Interpreting the Quran

Some Reflection on PBS’s The Mosque in Morgantown

by Jamal Badawi

This documentary depicts, mainly, an internal debate within some mosques/Islamic centers in North America concerning the role of Muslim women in their own community centers, including a fair space for worship and other activities, and also their meaningful involvement in the management and leadership of their centers.  There are certainly some legitimate concerns and grievances that need to be addressed.  For one, I have been speaking and writing about such concerns and issues from the late 1960s on.

But can these grievances be addressed best through fresher interpretation of Islam’s primary sources or through external imported paradigms?  Are some of the diverse cultural practices of Muslims inconsistent with normative Islamic teachings?  If so, how can we disconnect between normative Islam and anti-Islamic teachings and practices, cultural or otherwise, such as the alleged connection between Islam and indiscriminate violence or “oppression” of women?  Or are the problems of violence and women’s oppression rooted in normative Islam itself and as such, it is Islam which requires fundamental re-formation and major deep-rooted changes?  Can desired and often legitimate change be effected only through radical revolutionary means and overbearing imposition that may defeat its very objectives?  Can failure on that level contribute to a more ambitious goal of “changing the world”?

At the heart of these classical/modern questions is the vital issue of who understands and interprets Islam and how.  From one perspective, every Muslim is entitled to understand the broad message of Islam through its universally accepted primary sources, namely the Qur’an and authentic Hadeeth of the Prophet of Islam [peace be upon him].  After all, such revelatory sources are not the monopoly of any individual, institution or generation.  Rather, they address believers, and in many instances humanity at large, on these core issues of faith in a direct and unimpeded way.  No “rocket science” is needed to understand what the Qur’an teaches about the oneness of God (Allah in Arabic), God’s immutable moral guidance such as “The Golden Rule,” human trusteeship [or stewardship] on earth or human’s accountability for his/her deeds

Does that apply as well to making challenging juridical interpretations of Islamic Law?  Is a student who successfully completed “Law 101” qualified enough to give a verdict in a highly controversial constitutional law issue or sit on the Supreme Court?  On such level of complexity, we tend to show respect for specialization and require minimum qualifications.  A serious question here is this: should that minimum competence be disregarded when it comes to juridical interpretations of Islamic Law.?

Of course, any person  is free to agree or disagree with any or all qualified juridical interpretations, to choose one over the other or even reject faith altogether.  But is it legitimate, without minimum qualifications and sound juridical reasoning, to make claims about what “Islam says or does not say” based on one’s own whim and to pressure others into accepting his/her “made-to-order” Islam?

Even when qualified jurists interpret primary sources, however similar or different their conclusion may be, they are bound by certain rules and methodologies.  In this essay, I have chosen only a few key rules and applied them to a specific, but representative allegation that is made in this documentary (and in other media as well): that it is “explicitly written” in the Qur’an [5:51] that Muslims should not befriend Jews and Christians, with the conclusion that the Qur’an can not be God’s verbatim revelation.  There are multiple errors in this common allegation, all rooted in violation of proper universal methodology of interpretation including the following:

Asra Nomani on Literalism

1.    Dependence on erroneous translations of the Qur’an such as rendering the original Qur’anic Arabic term (Awliyaa’) in 5:51 into “friends.”  Awliyaa’ means, among others: overlords, guardians, protectors or allies.  A related error is to understand the terms “Jews” and “Christians” as inclusive of all Jews and Christians for all time to come, rather than to only a group of them who engaged in hostilities as explained above and as will be further confirmed in point 4 below.

2.    Disregarding the historical and textual contexts of the verse(s).  For example, the prohibition of alliance (not friendship) with “Jews and Christians” in 5:51 applies only to those who were mocking at the Muslim faith [5:60-61] and who are “racing each other in sin and aggression” [5:65].  Other verses like 5:51, if studied carefully and contextually, disprove the claimed sweeping generalizations commonly attached to them as stated in the documentary.  The same generalization error applies to verses in the Qur’an that sanction Muslims’ right to defend themselves in response to aggression and severe oppression [e.g., 2:190-194 and 9:5].  More detailed analysis of many such battlefield-related verses can be found in my paper “Muslim and Non-Muslim Relations” on

3.    Careless and highly opinionated interpretations by those who are not grounded enough in the process of juridical interpretations.  Review of traditional interpretations or initiating new ones by a qualified scholar(s) in response to modernity is encouraged through Islam’s internal mechanism of Ijtihaad and its methodology.  Any new Ijtihad is subject to scholarly debate as no single authority has the right to impose one uniform interpretation to the exclusion of other legitimate ones.  However, such interpretations must be rooted in the primary sources of Islam, consistent with their texts and in line with the supreme objectives of Shari`ah; safeguarding faith, life, mind, family, human dignity, justice and property rights.  Neither tampering with the essential and stable aspects of the Law nor elevating a debatable opinion to a permanent edict is in line with serious scholarship.  Many Muslim scholars hold the view that friendship with peacefully co-existing peoples of other faith communities is not forbidden.

4.    Disregarding other verses in the Qur’an which contradict the “no friendship” claim.  A Muslim male who is lawfully married to a Jewish or Christian wife [as sanctioned in 5:5] is required to love her as a wife irrespective of her religion [as in 30:21].  Surely, normative marital relationship is more intimate than “friendship.”  More general and profound are verses 8 and 9 in Chapter 60, where it is clearly stated that those (non-Muslim) who refrain from fighting Muslims or drive them out of their homes are entitled to be treated in kindness respect and justice.  A detailed analysis of these key but least quoted verses is found in the article cited above.  Similar misunderstanding of some verses dealing with women issues can be found at

In conclusion, there are considerable problems with the selective and “cut-and-paste” approach to the scriptures, Muslim and otherwise.  Avoiding such flaws is the first step in dealing objectively, truthfully and wisely with the many problems facing Muslims everywhere, and maybe others as well.



Dr. Jamal Badawi is Professor Emeritus at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he served as Professor of both Management and Religious Studies. During its May 2008 Convocation, Saint Mary’s University granted him an Honorary Doctorate of Civil law in recognition of his promotion of “ a better understanding of Islam” and contribution “to civil society around the world.”

Dr. Badawi completed his undergraduate studies in Cairo, Egypt and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He is the author of several works on Islam, including books, chapters in books and articles. He is a member of The Islamic Juridical (Fiqh) Council of North America, The European Council of Fatwa and Research and the International Union of Muslim Scholars. He has been serving as a volunteer Imam of the local Muslim community in the Halifax Regional Municipality since 1970.

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  1. Brittany Huckabee says:

    Dear Dr. Badawi,

    I am the director of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. Many thanks for contributing this highly informative and important piece.

    I just want to make one clarification. As viewers can see by watching the video clip embedded above, Ms. Nomani is not arguing for the accuracy of a literal reading of verses that suggest one should not befriend Jews and Christians. Rather, she is criticizing those who take a strict literal interpretation of these verses, in isolation from the rest of the Quran and from their larger context, in order to justify intolerance and violence–themselves making the very mistakes you outline above.

    Boston, MA

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