Valid Interpretations of the Layman
IN THIS TWO-PART article, we address the basic misconceptions that cause Muslims to be deprived of the real message and infinite wisdom of the Quran. On the one hand, many self-proclaimed interpreters, denying the need for recourse to any classical exegeses or methods, or driven by ulterior motives other than sincere submission to Allah, audaciously abuse the Quran and derive from it meanings contrary to its essence and the entire Message of Islam.
On the other hand, the silent majority of even practicing Muslims suffers from general apathy towards the meanings of the Quran, which is only increased by the misconception that nothing can be understood from the Quran without recourse to its original language and scholarly exegesis, and therefore, we should not even try it. As a result, some apparently knowledgeable abusers sometimes triumph over the ignorance and negligence of the common Muslims.
The Muslim history has witnessed many deviations that began with a deviant interpretation of the Quran by an impostor and blind following by ignorant Muslims. The heresies of the Qadyanis (false claims of Prophethood), the rejecters of the Sunnah, the bâtinis (who believe in hidden, esoteric, meanings rather than the literal meanings of the Quran), and many deviant mystic sects were founded in this manner. The same is bound to happen again, unless we take caution and return to the Final Message of Allah with all our hearts and all our minds.
While dealing with the Final Book of Allah, the Noble Quran, we come across some important and legitimate concerns. If not understood properly, these issues will turn into dilemmas that have the capacity to stifle the lay Muslims’ approach to the Quran. One belief shared by the Muslims through centuries and across the world is that we need specialized scholars to fully understand the Quran. On the one hand, we encounter the saying of our truthful Messenger that ‘Whoever interprets the Quran by his own opinion shall take his place in Hell-fire’ (Tirmithi), which cautions the non-expert believers from attempting to approach the Quran by themselves. On the other hand, Allah emphatically asserts that “Indeed we have made this Qur’an easy for understanding and remembering (thikr). Is there any, then, that will take it to heart (muddakir).” (Sûrat Al-Qamar, 54:17) Why, then, should we need scholars?
Does recourse to scholars mean Islam sanctions priesthood? Does following the scholars uncritically not entail “worshiping them” as Allah pointed out in the Quran in regard to the Jews and the Christians? (Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:31)
The dilemma disappears as soon as we realize that there are different layers of understanding the Quran. This categorization holds true of understanding any text let alone the Final Message of Allah that contains infinite wisdom and knowledge and is directed to every single human being, without exception.
Categories of Understanding
Addressing the same issue, Khurram Murad wrote in his Way to Qur’an: “Broadly speaking, we may divide the study of the Quran into two categories: tathakkur and tadabbur, after the Qur’anic verse: “That they may ponder over (liyaddabbaru) its revelations and … may take them to heart (liyatathakkara).” (Sûrat Ṣâd, 38:29)
First Level of Understanding
Tathakkur (the basic essential message): Khurram Murad goes on to write: “Tathakkur (meaning: receiving admonition, deriving advice, remembering, taking heed and taking to heart) is a category of understanding which, in its essential nature, should not require any sophisticated tools of scholarship. You may not know the meaning of every word, you may not be competent enough to explore the full meaning of all the important and key words, and you may not understand every verse, but the general, overall message, especially the message for you—how to live—should come out clearly and radiantly. It is in the sense of tathakkur that the Qur’an categorically states that it is easy to understand, it is available to every sincere inquirer if he only comprehends what he is reading and ponders over it… Tathakkur is not some lower category of understanding; it is the basic essential purpose of the Qur’an.” (Khurram Murad, Way to the Qur’an).
This tathakkur that captures the basic and inescapable message of the Quran cannot remain hidden from the minds of the simplest of readers. However, the heart and soul of an irreverent reader may never receive the message of the Quran, because that requires a spiritual effort: “When you recite the Quran, We put, between you and those who believe not in the Hereafter, a veil invisible. And We put coverings over their hearts (and minds) lest they should understand the Quran, and (We put) deafness into their ears.” (Sûrat Al-Isrâ’,17:46)
The level of tathakkur can be transmitted fully through any reasonable translation of the Quran and one need not know a letter of Arabic to completely understand this essential message of the Quran. It is not correct to assume that understanding the Quran in order to take guidance from it depends upon direct knowledge of the Arabic language. There are numerous Arabic-speaking people who do not understand the message of the Quran and do not believe in it, while there are millions who do not know a word of Arabic yet still believe in the Quran and live its message.
It is this essential and inescapable message of the Quran – beyond any differences of interpretation, subtleties of meanings and dependence upon specific contexts – that determines the ʿaqîdah or foundational creed of Islam. For instance, consider the following teachings of the Qur’an that are beyond any dispute or doubt:
- Allah is One and Only God,
- Muhammad is His Final Messenger,
- The Day of Judgment is imminent, and we will be held accountable for our beliefs and actions on that day,
- Those who believe in Allah and His Messenger Muhammad are successful and those who reject any part of this faith after knowing it are culpable and damned,
- Muslims must not take rejecters of faith as their guardians or protectors,
- All Muslims constitute a brotherhood,
- They must be humble, kind, merciful and forgiving to each other, like brothers,
- They must worship Allah, perform Ṣalâh, pay charity, fast, and perform Ḥajj, and perform Jihad in whatever way possible,
- And must call the entire humanity to Allah’s guidance, and so on and so forth.
Each of these teachings is beyond dispute, all schools of thought and all scholars of Islam, modern or ancient, agree on them. This essential message is writ large on every passage of the Quran and is beyond any question or doubt.
Why should we need to recall these basic teachings here? Because when the trial comes, people do not forget the details of how to perform Ṣalâh and Fast, but indeed they forget these very undeniable essentials of faith. When charlatans – those who sell the revelations of Allah for a short price – claim anything against this essential message, every Muslim must recognize that this is a serious matter beyond interpretation and differences and an attempt to sabotage the Dîn of Allah. On the flip side, when a genuine scholar differs with a popularly held belief while supporting the message of the Quran and the Sunnah, one must not oppose it thoughtlessly.
Staying in touch with the basic message of the Quran, by reading and understanding it constantly and regularly, gives us this wisdom and discretion and distinction of right from wrong, of the essence from the shell, of the constants of the Dîn of Allah from the variables that depend upon time and place.
A truly humble and deep reading of the Quran, therefore, is the only way to avoid two evil extremes: fanaticism and extremism (ghulû) on the one hand, and doubts and heedlessness (ghaflah) on the other.