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There are different theories that explain the understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an. The study of these theories is called Qur’an hermeneutics. Qur’an hermeneutics is important as it enables the Qur’an texts to be meaningful and applicable to the contemporary Muslims. Currently, there are several groups of Islam that came about because of diverse interpretations of the teachings contained in the Qur’an.
The interaction of Muslims with the rest of the world is influenced by their understanding of the interpretations of the Qur’an. The intensity of interpretations of Qur’an verses differ from one group to another.
These interpretations determine how different groups of Islam perceive the various facets of their faith (Rahman 2002). This discussion intends to look at how contemporary scholars are challenging the traditional Qur’an interpretations.
The Qur’an is one of the chief sources of law in Islam. It also contains the rules that Muslims should adhere to while worshipping and the religious obligations of each person. The Qur’an does not clearly differentiate between the law and ethical issues.
Therefore, these instructions needed to be added on. Prophet Muhammad and other scholars came up with supplementary interpretations and instructions. These instructions and interpretations were used in formulating the Islamic law (Knysh 2007).
Muslims regard the Qur’an as the source of all truth. But some issues in the Qur’an are contradictory and therefore it was necessary to find solutions that could clear the ambiguities.
This necessitated a thorough interpretation and creation of commentaries on the Qur’an in order to guide the Muslims in their daily lives. Some verses are also unclear and it is not easy for an ordinary Muslim to understand them without interpretation (Rippin 2006).
The Qur’an has many meanings and therefore man can interpret it to any level. There is no end to the interpretations of the Qur’an. The texts have the outer and deep meaning. Anyone who is able to interpret its deepest meanings finds happiness. Some understand the inner meanings as future revelations of what is to come (Schimmel 1994).
The Muslims have a practice of reciting the Qur’an verses. Reciting enables the Muslims to read and at the same time listen to the verses. This helps the Muslims to comprehend their deep meanings. While reading the Qur’an, the reader is supposed to understand that those are the words of God the creator.
The reader should also have the fear of God. This can be achieved by thinking about the qualities of God like omnipresence, omnipotence, among others. The reader must also seek to understand the message and assume that God is speaking to him/her in that text. He/she should contextualize the text to his/her personal situation and perceive the text as a message from God (Sands 2006).
There are various reasons why the interpretation of the Qur’an was necessary. Firstly, the Islamic religion spread to different countries and there was a need to explain some difficult words contained in the holy book. The Qur’an was written in Arabic and when other people who spoke different languages converted to Islam, they could not fathom some difficult Arabic words.
Thus, interpretation was necessary so that every believer of Islam could understand the Qur’an. Another reason is that some concepts in the Qur’an are clear while others are ambiguous. Therefore, there was a need to clarify the ambiguous concepts for everyone’s understanding. The ambiguous texts could easily be misunderstood by the readers and therefore wrongly applied.
Consequently, the interpretations ensured that the messages were correctly construed. Moreover, the stories narrated in the Qur’an have scanty details and therefore there was a need to expound on them so that the readers could understand them.
In addition, problems arose after the death of Prophet Muhammad because he was the leader. People did not know who to turn to for guidance. This necessitated the interpretation of the Qur’an so that people can seek answers from Qur’an interpretations (Leaman not dated).
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There are various groups of Muslims. These include the liberal, conservative, reformist, progressive, socialist, traditional, and secular Muslims, among others. These groups believe in different interpretations of the Qur’an. Many Muslims still rely on the traditional Qur’an hermeneutics for their daily guidance in behaviour and ethics (Dakroury not dated).
Throughout history, there have been many contentious interpretations of the Qur’an. The traditional interpretation of the Qur’an is referred to as the tafsir and it started with Prophet Muhammad. The remarks of Prophet Muhammad have been a major subject of interpretations. According to the Qur’an, the Muslims are supposed to do what the Prophet has commanded and stay away from what he has prohibited.
Prophet Muhammad interpreted several teachings to his followers. He explained to them the implication of various texts in the Qur’an. For example, he explained to his followers how to perform prayers five times daily. The prophet also interpreted unclear texts to his followers, for instance, the expressions about the whiteness of day and the darkness of night.
He also explained various concepts about the worship of God alone and his messenger, the omnipotence of God, the dead animals that can be eaten , life after death and various other Islamic issues in the Qur’an. The interpretations of Prophet Muhammad are brief and touch on certain verses of the Qur’an and not the whole text.
The interpretations of the Qur’an by Prophet Muhammad are not recorded because the prophet did not want the people to confuse them with the Qur’an. These interpretations have been passed on through word of mouth from one generation to the next.
The Prophet considered the confusion of his interpretations with the Qur’an as a very great violation. He wanted a clear distinction between his words and those of God so as not to confuse the Islam believers (Abdul-Raof not dated).
After the death of Prophet Muhammad, his followers came up with different interpretations depending on the general knowledge. They applied their own wisdom and other commonly known facts to explain the Qur’an. In addition, they used the knowledge of Islamic proceedings and the wisdom they had gained from their closeness with the Prophet.
They used the knowledge they had gained from the prophet through personal questions that they asked him. Some of the followers who continued with the interpretation of the Qur’an after the death of the prophet include Ali Talib, Abd Abbas, Abdi Mason and Ubai Kab. Ali Talib has given several interpretations but some scholars claim that some of his narrations are true while others are false.
Abbas explains unclear matters in the Qur’an from the viewpoint of the People of the Book. He interprets some concepts like the dimensions of the ark Noah built, among others. The students of Abbas have recorded his teachings in a book. Masud’s interpretations are mainly concerned with legal matters.
Kab is from a Jewish background and therefore he has a sound knowledge of both the old and new testaments. He does not support the recording of Qur’an interpretations for fear of peoples confusing it them with the word of God (Al-Sheha not dated).
The companions of the prophet base their interpretations on the Qur’an, the teachings of the Prophet and their own opinions. The Qur’an offers interpretations of some concepts within the text. For instance, similar expressions can appear in different parts of the Qur’an. A concept can appear in one verse and then be repeated in another one. In addition, parables are given in one part and then explained later in the Qur’an.
The followers moreover relied on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad to carry out their own interpretations. The teachings of the prophet offered them the necessary guidance that they needed while interpreting the Qur’an on their own. If they failed to get a concrete explanation from the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, they relied on their own opinion and general knowledge.
They applied their own experiences and wisdom in making judgments about the Qur’an teachings. The interpretations by the companions of Prophet Muhammad are brief and do not explain all the verses in the Qur’an. Some of them have been recorded for the purpose of learning. Their interpretations are not structured according to the Qur’an verses.
Therefore, the verses do not flow the way they do in the Qur’an but are arranged according to the themes that they explain. The interpretations of different companions are similar in terms of legal rulings because they used to live in close proximity but their artistic knowledge and linguistics skills vary (Abdul-Raof not dated).
The students of the companions, known as successors came up with their own interpretations. The successors’ interpretations are brief and touch on certain Qur’an verses. Their interpretation is based on the view of the companions.
The successors have also explored contentious theological issues like the traits of God. The opinions of different successors vary depending on their teachers and their proximity from one another. The successors have also relied on the information from Christian and Jewish converts in their interpretations (Schimmel 1994).
The interpretations of the Qur’an that Prophet Muhammad, the companions and successors offered was only relevant at that time. Many laws were derived from the traditional interpretations and such laws are irrelevant today.
Almost all Muslims agree that the most credible interpretations of the Qur’an are the interpretations contained in the Qur’an verses. Next is the interpretation by Prophet Muhammad. If sufficient understanding can not be extracted from theses two, people should then turn to the interpretations by the companions, successors and other scholars (Leaman not dated).
Currently, the Islamic scholars have turned to new ways of interpreting their religion. They seek to challenge the traditional interpretations and replace them with current ones. These scholars seek to find ways in which the twenty-first century Muslims should understand the Qur’an teachings.
The scholars are attempting to give contemporary meaning to the teachings of the Qur’an while retaining the message and basic beliefs of the Islamic religion. However, they have faced hostility and mistreatment because the conservative Muslims feel that they are propagating anti-Islamic ideologies.
The Muslims who still uphold the traditional interpretations feel that these modern scholars are misleading other Muslim believers and are going against the teachings of God (Welchman 2007).
In the contemporary world, the viewpoints of scholars about the interpretation of the Qur’an have changed. These scholars agree with the basic principles of Islam like fasting during Ramadan, praying five times daily and other Islamic practices like giving of alms. However they are against some interpretations of the Qur’an teachings, which they argue are not relevant in the current times.
Modern Muslims can not understand the relevance of some laws in this era. The society has changed and therefore the Muslims’ view of issues should change too. It is not easy to apply traditional interpretations to modern issues relating to human rights, women emancipation, and holy war, among others (Rapoport 2005).
Many Muslim scholars have faced many problems while trying to interpret some of these issues in the modern context. The contemporary Qur’an hermeneutics was brought about by the need to explain the Islamic teachings to meet the demands of the current world.
The Muslim scholars are trying to find a way to interpret the Qur’an teachings so that they can be applicable to modern Muslims, governments and international organizations (Freamon 2006).
There are several scholars who are pushing for reforms in the interpretations of Islamic texts. Some of them feel that the traditional interpretation of the Qur’an does not fit in the modern setting and therefore re-interpretation should be done.
These scholars advocate for gender equality in Islamic practices, reform on views about some customs and inappropriate dress, independent interpretation of the Islamic teachings, among others. The interpretations that are being used and which are the source of Islamic law were only meant to be applied by the people who lived during those times.
Currently, those laws and interpretations are out-dated and archaic and therefore have no place in the modern setting. Thus some changes need to be made to those interpretations so that they can be applicable in modern life (Haddad 1988).
Other scholars propose that the Qur’an should be considered a source of godly motivation and the interpretations should be ignored. Others suggest that the Qur’an alone should be considered as the Holy book and all other texts written by Islamic scholars should not be used.
These scholars advocate for the rejection of any other writings apart from the Qur’an as a source of guidance for the Muslims. Scholars like Ghulam Ahmed Pervez of Pakistan feel that only the Qur’an should be read and used for daily guidance and any other writing should be disregarded.
These scholars claim that some interpretations of Islamic law are not applicable worldwide as they do not fit in the current context. The scholars also accept the basic Islamic teachings as true but are against their interpretations and applicability to modern life (Khadduri 1984).
Contemporary scholars feel that Hadith and Sunna are not authentic and that these two do not bring out the original meanings from Qur’an verses. They should therefore not be relied upon in making any decisions. These traditions were passed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years before they were recorded. Therefore there is a likelihood of them getting distorted by each generation.
Moreover, some rules derived from Hadith and Sunna like stoning of adulterers and female circumcision are old fashioned and against the teachings of the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not advocate for such actions and therefore those are rules made by the interpreters.
Additionally, Some Qur’an verses have been interpreted out of context in order to validate the interpretations of the Sunna and Hadith. The interpreters construed them wrongly in order to meet their own personal ends (Abou El Fadl 2001).
One of the controversial issues is the interpretation of Islamic laws. Contemporary Muslim scholars reject traditional Qur’an interpretations which are old-fashioned and instead advocate for readings which can be applied in the contemporary setting. They are also against the use of single verses from the Qur’an to develop Islamic laws.
For instance, Nasir Abu Zayd argued that the teachings of the Qur’an should be interpreted based on the time that they were written and are not applicable to current matters. He proposed for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an which takes into consideration new opinions about the religion and should consider that modern Muslim societies have undergone a lot of change.
Nasir has conducted several researches and the aim is to promote modern Islamic thinking. He intended to create a link between the traditional and modern Islamic views about democracy, human rights and equality. However his beliefs landed him into trouble with the conservative Muslims with claims that he was against the Islamic faith (Rahman 2002).
Scholar Ghulam Ahmad Parvez feels that the Qur’an has enough teachings to guide the Muslims in their daily lives and therefore the laws derived from early interpretations should be done away with. He argues that each generation can find relevance by reading the Qur’an alone and interpreting it in their context. He therefore does not see the need for the Hadith or the Sunna (Farah 1984).
Muhammad Abduh also advised the Muslims to stop relying so much on the traditional interpretations of the Qur’an but instead use logic while interpreting the Qur’an in order to fit in the current world. He urged the Muslims to exercise their freedom of will, thinking and expressing their views. In addition, he was opposed to traditional Islam practices like polygamy. Such practices are degrading to the women.
He advocated for equal human rights for all and was against slavery and any form of discrimination. According to him, all human beings are equal before God and therefore should be treated equally and with respect. Moreover he believed in making peace with everyone and made efforts to create friendships between Muslims and people from other religions like Christians (Wadud 1999).
Rashid Rida also saw over-reliance on traditional Qur’an interpretations as the reason why Muslim communities lag behind in technological developments and other matters. Therefore they should adopt more civilized and current laws and ways of reasoning in order to be at the same development level with other communities. He felt that the Qur’an should be reinterpreted to suit the current circumstances (Webb 2000).
In the tafsir tradition, no one was supposed to read the Qur’an on their own and derive an interpretation. They feared that unless a person was trained, he /she would misunderstand the meaning of the texts. However, in the contemporary world, even untrained people are reading and interpreting the Qur’an on their own.
Islamic scholars are in support of this as they feel that every Muslim has a right to read the Qur’an on his/her own and apply its meaning according to his individual experiences.
The Muslims have a right to make independent interpretations of the Qur’an as the available interpretations are sometimes misleading and biased. Today, the Qur’an has been translated in many languages and is readily available on the internet and other sources (Saeed 2006).
Contemporary Muslims also do not agree with the traditional interpretations about human rights. They believe that all human beings are equal and their human rights should be respected. Therefore the traditional interpretations allowing injustices like slavery are not applicable in the modern world.
The Qur’an contains information about slaves and how they should be treated. Such verses were only applicable at the time when slavery was practiced and are therefore not relevant in the current setting. Therefore, such teachings and the laws derived from them should be ignored by the modern Muslim (Abu Zayd 2001).
In addition, contemporary scholars do not agree with traditional Islamic interpretations which discriminate against women. Some of the laws that they do not agree with include the tolerance of polygamy for the men while women are not allowed to practice polyandry (Esposito 1982).
Another law states that women are entitled to a less inheritance than the men. These laws clearly show that Muslim women have less authority and rights than men. In the current world, people believe in gender equality and equal opportunities for both men and women (Mattson not dated).
Some Muslim scholars are also opposed to the traditional role of women in prayers where they are supposed to pray at a separate place or behind the men. In some mosques, women are supposed to enter through the back door and perform their prayers at a secluded place away from the men.
The scholars argue that this is not in line with the Qur’an teachings as even prophet Muhammad allowed women to pray together with the men. Therefore, such rules were intentionally distorted by the interpreters of the Qur’an so as to deny women their rights (Corbin 1986).
Women are also not allowed to lead prayers in a congregation comprising of both men and women. Women are only allowed to lead their fellow women in prayer. Contemporary Muslims advocate for women to be treated equally with men and even encourage them to take up leadership positions in their countries.
They also feel that women should not be segregated from men during prayer and should also be allowed to lead the prayers provided they are sufficiently knowledgeable about the Qur’an (Badawi 1995).
Scholar Amina Wadud is a great advocator of women leading prayers. She broke the norm by leading Friday prayers. Some Muslim scholars were in support of this while conservative Muslims termed it as wrong and against the teachings of Islam. Amina continues to lead Friday prayers in different places around the world.
Conservative Muslims have not accepted this and they threaten renounce the Muslims who attend those prayer meetings. Amina has written several books encouraging Muslims to treat both men and women equally (Mutahhari 1991).
Abu Zayd and Leila Ahmed also advocate for equal rights for women as the Islamic laws discriminate against them. These laws were written when the society was male-dominated. Now the society has changed and such laws that degrade women are not applicable.
Samira Bellil wrote books detailing how Muslim women suffer under traditional Islamic laws which undermine them. She argues that the traditional Islamic beliefs are very constraining and are not relevant in the contemporary world (Khan 1995).
Other Muslims feel that women should not be forced to wear the head veil or hijab as they can wear any other clothes provided they look modest. Ahmad Ghabel argues that it is not a must for Muslim women to cover their head and neck but they are obligated to cover their bodies only.
Modern scholars argue that the Qur’an commands both men and women to dress modestly but that does not mean that the women should always cover their heads (Masud 1997). In fact, some of them like Hedi Mheni and Fadela Amara support the banning of the hijab in some countries like France.
They feel that holding on to such traditions will lead to women being denied more of their rights. The Qur’an was wrongly interpreted because it does not mention the covering of the head with the hijab. They call for the emancipation of Muslim women so that they can fit in the modern society (Barlas 2002).
Modern scholars like Fatima Mernissi argue that the traditional Qur’an interpretations have been manipulated to take advantage of the women. She says that the Qur’an does not support the discrimination against women as the wives of Prophet Muhammad were treated as equals.
The writers of the Sunna and Hadith distorted the Qur’an verses and denied women their rights for their own interests and material advantage. She challenges Muslims to be wary when following some of the teachings from the traditional Qur’an commentaries because they might not be reliable (Mernissi 1985).
The Muslim personal law discriminates against women in matters of divorce, polygamy, marital property and children’s custody. Modern Muslim scholars are opposed to this law and are proposing reforms. These reforms should be made with the inclusion of women’s views and other opinions based on the Qur’an teachings.
The law should be reformed because when these laws were put in place, the society was male-dominated and therefore it favours men. These interpretations completely degrade women and they can not continue being discriminated in this era (Barazangi 2004).
Mohammed Arkoun feels that contrary to the past beliefs that aspects of western culture should be removed from Islam, the Islamic and western worlds should be connected. He argues that Muslims should combine both the Islamic and western ways of thinking.
Muslims should not just understand their culture but also that of other societies. Arkoun offers a method of interpreting the Qur’an by making it open to several interpretations. Therefore, the Qur’an can be interpreted to fit in the modern context (Gunther 2004).
Discussion of topics related to sex openly is prohibited in Islam. However modern scholars argue that this should not be the case as these topics are discussed openly in the Qur’an. In addition some verses have been misinterpreted in the hadith to validate actions like the beating of women by their husbands (Kurzman 1998).
Contemporary scholars are against the idea of perceiving Islam as a political group. They are in favour of separating contemporary secular democracy with religious matters.
They believe that the teachings of the Qur’an were meant to be applied during the time when it was written and their application to the current world should be done sensibly. Traditional interpretations maintain that the Qur’an and the hadith authorize an Islamic government (Sonbol 1996).
Liberal Muslims are also against the traditional interpretation of the concept of Jihad as armed violence. They propose that this should be interpreted to mean an inner religious struggle. These Muslims advocate for non-violence and forbearance, and are open to peaceful solving of conflicts with other Islam groups, Christians, Jews, Hindus and other religions (Barlas 2006).
Contemporary Muslim scholars are also against the Islamizing of knowledge and coming up with divisions meant for Muslims, for instance divisions like the economics of Islam or the science of Islam. These scholars feel that the secular sources of knowledge are sufficient and there is no point in studying knowledge from religious perspectives.
Supporters of Islamizing knowledge propose that the knowledge that should be used by Muslims should have concepts of civilization and western culture eliminated from it. In addition, Islamic concepts should be infused in all branches of current knowledge (Lampe 1997).
From the above discussion, it is clear that most of the traditional Qur’an hermeneutics are not applicable in the current world. Most of the interpreters of the Qur’an teachings either misinterpreted or included their own opinions in the interpretations. Moreover some of the laws derived from those teachings have no place in the current setting.
This has compelled modern scholars to try and come up with more applicable hermeneutics of the Qur’an which suit the modern Muslim. These scholars are faced with a very daunting task as they are challenging the beliefs that Muslims have been espousing for a very long time. All the same, there is a need for the Muslims to transform their views on several issues, lest they will lag behind in development.
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