Qur'anic Interpretation

Jay Smith - January 1996

Qur'anic interpretation, or exegesis, known as Tafsir in Arabic, is the exercise by which writers and theologians explained the text of the Qur'an. Their aim was to explore its ramification as much as possible, as well as to make the text understandable to the populace (Rippin 1990:85). It is not a new practice in the Muslim world. According to Muslim tradition, the first "professional" exegete was the prophet Muhammad's nephew Ibn 'Abbas, who was fifty years younger than Muhammad, and lived between 619-670 A.D. (Jansen 1980:4).

From that time a long tradition of Qur'anic interpretation followed. Many of the scholars are now household names, such as, al-Tabari (d.923), Az-Zamakhshari (d.1144), Ibn al-Kathir (d.1373), and Muhammad Abduh (d.1905). Islamic Dictionaries were also compiled, the most noteworthy by: Al-Gawhari (d.1002), Ibn Manzur (d.1311), and Al-Firuzabadi (d.1414). Also popular were two other books dealing with the Qur'an: Al-Waqidi's compilation of "sent down" verses, and As-Suyuti's introduction to the Qur'an (Jansen 1980:6-7).

Yet until the time of Muhammad Abduh, a scholar who lived at end of the 19th century, the art of deciphering Qur'anic interpretation was mainly an academic affair. To understand a commentary required detailed knowledge of the technicalities and terminology of Arabic grammar, Muslim law and dogmatics (Shar'ia), as well as the Traditions of the Prophet and his contemporaries (Hadith), and the Prophet's biography (or Sira).

As a result Qur'anic exegesis became an exercise for the elite, a practice reserved for a small coterie of academics, and divorced from the workaday life of the populace at large. Consequently interpretation became solidified and almost canonized, known as Taqlid (or past interpretation, the old way of doing or thinking).

The older interpreters of the Qur'an had always interested the west, yet, ironically, the same interest was not shared among Muslims. The reason for this was that Muslims usually preferred the Qur'an to be calligraphed, chanted or recited, and not interpreted (Jansen 1980:18).

In fact, it is only now, in the latter half of the 20th century, that Muslim scholars are finally publishing books about earlier Qur'anic exegesis. At present about a dozen important 20th century musalsal commentaries exist, including works by: 'Abd al-Galil 'Isa's Al-Mushaf al-Muyassar (1961), Ahmad Mustafa al-Maraghi's Tafsir al-Maraghi (1945), Muhammad 'Abd al-Mun'im Khafagi's Tafsir al-Qur'an (1959), Muhammad Abu Zayd's Al-Hidaya wa-l-'Irfan (1930), Muhammad 'Izza Darwaza's At-Tafsir al-Hadith (1960), Muhammad Mahmud's Higazi's At-Tafsir al-Wadih (1952), and Sayyid Qutb's Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (1950-1960?) (Jansen 1980:13). Some of the newer commentaries are controversial, such as those by Muhammad Abu Zayd (1930), Ahmad Khalafallah (1947), and Mustafa Mahmud (1970).

So why this sudden interest in Qur'anic interpretation? What has brought about the shift in thinking towards areas of life and practice which have remained codified for centuries?

Today as Muslims are coming into greater contact with foreign civilizations, there has been a pronounced need to re-interpret the Qur'an for the new age. A crisis has descended upon Islam by the encounter with the enlightened and more or less secularized Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period Muslims no longer ruled their lands. Consequently the religion of Islam no longer had the means at its disposal to sway the hearts and minds of the populace like it once had.

In the sphere of social life the unfeasibility of Muslim society's mediaeval structures contrasted with the active and dynamic way of life of the Westerners. The traditional way of living and thinking, taken from the Qur'an were just not good enough, and the Qur'anic commentators could no long ignore the call of the new times.

A new exegesis of the Qur'an began, not due to language problems, but the inevitable increasing number of situations not dealt with in the sacred writings. This was taken over by theologians, lexicographers, linguists, grammarians and jurists of Islam.

The name which stands out in this group is that of Muhammad 'Abduh, to whom I will return in fuller detail later. It was his intent to explain the Qur'an in a practical manner to a wide public, wider than the professional Islamic theologians, with the design to show that the Qur'an had solutions for the urgent problems of the day. His concern was,

His commentaries became very successful, both amongst those who were progressive as well as the conservatives. With the increasing literate public demanding answers to current problems, problems which the traditional commentaries did not deal with, Abduh's commentary inevitably became quite popular.

Abduh believed that the Qur'an is a book from which Muslims ought to derive their ideas about this world and the world to come. As a corrective, however, he maintained that one should not explain things that are left unexplained (mubham, closed or locked) by the Qur'an (Jansen 1980:25).

'Abduh's exegesis (and the following commentary by Rida), were determined by "the need of the times." Thus, for example, the interpretation in 'Abduh's reading of Sura 2:27 was to resist western domination, as Egypt was being occupied by the British at that time. (Jansen 1980:30).

Jansen in his book The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt looks at three areas where modern Qur'anic interpretation has tended to apply itself. These are the areas which he calls "natural history, philology, and practical application." It is within these three genres of exegesis that I would like to now look, to better understand where current Qur'anic exegesis is going, and what it is saying.

A: Natural History or "Scientific" Interpretation

Natural History is the first area which I would like to deal with. This area is also known as Scientific Exegesis, or that which is known in Arabic as Tafsir 'ilmi. Scientific exegesis seeks to draw all possible fields of human knowledge into the interpretation of the Qur'an; to find in the Qur'an that which has been discovered by the sciences of the 19th and 20th centuries (Jansen 1980:35).

Two verses are cited for this practice; Sura 16:91, which states, "We have sent down to thee the Book as an explanation of everything," and Sura 6:38, where we read, "We have not let slip anything in the Book." If the Qur'an contains an explanation of everything, then, according to current Islamic scholars, modern science should be included. Thus, they maintain, all sciences, skills and techniques have their roots in the Qur'an (As-Suyuti Al-Itqan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, ii, 125).

Az-Zamakhshari (d.1144) took this idea one step forward maintaining that in heaven a perfect divine universal record is kept in which nothing is omitted. The Qur'an in its earthly form is merely a reflection of this heavenly "well-preserved tablet" (from Sura 85:22-23) (Jansen 1980:35).

The traditions also echo this scientific exegesis, where the prophet is supposed to have said, "The Book of God. It contains the tidings on what was in the past. It announces what will be in the future" (Muhammad Husayn Ad-Dhababi, At-tafsir wa-l-Mufassirun, iii,144).

With this view towards science, it came as no surprise that as early as 1257, the scholar Ibn Abi al-Fadl al-Mursi discovered in the Qur'an the arts of astronomy, medicine, weaving, spinning, seafaring and agriculture, as well as pearl-diving (the latter found in combining Sura 38:36, which says, "Every builder and diver" and Sura 16:14 which says, "...brings forth ornaments") (Jansen 1980:37).

As more and more Muslim countries were being colonized by the west in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the help of "the superior European technology," it came as a consolation to many Muslims to read in commentaries on the Qur'an that all those foreign weapons and techniques which enabled Europeans to rule over them were based on principles and sciences mentioned or foretold in the Qur'an. The main scientific exegetes during this troubling period (1881-1920) were: Al-Iskandarani, Ahmad Mukhtar al-Ghazi, Abdallah Fikri Basha, and Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi.

Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi's Ad-Din fi Nazar al-'Aql as-Sahih ("religion in the light of pure reason") was the most popular (1905). It was a polemical work and contained a list of 40 mistakes in the text of the Bible. Sidqi believed that it wasn't Muhammad but Paul who had epileptic fits, and that the New Testament was corrupted by malicious party quarrels, and therefore was of little value to Muslims.

Tantawi Gawhari (1870-1940) wrote a scientific commentary on the Qur'an which comprised 26 volumes! He believed that in the same way that Muslim jurists built a system of law out of the vague moral exhortations of the Qur'an, the scientific exegetes may deduce the movements of the celestial bodies out of the same Qur'an (Jansen 1980:45).

For these Muslim exegetes, it was a means to defy imperialism and to take up instruments of civilization, culture and science to enable the Muslims to resist the west with their own scientific weapons.

Farid Wagdi's commentary on the Qur'an included the use of modern natural history to interpret certain passages, often stating that, "Modern science confirms this literally," or "in this verse you read an unambiguous prediction of things invented in the 19th and 20th centuries!" (Jansen 1980:46). Unfortunately he rarely, if ever, stated where his modern science sources were.

It was this failure to corroborate one's sources which often brought out the critics of the scientific exegetical method.

Another problem with this method was the intellectual weakness employed by many of the exegetes.

Hanafi Ahmad (with a Bsc. from Durham) is a good example of this problem. Using verses in the Qur'an in which the word nagm (star) occurs, he concluded that the Qur'an presupposes knowledge of the difference between the nature of the light of the planets and the light of the stars. The word for planets (kawakib) he believed never occurs with the word ihtida' (guidance), whereas the word stars does, as in Sura 6:97. He concluded therefore that according to the Qur'an, stars and not planets are the original light in the sky, and that the light of the planets is derived from the light of the stars (Jansen 1980:48).

Another example of his line of thought can be found in Sura 21:33 (which most Muslims even today believe proves the Copernican cosmology, since the Sun and Moon are indeed in orbits). Ahmad takes the word yasbahuna (which is translated as "hastening on," but should mean "swimming") and assumes it refers to the earth and stars, which he felt would connect with a modern cosmology (Jansen 1980:49). Yet, any casual observer will be quick to note that both of these verses contain no information on the movements of celestial bodies that has been hidden from any observant biped.

A further example is that found in Sura 27:88, which states, "...and one sees the mountains, apparently solid, yet passing [away] like clouds..." This verse, Ahmad believed alludes to the revolution of the earth.

There were a number of scientific exegetes like Ahmad who went to great lengths to find all modern scientific achievements within the pages of the Qur'an.

Take for instance Muhammad Hanafi al-Banna who discovered allusions to aeroplanes (Sura 17:1), artificial satellites (Sura 41:53), interplanetary travel (Sura 55:33), and the hydrogen bomb (Sura 74:33-38) (Jansen 1980:48).

The agenda behind these 'discoveries' by the modern scientific exegetes was the fact that if it is interpreted their way, they allude to "scientific" facts that were unknown in the days of Muhammad, yet were being discovered more than a thousand years later, implying divine knowledge which no man could have concocted (Jansen 1980:52).

Thus, it was not surprising when men like Muhammad Kamil Daww wrote that the miracle of the "scientific" content of the Qur'an was even greater than the miracle of its matchless eloquence. This gave veracity to Muhammad, and hence a correctness to all the statements in the Qur'an.

Today the person best known for popularizing scientific exegesis is the french doctor Maurice Bucaille. In his book, The Bible, The Qur'an and Science, he seeks to expose the unscientific nature of the Bible while simultaneously elevating the status of the Qur'an by using the same criteria.

Not all Muslim scholars, however, are happy with these supposed scientific discoveries within the Qur'an. As-Shatibi, a Qur'anic scholar (d.1333) maintained that "there is nothing in the Koran of the things they [the scientific exegetes] assert, although the Koran contains the sciences of the kind known to the Arabs in the days of the Prophet" (Ad-Dhahabi, iii,154).

Amin al-Khuli echoed this sentiment by writing against scientific exegesis, stipulating that lexicologically, the meanings of the words of the Qur'an do not bear a shift into the field of modern science. Philologically, he stated, the Qur'an addressed the Arab contemporaries of the prophet, and consequently it would not address anything they would not understand. Theologically, the Qur'an preaches the ethics of a religion. It is concerned with man's view of life, not with his cosmological views. Finally it is illogical to assume a static, unchanging set of texts would contain the ever-changing views of 19th and 20th century scientists (Jansen 1980:53).

This, then, brings us to our second genre of interpretation, that of philology.

B: Philological Interpretation

Philology is the science of discovering what the word/s meant in the past, and what the author intended it/them to mean. There are many words in the Qur'an which are unclear, words which are no longer used, or whose contexts are uncertain.

In the 1300's, Ibn Khaldun (d.1382) said that, "the Koran was revealed in the language of the Arabs and according to the styles of their rhetoric; so all of them understood it" (Muqaddima, 438). Yet the interpretation of certain words, phrases and verses of the Qur'an occasioned much difficulty with the contemporaries of the prophet, and later generations; so much so that philological Qur'anic interpretation soon became a necessity.

The best known early philologist is Abu 'Ubayda (d.825) who wrote the Naqa'id, and another work on pre-Islamic society. His word studies began with explanations of the words Qur'an, Sura and aya, followed by word studies attested by lines from classical Arabic poetry, and an enumeration of the stylistic peculiarities of the Qur'an (ellipsis, prolepsis etc...) (Jansen 1980:60). It was his contention that the Qur'an employed these devices the same way that pre-Islamic poets employed them.

He gave no isnads for his information, and made no pretense that the information contained in his commentary in any way went back to the prophet or to his companions. These are his own thoughts. It is then remarkable that his explanations are found in Bukhari's (d.870) chapter on Qur'an commentary (Bab at-Tafsir), and in his canonical collection of traditions (As-Sahih), which is considered to contain only those traditions which are from the prophet and his companions (F. Sezgin, i, 83).

A second great philologist was the Persian Az-Zamakhshari (d.1144). He was a Mutazilite (who believed the Qur'an was created by God, vs. the orthodox belief that it was uncreated, resembling the Christian tenet on the Trinity) (Jansen 1980:62).

Though he was Persian his commentary was philological and syntactical. For example, he tried to explain the peculiar phrase in Sura 6:2, which states, "And a term is stated in his keeping." The word order goes against the grammatical rule which states: 'that in a nominal phrase in which the predicate consists of a preposition and a noun or pronoun, and in which the subject is indefinite, the predicate precedes the subject' (Jansen 1980:63). His explanation, however, is not convincing to modern readers. He remained silent on those problems he feels unable to solve. Those who came after did not like this and thus wrote in dozens of adaptions to his commentary (see W.Ahlwardt,1-25).

The great exegete, Muhammad 'Abduh had problems with the grammatical problems within the Qur'an as well, and thus did not embark upon a Qur'anic commentary. His pupil Rashid Rida was not satisfied, however, and so added many grammatical pieces of information regarding the text of the Qur'an in the Manar Koran Commentary.

Amin al-Khuli got around the grammatical problems by maintaining that the Qur'an came to humanity in an Arab garb, and therefore in order to understand it we should know the Arabs of that time as much as possible (Jansen 1980:66).

He advocated a historical-critical study of the Qur'an; suggesting one should study first the history, society, and language of the people to which it was addressed, and only then interpret the Qur'anic verses in light of these studies. This is reffered to as the e mente auctoris principle, which means to take out of the text only that which was envisaged by the author (Jansen 1980:66).

Others disagreed, saying Muhammad was not the author, but God; consequently it was written with a universal context, which is just as applicable today.

Khuli demanded three criteria in his philological study of the Qur'an: 1) that any subject must be studied using every passage in the Qur'an which deals with that subject, and not just one instance; 2) that one must study the meaning of every word using parallel instances when it is used; and 3) that one should see how the Qur'an combines these words into sentences and then observe the psychological effect the language has on its hearers (Jansen 1980:67).

A student of Khuli, Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah, wrote a thesis on stories of the earlier prophets in the Qur'an, maintaining that though they (the stories) were not necessarily historically correct. Their importance, he felt, lay in the religious values (qiyam) they contained (Jansen 1980:68). For obvious reasons Khalafallah lost his position in the university soon after.

Khuli's widow, Bint as-Shati', more prudently printed two commentary volumes in 1962 of seven short Suras by Khuli. All were taken from the Meccan period and did not include any legal material, nor any material from the "Biblical" prophets who preceded Muhammad, nor any history of their times. They were simply religious suras, so as not to attract the attention of "heresy hunters."

As an example, in her exposition of Sura 93:3 which speaks about the long periods without revelations, she explains that the periods of revelation and silence necessarily alternate like day and night, and that this should be expected. To be fair she also quoted other commentaries on this verse, who explained that these long silences were due to two puppies of Hasan and Husayn, which prevented Gabriel from entering Muhammad's dwelling (Jansen 1980:69).

Attempting to ascertain what exactly the original intent of a verse meant was the purpose of philological exegesis. While certain Muslims feel reticent to delve into the intent of a book which they believe has divine origins, few Muslims shy away from taking those same verses and finding current application in the present-day world. (We must ask, however, why this would be useful, and how it would threaten Qur'anic integrity and not so the Bible...?)

This, then, was the purpose of practical interpretation, the third genre of exegesis which we will deal with now.

C: Practical Qur'anic Interpretation

Practical Qur'anic exegesis is the third form of exegesis which deals with seeking to implement the Qur'an in every-day life. In order to do this, however, one must begin with Islamic Law.

The Qur'an mostly deals with family law. Yet modern commentaries rarely talk of the technicalities of these laws. Instead they refer to the textbooks of the four classical schools of Islamic law to explain them. In other words the commentators today are reticent to show how the laws apply.

Yet, these same commentators are quick to extol its virtue stating that, "no man-made law was ever better adapted to human nature than Islamic law, which is valid for all places and all times" (Jansen 1980:86). The primitive practice of severing the hands of thieves, or the increasingly undesirable practice of polygamy is explained as a step forward compared with the time of barbarism preceding Islam.

In order to adequately understand the intricacies of interpretation, one must begin by asking how current exegesis can or should be carried out. And in order to do that one must begin with the Islamic idea of Ijtihad, or legal interpretation. Is Ijtihad permitted to modern Muslims? Classical Islam says authentic Ijtihad died out in 1,000 A.D. Many Muslims today agree that it is permitted, but by whom, and exactly what it is that can be interpreted, there is still much confusion.

Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashid Rida believed past Ijtihad, which they call Ra'y, or subjective opinions not based on the Qur'an or Sunna, is not binding on present-day Muslims. Ijtihad, therefore, could be used to adjust the law for today's changing environment. Consequently, laws which don't apply today are merely "additions" to the command of God, which past jurists are responsible for (Jansen 1980:87).

Abu Zayd in 1930 tried to use Ijtihad in explaining current riba practices, maintaining that exorbitant interest alone is outlawed (Jansen 1980:89). The Azhar experts disagreed, however, and felt that Ijtihad should only be used in cases on which no ruling had as yet existed. And so the debate continues.

Perhaps to better understand practical Qur'anic interpretation in the modern era, we should refer to one of the greatest Muslim exegetes, Muhammad 'Abduh, who best applied this form of Qur'anic interpretation in the setting he found himself; that of 19th century Egypt. Let's, then, look at what he believed and did.

D: Muhammad 'Abduh (A Practical Exegete 1849-1905)

Muhammad 'Abduh was born in 1849, in the Egyptian delta, to an ordinary family. At thirteen he studied at the Ahmadi mosque at Tanta, second only in importance to al-Azhar (Hourani 1988:130-131). Initially, he was confused by the rote method of learning commentaries on religious texts, and so ran away. When he returned he stayed on at Azhar between 1869-1877, where he enjoyed logic, philosophy and mystical theology.

He became the most devoted student to Al-Afghani (from Afghanistan), from 1871 on (Hourani 1988:132). 'Abduh favoured social and political subjects. He remained at heart a scholar, teacher and an organizer of schools. He taught at Azhar but held informal classes at home. In 1899 he became the Mufti of Egypt.

His most important book was Risalat al-tawhid, a systematic treatise on theology which was based on lectures he did while in Beirut. He wrote a number of commentaries on parts of the Qur'an, and, along with his disciple, Rashid Rida, began a commentary on the whole of the Qur'an, which hadn't been finished at his death.

He saw the inner decay, and the need for revival, which he felt was peculiar to Islam. He wondered how one could bridge the gap between what Islamic society should be, and what it actually was? He saw the advance of western society and realised that the world was being pulled into either one of two spheres: the diminishing sphere made up of the laws and moral principles of Islam, and the growing principles derived by human reason which he blamed on the secularization of society.

'Abduh felt that in order for society to be moral, it had to conform to some law, otherwise it would self-destruct. He admired the advances in Europe, but did not think that transferring its laws and institutions would work in Egypt, and, in fact, could make it worse.

He saw two sets of schools in Egypt: the religious schools, best represented by al-Azhar, and the modern schools, based on European models, and usually founded by foreign missionaries, or the government. The mission schools taught Christianity (which was close to Islam, but some of the students were converting), while the government schools taught no religion, and therefore no social or political morality. The mission and government schools, however, allowed the students to change, while the religious schools did just the opposite.

'Abduh wanted to continue the process of change espoused by Muhammad 'Ali. This could only be done, he felt, by linking that change to the principles of Islam; by showing that these changes were not only permitted by Islam, but that they were necessary, and that Islam could be the tool for change while controlling that change simultaneously. He directed this challenge to the non-Muslims, maintaining that it was Islam which was the only valid vehicle for modern changes.

Using Compte's philosophy on the French revolution, he sought to find a system of ideas universally acceptable, and embody them in religious symbols and ritual. The ideas, he felt must be guarded by a small coterie of bright minds which would have been disciplined and instructed so that they could investigate complex ideas. These would be the "elite", a type of 'ulama' who should guard, articulate and teach the real Islam, and so provide the basis for a stable and progressive society.

'Abduh believed that Islam contained in itself the potentialities of rational religion and a basis for modern life. Two things, however, were required:

  1. a restatement of what Islam really was.

  2. a consideration of its implications for modern society (Hourani 1988:140). Thus he wanted to liberate Islam from the shackles of Taqlid (past interpretation, or those interpretations which had become codified in law), and reintroduce Ijatihad (Hourani 1988:141).

Note: Ijtihad = new interpretation
Taqlid = past interpretation (the old way of doing or thinking, canonized, rigid)

He chose Islamic ideas which best served to preserve the unity and social peace of the umma, which led him to blur intellectual distinctions and refuse to reopen old controversies. He sought to reply to certain questions posed by the European religious debates of his time (especially on science and religion).

To get around his critics 'Abduh borrowed Renan and Spencer's views on Christianity, that its doctrines could not stand up to the discoveries of modern science (laws on nature and evolution). These fitted well with the Islamic beliefs that Jesus was merely a human prophet whose teaching and nature had been distorted by his followers. Yet, though he borrowed these criticisms of Christianity, he could not go along with their rejection of theism and their support for materialism. Islam, he felt, was a good middle ground between the human intellect, modern scientific discoveries, and the divine transcendence, which was the one valid object of human worship and a stable basis for human morality. Since Islam was the only religion of human nature, with all the answers for the modern world, Europeans would, he felt, eventually get tired of the corruptions of their own faith and accept it.

There was a danger, however. Once the traditional interpretation of Islam was abandoned (by reinterpreting traditional concepts of Islamic thought with the dominant ideas of modern Europe, so that maslaha becomes utility, shura becomes parliamentary democracy, and ijma' becomes public opinion), opening the way for private judgment, it became almost impossible to ascertain what was in accordance with Islam or not. 'Abduh, inadvertently opened the door to the flooding of Islamic doctrine and law by all the innovations of the modern world.

The key was the question as to what was essential and could not be changed, and what was inessential and could change (i.e. what were the absolutes)?

In order to know these beliefs and embody them in our lives, he felt we must start with:

  1. Reason
    It teaches us that God exists, and some of His attributes, though we cannot know anything about the divine essence, for our minds and language are not adequate to grasp the essence of such things. (similar to what Christian theologians term general revelation)

  2. Prophets
    Men need help to define the principles of conduct, and a right belief. But this help must be another man so that they can be communicated properly. Thus a prophet is needed to transmit to others a message concerning God. (what theologians term special revelation)

    Reason, 'Abduh contends, tells us who these prophets are, and specifically that Muhammad is the greatest. He gave three proofs for the genuineness of a prophet's mission:

    1. his conviction and claims.
    2. the continuity and acceptance in him by others.
    3. the miracles which he performs (Hourani 1988:145).

    These standards, according to 'Abduh, proved that Muhammad was a prophet. For, as he noted, "Unless God was working in him, how do we explain his acts and influence in history. The miracle of the Qur'an, for the splendour of its language and the depth of its thought could not have sprung from a human mind?" (Hourani 1988:145).

    The line of prophets had to end somewhere, for all that mankind needed to know would have come about at some time. "This happened," 'Abduh believed, "with the Islamic revelation. Muhammad was sent once mankind was fully grown and capable of understanding all that was necessary. The message he transmitted can be shown to satisfy every need of human nature, and through him it was transmitted to all mankind" (Hourani 1988:146). So, this is a rational proof of Muhammad's claim to be the last of the prophets (and the Qur'an the final revelation).

    Consequently, he went on, "Having proved that the Qur'an embodies a divine message, one must accept everything that is in it without hesitation. Once one acknowledges that Muhammad was a prophet, one must accept the entire content of his prophetic message (the Qur'an and the "authentic" hadith)" (Hourani 1988:146). The problem, of course, arises in interpreting that content today.

    What, for instance do we do with those areas which the Qur'an and hadith do not speak? 'Abduh's answer was simply; Ijtihad.

  3. Ijtihad takes us back to reason once again, which is used as an interpreter. This is both permitted and essential for Islam. Only those, however, who possess the necessary knowledge and intellectual power must exercise ijtihad. The rest should follow them. (a new Interpretation)

    A sort of ijma' (consensus of the community) will grow up over time, he believed, but it must never close the door on, but be secondary to ijtihad. And how do we maintain that which Ijtihad stipulates? The answer, for 'Abduh was Islamic law, or Shari'a.

  4. Shari'a would provide society with a system of rights and duties to hold it to a moral solidarity. These rights and duties are embodied in a law given by revelation (the process of solidification) (Hourani 1988:147).

For 'Abduh, the ideal Muslim society is that which not only uses law, but reason as well. He believed that, contrary to what outsiders say, "Islam has never taught that human reason should be checked, for it is the friend of all rational inquiry and all science" (Hourani 1988:147).

Since Islam was rational, it could adopt the sciences of the modern world without accepting it's material premise. Since the commands of God are also the principles of human society, the ideal society is that which submits and obeys God's commandments. For, as he says, "The behaviour which the Qur'an teaches to be pleasing to God is also that which modern social thought teaches to be the key to stability and progress. Islam is the true sociology...So when Islamic law is fully understood and obeyed society flourishes; when it is misunderstood or rejected society decays" (Hourani 1988:149). (examples today are hard to find, if at all).

'Abduh believed this ideal society once existed, in the "golden age" of Islam, where one could find a "political success and an intellectual development almost without parallel in the speed and manner of its flowering" (Hourani 1988:149).

The early umma, the salaf (community of elders, or the first generation of the prophet's friends and disciples, though 'Abduh extends this to include the first few centuries), finally decayed for two reasons: a) alien elements which crept in (Shi'i philosophies, and some mystical beliefs), b) adherence to the outwardness and blind imitation of the law (Taqlid), which encouraged a slavish acceptance of authority, and discouraged the freedom to reason. Knowledge, he felt, became their enemy, causing a stagnation of belief, which was replaced by political autocracy (Hourani 1988:149-150).

While Islamic nations were weakening, European nations were strengthening because of their active virtues of reason. Muslims needed to acquire science from Europe, which could be done without abandoning Islam, as Islam taught the acceptance of all products of reason.

'Abduh wanted to borrow these modern ideas and compare them with the four schools of law, as well as the doctrines of independent jurists, with a view to producing a 'synthesis.'

For example, on answering an Indian as to whether Muslims could participate in non-Muslim charitable ventures, he sought the opinion of all four schools at al-Azhar, then gave his opinion, after having gone to the Qur'an, the hadith of the prophet, and the practice of the first age. This gave him the creation of a unified and modern system of Islamic law.

Other areas for law included: whether Muslims should wear European hats, whether they should eat meat slaughtered by Christians or Jews, whether the painting of the human form was permitted by law, and whether polygamy was morally good or bad (Hourani 1988:152).

Since 1920 a succession of official laws and decrees on marriage, divorce and testaments has defined and modified the Islamic law by this means. Yet, there are still secular courts administering civil and criminal codes using European models and enacted by the authority of the state, scoffing at the inadequacy of these governments to impose Shari'a law.

'Abduh also wanted to assimilate that which was good in European morality, such as the abolition of slavery, and the equality of Christians living in Muslim countries. But authority was not there to change it, so that it could become legal. For this to happen he felt one needed a true Caliphate, with a spiritual function who claimed spiritual authority alone. The caliph was to be, what Rashid Rida later called the chief mujtahid (practitioner of ijtihad) who would have the respect of the umma, but not rule it. Non-Muslims should belong to the nation just as did the Muslims, and a Muslim should accept help from a non-Muslim in matters of general welfare, but no more. (Here we have ideas leading to the khilafa: or theocratic state)

'Abduh's idea of an ideal government was that of, "a just ruler, ruling in accordance with a law and in consultation with the leader of the people..., a limited, constitutional monarchy" (Hourani 1988:157). He was ready to support violent measures to attain such a government.

'Abduh felt that autocratic rule could be tolerated as long as it helped run the country well. Even despots could be tolerated, as long as he was, "a just despot, who could do for us in fifteen years what we could not do for ourselves in fifteen centuries." Thus, though the British rulers were foreigners and not Muslims, he was prepared to co-operate with then as long as they helped in the work of national education, and provided their term of stay was temporary. 'Abduh never maintained that the modern world and Islam had unconditional harmony. He believed that when the two were in conflict, the latter took precedence. For, "Islam could never be just a rubber-stamp authorizing whatever the world did, it must always be in some measure a controlling and limiting factor" (Hourani 1988:161). He, unlike most Muslims, believed that the community had a right to depose its ruler if he were not just.

'Abduh's influence, though the most important during his time, was never universal. His methods were picked up by polemical thinkers more interested in defending the reputation of Islam than to discover and expound its truth. Islam, they claimed, could be everything the modern world approved, and possessed hidden in it all the modern world thought it had discovered. (a present-day example? = Hizb ul-Tahrir?)

Certain Muslim writers took 'Abduh's thinking further than he had intended. An example of this thinking was Farid Wajdi in his book; al-Madaniyya wa'l-Islam ("Islam and Civilization"). In it he pointed out (using and stretching 'Abduh's reasoning) that when there was a conflict between the laws of modern civilization, and those of Islam, the true Islam is in conformity with civilization. Thus the discoveries in Europe of social progress and happiness are really laws which already exist in Islam. He lists examples of these Islamic laws now practised in the west, such as: "the freedom from the tyranny of priests, human equality, the consultative principle in government, the rights of the intellect and science, the existence of unchanging natural laws of human life, intellectual curiosity about the order of nature, freedom of discussion and opinion, the practical unity of mankind on a basis of mutual toleration, the rights of man's disposition and feelings, the acknowledgement of human welfare and interest as the final purpose of religion, and the principle of progress" (Hourani 1988:163). In other words Islam, seemingly 'dissolved' into modern thought.

It was inevitable that some of his disciples took what he said and applied it to one particular aspect or another, thereby creating excesses of emphasis which overturned the balance he had created. Thus, one group of his followers, after his death, "carried his insistence on the unchanging nature and absolute claims of the essential Islam in the direction of a Hanbali fundamentalism; while others developed his emphasis on the legitimacy of social change into a de facto division between the two realms, that of religion and that of society, each with its own norms" (Hourani 1988:163).

One of his Egyptian disciples, Qasim Amin (1865-1908) published a small book on the emancipation of women, where he blamed the decay of Islamic society on the disappearance of the social strength found within the family. The basis of society was found in the relationship between man and woman, mother and child, and that these virtues which exist in the family will also exist in the nation. Only when women were equal, as was stipulated in the original Shari'a law would there be normality in society. This, he felt, can only be redressed through education. The veil, he thought, should be restricted since, rather than preserving their virtue, it only produced sexual desire in men, and was only stipulated for Muhammad's wives. He believed women should have political rights, but that "the Egyptian woman needs a long period of intellectual training before she will be able to take part in public life" (Hourani 1988:164).

Like 'Abduh, Amin appealed to those who were already within Islam, at every point taking his stand on the Qur'an and the Shari'a, interpreted, he feels, in the correct way. Thus where the text is clear, it should be followed, but where it is not so clear, then one must choose among alternatives, "in the light of social welfare."

After 1900 Amin diverged somewhat in his views and came out with a more radical slant, stating that the new standard by which we were to measure ourselves were the great concepts of the nineteenth century (embodied in freedom, progress, and civilization).

His attack was not simply on the abuses of a decaying Islam, but on the notion that Islam is a universal model for all of humanity. He maintained that, "Perfect civilization is based on science, and since Islamic civilization reached its full development before the true sciences were established, it cannot be taken as the model. Like all civilizations of the past it had its defects. It lacked moral originality, and there is no sign that Muslims of the great age were either better or worse than other men" (Hourani 1988:167-168). Perfection he felt, "was not to be found in the past, even the Islamic past; it could only be found, if at all, in the distant future."

What Amin was saying was that religion does not by itself create a state, a society, or a civilization. The growth of civilization can be explained by many factors, of which religion is only one. Thus in order for it to progress, it must have laws which take all equally into account. Consequently, while Islam is a true religion, that does not necessarily mean that Islamic civilization is the highest civilization.

Another of 'Abduh's disciples, Lutfi al-Sayyid from Egypt echoed this feeling when he stated that, "a religious society is morally superior to a non-religious one (at least at a certain stages of development). Yet, he does not assert, as his teacher would have done, that an Islamic society is superior to a non-Islamic society" (Hourani 1988:172).

It was common in 'Abduh's school that the only effective means to maturity and independence was education. Quoting E.Demolin's book, A quoi tient la superiorite des Anglo-Saxons?, he explained that the reason the Ango-Saxons were conquering the world and becoming the strongest and most prosperous was due to two factors: 1) the object of their education was to train men to live in the modern world, and 2) Anglo-Saxon nationalism was 'personal', based on individual freedom and aiming at individual welfare (Hourani 1988:181).

al-Sayyid, like Amin, contended that the real problem of society lay in the family. As he states, "Even more important than the education given in the schools was that given in the family. 'The welfare of the family is the welfare of the nation,' and the problem of the Egyptian family was at the heart of the problem of Egypt" (Hourani 1988:182).


So what have we learned about Qur'anic exegesis, especially as it was applied in the Egyptian context? We found that for much of the classical period, Qur'anic exegesis was relegated to learned men, who had little concern for finding real-life applications to their interpretations. Because of this practice, and due to the influence of western technology and culture, 19th and 20th century Egyptian exegetes were forced to focus on three aspects of interpretation: 1) natural history (or scientific exegesis tafsir 'ilmi), 2) philological exegesis (or the literal meaning of the text), and 3) practical exegesis (the day-to-day affairs one met in life). Whereas in Christianity, the exegetes utilized the scriptures to find out historical truths (known as historical exegesis), Qur'anic exegetes have not. In contrast they looked for scientific evidence within the Qur'an, and sought to find parallels within western science today.

In the philological genre, the e mente auctoris principle (that which the author intended) was only used by Muslims when trying to derive what those in Mecca and Medina understood, for fear of denying the divine authorship of the Qur'an itself.

The practical exegesis became an exercise in delineating to what degree one should tolerate western influence on secular and religious life. Muhammad 'Abduh was a good example of how one could apply a practical interpretation of the Qur'an in the world of his day. He believed that Islam not only had all the answers for humanity, but could adopt as well, through reason and Ijtihad, those discoveries which were being evidenced within European and western culture, providing a proper set of laws were enforced by a just Islamic power.

There will always be a need to interpret the Qur'an for today, to delineate how and where we can takes its precepts and apply them to our lives. Otherwise the Qur'an will remain lost in history, a relic of the past, to be studied and perhaps admired for what it provided for the inhabitants of the seventh-ninth centuries, and no more. Men like Muhammad 'Abduh set his life to adapting the Qur'an for his day. Other exegetes will continue in his steps with perhaps not the same zeal but certainly the same intent. It remains to be seen whether the Muslim community will follow suit. For in interpreting the Qur'an for each age and each culture there is always the danger that God's universal laws simply begin to reflect the ethos of that age and culture, rather than speak into and affect the parameters by which each age and culture will act. To make the Qur'an living and practical for the adherents of Islam, so that they can better apply its truth to their lives, is indeed an important task. The trick for 'Abduh was to not let those aspirations dictate the truth which he believed were inherent in the Qur'an. Is not that the problem of any scriptural exegete?


Hourani, Alber, Arabic thought in the Liberal Age (1798-1939), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988
Jansen, J.J.G., The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt, Leiden, E.J.Brill, 1980
Rippin, Andrew, "Trends in Interpretation", Muslims, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Vol. 2, London, Routledge, 1990

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