Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alejandra Diaz: The many messages of the Qur’an

There is an incredible range of diversity when it comes to approaches to the Qur’an. The different readings one can have of the Qur’an are not only due to the kinds of materials, such the Qur’an or Hadiths, but also because of the different lens exegetes use to analyze these materials. One can organize these different worldviews on a spectrum; from more fundamentalist and conservative views on the message of the Qur’an, to much more liberal interpretations, which put emphasize on new ideas and the changes of a constantly evolving society and understanding of humanity.

One can see how these different schools of thought differ in their understanding of the Qur’an through differences in their interpretation of the same qur’anic verses. Take the following verse for example, “[As for] the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.”[i] A fundamentalist exegesis would state that just as this verse states, one should sever the hands of thief’s. This is because a Fundamentalist exegete  believes the prophetic tradition must be preserve and laws should be observed and implemented in the manner the Prophet Muhammad did.[ii] Michael Dummett contrast fundamentalism with more liberal schools of thoughts, stating, “Nevertheless, there are Muslims who believe that an Islamic society ought to adapt to modern conditions and to prevalent ideas of personal freedom; and hence Muslim fundamentalism, as opposed to such accommodation, can be understood as analogous to a literal understanding of the Bible.”[iii] They believe that during the time of the Prophet and his followers, that people practiced a purer Islam. Thus, fundamentalist tend to focus on the way Islam was historically practiced.

In contrast to Fundamentalist exegetes, non-essentialist exegetes believe although the Qur’an is a message from God, this message has been filtered prophet’s contemporary society and understanding of the world.  Fazlur Rahman, is a good example of a scholar that takes non-essentialist approach to understanding the Quran. Rahman states, “just as those generations met their own situation adequately by freely interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet-by emphasizing the ideal and the principles and re-embodying them in a fresh texture of their own contemporary history-we must perform the same feat for our own contemporary history.”[iv] Therefore, the Qur’an should not be understood and implemented literally. Instead, one should recognize the context of the 8th century Arabian society the Qur’an was revealed in and interpret the Qur’an through the values and logic of today.  Thus, returning to the previously mentioned qur’anic verse, Rahman and other non-essentialist exegetes would argue that one should not cut the hands of thieves as the qur’anic verse states. Perhaps in 8th century Arabian Peninsula, this would have been a proper solution, but times have changed. Today we have a different view towards capital punishment and we have many other new institutions and methods to deal with this issue. Therefore, one should read this verse metaphorically, and instead think of it as a call to “cut off” the root of the issue or the thieves access to objects.[v]

The fundamentalist and non-essentialist exegeses provided very different views on the Qur’an. One can put these two views on different ends of a spectrum of understandings and approaches to the Qur’an. But perhaps the view that I find most personally fascinating, is that of the exegetes like Mahmoud Mohammad Taha which belong to the Utopian Reformist school of thought. Taha believed there are three levels of Islam: freedom, enforcement, law. According to Taha, God first introduced to humanity the Islam of freedom, but humanity did not understand it and distorted it. Thus, God had to create an Islam of law for humanity and gave use regulations or laws to follow.[vi] Following this logic, Taha would argue that laws are temporary solutions until humanity can reach a stage in which each person can do good and have their own moral code that does not clash with the moral codes of others.[vii] Thus, I would argue that Taha would agree with Rahman’s interpretation of verse 5:38, and advocate a more reformatory or rehabilitative approach to addressing a thief’s crime.

By analyzing the Qur’an through the approaches taken by these three exegesis, one can see the multitude of diverse meanings and messages the Qur’an can provide. This diversity perhaps proves that if one looks through the Qur’an with a specific point of view one will find that the Qur’an can and will talk to them through that perspective. Thus, I would argue that the Qur’an truly is a universal text and that the text will continue to speak to humanity regardless of the changes that may come.

[i] Quran 5:38

[ii] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, May 8, 2018)

[iii] Dummett, Michael. “Fundamentalism.” New Blackfriars 83, no. 975 (2002): 242-44., 243.

[iv] RAHMAN, FAZLUR. “SOCIAL CHANGE AND EARLY SUNNAH.” Islamic Studies 2, no. 2 (1963): 205-16., 207.

[v] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 19, 2018)

[vi] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Mayl 1, 2018)

[vii] Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, “The Second Message of Islam,” in Liberal Islam: A source book, ed. Charles Kurzman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 270-283, 279.

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