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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Feminism and Islam

Real Indicators of Female Empowerment:
Women’s Space and Status in American Mosques

by Hadia Mubarak

THERE IS NO SINGLE BLUEPRINT of the American mosque.  The internal structure of the mosque, the position women are given within the mosque’s leadership, and the value attached to women’s participation all vary according to the congregation’s demographics.  Age, gender, ethnicity, religious ideology, educational backgrounds and the professions of the mosque’s congregation significantly influence the space that women are allotted within the mosque and the roles they ultimately play in managing the community’s affairs.  Although the space in which women pray is subordinate to more important issues like women’s participation in community events, educational programs and religious affairs, my experience has taught me that the two tend to be interrelated.  While not always the case, women’s visibility in the main prayer hall often reflects their overall position and status within such a community.

In the mosque in which I grew up in Panama City, Fla., women prayed in the same room behind the men, separated by a few short wooden balusters like ones typically used for stair railings.  The first elected president of our Islamic Center happened to be a woman — Iman Elkadi, a respectable and active member of the community.  Despite the fact that at least one board member protested to “being led by a woman” at the time, the rest of the board members insisted that he should therefore resign.  Mrs. Elkadi and her husband (the late Dr. Ahmad Elkadi) had paved the road for the creation of the Bay County Islamic Society, establishing the first Islamic school, Muslim private clinic and mosque in our small city in the early eighties.

Hadia’s ‘Shockproof Rag’

Women were not only visible in my community, but they also played an active role in the mosque’s administrative, educational and religious affairs.  After the first female was elected as president of our Islamic Center, women have been elected to the board on a regular basis.  The director of our Sunday school was a woman.  The girls’ youth group, of which I was an active member and officer, conducted regular fundraising banquets for the mosque, organized our community’s religious festivals and held annual open-houses on behalf of the community.  At an early age, I and the other young women in our community were accustomed to speaking in front of mixed crowds of men and women, attending General Assembly meetings, passing out flyers and selling baked goods in mixed gatherings.  Our voices were heard, opinions expressed and participation recognized and appreciated.

When I moved to Tallahassee, Fla. to attend Florida State University as an undergraduate student, I was disappointed to find that women were cordoned off in a shed that had been carpeted and affixed to the main building of the mosque.  Our only connection to the main prayer hall of the mosque was a crackling sound system that allowed us to hear the Friday sermon from our small, isolated space.  This internal setup of the mosque relegated women to invisible observers.  We could hear the men, but they could never hear us.  We could not see them, nor could they see us.

The experience taught me that although the physical space allotted to women is not women’s primary concern within a community, there tends to be a correlation between where women physically sit in the mosque and the greater role they are accorded in running the mosque’s affairs.  In contrast to the Panama City mosque, women did not attend General Assembly meetings at the Tallahassee mosque.  Not a single woman served on the mosque’s annually-elected board.  Worse yet, when I signed up to become an official “member” of the Islamic Center a few months before the annual elections, I was told by the mosque president that women did not have the right to vote in the annual elections because their “husbands voted on their behalf.”  I demanded a copy of the mosque’s Constitution, which made no mention of gender as a criterion for membership or leadership of the Islamic Center.

Refusing to accept the status quo, I and five of my friends registered as members and attended the general body elections.  We sat in the main prayer hall, which had been partitioned into two sections that day, a large section for the men and a smaller one for the women.  Citing the mosque’s Constitution and religious textual sources, we demanded the right to vote like everyone.  Our demands incited a heated and emotionally charged debate.  Although it was clear that the majority of the men were on our side, the small minority of men who were against us, including the chair of the elections committee, dominated the debate.  Exploiting his position, the elections committee chair took up a motion that put in his own hands the power decide whether or not women should vote — without subjecting the motion to a general vote.

I and my five friends left the mosque that day without voting for the men who would manage our mosque, make decisions on our behalf and represent us within the larger community.  We left feeling disgusted, isolated and enraged.  But we never for a second questioned the status that Islam accorded women or our God-given right to elect the leaders of our community.  We knew that Islam was on our side and that ignorance was on theirs.

IN 644 CE, UPON THE DEATH OF THE SECOND CALIPH, `Umar ibn al-Khattāb, a council of six individuals had commissioned one of its members, ‘Abdul-Rahmān Ibn Awf, to solicit the Muslim community’s opinion to determine which of the two finalists (‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān or ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib) would become the third caliph.  It is historically documented that ibn ‘Awf asked the women in the marketplace and in their own homes which of the two candidates they would prefer as caliph — something similar to a modern-day referendum.  If there was any doubt in the minds of the men in the Tallahassee mosque whether or not Islam gave women the right to vote, there was no doubt in the minds of the Prophet’s companions that women had every right to choose their leaders.  The fact that the leaders and members of the Tallahassee mosque even debated in 2001 whether or not Islam allowed women the right to vote is a reflection of a serious religious crisis.

Muslims in the twenty-first century have become so disconnected from their own religious tradition that we are posing questions that have long been resolved and unraveling threads of consensus that have formed the basis of Muslim historic practice for centuries.  In nearly every mosque in America, precious time, energy and resources have been wasted on emotionally-charged debates over where women should pray, whether or not to erect a barrier between the men and women, and whether or not women can serve on mosque boards.  Even a primitive knowledge of Prophetic traditions would demonstrate that such debates are pointless.  The Islamic tradition is replete with examples of women praying in the same place as men without a physical barrier between them, of women speaking out in the main prayer area and of women serving in administrative capacities.  The Prophet (peace be upon him) was unequivocal in his injunction that women be granted access to mosques.  Hence, when women are denied adequate space in mosques, they are being denied access and that mosque’s leadership is culpable of violating a Prophetic injunction.

Woman-led Prayer

Does this mean that I believe women should pray side by side with men or lead men in prayer?  No.  If I am going to empower women in my community by pointing to textual, religious evidence of rights that Islam has given us, then I must abide by the limitations of those rights.  Without question, women have the right to pray in mosques, to enjoy adequate and equal space with men, to be active participants, to vote, to run for elections and most importantly, to be heard and respected.  There is no textual evidence, however, to support the notion of women praying side by side with men.  As a Muslim feminist (a term I define according to my own conception of female empowerment), the issue is not one I care to champion or support.

I cherish my modesty and privacy and would much prefer not to rub thighs and shoulders against another man in the midst of praying.  Whether I stand behind, in front of or next to the men of my mosque while praying is not my measure of female empowerment or progress.  To adequately gauge women’s status in a particular mosque, we must instead look at real indicators of equality and empowerment:  Do women serve on the mosque’s board?  Are women granted equal and adequate space?  Does the community invite female scholars and guest speakers or all lectures dominated by men?  Are the women visible?  Are they empowered to make their own choices regarding decisions that affect them?

As a woman, I feel empowered by God’s laws — laws that I know with absolute certainty are for my own spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.  At the same time, I refuse to rely on the interpretations of men to understand the laws of God.  Women must engage the Islamic tradition themselves in order to restore rights that they were granted as early as the seventh century.  When armed with knowledge of our God-given rights, then no human being can stand between us and our prerogative to exercise those rights.


Hadia Mubarak was the first National President of the Muslim Students Association to be either female or born in the United States. Her parents are from Syria; she grew up in Florida. She is now a graduate student at Georgetown and a researcher in the Islam in the Age of Globalization program.

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Feminism and Islam

The Real Feminist Leaders

by Kari Ansari

Islam teaches that men and women are equally capable of attaining the highest level of spirituality, and that both will be judged on equal terms by God.  The teachings of Islam protect and defend the rights of a woman; she has the right to demand dignified treatment by all people — men included.  She has the right to voice her opinion, and the value of that opinion is judged upon the same merits and criteria afforded to men.

Woman-led Prayer

When men or women pray in jammat (group prayer service), they stand in a straight line, and squeeze together tightly enough to touch shoulder to shoulder. This unity in worship — following the person leading the prayer — allows the individual to maintain his or her focus on the Divine. One would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim woman who would prefer to prostrate in prayer beside, behind, or in front of a man she does not know.   With this in mind, Ms. Nomani’s book tour and campaign to integrate the prayer areas in America’s mosques is self-serving at best, and divisive at worst.

It would be disingenuous to state that women are not marginalized in some American Muslim communities.  This is most often due to cultural attitudes and behaviors brought over from patriarchal societies abroad, not from the teachings of Islam.  However, with that said, I believe there are just as many American Muslim mosques that have grown out of their ethnic roots to establish a more just and dynamic community that embraces the role of women in the leadership of the mosque and the greater society.

The American Muslim faith community has many female leaders.  Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the current President of the Islamic Society of North America is a good example of a practicing Muslim woman who has been elected by her peers to lead the largest Muslim organization in America.  She did not get to her position of leadership and scholarship through media hype or press conferences.  Rather, she gained the respect of Muslim men and women through her intellect, wisdom and quiet perseverance to change what she and most American Muslim women see as problems within the incredibly diverse and relatively young faith community in the United States.  Hadia Mubarak, (briefly shown speaking in the film) routinely defends the rights of women in Muslim society, often to the chagrin of the established Muslim leadership.  Hadia is far more effective in bringing about change of attitudes through her erudition and experience than she would be by sensationalizing and scandalizing the people she seeks to enlighten.  The film also depicts another dynamic Muslim leader, Edina Lekovic.  Ms. Lekovic works tirelessly for the American Muslim community through her work with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and she does so without labeling or humiliating the Muslim community she serves.

The above-mentioned women are examples of leadership displayed all across the country by Muslim women of every ethnicity, age, and socio-economic background; we just don’t see them on television, or the New York Times Bestseller List.  They are women who are changing the status quo at American mosques; they are working behind the scenes to establish domestic violence support services for immigrant women, they are running food pantries in the inner cities, they are teachers in Islamic schools–teaching tolerance and love for their neighbor.  These Muslim women are homemakers and engineers, they are doctors and lawyers, and they are bankers and nurses.  These women do not seek notoriety or fame; instead they are integrating into a society that often misunderstands them, and even sometimes pities them unnecessarily.  Still, Muslim American women persevere, having faith in God and faith in the future of the American Muslim society as it matures and grows.


Kari Ansari is Editor-in-Chief of America’s Muslim Family Magazine, based in Chicago. Mrs. Ansari was born and educated in the United States, and is a convert to Islam. She has been an active member of the Muslim community for a dozen years, working toward the positive inclusion of Muslims into the mainstream American society. Her four children range in age from 20 to 7.  She and her husband, Ahmed, a native of India, live in the suburbs of Chicago, IL, with their children.

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