The Modern Qur’an: Exegesis in Contemporary Society

In 610CE, the Prophet Muhammad began to deliver the revelations of the Qur’an.1 The world to which he was speaking a century and a half ago is vastly different from the world in which we live today, in essentially every aspect of life, but particularly in values, morals, and ideas of rights and equality. This has left scholars of the Qur’an struggling with the challenge of taking a text rooted in the history of its time, and bringing it forward to reckon with the challenges of modern life. In taking on this challenges, Islamic scholarship has fractured into vastly varying opinions from vastly different exegete, which range from fundamentalism to reformation attitudes.

Fundamentalism is the belief that the correct interpretation of Islam today is the totalizing of the authority of tradition, specifically the prophetic part of tradition.2 An Particular emphasis is placed on the story of the Prophet Moses in particular as a guiding story for the struggles of the modern day: Moses, despite being raised as the Pharaoh’s own son, follows the word of God and leads the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. To the theologian Sayyid Qut’b in particular, it seems that we are all in the position of Moses before liberation, posed to remove oppression and the exploitation of capitalism.3 Fundamentalism places huge emphasis on living as the Prophet Muhammad did in his time, and preserving and implementing the body of law as he did.4 Those of this school would say that Islam was interpreted best by the Prophet and his followers, and proper devotion is restricted to the practices and interpretations that they held at the time.

Traditionalist islam is also a very conservative application of Islam. The largest difference between traditionalist and fundamentalist Islam is that the traditionalist school takes into account the entire accumulated tradition of the Islam, and respects all the gathered knowledge as part of the sacred history.5 This is in contrast to fundamentalism, which legitimizes only the time of the Prophet. As discussed by one of traditionalism’s main scholarly proponents, Hossein Nasr, traditionalism maintains that we should preserve the body of law, but use our reason to make decisions about implementation.6 For example, although the Qur’an says that we must remove the hands of thieves, reason says that in the modern era this is not practical; therefore, that law is shifted in implementation to involve cutting off the access of thieves, rather than their literal hands.7 However, this is not bending to a “reformed islam”, rather traditionalist islam maintains that reformed Islam is no Islam at all.

Both traditionalist and fundamentalist Islam are considered to be very conservative approaches to maintaining the religion in the modern culture, mostly by rejecting much of modern culture. But, there are more moderate approaches to cultural adjustment which are more creative with Qur’anic interpretation. Inclusive range theory, proposed by scholar Muhammad Shahrur, defies the traditional exegesis by holding that Islam must be inclusive of both Meccan and Medinan verses. In traditional Islam, the stricter Medinan verses are considered to cancel out the more lenient Meccan verses, so that followers must operate under the more stringent rules.8 In contrast, inclusive range theory says that you can include a range of different verses on a subject, and choose based off of what is appropriate for the society. This theory can help to soften instances in which Islam conflicts with daily modern life, such as usury or modesty laws.9

Increasing in liberality, Islam exegesis then comes to the theory of the Utopian reformist, developed by Mahmoud Mohammad Taha. Taha theorized that there are three types of Islam, the Islam of freedom, the Islam of laws, and the Islam of enforcement.10 According to this theory, in Mecca Islam began as the Islam of freedom, which remains its purest form. However, humanity was not ready for that freedom and abused it, so when Muhammad moved to Medina during the warring period with Mecca, the Islam of enforcement, or the meanest of the Islams, was implemented.11 Finally, when peace was established Muslim society adopted the Islam of law, otherwise known as sharia, and which the community has operated under ever since. However, Taha argues that the true Islam is the Islam of freedom, and that sharia is not supposed to be the final phase of Islam. Rather, he says, the truest Islam is that of “individual sharia”, an Islam of freedom that requires no absolute overarching religious law. In this state, there would occur socialism and democracy, and it would be a Utopia.12 He justifies his ideas with verses such as, “And We made the Qur’an easy to remember, but is there anyone to recall it to mind?”13, which he interprets as calling on Muslims to remember the Islam of freedom, and “So forgive them and ask God’s pardon for them and seek their counsel in all affairs.”14, which he says calls for democracy. In the end, this belief and the activism it inspired resulted in an angry backlash from conservative Muslim society, and the execution of Mahmoud Mohammad Taha in 1985.15

The most liberal of the exegesis is the school of non-essentialist reformers. Championed by Rahman and Soroush, this interpretation considers both the body of the law and the implementation to be subject to time, geography, and ultimately conditional.16 This means that essentially all tenants of Islamic law can be altered to suit modern society, and differ depending on the culture in which the practitioner of the faith is living. This being the case, this view renders essentially every non-devotional rule, meaning not essential to the five pillars or direct worship of God, to be subject to change if the reasoning behind the original law should require it to be. This interpretation, more than any other, holds the reasoning between any rule to be more important than the rule itself, and holds itself to God’s perceived wishes rather than the rules itself.

However, conservative to liberal interpretations have not been the only struggle of Islam in the modern day. In a world increasingly reckoning with the rights and historical treatment of women, the Qur’an has been interpreted through several different feminist lenses in an attempt to understand where women stand in this culture and faith. Among feminist interpretations, there are wildly different ideas surrounding what lense one should read the Qur’an through. On one hand, Amina Wadud beliefs that society needs a female reading the Qur’an, specifically from the female perspective.17 On the other, Asma Barlas opposes a female reading, and instead promotes a genderless reading of the Qur’an.18 Some feminist philosophers are proponents of what is often thought of as “western feminism”, while others such as Azimzadeh argue that western feminism is toxic and equates equality with similarity, so that the individuality of women and men is destroyed and proportionality is lost.19 In addition, particular verses prove a challenge for feminist philosophers. For example, the Qur’an says, “Men are legally responsible for women […] And those you fear may rebel admonish and abandon them in their beds, and smack them.”20 Verses such as these which appear to show clear gender biases pose difficult, though many say solvable, problems for feminist philosophers. Obviously, a complicated field such as Islamic feminism is too vast to cover in such a short space, and the nuances deserve and require much more attention to define.

As religion comes into the modern era, many old faiths including Islam are struggling to reconcile their traditions and the commandments in their books into a practical way to lead a modern life. In Islam, there is a huge range of interpretations from the most tyrannically rigid to impractically fluid, and it will be difficult if not impossible to come to a conclusion on the correct way to interpret such a many-layered text. What I have gained most from the study of Qur’anic exegesis is a better understanding of the sheer number of ways a single line of the Qur’an can be interpreted, and how many beliefs can seem to pull their credence from the holy book itself. The variety is so great, and the justifications so varied, that I do not believe there will ever be a known truth as to the correct interpretation, and Islamic scholars will continue to theorize until Day of Judgement.

 

Endnotes

  1. Sadeghi, Behnam. “The Origins of the Koran: From Revelation to Holy Book.” BBC News. July 23, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2018.
  2. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’anic Tasfir and Political Activism.” Lecture, April 26, 2018.
  3.  Ibid
  4. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’anic Tasfir and Political Activism.” Lecture, April 26, 2018.
  8.  Christmann, Andreas. “‘the form is permanent, but the content moves’: the Qur’anic text and its interpretations in in Mohamas Shahrour’s Al-Kitab Wal-Quran.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki, 97-123. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  9.  ibid.
  10. Taha, Mahmoud Mohammad. “The Second Message of Islam.” In Liberal Islam: a Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 270-283. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
  11.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an and Modernist Social Reform: Taha and Abdu.” Lecture, May 1, 2018.
  12. Taha, Mahmoud Mohammad. “The Second Message of Islam.” In Liberal Islam: a Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 270-283. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
  13.  Qur’an 54:17 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  14. Qur’an 3:159 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  15. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an and Modernist Social Reform: Taha and Abdu.” Lecture, May 1, 2018.
  16. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018.
  17. Wadud-Muhsin, Amina. “Qur’an and Woman.” In Liberal Islam: a Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 127-38. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
  18.  Barlas, Asma. “Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an: Women Rereading Sacred Texts.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki, 97-123. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  19. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Feminist Tafsir of the Qur’an.” Lecture, April 24, 2018.
  20. Qur’an 4:34 (Khalidi, Tarif)

 

Citations:

Barlas, Asma. “Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an: Women Rereading Sacred Texts.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki, 97-123. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Christmann, Andreas. “‘the form is permanent, but the content moves’: the Qur’anic text and its interpretations in in Mohamas Shahrour’s Al-Kitab Wal-Quran.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki, 97-123. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Feminist Tafsir of the Qur’an.” Lecture, April 24, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an and Modernist Social Reform: Taha and Abdu.” Lecture, May 1, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’anic Tasfir and Political Activism.” Lecture, April 26, 2018.

Sadeghi, Behnam. “The Origins of the Koran: From Revelation to Holy Book.” BBC News. July 23, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2018.

Taha, Mahmoud Mohammad. “The Second Message of Islam.” In Liberal Islam: a Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 270-283. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.

The Qur’an (Khalidi, Tarif)

Wadud-Muhsin, Amina. “Qur’an and Woman.” In Liberal Islam: a Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 127-38. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.