How are readers, existing in different climes, locations and cultures, meant to interpret and understand the Quranic scripture? There is a uniform consensus about the Quran`s nature. The book is believed to be, in a literal sense, the word of God, and not a book that has been merely “influenced” or “inspired by God”. That is, it has a transcendental, timeless quality. However, revelations are also considered to be commentaries and guidance on, and to specific communities, and thus intimately related to a part of a socio-political-historical and linguistic milieu.
Muhammad Iqbal`s metaphysics
By keeping the two-dimensional nature of the Quran in front of us, we can now look at Muhammad Iqbal`s metaphysics, which can serve as a guiding light regarding a humanistic approach to Quranic hermeneutics: According to Iqbal, God (the ultimate spiritual basis of all life) is conceived to be eternal. However, the Divine reveals itself in “variety” and “change”. A human organisation based on such a conception of the Divine ought to reconcile, in its life, “the categories of permanence and change”. For Iqbal, human life needs eternal principles in order to adjust its collective life, for, as Iqbal observes in his Reconstruction, “…the eternal gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change.” On the other hand, an overemphasis on the eternal, by excluding the possibilities of transformation, tends to become counterproductive. Because, as Iqbal asserts, “it tends to immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature”.
The Divine Intentions and the Quran
How can Iqbal`s idea of the reconciliation of the categories of permanence and change be related to scriptural exegesis? As noted above, the Quran contains both an element of universality and a temporal dimension. By employing a humanistic approach, we need to discern the essence of the Quran, understood as “Divine intentions” or “Intentions of Revelation” (maqasid al-wahy).
In brief, through a careful holistic and intra-textually approach, the key values deduced from the Quranic scripture are:
- The right to life
- The right to respect
- The right to justice
- The right to freedom (freedom of religion/thought/expression)
- The right to privacy
- The right to protection, slander, ridicule and backbiting
- The right to acquire knowledge
- The right to sustenance
- The right to work
- The right to develop one`s aesthetic responsibilities and enjoy the bounties created by God
- The right to leave one`s homeland under repressive conditions
- The right to “the good life”.
Put in a different way, the express purpose of the Quranic injunctions (its “spirit” and not its “letter”) is to serve the purpose of meeting people`s material and psychological needs in the actual life of human beings. That is, the implementation and actualisation of those structures and institutions that creates conditions in which human beings can develop their personal potentialities and, as a result, enrich both human and non-human communities of life beyond artificial constructions that tend to limit our natural fields of compassion, love and justice.
The synthesis between the Constant and the Variable
These aims and/or immutable fundamentals constitute the humanistic model for the interpretation of the Quran: any interpretation that contravenes these all-encompassing values are at odds with the Divine Aims and needs to be challenged through persuasion and moral example. Put it another way, the principle of permanence signifies those values that need to form the very basis of interpretative activities. Change, on the other hand, implies those verses that mainly pertains to social or legal dimensions within a specific context (seventh-century Arabia), thus subject to alteration and modification in order to keep pace with humanity`s altering conditions. Furthermore, blindly following the production of knowledge and schools of thoughts of earlier doctors and theologians of Islam—i.e., maintenance of the status quo—is antithetical the Quranic message, which constantly encourages people to reflect and scrutinise, without which human life is dropped to a level of existence whereby the purpose of life is nothing but mere reproduction and repetition of bygone values.
The important distinction between universal (ethical) values in the Quran and more specific time-bound injunctions, solely meant for particular contexts and situations, is of paramount importance for two reasons: (1) in order to avoid complete (theological) relativism and arbitrariness as regards scriptural interpretation, (2) and to forbid the development of rigid and static interpretations formulated in earlier conditions and climes, which are out of touch with altering habits, peculiarities and experiences.
By excluding the category of change (revision of old interpretations), the result will be that while the peoples are moving, the interpretation of their faith remains stationary and restricted to a specific space-time location. As regards this important issue of reinterpretation of the Muslim people’s faith, Iqbal makes a bold remark of infinite wisdom. Asserts Iqbal: “The teachings of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.” This statement sums up the gist of Iqbal`s reformist thought in both legal and scriptural matters. In the above mentioned assertion, the key words are “guided but unhampered”. In other words, the Muslim peoples can utilise the earlier works as guidance, if deemed as fruitful for present times. However, the past interpretations and understandings of legal jurists and ulemas cannot freeze our interpretative horizon.
The present state and our responsibility in a normative universe
The present state of things is, especially regarding modern day “fundamentalist” forces and other reductive orthodox elements, reflective of the “finality of human reasoning and interpretation”, hence, the exclusion of human agency and independent exertion (ijtihad) from the scene. That is, instead of considering scriptural exegetics and traditions as a flowing river that carves out new paths, the majority of Muslims, especially traditionalists, stare only at a single spot in the tradition and hence excluding the rest of it. This, then, tends to perpetuate the myth that Islamic faith and Islamic law is incapable of evolution.
As a result of arresting and extraordinary developments in various departments of human knowledge, the age in which we now live has raised questions relating to Islam that we cannot overlook. The only course open to us is to boldly challenge parochial, ultra-orthodox and regressive authorities which tend to suppress our healthy instincts and zeal for an onward march, pivotal in giving Islam an evolutionary outlook. Thus, by a historical-critical approach to our accumulated corpus, and a humanistic approach to Quranic hermeneutics, the Muslim world can make a sincere and deliberate attempt to deconstruct much that needs to be deconstructed and further reconstruct and reinterpret Islamic teachings in light of their own realities within the ambit of the revealed, eternal values of the Quran. That is, to strike a balance between, on the one side of the “platonic” idea, where only one narrative is able to dominate and, on the other side, the “postmodernist” version where there exist diverse narratives (but without losing sight of the transcendental meta-values that act as interpretative framework).
Whitehead and the art of progress
This idea, i.e., calling for an “objectivity”, yet at the same time being “open” to (re)interpretation, is reflective of Alfred North Whitehead`s assertion that “the art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order”. Put in a different way, order (read: permanence) cannot be lost, but it cannot exclude the possibilities of novelty and freshness (read: change). Thus, a synthesis between the “constant” and the “variable” is the ideal which Muslim theologians and exegetics ought to adopt in order to produce scriptural exegesis in concord with the essence of the Quran as well as their own specific socio-historical contexts. This is the kind of intense balance of harmony and change that Whitehead would call in Adventure of Ideas: Beauty.
Unless this intensely “beautiful” mode of interpretation takes place, the threat of the ascending fundamentalist, reductionist and ultra-orthodox jihadi elements inimical to modern sensibilities and welfare institutions will persist. As Iqbal asserts: “Do your duty or cease to exist”. The cure lies in our own hands.