Interpreting the Quran

The Quran as the Final Arbiter of Diverse Interpretations

by Zainab Alwani

THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN brings to the forefront critical issues regarding the identity of the American Muslim community, the position of women in the mosque and the authority to interpret religious texts.  This essay specifically addresses the question of Quranic interpretation, which is at the heart of any juristic interpretation.  Some of the questions brought forth in the documentary 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.  This essay explores the following: Who possesses the authority to interpret the Qur’an?  What are the limits of Quranic 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 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.

A consistent feature of Quranic interpretation throughout the last fifteen hundred years of Islamic history has been its multiplicity of interpretations.  Even the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh), 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 Quran 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 Quran and scholarly interpretations of the Quran that become part of the scholarly interpretive or exegetical discourse.  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 Quran 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 Quran from the onset of Islamic history until the current century.  It is one thing for an individual to understand any particular verse of the Quran 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 Quranic 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. As Asma Barlas writes in Believing Women in Islam, 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” (Quran 3:7).

2)    Interpreting the Qur’an through its ultimate objectives. As Taha J. Alwani notes, these objectives are 1) Tawhid or man’s belief in the oneness of God; 2) Purification of man’s soul; and 3) Imran, or the development of human civilization.

3)    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 Quranic 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.

Third, 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 Quran means that it is immune and unsusceptible to interpretations that violate its essence or explicit meanings.  As clear guidance with an unambiguous message, the Quran — through its words — ultimately stands as evidence of interpretations that best reflect its true meaning.  The Quran 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.”

Finally, when it comes to changing an aspect of an established Islamic ritual or arriving at a new interpretation that changes an aspect of an obligatory ritual, such interpretations are governed by strict conditions.  When it comes to reinterpreting the conditions in which prayer is to be performed, one must take into consideration: 1) Quranic verses that ordain how, when or where prayer is to be performed, 2) Prophetic sayings or practices that establish how, when or where prayer is to be performed, 3) the objective of prayer based on textual evidence, 4) the historical practice of the first community of believers, and 5) scholarly interpretations.

Prayer is the cornerstone of Islam.  Every movement connected to the ritual prayer, the salat, reflects its objectives.  As in all the other acts of devotion, salat is not an end in itself. It is about reviving one’s connection to God, reminding one of his/her purpose in life and his/her ultimate destination and instilling peace and tranquility in one’s soul.  The specificities of prayer have been explicitly prescribed in the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition.  The steps one must take to prepare one’s self for prayer, the purity of the place where one prays, the condition of the clothes one wears for prayer, etc. have all been described by our beloved Prophet (pbuh) — the source of divine guidance.  It is not up to any human being to change any aspect of divinely prescribed rituals.  It is these divine prescriptions that give Islam its unique identity.

 

 

Zainab Alwani received her Ph.D. in Islamic Sciences from the International Islamic University in Malaysia. She is currently the Program Director and an Adjunct Professor of Arabic Language Studies at Northern Virginia Community College. She also teaches Arabic Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is a professor at a number of consortium institutions including Wesley Theological Seminary, the Washington National Cathedral and Cordoba University.

She is an Executive Member of the Fiqh Council of North America and serves as a board member for both KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and FAITH: Foundation for Appropriate and Immediate Temporary Help, a community-based organization in Herndon, Virginia.

Dr. Alwani has published many scholarly articles, most notably “Al Ghazali and His Methodology,” “Aisha’s ‘Istidrakat’ Commentaries” and “Methodological Premises: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.” She is also co-author of several books, including Change From Within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities, What Islam Says about Domestic Violence and Perspectives: Arabic Language and Culture in Film.

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