Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding. (Al Quran 39:18)
Every interpreter comes to the text bearing those complex histories of effects we call tradition. There is no more a possibility of escape from tradition than there is a possibility of an escape from history or language. (David Tracy in Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope)
Interpretation being a human enterprise primarily means that it would be essentially modulated by inherent subjectivities of the interpreters, about which they might not be fully aware of themselves. This is because we cannot claim objectivity beyond our personal and social construct of reality. This is exactly the kind of subjectivity which Heidegger calls a reader’s ‘pre-understanding‘ and Gadamer terms as their ‘effect histories‘. Farid Esack, a South African Muslim scholar, terms interpreters as ‘beasts of many burdens‘ and contends that the whole concept of meaning is null and void unless an active and perpetual participation of the reader is assumed .
Consequently, as each reader brings along his own burden of contemporary contexts as well as innermost constructs of thought, all of them are bound to approach Quranic text with essentially different viewpoints. Speaking of gender and human sexuality, for instance, is it justifiable (philosophically as well as psychologically) that readings of men, women or eunuchs are understood to produce exactly similar meanings of the scripture? In the words of Cantwell Smith ,
If you yourself are a Muslim writing a commentary; or a Sufi pir instructing your murid [disciple]; or a conscientious jurisconsult deciding a tricky point of law; or are a modern oxford educated Muslim reflecting on contemporary life; or a 12th century Sherazi housewife; or are a left wing leader of the slave revolt of the Zanji protesting against what seem to you the exploitation and hypocrisy of the establishment – in all such cases the correct interpretation of the particular Quran verse is the best possible interpretation that comes to you or that you can think up.
But the contention, as Smith continues to expound further, does not mean that these individual interpretations are intentionally crafted to concoct pre-concieved meanings of the scripture; rather, these interpretatins represents true will of God in the sincere and uncontrived good judgment of the respective interpreters. Moreover, the fact that one absolutely objective correct reading cannot be claimed by any of the readers does not necessitate that all these individual readings are rendered false. In fact, it is always likely that one of these subjective readings is rendered absolutely true, representing fully well the original intent of the God but there is no way of authoritatively claiming that, since one cannot speak in God’s name; and therefore, the usual concluding remark at the end of all traditional discourses: and God knows best.
While moving towards a better understanding of nature of conservative Quranic exegesis, it is perhaps more fruitful to invoke a framework of tradition rather than aforementioned individual subjectivities. Many contemporary scholars, for instance Fazlur Rahman , Amin Ahsan Islahi  and Mustansar Mir  have noted that traditional exegetes of the Quran generally failed to access it in hermeneutic totality and instead took it as a lineary constructed incoherent text without any literary considerations of textual groups (and sub-groups) with consistent thematic elements and clusters of verses addressed to specific groups of original addressees in their respective contexts. The occassions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) which these exegetes often refer to are disjointed solitary narrations often having distant contextual imports which are seldom agreed unanimously among themselves. Moreover, there had always been disagreements regarding more important concepts such as nature and extent of abrogation (naskh) and the scriptural content which has been abrogated by the later content.
On a more complex note, originators as well as heirs of this conservative discourse did not possess adequate philosophical tools to realize the true social import of Muslim belief that real Quran is the eternal speech of God and the text between the covers (famously called bayn al duf’atay’n in traditional literature) is its earthly realization ; thereby, creating coalesced layers of paradoxes, which on one hand confused Divine ontology with Divine discourse and confused the eternal Quran with its readings on the other.
As the traditions became crystallized and meanings of the scripture were faithfully transferred to next generations of students, complexities like these were eventually buried under the burden of tradition . Consequently, these tendencies to access Quran atomistically and somewhat randomly resulted in future inabilities to consider it as an integrated document perpetually unfolding itself in time.
This hermeneutic view that Divine discourse is unfolding itself in time is well synced with the Quranic claims of divinity, transcendence and applicability for diverse individual and social realities including those which are yet to be realized. These claims are indeed ascribed by conservatives as well, but unfortunately, the failures (or inabilities) to respond to complex hermeneutical paradoxes resulted in a perplexed state of denial as well as acceptance; i.e., denial of historicity and acceptance of some form of imaginary time in which meaning of Divine discourse is strictly atemporal and situated historically.
Furthermore, these subjective responses were always supplemented by an equally ambiguous notion of authorized readings of the scripture, whereas contemporary readings as well as modern hermeneutical methods being rejected as biased and whimsical without due deliberation. Interestingly all the problems followed by assuming this notion of misplaced authority were also referred circularly to the same authority.
A simple and concrete example to depict these interpretive tendencies is verse 33 of Surah al-Ahzaab translated as :
And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and spotless.
Bulk of contemporary conservative exegesis (which in Sunni Islam is conventionally understood to be authorized by an ambiguous authority ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah) interprets this verse to contain a mandatory (and commendatory according to some) directive for all Muslim women to remain confined to their homes without an urgent need, which would not be decided by the women themselves but scholars of ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah. The popular sermons preached in street mosques display amazing selectivity and seldom mention it (perhaps in a cursory manner) that the said verse is actually addressed to the wives of the Prophet. This is evident by the beginning of the preceding verse (33:32) which states ‘O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women…‘ and also by the end of this verse (33:33) in which ‘members of the family‘ are again mentioned exclusively.
Many orthodox exegetes (for instance Tabari and Ibn Kathir) of early and medieval Islam indeed mention this fact in their respective interpretations while also generalizing the import of this verse for all Muslim women as according to these scholars, they should follow the exemplary character of Prophet’s wives. According to them, the directive was understood in a general sense by the earliest Muslim community, as indicated by some of the historical reports. This is obviously a claim, which though hard to establish for each single woman of that community, can easily be explained by the fact that it was generally a homogeneous community with extraordinary sense of piety due to various factors including presence of God’s Prophet among them.
Furthermore, these exegetes never state categorically that this directive has explicit mandatory value for all Muslim women and seldom brings this issue as a primary message of the verse. Bulk of their interpretations consist of other pertinent issues related to the context of the ayah (and Surah al-Ahzab in general) for which Prophet’s household was cautioned and directed to observe extra care, caution and character. In line with their method of using traditions for interpretation, these traditional scholars also dwell upon sundry issues like the ‘dazzling‘ character displayed by many women during the pre-Islamic (Jahilia) society.
However, the contemporary patriarchical minds employ an extremely piecemeal and authoritarian approach to interpret it as an explicit directive for all Muslim women. Indeed many other misogynist and sexist interpretations can be easily traced back to their respective originating traditions which were not considered as patriarchical in their respective historical and social conditions; but all of course, are not that simple to deconstruct.
In the context of revisiting (and contesting) patriarchical and authoritarian readings of Quran and Hadith, there is a need to retrieve the ‘antipatriarchical epistemology‘  of these texts while also moving towards a unified hermeneutics based upon ethico-religious principles of Quran. There has already been an encouraging trend in contemporary scholarship for finding keys which can be used to enter into Quran-centered hermeneutics in contrast to the bulk of the orthodox approach which is generally tradition-centered. Even though these keys vary according to respective motivations of the scholars, for instance God-consciousness and social justice in case of Fazlur Rahman; Divine unity, justice and incomparability in case of Asma Barlas; Taqwa, Tawhid and liberation of opressed in case of Farid Esack; or Divine justice and Beauty in case of Khalid Abou Al-Fadl , all these modernists present a common argument rooted in socio-historical perspectives in which God’s word is not merely an event of the past but a perpetual phenomenon always meaningful to contemporary realities.
Interestingly this aspect of transcendence of God’s word is shared by conservatives as well, but of course with a different (and myopic) viewpoint of history and society with respect to religion and religious authority. There are encouraging pointers in the fact that at least some of these modernists had formal religious education from traditionalist madrasas
at the start of their carriers (for instance Rahman and Esack) thus being exposed to whole myriad of complexities inherent in their discourses. To conclude with the profound words of Farid Esack,
The urgent need of contemporary Quranic scholarship is to remove preunderstanding from the much-maligned tafsir bi’l-ra’y (interpretation based on considered sound reasoning) which, in conservative discourse, has come to mean baseless and devious theological or political concoctions superimposed on the Quran.
- Farid Esack, Quran, Liberation and Pluralism.
- Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian’s Non-Reductionist Interpretation of the Quran.
- This indeed is a recurring theme in Rahman’s various works, especially Islam or Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition.
- Amin Ahsan Islahi’s exegetical work Taddabbur-e-Quran is considered one of the best among the modernists and published in Urdu in 8 Volumes. Some parts have been translated in English and can be accessed here.
- Mustansir Mir, Thematic and structural coherence in the Quran: a study of ‘Islahi’s concept of Nazm and The Sura as a Unity: A twentieth century development in Qur’an exegesis.
- The concept has firm basis in Quran, for instance 85:21.
- The quoted translation is Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s.
- The term is borrowed from Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.
- Khalid Abou Al Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women.