Home » All My Posts » Wooing the Quran (1): The Question of Interpretation

Wooing the Quran (1): The Question of Interpretation

This is first post of a series that I would love (and pray) to continue forever for who would like to stop collecting the jewels scattered in and around Quran. However, these ramblings should be taken as if coming from a novice who is trying to indulge himself into a patient, considerate and occasionally intense dialogue with Quran.

Jalaluddin Rumi compared the Book to a bride, unwilling to lift her veil before a rough and importunate lover; and most importunate of all are those who seek to plumb its depths without effort, patience or humility. It is no mere figure of speech to say that those who wish to win the Quran must indeed woo it. (Gai Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man)

I remember arguing sometime back that Quran is not as simple and straightforward as it is usually purported popularly, by drawing inference from the Quran itself that it is a clear guidance and contains established and explained verses (11:1). This inference, as already elaborated (in the same post), gives a kind of superficially monosemous character to Quranic language implying necessity of universal comprehension and consequently a singular as well as monolithically understood absolute truth. Towards the end of that post, I tried to pose some questions to myself for further deliberation:

What then do we mean by agreed upon universals of language? What we must know in order to determine the reference of an expression? Is it legitimate to disregard and discard agreed upon historical interpretations using tools of linguistic and literary criticism only? Isn’t it true that what we choose to eliminate also has valid basis in language though not always in historical context of revelation? What is the correct priority of sources of understanding Quran? What comes first in Quranic hermeneutics – knowledge of language, tribal dialects and jahilia poetry or Hadith, context of revelation and understanding of Companions and their students? Is it a valid assertion that understanding of Quran would always remain evolving and there would always be room for new interpretations?

Since then, further readings as well as exposure to better developed percepts have helped crystallizing more such questions, which in my view, belongs to the domain of interpretation in general and Quranic hermeneutics in particular. In this backdrop, as far as overall exegetical domain (specifically with respect to Quran) is concerned, better informed technical expositions may include a whole range of historical approaches and variety of methods which have been employed to approach the Quranic text [1].

However, if one takes the liberty of using a broad brush, these myriad of approaches may well be reduced to two parallel (albeit sometimes historically traversing) interpretive traditions, i.e., Tafsir Bil Riwayah (or Mathura) which is primarily based on transmission through written or oral tradition, including the Prophetic Hadith as well as exegesis of companions and their successors, and Tafsir Bil Ra’y having basis in reasonable and considered opinion through textual deconstruction as well as historical context and setting of revelation. Even though both the approaches are not strictly mutually exclusive, – for instance, sharing almost all the sources and tools of interpretation (i.e., context, linguistic tools, Hadith and opinions of past exegetes and classical Jahilia poetry) – there is a considerable difference regarding priority of these sources as well as the manner in which a particular source is employed. To facilitate further discourse we can call them traditionalist and rationalist schools of Quranic interpretation, respectively.

Even though both these approaches have been traditionally distinguished in numerous expects as well as object of a lot of historical (as well as contemporary) heresiography, in my view, there are two fundamental aspects of traditionalist school which may be used to meaningfully characterize its contrast with the rationalist approach: one, the principle that any interpretation of Quran must be based on authentic Hadith or interpretation of the Salaf (including companions and their successors) and two, approaching the Quran as a generally incoherent text (not ambiguous) with no primary consideration of thematic unity. 

Needless to reiterate that these contrasts sometimes reflect considerably different (at times opposing) manifestations of perceived absolute truth, thereby raising complex hermeneutical challenges; for instance, the question whether one should justifiably claim to have located the original Divine intent behind the revelation, for not only because multiplicity of meanings is an inherent characteristic of language, but also because historical pre-understanding is essentially embedded into the community of meanings surrounding the text (as fundamentally characterized in case of traditionalist approach).

In its most fundamental exposition, the first aspect of traditionalist approach draws Prophetic authority of interpretation from the Quran itself when it states that:

(We sent them) with Clear Signs and Books of dark prophecies; and We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought. (16:44)

Thus, it is not even slightly disputable (at least among Muslims) that one of the foremost Prophetic roles was to explain the Quran to its direct recipients. Instances were recorded where Prophet expounded the meanings of various verses to his companions and sometimes responded to their queries. There were companions who toiled hard and spent a lot of time to learn Quran from the Prophet, an example being the record in Muwatta that Abdullah Ibn Umar spent eight years to learn Surah Al-Baqarah from Prophet. Hadith collections and commentaries also record other interesting instances related to Quranic exegesis, for instance the report in Sahih Bukhari that Prophet prayed for Ibn Abbas for granting him the wisdom regarding the interpretation of Quran. Many such reports can be found in Hadith corpus as well as classical encyclopaedic works written on Quran.

However, similar data also suggests that Prophet did not formally arrange to record the interpretation of the Quran, in the modern sense of interpretation proper; ostensibly because the phenomenon of revelation was still open and did not attain its final textual character. Some scholars of Quran have chosen to call this Prophetic interpretive indulgence ‘practical exegesis’. Furthermore, some reports ascribed to him indicate that he even directed categorically that nothing should be formally recorded (in written form) besides the Quran so as to preserve the distinct character of revealed word. Therefore, it is hard to argue the case for formally intended (and preserved) Prophetic exegesis using verses like above, which apparently relate to Sunnah of the Prophet or his authority in general as the character of revelation was embodied in his person according to fundamental Muslim faith and his relation with Quran being ultimately reciprocal.

This last assertion however, does not mean to undermine those authentic reports according to which Prophet did indeed resort to formal interpretation in some sense. For instance, an interesting case is of verse 6:82 when some of the companions took literal meaning of the word Zulm and asked the Prophet that who among them could possibly claim to have never committed any wrongdoing (i.e., Zulm); to which he responded that the Zulm in this verse is synonymous with associating partners with Allah. Another such example is of Adiy Ibn Hatim who literally comprehended the meaning of black and white threads in verse 2:187 and sought clarification from Prophet next morning.

It is obvious that on occasions like above, Prophet indeed gave (or sanctioned) formal and specific meanings to the Divine text but it is still arguable whether these expositive incidents can be used to conclude that these reports add something substantial to the Quran which cannot be otherwise interpreted from the text itself? For in the first case, Quran itself equates associating partners with Allah as the greatest wrongdoing (31:13) and in the second case, the refered companion indeed missed the idiomatic character of the Quranic language, a mistake which was not obviously committed by the complete community of recipients at that time [2].

Historical reports like above can be used as test cases to distinguish the traditionalist and rationalist approaches with regards to the issue of authority of interpretation (the first of the two aspect already mentioned above) and raise some important concerns regarding the autonomy of the Divine text itself or the autonomy of the historical interpretive baggage that surrounds it.

Most importantly, these solitary incidents, though reasonably authentic, cannot serve to add to the fundamental textual character of the Quran as a complete and autonomous body of text even by the standards of traditionalist school itself; because obviously, any interpretation of Quran (including direct expository Hadith) is not synonymous with Quran itself. Indeed, it is hard to deny that Quran itself gives enough pointers to preserve its character of a complete book arranged in a specific order, containing message which does not essentially require support of other texts for its meaningful completion.

Secondly, any historical interpretation attributed to Prophet (or his companions) draws its authority from the fact that the original narrator memorized it and decided to report it later. This act of the narrator was neither directed by the Prophet categorically nor enjoy the elaborate Divine sanction of textual preservance as in the case of Quran; for it does not seem sensible that we would have been trying to distinguish white and black pieces of threads early in the morning had Adiy Ibn Hatim not transmitted this report further down the generations or the report was lost due to some other reason.

Interestingly, as I have already argued previously, similar examples (including the ones shared above) can be used to argue that companions, besides being the direct recipients of Quran and having been better exposed to classical language of the times experienced various kinds of interpretive difficulties. An important dimension of these challenges were posed by various tribal dialects as in the case of Ibn Abbas who correctly understood the meaning of Fatir (35:1) after encountering its usage by two bedouins [3]. These difficulties obviously multiplied considerably in the last years of revelation when the Quranic message reached out to Arab commuities other than Hijaz.

Understanding historical incidents mentioned in the Quran (especially related to Bani Israel) was another important challenge and many companions famously turned to Jewish converts to Islam (for instance Abdullah Ibn Salam and Kaab Ahbar) for better understanding of incidents related to Jewish history. Their personal opinion also mattered a lot in the matters of exegesis when there was no authentic statement of Prophet in their knowledge. Most classical exegetical works are full of those variety of opinions.

In this last respect, both approaches (i.e., Traditionalist and Rationalist) seems to silently converge as tradition-based exegetes, like Tabari or Ibn Kathir for instance, normally relate all such opinions (which are very much personal) reached to them and sometimes mention their own preference (as in usually in case of Tabari) which is obviously based on considered reason (ra’y), formalising it in hermeneutical structure as principle of Tarjih (preference).

In my view, traditionalist school itself acknowledges all these concerns and generally considers it least error-prone (or risky if one may call it keeping in view the sensitive nature of deciphering and deciding the absolute truth from the revealed text) to trust interpretation from a historical chain going to the Prophet or Salaf rather than giving preference to own reason or opinion. Interestingly, a generally accepted traditionalist exegetical principle is that no authentic Hadith can be against the Quran and an attempt is always made to reconcile both, even if it adds something to the apparently clear meanings of the Quranic text.

Rationalist school on the other hand, especially the modernists after Shah Wali Ullah (who in a way belongs to both schools but visibly shifts towards the traditionalist as far as authentic Hadith is concerned), fundamentally considers Hadith and Athar-e-Sahaba (what has reached from companions) as secondary sources which can be used to strengthen (or in some cases specify) the interpretation of Quran primarily reached through textual methods and linguistic tools. In case of handling ostensible incompatibilities and contradictions among Quran and Hadith, it is the latter that has to interpreted differently (and some times rejected) rather than a clearly purported message of the Quran.

It is difficult to locate, therefore, why adherents of both the approaches generally resort to acerbic criticism against each other when both of these ultimately want to achieve a higher aim of understanding the true message, as it was originally received (and perceived)  by the communities in Prophet’s times. For the sake of present discourse if we disregard the secondary reasons – like insecurities related to preservation (and securing) of traditional archetypes related to religious knowledge (especially of Quran), the major conclusions of the Orientalist project and modernist reactions to those conclusions which sometimes resulted in whole scale scepticism (and at times categorical denial) towards tradition – the clue might lie in how the Quran has been approached fundamentally (as far as its textual character is concerned) by both the camps which is the second major aspect in which both the approaches stand in complete contrast to each other.

  1. See for instance, Shah Wali Ullah, Al Fauzul Kabir Fi Usul al-Tafisr or Jalaluddin Suyuti, Al-Itqan Fi Ulum al-Quran.
  2. Prophet himself referred the verse of Surah Luqman in order to explain the correct meaning of 6:82. The incident is reported widely and Ibn Kathir records it in his Tafsir.
  3. This and few more examples are quoted in a previous entry. Suyuti includes a list of Quranic vocabulary that belongs to different tribal dialects.

2 thoughts on “Wooing the Quran (1): The Question of Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Exegetical interpretations | Trueconviction

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