RELG 272 Intro to the Qur’an
Professor M. Jafar Mahallati
In Islam, the Qur’an is taken as the direct word of God, transcribed as dictated from Mohammed, the last prophet. Every Muslim holds the Qur’an in highest esteem. Nonetheless, as in many religions, there are many ways to interpret the Qur’an, which can lead to many different ways of practicing Islam. The spectrum ranges from fundamentalist to non-essentialists. Understanding the variance of interpretations of the Qur’an is extremely important to understanding the practice of Islam and the level to which the Qur’an impacts daily life in Islamic communities.
Fundamentalist perspectives on the Qur’an advocate for following the Qur’an as closely as possible, disregarding any change in context from the time and place the Qur’an was created. This includes the body of law, often referred to as sharia. Sayyid Qutb is a fundamentalist exegete. Qutb viewed the Qur’an as a series of images symbolic of human patterns throughout time; for example, the Pharaoh is not just the Pharaoh but also all unjust and tyrannical rulers.1 Qutb was raised outside of Islam, but became repulsed by Western culture after spending two years studying in the United States. He found in Islam an ideal code of law and living. Qutb is known for engaging the Qur’an both literarily and literally. Qutb also believed that prophetic tradition should be respected as a sacred part of history.2
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is known as a traditionalist exegete. Nasr does not believe in reformed Islam; rather, Islam should be practiced in its original form.3 Nasr argues in his collection of essays “Traditional Islam and the Modern World,” published in 1987, that Western influence has corroded the Islamic foundation of Muslim countries.4 The Traditionalist school of thought argues against Modernism. Nasr believes that reason should be a source of law, and that prophetic tradition must be respected.
In contrast to fundamentalists and traditionalists, Mohammad Shahrur is an inclusive reformist. Shahrur believes that reason is a gift from God, and that reason should be the source of law rather than directly sourcing the Qur’an. Shahrur actively approaches the Qur’an with an intent of defamiliarization.5 He wants to read the Qur’an each time as if he is seeing it for the first time. This is the perspective from which Shahrur challenges traditionalist thinking in regards to the Qur’an. Shahrur identifies two separate levels of being: the divine reality, and the human perception of the divine reality. Shahrur believes that through further scientific and technological developments, humanity becomes better-equipped to understand the divine realm. Therefore any current understanding of Islam is better and more nuanced than previous understandings. This is, of course, quite controversial. Shahrur also sees the Qur’an as both permanent and moving. The linguistic form is God’s word, which is permanent. However, the content is materialized by the readers in different contexts that are constantly shifting. Thus, the content is ever-moving.
Mahmoud Mohammed Taha is considered a utopian reformist exegete. Taha’s views are relatively liberal. He held the older revelations in higher esteem than the newer revelations, believing the newer ones to be more applicable to Medina than elsewhere. Taha refers to two “Messages of Islam.”6 While Mohammed is the Messenger of both messages, Taha believes that Mohammed only explained the First Message in detail. The Second Message was only outlined and must be filled in by a fresh understanding of the Qur’an. Taha’s views were controversial enough that he was executed in Sudan in the 1980s.
Feminist perspective on the Qur’an can vary. Amina Wadud-Muhsin uses both gendered readings of the Qur’an and the experiences of African-American Muslim women to bolster her argument that historical circumstance should be taken into account in relation to Islamic law. Muhsin argues that many of the interpretations of the Qur’an, heretofore written by men in the majority, are inherently biased towards men by virtue of being filtered through the perspective of a man.7 She further argues that the distinctions between genders in the Qur’an are far less than traditionally believed.8 She bases this off of both that the plural form for a group of people of unspecified gender in Arabic takes the male conjugation and that the Qur’an never defines childbearing as the woman’s “primary function,” but rather as a function that can only be performed by women.9 This gives women more agency in the world of Islamic law.
Finally, another category of exegesis are the non-essentialist exegetes. Fazlur Rahman and Abdulkarim Soroush are examples of non-essentialists. Non-essentialists believe that Islamic law is subject to both time and location, and that the Qur’an must be interpreted based upon such.10 Rahman distinguishes between historical Islam and normative Islam. There are certain verses of the Qur’an that Rahman believes to be universal and thus timeless, while others pertain only to historical Islam.11 In regard to prophetic tradition, non-essentialists believe that non-devotional elements can be changed if service to the cause of law requires it.
Despite being incredibly holy to every Muslim, there are many different ways to interpret the Qur’an. This means that many people practice Islam differently and can justify it through the Qur’an. The varied spectrum of exegetes allows one to gain perspective on the different ways one might practice the religion.
- Johns, A. H. “Let My People Go! Sayyid Qutb and the Vocation of Moses.” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations1, no. 2 (1990): 143-70. doi:10.1080/09596419008720932.
- Mahallati, M.J. “The Spectrum of Modernist Schools.” Lecture.
- Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Traditional Islam in the Modern World. London: Routledge, 2013.
- Taji-Farouki, Suha. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qurʼan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.
- Abdullah, A.K. “Fazlur Rahman.”