ON METHODOLOGY OF UNDERSTANDING QUR’AN
Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, May, 2001)

The Qur’an is a revealed scripture of religion of Islam and one of the greatest revealed scriptures. It is in Arabic language and according to the Qur’an itself it is in language easily understandable. Thus the Qur’an says, “ And certainly We have made the Qur’an easy to remember, but is there anyone who will mind?” (54:17). But the Qur’an is easy to understand and also difficult to comprehend in places. The Qur’an itself says, “he it is Who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive (muhkamatun) – they are the basis of the book – and others are allegorical. Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part of it which is allegorical (mutashabihat), seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. And none knows its interpretation save Allah, and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say (those firmly rooted in knowledge) it is all from our Lord. And none mind except men of reason and understanding.” (3:6)

Thus it is clear from above verse of the Holy Qur’an that there are passages which are allegorical and liable to different interpretation. Its true interpretation is known either to Allah or to those who are firmly rooted in knowledge and who believe in revelation from the core of their heart. However, there are those who do not believe in revelation sincerely and uses such allegorical verses for misleading others and for spreading confusion. It is those people who are perverse.

The great revealed book like the Qur’an cannot be without allegorical verses as it deals with complex situations, metaphysical questions, nature of creator and creations and other unknown and unseen realities. In such situations it is very difficult to do without allegories but these allegorical verses too, are pregnant with meaning but also, as the Qur’an says, liable to be misinterpreted by those whose hearts are not straight and who mean mischief. But also, there are those who are not only very sincere in belief but also people of knowledge – al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm who, because of their firm faith in the Book and their depth of knowledge, understand the real import of these verses and explain it to others.

But, despite the firm faith and depth of knowledge al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm are likely to differ with each other in understanding these verses because of differing socio-cultural background on one hand, and, because of differing circumstances and changing social scene and ever going on developments. These could be sincere differences in interpretation. The Qur’an denounces only those who intend to use allegorical verses for misleading others and for spreading confusion.

For revealed books like the Qur’an (or other scriptures too) it is necessary to start with to have faith – what the Qur’an calls iman bi’ al-ghayb. But – and it is also important to note – the Qur’an does not demand blind faith. It speaks of ‘reasoned faith’ which satisfies the people of understanding – u’lil albab. Literally u’lil albab means people of essence and since reason is essence of mind, people of reason are called u’lil albab. Thus Qur’an does not demand from us to accept something just because it is revealed but also because it satisfies human reason. Human reason is also creation of Allah and revelation is also from Him. Some might object that how revelation could be judged by human reason? Apparently this seems to be a valid objection. But little reflection will show that it is not so. Gold is always tested by touchstone but it is no body’s case that touchstone is more important than gold. Without touchstone we cannot make sure that gold is genuine. Similar is the relationship between reason and revelation. Revelation is very important for human guidance from Allah yet human beings must satisfy themselves before accepting the revelation that it is genuine.

The relationship between reason and revelation is, however, little more complex than it appears to us. As gold has its inner worth and its inner worth can be appreciated by only those who have to only understanding but also inner senses to appreciate its inner worth without which it is nothing more than a yellow metal. Similarly, the revealed knowledge also has inner worth which can be appreciated by only those who not only have sensory perceptions but also heart and soul to appreciate its worth. The Qur’an repeatedly refers to this fact.

There are people who have eyes to see and ears to hear but still cannot appreciate the worth of revealed knowledge. In other words mere sensory perceptions, though extremely important in their own way, are not sufficient for judging the worth of revelation. The Qur’an describes them as summun, bukmun, ‘umyun (2:18) i.e. deaf, dumb and blind who return not (to the truth, to the guidance). Thus sense perceptions are necessary but not sufficient for appreciation of true guidance (from Allah). It needs real appreciation from one’s heart and soul. However, the relationship between revelation and its proper appreciation on one hand, and that between revelation and reason, on the other, is so delicate that ordinarily one can be easily deceived by those who mislead people for their own vested interests.

Thus appreciation of true revelation is not possible by ignorant and those without the faculty of intellect. The Qur’an thus lays stress on both reason and revelation and also it says that real interpretation of those verses which are allegorical is possible only by al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm (those firmly rooted in knowledge). Thus knowledge and learning is of utmost importance for proper appreciation of the revelation.

It is also important to note that the Qur’an, though contained highest body of knowledge, was initially addressing those who were either illiterate (either Bedouins of desert or those of town like Mecca though rich and experienced yet intellectually far from accomplished or those who had recently migrated from desert for a settled life in urban areas) or semi-literate but experienced in financial matters. And initially main respondents to the Qur’anic message were mostly poor and illiterates. Thus its message had to be in a language which could be easily understood by these poor and illiterate people both of urban as well as desert areas. And hence the Qur’an says, “And certainly We have made the Qur’an easy to remember” (54:17)

But the Qur’an was not dealing with a static situation; it was dealing with dynamic and changing society which would need knowledge to deal with very complex situations. Hence allegorical verses pregnant with meaning were also needed and such verses could be dealt with only by those who had adequate knowledge and intellectual sophistication and accomplishments. Thus, though the Qur’an was dealing with very simplistic people it was not confining itself only to them. Its guidance had to transcend that situation.

In developing methodology of understanding the Qur’an it is very necessary to understand that a revealed scripture does not only deal with what is given but has to cater to what is to come. A religion (deen) is always spiritually transcendent i.e. going beyond the given situation. The vested interests oppose it precisely because it subverts the status quo. Wherever there are vested interests there are in built injustices what we call in modern politico-economic terminology structural injustices. A revealed scripture like the Qur’an has to address itself to these structural injustices and hence faces stiff opposition from the vested interests.

The pre-Islamic society in Mecca was controlled by rich traders on one hand, and, by priests (kahins) who were in collusion with these traders, on the other. While the rich traders were exploiting the poor of the Mecca and suppressing them by various means including through their illiteracy and superstitions. The kahins of Ka`aba were quite helpful in spreading superstitious beliefs and hence their collusion with rich and powerful tribal chiefs. The Qur’an addressed itself to correcting this ignoble state of affairs. This would not have been possible without spiritual renewal and without demolishing the bastion of tribal power – superstitions and social divisiveness perpetrated through various means one of which was idolatry (each tribe worshipping its own idol and developing set of superstitious beliefs around it).

The spiritual renewal was possible only through attacking ignorance, illiteracy, superstitions, divisiveness and socio-economic injustices. The Qur’an stressed belief in unity of God (tawhid) and thus demolished in one stroke tribal divisiveness. Thus tawhid, if followed in its true spirit, could accomplish many goals at a time – religious as well as social. It was through the concept of and belief in tawhid that all superstitions woven around tribal idols were demolished. It was the concept of tawhid that dealt a fatal blow to divisiveness in the society and brought about a strong sense of unity of all human beings as creatures of one God. Thus the concept of tawhid had great social potentialities which began to unfold themselves once people embraced it.

To empower weaker sections of society was also a very important task without which neither injustices could be removed from social structure nor the goal of social and spiritual renewal could be achieved. And to empower the weaker sections of society and also for their spiritual renewal imparting knowledge was highly necessary and hence the very first revealed verse of the Qur’an begins with the word iqra’ (i.e. recite, read or in other words acquire knowledge). All sociologists know that knowledge is power and it is knowledge, which empowers the weaker sections of the society. The vested interests exploit the weak through their ignorance. It is only through knowledge that they can be empowered. And through knowledge they will be liberated from oppression and exploitation and it is through knowledge that their spiritual renewal will be possible and it is knowledge that will liberate them from superstitions.

Thus the two major themes of the Qur’an, apart from others, are tawheed and ‘ilm (i.e. Unity of God and knowledge). Both these were powerful weapons to unite people and to liberate them from superstitions and oppression. No wonder than that the weaker sections of society and the youth who are eager for change responded to the message of Islam most enthusiastically.

The liberation from all sorts of exploitation and oppression being a major theme of the Qur’an, women’s liberation also became a priority for the Qur’an. Women were among the most oppressed sections of society in the pre-Islamic era. The burial of girl child was most symbolic of this oppression against women. The Qur’an denounces this practice in no uncertain terms. Those who bury the girl child alive will be questioned on the day of judgement. “And when one buried alive is asked? For what sin she was killed?” (81:9) Unfortunately the practice is till there in many parts of the world including certain parts of India.

Women were given same status as men in every respect. If anyone has doubt let him refer to the verse 33:35. Yes, it is true there is also the verse 4:34 which is often quoted by the orthodox as pronouncement of inferiority of women. It is in respect of such verses that the question of methodology of understanding the Qur’an arises. The Qur’an is committed to create a new ethics, a new liberated society transcending the given situation. The Qur’an describes the given situation as well as guides the faithful as to what ought to be. While the verse 4:34 is the narrative of what is in the society 33:35 is about what ought to be. It is unfortunate that the Muslim world by and large has not understood the significance of the verse 4:34.

The situation in the Muslim world reflects status quo rather than the liberative pronouncements of the Qur’an. Women do not enjoy the status the Qur’an has given them in Muslim society today. However, the status quo is also justified by quoting verses like 4:34 instead of verses like 33:35 which represents the transcendent spirit of the Qur’an. But men which include most of the eminent theologians of the Muslim world were unwilling to concede this transcendent status to women and hence they stuck to the status quo in society. Even during the holy Prophet’s time we find companions of the Prophet debating the issue of status of women.

The other proof that the Qur’an treats men and women equally is that it makes it obligatory of both to enforce what is good and prevent what is evil. It is not only men who are charged with this important task but all faithfuls, including women, are required to fulfil this obligation. It is only through fulfilment of this obligation that a society can be completely transformed and women are equally responsible for this transformative project. It is on this basis that eminent jurist like Imam Abu Hanifa opined that a woman can also become qadi.

The Qur’an also describes men and women as each other’s friends. Thus the Qur’an says, “And the believers, men ad women, are friends (awliya`) one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey Allah and His Messenger. As for these Allah will have mercy on them. One can easily see in this verse that both men and women have been given equal status and equal obligations and both will be equally be entitled to Allah’s mercy, if they fulfil their obligation and obey Allah and His Messenger. This verse is transformative in nature and is not mere narrative of what exists in the society. In evolving methodology of understanding the Qur’an such verses play very important role.

The Qur’an, in its all-normative pronouncements gives equal status to men and women. It is important to note that the Qur’an does not refer anywhere to creation of Eve (Hawwa) from the rib of the Adam, thus making her secondary to man. According to the Qur’an both man and woman have been created from nafsin wahidatin i.e. from one soul. Thus the Qur’an says, “O people, keep your duty to your Sustainer, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind), and spread from these two many men and women. (emphasis added) (4:1)

This is quite an important pronouncement for equality of both the sexes. Both have been created from one nafs (soul, being, entity) and both are each others mates. It is important to note that the word for wife and husband in the Qur’an is zawja and zawj i.e. one of the couple which again is indicative of compete equality. There is no concept of husbanding in the Qur’an. Husband is zawj and wife is zawja, the faminine gender of zawj. There is no question of lording or husbanding over ones own mate. However, unfortunately the Muslims never adopted this culture of sexual equality. They relied more on hadith of doubtful authenticity rather than on clear and normative pronouncements of the holy Qur’an.

One cannot understand the real spirit of the Qur’an unless one understands its transformative spirit. It subverts the given and provides guidelines for what ought to be. It is precisely for this reason that the Qur’an, which is the main source of Islamic ethics lays so much emphasis on justice. Justice is very central to the Qur’anic ethics. Plato and his disciple are unable to reach any consensus on the exact concept of justice. In their society it was the concept of ‘might is right’ that seemed to work. But the Qur’anic concept of justice is just the opposite of this. The Qur’an maintains that justice be done even if it favours ones enemy or goes against ones closest relatives or against ones own self.

Thus the Qur’an uses two words for justice ‘adl and qist both implying balance in the system which is possible through justice. There are several verses in the Qur’an referring to justice. One is imperative: i`idalu (do justice it is closest to being pious,5:8). In another verse, also imperative, says, “Surely Allah enjoins justice and the doing of good (to others)…” (16:90). Yet another verse says, “O you who believe, be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness for Allah, even though it be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives – whether he be rich or poor, Allah has a better right over them both. So follow not (your) low desires, lest you deviate. And if you distort or turn away from (truth), surely Allah is ever aware what you do.” (4:135)

From these verses one can easily see how important it is to be just. It is very central to the Qur’anic ethics. However, the society is full of injustices of all kinds, be they distributive injustices or in the form of oppression and exploitation of the weak. Such social system as based on injustices cannot become stable. Oppression and exploitation or concentration of power in few hands will always lead to instability and conflict and conflict leads to violence. Such an unstable system generating causes for conflict is un-Qur’anic and un-Islamic. Justice is possible only when there is inner integrity of character and fearlessness. This fearlessness, in turn is possible only when one does not benefit from the status quo. All of us wink at injustices simply because we benefit from the established order.

Thus the Qur’an lays emphasis on the concept of i’man which, if one goes to the root meaning of the word, implies a feeling of inner security, inner contentedness. This inner contentedness and inner peace is possible if there is only fear of Allah and not fear of any worldly potentate. Worldly rulers are often oppressive, perpetrate injustices and hence are responsible for violence. Islam, which means establishment of peace, desires a social system free of violence by removing all forms of injustices from the world. Thus the Qur’an is basically subversive of all those systems based on injustice, exploitation and violence.

One who has faith in Qur’an can never tolerate any system which perpetrates injustices with the weaker sections of society. But the powerful vested interests resist such attempts to establish a just society with all their might and the result is violence. Thus when the Prophet of Islam and his companions tried to establish a just system and the unbelievers of Mecca, who were all rich traders, resisted this attempt and used violence to oppose with all vehemence to establish a just society through subversion of the powerful establishment.

Thus there is always tension in the society between those wanting to transform the society and those supporting the status quo. Transformation can hardly be peaceful. But it does not mean that violence is justified on the part of the oppressed. It is the oppressors who use violence. The Qur’an justifies violence only if it is defensive, not offensive. Jihad is nothing more than sincere efforts to promote good and banish evil, not to wage war for transformation. The concept of jihad is being grossly misused by some Muslims. In fact by using the slogan of jihad these Muslims are generating powerful resources to build powerful establishment – something totally anti-jihadic in spirit. Such cry for jihad is itself supportive of status quo. Real jihad is to establish a social system based on justice and free of all forms of exploitation.

Thus without developing such a methodology for understanding the Qur’an it will never be possible to practice Islamic ethics and morality. The Qur’an was revealed to the Messenger of Allah to subvert all those establishments based on exploitation and injustice and to establish a system humane, compassionate and sensitive to all forms of sufferings of humanity.

Unfortunately the powerful vested interests in the Muslim world are suing the Qur’an for reinforcing their own oppressive establishments through misinterpretations against which the Qur’an has clearly warned. Mutashabihati are overriding muhkamat. We must go back to muhkamat