Contextualising the Qur’an

Many people have questioned me when I told them that it is important to understand the Qur’an in the context of which it was revealed. They misinterpret it as me saying that the Qur’an is now irrelevant and is applicable only during the time of its revelation. They argue with me, saying that the Qur’an is eternal and that contextualising it is un-Islamic, or even worse, anti-Islamic.

Is it possible for the Qur’an to be contextual and eternal at the same time?

Yes! Personally for me, I believe that in order for something to be eternal, it has to have context. In the case of the Qur’an, we have to understand the context for its laws; why it was passed, in which time and to whom.

Many people take the Qur’an literally and read it without context. Taking these verses out of context has lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Also, it is not enough to simply read the translations of the verses in order to understand its meaning, but we have to take into consideration its tafsir (explanation). There is much more information available in the different tafsir which could help us deepen our understanding of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an was revealed over a span of 23 years, and the verses were sent down to answer questions or issues that related to the events or incidents that happened during the time of its revelation. It was revealed during a time where the people in the community were accustomed to a certain lifestyle, tradition or practice. The verses that were sent down alluded to this lifestyle and the Qur’an even commented on its negative traits. With that said, we have to be aware of the setting in which the Arabs were in before Islam.

There are certain principles to be followed in order to understand the Qur’an fully. First, we have to take a look at its literal meaning (what the words say) and then we have to study the historical setting in which these words were used. Next, we have to know who these words were addressed to, and how these words were understood during the time of its revelation. As language is fluid, the meaning of words changes with time.

When it comes to verses that relate to the stories of the previous prophets or past generations of the people, we have to ask ourselves: Is this verse meant for a specific group of people at a specific time? Or is it a verse meant for the general public?

Due to the time gap between the revelation and now, there are many translations and tafsir of the Qur’an that exist. Due to this, we have to acknowledge the various viewpoints and opinions of other Muslim scholars and commentators who have spent their entire lives engrossed in studying the Book. We should not neglect other opinions or ignore the viewpoints of others, as referring to what other people have to say might help us in choosing an opinion or outcome. Being too acquainted with an opinion might stop us from conducting our own independent research, as we are certain that we have already obtained the Truth (with a capital T).

I have met many people who insist that the Qur’an has to be read literally. For the sake of this column, I shall refer to them as “textualists”. While literal meanings of the verses are a part of the few principles that make up understanding the Qur’an, abiding by only this one rule fails to do justice to the verses. Textualist readings of the Qur’an often fail to show the true message of a certain verse, and because of this, it is widely misinterpreted or misread.

Reading on Islamic history, contextualising the Qur’an is nothing new. Although there is no systematic contextualist approach, commentators and scholars used to attempt to understand Qur’anic revelations by studying the circumstances in which the verses were revealed.

In previous centuries, only scholars have benefitted from the exegesis of the Qur’an, while the rest of the people were merely exposed to its recitation, learning the rules of proper pronunciation. This, however, proved to go against the message of the Qur’an that encouraged all of humanity to think and ponder deeply. Sooner or later, scholars held classes to help the public further understand the Qur’an so that everyone will be able to benefit from the Book.

It would seem that our society is slowly reclining back into those previous centuries, where any form of independent research and reasoning should only be done by named figures. The people on the ground can only learn to recite the Qur’an “the right way” (like what we were taught in schools) and everything that we understand of the Qur’an only comes from teachers or famous scholars. In other words, we are a society of blind followers, discouraged from independent thinking.

This is not to say that we should make up our own opinions with any valid explanations to back it up. A lot of contextualists actually refer to more knowledgeable scholars and gather as many interpretations and tafsir as they can before choosing one that not only sits well with their conscience but also coincides with history and Islamic jurisprudence.

I honestly believe that contextualising the Qur’an is not blasphemous, but rather, an important step to take in order to get closer to the Truth. Contextualists are not trying to say that the Qur’an is irrelevant, but rather much the opposite. Understanding the context in which the Qur’an was revealed will help emphasise on the continuing relevance of all Qur’anic texts in the twenty-first century, and that is what most contextualists are trying to do.

May Allah guide us in our endeavours.

1 November 2015

Shafiqah Othman Hamzah

Shafiqah is a Singapore-born Malaysian who is best known for her advocacy on social and human rights issues. She is notably known for her tweets and for being a columnist on Malay Mail.

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