s own description of itself as universal, and for all people.

Despite the interpretative pluralism that exists, why have some interpretations of the Qur’an gained greater acceptability or recognition by the community of Muslim believers? If every human being is free to understand the Qur’an as he/she wishes, then what conditions govern the interpretive process so that it does not become an arbitrary and subjective process?

First, an important distinction needs to be made between private or personal interpretations of the Qur'an, and scholarly interpretations of the Qur'an that become part of the scholarly interpretive or exegetical discourse. The state of the heart in both types is significant during the process of reading. While human beings will naturally bring their own understanding to their reading of any text, this does not give them the authority to impose their understanding of the Qur'an upon the entire Muslim community. Moreover, it does not give them the authority to render their personal interpretation as equal to, or just as valid as those interpretations that are governed by standard hermeneutical principles—principles that have characterized the exegetical tradition of the Qur'an from the onset of Islamic history until the current century. It is one thing for an individual to understand any particular verse of the Qur'an in a certain way, and it is an entirely different matter for an individual to engage the interpretive scholarly discourse, deduce a specific interpretation according to established hermeneutics, put forth this interpretation as one possibility among many, and expect it to be considered with any merit or seriousness by the scholarly community. The difference between the former and the latter boils down to the qualifications of the specific interpreter and the interpretive process he/she follows.

Second, the interpretive process is governed by important principles, on the basis of which the Qur’an then rejects or accepts a single interpretation.  Any interpretation that contradicts the main Qur'anic principles will be rejected. These principles, among others, are:

1) There is a consensus among the scholars throughout the history of the Ummah that interpreting the Qur’an through the Qur’an is the most accepted method of interpretation.  This requires a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an in every meaning.  The Qur’an criticizes a reading that is decontextualized and selective. The Qur’an emphasizes reading it holistically, hence intratextually, which also emerges from its praise for those who say: "We believe in the book; the whole of it is from our Lord” (Qur'an 3:7).

2) The Qurʾan should be understood from within itself, through its unity of structure and its own Divine language and discourse. Muslims should read the Qurʾan from beginning to end in order to formulate their questions, issues, and answers. It is important to consider that tracing a certain Qurʾanic concept or principle throughout the Qurʾan in order to attain a better understanding of the word, its relevance, and meaning is a valid scholarly approach. Scholars/readers should search for various references to the same word/concept and its meaning in each context. This research method requires the reader to give his/her intellect its due role as a partner to the text. This method, in addition to the two combined readings (viz., the Qurʾan and the universe), should be the methodology that guides the process of reading and understanding the Qurʾan.

3) Understanding the Sunna as the major source for clarifying and explaining the Qur'anic text. This body of knowledge, which presents a model for its application to real-life situations, remains a practical experience at the highest level of human capability as practices by the Prophet ﷺ, who was also known as “the living Qur’an.” This means that Muslims need to construct a methodology that enables them to understand how to relate the teachings of the revelation to real-life.

4) Understanding the grammatical, syntactical and etymological nuances of the Arabic language.  God revealed the Qur’an in the Arabic language for a reason, a reason that is perhaps beyond the grasp of human understanding.  As God says in verse 12:2, “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that ye may learn wisdom.”  This does not mean the Qur’an privileges Arabic-speaking peoples or that it exclusively addresses the Arabic-speaking tribes that existed at the time.  Simply, God chose this language to be the tongue of the Qur’an to fulfill His divine plan for humanity.

The Qur’an’s divine language is different than the human language of Arabic.  In early Islamic history, Muslims understood that Arabic as a divine language is different than Arabic as a human language. The human language is usually restricted and influenced by the culture, the customs and the regional history and traditions of the Arabs.  The language of the Qur’an, on the other hand, is a divine language and not subject to the regional, cultural and historical influences which inevitably impose themselves upon the evolution of human languages.  It is no coincidence, therefore, that the most prominent scholars of the Arabic language, who are regarded as founders of the major linguistic sciences, were not Arabs. They established those linguistic sciences based upon the Qur'anic language, which is divine in its terminology and meaning. There is a complete consensus that a mastery of the Arabic sciences (grammar, lexicology, poetry, etc.) is a necessary requirement for interpreters of the Qur’an—those interpreters who are engaging the scholarly discourse and putting forth their interpretations as one possibility among many others.

Finally, the Qur’an, as divine Speech, is the final arbitrator of all interpretations.  The Qur’an itself hands down the final verdict on any single interpretation. For Muslims, God’s promise to protect the Qur'an means that it is immune and insusceptible to interpretations that violate its essence or explicit meanings.  As clear guidance with an unambiguous message, the Qur'an—through its words—ultimately stands as evidence of interpretations that best reflect its true meaning.  The Qur'an becomes the criterion by which an interpretation is then accepted or rejected.  As God says in verse 13:17,“…This way does God set forth the parable of truth and falsehood: for, as far as the scum is concerned, it passes away as [does all] dross; but that which is of benefit to man abides on earth. In this way does God set forth the parables.”

Therefore, the interpretation that is considered bid’a (unacceptable innovation) in the sense intended by the narrated ahadith prohibiting interpretation by personal opinion could belong to the following:

1) Interpretation based on personal opinion without a serious consideration for the genius of the Arabic language, its styles, reasons of revelation, and the objectives of Shariah.

2) Interpretation which involves thought, but of a defective understanding. The exegete draws his conclusions from the apparent meaning of the words or even an aspect of this meaning and taken this to be the only meaning intended. 

3) When the interpreter is a follower of a particular school of thought, schism or tendency which causes him/her to interpret certain ayat of the Qur'an to suit the views of his/her trend without taking linguistic meanings and/or the circumstances of revelation into consideration.

When the reader/researcher approaches the Qur'an and makes use of the intellectual, scientific, and cultural resources of his/her time and applies them to the ayat to see how compatible they are with the pointers of the Qur'an, the researcher can then decide how these disciplines can be rectified in the light of the Qur'an. For example, when a modern Muslim economist considers the words of Allah, ”In order that it may not make a circuit between the wealthy among you" (Qur'an 59:7) and then puts forward an idea never previously raised by the scholars regarding the formation and distribution of wealth, and the way in which this can best be done for the public good, he should not be opposed on the grounds that his statement has never been made before and does not have the backing of hadith

The text of the Qur'an has never been altered or modernized. The Qur'an defines its own specific qualities and explains that it embodies a complete Revelation which responds to all situations throughout all the ages past, present, and future:

That which We have revealed to you of the Book is the Truth, confirming what was (revealed) before it, for Allah is certainly with respect to His servants, well acquainted and fully observant as We have chosen: but there are among them some who wrong their own souls, some who follow a middle course, and some who are, by Allah leave, foremost in good deeds, that is the highest Grace" (Qur'an 35:31-32).

These ayat and many others (e.g 56:75-79) clearly show that the Qur'an constantly responds to the situations and needs that arise over the ages in a self-renewing process.

Furthermore, the Qur'an has many other qualities. We can discern them in its organic, methodological unity, particularly after the Book was arranged so that the presence of its ayat was no longer dictated by the period of revelation (a time when they were fragmented and limited by the specific occasions on which they were revealed). These qualities can also be discerned in the fact that the Qur’an is divinely preserved, and that it renews its contribution to human affairs by uncovering its meanings according to the requirements of time. It is the master of time, place and change since it provides a total awareness of the universe, its movements and its relationships. It also contains an awareness of the whole of existence, including knowledge of the words of Allah. Hence the past, the present, and the future generations are not in any way capable of attaining a comprehensive understanding of the revelation. Instead, they each take from it as required by the civilizational, social and historical conditions as well as the modes of thinking of their own time.

Dr. Zainab Alwani will be speaking at Al-Madina's 5th Annual Pearls of the Qur'an Conference on April 18-20, 2014 on topics including "Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves: The Qur'anic Model of Parent-Child Relations" and "Getting Up After the Fall: Tribulations & the Human Condition". 



By Zainab Alwani , 19 Mar 2014

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