In recent years there has emerged a group of people calling themselves “liberal Muslims” who demand for reinterpretation of the Qur’an and its laws to make them ‘more amenable and harmonious with the living conditions of modern societies.’
They look upon the Qur’ân as “historically shaped and culturally conditioned”. Thus, some passages, particularly those related to jihad and war (qitâl), the treatment of women and the punishment of criminals are, they claim, no longer suitable for modern living and therefore have to be reinterpreted or abandoned altogether.
All contemporary liberal thinkers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd of Egypt, Abdullahi Ahmed al-Naim of Sudan, Mohammed Shahrour of Syria, and Amina Wadud of USA – to mention but a few - like to argue that present day Muslims should construct their own understanding of the Qur’an in conformity with modern, secular humanistic values.
According to them, there is no single true, absolute interpretation. Each generation and every one has the right to derive from the Qur’an whatever meaning they please.
Advocates of reinterpretation of the Qur’an often are not aware of the methodological risk involved in such undertaking. Interpreting the Qur’an is not as simple and risk-free a business as they want us to believe. That is because not everyone is qualified and allowed to do it.
Prophet Muhammad – may Allah bless him - to whom the Qur’an was revealed, has admonished: “Whoever says something about the Qur’an without knowledge (bi-ghayri ‘ilm) or on the basis of his opinion (bi-ra’yihi), let him take from now his seat in the Hellfire” - narrated by Imam al-Tirmidzi and al-Nasa’i.
Not surprisingly prominent figures like Abu Bakr As-Siddiq therefore refrained from giving his own opinion when asked about the meaning of some difficult passages. He simply did not dare to interpret, let alone re-interpret the Qur’an (See: H. Birkeland, Muhammadan Old Opposition Against the Interpretation of the Koran, Oslo: Norske Videnskaps Academy, 1955).
Does this mean we are not allowed to interpret the Qur’an?
The answer is certainly “no”. Interpretation of the Qur’an is permitted as long as it is done properly, that is, on the basis of knowledge, rather than on mere opinion. The rich literature on the Qur’an and its exegesis –from al-Tabarī to Ibn ‘Āshūr- all this speaks clearly the permissibility and feasibility of scholarly interpretation of the Qur’an.
As a matter of fact, exegetical practice goes as far back as Ibn ‘Abbas, probably the most learned Companion and cousin of the Prophet whom the latter used to pat on the shoulder and pray: “O Lord, make him acquire a deep understanding of the religion of Islam and instruct him in the meaning and interpretation of things.” No wonder Ibn ‘Abbas came to be known as the leading authority in tafsir.
We learn also from another hadith that the Qur’an is so “multifaceted” (dzū wujūh) that it yields many possibilities of interpretation. A saying attributed to Khalifah ‘Ali affirms that “every verse of the Qur’an has four layers of meaning: an exoteric sense (zahir), an inner sense (batin), a limit (hadd), and a lookout point (matla‘).
All this shows that in principle the Qur’an can and may be interpreted. Yet if interpretation of the Qur’an is not forbidden, what then is the meaning of the Prophet’s admonition that it be based on knowledge and not sheer opinion? When is someone qualified to interpret the Qur’an? And how is an interpretation judged to be opinion-based?
Concerning the criteria to be met by a mufassir, much ink has been spilt to explain them as can be found in tafsîr and usûl al-fiqh literature. To qualify as a commentator, one must have correct faith, piety and sincerity, apart from having mastery in the Arabic language and its sciences as well as comprehensive – that is, neither partial nor shallow – knowledge of the entire Islamic tradition.
Now, when all these conditions are met, one still has to follow the standard procedure. First, interpret one passage in the light of other verses. Next, interpret the Qur’an in view of Sunnah/hadith of the Prophet. Last but not least, see what authoritative commentators of the past (from among the Sahâbah, Tâbi‘în, and subsequent scholars) have said regarding the matter (Imam al- Suyûtî, Kitâb al-Tahbîr fi ‘Ilm al-Tafsîr, Beirut: Dâr al-Fikr, 1996), pp.128-9).
What sort of interpretation, then, is said to be based on sheer opinion? According
to Imam al-Ghazali, there are three kinds of blameworthy interpretation.
First, if you employ a linguistic approach to the Qur’an without consulting the Prophetic tradition. Second, if you deliberately skip and reject the literal meaning in favour of the ‘hidden’, esoteric or allegorical interpretation, like the Batiniyyah sect who claim that the Arabic word ‘nâr’ in Sûra 21:69 does not mean fire, but rather it signifies King Namrud’s furor. Third, if prior to interpreting the Qur’an you have already had some preconceived idea, theory, opinion, ideology, or personal interest, and so you interpret the Qur’an according to
the thought in your head.
This is akin to placing the cart before the horse. It is the kind of approach that skews the meaning of the Qur’an so that it comes out saying something entirely different than what was intended by Allah, that is prohibited and whose perpetrator is condemned regardless of the motives behind it. (Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, Cairo,1967, vol.1, pp.378-83)
In this context, all proponents of reinterpretation should ponder the following two hadiths of the Prophet: “Whoever says something about al-Qur’an on the basis of his sheer opinion, correct though it may be, has made a mistake (fa a¡âba faqad akhta’a)” (Sunan Abu Dawud, no.3652), and: “If a judge exercises ijtihad and hits the mark, he gains two rewards, and if he errs, he gains one” (Sahih Muslim)
This counsel is perfectly reasonable, as it takes into consideration not only the result but also the method. If both are correct, two points (+2) will be granted. Yet if the method is alright, even though the result is wrong, one point (+1) is given (that is, still rewarded and not guilty). Now, if the procedure is wrong, even though the result is correct [by chance!], no point (0) will be given as the reward is cancelled to redeem the mistake. Finally, if both the approach and the result are wrong, the interpreter will get minus two (-2) for having committed a twofold sin.
Those calling for ‘democratisation’ of direct access to the traditional Islamic texts never bother about the issue of authority and validity. Their assertion that no tafsir is absolutely true is at once fallacious and self-refuting. No less erratic is their idea to open the doors of interpretation to those without skills and qualifications and let everybody make what they will of the text.
A sort of paralogism intended to mislead and confuse people, it is reminiscent of the Sophists in ancient Greece, whom Plato described as exploiters and mercenary dupers, and whose whole argument amounts to nothing but relativism and skepticism (also known as al-‘indiyyah and al-‘inâdiyyah).
Admittedly, when interpreting the Divine Speech, one should not claim to have fully grasped the Speaker’s intention. That is why it is customary for Muslim scholars in the past to end their writings with the sentence: “Allah knows best!” (wa Allah a‘lam bi-s sawâb). This expression is often misunderstood.
They did not say it because they were ignorant, sceptics or relativists. Rather, as we all know, they have always stood firm in defending the truth and refuting false ideas. Such a statement serves merely as a token of humility to God the all-knowing. Otherwise, Muslim scholars would take the time and trouble to uphold the truth above all else.
One might ask which interpretation, then, should we accept? Well, it all depends on whether it is produced by a qualified mufassir whose expertise is well known and his authority undisputed, or it is coming from a self-taught amateur who lacks the necessary credentials. It is far more judicious to accept the interpretation of Imam al-Qurtubî or Ibn Kathîr rather than that of a certain dubious Shahrour (from Damascus) and his likes.
The liberalist demand that all tafsirs be relativised is indeed naïve and unrealistic.
Not only is this attitude self-defeating, as it would invalidate their own interpretation, it is also not realistic because, needless to say, not all interpretations are to be rejected, just as not all of them are acceptable.
A careless interpretation under the pretext of ‘critical’ or ‘contextual’ approach, which essentially consists of finding ways to twist the meaning of Revelation to serve one’s own purposes, must doubtless be rebuffed.
The plea to ‘liberate’ Muslims from the need for specialist expertise and to give those without formal training in the Islamic disciplines direct interpretive right over primary religious texts is deeply suspicious and dangerous.
New claims to Islamic intellectual authority that have been made in recent decades alongside the spectacularly wild growth of reinterpretations are, on closer analysis, sharing one common goal: to break the uniformity and continuity of tafsir and weaken the authority of true scholars (‘ulamâ).
One may compare the danger of following false authorities to boarding an airplane pilotted by a stewardess. Wallâhu a‘lam.
Source: The Brunei Times/Islamia
Edited by Abu Khadejah, 11 June 2009 - 07:14 PM.