Interpreting the Quran

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Reading the Quran can be a baffling experience. Unlike the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the Quran is not a collection of books recounting the mythical history of a community of faith. It is not, like the Gospels, a pseudo-biographical sketch of a particular prophet in a particular time. It does not narrate the life of Mohammed , nor does it chronicle the rise of Islam (indeed, Mohammed is barely mentioned in it). Though the Quran is divided into 114 chapters (called suras), these are arranged neither thematically nor chronologically but rather from longest to shortest, the lone exception being the first and most important chapter, al-Fatiha, or "The Opening." The chapters are given evocative titles like "The Cow" or "The Feast," but these have almost nothing to do with the content that follows. The Quran itself states that its verses have multiple meanings, some of which are unfathomable to human beings and known only to God. And yet, in both style and content, the Quran is unique among scriptures. 

The words of the Quran are thought to be infused with divine power. Muslims believe it to be the actual speech of God handed down through Mohammed between 610 and 632 CE. The physical book-its cover and pages-is considered sacred and is to be handled only in a state of purity. Its verses are inscribed on buildings and tombs in order to sanctify them. They are placed in lockets and worn as amulets to ward off evil. They are etched into cups so that when one drinks from them one consumes God's divine power. The mere act of writing out the words of the Quran-the art of Islamic calligraphy-has been elevated into the supreme artistic expression in the Muslim world. 

The inherent sacredness of the Quran has historically created an unusual problem for many Muslims. Since the end of the seventh century CE, when its verses were collected into a single, authoritative canon, the Quran has remained fixed in Arabic, the language in which it was originally revealed. It was believed that translating the Quran into any other language would violate the divine nature of the text. Translations were done, of course. But to this day, non-Arabic versions of the Quran are considered interpretations of the Quran. Unless the original Arabic verses are embedded on the page, it cannot technically be called a Quran. 

The consequences of this belief are obvious. For much of the last 14 centuries, some 90 percent of the world's Muslims for whom Arabic is not a primary language had to depend on Islam's clergy-all of them men, as women are not allowed to enter the clergy-to define the meaning and message of the Quran for them, much as pre-Reformation Christians had to rely on priests to read them the Bible, which at the time was available only in Latin. That is now changing. Over the last century, the Quran has been translated into more languages than in the previous 14 centuries combined. A great many of these translations have been done not by Muslim clergy but by scholars and academics, by Muslim laity and non-Muslims, and, perhaps most significantly, by women. (The first English translation of the Quran by an American woman, Laleh Bakhtiar, was published in 2007.)

Arabic is a language whose words can have multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings, so how one chooses to render a particular word from Arabic to English has a lot to do with one's biases or prejudice. Take the following example from Sura 4:34, which has long been interpreted as allowing husbands to beat their wives: "As for those women who might rebel against you, admonish them, abandon them in their beds, and strike them (adribuhunna)." The problem, as a number of female Quranic scholars have noted, is that adribuhunna can also mean "turn away from them." It can even mean "have sexual intercourse with them." Obviously, which definition the translator chooses will be colored by whatever his or her preconceived notions are about a husband's authority. The new crop of Quran translators are brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic clerical interpretations in favor of a more contemporary, more individualized, and often more gender-friendly approach to the Quran. In the process, they are not only reshaping the way Islam's holy book is read; they are reinterpreting the way Islam itself is being understood in the modern world. 

The latest entry into this cornucopia of Quran translations comes from eminent professor of Islamic history Tarif Khalidi, who is currently at the American University of Beirut. Written in what Khalidi calls "measured modern English," his is an eloquent and eminently readable translation, but one that does not stray too far from other conventional English versions of the Quran. (Khalidi, like the majority of his male predecessors, renders the word adribuhunna as "beat them.") However, Khalidi's Quran is unique in that it is divided not into individual verses, as is the case with all other Qurans, no matter their language, but rather into clusters of three, four, or five verses at a time. In other words, he bundles the individual verses into lengthy paragraphs that are rendered in both prose and poetry. This may perturb those trying to pinpoint a particular verse (Khalidi does provide occasional verse markers on the margins of each page to let readers know where they are in the text), but the overall effect is that Khalidi's Quran probably reads much closer to the way the first Muslims originally experienced the Quran. 

The Quran literally means the recitation, an indication that this was a text meant to be heard, not read. That may explain why the Quran was never written down in Mohammed's lifetime. Instead, the revelations were diligently memorized by a class of religious scholars called the Qurra (or "Quran readers"), who then disseminated God's words to the rest of the Muslim community in short, easy-to-remember bursts of prophecy. A few of the most important revelations-those dealing with legal or economic matters-were preserved on bits of bone or scraps of leather. But the bulk of the Quran was not collected into a single volume until about 50 years after Mohammed's death. Only then was the revelation divided into individual verses.

This made it extremely difficult to place the Quran's verses, which had been revealed to Mohammed over a 22-year span, into historical context, much less chronological order. And so the compilers of the Quran did not bother doing either. Instead, they gathered up all of the revelations and recorded them in what can be described only as random order. This was a deliberate choice on their part. Muslims perceive the Quran as God's dramatic monologue, recorded without a human filter. (According to traditional Islamic theology, the Prophet Mohammed was merely a passive conduit through which the words of God flowed.) For the compilers of the Quran to have provided any explanation or commentary to the text, for them to have organized the verses in any deliberate way-whether chronologically or thematically-would have, in their minds, interfered with the direct revelation of God. As a consequence, those who are unfamiliar with the early history of Islam, or who may not recognize the historical allusions or contextual references that assist scholars in their exegesis, can feel rudderless trying to navigate through this challenging book.

In the introduction to his Quran, Khalidi admits that "the very allusiveness of the text, its impersonality, its meta-historical tone, seem almost deliberately to de-emphasize context." But he also seems to imply that it is natural to be confused by what we read. It is through the attempt to make sense of our confusions, to work through them with reason and with faith, that the Quran's dramatic monologue transforms into an eternal dialogue between humanity and God. Indeed, of all the sacred texts of the world, Khalidi argues that the Quran is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites the reader to engage with it, to challenge it, to ponder and to debate it. After all, as the Quran itself states, only God knows what it truly means.

Reza Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam".

 

Source: Slate.com


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  14 Comments   Comment

  1. Abu from Bangladesh

    Assalamu 3Alaikum

    Qudos to all the brothers and sisters who have written in critisizm to this article. What I wanted to state has already been mentioned, so thanks again.

    what baffels me is how this one got through the gaze of Islamicity editorial/moderators? We have come to expect some thoughful and quality articles from you guys but this is a real shocker.

    we all make mistakes i guess and Allah knows best.

    Salam

  2. Azad from USA

    To Mr. Author:

    Most of your claims about Quranic Interpretation seems your fancy imagination. Your comparison of Christian pristhood to Islamic scholarship is pathetic. If you are truthful, then produce evidence for it.

    Though it is important to have correct translation of the Book, it does not necessarily means enlightenment. As a matter of fact, most of the religious text have lost their true essence in absence of the original text in which the book was revealed. You are trying to come up with a solution with an incorrect understanding of the problem.

    Please read: History of the Quranic Text

    http://www.iqra.org/index/itemdesc.asp?ic=2497&eq=&Tp=

    To Islamicity:

    Freedom of speech is important, but your site is not a place to reflect someone's ignorance about the Deen. Please do not publish such ridicluous articles in future.

    Thank you!

  3. Muhammad-Fawzi Amadu from Ghana

    Contemporary understanding is tainted to the

    extent that it is informed and encouraged by

    prevailing cultures, and secularism. The faith

    that stopped the companions from simply sharing

    their opinions and making them sound like it is

    part of Islam is not necessarily the type of

    attitude that exists today. Thus it would be

    dangerous to blindly follow newer interpretations

    which may not have the force of the sincerity

    that informed earlier interpretations.

    For example the author writes: "... in favor of a

    more contemporary, more individualized, and often

    more gender-friendly approach to the Qu'ran".

    Earlier interpretors did not "favor" they obeyed,

    understanding that without prophetic guidance,

    our desires could bias(favor)the interpretation

    and that could have disastrous consequences.

    Islam has never been gender unfriendly to have to

    need a newly found "gender friendly" attitude.

    This is the guidance, that did away with female

    infanticide, recognized the female as having the

    right to inheritance and to choice (as a complete

    human just like man). A book that takes pains to

    clarify the spiritual equality of the male and

    female with phrases like " the male believer and

    the female believer, the God conscious (male) and

    the God conscious (female) etc. In this example

    the Qur'an leaves no room for interpretation

    about the fact that Woman has the same worth as

    man and must thus be treated equally and fairly

    (not the same).

    Finally, the order of the Qur'an is divine as it

    is known that the prophet of Islam

    showed the way.

  4. Muhammad-Fawzi Amadu from Ghana

    I forgot to mention that the author may refer to Muhammad GHazali's book () for information of the inter-relation ship between the the chapters name and their content.

    Contemporary understanding is tainted to the extent that it is informed and necessitated by prevailing cultures, and secularism. The faith that stopped the companions from simply sharing their opinions and making them sound like it is part of Islam is not necessarily the type of attitude that exists today. Thus it would be dangerous to blindly follow newer interpretations which may not have the force of the sincerity that informed earlier interpretations.

    For example the author writes: "... in favor of a more contemporary, more individualized, and often more gender-friendly approach to the Qu'ran". Earlier interpretors did not "favor" they obeyed, understanding that without prophetic guidance, our desires could bias(favor)the interpretation and that could have disastrous consequences. Islam has never been gender unfriendly to have to need a newly found "gender friendly" attitude. This is the guidance, that did away with female infanticide, recognized the female as having the right to inheritance and to choice (as a complete human just like man). A book that takes pains to clarify the spiritual equality of the male and female with phrases like " the male believer and the female believer, the God conscious (male) and the God conscious (female) etc. In this example the Qur'an leaves no room for interpretation about the fact that Woman has the same worth as man and must thus be treated equally and fairly (not the same).

    Finally, the order of the Qur'an is divine as it is known that the prophet of Islam

    showed the way.

  5. Muhammad-Fawzi Amadu from Ghana

    Interesting article, but with a "liberal" bent. Islam favors no gender and so original Qur'anic understanding had not need to be gender conscious. Justice being a corner stone of Islamic philosophy, no person, group, or tribe are favored or otherwise.

    The companions of the prophet (S.A.W) who studied directly with from him had the best understanding of Islam and their understanding is closest to what ALLAH and his messenger will have follow.

    The writer demonstrates a lack pf depth in the fundamentals of Islamic understanding.

    It is not right the titles of the chapters in the Qur'an have no relationship with the content of the chapter.

    It is also not right that wearing of amulets is encouraged by Islam.

    The sacredness creates not problems, rather is protects against that by keeping the original untained by contemporary "wisdom".

  6. ibn Abu Omar from USA

    Umm, why is this on Islamicity.com? Qur'anic verses were ordered randomly by a male dominated clergy? This is blatantly wrong. Such audacity to string numerous outrages into one article!

  7. abu jamil from USA

    Several issues I take with the author:

    1) first paragraph chapter two-"the words of the Quran are thought to be infused with dvine power"--he writes this as if he is outside the ummah looking in.

    2)paragraph one--"reading the quran can be a baffling experience......paragraph 3...the inherent sacredness of the quran has created an unusual problem" paragrpah 2-----"warn as amulets to ward of evil"..

    this author simplifies, generalizes, and is very negative with these statements.....

    any arabic speaker will tell you that the beauty of the quran can not be fully realized without reading it in its native tongue......it should be encouraged ..but obviously not mandated.

    salam

  8. AS from US

    Scholars of centuries ago and the present have their role in interpreting the Quran. Unfortunately, the vast majority of muslim scholars produced today have no significant knowledge about and beyond the average layperson in regarding of any of the following: government, sociology, history (outside of some muslim world history), psychology, economics, or other social sciences among other topics. The importance of this is well-demonstrated in the knowledge of physical and biological sciences and undestanding some of the verses in the Quran regarding embryologic development, meteorology, neurobiology, physics, and other "hard sciences." We need scholars outside of purely Islamic studies to provide interpretation of Quran for the benefit of all humanity.

  9. Ibn Hajir from USA

    The previous commentators have done an excellent job at exposing the fundamental weaknesses of this article. What amazes me is that such an article has appeared at at this website and found its way into my inbox. I would expect to see this type of material in Orientalist literature. May Allah swt bless us with the correct understanding and open our hearts to the guidance of the Quran.

    They desire to put out the light of Allah with their mouths but Allah will perfect His light, though the unbelievers may be averse.

    Surat As-Saf

    61:08

  10. Abu Luqmaan from South Africa

    On a first reading of the review, a tone of scepticism against Muslim scholarship in general is sensed. The reviewer's sweeping generalization of all 'ulamaa as clergy (where the inference is blind-following) and more specifically, his omission to refer to the science 'ulum-al-Quran, belies his objectivity in this review. Add to this inherent bias towards things Muslim the fact that he uses an example most favoured by Orientalists, the reviewer has failed to excite me to want to read this 'translation' - and I use this word here in it's most broadest sense. His view of wanting to sever the understanding of Quran from, at the very least, it's socio-historical context and to adopt instead a neutered value-less literal construct fits perfectly into the contemporary environment of community-less religion where faith is utility and not sacred.

    And my response to this invitation to an exercise in confusion?

    "Muslims have something called "iman" which is different from "faith" or "belief". When Moderns use the word "faith" or "belief" there is usually an implication that while "I believe/have faith in something to be true" that in reality that belief is flying in the face of some real facts. Faith or belief essentially -and often subconsciously- amounts to nothing more than private opinion for Moderns. "Iman" is solid, objectively true, fact. When a Muslim translates, "I believe in God, His Messenger and the Day of Judgement" from Arabic, s/he is saying, "I recognize the objective and fundamental truth of the existence of God, the validity of the Prophet(s) and the reality of the Day of Judgement", not, "I personally believe that God exists, but that's just my personal view." http://mujahada.blogspot.com/2005/09/i-am-extremist-muslim.html

    And Allah knows best

  11. Abu ibrahim from Kuwait

    Jazakallahu kharan abu Zayd. You have hit the nail on the head. Furthermore, the prophet(PBUH) had a scribe who would write the verses as they are revealed and the prophet(PBUH) would ask him to read over to him to ensure correctness. Aslo the prophet(PBUH) and his companions would practice its commands. Any doubth about a verse they would go back to the prophet(PBUH) and ask him for clarication. There is au authentic hadith where the prophet(PBUH) said that anyone who interprets the quran with his own opinions and whims then let him find his seat in the hellfire. I believe Reza is reducing the quran into just another book open to interpretation. The quran is protected by Allh (SWT) through the prophet(PBUH), his companions and the qualified scholars who are given the knowledge and wisdoms to explain its verses to us. And Allah (SWT)knows best.

  12. umm Zahra from U.S.A

    I agree with the comments by Abu Zayd and also it is strange that the author mentions that the quran was never written down during the prophet's time. The fact is the prophet A.S used to instruct certain companions to write down verses as soon as they were revealed. Even the sequence of the verses in each surah was given by him. The compilation into a single book was done later though.

  13. Abu Zayd from USA

    i think the author has some misconceptions on quranic interpretation and i have to disagree with some of what he has written. For example, he claims that most muslims, who are non-arabs, relied on all male, arab clergy to tell them how to interpret the quran..this is incorrect. Islam relies on the Quran and Hadith, and the scholars to learn their religion. Also, there have been many female scholars(some examples are Aisha(radiAllahu anha), nusayba bin harith(radiAllahu anha, and many others). Another thing is that Islam does not have a clergy system like in Christianity(more specifically Catholicism) or other religions; and Islaam does not ask the believer to follow religious leaders blindly...People are encouraged to learn their religion and to ask for the proofs from the Quran and Sunnah for what they are taught. Another misconception by the author is that he mentions that people can interpret the words in different manners and get different meanings. Quranic interpretation has a set of rules and there are different types...interpretation of quran with quran, quran with hadith, quran by the statement of a companion, etc...so to advocate that people just interpret the quran and giving meaning to words by their own understanding is just plain wrong. People must go to the scholars and must go to the interpretations of our predecessors who had a better understanding of the religion than we have today. If everyone decides to interpret islaam by their own whims and desires than we truly are in trouble. Maybe the author shouldn't try and judge and interpret Islaam by the Western systems of religious thought he learned in College here in the United States and maybe he should go learn at the feet of the scholars like the truly knowledgeable have and still do for the last 1400 or so years.