The primary method of interpreting the Quran has been debated for centuries. Traditional scholarship relies on a combination of rulings derived from the Quran, the hadith and sunnah of the Prophet, and the ijma, or consensus, of Islamic scholars from different schools of thought.
Since the Quran is always interpreted through the lens of human experience, it is impossible to completely ascertain its meanings without the aid of God. The Quran states that God guides sincere individuals:
“…God guides whom He wills, and He is All-Knowing about whom He has guided.” (28:56)
Intriguingly, in several verses, the Quran itself explains how it is supposed to be interpreted. This has been obscured by centuries of classical scholarship.
The Quran has several verses that explain how its meanings should be discerned. It states that it is a holistic text that must be understood intratextually. Certain parts of the Quran cannot be heeded in exclusion of others (cherry-picking). This is tantamount to hypocrisy and fabrication of Scripture.
“…So do you believe in part of the Scripture and disbelieve in part? Then what is the recompense for those who do that among you except disgrace in worldly life; and on the Day of Resurrection they will be sent back to the severest of punishment. And Allah is aware of what you do.” (2:85)
First of all, any understanding of the Quran that oppresses an individual or incurs punishment without due process is automatically wrong. This is because God condemns oppression using the harshest language:
“…And oppression (Arabic: fitnah) is worse than murder…” (2:191)
“And when they commit an immorality, they say, ‘We found our fathers doing it, and Allah has ordered us to do it.’ Say, ‘Indeed, Allah does not order immorality. Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?'” (7:28)
Secondly, when attempting to understand the Quran, language is not a barrier. The Quran states clearly that it is a guidance for all believers, not just Arabs.
“…It is, for those who believe, a guidance and healing. And those who do not believe–in their ears is deafness, and upon them is blindness, as if they are being called from a distant place.” (41:44)
But deniers of God’s verses, who do not use their reason, cannot understand the Quran no matter how hard they try.
“Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.” (2:7)
The Quran says that it is well-guarded and preserved:
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be its guardian.” (15:9)
This refers not only to the preservation of the original Message, but also the ability to discern the meanings of its verses. Classical Arabic lexicons such as Edward Lanes are useful when trying to understand the definitions of certain words, especially ones with multiple possible meanings.
To get an accurate understanding of Quranic verses, many translations (both traditional and “reformist”) must be compared, and their merits must be weighed. Using classical Arabic lexicons, original translations can also be constructed.
Scholars of Arabic may question the idea that God’s word can be correctly and efficiently interpreted through translation, but they ignore the fact that parts of the Quran itself are a translation. For example, dialogue involving prophets and messengers before Muhammad’s time is translated from different dialects, such as in the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The meanings of certain words used in the Quran may have changed over time. This is because the Quran is written in classical Arabic rather than a modern dialect. Therefore, classical sources should be used to discern shades of meaning.
The Quran must also be approached with an unbiased mindset. The text is an excellent mirror, and the way that a person understands it says a great deal about the individual. The Quran repeatedly instructs people to use their reasoning skills. Disbelievers are characterized as those who refuse to use their reason and perception.
“…Then will you not reason?” (23:80)
“Deaf, dumb, and blind–so the [disbelievers] will not return.” (2:18)
A primary principle of Quranic interpretation is that certain verses explain others. The Quran warns humanity against fragmenting Scripture and repeatedly condemns those who only follow part of it in exclusion of other parts (2:85), and even laments that we have “made the Quran into shreds” (15:91).
The Quran must be taken as a full text, and each verse must be followed and understood in a way that does not contradict other verses. Our understanding of ambiguous verses cannot violate the principles laid out in explicit verses.
When Arabic words used in a verse have multiple meanings, a meaning must be chosen that is consistent with the rest of the Quran.
The Quran also usually self-defines its terms. To find out what a word in a given verse means, its usage must be examined in other verses.
“Those who listen to the Word (the Quran) and follow the best meaning in it / best of it, those are the ones whom God has guided and those are the ones endowed with understanding.” (39:18)
Those who fail to uphold the entire Quran, instead choosing to cherry-pick verses in accordance with their desires, are guilty of hypocrisy. This is not a minor offense:
“The hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of Hell, and you will find for them no helper.” (4:145)
The Quran also indicates that to gain a consistent understanding of its directives on a certain matter, all verses pertaining to that matter should be put together.
“…And arrange the Quran in its arrangement (Arabic: ratil).” (73:4)
And then there is patience. Even the Prophet was advised not to hasten with understanding the Quran until it was fully revealed to him:
“High above all is God, the true Ruler. And do not hasten with the Quran before its revelation is completed to you. And say, ‘My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.'” (20:114)
The Quran states explicitly that God has made binding upon Himself the duty of conveying its meanings to His servants:
“Then upon Us is its clarification/explanation.” (75:19)
The immense importance of this cannot be overlooked. In this verse, God says that it is a binding duty upon Him to clarify the Qur’an’s meanings for sincere readers. This serves as a guarantee that God will guide those who genuinely seek Him.
- Ambiguous verses must be understood in light of explicit ones.
- Classical (not modern) Arabic lexicons should be used. The Qur’an is written in classical Arabic.
- When words with multiple meanings occur, their usage should be examined elsewhere in the Quran.
- Cherry-picking verses to suit one’s personal desires incurs harsh condemnation.
- Verses on similar topics should be put together and scrutinized.
- Multiple translations should be examined side-by-side.
- With traditional tafsir and commentary, caution should be exercised.
- If possible, a transliteration of the Arabic should be obtained.
- Secondary sources should not be given precedence over the Quran itself.
- One cannot approach the text with a biased mindset.