by Adis Duderija*
Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of groundbreaking scholarship in Qur’anic hermeneutics, including the works of Hasan Hanafi, Nasir Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush, Amina Wadud, and Khaled Abou El Fadl, to name but a few. One of the benefits of this growth in scholarship is that it highlights the complexities of the theories and methods in the field.
In my Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 2010 and published in 2011, I offer a comparative examination of these complexities and their implications in both traditional and modern Qur’anic scholarship, and delineate the epistemological and methodological tendencies that distinguish modern and traditional approaches with respect to the following seven key criteria.
- The Nature of Language and the Nature of Revelation
Traditional approaches to interpreting the Qur’an are heavily philological, with interpretations largely restricted to observable linguistic features of the Qur’an text. According to this methodology, readers retrieve the text’s meaning through analysis of the Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology. At the same time, the Qur’an text is considered as the verbatim Word of God essentially different from human language. Moreover, its meaning is completely independent of the psychological make-up of the Prophet Muhammad and his prophetic experience. Qur’anic language is thus considered to be operating outside of history and possessed of a fixed meaning that is, in principle, not dependent on human modes of perception and analysis.
Modern approaches recognize that the Qur’an’s language is, at least for exegetical purposes, socio-culturally contingent, and its meaning necessarily operates within the framework of human perception and analysis. The nature of revelation, moreover, is closely intertwined with the mind and the phenomenological experience of the Prophet Muhammad. The interpretational implications are that the Qur’anic text has a historical dimension and that its meaning is conditioned by the cultural contexts in which it was revealed and is read.
- The Location and Breadth of Meaning
When interpreting a text, one may posit that the meaning of the text is primarily determined either by the intent of the author, by the form of the text itself, or by the perception of the reader. Furthermore, one may hold that readers are either able to fully recover the meaning intended by the author, or to only approximate the intended meaning.
Traditional approaches largely consider that readers can perceive authorial intent and recover some objective meaning of the text. Since the meaning of the text is fixed, the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal. Belief in the objective existence of meaning in the mind of the author, which is readily accessible in a similarly objective fashion to the reader, contributes to the idea that there is only one correct interpretation of the text.
Modern hermeneutical approaches maintain that readers cannot recover authorial intent in a completely objective fashion. Rather, readers with their socio-cultural backgrounds, educations, moral inclinations, etc., actively participate in producing the text’s meaning(s), which can only approximate authorial intent but can never completely and objectively capture it. While the text is fixed in its form, its meaning is not fixed by the author. Even if the text’s meaning is considered static and monovalent, the significance of its meaning is contextually dependent and liable to change. Thus the text can sustain a large number of interpretations. However, to curb unreasonable or unpopular interpretations, some hermeneuticists have recourse to the concept of “communities of interpretation”—groups of readers who share similar cultural perspectives, values, and hermeneutical principles—to argue that the validity of interpretations is relative to, and limited by, the assumptions that characterize such communities.
- The Relationship between Text and Context
Traditional philological hermeneutics tends to marginalize the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed. Although there is recognition of the historical character and development of the Qur’an when speaking of “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) and “abrogation” (naskh), there are no clear hermeneutical models for fully integrating and utilizing these aspects in interpreting the language of the Qur’an. To the extent that historical context is considered, traditional philologists do not systematically distinguish between historical and ahistorical dimensions of meaning to the text. As a result, there is a strong tendency to universalize a historically particular meaning.
By contrast, modern hermeneuticists emphasize how the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed significantly influenced the text’s form and meaning, and how the historical frames of reference and cultural norms of the text’s initial audience informed their understanding of the nature of the Qur’anic text and its meaning.
- Textual Coherence
The Qur’an text was revealed orally over a period of some two decades, and the process of its canonization took decades more. The canonical order of Qur’anic sūrahs does not appear to be governed by chronology; nor does it appear to be governed by theme, as references to themes are often dispersed throughout the Qur’an. Traditional exegetes downplay the essentially oral and kerygmatic nature of the revelation and mainly take a word-by-word segmental and sequential analysis of the canonical text. Thus this approach fails to fully appreciate the Qur’an’s thematic coherence.
Many modern exegetes recognize the interconnectedness of Qur’anic concepts and themes and undertake a holistic and corroborative-inductive approach to interpreting the Qur’an, based not only on insights stemming from the traditional scholarly principles of conceptual/textual chaining (munāsaba) and corroborative induction (istiqrā’), but also on modern linguistics approaches to textual coherence, sequentiality, and progression. Understanding a Qur’anic concept requires analyzing all relevant passages throughout the text and synthesizing them within a larger thematic framework. The task of interpretation is to discover a “comprehensive constant.”
- The Role of Reason in Ethico-Legal Interpretations of the Qur’an
Traditional exegetes heavily restrict the role of reason to its analogical form, so that all ethico-legal interpretations must be linked to textual evidence. If there is no directly pertinent text, then every effort is made to identify an indirectly pertinent text with a common underlying principle and to interpret it in light of its significance to the new case. The underlying assumptions are that ethico-legal knowledge must always derive from revelation and that humans cannot know what is ethically or legally right by independent reason. From this perspective, many exegetes infer a legalistic dimension to all of the Qur’an, so that even those Qur’anic exhortations that could be seen as broadly ethical or didactic are interpreted as positive legal injunctions.
Modern exegetes, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of reason in interpreting the Qur’an and consider the Qur’an itself to be constitutive of reason. Inasmuch as human reason can independently make ethical judgments, the function of revelation is to remind people of their ethical obligations. Contrary to the traditional legalistic approach, they consider that the Qur’an is primarily ethico-religious in its concern, and that its legal aspects are peripheral to its broader ethical vision and subject to change as societal conditions change. Thus legal interpretations of the Qur’an ought to evolve with evolving ethical values by means of reason—keeping in mind, however, that Islamic ethics is firmly anchored in a Qur’anic religious cosmology.
- Interpreting Universal Principles of the Qur’an
All of the aforementioned aspects of traditional hermeneutics make for a rather limited understanding of the Qur’an when it comes to its embodiment of basic ethical values, such as justice and equality, and its underlying objectives, such facilitating public welfare and promoting the common good. On the other hand, all of the aspects of modern hermeneutics contribute to a broader intepretational concern to realize such principle values and objectives.
- The Conception of the Prophetic Sunna
It is widely held in Islamic tradition that the prophetic sunnah enjoys exegetical supremacy over independent rational methods, and moreover that this sunnah is entirely and solely embodied in sound Hadith texts. Thus for traditional exegetes, recourse to the sunnah as an exegetical device is necessarily constitutive of, and constrained by, the textual corpus of Hadith. One noteworthy implication of this textual conception of sunnah is that interpretive reasoning, while to some extent important in selecting and evaluating individual hadith reports, is not constitutive of the concept of sunnah itself as an exegetical device.
In contrast, modern exegetes tend to hold a more meta-textual conception of the prophetic sunnah, more in line with how sunnah was understood in the early Islamic era, which does not conflate the concept of sunnah with the concept of Hadith as text. Thus in addition to the traditional Hadith sciences, modern exegetes employ several additional methodological mechanisms to distinguish the prophetic sunnah, the details of which cannot be fully addressed here.
Hopefully this blog post helps to demonstrate the complexity of Qur’anic hermeneutics and the importance for scholars of religion and the Qur’an to be aware of the critical implications of distinct hermeneutical approaches for determining what is a normative “Qur’anic position” on any particular legal, political, or ethical issue.
* Dr. Duderija is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Malaya, and author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.