Islamic perspective

On methodology of understanding the Qur'an


There have been numerous interpretations of the Holy Qur'an. This itself shows the great significance of this great scripture revealed to the Holy Prophet of Islam. The Qur'an has inspired millions of people across the globe and continues to do so and will continue to do so as long as human beings exist on this planet.

Many enemies of Islam attack this great scripture and try to 'prove' in their own way that it (the Qur'an) spews hatred against non-believers and even requires them to be killed and that it provides very rigid and even fanatical system of beliefs and it is because of the Qur'an that Muslims have been fanatics and have shed so much blood on earth.

Unfortunately many rationalists, though not inspired by hatred of the Qur'an, but by their aversion to religion, have often bought these arguments. In a rationalists' conference some Egyptian delegates who happened to be Muslims, also raised such objections against the Qur'an and maintained that its teachings are against rights of women.

It is also maintained that the Qur'an requires all believers to wage jihad against unbelievers and continue to wage it until all have embraced Islam. It is also believed by many that the revelation is against reason and that the Qur'anic pronouncements are irrational.

It is in view of these objections and misinterpretations of the Qur'an that it is necessary to develop proper methodology of understanding the scripture of such immense significance.

  • First important question in this respect is can there be only one sort of interpretation only?
  • Secondly, can any particular interpretation of the Qur'an be binding on subsequent generations, or even for the people of same generation, however eminent the interpreter may be.
  • Thirdly, did all companions of the Holy Prophet agree on a particular interpretation or meaning of a verse of the Qur'an? If not, why did they disagree with each other?
  • Fourthly what is the role of ahadith in understanding the Qur'an? Can one understand the Qur'an without the help of ahadith?
  • And fifthly are those ahadith employed for explaining the meaning of the Qur'an are unanimously agreed upon by the interpreters and commentators?

These are very crucial questions for developing proper methodology for understanding the Qur'an. These questions must be satisfactorily answered in order to develop proper methodology. It is a fact that there has never been unanimity between different commentators and interpreters of the Holy Book. Since there have been differences, and vital differences at that, between various interpreters and commentators, there is no question of any particular interpretation being binding on all the contemporaries much less all the subsequent generations.

Understanding Quran from different perspectives

However, there are people who think so. But such an approach will not only interfere with the comprehensive understanding of the Holy Qur'an but will also limit it to the understanding of a few individuals. No interpretation, however important or significant it might be, can be the sole interpretation. This is very fundamental in understanding various aspects of the Qur'anic pronouncements.

A commentator could have primarily a theological perspective, another one sociological perspective, a third one may look at it from scientific perspective and so on. Each one will have a contribution to make from ones own perspective. In this respect it is important to note that the Qur'an uses words which are pregnant with several meanings or even symbolic language and these symbols or words could be not only understood from different perspectives but also these words and symbols unfold their new meanings with passage of time and new experiences.

Thus to limit the understanding of the Qur'an to a few interpreters or commentators would seriously limit the scope of the scripture and it would make it relevant only to a period in the past and that interpretation may not be satisfactory from future generations' point of view.

We as Muslims do believe that the Qur'an is eternal in its relevance and for it to be so future generations will have right to interpret the Qur'an in their own light, in the light of their own experiences and in the light of the problems they face. The problems and challenges faced by Muslims in the past may not be same as faced by present generations. Thus in order to derive guidance and inspiration from the Qur'an, the people belonging to the new generations, will have to interpret it from their own perspective.

Problems with hadith literature

It is absolutely true that hadith plays an important role in understanding of the Qur'an but there are several problems with the hadith literature which need to be sorted out in order to weigh its role in interpretation of the Qur'an. First and foremost problem is of course of the authenticity of hadith. There are serious controversies about various ahadith which are employed in interpretations of various Qur'anic verses. And these ahadith make crucial difference in understanding the verses of the Qur'an.

Here also there are two things worth noting:

  • First, if these verses pertain to what we call metaphysical beliefs ('aqa'id) and 'ibadaat, such controversies will not have any social impact. But if these matters pertain to socio-economic matters, personal laws and what we call mu'amalaat then interpretation of these verses will have great social impact and will affect the lives of people here on earth.

    Also, there are several ahadith which are often in conflict with the pronouncements of the Qur'an. In deriving shari'ah laws many Islamic jurists have employed such ahadith.

    Employment of such ahadith definitely affects the understanding of the Qur'an. This is also a highly controversial area. Some scholars have proposed that those ahadith which are directly in conflict with the pronouncements of the Holy Qur'an may not be employed in understanding the Qur'an at all. Such ahadith may not be accepted at all, let alone being employed for understanding the Qur'anic verses and for formulation of the shari'ah laws. This will be greatly helpful in understanding the inherent meaning of the verses of the Qur'an. Such ahadith instead of being helpful in understanding the verses of the Qur'an, have created intense controversies.

  • Secondly, if one studies the various classical commentaries of the Qur'an, one comes to know the extent of different understandings of these verses by the companions of the Holy Prophet. Tabari, the great commentator of the Qur'an, quotes several different understandings of these verses by the sahabah kiraam (the companions of the Prophet). It shows the extent of differences among the companions of the Prophet himself about various Qur'anic verses. In some cases Tabari has given more than 50 different meanings of a verse as understood by the companions of the Prophet or their followers.

The fact is that the companions of the Prophet came from different backgrounds as well as different social origins. Also, they had their own differing mental capacities and social prejudices. Also, there were references to the past prophets and the stories associated with them. They understood these verses according to their own social background, mental capacities and psychological make up. As we know these factors play very crucial role in understanding the text of any book and much more so in the case of the revealed scriptures like the Holy Qur'an.

No single absolute meaning

Thus the understanding of the verses by the companions of the Prophet will have to be seen in their own background and we must refrain from absolutising this understanding. In fact many people who could not understand the Biblical references in the Qur'an imbibed whatever was told to them by the Jews and Christians and used such information to understand the relevant Qur'anic verses.

And when the Greek knowledge was transferred to Arabic language during the Abbasid period and became available to the Arabic knowing people, it was used by many commentators to understand the Qur'anic verses as many people in our own time try to understand the Qur'anic verses in the light of contemporary developments in the field of science. The belief that sun goes round the earth or that earth is flat and not round were imbibed from Greek thinkers and scientists and from Ptolmian astronomy and they became "Islamic beliefs". Many of our `ulama vehemently opposed the concept that earth goes round and considered it "un-Islamic" and condemned it as sheer heresy.

Thus the Greek knowledge became sacrosanct for these theologians and any thing contradicting it was considered heresy. Today those very verses are understood very differently in the light of contemporary scientific discoveries. In fact many Muslim scientists are quoting those very verses to prove that the Qur'an maintained that the earth rotates and is not static. Thus our own system of knowledge and mental background is very crucial to understanding the verses of the Qur'an. No single interpretation of the Qur'anic verses can be privileged or absolutised.

New meanings of these verses dawn upon us with new developments. As pointed out above, the Qur'anic terminology is rich and multi-dimensional and can yield different meanings with more developments and newer experiences. Those who want to limit the understanding of the Qur'an only to certain ahadith however genuine and authentic, miss the richness of the Qur'anic text and its various levels of meanings. The religious text is always complex, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. No interpretation of such a text should be absolutised.

Influence of medieval knowledge systems

If one carefully studies all the commentaries of the Qur'an written during this period it becomes obvious that they were written under the influence of medieval knowledge systems. However, these commentaries were not only absolutised but also given quasi-divine status by the followers of these commentators. This is, however, not to suggest that these commentaries were not of significance or that they are not relevant today. They are in many respects. But whatever their importance for study of the Qur'an, they cannot be given quasi-divine status.

Another thing which must be pointed out is that the Qur'anic verses can be divided into five categories:

  1. Verses pertaining to 'ibadat which include salah (prayer), saum (fasting), haj (pilgrimage), zakah (poor tax) and similar other practices pertaining to this category.
  2. Verses pertaining to mu'amalaat which include, among other things, marriage, divorce, inheritance, evidence, business deals, contract, properties, agriculture and so on.
  3. Verses pertaining to metaphysical beliefs like oneness of God, day of judgment, hell and heaven, angels and so on.
  4. Verses pertaining to general guidance and
  5. Verses which are value giver like justice, equality, truthfulness etc.

The verses pertaining to 'ibadaat, as pointed out before, can be understood in the light of authentic hadith. The Prophet (PBUH) himself explained how to pray, how to perform Haj, the matters pertaining to fasting etc. There is no question of any re-interpretation or re-thinking on these verses. They must be understood as explained by the Prophet. It is the concept of 'ibadaat and rituals associated with them that provide uniqueness to any religion. Each religion has developed its own spiritual system and system of prayer, worship, meditation etc. To re-think on these issues is to tamper with this uniqueness and to destroy its spiritual aesthetics, if I can so describe it.

Thus the understanding of the verses pertaining to 'ibadaat cannot change. But of course the sectarian differences in this respect will persist. There are many differences, some times even of significant nature, in matters of salah etc. between various schools of jurisprudence within Sunni Islam and (Hanafis, Shafi'is, Malikis, Hanbalis, Zahiris) and Shi'ah Islam (Ithna Asharis, Zaidis, Isma'ilis etc.). These differences have remained and will remain in future also.

In a way these different sectarian practices also provide uniqueness to each sect and even become identity signifiers. These differences are also based on hadiths acceptable to every school of thought. Some madhahib (schools of thought) accept some hadiths as authentic whereas some accept others as authentic and doubt the authenticity of other hadiths.

Emerging problems and challenges

Then we come to the verses pertaining to mu'amalaat which include, as pointed out above, matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance, business deals and so on. Here some rethinking is advocated by modernists and they argue, re-thinking is necessary in view of the emerging problems and challenges. For example the Qur'anic permission to marry four wives stands in need of re-thinking. The Qur'anic verses pertaining to plurality of wives were understood under the medieval ethos and prevailing Arabian practices of the time.

There is, therefore, the modernists argue, need for re-reading these verses. The women, who have become much more conscious of their Islamic rights, are also in the forefront of this demand. Same thing can be said of the verses pertaining to divorce. Some ahadith which are contrary to the spirit of the Qur'anic verses pertaining to divorce have been used to interpret these verses and hence there is need to restore the spirit of the Qur'an in re-interpreting these verses or enforcing these verses.

As for the third category of verses i.e. those pertaining to metaphysical beliefs like oneness of God, day of judgment, heaven and hell, angels etc. these are part of what we can call 'aqa'id (i.e. faith and imaan). These verses too, like those belonging to the first category, are beyond any change and pertain to the very fundamentals of religion. Belief in oneness of God (tawheed) is most fundamental to Islamic teaching.

Similarly the beliefs in the Day of Judgment and prophethood and angels also belong to the basic teachings of Islam. The belief that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the last prophet is also very fundamental to the Islamic belief and is integral part of the Qur'anic teachings. These beliefs are beyond any re-interpretation and must be accepted without any question. These beliefs are also part of uniqueness of Islam and distinguishes it from other religions.

However, there are differences regarding the exact meaning of tawheed, for example. The M'utazila concept of tawheed varies from that of other Islamic sects. The Ash'aris differ significantly from the Mu'tazila on the understanding of tawheed. The M'utazila think that Allah has no attributes (sifaat) whereas the Asha'ira maintain that Allah has attributes and also believe in his physical existence with all the organs like eyes, ears, hands etc. and that the believers will see Him on the Day of Judgment. These differences are also based on various ahadith current in their times.

Nature of Godhood and Tawheed

The Isma'ilis who believe in ta'wil (the hidden meaning of the Qura'nic verses) also have very different understanding of the nature of godhood and tawheed. They also believe that Allah has no attributes and that He is beyond all comprehension and intellectual discourse and His existence can only be affirmed by referring to Him as huwa (i.e. He) and nothing more. Assigning any attribute to him deviates from the concept of real tawheed and amounts to shirk (associating partners with Him).

The Isma'ilis maintain that He cannot be described as 'one' as He is beyond any concept of number and to attribute number to Him is to limit Him. We are just hinting at the Isma'ili beliefs here to show how there are vital differences in understanding such fundamental concepts as tawheed. These discussions are, of course, philosophical in nature and do not touch the understanding of an ordinary believer.

But nevertheless these different understandings of fundamental teachings of Islam do exist in the Islamic world. And, what is important to note is that these differences in understanding the basic concepts of Islam are not of recent origin but pertain to the classical period of Islam. These differences arose mainly during the beginning of the Abbasid period.

Initially the Abbasid rulers were the supporters of Mu'tazila theology which differed significantly from the orthodox positions. There was also a fierce controversy about the nature of the Qur'an - whether it is created or co-eternal with God. The Mu'tazila of course maintained that the Qur'an is created (which implies that its text can be destroyed like any other creature at some point of time) and the orthodox maintained that it is co-eternal with God (implying that its text can never be destroyed and will exist along with God).

The M'utazila who are also known as the rationalists in Islam were part of the Abbasid establishment and they persecuted the eminent Jurists like Imam Abu Hanifa who refused to accept the Mu'tazila position on the createdness of the Qur'an. The Imam was imprisoned and was lashed every Friday after the noon prayer. Thus in the Islamic history it is rationalists who persecuted the orthodox.

Spreading what is good

The fourth category of the Qur'anic verses pertain to general guidance and pertain to spreading what is good (the Qur'anic term for this is ma'ruf) and contain what is evil (the Qur'anic term for this being munkar) and stand in no need of change. These are universal truths and these universal truths are shared by other religions also. Of course the understanding of what is ma'ruf and what is munkar may differ from time to time and place to place and to that extent there may be differences of opinion.

But there can be universal approach regarding ma'ruf and munkar i.e. what promotes betterment of God's creature can be universal good and what negates it can be described as universal evil. But there can be differences again on what promotes betterment and what negates it. Ma'ruf and munkar will continue to be relativised. Also, there can be sectarian differences among Muslims.

Muta' marriage, for example, is considered ma'ruf by Ithna 'ashari Shi'ahs and munkar by the Sunnis and Isma'ili Shi'ahs. But there are certain munkar (evil) practices like eating pork and drinking and gambling on which there is complete unanimity among all sects of Islam. There is no question of any differing interpretations.

The fifth category of the Qur'anic verses i.e. those pertaining to the values like justice, equality, compassion, creation of just social order etc. are of course eternal in nature. The Qur'an lays great emphasis on these values. One can say that these values are most fundamental to Islam. There is again no question of re-thinking these values as these values are universal and eternal. Also, there has been complete agreement among the Muslim theologians and jurists on these values and these values are reflected in all theological and juristic formulations in Islam.

Treating a slave in a just manner

However, there can be, and are, differences on what is just and what is not or what constitutes equality and in what sense. And what it means to be compassionate. For example is it enough to treat a slave in a just manner or is it necessary to emancipate a slave for meeting the requirement of justice. The medieval Islamic thinkers felt that to treat a slave in a just manner fulfills the requirement of justice and it was not thought necessary to abolish slavery to meet the end of justice.

Similarly the verse 4:129 about treatment of wives was so interpreted that equal maintenance for all four wives was thought enough to meet the end of justice. But the Mu'tazila who were also described as the party of tawheed wa al-'adl (i.e. party of unity of Godhood and justice) did not agree with this point of view. Their reading of the verse 4:129 required that equal love along with equal maintenance, was also necessary for meeting the requirement of justice.

The modernists would tend to agree with the Mu'tazila view on this question and would even plead for abolition of polygamy to meet the end of Qur'anic justice. Similarly, in contemporary situation simply just treatment of slaves would not satisfy any one. The abolition of slavery will.

Thus it will be seen that the values though immutable and unabrogatable, are interpreted differently in different periods of time. What appears to be just today may no longer be thought to be just tomorrow. But what is most important is justice, not its understanding in given circumstances. Thus the interpretation of Islamic jurists of the Qur'anic verses relating to justice, or any other similar values, will have to change in keeping with the ethos of time.

This is an important element of the methodology to be used to understand the Qur'anic verses. In other words there has to be an element of dynamism in understanding the Qur'anic verses.

The hadith literature too requires similar approach. Even the most authentic hadith on which there is complete unanimity, should not constraint us from discovering new meanings or potentialities of the particular Qur'anic verse. The Holy Prophet could not have ignored the constraints of his own time in respect of certain practices, even though reluctantly. Though personally he set example by emancipating slaves, he could not have abolished slavery.

Islam was probably the first religion to preach equality of all human beings with the Qur'anic proclamation that all children of Adam are honoured, yet the institution of slavery was so deeply entrenched in the social structure of the time that it could not be abolished completely. But it does not mean it could be perpetuated by quoting some Qur'anic verse or hadith.

Islam as proclamation of social revolution

Here we should consider another important element of the Qur'anic methodology that is putting normative verses above contextual verses. Some Qur'anic verses proclaim norms and values whereas others permit certain practices or institutions in the given context. In other words normative verses are more fundamental than the contextual verses. The normative verses are eternal in application.

While developing methodology for proper understanding of the Qur'an we will always have to bear in mind that Islam was much more than a set of beliefs or rituals; it was proclamation of social revolution, creating a new humane society based on equality, justice and human dignity. It believed in overthrowing any status quo based on hierarchy, discrimination on the basis of tribe, caste, creed, race or nationality.

There is a transcendental dimension to the Islamic teachings which can never be ignored. But the interpretation of the Qur'an which we have inherited is sunk deep in medieval values. We thus have to mount efforts to rescue it from this medievalism while of course recognising its historical importance. We must go back to the Qur'an and the normative verses to create a new just and humane order in the 21st century we are soon poised to enter.

The new methodology of understanding the Qur'an should enable us to shake the present unjust structure of our society, should enable us to transcend our social situation, give a new hope and build a new future for humanity. Presently we have been caught in the cobweb of status quoist interests which do not permit new understanding of the text of the Qur'an. Any deviation from the early or medieval understanding of the Qur'an is construed as the deviation from divine injunctions. Today, for us these old commentaries on Qur'an have greater sanctity than the Qur'an itself. Let this truth dawn on us sooner than later.

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