Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Spectrum of Exegesis

Fourteen centuries after Muhammad received his first prophetic revelation, his followers are still trying to figure out how to best follow his religion. There are multitudes of exegesis found in the commentary genre called tafsir which form a strict-lenient spectrum from Fundamentalist to Traditionalist, Reformist to Non-essentialists. These varied readings are polarizing but united in their commitment to Islam. To understand the differences between the sects, it is helpful to explore how each exegesis would handle a specific case. For example, would how each exegesis handle the Quranic prescription for severing a thief’s hand?  

The most strict sect was formally created by Sayyid Qutb in Egypt in the mid 20th century and is called Fundamentalism. Every religion has a fundamentalist sect that insists on following its outdated laws literally even in the modern day. Islam is no different with modern adherents to sharia law. For a Fundamentalist, the answer to the question of the thief is clear: sever the hand. Fundamentalists take the Qur’an and hadith to be entirely literally, which is where they differ from the next group. Oftentimes confused with Fundamentalism, the Traditionalist exegesis is slightly different. Agreeing that reformed Islam is not Islam, the main difference is a metaphorical understanding of the scriptures. Instead of severing the hand of the thief, the Traditionalist would sever the thief’s access by jailing them. This metaphoric reading of the text rather than just understanding the self-evident meaning represents a huge departure from Fundamentalism.

Moving further away from Fundamentalism, the next exegesis is Reformist. The philosophies already described had three sources to draw their laws from: the Qur’an, prophetic hadith, and the consensus of experts and jurists. Reformists agree with this list of sources but add ‘reason,’ declaring that reason is one of God’s most important gifts. In answer to the thief question, the Reformist would not sever the hand, or the access through jail time, but attempt to sever the thief from the core of the problem. The Reformist would address the poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth that pushed the thief to steal. The answer is to rehabilitate the thief and give them a job. The more extreme side of Reformism is the Utopian Reformist. Created by Mahmoud Mohammad Taha, this exegesis is extremely interesting. Taha declares three hierarchical levels of Islam; Freedom, Enforcement, and Law, with Islam of Freedom being the highest truth. Taha insists that the earlier revelations in Mecca take precedence over the later revelations from Medina. (Kurzman, 270) These Meccan revelations represent the high Islam of Freedom that is not politically regulatory and instead is purely ethical and spiritual. This represents the first stage of revelation- truth- while the Medina revelations are the dogma. (Kurzman, 272) These Utopian Reformers would want to be living in the Islam of Freedom and therefore there would no theft. All humans would be equally moral and there would be no reason to steal, so no need to sever the thief’s hand.

The most ‘liberal’ of exegesis are the Non-essentialists. All the exegesis so far have been adamant to keep the traditional aspects of Islam, such as hadith and the Qur’an, but Non-essentialists do not find this to be the most important aspect of the religion. Instead they favor the core morals over all. Although they still value the sacred texts, they put more weight on what is reasonable and right for that specific moment in history. This is to say that what is right at one point in time is improper at another. The non-essentialist would cater their response to theft to whatever moment in time and culture they find themselves within. For example, the severing of the hand perhaps was necessary in Muhammad’s time but is inappropriate for our modern time.

Circling back to the exegesis of reformist, one finds the Inclusive Reformist, as explained by Muhammad Shahrur in the late 20th century. His exegesis is called ‘Range Theory.’ This Theory says that there is no one Islam. Instead there is a range of what counts as Islam: Everything from Fundamentalist to Non-Essentialist and everything in between. This is a large departure from the classical exegesis of picking one interpretation and condemning all others. “The uniqueness and originality of Shahrour’s approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an lies in its conspicuous break with any agreement or contract- textually, linguistically, and methodologically- pertaining to the tafsir genre. (Christman, 285)

During Muhammad’s life, his followers had direct access to the revelations and even for the few generations after his death, there were people who had known him and could clarify his teachings. Since then, Muslims have had to rely on their interpretations of their statements and accounts of the Prophet’s life. The problem with this is that everyone interprets these actions differently and puts emphasis on different sections. This leads to the various exegesis that were explained. Unfortunately, not all these exegesis believe in the inclusive Range Theory of Muhammad Shahrour, which leads to religious conflicts.

Works Cited

Christmann, A. (2003). “THE FORM IS PERMANENT, BUT THE CONTENT MOVES”: THE QUR’ANIC TEXT AND ITS INTERPRETATION(S) IN MOHAMAD SHAHROUR’S ‘AL-KITĀB WA ‘L QUR’ĀN’. Die Welt des Islams, [online] 43(2), pp.143-172. Available at:

Kurzerman, C. (2018). Liberal Islam. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.Chapter 28: The Second Message of Islam.

Mahallati, Jafar. The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegeses, Oberlin

Mahallati, Jafar. Class Lectures  4/19, 4/26, 5/1, 5/3


Leave a Reply