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Interpreting the Qur'an

Tafsir of Qur'an, by Qur'an

The interpretation (tafsir) of the Qur'an is a well-developed discipline. Islamic scholars for the most part agree on the essential methods that should be used to understand the Qur'an correctly, even if they often differ drastically in their actual interpretations. 

This underscores the importance of ensuring the robustness of the methodology used to interpret the Qur'an, so that when attempting to understand the Qur'an, we can test interpretations relative to the consistency and rigour in which this methodology is applied.

The foundational principle of tafsir is to interpret the Qur'an, by the Qur'an. "The interpretation of the Qur'an by the Qur'an is the highest source of tafsir," wrote Ahmad von Denffer in his seminal book on the subject, Ulum al-Qur'an.

"Many of the questions which may arise out of certain passage of the Qur'an have their explanation in other parts of the very same book, and often there is no need to turn to any sources other than the word of Allah, which in itself contains tafsir. To seek to explain an aya [verse] from the Qur'an by referring to another aya from the Qur'an is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir [interpreter]. Only if this does not suffice, he will refer to other sources of tafsir."

Thus, what modern scholars call "intertextuality" is a key method integral to Qur'anic tafsir highlighted by classical scholars centuries ago. Similarly, as Ibn Taymiyyah clarified in his book introducing the principles of tafsir: "What is given in a general way in one place," in the Qur'an, "is explained in detail in another place. What is given briefly in one place is expanded in another." 

In his famous multivolume modern tafsir of the Qur'an, Al-Mizan, the late Shi'a scholar Allamah Tabatabai also emphasises the necessity of this approach of interpreting the Qur'an, through the Qur'an itself. He points out that no verse should ever be taken in isolation, but should be understood in relation to other relevant verses elsewhere in the Qur'an in a holistic and interconnected manner.



Understanding the Qur'an in the social, linguistic and historical context of its revelation is sometimes considered a controversial issues amongst modern lay Muslims debating the merits of 'literalist' or 'symbolic' readings of the Qur'an. However, these debates often fail to recognise that the methodology of understanding the Qur'an in its context is an integral approach to tafsir endorsed and practised by classical Islamic scholars - the early scholars in the Muslim world who developed the 'Islamic sciences' between the periods of around the 7th century to the 14th century.

Classical Islamic scholars were the first to emphasise the need to account for the context (maqam) of Qur'anic verses to understand their true purpose correctly. It was widely understood that abstracting verses out of the context of their actual revelation entirely would do a disservice to understanding the true intent of the revelation. As the 'speech' of the Qur'an is a form of discourse (albeit Divine discourse), classical Muslim scholars pointed out that the time and subjects of its communication would need to be accounted for to properly understand its meaning, in much the same way we have to determine the meaning of any language.

In his Muwafaqal (Reconciliation of the Fundamentals of Islamic Law) - the first book to attempt to codify Islamic law - Andalusian scholar Imam Ibrahim Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi confirms this as follows:

"The science of maqam and bayan by which the i'jaz of the Qur'an is recognized, revolves around knowing the requirements of the situation during the discourse from the point of view of the discourse itself, the discursant, the discursee or all of them together; for the same statement can be understood in different ways in relation to two different addressees or more. A question with one and the same form can imply other meanings, such as agreement, scolding etc. Likewise an imperative can have the meaning of permission, threat, incapacity/impossibility."

Imam al-Shatabi's point here is that context is integral to understanding the Qur'an - that is, the linguistic, historical and circumstantial context of the the revealed verse. This is also noted by Imam al-Khatib al-Qazwini, the Imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus and later chief judge Cairo under Mamluk ruler al-Nasir ibn Qalawun, who said: 

"The context that demands the definite, generalization, advancement of part of a discourse, and inclusion (of particular words) differs from the context that demands the indefinite, specification, postponement and omission; the context of separation differs from that of joining; the situation that requires conciseness differs from that requiring expansiveness. Discourse with an intelligent person differs from discourse with an obtuse one. Each word with its companion is suited to a particular context. A high standard of beauty and acceptability of speech depends on its appropriateness to the situation and vice versa."

As Muntasir Mir points out more recently in the Blackwell Companion to the Qur'an (London: Wiley, 2006, p. 105), "A proper understanding" of the language of the Qur'an "requires that it be seen as belonging to the living context which gave rise to it", as "part of a dynamic oral situation... in the interaction between a speaker and a live audience." Understanding the language of the Qur'an thus requires "reconstructing, through study of Classical Arabic poetry and through an imaginative or empathic exercise, that living context."

The importance of context is reinforced by the Qur’an itself. On the one hand, the Qur’an puts itself forward as promoting a universal “message for all peoples” (81:27) and describes the Prophet as “a mercy for all people” (21:107). Here the Qur'an is unequivocal in clarifying that its purpose is to communicate to all of humankind.

On the other, the Qur’an contextualises itself firmly within the task of addressing the norms and pressures of Arab society:

So we have revealed an Arabic Quran to you, in order that you may warn the capital city [Mecca] and all who live nearby...” (42:7)

Here, the Qur'an specifies that it is an "Arabic" recitation, and that the purpose of its being in Arabic is specifically to "warn" Meccans and local Arabs in the immediate vicinity. This demonstrates that, within the text of the Qur'an itself, there is explicit and clear recognition that a dimension of the Qur'an is focused specifically at addressing and uplifting the moral character of the inhabitants of Arabia at the time. 

There is thus a dialectic within the Qur’an itself, one universal and transcendental in the sense of being relevant to all times and places; and one particular and local in the sense of being specifically relevant to the history and location of the Arabian desert during the time of Muhammad. This establishes a sound textual justification for evaluating the Qur’an as a universal message, simultaneously containing features very particular and contingent to the context of Arab society and culture in which the Qur'an was revealed. Any attempt to interpret the Qur'an and derive its meaning for contemporary challenges must be capable of grasping the universal Qur'anic principles, norms and values, that lay behind the particular and contingent injunctions that appear to be directed specifically at the context of the time. 


Clear and Allegorical Verses

According to the Qur'an, it contains two categories of verses: clear or decisive, whose meaning is immediately obvious and apparent, and allegorical or ambiguous verses whose meaning is not immediately clear and which require understanding in the context of other Qur'anic verses, in particular the verses which are clear: 

"He it is Who has sent down to you (O' Muhammad!) the Book, of it there are some clear Verses, these are the foundation of the Book, and others are ambiguous.” (3:7)

It is widely recognised that the reason for the distinction between the 'clear' verses and the 'allegorical' ones is due to the frequent reference to existential issues which are beyond conventional human understanding. The Qur'an literally describes the clear verses as the 'mother' of the Book (translated here as foundation), indicating that it is through them that the various meanings of the allegorical verses can be explored. The Qur'an goes on to warn in the same verse against interpreting allegorical verses in a  way that presumes we can fully understand their meaning:

"As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah... And no one will be reminded except those who use their intellect."

That is not to say no effort at all can be made to explore the meaning of allegorical verses, but rather that it should not be presumed that their full and true meaning can be apprehended, and nor should a single fixed interpretation be ascribed to them. While some might assume that the Qur'an is prohibiting any effort to reflect on or understand these verses, this violates the general Qur'anic statement that it is a "book that we have revealed to you, full of blessing so that you may reflect upon its verses" (37:29). Interpretation of allegorical verses should therefore proceed but with a view to avoid fixing a singular literalistic meaning, instead remaining open, humble, self-critical, and based on a rigorous approach recognising the fallibility and limitations of human knowledge relative to Absolute Existence.

Indeed, the word used for allegorical here is "mutashabih", which means multivalent and implies multiple simultaneous meanings. The Qur'an uses these allegorical and multivalent verses to facilitate human comprehension of issues that are clearly beyond our limited cognitive and conceptual capabilities, through the medium of human language and concepts. For this reason, it is important to identify which verses should be read as allegorical/ambiguous, to avoid giving them fixed literal interpretations, and instead to approach them reflectively. 

The Qur'an elsewhere explicitly describes how it deploys parables, metaphors or similitudes to convey meanings and to increase reflection or, more precisely, the 'exercise of the intellect' conducive to the acquirement of understanding: 

"Certainly we have drawn for humankind in this Qur'an every [kind of] similitude, so that they make take admonition." (39:27) 

Specific examples of such metaphors and parables are replete throughout the Qur'an. For example: 

"Have you not seen how God struck a similitude - that of a good word? It is like a good tree whose root is entrenched and whose branches are up in the heavens... And God strikes similitudes for people that they might take remembrance." (14:25) 


Inner and Outer

As Imam Ghazali related in his Revivification of the Sciences of Religion: "... the Prophet said that the Qur'an had a literal meaning, an inner meaning, an end-point and a starting point of understanding." He cited other contemporaneous Islamic scholars at the time who said that "every verse can be understood in sixty thousand ways, and that what still remains unexhausted (of its meaning) is still more numerous." (Cited in F. E. Peters, A Reader on Classical Islam, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 201)

According to one well-known saying of Prophet Muhammad:

"The Quran possesses an external appearance and a hidden depth, an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning in turn conceals an esoteric meaning so it goes on for seven esoteric meanings (seven depths of hidden depth)." (Cited in Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, Kegan, 1993, pp. 1-14)

Tafsir via the Prophet, Ahlul Bayt and Sahabah

Thus, in addition to interpreting the Qur'an by the Qur'an, accounting for both intertextuality (interrelationship between different verses) and contextuality (circumstantial, linguistic and social context of the verses), further elucidation of the meaning of the Qur'an can come from the practice and teachings of the Prophet himself.

"We have revealed to you the Reminder", the Qur'an tells the Prophet, "that you may make clear to men what has been revealed to them, and that haply they may reflect." (16:44); And again: ".... an Apostle who recites to them His communications and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom." (62:2) "Obey God, and obey His Messenger." (3: 32) "Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah the best example for any whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, who always remember Allah." (Qur'an 33:21)

These verses clarifies the Prophet's integral role in not just receiving and communicating the revelation, but in explaining, teaching and clarifying to them its meaning and "wisdom" - namely, its practical implications for living.

Whereas Sunni Muslims will emphasise the Companions (Sahabah) - the individuals who were present during the Prophet's lifetime and were thus personally acquainted with his teachings - as the means of approach to accessing the Prophet's practice and teachings, for Shi'a Muslims the emphasis is on the Family (Ahlul Bayt) of the Prophet.

Where Sunni and Shi'a are able to agree is that despite their fundamental differences on this issue, they agree that certain Companions were righteous enough to be followed in this regard, or at least be treated as valid sources for insight into the Prophet's life, or as scholars in their own right - whereas both Sunni and Shi'a agree in principle that the Ahlul Bayt can also be followed (as they were simultaneously Companions of the Prophet). Although Sunnis disagree with the Shi'a definition of the Ahlul Bayt, and the issue of their being in some way inspired by God, they nevertheless saw the Ahlul Bayt in high regard, and in principle recognised the scholarly stature of the Prophet's immediate descendants (the Imams) in their own right.

Sunni and Shi'a emphasise different sources in this regard. For instance, Sunnis will emphasise sayings of the Prophet such as:

"The best of the people are my generation, then those after them, then those after them."

Shi'as in contrast point to Qur'anic verses such as: "Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, Oh people of the House! and to purify you a (thorough) purifying." (33:33) and "Most surely it is an honoured Qur'an, in a Book that is hidden; None do touch it save the purified ones." (56:77-79), which for them mean that the "purified" people of the House - the Prophet's closest family members (Ahlul Bayt) - alone have the capacity to interpret the deepest inner meanings of the Qur'an. They supplement this with reference to other hadith, such as Hadith Thaqalayn - which is accepted as authentic by both Sunni and Shi'a scholars, although they disagree on its implications.

Our approach here at perennial is to cross-reference between Sunni and Shi'a traditions determined to be historically reliable as much as possible with a view to develop as clear a consensus Islamic position as possible on key issues, to minimise the possibility of relying on narrations which may not be reliable, and to thereby foster constructive dialogue and mutuality.


Beyond the Text

Most critically, the Qur'an does not simply exhort reflection on itself, and obedience to the Prophet. It also asks its readers to reflect on the world around them, as well as within their own consciousness. Although traditional Islamic scholarship today largely overlooks the implications of this, it should be remembered that the verses in the Qur'an are described by the Qur'an itself as ayah (signs). They are, for the Qur'an, literally signs of God. But the Qur'an also refers to everything that is created in the outer universe and inner world of human awareness as 'ayah' or signs.

The Qur'an thus establishes that there is an inherent interconnection not just within itself textually, but between the Qur'anic text, human consciousness, and the universe, all of which constitute an interwoven stream of 'ayah' or signs manifesting and pointing to the Divine Reality.  

"Lo! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the difference of night and day, are tokens of His Soveriegnty for people who use their intellect." (Qur'an 3:190) 

"Say: Behold what is in the heavens and the earth." (10:101)

"Verily, in the heavens and earth, are signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and in the animals scattered, are signs for those who seek to be near. And in the alternation of night and day, and the fact that Allah sends down sustenance from the sky, and revives the earth after its death, and in the change of winds are signs for those who use their intellect." (45:3-5)

In the same vein, the Qur'an also calls human beings to the study of society and history:

"Many were the systems that passed away before you. Do but travel through the earth and see the nature of the consequences for those who rejected Truth." (Qur'an 3:137)

Furthermore, the Qur'an emphasises the inward-self, the consciousness of the human being, as a source and subject of knowledge.

"We shall (continue to) show them Our Signs in the horizons of the external world and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth." (Qur'an 41:53)

Thus, the Quran sees itself as interconnected with:

1) nature

2) history/society

3) self/consciousness

It calls for reflection on all these signs in tandem with itself, as essential to developing authentic understanding and nearness to the Divine Reality.

As Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, has convincingly showed in his book Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Oxford University Press, 2008), the excessive text-based, legalistic orientation of classical and contemporary Muslim scholarship is not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Qur’anic text in the first place. Whereas the Qur’an repeatedly calls on its readers to explore and study other societies and their ways of life, to learn the lessons of history, to commune with and examine the entirety of the natural order from cosmology to biology - practices integral to the spiritual journey toward God – the actual direction of Muslim scholarship has increasingly moved in the opposite direction of emphasising the text above all others, and in some cases to the exclusion of all others.

Yet, ironically, this is obsession with the text of the Qur’an to the exclusion of everything itself violates the injunctions of that very Qur'anic text. The Qur'an explicitly enjoins a holistic approach in which the Divine text, the Prophetic tradition, and historical, sociological, natural and psychological contexts, are woven together as a holistic tapestry of ayah (signs) which reflect the Divine Reality.

Qur’anic verses to this effect include:

“Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth.” (3:137);

”Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.” (22:46);

“Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (21:30-33)

“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and earth, in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ship through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rains which God sends down from the skies and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds and the clouds which trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; (here) indeed are the signs for the people that are wise.” (2:164)

Here, wisdom is not reduced to the mere study of the Qur’an and the Prophet as undertaken in the traditional hawza system of Muslim scholarship, but on the contrary is widened to include contemplation and analysis of the entirety of the universe, the earth, its intersecting natural systems, and the human relationship to them. Prof. Ramadan thus argues that this has major implications for an authentic and holistic Muslim scholarship that recognises the Qur'an, nature, consciousness, society and history, as integral and interrelated sources for authentic contemporary Islamic scholarship: 

“It cannot be enough to rely only on scriptural sources to examine the relationship between human knowledge (religion, philosophy, the experimental and human sciences, etc.) and applied ethics: the Universe, Nature, and the knowledge related to them must assuredly be integrated into the process through which the higher objectives and ethical goals (al-maqâsid) of Islam’s general message can be established. The consequence of this new geography is important ...: the center of gravity of authority in the Islamic universe of reference must be shifted by ranking more clearly the respective competences and roles of scholars in the different fields. Text scholars (‘ulamâ’ an-nusûs) and context scholars (‘ulamâ’ al-wâqi’) must henceforth work together, on an equal footing... As part of this fundamental reflection, I suggest a new geography of the sources of usûl al-fiqh: this should lead to integrating the Universe and social and human environments (and therefore all related sciences) into the formulation of the ethical finalities of Islam’s message.”