Qur’anic Interpretation | Part 2 | Tadabbur and the Need for Scholarly Explanation

IN PART ONE of this series, we addressed 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 suffered 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 language and scholarly exegeses, 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.

As a solution for this dilemma, we suggested that we must understand that Allah has meant the Quran as universal guidance, to be read and understood by all humans in all ages to come. Different kinds of people, with differing levels of understanding, expertise, dedication, taqwa (piety) and tawfîq (acceptance of effort) from Allah, are capable of penetrating its different layers.

Tadabbur: Achieving Deeper and Accurate Understanding 

The other category is Tadabbur (intellectual and spiritual). Just as Allah’s wisdom is infinite, so are the meanings of the Quran and even hundreds of lifetime are not enough to fathom the full depth of it.

In his book “Way to the Qur’an”, Khurram Murad writes: “The tadabbur signifies that you try to find the full meaning of every word, verse, and sûrah, that you explore the fuller meaning behind those words, metaphors and parables, that you discover the textual cohesion and underlying unity, that you determine the central ideas, delve into lexical intricacies, tanzîl, and historical background, and that you undertake a comparative study of different tafsîrs. Such a study would require a greater and deeper knowledge of various ʿUlûm Al-Qur’an (the Qur’anic  Disciplines), depending on your goals and aims. ”

It is this second category where deep scholarship and even specialization is indispensable. There are several fields in which scholars specialize while exploring the infinite treasures of the Quran, for example:

  1. The literary nature and idiom of the Quran
  2. The Commandments (tafsîr âyât al-akâm or exegesis of Qur’anic verses that have legal content)
  3. Spiritual laws for individuals and societies: Understanding of the Sunan of Allah
  4. Deeper themes: the internal organization of the Qur’an and its implication

The areas where most of the controvertible issues – that are open to discussion by scholars – lie are the rulings of Sharîʿah that are dealt with typically, but not exclusively, in the field of Fiqh and Tafsîr Âyât Al-Akâm. For these areas of tafsîr, a sound knowledge of the following is obviously necessary:

  1. The reasons, circumstances and occasions of revelation.
  2. The abrogating and abrogated verses.
  3. The ‘clear’ and the ‘unclear’ verses.
  4. The sayings of the Prophet and after him his Companions and later great scholars.

Ahmed Von Denffer’s excellent introductory text, Ulum al Qur’an  (available at: http://www.youngmuslims.ca/online_library/books/ulum_al_Qur’an/), enumerates the requirements generally agreed upon by the scholars of Islam for performing exegesis of the Quran. The exegete must:

  1. Be sound in belief (ʿaqîda).
  2. Be well-grounded in the knowledge of Arabic and its rules as a language.
  3. Be well-grounded in other Sharîʿah sciences that are connected with the study of the Quran.
  4. Have the ability for precise comprehension.
  5. Abstain from the use of mere opinion.
  6. Begin the tafsîr of the Quran with the Quran
  7. Seek guidance from the words and explanations of the Prophet œ.
  8. Refer to the reports from the Companions.
  9. Consider the reports from the Companions’ Followers.
  10. Consult the opinions of other eminent scholars.

Clearly, these are necessary and at the same time very demanding requirements and only a few even among the scholars at any given time are expected to achieve this level. These are all, in a way, ‘technical’ requirements, and they are not complete without the most important requirement: the inner purity. In other words, possessing the technical skills to interpret the Quran is not sufficient without the inner purity: which implies îmân, taqwa, fear and love of Allah and the Quran, humility, and absolute willingness to submit fully to the words of the Quran sincerely after applying the right tools to understand them.

The Messenger of Allah œ has warned us that tafsîr must not be done based on mere conjecture. “Whoever interprets the Quran by his own opinion shall take his place in Hell-fire.” (Tirmithi)  According to Khurram Murad, this adîth refers to those who use their opinion to employ the Quran to support and prove one’s personal opinions and preconceived notions rather than surrendering one’s ego, with an open mind, to its guidance.

To sum up, the deep and accurate understanding of the Quran is both technical (linguistic, historical and other intellectual) and spiritual (true submission to Allah and His word) skills; neither one is sufficient by itself. The more one possesses of these skills, the better one’s tadabbur is.

 CONCLUSION

  1. There are different levels or layers of depth in understanding the Quran.
  2. The first and the most immediate is the level of remembrance, tathakkur, which is available to all, even through translations. Therefore, one must never abandon the reading of the Quran for oneself and trying to understand its fundamental message, which can be called the basic creed or ʿaqîda of Islam.
  3. However, we must always go to the true scholars of Islam, past and present, to acquire a deeper understanding of the Quran to resolve any apparent contradictions that may arise as a result of a first cursory reading.
  4. Both approaches are needed and indispensable for us all. Remembering the basic message helps us fight evils of all kinds: those within ourselves as well as those that threaten our faith from without.
  5. The two levels of understanding are in fact not independent of each other: Those simple Muslims who have recourse only to the very basic understanding of the Quran are instructed by the Quran itself to refer to the ‘people of remembrance’ in regard to what they do now know.’ [ Sûrat Al-Naḥl,16:43; Sûrat Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:7] Similarly, the specialized scholars are never above the sincere advice and respectful scrutiny of the common Muslims.
  6. The acquisition of merely technical knowledge, like the Arabic-language and of adîth and opinions of the Companions is not sufficient without the acquisition of inner purity and humility. The true scholars, according to the Quran, are those who fear Allah most: “Of His servants only those who are possessed of knowledge fear Allah; surely Allah is Mighty, Forgiving.” [Sûrat Fâṭir, 35:28] When looking for guidance in understanding the Quran, we must make sure, as best as we can, to seek scholars who are truly God-fearing and whose lives reflect their knowledge.

We had started by posing the dilemma of disuse of the Quran by the ignorant masses on the one hand and its abuse on the other hand by charlatans, the pseudo-scholars who claim to interpret the Quran but lack either the knowledge or purity to correctly interpret it, thereby misguiding others. Once we approach the Quran fully, with all our mind and heart, both of the problems can be solved. The problem of ignorant masses disappears since the basic message of the Quran becomes available to all, which is sufficient to alert the Islamic society from all different forms of shirk, moral corruption and other forms of deviations from the right path. Similarly, as all Muslims, lay or learned, become well-grounded in the essential message of the Quran, and more and more Muslims reach higher levels of tadabbur, it becomes less and less possible for corrupt pseudo-scholars to misguide the people.

Finally, the Quran is the “Rope of Allah,” [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:103] which if held tightly, without abuse or disuse, will lead the Muslim Ummah to definite success in this world and the Hereafter. Those who doubt this power of the Quran should reconsider their claim to belief. The question each one of us should ask is: What is my role in saving the Book of Allah from disuse or abuse? As you start reflecting sincerely and earnestly, I am sure you will begin to see what your call is.

 

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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