Interpreting the Quran


A central tenet of Islam is that the Quran is the literal word of God, dictated to the prophet Muhammed through the angel Gabriel. This is in contrast to Christianity, for example, which holds that the Bible is inspired by God but written by men. Because of this special status, interpreting the Quran has always been a delicate undertaking.

A major part of the contemporary debate focuses on the issue of authority — who, on what qualifications, may legitimately speak to the meaning of God’s words.

The role of historical and cultural context is another important point of debate. Some believe the words of the Quran are literally true for all places and all times, while others argue that context should guide interpretation. Some say that one can believe the Quran is the literal word of God without taking those words literally.

In this collection of original essays, American Muslim leaders and thinkers highlight these and other issues at play in the enterprise of interpreting Islam’s holy book.

Contribute your own essay!

Zainab Alwani:  The Quran as the Final Arbiter of Diverse Interpretations

Member, Fiqh Council of North America and professor of Arabic studies
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 Quran’s main principles. But the specificities of prayer have been explicitly prescribed in the Quran and Prophetic tradition, protected from change by any human being.

Jamal Badawi:  Some Reflection on PBS’s The Mosque in Morgantown

Member, Fiqh Council of North America and Professor Emeritus at St. Mary’s University
When qualified jurists interpret primary sources, they are bound by certain rules and methodologies. Here I have chosen only a few key rules and applied them to a specific but representative allegation that it is “explicitly written” in the Qur’an that Muslims should not befriend Jews and Christians, revealing multiple errors in this claim.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali:  Mixed Up in Morgantown: Reclaiming Islamic Diversity

Author, The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing
Islam flowered because Muslims were not afraid to engage their tradition and respect the opinions and writings of even those with whom they vehemently disagreed. It is time to reclaim our heritage of diversity within the religion.

Laleh Bakhtiar:  The Quran and Wife Beating

Interpreter of the Quran
The Arabic word idrib has been misinterpreted when it is said to mean “beat them” in verse 4:34 of the Quran, a passage traditionally used to sanction wife beating.





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