High above all is then God, the Sovereign, the Ultimate Truth! And, therefore, hasten not with the Quran before it has been revealed unto thee in full, but say: O my Sustainer, increase me in knowledge. 20:114
Yes, the Quran itself warns that an incorrect reading of the Quran can misguide (2:26, 3:7, 17:41, 17:45-46, 17:82, 39:23, 56:79, 71:5-7). It can misguide its misreaders in at least1 three ways:
First, a reading of the Quran can misguide when we take certain messages out of their HISTORICAL SETTINGS
The Quran is inseparably tied to its context and environment. It is a record of experience of a human messenger ‘sent’ to the Arabs and the world.
Besides delivering its universal messages to all humankind of all times, the Quran largely contains verses that refer to specific issues belonging to the time and place of its revelation. Many of these verses, if not considered in their specific settings, can confuse and mislead the readers. That is why reading in historical context is important.
A good example in this regard is the much debated subject the Sword Verses. During those tough days of nascent Islam, these verses are simply sanctioning self-defense in the face of persecution and aggression. But at no point is there any slightest indication that instigating violence is acceptable. However, both Islamophobes and extremists purposely read these verses out of context in order to promote their own agendas, while selectively ignoring all the related texts and also the rest of the Quran that so constantly and so desperately calls for peace and balance.
Take the legal code in the Quran as another example. The Quran, in response to the specific needs of the time and place of its revelation, did prescribe a legal code including a criminal justice system. This allegedly comprised corporal and capital punishments for certain moral crimes, like flogging for publicly-committed fornication and death penalty for intentional homicide. However, because the inspired messenger was then dealing with real problems of a particular socio-economics, this specific prescription needs to be understood in its temporal setting, and not as something meant to be timeless.
As the Quran keeps itself open for continuous, fresh interpretation, we do not think that these temporal elements as such make the Quran fallible. In our today’s transformed world situation this time-bound legal code can be rationalized only if it can be translated into a modern code which is flexible and which can evolve according to the evolving needs of society, while transcending according to the guidance of reason (5:38-39, 24:2-5, 17:33-36).
We can of course try to draw some general guidelines and universal values out of these specific laws. But to consider them as immutable and applicable for all times – by ripping them off their history and timeline – must be, to our opinion, very confusing and completely misguiding, and against the rational spirit of the Quran.
In brief, some of the messages and instructions delivered by the Quran are specific and temporal, while others are general and eternal. Often the difference between the two is uncertain and nebulous. To find out exactly which message or which instruction falls into which category remains a challenge for Islamic scholars.
Here we come across the problem with sharia, when it only represents a rigid, hadith-based, 7th to 9th century understanding of the Quran. Now, when the Quran says that God is the ultimate judge and legislator (12:40), or that people should judge according to the divine revelation (5:44, 45, 47), it conveys various layers of meaning. But it doesn’t automatically suggest that we need to impose all those time-bound rules and laws of sharia on our current reality. Or that we should consider simplistically that they are all divinely legislated and are all meant to be applied word by word in all times and all socio-economic circumstances. This concept is extremely dangerous and may become even disastrous, if, God forbid, applied in reality.
Now, we may perhaps better understand the Quran if we can really better understand the approximate period and region it relates to, including the people and the socio-economics involved. Studies in areas like history (incl. Marxist analysis of historical dialectics), archaeology, sociology, comparative linguistics etc that look into the origin and development of Islam, all may be helpful in this regard. Though much research has been done, more is needed in order to throw more light into that environment and to demystify those related events. We found, e.g., ‘The origin and development of Islam: An essay on its socio-economic growth by Asghar Ali Engineer’ an invaluable attempt in this regard.
Though, despite all the attempts, we may never be able to fully understand or verify our understanding about the historical settings of a remote past – we need to at least acknowledge that some of the messages of the Quran deal with real issues belonging to some specific historical context and, therefore, are not meant to be timeless ad verbum. Many Muslim clerics, unless they acknowledge this, will continue to somehow misinterpret the Book and misguide their blind followers.
Second, a reading of the Quran can misguide when we fail to read its messages HOLISTICALLY
The Quran clarifies itself through its interactive explanatory process where verses are explained through verses.
So verses need to be considered within a cluster rather than separated from all the verses related. A superficial, isolated reading may often give us an incorrect understanding.
Now, since it is thus difficult to detach a single verse from its correlations (2:85), it is usually difficult to assign it, for example, to any precise category like ‘literal’ or ‘metaphorical’. It is due to this reason that, when we try to read the texts thus holistically, often ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ start to overlap, and every time every interconnected reading in a new context brings about new layers of meaning.
No wonder why understanding of a verse or a text at a given moment can so widely vary from reader to reader, and even for the same reader at different times, depending on the context she is currently engaged in, as well as on her mental state, attitude, level of knowledge and experience and other individual circumstances and factional backgrounds.
To our study, the Quran is divine and it rightly claims to have within itself no contradiction (4:82, 39:23). Yet its interpretations are human and they battle with one another with their endless contradictions (18:54).
Yes, the Quran’s interactive process of self-clarification demands a holistic reading (6:105, 20:114). This is, however, a most difficult task to do.
It is because the mind’s natural limitations to grasp the Truth in its totality (or ‘akhirat’) leave ‘an invisible barrier’ between the Quran and its human understandings (17:45-46). This obstacle, varying in varying minds, shatters the ‘one divine light’ (‘the Truth’; 24:35, 20:114) into ‘many human colours’ (‘partial truths’; 35:19-28, 30:9-24, 16:2-69, 39:18-69, 2:22-87, 2:136-164, 23:17-32).
Apparently, there is no contradiction in the Quran, from the Divine’s perspective. But when it comes to humans’ perspectives, the perceived contradictions appear never-ending. And this is partly due to the interconnectedness of the Quran, interactive through a complex network, and the innate vagueness of a large portion of it, sensed variously by various minds, all limited in their receivers.
This is how, for example, a detached reading of 4:34, with a deliberate misinterpretation of the multiple-meaning verb ‘daraba’ in it, allowed the patriarchal society to misuse the Quran to sustain the male arrogance of their wife beaters. And allowed the audacity of such a renowned commentator like Ibn Kathir to claim that “a man must not be asked why he beat his wife.”
Likewise, an isolated understanding, e.g., of the misconstrued instruction like “Obey God and obey the messenger (64:12)” or “So accept what the messenger gives you, and refrain from what he forbids you (59:7)” contributed to the invention of hadith. Similar detached, biased readings of a few inexplicit verses of the Quran, backed by contradictory hadiths, contributed to the breeding of sects.
Third, a reading of the Quran can misguide when we read the nonliteral messages LITERALLY
A large portion of the Quran is veiled and vague.
Apart from clear messages, the Quran also contains multiple-meaning messages (3:7). In one way or other, these messages tend to be unclear, vague, imprecise, indirect, nonliteral, equivocal, allegorical, figurative and so on.
Here is the logic behind this. In order to present deeper, complex and abstract ideas, the Quran – which is a rhymed prose originally intended for lyrical recitation and easier memorization – often speaks in an inimitable language that uses a range of literary devices including symbols, idioms, similes, metaphors, allegories, stories, parables, analogies, allusions, personification, repetitiveness, scattered mode of composition and rhetorical devices like antithesis, homonymy, hyperbole, palindrome, metonymy, parenthesis, grammatical shifts, chiasmus, ring composition and so on, all within the dynamics of an interactive self-explanatory process.
It is this very unique literary structure of the Quran that keeps a considerable portion of the Quran covered and hidden and, depending on the readers’ mental aptitudes and attitudes, often difficult to grasp (56:77-79). While this difficulty in reading is confirmed by the Quran itself, we have been advised to avoid quarrel over the expected discords (3:7). But most of us do not seem to care about that good advice as we usually feel very strongly about our own, hard-achieved interpretations.
While many Quranic messages are thus voiced through nonliteral texts, there is an insistent emphasis in the Quran that we understand these texts figuratively in order to get their actual, deeper meanings, veiled under their literal coverings (17:89, 12:111, 15:75, 56:77-79).
Take as an example the Quranic descriptions of the metaphysical subjects like divine attributes, resurrection of the dead, day of judgment, paradise and hell, and so on. While these descriptions are presumably about real stuffs of unknown realms (al-ghayb), they are expressed in the Quran in terms of allegories as they deal with issues that are beyond all the perceptions and definitions of our current existence (3:7, 2:24-26, 13:35, 17:60, 47:15, 74:31, 76:16). No doubt, here readers with a literalist approach may easily end up with a superficial, incorrect understanding.
Take the stories in the Quran as a further example. The Quran itself states that it re-narrates in its own way many parables of the earlier generations (‘mathal’; 24:34, 25:33; cf. 3:3-7; 5:27) – i.e., ancient myths, legends, allegories and educational stories – which are mainly to deliver a range of moral lessons and are not necessarily meant to be understood literally as real or historical events (24:34-35, 25:33, 39:27, 12:111; cf. 12:7, 12:111, 15:75, 23:30).
One may argue that a literal reading of these parables is irrational to various extents, at least due to the reason that they are all anthropomorphic in approach and idolatrous in content. How can God speak to Moses, in a literal sense, when God is high above all our perceptions?
Or, how can a gentle, soft-hearted Abraham (11:75) – the Patriarch of Islam and a role model for Muslims – smash physical idols of a differing religion (and spare the biggest one!, 21:58), in a literal sense? Doesn’t it directly violate the clear instruction of the Quran not to abuse idols of others (6:108)? And doesn’t a literal reading of an account like this glorify acts of intolerance and vandalism? And potentially incite bigots like Taliban and ISIS to destroy historical and archaeological treasures as symbols of unholy, pre-Islamic past? Or, how can God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son in a literal sense, when the Quran prohibits all unjust killings and transgressions (5:53, 6:151, 16:90, 2:190)? Doesn’t it reduce the merciful God into a bloodthirsty, pagan deity, and mislead by sanctifying the pagan custom of animal sacrifice, transforming it into an overzealous mass ritual?
Clearly, because a literal understanding of these parables often makes little to zero to minus sense, one may infer that – rather than mechanically reading them as real stories – it is important to derive the true insight from them by trying to grasp their veiled, deeper, metaphorical meanings, as instructed by the Quran itself.
Yes, the Quran itself warns that an incorrect reading of the Quran can misguide (2:26, 3:7, 17:41, 17:45-46, 17:82, 39:23, 56:79, 71:5-7). It can misguide its misreaders in at least three ways.
First, it can misguide when we take certain messages of the Quran out of their HISTORICAL SETTINGS. The Sword verses and the legal code in the Quran are possible examples.
Second, a reading of the Quran can misguide when we fail to read its messages HOLISTICALLY and therefore fail to understand them within a cluster of interconnections. It is when we read in haste or feel strongly about our own understanding of a text detached from its local and total context and so disregard all the correlations and all other possible interpretations. Examples include: misreading of 4:34 to support wife beating; 2:106 to invent the false doctrine of abrogation; 64:12 or 59:7 to promote hadith hearsays as a divine co-authority besides the Quran; and so on.
Third, a reading of the Quran can misguide when we read the nonliteral messages LITERALLY. The Quranic descriptions of the metaphysical subjects, like paradise and hell, and the re-narrated parables of the ancients are important examples in this regard.
Reading the Quran is like seeing the complex artworks of MC Escher. Obsessed with the depiction of infinity, they consist of overlapping, multiple images, often with tessellation and repeating patterns, interlocked within each other. Sometimes you see an image, sometimes another, and then another, and then you get completely fascinated observing how they all strikingly collaborate with each other by mutually interacting, morphing into something big, bigger and even bigger. Made of simple pieces, yes, the underlying messages of the Quran are simple, yet transcendental, powerful and sublimely beautiful, provided they are read with a clear mind and correct understanding.
The Quran gives signs, symbols, hints and landmarks, leaving them to the reader’s personal reflection and analysis. Thus, to a large extent, the Quran mirrors the reader’s own countenance. People may somehow find in it what they seek, which can elevate them to a higher level or may mislead, depending on their personal makeup, outlook and intent.
But why God has left the Quran to be misunderstood by people who read it wrongly, and why “He misleads many thereby, and He guides many thereby (2:26)”, is a different discussion. In this regard, the Quran seems to have its own reply: “But He never misleads thereby except the wicked. 2:26”; cf. 3:7, 17:41, 17:82, 56:79-82.
Distortion by Hadith and traditional tafsirs and interpretation through the Bible are some of the major obstacles in our understanding of the true messages of the Quran. Thus a most serious reason of our misreading of the Quran is the centuries-old fossilization of the traditionally accepted ‘meanings’ of its words and narrations – often through extra-Quranic sources and unreliable secondary materials. This we have left out of the scope of this article to avoid lengthy discussion.