A reading of the Quran can misguide when …

 

A reading of the Quran can misguide when we

 
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. Read the full article

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Importance of holistic reading

importance-of-holistic-reading


Why accepting
the ‘akhirat’ (end, whole, ultimate) is important for understanding the Quran

Here we get a serene but serious call to read the Quran holistically:

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

This instruction to read the Scripture as an integral WHOLE reappears in the following verses:

Move not your tongue with it to hasten it; …/ Then again, surely upon Us is to explain it./ Nay, but you love the instant (ajilat),/ And you leave the END (akhirat). 75:16-21

Above we get two concepts: akhirat and ajilat. While the multiple-meaning word akhirat means whole, end, transcendent, ultimate, long-term, long-sight, permanent, eternal, bigger picture, whole picture etc – its opposite word ajilat means partial, immediate, instant, short-term, short-sight, fleeting, transitory, present, temporal etc.

Seeking the akhirat, instead of ajilat, is essential to understand the divine messages of the Scripture/s as well as of the Book of the Universe, a concept that is constantly repeated throughout the Quran.

Clearly, the END (akhirat) in the above and similar other contexts refers to the whole in general and the WHOLE of the Quran in particular.

This oft-repeated instruction to avoid haste while reading the Quran – often together with the instruction to acknowledge the End (WHOLE, ultimate, akhirat; 6:92, 6:112-115, 6:150, 16:20-25, 17:9-12, 17:18-19, 17:21, 17:45-46, 39:45, 53:25-27, 75:16-21) – emphasizes the importance of holistic study of the whole Scripture necessary to comprehend its consistent messages.

The END is better than the instant

Since the Truth, or the full truth, is an integral whole, made of interconnected and interdependent constituents – and not a disconnected mix of scattered fragments isolated from each other – so is the Quran. Obviously, for a truth-seeker ‘the End and the Whole’ must be more important than ‘the Instant and the Part’:

And certainly the END is higher in degree and greater in excellence. 17:21

They only know the outward of the immediate life: but of the END they are heedless. 30:7

And to God belongs the END and the Present. 53:25

And indeed the END is better for you than the Present. 93:4

That is why over and over again the Quran places emphasis on an all-inclusive methodology that aims for ‘the whole’ (al-akhirat, the End) of the Quran in order to understand it better.

See: 2:85, 4:82, 6:91-92, 6:112-113, 6:150, 16:20-25, 17:9-11, 17:19, 17:21, 17:45-46, 17:72, 17:106, 20:114, 21:37, 25:32, 30:7, 39:18-23, 39:45, 41:42, 53:25-27, 73:4, 75:16-21, 93:4. For example, carefully read:

Yea, every person of them desires that he may be given scrolls unfolded./ Nay, but they are not conscious of the END (whole, holistic). 74:52-53 (cf. 6:91-92)

Those ‘who do not acknowledge the End (akhirat, whole)will not understand the Quran

Thus, a rational approach that transcends the instant, and seeks the end, is essential for understanding the divine messages of the Scripture/s as well as of the Book of the Universe:

And for those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic), We have reserved for them a suffering grievous./ And man calls to evil with his call to good, for man has been too hasty./ … And everything We have detailed completely. …/ Whoever seeks that which hastens away, We hasten for Him what he wishes, then We appoint inferno for him, he burns therein, despised, rejected./ And whoever seeks the END and strives for it with striving, while acknowledging (the End), then their effort is appreciated. …/ And certainly the END is higher in degree and greater in excellence. 17:10-12, 18-19, 21

The above generally highlights the importance of an all-inclusive vision in our life. Then this emphasis (17:10-21) becomes more specific in its following context (17:45-46), which refers to the study of the Quran itself. It reminds that readers who have a hasty, detached and partial approach instead of a holistic one, i.e. ‘who do not acknowledge the End’, will not understand the Quran:

And when you read the Quran, We place between you and those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic) an invisible barrier./ We place shields over their minds to prevent them from understanding it, and deafness in their ears: and when you mention your Sustainer in the Quran alone, they turn their backs in aversion. 17:45-46

These misreaders are those who do not consider the Quran as an interconnected WHOLE (‘who do not acknowledge the End’) as they revere extrinsic sources like hadith and other human interpretations as divine authorities:

And this too is a Scripture which We have sent down … And those who acknowledge the END (whole, holistic), will acknowledge this, and they will guard their prayer (from idols). …/ And thus We have appointed to every prophet an enemy – devils from humans and invisibles, inspiring one another with decorative speech, as delusion. Had thy Sustainer willed, they would not have done it. So disregard them and all they fabricate./ So that the minds of those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic) may incline thereto, and may take pleasure therein, and may gain what they are gaining. 6:92, 112-113

In other words, they are those who do not accept God’s Oneness without associating with idols of the secondary authorities and therefore lack the holistic approach that aims for ‘the whole’ (‘the End’) of the Book (Scripture or Universe):

When God Alone is mentioned, the minds of those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic) are filled with aversion; and when others are mentioned beside Him, they rejoice! 39:45

Please note how the verse below asks to challenge the sectarians, who, instead of reading the Quran as a whole (‘who do not acknowledge the End’), refer to various hadith and other sources as witnesses of God’s extra prohibitions, because they adore human idols as associates in divinity and divine legislation (‘they make equals with their Sustainer’; cf. 14:27-30):

Say: “Bring your witnesses who bear witness that (through His associate/s, 6:19) God has forbidden this.” If they bear witness, then do not bear witness with them, nor follow the desires of those who have given the lie to Our messages, and those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic); and they make equals with their Sustainer! 6:150 (cf. context: 6:19, 6:106).

Holistic study of all scriptures as ‘one Book of God’

The Quran calls to regard all inspired texts/ messages/ scriptures of all religions, while considering them as integral parts of ‘one Book of God’ (‘al-kitab’, e.g. 2:113, 2:136, 3:19, 3:100, 3:119, 6:91-92, 6:154-157, 10:37, 21:7, 23:68, 39:18; cf. 10:94 ,18:27):

Those who listen to the whole Word, and then follow the best of it. These are the ones whom God has guided, and these are the ones possessed of minds. 39:18

Here the Quran praises those people as intelligent who respectfully study all scriptures and then critically evaluate them to take the best out of everything (cf. 39:55).

One can observe how ‘the whole Word’ in this context includes ‘all the sacred books of mankind’ (2:136, 2:285, 3:84, 4:164, 6:91-92, 23:68, 35:24, 40:78; cf. 10:94). Examples are: Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagabadgita, I Ching, Taotejing, Zhuangzi, Analects, Zend-Avesta, Tripitaka, Torah, Gospel, Quran, and so forth (cf. Do they not study the whole Word, or has what come to them not come to their forefathers of old? 23:68; cf. 10:94, 21:4, 51:8).

So, while thus acknowledging the unity of all revelations, the Quran asserts that it is essentially a continuation/confirmation of the same messages of the previous scriptures. Therefore, people who learn wisdom from the Books of the ancients by accepting them all as an integral whole (cf. ‘who acknowledge the End’), also better understand and appreciate the Quran as a divine writ:

And they never value God as He should be valued when they say: “God has never sent down anything to any human.” Say: “Who then has sent down the Scripture which Moses had come with, a light and guidance for the people? You treat it just as scrolls of paper; you show some of it and conceal much.” …/ And this too is a Scripture which We have sent down, blessed, confirming what is before it, that you may warn the Mother of cities and all around it (42:7). And those who acknowledge the END (whole, holistic), will acknowledge this, and they will guard their prayer (from idols). 6:91-92

And whoever is blind/confused in this (Quran), then he is blind/confused in the END (whole, holistic, the whole word, all scriptures), and more astray from the path. 17:72

‘Blindness’ means lack of holistic vision

The word ‘blind’ in the Quran almost invariably refers to ‘spiritual/intellectual blindness’ (5:71, 5:110, 6:50, 6:104, 7:64, 10:43, 11:24, 11:28, 12:84, 13:16, 13:19, 22:46, 25:73, 27:4, 27:66, 35:19, 41:17, 41:44).

This mental sightlessness is defined as the lack of holistic vision, i.e. a state of mind that takes no notice of the bigger picture (akhirat; end, whole, transcendent):

As for those who do not acknowledge the END (whole, holistic), We have made their work appear pleasing to them, so they walk around blind. …/ Nay, is arrested their knowledge about the END (whole, holistic). Nay, they are in doubt about it; nay, they are blind thereunto. 27:4, 66

Conclusion and further thoughts

Keeping the whole in mind is essential for understanding the divine messages not only of the Scripture but also of the Book of the Universe.

That is why the Quran constantly lays such great importance on the holistic vision that encompasses the whole. It is the emphasis on considering every single part within its correlations and within the grand context of the totality of the Book – both the Scripture and the Universe – up to its completion, up to the End; which, as a divine masterpiece, must have within itself serious wisdom, purpose and meaning.

No wonder the acknowledgement of the whole (akhirat, End, HOLISTIC) is described, together with the acknowledgement of God, as the basis of all morality and ethics and hence as the fundamental tenet of Islam, which, accompanied with good work, is declared as sufficient for human ‘salvation’ (2:8, 2:62, 2:111-112, 2:126, 3:113-115, 5:69, 95:6).

How to understand the Quran

Essential methodology for understanding the Quran

• Avoid hasty approach. • Study holistically. • Reject human commentaries like hadiths as authorities. • Use scientific data and inductive logic rather than blind following.

Translation of an untranslatable book

By comparing several translations side by side, verse by verse, we can usually grasp a more complete meaning of the Arabic original.

Basic guidelines on how to study the Quran

• Study holistically. • Reject human commentaries like hadiths as authorities. • Use scientific data and inductive logic rather than blind following. • Always uphold the focal point: the awareness of oneness. • Never complicate the simple divine directives with man-made rules and prohibitions.

When a reading of the Quran can misguide

An incorrect reading of the Quran can misguide. It can misguide its misreaders in at least two ways.

Why traditional tafsirs are unreliable

Due to the parroting attitude of many traditional interpreters and their unquestioning followers, many incorrect ideas and beliefs deeply penetrated Islam.

Unfolding of divine messages is like biological evolution

The meanings of the divine messages are unfolding in individual and collective human mind (3:7) as a gradual process, like biological evolution (3:6).

Understanding the vague messages

Let us ponder on the important verse 3:7 that describes the two types of Quranic messages: muhkam (clear) and mutashabih (vague) …

Basic guidelines on how to study the Quran

Basic guidelines on how to study the Quran

 

AN ENLIGHTENING PASSAGE

Please read the following, scanned from 6:68-150 (sura Anam):

And when you see those who engage in mocking Our messages, then turn away from them until they move on to a different hadith; and if the devil lets you forget, then, after recollection, do not stay with those unjust people. 6:68…

… my Sustainer encompasses all things with knowledge; will you not then reflect? 6:80 …

And this too is a Scripture which We have sent down … And those who acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic), will acknowledge this, and they will guard their prayer (from idols). 6:92 …

Follow what has been revealed unto you from your Sustainer:There is no god but He’; and turn away from those who set up associates. 6:106 …

And thus We have appointed to every prophet an enemy – devils from humans and invisibles, inspiring one another with decorative speech, as delusion. Had thy Sustainer willed, they would not have done it. So disregard them and all they fabricate. 6:112

So that the minds of those who do not acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic) may incline thereto, and may take pleasure therein, and may gain what they are gaining. 6:113

Say: Shall I seek for judge other than God? – when He it is who has sent down unto you the Book, explained in detail. … 6:114

The word of your Sustainer has been completed with truth and justice; there is no changing in His words. He is the Hearer, the Knower. 6:115

If you obey the majority of those on Earth they will lead you away from the divine path; that is because they follow conjecture, and that is because they only guess. 6:116 …

Say: “Bring your witnesses who bear witness that (through His associate/s, 6:19) God has forbidden this.” If they bear witness, then do not bear witness with them, nor follow the desires of those who have given the lie to Our messages, and those who do not acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic); and they make equals with their Sustainer! 6:150

THE BASIC GUIDELINES ON HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE GUIDE

Now carefully read the passage once again and observe how it includes all the basic instructions on how to study the Quran.

These are guidelines on how to understand the guide, found in the guide itself:

Study the Quran holistically, as an interconnected whole

The Quran clarifies itself not through contradictory hadiths, but through the Quranic process of interactive explanation, where verses in one place explain, supplement, clarify or throw more light on verses in other places, and vice versa. As the Quran is thus an integrated WHOLE, it is essential, in order to understand it correctly, to apply a ‘holistic’ or ‘all-inclusive methodology’ while studying it, instead of a detached and partial approach.

This is why the Quran warns that readers who have a hasty, detached and partial approach, instead of a holistic one, will consequently look for extrinsic religious authorities to explain a verse or a passage, detaching it from its local and total Quranic context, and will thus fail to understand the Quran:

‘He it is who has sent down unto you the Book, explained in detail.’

‘So that the minds of those who do not acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic) may incline thereto, and may take pleasure therein’

‘Do not … follow the desires of those who have given the lie to Our messages, and those who do not acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic)

Note the expression ‘who do not acknowledge the End’, used repeatedly in the passage, refers to ‘the WHOLE’ or ‘HOLISTIC’ (6:91-92, 6:112-113, 6:150; cf. 2:85, 4:82, 16:20-25, 17:9-11, 17:19, 17:21, 17:45-46, 17:72, 17:106, 20:114, 21:37, 25:32, 39:18-23, 39:45, 41:42, 73:4, 75:16-21) and emphasizes the importance of holistic study of the whole Scripture necessary to comprehend its consistent messages.

This ‘holistic approach’ also helps us to recognize the Quran as a continuation of its previous scriptures and so to correctly appreciate God’s absolute oneness as the central message of all the revelations, an awareness that can protect our prayer from the idol/s of distorted shahada:

‘And those who acknowledge the End (Whole, Holistic), will acknowledge this, and they will guard their prayer (from idols)’

Reject human commentaries like hadiths as authorities

The above passage on discussion graphically predicts the invention of Hadith as an illegitimate co-authority besides the Quran and describes it as ‘Devil’s inspiration’ (6:112; cf. 26:210-213, 221-226). Hadith has been called ‘satanic’ because – while the Quran is the ‘straight path’ that unites and guides (6:126, 6:153; cf.1:6, 22:54, 42:52, 43:43, 46:30) – Hadith, as a device of Satan, divides and misleads its followers by deviating them from the straight path (6:153; cf. 1:7, 7:16, 22:54, 26:221-226).

Here the Quranic wisdom designates Hadith-whispering evil forces as Prophet’s enemy (6:112; cf. 25:27-31; 7:194-204; 2:169) and defines Hadith as a ‘decorative speech’ where falsehood is colourfully dressed up with deceptive half-truth. This obliquely condemns all man-made ‘HADITHS’ as they ‘distort and mock’ the actual messages of the Quran (6:68, 6:112; cf. 4:120, 140; 15:95; 31:6, 21):

‘And when you see those who engage in mocking Our messages, then turn away from them until they move on to a different hadith.’

‘And thus We have appointed to every prophet an enemy – devils from humans and invisibles, inspiring one another with decorative speech, as delusion.’

‘and turn away from those who set up associates.’

‘So disregard them and all they fabricate.’

‘Say: Shall I seek for judge other than God?’

Use scientific data and inductive logic rather than blind following

While reading the Quran, one must avoid blind following of inherited traditions and mass opinions and mechanical deduction from ready-made ‘premises’ (6:80, 6:116; cf. 17:11, 17:36; cf. 5:104-105, 7:179, 8:22, 10:100-101, 31:21, 37:69-71, 39:18, 43:22):

‘If you obey the majority of those on Earth they will lead you away from the divine path’

Rather one must personally question, analyse and verify, along with persistent use of inductive logic and informed reasoning, founded on sensory data and scientific information instead of assumption and speculation:

that is because they follow conjecture, and that is because they only guess

‘my Sustainer encompasses all things with knowledge; will you not then reflect?’

Always uphold the focal point: the awareness of oneness

The original messages for a decent existence as delivered by all the true messengers, sages and visionaries of all mankind are simple and very similar in essence. They are at the inner core of all ‘religions’. They are messages of kindness, justice, pluralism, tolerance and cooperation, along with continuous enlightening of the self through endless search for knowledge, based on the concepts of oneness of humans, oneness of life, oneness of the universe, and, above all, oneness of the Divine (6:106 ; cf. 6:1, 6:13, 6:14, 6:73-79; cf. 57:25, 98:5, 22:78, 2:111-112, 21:92-94).

As all these prophetic messages are derivatives of and revolving around one single message of oneness – incorporated in shahada i.e. declaration of God’s oneness which demands KNOWLEDGE and JUSTICE (6:115; cf. 3:18, 4:135, 5:8) – they all need to be understood in light of this central message of the Quran:

‘Follow what has been revealed unto you from your Sustainer: ‘There is no god but He’’

‘The word of your Sustainer has been completed with truth and justice’

This is further clarified throughout sura 6, which presents as a context of our passage on discussion: https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/understanding-chapter-6-from-abrahams-perspective/

Never complicate the simple divine directives with man-made rules and prohibitions

All these prophetic messages, all revolving around the awareness of oneness, have been badly polluted throughout the ages with problematic add-ons i.e. misinterpretations by narrower minds – done consciously and often subconsciously under the pressure of various socio-economic, political and psycho-theological factors – only to be misused by various interest groups and individuals.

By devising a myriad of man-made rules and prohibitions in the name of God through fabricated secondary sources, ruling classes and clergymen throughout the history have transmuted the divine system of eternal Islam – the true, timeless, simple, tolerant and easy ‘religion’ of humankind and the ‘one moral law’ (‘deen’) inspired to all messengers – into an intolerant irrational theo-fiction consisting of superstitions, collections of silly rituals, taboos, frivolous rules, absurd doctrines, numerous prohibitions and obligations, opium of masses, intellectual slavery and wishful thinking (6:21,6:145; cf. 5:101-103; 7:17,30,31,37; 42:13, 21).

The Quran condemns those, who thus import fabricated injunctions and undue restrictions in religion by decreeing laws in God’s name, as falsifiers, aggressors and idol-worshipers (6:21, 6:118-119, 6:140, 6:145-155; cf. 5:87, 7:32, 9:37, 10:59, 16:116).

During our reading of the Quran we must keep our mind free from the pollutions of these add-ons:

‘Say: “Bring your witnesses who bear witness that (through His associate/s, 6:19) God has forbidden this.”’

‘If they bear witness, then do not bear witness with them, nor follow the desires of those who have given the lie to Our messages.’

‘and they make equals with their Sustainer!’

SUMMARY

Based on the above discussion, we can summarise the basic guidelines on how to study the Quran:

  1. Study the Quran holistically, as an interconnected whole (6:91-92, 6:112-113, 6:150; cf. 17:9-11, 17:19, 17:21, 17:45-46, 17:72, 17:89, 17:106; cf. 2:85, 4:82, 16:20-25, 20:114, 21:37, 25:32, 39:18-23, 39:45, 41:42, 73:4, 75:16-21; also: 6:105, 25:33, 39:23, 75:19, 6:114).
  2. Reject human commentaries like hadiths as authorities (6:68, 6:112, 6:153; cf. 17:42, 17:57, 17:73, 17:93; cf. 112-115, 6:150, 39:45, 11:18-19, 16:20-25).
  3. Use scientific data and inductive logic rather than blind following (6:80, 6:116; cf. 17:11, 17:36; cf. 5:104-105, 7:179, 8:22, 10:100-101, 31:21, 37:69-71, 39:18, 43:22).
  4. Always uphold the focal point: the awareness of oneness (6:106 ; cf. 6:1, 6:13, 6:14, 6:73-79, 6:115; cf. 3:18, 4:135, 5:8, 57:25, 98:5, 22:78, 2:111-112, 21:92-94).
  5. Never complicate the simple divine directives with man-made rules and prohibitions (6:21, 6:118-119, 6:140, 6:145-155; cf. 5:87, 7:32, 9:37, 10:59, 16:116).

Related article: Essential methodology for understanding the Quran

When a reading of the Quran can misguide

 

When a reading of the Quran can misguide 1

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.

Final thoughts

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.

 

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Note 1

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.

 

Why traditional tafsirs are unreliable

Why traditional tafsirs are unreliable picture taken from Fareed Firani


THE BEST TAFSIR OF THE QURAN IS THE QURAN ITSELF

The Quran itself claims that it is not only the ‘best hadith’ (‘ahsana alhadeethi’ 39:23) but it is also the ‘best tafsir’ (‘ahsana tafseeran’ 25:33).

So, according to its own assertion, the Quran is the best commentary of numerous issues raised (25:33) as well as the best interpreter of itself, as it goes on its way clarifying its own messages (75:19, 6:114):

And no question do they bring to thee but We bring to thee the truth and the best explanation. 25:33

Then again, surely upon Us is to explain it. 75:19

Thus, while fragments of concepts of a particular subject or narration are contained in several verses, which are usually scattered throughout the Quran, often one verse is associated with another in such a way that one supplements, explains, clarifies or throws more light on another:

He it is who has sent down unto you the Book, explained in detail. 6:114

And We have detailed things in this Quran in various ways so that they may receive admonition, yet it has only added to their aversion. 17:41

Thus the Quran clarifies itself not through hadiths, but through various interconnected aspects of its interactive messages, a Quranic process called ‘tasreef’ (interactive explanation):

And thus do We give many facets to Our messages so that they may say that you have taken all this well to heart, and that We clarify to a people who know. 6:105

God has been sending down the best HADITH, a Book fully consistent in its oft-repeating, whereat shiver the skins of those who of their Sustainer stand in awe. 39:23

However, apart from thus explaining itself, the Quran has also sparked a huge body of commentary and explication, popularly known as Tafsir.

Why traditional tafsirs are unreliable

TRADITIONAL TAFSIRS RELY ON MYTHS AND CONJECTURES

Traditional tafsirs are some of the earlier academic activities of Muslims. They were aimed at explaining the “meanings of the Quranic verses, clarifying their import and finding out their significance.”

Now, the Quran is divine but its tafsirs (commentaries) are human. Then how reliable are those traditional tafsirs that have shaped Muslim minds and Muslim societies throughout the ages?

After the generation of the Companions of the Prophet, the students of the Companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Quran.

The successors used the same sources to interpret that the Companions did, except that they added to the list of sources the interpretations of the Companions.

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on Judaeo-Christian traditions, known as Israiliyat. Because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islamic literature1despite the clear Quranic warning against the following of potentially erroneous Judaeo-Christian views:

O you who acknowledge, if you obey some of those who received the Book they will turn you after your acknowledgement into rejecters! 3:100; cf. 5:48-51

Most of the people who narrated these traditions were Jews and Christians who had embraced Islam. Famous examples include Abdullah ibn Salaam (a Companion, d. 43 A.H.), Ka’ab al-Ahbar (embraced Islam after the death of the Prophet and did not see him; d. 32 A.H.), Wahb ibn Munnabih (d. 110 A.H.) and Abdul Malik ibn Jurayj (d. 150 A.H.).

Much of the Judaeo-Christian traditions prevalent in hadiths and tafsir literature can be traced back to these scholars.

Ibn Qutaiba was among many others who claimed that many fabricated hadiths were borne of Jewish and Christian mythology. ‘Christian Influences in Early Islam’ by Richard Bell is a good research work in this respect.

Clearly, during this time the differences in interpreting the Quran were much greater than during the time of the Companions. Then a visible trend of this period is the sharp increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet. This was partly due to the socio-political and religious strife that was rampant throughout the Muslim territories at that time.

Also, the quantity of verses for which narrations existed from the successors was greater than that for the Companions. This was obviously related to a growing Muslim community with an increasing demand on explanation of more verses from the Quran.

Then, because the Quran was revealed in the classical Arabic, many of the later converts to Islam, who happened to be mostly non-Arabs, did not always comprehend the Quranic Arabic and did not grasp many expressions, idioms and allusions that were relatively clear to early Muslims fluent in Arabic. Consequently, they were concerned with reconciling apparent conflict of themes in the Quran,18 and this also led to further and frequent inclusion of numerous fabricated hadiths together with many popular, local stories and legends into the tafsirs.

Moreover, as the earlier generations of the commentators lived in a pre-scientific time, they did not have that level of information necessary to better comprehend the meanings of many of the Quranic verses with deeper messages, including those alluding to various aspects of natural science and philosophy, which are being illuminated gradually by the ever-growing knowledge of the evolving humanity.

Finding it hard to decipher the apparent enigma underlying these messages, they either accepted them as some mystic texts unexplainable by human intellect or simply understood them too literally, while adding to their interpretations all sorts of myths and assumptions.

Then the later commetators accommodated in their own commentaries materials from earlier commentaries, adding to them further stories and even more hadiths and hearsays.

In the name of tafsir they often concocted volumes of literary junk, spiced up with fancies and fantasies.

A FINAL NOTE

From the earlier Islamic centuries among the Muslims, including the immediate followers of the Prophet, there were ideas and beliefs that were directly imported to Islam from the Judaeo-Christian sources as well as from various local traditions and trends prevalent in the then growing Muslim territories.

Though not necessarily supported by the Quran and though often against the Quran, these ideas and beliefs silently entered Islam in the guise of hadiths, tafsirs and various religious stories. Many of them lacked veracity while they overtly contained odd and strange stuffs and events that were based on no real foundation.

As a result of the parroting attitude of many earlier and later interpreters, and as a result of the ‘status quo’ of the unquestioning Muslim minds throughout the centuries, these ideas and beliefs deeply penetrated Islam and remained there unscrutinized till modern days.

Unfolding of divine messages is like biological evolution

Unfolding of divine messages

 

How 3:7 (‘unfolding of divine messages’) is linked with 3:6 (‘biological evolution’)

To better understand the famous verse about ‘clear and vague messages’ (3:7) – which is a key to understand the Quran itself – let us read it together with its preceding verse:

He it is who fashions you in the WOMBS as He wills. There is no god but Him, the Almighty, the Wise.

He it is who has sent down on you the Book: some of its messages are clear; they are the foundation of the Book; others are vague (multiple-meaning/ allegorical) … 3:6-7

Please note that this description about ‘clear and vague messages’ (3:7) unfolds immediately after a reference to human’s biological evolution (3:6).

But the question is: Why? What is the exact reason the Quran mentions ‘evolution’ before this important description?

And what is the significance of ‘wombs’ in this specific setting?

Let us reflect.

To humans, the symbol of compassion is mother, particularly her womb. So God’s attribute ‘rahmah’ (mercy) in the Quran is synonymous to ‘rahm’ (uterus; 2:228, 3:6, 4:1, 6:143-144, 13:8, 22:5, 31:34; cf. kinship, 8:75, 47:22, 33:6, 60:3).

So, from ‘rahm’ (uterus) derive both the divine names ‘Rahman’ and ‘Raheem’ (1:1, 1:3).

The opening verses of the Quran, in sura Fatiha, assert that God evolves the entire Universe (the Sustainer of all the worlds. 1:2) with loving tenderness (The Beneficent, the Merciful. 1:3; ‘Rahman’, ‘Raheem’), as if a foetus in a mother’s womb (‘rahm’).

This clarifies the phrase ‘He it is who fashions you in the wombs …’.

However, the Quran often describes the Earth as a ‘uterus’ for evolving life-forms, whilst comparing it with mother’s womb (6:98, 99, 139, 140, 143,144; 11:6; 16:4, 10, 11, 65, 78; 27:61; 22:5-6; 31:34; 39:6-7, 21; 41:39; 71:17; 77:20-23; 77:25-27).

Thus this reference here to man’s biological development in ‘wombs’ includes embryological as well as phylogenetic, i.e. his evolution from lower animal stages through millions of years within the Earth’s ‘great uterus’.

A PROCESS OF UNFOLDING, SIMILAR TO EVOLUTION

Now, the Quran, according to the Quran itself, was revealing in Prophet’s mind – and is being gradually clarified in individual and collective human mind – as a process of UNFOLDING, similar to EVOLUTION:

And if you are in doubt as to what We have been sending down upon Our servant, then bring a chapter like this. 2:23

God has been sending down the best HADITH, a Book fully consistent in its oft-repeating. 39:23

And now that We replace one message by another, and God knows best what He is sending down, in stages, they say, ‘You are but a forger.’ But most of them know not. 16:101

By this unfolding, as it descends from on high! 53:1

By this sending down in parts. 56:75

Those who rejected say: Why was not the Quran sent down to him all at once? Thus is it revealed, that We may strengthen thy heart and mind thereby, and We have gradually arranged it well in a consistent arranging. 25:32

And a Quran We have unfolded step by step, so that thou might read it out to mankind by stages, and We have been sending down it by gradual descent. 17:106

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

Above, the continuous verbal forms ‘nazzala’ (‘has been sending down’ 39:23), ‘nazzalna’ (2:23, 17:106) and ‘yunazzil’ (16:101) indicate gradualness and continuity in revelation.

Through this process the Divinity has been progressively unveiling His will to humanity, replacing one dispensation for another in the measure of mankind’s socio-intellectual development, bringing it to its culmination in the full message of the Quran with its constantly unfolding meanings.

Then the term ‘najm’ (‘unfolding’ 53:1) – derived from ‘najama’ (‘appeared’, ‘began’, ‘proceeded’) – also denotes the ‘unfolding’ of something that appears in steps, and so is applied to each of its gradually-revealed, interconnected parts (‘nujum’ 56:75).3

Thus the Quran compares the gradual revelation of divine messages with biological evolution (3:6-7), which is a similar, slow process of unfolding (65:12).

CONCLUSION

The meanings of the messages of the Scripture are being gradually revealed and clarified in individual and collective human mind as a process of unfolding, like evolution.

So, this mention of biological evolution, symbolised by evolution in wombs (3:6) – as a process of gradual revelation i.e. slow ‘clarification’ of divine messages in nature – is obviously a very relevant prelude to the verse about ‘clear and vague messages’ in ‘the Book’ (3:7).