The Quran is a book1 It is not a collection of different, structurally unrelated sayings. The arrangement of the verses of the Quran, though not chronological, is Divinely ordained2Therefore, a Muslim must accept the fact that there is an underlying wisdom in the arrangement. Each verse and each suurah (chapter) must be interpreted in relation to the context. For this purpose, it is important to understand and appreciate the language and the style of the Quran thoroughly.
The language of the Quran is the Arabic of the Prophet’s (sws) time. To be more precise, the Quran was revealed in the dialect of the people of ummul quraa3 The style of the Quran is literary4 Anyone who wishes to interpret the Quran seriously and responsibly must have a thorough command over its language and have the ability to appreciate literature in general.
For an ordinary Muslim, the Quran is the easiest book in that his objective in reading the Quran is remembrance of God and of the responsibility life entails. For a scholar, however, it is perhaps the most difficult. A scholar has to pay attention to each and every stress, for slight misinterpretation can play havoc with countless lives. Interpreting the basic book of the second largest religious community in the world is a very serious responsibility and must be taken as such.
This article will discuss three major approaches towards Quranic exegesis, which have sometimes led to gross misinterpretation owing to their inappropriate use. These approaches may be categorised for the sake of convenience in understanding them as follows:
1. The grammatical approach
2. The rationalising approach
3. The historical approach.
Two things must be understood about the terms that have been coined in this article to categorise these approaches: first, the terms have been used rather derogatively to emphasise that absurd use of these approaches has often led people to draw absolutely preposterous conclusions; second, despite the fact that the correct approach of interpretation is basically not dependent on any of the above mentioned ones, the correct principles of grammar, genuine rationality and indubitable records of history do not stand in contradication to the true interpretation of the Quran.
To sum up, these approaches have a role in enhancing one’s understanding, but, when overemphasised and used unintelligently, can lead to absolutely absurd results. Let’s take an example from the English language to see how this may be.
Here’s a sentence: ‘Take a walk’. The grammatical approach (remember: in the negative sense of word) would be something like this: ‘To take’ is a transitive verb (meaning to obtain), ‘a walk’ (meaning to move around or in a specific direction using one’s legs) is the object and ‘you’ is the implied subject. Therefore, the meaning of the sentence is that the addressee should move using his legs. ‘You’ can refer to some specific person or to the reader. Therefore, the speaker (or the writer of the sentence) wants you or wanted some specific person to go for a walk.
The rationalising approach (in the derogative sense of the word again) would rely heavily on the earlier or the last approach and then try to rationalise an absurd or seemingly absurd interpretation; for example, having assumed that the speaker wanted the addressee to go for a walk, the rationalising approach would try to highlight the merits of walking and explain (and form) its philosophy. A further degenerated version of this approach can be seen in the interpretations of those who try to discover the principles of atomic fusion and the mysteries of biological microcosms in the pages of the Quran to allude to its divinity. So, in our example, the interpretation of the one obsessed with the idea of discovering science in the Quran might be that the speaker wants the addressee to fight diabetes by walking regularly.
Here, a brief mention must be made of another novel method of Quranic exegesis. This method seems to be an offshoot of the rationalising approach, but it is very interesting and equally absurd and therefore deserves to be commented on separately. The approach, based on etymology, picks up any desired meaning from the roots of a word. Now, suppose a certain Mr.P, interpreting the Quran through this approach, feels that going for a walk these days is too difficult or demode and that the speaker, a benevolent person, never intended the addressee to have any problem or embarrassment in life and therefore decides that ‘Take a walk’ cannot be interpreted as ‘going for a walk’. This is how Mr. P might interpret the sentence: Webster defines ‘to take’, a verb, as to get hold of, to grip and to grasp. ‘Walk’, from wealcan or wealcian (to revolve), is a noun here (a walk) and as a noun can mean proper place or sphere of action (see Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 2nd edition, page 856) Mr.P, therefore, concludes that the speaker wants the addressee to get hold of his proper place in life.
The historical approach (remember: the term is still being used here in the negative sense) relies on isolated narratives, which themselves might not be authentic. Their context is often not clear. Frequently, the words quoted are not the speaker’s; each narrator in the whole chain of narrators may have used his own words to report an incident. It is obvious that something which itself needs confirmation cannot form the basis for interpreting the Quran. Historical records5 pertaining to religion should be analysed on the basis of the Quran and not vice versa.
A person using (rather misusing) this approach might interpret ‘Take a walk’ thus: It was reported to me by Mr X, who was told by Mr Y, who in turn was told by Mr Z that when the speaker of the sentence uttered ‘Take a walk’, there was an athletic event going on. So he must have wanted the addressee to take part in a walking race.
Many people using the approaches mentioned above are also fond of giving numerous interpretations to just one sentence, all of which may conflict with one another, leaving the reader confused as to what the meaning actually is. As already stated, none of these approaches is wrong per se. However, they are best used as devices to enhance understanding rather than as bases for interpretation, for the best and truly appropriate basis for interpreting the Quran is the Quran itself: its language, its style and its context.
A person using this correct approach (who must be competent enough to use it, that is he must have a thorough grasp of the language and the style of the Quran and have the ability to appreciate the diction of the Quran and literature) might interpret ‘Take a walk’ as follows: It is obvious from the speaker’s style in other sentences spoken by him in the same context that he is an American. The event may be an athletic competition, but it is clear, again from the context, that a young man is being reprimanded by his boss for doing a job improperly. ‘Take a walk’ then, in the American English of the time when this sentence is known to have been spoken, can only mean that the speaker wanted the addressee to ‘get lost’ -- and getting lost here has nothing to with getting lost!
1. See the Quran 12:1
4. 16:103.Since the style of the Quran is literary, the Prophet’s (sws) opponents accused him of producing mere poetry as is obvious from 36:69. The Quran has refuted this accusation by pointing out that poetry is below the station of the Prophet (sws).
The style of both a piece of poetry and Divine literature may be literary, but there is great difference between the two in that the purpose and the level are not the same.
5. The understanding of religion is greatly enhanced by the study of historical records which have been confirmed as authentic, and as such they are indispensable.
With thanks to Monthly Renaissance
Written/Published: April 1996