Wednesday, May 6, 2009

interpreting the qur'an

I recently bought a translation of the Qur'an by Tarif Khalidi. It is definitely the best translation I've ever read, because I feel like he focuses on translating concepts rather than word for word. Anyway, in his introduction he writes:

If we turn back to the questions posed above, we might argue that a knowledge of, say, conditions in pre-Islamic Arabia would clearly enahce contextual understanding of the Qur'an. But the very allusiveness of the text, its impersonality, its meta-historical tone, seems almost deliberately to de-emphasize context, and to address its audience or readers in a grammatical tense that I have elsewhere called 'the eternal present tense'. Yes, the Qur'an explicitly recognizes the danger of a wilfully perverted reading of the text, but if approached in a pious frame of mind, or what today we might call sympathy, interpretation must in theory be limitless, since God alone is its perfect interpreter. Thus, of all sacred texts, the Qur'an is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites its readers to engage with it exegtically.

Relating it to my last post, I feel like every individual is bound to have their own interpretation of the Qur'an. Is this wrong? Is there one correct interpretation? I don't think so, because as Khalidi points out, that perfect interpretation is God's alone. We all read the Qur'an with certain ideas already in place, which probably explains why interpretations of it have varied to drastically. As Reza Aslan pointed out, someone looking for gender inequality in the Qur'an will find it, and likewise someone looking for gender equality will find it. Our preconcieved notions, prejudices, and stereotypes will undoubtedly reflect in our reading of the Qur'an. So should we then trust sheikhs and scholars instead of or alongside ourseleves? Aren't they human too, with their own prejudices and stereotypes? A sheikh who was brought up in a strict patriarchal society may not see gender equality in the Qur'an. If he does not believe that women and men are equal, would he interpret any verses in the Qur'an as saying that?
I feel like I do not have enough knowledge of history, arabic language, sunna, and hadith to interpret the Qur'an as well as it should be interpreted. On the other hand, I don't trust authority figures in Islam, because of how many of them have abused this power. I wonder what the solution will be?


Candice said...

People don't like that I believe everyone can have their interpretation of the Qur'an. I don't trust people just because others do.

I think that the most important think is to follow our inner right and wrong, and interpret based on that. I also think it was written in a way to allow for different interpretations. I think it's a way of life, but not as strict of one as most Muslims make it out to be. We seem to have similar ideas, really.

About your last question, I think you are more capable than you think... Maybe if you try some lexicons for key words that you think may have been misinterpreted?

Umm Omar said...

You raise many interesting points. We will all read the Quran through our own eyes, our own experiences, our own ways of understanding; and so will inevitably come to different "interpretations" of it. And some verses will feel more meaningful to others and in different times, too. You often hear,for example, Muslims when in hardship, say that when they read certain verses of the Quran during this time, it was like they were reading and hearing it for the first time, even though they may have read those very verses thousands of times before; it suddenly made sense. Anyway, I, personally, don't depend on scholars to tell me how this verse is supposed to make me feel, or what conclusions I should come to when I ponder over the Quran. Our individual relationships with the Quran are (and should be) deeply personal. I do read tafseer books, however, and from that I usually learn about context, (which is not really a condition for being able to understand all verses). And it may give me some "aha" moments that I can appreciate. I agree that this authoritative power, though, has been abused, and so this brings up the point of blindly following a scholar and avoiding doing that at all costs.
Oh, and btw, I haven't read this translation before, but I do recommend Muhammed Asad's translation (author of Road to Mecca). I saw him in an interview once and he said that when he started translating it, he set a time budget of two years. It, however, took him 17 years to complete and he said it was because of the depth he found in the Quran when he began his quest of translating the whole thing. And it is an excellent translation, imo.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Candice: Yes, I think I should trust myself more, especially since my gut feelings usually decide things. I can usually tell deep down when I'm doing something wrong. It is too risky in my opinion to trust sheikhs these days.
The main reason I trust myself over many sheikhs is because at the end of the day, as a woman reading the Qur'an I see different things than they do, since most sheikhs are males and old ones at that, who usually still have very fixed patriarchal notions about gender. This is especially the case here in Cairo.
Thanks for commenting :)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: I completely agree that our relationships with the Qur'an should be personal. I think it will take my whole lifetime to understand many things in the Qur'an. The problem is as Muslims we are often not allowed or encouraged to have our own interpretations, and this is annoying and if anything goes against what the Qur'an is saying.
I will check out the translation you mentioned! It really makes a big difference. The first Qur'an I read was by A.J. Arberry, supposedly one of the best, but I could barely understand what was going on.
Thanks for commenting!

islam said...

We always demand speciality in every field of knowledge, if I prescribed you a medicine , first thing you will see is if iam a doctor.

in the same way, why you are okay with interpretating Quran by non specialists. every body could not interpretate Quran , becuuse first you have to have arabic language knowledge, fiqh, thafseer Ilm, Islamic history. etc.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Islam: this reminds me of the argument made by Catholic priests before the invention of the printing press: only we can interpret the Bible because only we are specialized in it. And look at the amount of corruption that led to. Of course there are many sheikhs who are not ignorant and corrupt, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, especially if you don't know Arabic or Islamic history etc.
What I'm looking for is a part in the Qur'an or a hadith that says that we should trust others to interpret the Qur'an, or whether we should try it ourselves. I wonder if any such verse or hadith exists.

islam said...

in every thing you cant find a verse in Quran Or Hadees. and dont ask for that. there some thing call logic, rational thinking, common sense.

so even if we dont find an aaya or hadees, saying that we we should try interpret it by ourselves, we know by common sense that every body cant know the right meaning of Quran.

read translation of this aaya:
"But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:" and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.:

Kwame said...

To the user "Islam",

I believe you have a point. In order to accurately understand the Quran, especially in our modern times one should have proper knowledge of the Arabic language as well as an accurate understanding of context and history. It often pains me to read misquoted verses with no regard to historical context (mostly by writers like Sam Harris, or Hitchens).

However, I do not agree with the fact that you have to be a "specialist" in the current academic sense. I also think your comparison of an Islamic specialist to a Doctor of medicine is not applicable in all cases. The reason you wouldn't consult someone on medicine, if they weren't a doctor is because the field of medicine is by and large vast and complex and impenetrable to the lay man. There is no single, eloquent medicine book that you can read and understand the field from. To imply that the Quran is impenetrable in the same regard is highly counter-intuitive to the arguments being made inside it.

Let's say hypothetically your point was true. If you're not a specialist you should not be interpreting the Quran. What we would be doing here is subscribing to the dogmatic western side effect of capitalism, namely "hyper-specialization" (which is nearing to be an often criticized problem in academic circles). If we were to apply this logic, then technically it would not be enough to be a "Sheikh" or "Imam" or Islamic scholar to interpret the Quran. As they would be versed in history, fiqh and language, the would only be authorized to pass judgments based on these principles alone. However, if we asked for their interpretation of these verses in context of a field outside of the Quran (say logic or philosophy) then they would be in the realm of subjectivity and would not be allowed to pass judgement as they would not be specialized in logic or philosophy. A shiekh, like a scientist would be equipped to provide us with evidence and examples, but logical conclusions would not be in their jurisdiction as they wouldn't be "specialized".

The best logical arguments I've ever read regarding the Quran were from the mathematician Gary Miller, some of the best interpretations of the verses on embryology in the Quran were from a Canadian non-muslim named Kieth Moore. The Quran, as God describes it was revealed in "plain arabic" so that we might "understand". It seems to imply that it is open to be read easily and plainly by Muslims and non-muslims alike. If only "specialists" can interpret the Quran, then why is it that it is a part of worship to read and recite it ? Would God ask you to do so if you are supposed to be a specialist to read it ? Should I wait and get a degree before I read it after a prayer ? There are issues that I would have to resort to a scholar in, in fact there are verses that tell me to go and seek out a "person of knowledge", but the mere fact that a verse would tell me that implies that it is not just "men of knowledge" that are allowed to form opinions on the Quran. If we went down that route then you would have to have a vast amount of specializations to interpret the Quran from a femminist perspective, a scientific perspective, and so forth. A primary argument of Islam is that no man is holier than the other, to ascribe some sort of exclusivity to a group of people regarding the Quran (the way priests and rabbis have such power in other religions), is to rob communities of knowledge from bringing in their interpretations of the Quran from their own unique perspectives, preventing a vast open source project that would allow us to understand all the vast dimensions the Quran has to offer. Would the companions of the prophet be considered "specialists" by today's standards ? If only specialists can interpret the Quran, then why should non-specialists be reading it by themselves at all ?

Anonymous said...

I have the translation (about 6 monts now!) but have never read it. I will say I am the only Muslim convert that I know (maybe in the whole world!) what has never actually read the Qur'an more than a few Sura's. May Allah forgive me. So,is this translation really easy to understand if you are not good at vocab? I find most english translations to have lots of vocab that I do not understand, or have old english.