Modern Qur’ānic Hermeneutics: Reality or Cacophony
“Modern Qur’ānic Hermeneutics” is a title often used by “progressive” elements within the Muslim societies to debunk the traditional understanding of Islam, a title used to justify the need for “re-interpretation” of the Qur’ān in the modern times. It’s propounders call for “liberation of Islam” from the yoke of clerical monopoly and its harmonization with requirements of modern phenomena. Using fancy terms like positive criticism, rationality, tolerance etc these neo-Mu‘tazillite elements are often seen advocating the abhorrent ideas like rejecting Sunnah as a source of legislation in Islam, Perrenialism, Western Feminism, Western Democracy etc. The extremists among them go the extent of “proving” LGBT rights from Qur’ān.
In this article I will try to elucidate the ambiguity of this call, the fallacy of its arguments and the reasons for its denunciation by the Muslim societies.
Some of the common allegations levelled by this minuscule community of Modernists/Neo-Muatazillites against the traditional scholarship of Islam are:
a) The traditional methodology of Qur’ānic interpretation is a regressive call leading to freezing of Qur’ān in space and time.
b) The traditionalist/”Orthodox” methodology advocates Papacy/clerical monopoly in Islam by promoting the idea of Understanding of Pious predecessors (Fahm al-Salaf). In the guise of “liberating Islam” from the assumed clerical monopoly they have the audacity of debating the role of Prophet ﷺ as an interpreter of Qur’ān.
Muslims across the generations, transcending the barriers of time and space have been unanimous about the fact that the Qur’ān is a divine, last and the only undistorted Book of Guidance sent down by Allah on his last messenger Muhammad ﷺ to lead the mankind from abyss of iniquity to the paragons of virtue.
It is essential for any book claiming to be a panacea that it should be unambiguous, comprehensive and pragmatic in its response to the challenges of time and space. Prophet ﷺ not only recited the verses of Qur’ān but explained and acted upon it so much so that his companions described him as Qur’ān in practice. Sayyidah ‘Aa‘ishah in her famous saying related the conduct of Prophet ﷺ in these words:
كان خلقه القرآن
i.e. His character was the Qur’ān.
Holy Qur’ān describes the explanation of Qur’ān as an obligation upon Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet’s role as an interpreter of the Qur’ān is alluded to by Allah himself.
He the exalted says in his final revelation:
وَأَنْزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الذِّكْرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزِّلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
And we have sent down the Reminder to you so that you can make clear to mankind what has been sent down to them so that hopefully they will reflect. (Al-Nahl, Ayah 44)
Based on this and other aayāt Imam Ibn Taymiyyah stated in his work on the principles of tafsīr (Muqaddimah Fī Uṣūl al-Tafsīr) that:
“It is obligatory to know that the Prophet ﷺ explained to his Companions the meanings of the Qur’ān just as he taught the words.”
Any disagreement with this fundamental concept would imply that either the Prophet ﷺ was Himself ignorant about the meaning of the Qur’ān, or he actually did know the meanings but wilfully chose not to transmit them. معاذ الله
It has been reported that the likes of ʿUthmān b. Affan, ʿAbdullah b. Mas‘ud and others while learning the Qur’ān from the Prophet ﷺ would not proceed past 10 verses until they would learn what was contained in them of knowledge and action. They would say, ‘we learnt the Qur’ān, knowledge and action all at once’.
Inspite of all these and numerous other-clear cut evidences some of the self proclaimed Scholars have the audacity to tell us -under different pretexts- that the burden of interpretation has been left solely on the meek shoulders of 21st century “scholars”.
Now the question arises, Is the Qur’ān open to (re) interpretation?
One of the allegations levelled by Modernists/Neo-Muatazillites against the traditional scholarship is that one of the ramifications of following the traditional methodology of Qur’ānic exegesis is that it makes Qur’ān a redundant text with little or no practical relevance to the modern world. In order to prevent the Qur’ān from getting frozen in time and space -asserts the Modernist- we ought to “re-interpret” the Qur’ān.
Before answering this allegation we have to understand that the only correct exegesis of any text is the actual intention of its author. Any attempt at divorcing the text from its author is nothing but an act of creating chaos and confusions.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines Language as a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.
Hence it is essential to know that any meaningful text isn’t simply a collection of beautiful words, it is rather a vehicle of transporting authors intention to his audience.
If we assume that Holy Qur’ān has no definitive meaning and it is open to interpretation by one and all, it implies that each verse has potentially unlimited meanings which in turn implies that Allah is the ‘author of confusion’. It is an act of sheer folly to assume that such a meaningless book can be cherished as a guide transcending the barriers of space and time.
As such the subject matter of Ulum al- Qur’ān doesn’t aim at simply explaining the meaning of Qur’ānic text, it’s primary objective is to explain the authorial intention of Qur’ān.
Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘ Azim al-Zurqani in his Manahil defines Tafsīr as :
علم يبحث فيه عن القرآن الكريم من حيث دلالته على مراد الله تعالى بقدر الطاقة البشرية
(Tafsīr is a science that studies the Qur’ān al-Karim from the perspective of its meanings as intended by Allah – as much as human capability allows.)
Now one may rightfully argue that it is impossible to label any deductions from a particular text as its authorial intention unless approved by the author himself, how do we differentiate true authorial intention of Qur’ān from the fabricated ones? It is in answer to this fundamental question that the mainstream Muslim scholars have always emphasised the role of Sunnah as the only authentic authorial intention of Qur’ān. Unlike Neo-Mu‘tazillites – who try to portray Prophet ﷺ as a postman – the scholars of ahl al- Sunnah have always maintained that the interpretation of Qur’ān was the responsibility of Prophet ﷺ and he successfully fulfilled his responsibility. Based on this fact the mainstream scholarship of Islam has laid down a principle that any attempt of Qur’ānic exegesis has to prove its harmony with the authentic Sunnah and the understanding of Prophet’s immediate disciples i.e. the Sahaba otherwise it will be a betrayal with the authorial intention of Qur’ān. The modernists try to debunk this logical condition by raising doubts about the legislative authority of Sunnah and by raising question marks on the understanding of Salaf.
The Modernists/ Neo- Mu‘tazillites allege that the traditionalist/”Orthodox” methodology of Qur’ānic exegesis advocates Papacy/clerical monopoly in Islam by promoting the idea of Fahm al-Salaf.
Before answering this allegation it is necessary to understand the meaning of the term al-Salaf al-Sālih used frequently by traditional scholars and portrayed as a sort of papacy by the modernists.
The term Salaf in its technical meaning refers to the first three blessed generations of Islam i.e
1) The Sahaba 2) The Tābi’īn and 3) The generation which came after them.
Besides simple logic the distinctive position of these generations has been alluded to in a famous Hadīth narrated by Imam al-Bukhari and Imam al-Muslim on the authority of ‘Imrān b. Husayn that the Prophet ﷺ said:
خَيْرُ النَّاسِ قَرْنِي، ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ، ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ
i.e “The best of people are my generation then those who come after them and then those who come after them.”
Hence the first usage of this term is in reference to a specific era that has preceded.
However, It is essential to note that it was during this blessed era that the deviant sects like the Khawārij , the Qadariyyah , the Jahmiyyah, Mu‘tazilah etc appeared. In order to distinguish mainstream understanding of Islam during this blessed era from the innovations of aforementioned fringe elements, scholars have suffixed the term al-Sālih (the Pious) to al-Salaf. As such the complete term becomes al-salaf al-Sālih i.e. The Righteous Predecessors.
Hence, when the term Fahm al-Salaf ( al-Sālih‘) is used in our literature it exclusively refers to Islam as understood by the Sahaba, the Tābi’īn, and the pious in the generation after them.
Therefore the term Salaf is indicative of both the meanings i.e. The Righteous Predecessors and their methodology in terms of beliefs, acts of worship and the way in which they approached and applied the texts.
Before presenting some among the numerous Nusus regarding the authenticity of Fahm al-Salaf it is essential to note that the opinions of Salaf can be divided into below mentioned categories:
1) Those matters in which the Salaf have consensus of opinion.
2) Those matters wherein their Majority (Jumhūr) have common opinion.
3) Those matters wherein an individual opinion of someone among the salaf gains prominence and no dissenting voice exists to the contrary.
4) The individual ijtihadi opinions of the Salaf in certain jurisprudential rulings or individual Ijtihādi opinions relating to Tafsīr can be called as opinions of some of the Salaf and not the opinion of the Salaf .
While describing the Hujjiyah of Fahm al-salf the scholarship of ahl al-Sunnah refers to the opinions belonging to first three categories.
There are numerous evidences from Qur’ān and Sunnah which describe the character and understanding of Salaf as a standard to be followed and referred to by the subsequent generations for gaining felicity in this world and in the world hereafter
Allah the exalted says:
وَالسَّابِقُونَ الْأَوَّلُونَ مِنَ الْمُهَاجِرِينَ وَالْأَنْصَارِ وَالَّذِينَ اتَّبَعُوهُمْ بِإِحْسَانٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ وَأَعَدَّ لَهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي تَحْتَهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الْفَوْزُ الْعَظِيمُ
The vanguard (of Islam)- the first of those who forsook (their homes) and of those who gave them aid, and (also) those who follow them in (all) good deeds,- well-pleased is Allah with them, as are they with Him: for them has He prepared gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein for ever: that is the supreme felicity.
(Sura At-Tawbah, Ayah 100)
In this aayah it should be noted that Allah has praised and expressed his pleasure with the people who have followed the path of al-Muhajirin and al-Ansar ( i.e the Salaf) .
Similarly Allah says :
فَإِنْ آمَنُوا بِمِثْلِ مَا آمَنْتُمْ بِهِ فَقَدِ اهْتَدَوْا ۖ وَإِنْ تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّمَا هُمْ فِي شِقَاقٍ ۖ فَسَيَكْفِيكَهُمُ اللَّهُ ۚ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
So if they believe as you believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but Allah will suffice you against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
(Sura Al-Baqarah, Ayah 137)
In this aayah, Salaf have been described as the touchstone for judging one’s faith, and Iman constitutes of both creed and action.
Similarly Allah says :
وَمَنْ يُشَاقِقِ الرَّسُولَ مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا تَبَيَّنَ لَهُ الْهُدَىٰ وَيَتَّبِعْ غَيْرَ سَبِيلِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ نُوَلِّهِ مَا تَوَلَّىٰ وَنُصْلِهِ جَهَنَّمَ ۖ وَسَاءَتْ مَصِيرًا
If anyone contends with the Messenger even after guidance has been plainly conveyed to him, and follows a path other than that becoming to men of Faith, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell,- what an evil refuge!
(Sura An-Nisa’, Ayah 115)
Here following the path other than the path of Muminin has been described as a path leading towards severe punishment and who is more worthy of being described as Muminin than our pious predecessor’s i. e The Salaf!
Similarly, Imam Tirmidhi and Imam Abu Dawud have narrated from ‘Irbas ibn Sariah radiallhuanhu that the Prophet ﷺ said:
إِنَّهُ مَنْ يَعِشْ مِنْكُمْ فَسَيَرَى اختِلافًا كَثيرًا، فَعَليْكُمْ بسُنَّتِي وسُنَّةِ الخُلَفاءِ الرَّاشِدِينَ المَهْدِيِيِّنَ، عَضُّوا عَلَيْهَا بالنَّواجِذِ، وَإِيَّاكُمْ وَمُحْدَثَاتِ الأُمُورِ؛ فإنَّ كلَّ بِدعَةٍ ضَلاَلَة
“Verily he among you who lives long will see great controversy, so you must keep to my Sunnah and to the Sunnah of the Khulafā’ ar-Rāshidīn (the rightly guided caliphs), those who guide to the right way. Cling to it stubbornly [literally: with your molar teeth]. Beware of newly invented matters (in the religion), for verily every Bidʿah (innovation) is misguidance.”
Emphasising the sunnah of the Khulafā’ ar-Rāshidīn (the rightly guided caliphs), is in itself an explicit evidence about the authenticity of their understanding.
I am sure that the Modernist does not have the audacity to describe Abu Bakr radiallhuanhu as the first “Pope” of Islam.
Hence the allegation of modernists that the traditional scholarship is responsible for making Qur’ān a redundant text by opposing the “re-interpretation” of Qur’ān is a half baked truth. The mainstream scholarship doesn’t oppose the necessity of developing a Qur’ānic response to the challenges posed by the phenomena of modernism; it simply and rightfully argues that any interpretation of Qur’ān will be tested for its authenticity on the touchstone of Sunnah and Fahm al-Salaf.
Author is an engineering graduate and post graduate in Islamic Studies. He can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.