How are believing men and women, 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, the timeless quality is qualified by the fact that that Divine Revelations are also considered by Muslims to be specific responses to specific communities in their historical context. Even though they are timeless they are also, in their way, temporal: that is, intimately related to a part of a socio-political-historical and linguistic milieu. This means that the people who lived in the contexts being addressed had to interpret the Revelations for themselves, and also that we, centuries later, must also interpret them for our time. We must discern the principle within the Revelation, and this discernment is our responsibility. In short, without challenging the ontological status of the Qur`an as a Divine Speech, it is both possible and of great importance to be conscious of our access to the scripture and thus our human reading of it. In Muslim theology and philosophy, there is a demarcation between what God says and what humans understand God to be saying. It is the latter point, i.e., the human approach, which will be the focus of this paper.
The character of the Reader is Critical
One important theological principle in Islam is that there is a perfect harmony and congruence between Divine ontology and Divine self-disclosure/Divine speech. In other words, the “being” of God and the “speaking” of God are congruent: God says what is true to God’s very existence. This means, among other things, that Muslims should seek the hermeneutic keys for in understandings the Qur`anic scripture by simultaneously reflecting on the nature of divine Being.
What might this Being be like? Discussions of the nature of God’s Being abound, and we cannot repeat them here. But many Muslims assume, I think rightly, the Being of God is filled with infinite wisdom and compassion. It is the infinity of this wisdom, and the infinity of this compassion, that makes God perfect, that makes God “God.”
Accordingly, we should seek hermeneutical keys for understanding the Qur’an that are consonant with wisdom and compassion, broadly understood. We should read the Qur’an with the eyes and ears of compassion, indeed with the hearts of wisdom and compassion. Our aim must be to gain guidance from the Qur’an on how to build of communities on earth that are creative, compassionate, participatory, inclusive, diverse, and respectful of all life, with no one left behind. Our intention in reading the Qur’an – namely that of wanting to help build these kinds of communities – is crucial. We may or may not bring this intention to help heal a broken spirits and institutions, these qualities of wisdom and compassion, to our reading of a Divine text. If we bring self-centered and hateful hearts to the text, we cannot really hear the text. And, by contrast, if we bring generous and loving hearts to our reading, we may be able to glean fresh possibilities from the text in our very act of reading the text.
The Qur`an speaks to us with help from what we bring to it: namely loving and compassionate dispositions. The quality not only of our intellects, but also our hearts and souls, is critical. In the Christian tradition, this idea of sacred reading is sometimes called lectio divina or divine reading. Islam also carries within its traditions the idea that a reading of Qur'an is best done out of a quality of the heart and mind that is in touch with God's mercy and compassion, and that this quality will help a person better understand the scripture. Conversely, if a person brings contrary qualities to the reading, the very meanings of the text will be distorted by ideological and violent readings.
Groups as well as individuals can undertake such sacred readings. What is sorely needed in our time, within Muslim communities, are forms of corporate interpretation of texts that include marginal voices not often enough represented in more traditional readings: anti-androcentric and anti-patriarchal readings; voices of the poor and powerless, of people who have otherwise been left out of scriptural reading, often connected to political power struggles.
How to Become a Good Reader
How might we cultivate wise and compassionate hearts so that we might read the Qur`an in liberatory and inspired ways? The cultivation never occurs in isolation; it occurs in community with others who help us grow in these ways. We need, as it were, sacred communities to help us read sacred texts with loving and sensitive hearts.
Moreover, these communities need to be inspired by rituals that nurture the cultivation: rituals or prayer, meditation, and service. Islam and Christianity and Judaism are replete with just such rituals. However, none of this precludes the role of criticism in our human interpretations.
The belief that the Qur`an is a sacred scripture does not lessen in any way the need for historical-critical approach. That is, to understand why a specific interpretation is upheld as canonical and why it was interpreted as it is requires an understanding of the context at that time and space. It does not challenge the authenticity of the Qur`an as Divine Speech in either context. This means that as Muslims, we should make use of approaches to scripture that take heed of context in which interpretations emerged, and the limitations and sometimes failings of the interpreters to understand the compassion and mercy of God`s speech, by for instance reading oppression of women into God`s speech. That is, by reading patriarchy into the Qur`an itself.
In short, it seems to me that, from a process perspective and from other points of views, such as the horizons of the Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, there are at least eight take-home points worthy of further reflection, individually and within religious communities:
1. We can meaningfully speak of the Qur`an as a Divine Speech without making idols of the human interpretations of it.
2. We can simultaneously recognize that an interpretation of the texts requires more than the text, namely the qualities of heart and mind of the interpreter, including epistemic humility and an intention to live according to God's call toward love, justice and dignity.
3. The language of the texts will include metaphor, which can itself be a means by which God communicates.
4. The interpreter needs to have a metaphoric mind -- that is, sensitivity to metaphor itself - along with sensitivity to the social and historical conditions and thus the finiteness and tentativeness of human interpretation.
5. No interpretation of a text, however helpful, is "absolute" in the sense of being absolutely true and indubitable, although some can be more "apt" or more in congruence with Divine compassion and mercy than others.
6. The measure of an "apt" interpretation includes a degree of fidelity to the contents of the text, and also the degree to which it is consistent with aspirations for a more just, sustainable and joyful world, in which no one is left behind.
7. The process of interpretation can be collective as well as individual.
8. While there is a type of order and permanence that is important, there is also a type of novelty and relativity that is equally important and admirable. That which is absolute and permanent is God`s intentions of Revelation; that which is human and thus relative, is our cognitive understanding and interpretation of Divine intentions. Thus, the interpretative process is incessant, such that no generation of believers can claim a final character of their understandings and readings of the sacred scripture.
As informed by ideas such as these, the Qur`an can indeed guide an individual and community's life, enrich a soul, and inspire liberatory readings and acts of justice for a more viable world in which our self-interests are joined with the larger interests of human and non-human communities. Such open and compassionate readings are prophetic and thus transformative.