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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Response to The Mosque in Morgantown

by Salam Al-Marayati

Thank you for sharing the documentary, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. The show was not about that mosque but about Asra Nomani, a journalist. It was about Asra Nomani’s quest for peace and justice among Muslims. After viewing it, I am left with the sense that Asra Nomani’s quest is more within herself and not with her community. She needs to conclude what an American Muslim identity means for her.

MPAC’s Edina Lekovic on social change

Her platform for moderate thinking is deficient since it is only comprised of marching in front of and protesting in mosques. Her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community. The desire to pray in a mixed gathering, similar to mixed prayers in Mecca, is understandable from a visceral standpoint but not acceptable from the standpoint of one who wants to lead a reform movement. As Edina Lekovic stated in the documentary, the issue of access to mosques, leadership within the Muslim community, and other social issues facing Muslim women are keys to effective reform.

For me, an American Muslim identity means that I am free to practice Islam the way I understand it and what makes sense to me based on the Quran and the authenticated non-controversial tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” as the Quran mandates in Surah 2, verse 256. If I see or sense compulsion, I have the right to challenge the authority, even and especially the authority of the mosque if they claim that they are speaking the voice of God. Challenging authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today was the product of those who challenged authority of their time and place. There is one mistake Ms. Nomani makes, however. That is, she confuses authority with the mainstream. If one works for reform, then alienating the people who want reform results in bad feelings and chaos. By imposing her approach on others who share her views, Ms. Nomani is undercutting her own objective and isolating herself to become a lonely voice. I empathize with her pain and suffering from her personal trials and tribulations in dealing with challenges facing Muslim women today.

Asra on Literalism

Ms. Nomani points to certain translations of the Quran but fails to see that those translations are either inaccurate or incomplete in understanding the full context of what the verses are based on or what they are trying to promote. One needs to understand that translations of the Quran are just that, translations and are not always taken as the absolute Quranic reference. The translation that calls for disassociating Jews and Christians as “friends,” for example, is not accepted in mainstream Muslim thinking. That translation is misleading since the Quran also allows marriage to Christians and Jews. It is inconceivable for Muslims to marry people but not act friendly to them. Hence, the translation of “awli’aa” is not friends but actually protectors, which alludes to a particular historical point of Muslims who were under siege and the Quran is admonishing them to maintain solidarity in their defense. The verse is dealing with a specific incident, and unless the incident repeats itself, our takeaway from it is to not allow division among Muslims. Otherwise, the following verse is our orientation toward Christians and Jews:

Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine write], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds — shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

The verse that deals with “beating” has always been placed under the difficult verses to understand. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never struck any person. Some have proposed that the verb “dharaba” has other meanings. I’ll let scholars determine the roots and meanings of the word, but my faith in Islam and my commitment to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells me to not tolerate domestic violence nor its justification by extremists in their exploitation of this verse (you may refer to our book, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam).

I also believe that Asra Nomani is quick to call people extremists, similar to those extremists who are quick to label people “infidels” as a practice of what is called “takfir,” i.e. declaring someone a non-believer. Judgmentalism is bad from both the moderate and the militant perspective. However, judgmentalism is worse when it comes from moderates than when it comes from militants because we expect this behavior from militants. Speaking out against injustice is a must, as long as we are clear on what that injustice is. Conservatism and extremism are two different issues. Synagogues that don’t allow women to even enter the main area of the temple or touch the Torah are not extremist synagogues. And Asra does not know whether the people who killed Daniel Pearl pray or not. Based on FBI sting cases of bomb plots, for example, some are drug dealers if not drug addicts, and some are thugs if not petty criminals.

I agree with Asra Nomani that many, including Muslims, do not understand what actually happened at the time of the Prophet in terms of mixed gatherings. I would only ask her to continue searching for the answers and not allow people to use the name of the Prophet or Islam as a license for excluding women in the public affairs of society.

But alas, her work with the community is at an impasse, and she has decided to take a position in Washington, DC, at a non-profit journalism organization. If she produces better journalism, then good for all of us. The work for reform at the community level, however, continues with or without Asra Nomani.


Salam Al-Marayati is Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives. He is a well-known speaker and has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, the Balkan Crisis and the Transcaucus conflict. He has also been deeply involved in interfaith activities. He served as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles, which formed as a result of the Los Angeles uprising in the Summer of 1992. Salam works as an advisor to political, civic and academic institutions seeking to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in America and throughout the world.

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