Here, I present various differences in exegetical approach towards the Qur’an and assess their underlying weaknesses. I explain my approach to Qur’anic interpretation and expound upon the possibilities it puts forward. In addition, I trace the social and political implications of multiple hermeneutical pathways, discussing their consequences in both the legal and social spheres of the East and West.
I shall begin with the dominant approach to defining Islam. The neo-traditionalist/traditionalist ideology centers primarily on the fanciful notion that Islamic scholars of antiquity understood the Qur’an with honest objectivity. This is underscored by the idea of ‘ijma, or consensus. Where traditional Qur’anic commentators differ quite significantly in their interpretations of certain verses, these variations are considered “acceptable minor differences of opinion.” Every such “difference of opinion” is accorded academic legitimacy as long as it is articulated by an accepted scholar whose baseline views on “most” issues do not diverge from the majority.
Neotraditionalist interpretation claims to consider the Qur’an the centerpiece of its definition of Islam, above the secondary source corpus of hadith. This claim is, however, rarely followed through in practice. Consider for instance the overturning of Surah Noor’s legal verses in favor of hadith permitting the stoning of adulterers upon the admission of four testimonies (which in some cases may all come from the defendant him/herself). Consider also the artificial traditionalist prohibitions on interfaith marriage between Christian men and Muslim women, as well as the assertion that women leading mixed-gender prayer is haraam. Both of these prohibitions are accepted in normative Islamic discourse but are completely fabricated. Neither ruling has any basis whatsoever in the Qur’an, which says absolutely nothing about anyone of any gender leading prayer, and says even less about the type of interfaith marriage in question.
This type of neotraditionalist interpretation dominates pseudo-Islamic discourse due to its acceptance within the mainstream Muslim community, which allows it to denounce any disagreement as heretic. This is displayed when mainstream Muslim scholars declare any deviation from their views as a product of the influence of Western colonialism on Muslim lands. Speakers for women’s and children’s rights are disregarded or treated with contempt as either “misguided” or as operating under “Western feminist/capitalist/colonialist orders.” By showing this level of contempt towards all who dare to challenge their patriarchal, dishonestly apologetic, elitist brand of discourse, mainstream traditionalist scholars manage to dismiss all defiance to their authority as “Western corruption of the Muslim mind.” In doing so, they ignore entirely their own history of political conquest and the legacy of the Arab slave trade.
I do not deny the negative impact of Western invasion on the collective Muslim psyche; rather, I recognize its effects on the ummah‘s desire for a strengthened Islamic identity. Unfortunately, this desire for unity results in attempts at enforced homogeneity, which ignore actual Qur’anic verses in favor of a certain oppressive religious fervor that benefits exclusively the male elite and those working for them. It is upheld not only by traditionalist male scholars but also by women who, in their desperate desire for acceptance, cater to the very perversions of Islamic law that dehumanize them. Consider for example the variety of hadith regarding women’s alleged deficiency in reason and religion, which resulted in the unQur’anic devaluation of women’s testimony under the reign of Pakistani General Zia Ul-Haq. Such laws are not only invented by men but are actively defended by certain women who may not be immediately negatively affected by them. In this manner, many traditionalist women are content to uphold unjust laws that harm their sisters while they themselves are granted “scholarly brownie points.” They protest against Western colonization while simultaneously aiding in the oppression of Muslim women by “Muslim” men. This level of impressive cognitive dissonance appears to not only be tolerated by mainstream scholars, but is deliberately perpetuated as long as it benefits them.
On the other hand, Muslim women who protest against this artificial monopolization of Islam are declared puppets of white supremacy. This is exactly what happened to Mona Eltahawy when she wrote her notoriously acclaimed article Why Do They Hate Us?-– they referring to Arab men and us referring to Arab women. She was quickly shut down by being called a microphone of the alt-right; this was obviously false, as she regularly criticizes the deplorable racism of the alt-right at the same rate as she calls out Muslim men for their manipulation of religion. However, in a striking display of hypocrisy, Muslim scholars ostracized her for her “racism” (ignoring the fact that she herself is Arab/Egyptian) while doing absolutely nothing to hold their institutions accountable for their misogyny. This scenario plays out every time a Muslim woman points out the flaws in her community. Consider Malala Yousafzai, who is hated by many in her native valley of Swat, Pakistan. She is seen as a pawn of Western officials who furthers the “oppressed Muslim girl” narrative. Her own voice is often overshadowed, sidelined against the drowning cries of both Western journalists and extremists who want to speak for her. (This, however, is a complex subject for another post.)
With the vein of discussing Western imperialism and its impacts, one must consider the viewpoints of self-proclaimed “progressive Muslim groups” such as MPV (Muslims for Progressive Values, founded by Malaysian Ani Zonneveld–full disclosure: I have corresponded with her and I greatly admire her courage). I differentiate my approach from that of (certain members of) these groups in that I believe Scripture possesses an inherent meaning; one cannot simply declare that the text is interpreted solely on the whims of its reader without any sort of internal clarifying mechanism. In other words, in my view, there is no such thing as “every interpretation of the Qur’an is equally valid and we just have to choose the nicest one.” This makes no sense to me, as two conflicting and contradictory interpretations of the Qur’an cannot both be correct. This strips the text of any innate meaning in its Divinity. Rather, I subscribe to the belief that the text is self-referential–thus all exegesis must be centered on a holistic reading of its verses as a whole without secondary interference (and I believe this is Ani’s approach as well from what I have read of her writing. I am not referring to her specifically here, rather to others with whom I have interacted and who are affiliated with her organization).
Note that I do not consider Qur’anically centered exegesis to constitute “progressive” or “liberal” interpretation; rather, it is the most conservative and literal interpretation possible–and by all honest means it gives us the correct understanding of the Qur’an’s verses. I also hold that there may be multiple correct understandings of certain verses, but that these cannot impede on the Qur’an’s central tenets.
With regards to practical application, certain members of progressive organizations state that the Qur’an’s legalities (including rules on corporal punishment, 100 lashes for adultery, and death for terrorism) are not meant to be applied in real life. I assert that they are meant to be applied in real life, albeit not in the vigilante-mob-justice, “let’s-establish-a-caliphate” manner employed by groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State. Additionally, I stress the need for mainstream Muslims to reevaluate their current (mis)interpretations of the legalistic verses in concern, for if they are to be applied then they must be understood correctly. Anything less amounts to gross injustice and a violation of the precedence afforded to justice by God.
I close this statement on methodology with a call to interpretive honesty, genuine prioritization of the Qur’an over all other sources, and a demand for an immediate end to all injustice in the name of religion.
- Sahih Bukhari, Prescribed Punishments, #4196:
“Abu Huraira reported that a person from amongst the Muslims came to Allah’s Messenger while he was in the mosque. He called him saying: Allah’s Messenger. I have committed adultery. He (the Prophet) turned away from him, He (again) came round facing him and said to him: Allah’s Messenger, I have committed adultery. He (the Prophet) turned away until he did that four times, and as he testified four times against his own self, Allah’s Messenger called him and said: Are you mad? He said: No. He (again) said: Are you married? He said: Yes. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger said: Take him and stone him. Ibn Shihab (one of the narrators) said: One who had heard Jabir b. ‘Abdullah saying this informed me thus: I was one of those who stoned him. We stoned him at the place of prayer (either that of ‘Id or a funeral). When the stones hurt him, he ran away. We caught him in the Harra and stoned him (to death).”
This is one of several such narrations.
- Sahih Bukhari Book 6, #301:
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
‘Once Allah’s Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o ‘Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”‘
This is one translated version of multiple similar reports.