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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Interpreting the Quran

Mixed Up in Morgantown: Reclaiming Islamic Diversity

by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

I was deeply impressed to see how painstakingly, as well as how defiantly of our soundbytes-and-snark culture, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN endeavored to explore the various viewpoints germane to its featured conflict.  For me as an American Muslim woman, the film highlighted both what I myself find most beautiful about my religion and what I am most uncomfortable with about the way it is being practiced in my country.

Watching the film, I found it unsurprising that, in a mosque where so many people from different countries converged to worship, different interpretations and cultures would clash.  A similar situation might arise in a church comprised of Evangelicals, Unitarians, and Catholics, both progressive and conservative, originating from over 30 different countries, all attempting to decree the correct form of worship at the church.  Any similar situation would pose challenges.

However, in the Muslim case at least, diversity of opinion is built into the very structure of the religious law.  Over five hundred schools of Islamic law once flourished in various areas of Islamic civilization, and disagreement between them was acceptable.  Even now, the remaining four main Sunni schools and one main Shi’i school accept each other as valid, whether or not they agree.   Muslims have never had a single authority, like the Pope, to lay down what Islamic law is or isn’t.  Numerous historical examples illustrate long theological debates waged over decades and distance (including those regarding women’s places in society), considering a wealth of factors, including geography, culture, hardship, and context.  These debates were preserved in the historical record even by those jurists who did not agree with them, because they recognized that Islam allowed for various interpretations, freedom of thought, and critical thinking.

How is such diversity possible, if there is only one Qur’an and only one Sunnah (words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad)?  The Qur’an contains both general principles and specific injunctions, and it allows room for interpretation.  Muslims are allowed to ask questions: Is a verse metaphorical or literal?  Was it revealed in response to a particular historical situation?  If the Qur’an mentions a particular practice, does that mean that every other practice is disallowed?  What is the historical, circumstantial, and textual context in which the verse was revealed?  What was the “reason for revelation,” a factor that formed an integral part of the development of Islamic law and understanding?  On all these points jurists could disagree and still be consistent with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

This was why Islam flowered.  Muslims were not afraid to engage their tradition and respect the opinions and writings of even those with whom they vehemently disagreed.  Muslims were secure enough in their tradition that they could read other juristic interpretations of the Qur’anic text and debate them rather than close off their minds with cries of “No!  That’s haram because I don’t agree with it!”

Asra on Literalism

Yet, the trend I see in the mosques — though not in the general population of American Muslims — is dogmatism.  This is highlighted in the film not only in the way the religious conservatives relegate women to the back door, but also in the way that Asra Nomani aggressively forces her views into the mosque.  The women condemning Nomani claim that it is “God’s law” that they are following — but what is God’s law?  If the religious scholars through the centuries debated the specifics of God’s law when it came to (among other things) women, then who are these modern women to say that their own personal view is God’s law?  Similarly, when Nomani isolates Qur’anic verses from their 7th century historical context and attributes to them the roots of Daniel Pearl’s murder, she engages in the same kind of one-dimensional, thoughtless rhetoric as her opponents.  She is right to want to discuss the status of women in the mosque and in Islam.  She is right to read the Qur’an.  But there is a huge spectrum between religious conservatives (even misogynistic ones) and Daniel Pearl’s murderers; to connect them by calling them all extremists is counterproductive to dialogue.

It is this type of unawareness of diverse valid opinions that is currently causing conflict and isolation within the American Muslim community, most of whose members do not attend mosques.  To illustrate: suppose an Islamic jurist somewhere issues a fatwa (a reasoned legal opinion by a recognized religious jurist), and then suppose imams all over the United States start proclaiming this fatwa as shari’a (“the way of God”).  A fatwa is not binding or enforceable.  Contradictory fatwas may be just as Islamic.  So where are the other possible fatwas on the same issue?  Where is the debate? For an imam to choose one view as “shari’a” and exclude other, equally valid Islamic views, would be presuming he knows God’s will and other scholars do not.  And if I, as a Muslim, disagree with that fatwa but am told that it absolutely amounts to shari’a, might I not be completely disillusioned by what I am told is my religion?

Why then, for example, are some imams dictating that women must pray in separate rooms?  Not all Islamic jurists would agree.  At the Ka’ba itself, men and women pray in the same room. Isn’t it time Muslims again allowed intellectual debates to flourish in a civil manner in mosques and meeting places?  Each group in the film had trouble listening to its opponents.  Each side insulted the other by saying, “I’ll pray for you,” as if they were doomed otherwise.

Throughout history, when Muslim shaikhs conducted religious classes, some required women to sit in the back, some in the front, and some on the side.  All forms were acceptable; one could choose which to attend.  Today, if we Muslims cannot practice together or reconcile varying interpretations in the same mosque, then perhaps we need to form separate mosques to accommodate our different interpretations.  But whatever we decide, we must dispense with dogmatism and reclaim our Islamic heritage of respect, dialogue, and diversity of interpretation.


Sumbul Ali-Karamali has a graduate degree in Islamic Law and is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing (White Cloud Press, Sept. 2008). Please visit her website at

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