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Who has the right to interpret the Qur’an?

The Qur’ān

A book of guidance, revealed by Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) to his beloved Messenger, Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). A book revealed by Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) ‘ sent down to you, full of blessing, so let people of intelligence ponder its Signs and take heed. ‘[1]

A book revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) so that with it he ‘might lead mankind out of darkness (of disbelief and polytheism) into light (of belief in the Oneness of Allāh and Islamic Monotheism) by their Lord’s Leave to the Path of the All-Mighty, the Owner of all Praise.’[2]

The Qur’ān. The criterion between right and wrong. The reminder for mankind. The rope from Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) to His slaves. The Word of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā).

The inherent sacredness of Qur’ān is something etched into the hearts of all Muslims from a young age. Muslims from all generations, and from all parts of the globe, unite upon the fact that the Qur’ān is a divine, pure and undistorted book of guidance from The Creator to mankind. Muslims since the time of the Holy Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) have sought guidance, blessing and inner tranquility from the divine and miraculous words of their Creator, and continue to do so. It is read, studied, reflected upon, and acted upon strictly by all those who seek to sincerely live by its timeless message.

Along with establishing that the Qur’ān is the divine word of Allāh, it is just as obligatory for every Muslim to know that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) explained to his companions the meaning of the Qur’ān to them such that his Companions all understood what is meant as a collective. In fact Ibn Taymiyya d. 728 stated in his work on the principles of tafsīr (Muqaddimah Fī Uṣūl al-Tafsīr) that: ‘It is obligatory to know that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) explained to his Companions the meanings of the Qur’ān just as he taught the words’.[3]

Indeed the idea of the Prophet’s role as being the interpreter of the Qur’ān is alluded to by Allāh himself, Exalted is He:

‘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.’[4]

Scholars differed on how the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) explained the Qur’ān and what methods he used. Sometimes he explicitly explained a verse such as the last verse of al-Fātiḥa or by using other teaching techniques such as imagery, for example on one occasion he drew in the sand an explanation of The Straight Path. Other times it was through his lived-example and practice which explained verses, with the Ṣalāh being a primary example explicating the Qur’ānic command to ‘establish the Ṣalāh’. Regardless of the mode of interpretation he employed, the Companions he left behind understood its complete interpretation as a collective. The Companions then taught that to the later generations. For instance it is reported that the great Tābi’i Mujāhid 104 AH that: “I read the whole Qur’ān to Ibn ‘Abbās 68 AH three times stopping him at the end of every verse, asking him concerning it”. For this reason scholars such as al-Shāfi’ī, Imām Aḥmed and Bukhārī would rely heavily upon his narrations.

Any disagreement with this fundamental concept would imply that either the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) himself was ignorant of the meanings of the Qur’ān, or he actually did know the meanings but chose not to transmit them. Both these suggestions would negate the role of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) in spreading the message of guidance to mankind, and hence can be easily disregarded. Allāh himself instructed the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam): ‘O Messenger! transmit what has been sent down to you from your Lord’[5]

Based on this notion Ibn Taymiyya would say: ‘and for this reason there was very little disagreement between the Companions on the interpretation of the Qur’ān.’[6]

Analysis of the behaviour of those around the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) during his lifetime, the companions, supports this notion that the meanings were conveyed clearly. It has been reported that the likes of ʿUthmān b. Affān, ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd and others would, whilst learning the Qur’ān from the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), 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’.[7]

Imām al-Ṭabari d. 310, who arguably authored the greatest book of tafsīr, stated: the second source of Qur’ānic interpretation is what Allāh exclusively taught the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) as being the interpretation; to the exclusion of all other from his Nation… and so there is no pathway for them to acquire that knowledge except by his interpretation”[8]

In conclusion, when one appreciates that the role of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was to teach his followers the interpretation of the Qur’ān and that his followers were masters of the Arabic language, who could thus proficiently comprehend the Qur’ān better than any later generation, we can be confident that the magnificent message of the Qur’ān was now set and captured by the community of the Companions. 

Why can Interpretation not be left wide open?

Interpretation is: ‘The action of explaining the meaning of something’ and therefore the intention of the author behind speech can never be divorced from the speech itself.[9] For example, often when someone apologises to another person and says ‘I’m sorry’,  the response may be either ‘I accept your apology’ or ‘ you don’t mean it, I don’t accept your apology.’ This response is dependent on the perception of the intention of the one doing the apologising by the one who was wronged. This logic underpins the very notion of language as language is, ‘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.’[10] Therefore, the most important aspect of language is not the mode of expression per se, but rather the intent behind the expression and what was meant by the author of the expression. If the Qur’ān was open to interpretation by all, each verse could potentially mean an unlimited number of things. This would as a result imply that God was the author of confusion, Exalted is He from such absurdity! If the meanings were unknown or could mean completely different things to different people dependant on time, place or other factors then in reality- as the progressives claim, the Qur’ān would be meaningless and not meaningful. Its role as being a guide for humanity would thus be negated or at best futile.

It is generally accepted that the magnum opus of all Tafsīr books is that of Imām at-Tabari (d.310), under the title Jami’ al-Bayān fî Tafsīr al-Qur’ān. It belongs to the most famous books in Tafsīr and is perhaps the most extensive work we have on the subject and is based on the reports from the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), the Sahāba and the Tabiʿūn. For this reason it is said that all the scholars of Qur’ān relied upon his book thereafter.

In conclusion the real goal and drive of tafsīr is not to simply explain what the beautiful verses of the Qur’ān mean but rather to attempt to uncover what Allāh, the One who spoke these words, meant and intended by them. This is why the great scholar al-Zarqāni defined Tafsīr as being: ‘A science that studies the Qurʾān al-Karim from the perspective of its meanings as intended by Allāh – as much as human capability allows.’[11]

Thus in order to implement the Qur’ān’s teachings, one must first understand what is intended by the one to whom these words belong to, i.e., Allāh. It is only then that a person can seek to act upon the Qur’ān in the way Allāh Himself intended for mankind to act upon it. It is when a person understands the intended meanings behind the Qur’ān that he is able to ‘ ...ponder over its Verses…’  and seek to be from ‘…the men of understanding…’[12]

But doesn’t the Qur’ān encourage us in a number of verses to ponder and reflect over its words? 

Allāh says Do they not then think deeply in the Qur’ān, or are their hearts locked up (from understanding it)?[13]

 Some may use such verses to state that pondering over the Qur’ān is something commanded by Allāh and each person will ponder over it in their own personal way, why can we not then say that the Qur’ān is open to interpretation?

Though pondering over the magnificent verses is the most important interaction one has with the Qur’ān one has to make a clear distinction between the Tafsīr of the Qur’ānic verses and the concept of Tadabbur, which translates to deep thinking and reflection over the Qur’ān. Tadabbur is the reflection and pondering of an individual which allows him to be moved and spiritually affected by the words of his creator. Its fruits are endless and this process allows a person to be connected to the Qur’ān throughout all passages and walks of life. However, although Tadabbur is itself an endless process, it has to governed by very simple guidelines. Ibn al-Qayyim mentions four:

 

1) That is does not contradict the meaning of the Āyah

2) That the meaning is correct in and of itself

3) That the pure Arabic language can accommodate this

4) That between it and the meaning of the Āyah is correlation and conformity

If these four matters come together, the personal deduction is good and valid.[14]

In conclusion every Muslim has a duty to ponder over the meanings of the Qur’ān and must ensure that the conclusions he/she derives as a result of this deep reflection are in line with the correct Tafsīr of the verses he/she is reflecting over. The conclusions must also be in line with Islamic injunctions as a whole, and not conflict with any well-established concepts within the religion. For example, a person may read, ‘So woe unto those performers of Salāt (prayers)’. He may then feel after reflecting over this that he does not want to engage in prayers, as those who pray poorly are being reprimanded in this verse. However, this conclusion is in clear contradiction to the fundament concept of establishing the prayer which is repeated numerous times in the Qur’ān. The verse has been misunderstood and taken out of context. Hence this particular tadabbur of this individual would be rendered as invalid and incorrect.

Modern views on interpretation

Contemporary discourse around the methodology and theory of the interpretation of religious texts, through a process known as hermeneutics or exegesis, has evolved and as a result has scrutinised the understanding of texts from many faiths. The Qur’ān has of course been the subject of extensive discussion during this discourse, given its central position in the fastest growing religion in the world, Islām.

Some contemporary thinkers have suggested that “it is the right for every muslim to interpret the Qur’ān for themselves.”[15] Others have cited reasons such as ‘...90 percent of the world’s Muslims for whom Arabic is not a primary language have to depend on Islam’s clergy-all of them men…‘ to justify modern interpretations which they claim ‘…are brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic clerical interpretations in favour of a more contemporary, more individualised, and often more gender-friendly approach to the Qur’ān.[16] These discussions have often focused around the historical context of the Qur’ān, and its suitability for application in modern times, resulting in questions being raised regarding its relevance to the lives we lead today. Hence the idea that each and every Muslim has a right to their own Qur’anic interpretation has been sought to be propagated, and questions have been asked as to why Qur’anic interpretation (Tafsīr) is seen to be an exclusive right of a certain few and not open to all.

However, a clear understanding of the science of Tafsīr and its particular guidelines and regulations quickly highlights the fallacies associated with many modern day interpretations.

The Qur’ān, as explained earlier in this article, was explained comprehensively by the Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). He explained through his speech, action and example. His companions learnt and recorded these explanations and along with their unmatched and unrivalled mastery of the Arabic language they captured the complete interpretation and message of the Qur’ān. They then passed down that knowledge and are the sole-link that connects the Muslim world to their Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Hence, the interpretation of the Qur’ān has already been established, agreed upon, and this process has been long concluded. That is to say that the Tafsīr has already been given. Any modern interpretations which fundamentally differ with previously documented Tafsīr and challenges ideas and customs that have been established for over 1400 years, can often be refuted on this very basis. Modern interpretations claim to have discovered deep and mystical understandings that the whole Muslim world and all its scholars were ignorant of over the course of 1400 years. More simply, their conclusions disagree with what the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) himself explained the verses to mean, and logic dictates these interpretations must be rejected.

It is interesting to note that modernistic interpretations are often derived following one’s approach to the Qur’ān through the lens and perhaps fog of their own preconceived notions, whims and desires. For example, some may consider (incorrectly so) that Islām is a violent, oppressive religion, which seeks to hurt others and oppress women. They then approach the Qur’ān with this already preconceived stereotype and thus interpret it in a way which suits their line of thinking, using verses taken out of context to substantiate their errant claims. Others may be inclined to wreaking havoc and mischief within society, and thus with this preconceived agenda they approach the Qur’ān to use it as a means of justifying their erroneous ways. Moreover there are some who feel Islām is too ‘strict’, and thus seeking to ‘slacken’ the binding nature of the rulings of Allāh, they approach the Qur’ān with the intention to use it to justify their sinful actions. Some have even committed the intentional error of using parts of the Qur’ān to support a preconceived notion, all the while ignoring other parts of the Qur’ān which negate this very notion.

For example, a Christian may read the Qur’ān and feel he can prove the crucifixion through the Qur’ān when he reads the words of Jesus, “And peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!”[17] However, whilst applying this preconceived notion of crucifixion to this particular verse, he has appropriately ignored the verse which states

And because of their saying (in boast), “We killed Messiah ʿĪsa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), the Messenger of Allāh,” – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of ʿĪsa (Jesus) was put over another man (and they killed that man), and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not [i.e. ʿĪsa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)].[18]

Therefore, if one were to approach the Qur’ān sincerely, with an open mind and heart free from any pre-established ideas and notions, seeking to be guided by the Qur’ān, he would soon realise that many modern interpretations fall into the realm of agenda-fuelled rhetoric and more importantly do not agree with the Tafsīr given by those who understood the Qur’ān the best i.e. the companions of the Prophet. At best these interpretations are severe mistakes which must be corrected, and at worst they are illogical and unislamic. Far from being akin to an abstract painting on the wall which is interpreted and appreciated by the perception of the onlooker, the Qur’ān is a book of guidance, whose creed, laws and rulings are firmly established and have been for over 1400 years. Thus the Qur’ān urges us to reflect and ponder over the endless wisdoms, lessons, and linguistic miracles in it, but at the same time sternly warns us against following our desires and allowing our hearts to be corrupted to such an extent that we seek to change the religion of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) from what He has intended for us.

Finally, it is a poignant reminder that the illustrious companion of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), ʿAbdullāh b. Abbās (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu),  for whom the Prophet asked Allāh to grant him the ability to interpret the Qur’ān, on occasions refused to answer questions regarding the Tafsīr of certain verses for fear of saying something incorrectly. Undoubtedly his motivation for remaining silent were the words of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) when he said, ‘whoever speaks about the Qur’ān without knowledge, then let him take his seat in the hell fire!’[19]

We ask Allāh to grant us the true understanding of His book, and to grant us the ability to act upon it in the ways that are most pleasing to Him. Ameen

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Al-Qur’ān, 38:39

[2] Al-Qur’ān, 14:1

[3] Muqaddimah Fī Uṣūl al-Tafsīr by Ibn Taymiyya

يجب أن يعلم أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم بَيَّنَ لأصحابه معاني القرآن كما بين لهم ألفاظه

[4] Al-Qur’ān, 16:44

[5] Al-Qur’ān, 5:67

[6] Muqaddimah Fī Uṣūl al-Tafsīr by Ibn Taymiyya

[7] Muqaddimah Fī Uṣūl al-Tafsīr pg 26

[8] Tafsīr al-Ṭabari, Taḥqīq Shākir p. 92 vol 1

[9] Oxford Dictionary

[10] Encyclopaedia Britannica

[11] Manāhil al-Irfān fi Ulūm al-Qurʾān by al-Zarqani 2/7

[12] Al-Qur’ān, 38:39

[13] Al-Qur’ān, 47:24

[14] al-Tibyān by Ibn al-Qayyim p. 79

[15] https://en.qantara.de/content/interview-with-asma-barlas-it-is-the-right-for-every-muslim-to-interpret-the-Qur’ān-for

[16] http://www.islamicity.org/3407/interpreting-the-Qur’ān/

[17] Al-Qur’ān, 19:33

[18] Al-Qur’ān, 4:157

[19] Tirmidhi 2950

About Imam Asim Khan

Ustadh Asim Khan is currently the Imam of Redbridge Islamic Centre, Instructor for the Sabeel institute, & author for Islam21c.com. He has, from an early age, excelled in academic studies and has gained a Masters in Pharmacy from the University College London, UK, as well as studying Arabic and Quranic Sciences in Cairo, Egypt. He appears regularly on Islam Channel's religious programming & is currently presenting the Dreamer show for Eman Channel. Ustadh Asim has a special interest in Tafsir studies and teaches the subject in London where he lives.

6 comments

  1. Kayel I totally agree with you bro, but there’s also some tafaseer of the holy Quran that relates to Fiqh, Tafaseer nowadays that are authentic are generated from old tafaseer, and if you find something else or different and new, that is not gonna be Islam.

  2. the Quran can only be interpret in light of Quran, hadith and tafaseer nowadays, and if some one represents and tafseer that reflects the ideas of mutaqaddemin, it will not be authentic.

    Jazakallah khair for shaing bro.

  3. The Ayets of Quran-Kerim has been brought to OurvProphet Muhammed Sallallahu Aleyhisselam, therefore his hadis and sunnah is the only way to understand Quran-i Kerim. Only The Muctehids in Authority with the Necessary and magnificent knowledge and a lot of skills, which is bestowed by Allah-u Teala to them, are able to show the way of Rasulullah Sallallahu Aleyhi ve Sellem. Sahabes are Muctehids and also there are Muctehids from Tabiin, Tebei Tabiin. They are able to interprete and make ictihad. Such as İmam Azam Ebu Hanife, İmam Safii, İmam Maliki, lmam Hanbeli. They made ictihad about so much much things that we need today. The Religion doesnt change According to Anybodies Nefs. People need to change theirselves according to religion, the religion can not be changed according to nefs wishes. Be careful here, Allah-u Teala doesnt doesnt doesnt need anybody, you or me or all the worships of millions. Just Follow it according to nakils in the Ehli Sunnah Alims Fikih books according to one of the Muctehids. This is not a joke. There is Permenant Fire, Follow a Muctehid Alim, which means a Mezheb. Then you will be the follower of a Muctehid Alim, which means you spent your life by doing all your actions according to a Muctehid Alims Fetva. You have got a Fetva of a Muctehid in everything you do then. For the ahiret, thats the only way to rescue.

  4. Help me to understand something. I don’t speak Arabic and when I read a verse like quoted above: “so that with it he ‘might lead mankind out of darkness (of disbelief and polytheism) into light (of belief in the Oneness of Allāh and Islamic Monotheism)” I’m confused as for the reason that the part in the parenthesis is included in interpretation of the Qur’an itself.

    Are these parenthetical comments: “(of disbelief and polytheism)” and “(of belief in the Oneness of Allāh and Islamic Monotheism)” to be considered as much divine revelation as the rest of the verse? And if not, then what is the reason for printing them? If Allah only said “so that with it he might lead mankind out of darkness into light,” why do we have the parenthetical statements included in the text rather than as part of a tasfir?

    • Good point Gene. I hope Insh’Allah Brother Asim can provide an explanation for us all.

    • As no one is offering an answer i’ll what i hope is correct.

      Tafsir = interpretation of the meaning

      Quran translation is limited to an interpretation of the meaning so is in effect tafsir.

      If the Arabic words being translated have multiple meanings or if we know from the tafsir the meaning of the sentance is clarified it is included to give as much of the interpretation of the meaning as possible. The only point of reading it is to get as much meaning as possible so it makes sense to do this and doesn’t give any negative issues of impurity etc more than it already is effected by it not being the words Allah used but a translation.

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