Monday, March 15, 2010

Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach -Book Review

    Monday, March 15, 2010   No comments


By Adis Duderija, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia

Abdullah Saeed, ‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’, Routledge, 2006, p.192.

The book ‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’ by Abdullah Saeed is concerned with outlining of a systematic and coherent model for evaluating some of the traditional concepts in the realm of interpretation of the ethico-legal aspect of the Qur’anic Revelation and advocating for an alternative, what the author terms ‘Contextualist’, approach to Qur’anic interpretation which would provide a more suitable Qur’anic hermeneutic for meeting the contemporary ‘needs of Muslims’ living in both Islamicate and non-Islamicate societies.

Indeed, professor Saeed’s book is to be seen in the broader context of the multifold and perplexing challenges that the present and (post)- modernity pose to the what professor Moosa terms pre-modern intellectual Muslim discourses including the spheres of law, theology, ethics, culture and politics.

All religious traditions based on the notion of Divine scriptures, as professor El-Fadl astutely points out, inevitably need to come to terms with the conundrum of reconciling seemingly paradoxical claims of historicity of Revelation with its claims to universality.

Qur’anic historicity and its ‘Deutungsbeduerftigkeit’ stemming from the actual nature of its content and its genesis have never been denied by the Muslim tradition. This is well attested by vast bodies of literature written by Muslims over the last 14 or so centuries on the Qur’an may that literature be exegetical, jurisprudential, ideological/sectarian or mystical in its orientation. A number of interpretive strategies and methodological tools have been developed in order to deal with the Qur’an’s need for interpretation /meaning. Professor Saeed ‘s aim is in this regard two –fold. Firstly, he aims to outline the attempts of previous generations of Muslims in this process of interpreting and giving meaning to the Qur’anic content, their epistemological and methodological assumptions, strengths and short-comings as they apply to the Qur’anic ethico-legal content. Secondly, based on the identified limits of the medieval epistemology of Qur’anic hermeneutics characterised by what he refers to as Textualist and/or Semi-textualist approaches to Qur’anic interpretation, Saeed proposes and presents a number of new heuristical methods, broadly termed the ‘Contextualist approach’, necessary for a contemporary approach to Qur’anic interpretation.

In order to overcome the what Kamali terms the absence of time-space factor in the fabric of traditional usul-ul fiqh methodology, Saeed discusses a number of methodological tools, some of which have been applied by previous Muslim scholars from various phases of Islamic intellectual heritage, along with their hermeneutical relevance and utility in the contemporary context. In several instances the author emphasises that his approach highlights the methodological and epistemological continuity with the established tradition wherever such is possible as his method should be seen as being firmly based, inspired by and stemming forth from the tradition itself.
After the introductory chapter, the second chapter provides a context on the contemporary debates relating to the issue of Qur’anic interpretation by revisiting the issues which have shaped these discussions from the very genesis of Islamic thought up to the leading contemporary scholars dealing with the issue of Qur’anic interpretation. Additionally, it brings to the fore several issues, which are considered helpful in understanding the context behind the contemporary interpretational debates on the ethico-moral dimensions of the Qur’an.

The third chapter outlines the traditional Muslim understanding of the concept of Revelation as it pertains to the ethico-legal dimension of the Qur’anic text and outlines several new features of a new theory of Revelation based on the earlier identified ‘Contextualist’ approach. This includes a ‘broader understanding of Revelation’ based on a four level system in which “the socio-historical context of revelation is a fundamental element of revelation…[and] is not divorced from the human instrument including the Prophet, and all of the subsequent Muslim communities to this day” all of whom are entitled to expanding upon its understanding.

The fourth chapter examines the traditional textually based interpretation of the Qur’an (tafsir bi al-ma’thur/ bi al- riwayah), its development and the factors responsible for its entrenchment and subsequent elevation to the level of normativeness at the expense of other approaches (such as tafsir bi al-ra’y or reason –based interpretation).

Reason based interpretation is the theme of the fifth chapter. The revelation –reason dynamic has a long history in Islamic thought whose exact relationship is yet to be systematically formulated. In it the author advocates a view of the important role reason-based approach to Qur’anic interpretation can play in contemporary approaches. Author also points to the traditional rooted ness of the practice and discusses its legitimacy and scope.
Chapter six focuses on the issue of flexibility of reading the Qur’anic texts (based on the traditional understanding of the seven ahruf ) and the possibility that out of this practice a support for the notion of flexibility of interpretation can be deduced.

Chapter seven explores the relevance of the traditional discipline of abrogation (naskh) in the ‘Contextualist’ approach to Qur’anic interpretation and identifies it as one of the most powerful arguments and tools for relating Qur’anic ethico-legal rulings to changing needs and circumstances of the Muslims. Here Saeed echoes the view of Kamali who, in the context of the role and nature of naskh in usul ul-fiqh, asserts that:
[A] borgation which was originally meant to maintain harmony between the law and social reality began to be used contrary to its original purpose. The classical jurists advocated abrogation as a juridical doctrine in its own right rather than seeking it as an aid to the role of the time-space factor in the development of law.

In the eight and the ninth chapters, expanding upon the work of El-Fadl and Barlas , Saeed analyses and critiques the ‘Textualist’ approach to the theory of meaning as it applies to the Qur’anic ethico-legal content and argues for the recognition of the approximation, polysemicity and indeterminacy of meaning as a result of the interpretational tension between the author, text and the reader. In line with Arkoun’s theories , a crucial distinction between Qur’an as discourse (text & context – ‘Contextualist’ understanding of the nature of the Qur’an) and Qur’an as merely a text (‘Textualist’ understanding of the nature of the Qur’an) is made. Saeed argues that Qur’an should be seen both as a text and a discourse if Muslims are to understand it’s true character and develop an adequate hermeneutical model of its interpretation.

The socio-historical embeddedness of Qur’anic revelation is the theme of the tenth chapter although the call for the recognition of this dimension of the Qur’anic content is highlighted throughout the book along with the interpretational implications of such recognition, especially on the ethico-legal aspect of Qur’anic revelation. In this context Saeed astutely points out the limitations of the ‘Textualist’ approach to Qur’anic interpretation which was largely restricted to philological considerations reducing Qur’anic language to “purely legal language [which] has, in my [his] view, been one of the most unfortunate events in the history of Qur’anic exegesis . Additionally he asserts that Qur’anic language is primarily ‘ethico-theological’ in nature and that inherent weaknesses pertaining to the methodological and epistemological considerations relating to the asbab al-nuzul and maslaha sciences as espoused by traditional Muslim scholars are unable to lead to the uncovering of higher purposes and objectives (maqasid) of Shari’ah as embodied by the Qur’an and Sunnah. As such, and in line with Arkoun’s works , Saeed prudently advocates for an anthropological approach to Qur’anic interpretation as a part of the overall emphasis for a more meaningful and hermeneutically more prominent role of the socio-historical approach to Qur’anic interpretation.

The major strength behind the socio-historical approach to Qur’anic hermeneutics is based on the premise that this heuristic would allow for a development of a systematic, coherent and hierarchical model of general and universal Qur’anic values which, hermeneutically, would be its most powerful interpretational tools. This is the subject matter of the eleventh chapter. Here Saeed, as in many previous instances, refers to the works of late Fazrul Rahman and his “double movement theory.” In this regard Saeed presents a particularly useful hierarchy/typology of values and a methodology that would help determine whether Qur’anic values are socio-culturally contingent /specific or universal in nature.

In the epilogue major arguments of the book are revisited. Additionally a systematic, multifaceted and hierarchical hermeneutical model of Qur’anic interpretation is presented incorporating all of methods the author outlined were necessary for a contemporary approach to Qur’anic interpretation dispersed throughout the book.

Arguments put by Saeed are based on a very perceptive analysis of traditional usul ul fiqh and tafsir sciences and several features of Saeed’s hermeneutical model are highly original, systematic and coherent in nature. They present a major contribution to the field of Islamic hermeneutics, especially as they relate to what Na’eem terms the much-needed reform of the ‘historical shari’ah’. Saeed’s conscious attempt to remain within the traditional epistemological framework as much as possible will certainly find more sympathy among usually very suspicious and sensitive Muslim masses when it comes to the issues of their religious heritage, especially the Qur’an.

The reviewer has one major reservation with Saeed’s conceptual approach to this study. It pertains to the larger notion of the nature of the relationship and the interplay between the Qur’an, Sunnah and hadith as widely recognised primary sources of Islamic Weltanschauung.

Given the above mentioned ‘Deutungsbedurftigkeit” of the Qur’an and the symbiotic, organic relationship between Qur’an and Sunnah during the pre-classical era of Islamic thought, as the reviewer has argued elsewhere, a systematic and coherent Qur’anic hermeneutical model ought to include and address the issues of the definition, nature and scope of the concept of Sunnah vis a vis- the Qur’an as well as the that of the Sunnah (and thus indirectly the Qur’an) vis-a- vis ahadith body of texts. This is entirely absent from Saeed’s analysis although the implications of this on the development of a systematic and coherent, what a reviewer would refer to as Qur’ano-Sunnahic hermeneutical model (rather then just Qur’anic), are very significant as I’ll attempt to demonstrate below.

During the pre-classical period, contrary to the classical era in which the “canonised” hadith body of literature was considered the sole vehicle of Sunnah’s depository, its deduction and perpetuation, the concept of Sunnah underwent several semantico-contextual changes and was deduced on the basis of variant epistemologico-methodological tools to that of hadith. A significant body of evidence suggests that during the first four generations of Muslims the concept of Sunnah was independent (conceived primarily but not exclusively in form of ‘amal or practice-based Sunnah) both methodologically and epistemologically from that of hadith , thus was conceptually and qualitatively different from it. In other words the nature and the scope of Sunnah was distinct from that of the nature and scope of hadith. Upon Sunnah’s complete conceptual identification with hadith, Sunnah’s organic link and the symbiotic relationship with the Qur’an were severed. A new Hadith –based Sunnah was seen as something additional to, a necessary exegetical supplement to, and explicator of the Qur’an rather than the other side of the same coin. The traditional post-Shafi’i function of Sunnah was based exactly on this reasoning and was expressed in the well-known maxim in Islamic jurisprudence affirming that the Qur’an’s interpretational need of Sunnah (in form of its sole vehicle, the hadith) is greater then the Sunnah’s interpretational need of the Qur’an. Thus, Qur’an was, as Saeed astutely alludes to on several occasions and especially in chapter four, increasingly hermeneutically dependent upon hadith. Since a qualitative distinction between the nature, scope and character of pre-classical and classical concept of Sunnah as the most widely accepted or solely normative sources of Qur’anic interpretation existed, this affected the epistemologico-methodological parameters within which Qur’anic interpretation was possible to be developed. Since pre-classical concept of Sunnah, apart from its ‘amal component, was primarily conceived in form of abstract ethico-moral and/or theological terms, was reason inclusive and was conceptualised in terms of the broader Qur’anic objectives and purposes (maqasid), it permitted a wider interpretational playfield /framework than that based on hadith-dependent Sunnah.

Thus, the definition, nature and scope of Sunnah and its relationship vis –a- vis ahadith body of texts, will inevitably affect how the question of Qur’anic interpretation is going to be approached. Therefore, it is essential that any systematic and coherent Qur’anic interpretational model incorporate a dimension relating to the role and function of Sunnahic and Hadith elements in it. In order to do so addressing the broader question of the definition, nature and scope of Sunnah vis-à-vis the Qur’an and hadith is of paramount importance.


About Adis

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