Reading the Qur’an – part 1 – Interpretation

The Qur’an (also Quran, Koran) is the Muslim holy book, believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – through the angel Jibra’il (Gabriel) – over the span of 23 years. The Arabic language of the time was a nascent language of literature, used mostly as a mnemonic guide in its written form; because of the close association of Semitic Languages (including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac) the turn of Arabic into a literary language was not unprecedented. The script did not (and still does not) mark short vowels, punctuation, differentiate amongst different letters, and depending on the scribe, did not mark long vowels.

So, for example, what is this word: ht? Is it “hate,” “hot,” “hut,” “hat,” “hit?”

Is the following symbol: l, an “L” or an “I.”

How would you punctuate the following sentence: Woman without her man is nothing – Is it:

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Woman, without her, man is nothing.


Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Now, combine all three issues, the voweling, the letter marking, and the punctuation, and you enter the realm of Qur’anic interpretation.

Let me further complicate issues by returning to the idea that Arabic was not a language of (written) literature at this point. (For a good history of pre-Islamic oral traditions in Arabic, and the milieu in which the Prophet lived, I recommend Michael Sells’ Desert Tracings.) While there were basic rules concerning Arabic grammar were developed, there were dialectic and regional variations, as is the case with any living language. Written Arabic is developed around the revelation of the Qur’an, which is perfect Arabic as it is Divine Word. The twist this throws into the interpretive method is that the assumption is that if you know modern Arabic, you know Qur’anic Arabic, which is NOT true. Just like knowing modern Hebrew doesn’t mean you know Biblical Hebrew. Linguistically they may not be two different languages, but practically they are. We’ll return to this point shortly.

So, with all the missing bits of the language, the only true arbiter of the meaning of the Qur’an was the Prophet. As with other matters of authority in the community, the question arose at his death as to who could interpret the meaning of the Qur’an, and how would they do it. The earliest group to form were the Shi’ah Ali (or, simply the Shi’ah) who held that the Prophet entrusted spiritual authority in his cousin. The non-Shi’ah (I am very careful not to use the term Sunni here because it is historically inaccurate) argued that the Prophet would not have left an incomplete message, and therefore there would not be any question that would arise that would require interpretation. That position quickly disintegrated, especially since there were seven acceptable readings of the Qur’an (there were actually more, but the seven represent the broad reading divisions. For more information on this topic I highly recommend Ulum al-Qur’an.) What emerges is an impulse to understand the cause of revelation, if there is one, and to understand the context and limitations of a specific revelation (to attack specific communities for treaty breaking would be an example of this type of revelation), or to say a particular revelation is universal and timeless (prayer would fall into this category). By the medieval period the pattern is established that verses revealed in Medina tend to much more particular and limited, relating to the running of a multi-religious city state (see also the Constitution of Medina, one of the oldest constitutions we know to exist). The verses revealed during the two Meccan periods are considered more “universal,” in that they are not considered limited to circumstance. Those of you who have read a Qur’an will have noticed that the chapters are labeled either “Mecca” or “Medina” for this very reason. This is a guideline, not a rule, but it does help in the interpretive methodology. Dealing with treaty breakers is not a universal concern, whereas the affirmation of keeping one’s word would be.

The question that emerges amongst the non-Shi’ah is who has the interpretive power over religious affairs. By the 11th century a system of scholarship had emerged and created a class of religious scholars that represent what we now call the Sunni community. (History buffs, I point you to A Learned Society in a Period of Transition). In this system, an initiate was expected to learn from a master a particular discipline, for example Qur’anic studies. As the initiates learned more they moved through the ranks and became a master in a particular discipline. While they were exposed to various religious sciences, they were really tracked early on, so a mufti has different responsibilities than a qadi than a mullah. You could only move on at the recommendation of your teacher and the consensus of his peers (for a rough analogy think of the Jedi Council in the recent Star Wars movies). During the colonial period, this system was considered archaic and anti-modern, so it was done away with. (For the record I think the system was transforming from this traditional model anyway, and the colonial period was more catalytic than causal. However, since the reaction was hurried, there was no “soft landing.”) Now, for another analogy. Imagine you had a high school composed of students, teachers, principal, school board, etc.. For whatever reason, the educational structure is destroyed and every class other than students is driven out from the area. An upperclassman comes and decides to rebuild the school, with himself as principal. He chooses his friends to be teachers, and other friends to be the school board. This scenario is what has happened in the Arab world and South Asia at the end of the colonial period (the Persianate world is slightly different, and I don’t know enough about East Asia). So some schools are functional, but badly damaged, others are run by people with only the least bit of knowledge. “Mullah” Muhammad Omar is an example of the latter case, and his school produced the Taliban. Omar did some formal study, but lots of self-study, and decided he could interpret the Qur’an, and by extension the meaning of Islam, ignoring the 1400 years of history that came before. The founder of the Wahhabi movement, while more formally educated, also took a radical departure from interpretive methodology to create his understanding of Islam.

What is happening throughout most of the Sunni world is the reformation that everyone is calling for in the Muslim world. The Reformation was about access to the text; Omar is the result of that access, he brings an unknown interpretive framework to the text. (What most people really want is a Renaissance, something I am a big proponent of, but most are not just ignorant of Islamic history). The madrasah system gets a lot of flack for being the source of these interpretations, and the ones that are mentioned in the news are definitely a cause as they establish a thin veneer of legitimacy on the ideologues they produce. However, it’s also important to note that they represent a small portion of madrasahs world-wide, and they are not based on the early medieval model, which included other subjects besides religious studies. (Here is a story of a madrasah system in Tanzania.)

The point I’m trying to make is that a lot of jihadists are using a new methodology for Qur’anic interpretation that lies outside the Islamic tradition. Most of the hard core Islamists that are often referenced, Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Bana, etc., may have believed in a puritanical model of Islam – a vision I am opposed to – but at least from what I have read of their work, could not and would not justify the wholesale slaughter of people unrelated to their war (it may sound like hair-splitting, but their vision was essentially local, with the intent to be global, therefore if Egypt was the problem, you dealt with the Egyptians, not the Americans). But these figures were also influenced by the puritanism of the 14th century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah, who was firmly part of the medieval scholarly class. He was marginalized during his time and not taken seriously until the late 19th century. While Abd al-Wahhab is considered an intellectual disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, I would argue that Abd al-Wahhab was inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah, but went so far outside of the interpretative framework – basing most of his ideology on declaring others non-Muslim – that even Ibn Taymiyyah would have disavowed him, just as most of the Sunni establishment did at the rise of his (Abd al-Wahhab’s) movement. [Let me be clear, I do not support any of the above thinkers. What I want to highlight is the diversity of thought even within the puritanical movement, and that diversity is based in part on how seriously they take the traditions of Qur’anic interpretation.]

I am, at the moment, leaving the Shi’ah understanding of Qur’anic interpretation outside of this discussion, but hope to return to it in a later post.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an – part 1 – Interpretation

  1. Hello,
    I’m the founder of Different Religions Week. I wanted to thank you for mentioning it on your site and to ask you if you are able to keep track of page hits to your posts (or the pages on which they are posted).
    If so, can you tell me how many unique hits there were to your mention of Different Religions Week between when you made the post and July 22?
    Thanks again, and enjoy the rest of the summer.
    Nathan Black

  2. I am so glad you posted this — thank you! I’m reading the Koran now (more slowly than I had hoped, but I’m working my way through it) and I find myself perennially wishing I knew more about the various ways in which it’s interpreted within normative Islam.
    Torah interpretation poses some of the same challenges. Like Arabic, Hebrew is a consonantal language, and Torah scrolls have no vowels or cantillation markings — though there was a tradition of preserving those markings orally, and they were written down by the masoretes sometime between the 1st and 10th centuries of the Common Era. (Is there an analagous voweled/pointed Koranic text?)
    I know some of the ways in which normative Judaism has interpreted Torah — particularly some of the passages that are problematic to modern sensibilities. I find myself assuming that normative Islam has similar interpretive workarounds, but I wish I knew more about all of this. Is there a commentary or secondary source text that you would recommend for a non-Muslim reader?

  3. “I know some of the ways in which normative Judaism has interpreted Torah — particularly some of the passages that are problematic to modern sensibilities. I find myself assuming that normative Islam has similar interpretive workarounds, but I wish I knew more about all of this.”
    Me too. I know that normative Islam has a number of interpretative workarounds, but they seem ad hoc to me. There’s no community build on these interpretations, with the possible exception of the Sufi brotherhoods (where I find refuge from time to time). As a result, there are individual Muslims, such as myself, who simply refuse to read the Qur’an as promoting violence or inter-religious conflict. But we speak only for ourselves and like-minded people who may agree.
    To get to the point, I once mentioned to a Jewish friend of mine that I hope in the US at least, Muslims can carve out independent interpretative space along the lines of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox space that American Jews have done. My friend mentioned that all of that is a relatively new development in Judaism, and that it didn’t come easy. A development like that may bring me back to the mosques, but wouldn’t do anything about the Salafi lunatics.

  4. Peace,
    I’m a Anglican seminarian, very interested in Muslim-Christian theological issues. I really find a great deal of wisdom in your posts. I just wanted to see if you had read Natana Delong-Bas’ Wahabi Islam. She is a student of John Esposito, and it seems to be the first really indepth from the sources look at Wahab, the man and his teachings. She comes up with a very different Wahab. She asserts that it was the second generation of “Wahabis” who actually imported Tamiyya and not Wahab himself. She argues that given his context, Abdul Wahab was more a reformer, and only his later (mis)interpreters, the real ideologues—I found the book very interesting, wondering if you had read it, if you had a take on it.

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