Justice and the Public Good: Holistic Contextualization of Qur’anic Passages

By Misha Az-Zahra

Disclaimer: This was originally written for thefatalfeminist.


“Verily, we offered the Trust (amanah) to the Heavens and the Earth and the mountains–but they declined to bear it, for they feared it. But humankind undertook it. Verily, [humankind] was most unjust, ignorant.”[1]

The Qur’an’s word for “trust” and “security,” amanah in Arabic, comes from the same linguistic root as the word for belief. “I believe in Allah” is signified by amantu bi’Allah. Perhaps this is why, in Islam, the concepts of security and faith are so intricately linked. Throughout the Qur’anic worldview, faith–imaan–forms the basis of communities dedicated to fulfilling the Trust and upholding justice. It is within this paradigm that the Qur’an declares its moral directives to be universal. This paper explores the failure of traditional scholarship to uphold Qur’anic guidelines of interpretation and the consequential redefining of central Islamic themes, undermining the universality of religious injunctions. I discuss the assumptions and overarching themes inherent in Qur’anic verses, the failure of classical scholarship to apply them interpretively, and the resulting exegetical incoherence. I propose a contextually driven understanding of verses encompassing the spheres of both legalistic and individual morality. It is of worth to note here that in the Qur’an, the moral and legal spheres are deeply intertwined; regardless, the Scripture strikes a balance between respecting individual liberties and establishing overarching societal order.

The central aim of Scriptural exegesis is to derive an understanding of God’s intended goal for humankind. Here, mortals are faced with a quandary: How does one approach a text of Divine origin, delicately treading the line between sacred origin and human application? I have heard many stories about believers’ journeys in interpretation, but one in particular struck me. When a young scribe was instructed by his sheikha, Marya, to write out a list of God’s commandments, he asked for the Qur’an to be placed in front of him. The sheikha then smiled at him and asked if he was content, to which he replied that he was not.

“What is the matter?” the sheikha asked. “Is God’s Word not enough for you?”

He looked down. “I don’t know what it says.”

“Ask the book,” she instructed. “The kitab speaks. Ask it what God’s commandments are.”

The scribe insisted that the Qur’an had no means to speak aloud, and in doing so discovered that it was he who must interpret the text. His disposition would dictate what he saw between its pages, and the text would mirror his soul.

Perhaps, during his reading of the Qur’an, the scribe noted its frequent references to tamaroona bil ma’ruf wa tanhawna ‘anil munkar, or “enjoining the good and forbidding that which is evil.”[2] Al-ma’ruf is loosely defined as that which is “known to be right” or “known to be good,” and shares a root with the word ya’rufna, meaning “recognizable.” In other words, the Qur’an implores humanity to work towards enjoining the public good, and defines this state of goodness as understood by the moral acuity and lived experience of its reader. A contemporary scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, writes:

“The Qur’an itself refers to general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice, kindness, or goodness. [It] does not clearly define any of these categories, but presumes a certain amount of moral probity on part of the reader. For instance, the Qur’an persistently commands Muslims to enjoin the good. The word used for ‘the good’ is ma’ruf, which means that which is commonly known to be good. Goodness, in the Qur’anic discourse, is part of what one may call a lived reality–it is the product of human experience…”[3]

The Qur’an’s repeated emphasis on the promotion of the common good intends to center the concerns of the oppressed and the vulnerable. Unfortunately, traditional male scholarship has failed in its entirety to listen to the voices that the Qur’an itself uplifts. The Islamic tradition is replete with examples of Scriptural commandments being manipulated to conform to the whims of tyrants, and the trickledown effect is palpable even on a daily, mundane level. For instance, in a rather patronizing display, male scholars frequently opine that the purpose of fasting during Ramadan is to “experience the hunger of the poor”; however, Muslims who are actually poor fast only to please their Creator and are not interested in the views of scholars feigning empathy by attempting to emulate the conditions of poverty. The Qur’an says nothing about fasting being a way to “experience the lives of the poor”; rather, it says fasting is intended only to increase one’s taqwa, or God-consciousness.[4]

Not only is the traditionalist opinion on Ramadan inherently flawed (wealthy Muslims can never truly emulate poverty, for they have homes to come back to and know it is only a simulation), this rationalization of the “purpose of fasting” also conveniently marginalizes the voices of those who truly live in poverty. It is a spectacular show of pretending to care for the oppressed while profiting from their “otherness.” In this way, traditional male scholarship gets away with faking support for the welfare of marginalized groups and calling it the “promotion of the common good.” This version of “enjoining al-ma’ruf” conveniently characterizes al-ma’ruf as that which benefits the privileged elite and makes them feel good about themselves in their pretense of piety. In the words of the Qur’an, this is nothing less than shirk: taking one’s basest desires as gods in preference to monotheism.[5]

The Qur’an’s concept of al-ma’ruf covers principles such as the inherent equality and dignity of all human beings, including a command to “reverence the wombs [that bore you]” (Q. 4:1). It follows that we as individuals are expected to cultivate an understanding of justice (Q. 4:135) and uphold it in every interaction (Q. 5:8). The Qur’an’s emphasis on fairness towards orphans, children, women, and the poor (Q. 4:127, 4:19, 4:36) is woven into the structure of the text, and is represented as an integral component of submission to the Divine. Unfortunately, patriarchal scholarship relentlessly distorts these principles by misapplying verses at its discretion. The most severely affected are always marginalized groups.

Traditional male exegetes’ inability to center the voices of the oppressed is exemplified through verse 4:3, which describes various categories of disadvantaged women and the circumstances in which men may (or may not) marry them. Verse 4:3 is intended as a means of protection for orphan girls, widows, and captive women; its primary objective is to uphold the common good through the maintenance of the rights of the oppressed. It states that if men fear injustice towards wealthy orphan girls, then instead of marrying them and taking advantage of their estates, they should marry “suitable women”: women left wholly without property, whether orphans or non-orphans, who are vulnerable to exploitation in a climate of warfare. Here, the text gives permission to marry them “in twos and threes and fours,” which most exegetes regard as a reference to polygyny. However, they conveniently disregard the pretext for polygyny, which is detailed within the verse itself. Male exegetes instead espouse that polygyny is the unique right of men across all times and places, overriding express Qur’anic passages that state otherwise. (Unrestricted polygyny was permitted only temporarily for the Prophet and is specified as “not for other believers.”)[6]

Traditional male exegetes’ incompetency in applying Qur’anic commands towards the common good does not only extend to deliberate misinterpretation and decontextualization; it also includes the misapplication of verses on a political level. Before the ban on female drivers was lifted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, two female activists who protested the ban, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Maysa Al-Amoudi, were tried in terrorism court on criminal charges.[7] Their crime? “Spreading corruption on earth.” This charge was a reference to verse 5:33 of the Qur’an, which sentences those who “strive with might and main to cause corruption in the land” to death and exile, among other possible penalties. This verse is frequently invoked by theocratic states to justify the punishment of those deemed “terrorists.”

Al-Hathloul and Al-Amoudi were simply peacefully protesting an unjust ban that infringed on their agency as individuals–they were fulfilling an Islamic obligation to stand up to oppression. This was a commendable action in the eyes of God. Saudia’s invocation of this verse, along with its “religious” justification for persecuting the two women, demonstrated how contextual Qur’anic verses are used against the public good, serving as fodder for tyranny.

Consider also verse 2:282 of the Qur’an, which recommends that two female witnesses be called to testify in cases of oral financial contracts. Financial transactions have almost always been governed by men; thus, in the context in which the verse was revealed, an isolated female witness could easily be coerced or blackmailed into committing perjury. The Qur’an specifies that another woman be brought to serve as a backup in case the first woman is led astray by those in power. The term used for this scenario is dalal, and the same word is used in Surah Al-Fatihah to describe those whom Shaitan leads astray through dishonest guiles. There is strength in numbers, and the Qur’an recognizes that the presence of another woman can protect them both from harassment. In all other cases involving testimony, a woman’s witness is equal to a man’s or overrides it.[8]

The intent of verse 2:282 is to preserve the integrity of the witnesses and scribe. The Qur’an specifies that “Neither the scribe nor the witnesses should be harmed, and neither should refuse to testify when called” (2:282). This underscores the possibility of perjury through coercive manipulation, and establishes the principles of safety and dignity. Regardless, patriarchal scholarship distorts the instructions of verse 2:282, insisting that women’s testimony is somehow “inherently deficient” and thus worth “half of a man’s.” The Qur’an itself makes no such claims, and weights women’s testimony as higher than men’s in certain cases. Thus, traditional male exegetes have actually turned the verse into an inversion of what it was originally supposed to mean, effectively weaponizing Scripture. This is the opposite of enjoining al-ma’ruf and forbidding al-munkar; patriarchal scholars instead prefer to enjoin al-munkar and project it as piety.

When twisting Scripture to rationalize their oppressive actions, traditional male scholars are quite selective in their disregard for the sanctity of human dignity. Certain accepted hadd punishments, such as amputation as penance for theft, are specified by male exegetes as deterrents and are not meant to be applied in “practicality.” Other institutions, such as slavery and concubinage, are now popularly regarded as outdated and effectively worthy of abolishment. Child marriage is regarded similarly, and most contemporary male scholars discourage or prohibit it. This is despite the fact that in all four Sunni madhabs, a girl who is perceived to have reached puberty can be married off regardless of whether she is still a legal minor.[9] These “contextual aberrations” throughout slavery and child marriage- related law occur because slavery is currently internationally banned and child marriage is almost universally recognized as harmful and illegal. Patriarchal scholars do not want to suffer the consequences of their own religious jurisdictions, so they scramble to rearrange their own rulings when it suits them. This illustrates how their conception of “enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong” shifts according to their political aims, even pushing them to overturn their own rules in favor of more fashionable fatwas.

In contrast to patriarchal debauchery, the Qur’an’s perception of al-ma’ruf is stable, and entails the protection of life and dignity, as well as ensuring just compensation for every crime.[10] However, its application can vary based on the circumstances. Consider for example verse 5:38, which according to all mainstream translations orders the amputation of the hands of thieves. The Arabic phrase for “cut off their hands” is ‘iqta’u aydihim. The word for hands is frequently used in the Qur’an to signify one’s “means of living” or “might” or “means of sustenance”; thus, a better translation might be to punish the thief by “cutting off their means of self-sustenance.” This would likely involve imprisonment, and would allow such thieves to reform themselves and work to better society instead of permanently handicapping them. Within most contexts, this meaning is far more viable than actual amputation, and is more conducive to the long-term maintenance of public order. It also requires no apologetic “deterrent” rhetoric and allows for variation in penalties to suit the crime committed.

Rather absurdly, even modern male scholarship tends to disregard this meaning simply so that “tradition” is upheld. This complicates the task of contemporary Muslims, who are forced to regurgitate questionable interpretations from antiquity and then defend them without a reasonable basis for doing so. Such dishonesty infringes on the Muslim ummah‘s integrity, for the common good is ignored in favor of interpretive sophistry.

Having witnessed the failure of traditional patriarchal scholarship at upholding the essential Qur’anic paradigm of enjoining al-ma’ruf, I argue that it is imperative to salvage the Islamic tradition. It would be an affront to the integrity of our faith to leave this task to the “scholars” who have proven, time and time again, to be wholly unwilling to carry out their duties towards God and towards humankind. I would assert as well that the unwillingness of traditional male exegetes to interpret Scripture correctly has transitioned into incapability, for men cannot constantly mutilate a Divine text without eventually falling prey to permanent corruption of character. The ulema whom we rely on in preference to God have betrayed the trust of khilafah (individual responsibility on Earth), and it is left to us to remedy it. It is our duty to recover our Sacred Tradition; this is the way of jihad taught to us by the earliest of Prophets. In our reclamation of the Qur’anic paradigm centered on al-ma’ruf, we are obligated to fracture the interpretive monopoly that has distorted our faith.


Works Cited

  1. Qur’an, Al-Ahzab 33:72
  2. Qur’an, Al-Imran 3:110
  3. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, by Khaled Abou El Fadl, HarperCollins, 2008.
  4. Qur’an, Al Baqarah 2:183
  5. Qur’an, Al-Jathiyah 45:23
  6. Qur’an, Al-Ahzab 33:50-52
  7. Saudi Terrorism Court. 25 Dec. 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30602155.
  8. Qur’an, An-Noor 24:6-9
  9. Marriageable Age in Islam: A Study on Marriageable Age Laws and Reforms in Islamic Law. LUX Journal, Volume II, Issue I, Article V, by Jeremiah J. Bowden, 2013, Claremont Graduate University, http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=lux.
  10. Qur’an, Al-Ma’idah 5:45

Other Works Used in Hermeneutical Understanding (Not Endorsements)

  1. Reinhart, A. Kevin. “What We Know about Ma’ruf.” Journal of Islamic Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 51–82., doi:10.1163/24685542-12340004, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/24685542-12340004
  2. Self-Referentiality in the Qur’an, edited by Stefan Wild, by Daniel A. Madigan. Google Books, p. 59-60, https://books.google.com/books?id=Js5K1x9FtnAC&pg=PA59#v=onepage&q&f=false
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