Who is entitled to Interpret the Qur'an? Traditionalist vs Modernist

Abdullah al-Hasan to Ziauddin Sardar:

I have been following your efforts in discovering the meanings of verses and words of the Qur’an. A wonderful and much-needed venture which promises immense reward and blessings from God if undertaken within the set principles that Islam has prescribed. However, I am deeply concerned regarding your qualifications or credentials. I am not fully acquainted with your educational background but – correct me if I am wrong – you have no formal traditional scholarly education in Islam. As you are very much aware, there are certain requirements that a person must attain before indulging in interpretation of the Qur’an.

Being aware – as you are – of the requisite qualifications, why undertake this mammoth task ill-equipped? By your own admission, you have not reached the required status of an interpreter when you say: “I have no qualms in admitting I am not the most qualified person to talk about the Qur’an, let alone venture into the thorny territory of interpretation. I am not a Hafiz, or an Imam, or an Alim – a religious scholar – though on certain bad days, I do imagine myself as a Muslim thinker of some repute. Worse: I don’t even speak Arabic.”

I commend your desire to convey the message and spirit of the Qur’an. However, I am afraid that a person ill-equipped in exegesis will be prone to making mistakes. In an age where Islam is being attacked from all angles, we need to disseminate the true colours of Islam as authorised by the Qur’an. This requires qualified individuals. There are many scholars who are far more nuanced in this field; have you approached them or requested their assistance?

As you are all too aware, many people commit grave atrocities in the name of Islam – some are violent and some more covert and subtle. The number of people post 9/11 claiming to be experts on Islam has astoundingly escalated; it seems that people are becoming experts on Islam overnight. I intend no offence when I say that your venture here is quite similar to the attitudes of some that I have just elucidated.

I ask you, would anyone after some rudimentary reading on medicine and surgery without attending medical college and years of training assume the task of performing delicate surgical procedures on patients? I do not know of any hospital that would accept such a person; he or she will be deemed a charlatan. In addition, would our just and equitable judicial system allow a person without the proper knowledge of the British legal system to arbitrate and adjudicate between people? I would anticipate your reply would be a resounding no. Likewise, exegesis will not allow for a person who does not posses the certifications to undertake this task. If you do possess the qualifications, please present them to the readers so all are aware that they are taking knowledge from a credible source.

I do not say you are not eligible to read and benefit from the Qur’an. No one is required to hold a diploma or a PhD in Islam to derive lessons from the various passages in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is guidance for all people; it gives clear directions to all who read and ponder over its verses, whether they are scholars or otherwise. This was eloquently expressed by an author in his remarks about the relationship that people have with the Qur’an when he said: “The Qur’an speaks to each in his language, accessibly, as if to match his intelligence, his heart, his questions, his joy as well as his pain. This is what the ulema [scholars] have termed reading or listening as adoration. As Muslims read or hear the text, they strive to suffuse themselves with the spiritual dimension of its message: beyond time, beyond history and the millions of beings who populate the earth, God is speaking to each of them, calling and reminding each of them, inviting, guiding, counseling and commanding. God responds, to her, to him, to the heart of each: with no intermediary, in the deepest intimacy.”

However, he says that the message of the Qur’an can be quite complex, since Islam is a comprehensive religion which seeks to govern all spheres of human life. The Qur’an is the constitution of life for the Muslims and then to the rest of humanity. It gives us guidance on the moral, legal and ethical aspects of human life. One is only able to derive these prescriptions if he or she has the appropriate skills. He says: “But there remains a third level, which demands full intellectual and spiritual immersion in the text, and in the revealed message. Here, the task is to derive the Islamic prescriptions that govern matters of faith, of religious practice and of its fundamental precepts. In a broader sense, the task is to determine the laws and rules that will make it possible for all Muslims to have a frame of reference for the obligations, the prohibitions, the essential and secondary matters of religious practice, as well as those of the social sphere.”

This requires the tools of Qur’anic exegesis which our scholars have explained and which the Qur’an itself alludes to in many instances. The classical Sunni scholar Imam as-Suyuti, in his monumental book al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an (Mastery in the Sciences of the Qur’an), cites 15 or so characteristics of the mufassir [interpreter]. Scholars affirm that any tafsir [commentary], which disregards these principles must be scrutinised with great concern and caution, if not completely rejected. Allow me to, at this point remind you of some of these conditions:

1. Proper intention and sound creed. It seems to me from some of your remarks that you are confused about your creed. In one instance you declare you are a Mutazilite and another you say you’re a Sunni: “Now, I regard Mutazilite scholars such as ibn Sina [Avicenna] and ibn Rushd [Averroes], as my heroes – and regard myself, particularly at certain moments (alas, all too limited) of enlightenment, as a Mutazilite.”

You also say: “I ought to confess that I am a Sunni through and through. But I disagree strongly with those Muslims who have declared the Ahmadis to be ‘non-Muslims’; and I would definitely condemn all those who persecute this small community. I think the Ahmadis add to the richness and diversity of Muslim communities.”

I would be delighted if you would clarify your position in this regard. As far as I know, in Islam whoever believes there is another prophet after our beloved Muhammad will not be considered a Muslim by the consensus of the scholars. Not only that, the Qur’an itself regards those who believe that there will be another prophet after the final Messenger to be out of Islam. Yet, you imply that those who have such a belief are Muslims. I agree with you that it is wrong to persecute the Ahmadis for holding certain views, but in the domain of theology, they would not be considered Muslims by Sunni orthodox standards.

2. Knowledge of the Arabic language. This requires one to master grammar [nahu], morphology [sarf], word etymology [ishtiqaq], Arabic rhetoric [balagha] and poetry amongst other things.

3. Knowledge of the various modes of qira’ats [recitations].

4. Knowledge of the principles of jurisprudence – fiqh [usul al-fiqh] and fiqh.

5. Knowledge of the asbab an-nuzul [reasons for revelation] and related topics.

6. Knowledge of the nasikh and mansukh.

7. Knowledge of hadith, especially those pertaining the explicit commentary made by the Prophet (pbuh).

8. Knowledge of the makki, madani, muhkam, mutashabih and the various types of ‘ijaz of the Qur’an.

9. Referring to the reports of the Companions of the Prophet.

10. Considering the reports of the successors of the Companions.

11. Consulting the opinions of eminent scholars. 12. Following the proper methodology of exegesis of the Qur’an.

These are some very pertinent tools that a Qur’anic scholar needs in order to derive the more complex moral, legal and ethical rules found in the Qur’an.

Finally, there were some comments forwarded by some readers regarding authority. As I have mentioned, in Islam there was and is no church or clerical hierarchy. Islamic history is significantly different from that of Christianity; the traditions of Islam are divinely inspired and were authentically transmitted from one generation to another which originated from God and His Messenger who are the sole authority in Islam. Christian history ,however, is quite different. In Islam only the Prophets and Messengers enjoy the position of official representatives of God. Thus, we believe that the Messenger of God, Muhammad, deserves complete and unadulterated obedience after God Himself; it is a creedal imperative and salvation is sought in following this authority. After the Prophet, the authority does not lie with any particular hierarchy, caste, group or individual but with the corpus of knowledge which has been left behind by the Prophet. Thereafter, the duty of the scholars and experts in exegesis at this instance is to transmit and expound upon that which was left by the Prophet, as he was the first interpreter of the Qur’an – precisely because he embodied the teachings and spirit of the Qur’an in his life, as mentioned by his wife Ayesha.

I hope you may be able to request someone more appropriately qualified in our scriptures to assist you and in guide you.

Ziauddin Sardar to Abdullah al-Hasan:

And so the moment has arrived. I have been waiting in certain knowledge that some self-righteous Muslim, dripping in pieties and with sense of superiority, somewhere, will say: “You have absolutely no authority to comment, let alone interpret, the Qur’an.” On this occasion that someone is Abdullah al-Hasan, a “Shariah graduate”. Normally, one would dismiss such absurdity, not to mention grotesque elitism, out of hand but there are numerous sincere, humble Muslims out there who actually believe that only certain special people have a right to comment on the Qur’an. So al-Hasan’s claims need a proper response.

Al-Hasan, as is common among such people, begins by questioning my faith. Apparently, my creed is somewhat deficient because I am a supporter of the Mutazilites, the rationalist school of Islamic philosophy, and I stand up for a persecuted minority like the Ahmadis and defend their right to self-description. I am not allowed to be a Sunni and a rationalist! Or to defend the human rights of others!

Then, al-Hasan attacks my intention: another common trait of this sort of chap. At best, according to his website, I am one of the “opportunistic Muslim sell-outs” doing this for “mere five minutes of fame” or – worse – I am a neocon out to subvert Islam.

Having denigrated my beliefs and intention, al-Hasan begins with the conventional Muslim boast that Islam has no priestly hierarchy and, as is usual, fires off pot-shots at other faiths which he judges to be inferior and to have suffered adversely because of their established priesthood. Equally conventionally, he asserts that rather than a priesthood, Islam recognises knowledge, acquired learning, as the only distinguishing characteristic between believers. Yet, he insists that only certain kinds of people, with specialised knowledge, have the right to interpret the Qur’an. What is this if not a clergy? Indeed, these people with the sole and absolute right to comment on the Qur’an, actually dress, behave and perform the functions of a clergy. It is simply deceitful to say that that the ulama, religious scholars, are not a clergy – a deceit Muslims have been perpetuating for centuries.

And here we arrive at a basic problem. The conditions set out are so specialised, followed by such a minority among the world’s Muslims, that in practical terms a hierarchy of adepts who alone claim authority, and whose exercise of this authority over interpretation, meaning and discourse on Islam is tantamount to a priesthood is created to silence debate among Muslims. The majority of Muslims will be told what the Qur’an means. They can present questions to warranted scholars and follow the answers given. To challenge the traditional opinions of this elite body is presumption, the very presumption I am accused of, along with the implications that by daring to read and think for oneself must indicate a weakness of faith, creed and belief and nefarious intentions since without the special educational preparation no sensible thought or understanding is possible.

This is the crux of the most serious problem facing the Muslims today and for the future. It disqualifies concerned, thinking dedicated Muslims from engaging in earnest and reasoned debate while it leaves a stultified, closed system of education producing scholars who have little knowledge of the complexity and problems of the modern world. The late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Bin Baz, was a typical scholar of the school of thought presented by al-Hasan. As “the arbiter of all that is Islamically proper”, he believed that man has not landed on the moon, banned football as evil, and insisted that women should be confined to the four walls of the house. I have met countless such scholars, educated – if one could use this word – in traditional universities such as Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh and Medina University, and some even in al-Azhar, who exist in the mental universe of the eighth century. Unlike the great scholars of the past, who valued criticism, traditionally educated alims – who are the imams of mosques around the world and judges in Shariah courts – lack the tools of contemporary critical scholarship and exposure to its various disciplines. They are used to valuing received outmoded opinion, exist in hermetically-sealed religious and cultural capsules, and spout little more than slogans that are dangerously obsolete. They tell Muslims what to think rather than debate with the community and engage with its day-to-day concerns. The great challenge of contemporary times is for Muslims to be liberated from their clutches.

It was exactly the same mentality that stopped the spread of printing in the Muslim world for centuries. The ulama, religious scholars, prohibited printing because they feared copies of the Qur’an would become commonplace, leading to Muslim masses not just reading them but interpreting them. The damage that inflicted on Islamic culture is still with us today. It was these very traditional scholars who reduced the Qur’anic concept of ilm, which refers to all kinds of knowledge, to mean only religious knowledge; and then went on to suggest, as al-Hasan seem to imply, that those with religious knowledge are morally superior to those who do not have religious knowledge. It was these same ulama who reduced the Islamic concept of ijma, which means consensus of all people, to mean only the consensus of a few privileged religious scholars – the consequences of this for democracy in the Muslim world are all evident. Such techniques have been used to encourage Muslims to shut up rather than stand up and be counted. (All these issues are discussed at some length in my book Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures.)

What exactly is this specialist knowledge that al-Hasan speaks of? What the classical scholars demanded – such as knowledge of where, when and why verses of the Qur’an were revealed, some 3,000 traditions of the Prophet, and various books of Islamic law – relied heavily on memory. Al-Hasan has added a couple himself: such as “proper intention and sound creed” (so you can easily dismiss those who you disagree with and who deviate from the established, traditional “straight path” as mal-intentioned and not believing in right things – a tactic often used to ban certain commentaries of the Qur’an from Saudi Arabia and other “Islamic states”) and “consulting the opinions of eminent scholars” (that is, contemporary traditionalist scholars so the system can be perpetuated). But the fact is that most of this memory-based material can be easily acquired from a CD like The Alim where you will find all the basics you need. You don’t have to rely on memory – the CD stores the information for you, leaving your mind free to think. Moreover, most of this information can now be obtained from the internet. Beyond that there are libraries, publications and a diversity of resources that are readily available – paradoxically most abundant in western countries – for anyone wanting access to the source material of traditional Islamic scholarship without enrolling in a specialist Islamic religious studies course.

More and more Muslims who take advantage of these resources have questions and the information with which to think and reason with the traditional body of Islamic thought and bring their own experience and ideas to bear on how they read the Qur’an. They do this not to claim, and even in my case, not to usurp the traditional scholars but to engage in a dialogue with them for the betterment and wellbeing of the Muslim communities. It saddens me that the kind of attitudes displayed by al-Hasan appear to regard such dialogue as impossible, presumptuous and unacceptable. In the meantime there are plenty, schooled in religious seminaries and universities, and equipped with traditionalist knowledge, who masquerade as the mouthpieces of Muslims and are busily hijacking Islam for a host of pernicious, violent, murderous, inward-looking and life-denying ideologies. This is neither sensible nor sustainable for the future of Muslim societies.

In the end, the issue of authority comes down to power and territory. For too long, a group of narrow-minded, ill-educated elite have usurped the power to comment on the Qur’an and defended this territory with the rhetoric of fire and brimstone. It is time ordinary Muslims took this power back to where it belongs: with all Muslims, whatever their background, whatever their state of knowledge. As Noor al-Yaqeen points out: “If indeed the human mind is the target of divine texts, if indeed divine texts are for the human and not just the scholarly mind, why will I need 15 qualifications to use my brain?”

She goes on to say: “Yes, there are dangers inherent in the exegetical process but there are dangers in eschewing too. Since we all are fallible beings, ‘unscholarly’ interpretations should serve as a reality check for scholars, for there is less of a chance religious scholars will cross the line (as they sometimes have), if they know we all are watching, thinking and actively participating in religious discourses that affect us all.”

Rather than being told what to think, concerned Muslims everywhere need to get back to the religious duty of actively participating in interpretation – which can only come from lively debate.

Blogging the Qur’an is just one attempt to generate that debate. Similar exercises are also being undertaken in some other Muslim countries – most notably Indonesia where Liberal Islam Network, with its millions of members, is developing a new understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century. The reason why such exercises should be undertaken, why the entire Muslim community should be engaged in discussing the meaning, implications and applications the Qur’an according to the circumstances and needs of today’s world, is contained in the very objections al-Hasan raises to the existence of this blog.

To read Zia’s blogs and for further discussions with readers, visit Blogging the Qur’an. If you’d like to contact Zia about the project, email him at blogging.the.quran@guardian.co.uk


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