Guidance for Whom? Notes on Interpretation and Quranic Teachings

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيم

The Quran addresses mankind as a whole in many verses. Despite this, it asserts in the opening verses of Surah Baqarah that it is “a guide for those who are conscious of God”–those who have taqwa, piety. It also says that while believers are increased in faith by hearing its recitation, disbelievers only flee further from the Truth. For the disbelievers, it is as if their ears are closed off and their hearts are locked, and “upon their eyes is a veil” (Q. 2:7).

Thus, despite the fact that it addresses mankind (an-naas), the Quran only serves as guidance (hidayah) for those who are receptive to its message. Others are simply repelled by it.

This is evident when one takes stock of Quranic interpretation: Some people choose to cherry-pick verses to suit their desires, resulting in extreme and oppressive misunderstandings–an approach which the Quran explicitly and repeatedly denounces (see here for verse references). Others, however, uphold the entirety of the text with sincerity. Only in this way can the Quran’s true message be obtained.

One must be intellectually honest when engaging with the text; otherwise, they only do themselves a disservice. Interpretation must be done within reason. Contradictory understandings of verses are invalid, since God does not contradict Himself. Rather, we are instructed to follow the ‘best meaning’ of each verse (Q. 39:55), reconciling Quranic themes and constructs, and making use of human reason (Q. 21:10, 8:22).

The Quran’s internal logic is so supremely consistent that mistranslations are easily exposed. This, in fact, is what convinces me of the text’s divinity: No human, angel or jinn can come up with such a recitation, such a coherent and astonishingly powerful proclamation. The Quran indeed sets apart truth and falsehood (Q. 21:18).

Today, misconceptions among Muslims are disturbingly prevalent. Notions of slavery, human bondage, overturning defense by oath, oppression, warfare, and domestic violence all find their origins either within hadith or within highly questionable interpretations of a few Quranic verses–interpretations that are, ironically, immediately disproved by the text itself. In this sense, the Quran requires us to ‘liberate’ it from its own bondage, to free the text from human interpolation and in turn free ourselves from barriers to accurate interpretation.

The Quran frequently speaks in parables and metaphors, thus a purely literalist understanding of its verses is absurd. Are we to assert that God is a plural Being simply because He is referred to as “We” in several verses? This is shirk. Are we to claim that God literally sits upon a throne (‘arsh)? Obviously, such assertions are fantastical. The Quran requires us to approach it with fitrah (a balanced soul), a pure heart, and reason. Only then can we extract guidance from it. Thus, its verses must be understood either metonymically or literally based on wisdom and context.

The Quran admonishes us, commanding us to employ the “faculty of discernment” (which is also the name of its seventh chaper, Surah Al A’raaf). We must judge everyone on the basis of justice, even if it is against ourselves or our kinsmen (Q. 4:135, 5:8). Human beings are created equal in value from a single soul (nafsin wahidatin, grammatically feminine) and its mate/spouse (zawjaha) (Q. 4:1). We are ordered to worship our Lord and to pride ourselves on patience and forbearance, on good character. The only basis for superiority among mankind is piety (Q. 49:13, 33:55).

It is fascinating to note that although previous Quranic exegetes were quick to overturn the text by forcing their chauvinistic whims upon it, often falsely claiming the innate superiority of certain individuals over others, this is in fact a Satanic approach, rejected by the Quran itself. In Surah A’raaf, God commands the Exalted Assembly of angels to pay their respects to Adam. Iblees, the sole jinn in the group, refuses: “Have you then created me of fire and him [Adam] of clay?” (Q. 7:12) His assertion of superiority is based on his physiological makeup, a notion that God Himself vehemently rejects. Iblees is subsequently banished from Heaven.

Interestingly, Riffat Hassan, a scholar of the Quran, notes that Adam is not necessarily ‘male’ in the sense of ordinary gender. In Arabic, no gender neuter exists: For instance, God is referred to as grammatically male, even though He is above all creation, and those who ascribe human characteristics to Him are punished with severe retribution.

The term adam (grammatically male) could be seen as a parable for humankind, and literally means “of the soil” or “of the earth.” Despite the orthodoxy’s claim that women are created from the rib of man, the Quran simply mentions a soul and its mate, created of the same nature (minha zawjaha). Hawwa (Eve) is never named. The genders of this ‘soul’ and its ‘mate’ remain unspecified, leaving the range of possibilities open.

The Quran does this often: Its verses are sometimes accusatory and harsh, speaking in rhythmic, abrasive prose that is impossible to capture in translation. Other times, it is delicate and mystical, allowing us to wonder. We don’t know the specifics of Adam and his zawj, or of Maryam’s virgin birth, or of Ruh Al-Quddoos (the Holy Spirit) simply because we do not have to.

Indeed, God knows the Unseen aspects of the heavens and the earth (Q. 49:18). He is the Rabb Al-‘Alameen (Q. 1:2), and here ‘alameen is in the plural form: He is the Lord of all the Worlds, the Universes, many of them. We don’t know what lies beyond our perception. Entire worlds, entire realms of existence, unexplored.

Within this vein, one might ask: Is there any objective meaning to Quranic verses? Knowing that there has been much interpretive confusion in the past, how do we clear the air?

The Quran does have an objective meaning in the sense that God has assigned its correct interpretation. Human beings are fallible and thus strive to understand it, but can only come closer and closer to its intended meaning. One lifetime is not nearly enough to derive every hint of wisdom from its verses. We must pray as Prophet Ibrahim did, always seeking a better understanding: “And I hope my Lord will guide me even closer than this to the right road” (Q. 18:24).

All the same, the Quran does tell us–many times–that we can come sufficiently close to its intended meaning, close enough to extract guidance from it. If we had no hope of understanding the Quran, what would be the point of sending us Scripture?

The Quran is fully detailed, clear, mubeen, without doubt (Q. 7:52, 11:1). Thus, God does expect us to arrive at ‘reasonably close’ interpretations of its verses. There is no such thing as a perfectly correct interpretation: Rather, there is a range within which plausible interpretation can take place, while implausible and incorrect interpretations are exposed by the Book (Al-Kitab) itself.

The Quran tells us to ponder the wonders of creation, to seek knowledge (Q. 20:114). God frequently puts forth strong oaths: He swears on the even and the odd, on His creation, on pulsing stars and olive trees (see here for reference). The intensity of these oaths is lost on us, but at the time of Revelation, native speakers would fall prostrate upon being enveloped by the Quran’s potency of language.

The Quran speaks of a time before humans were sent to this earth, when we were sentient yet incorporeal. The heavens and the earth and the mountains were asked if they desired to be trustees of this dunya (world), and they refused. Yet humans were foolish, and agreed to hold khilafah, or vicegerency (Q. 33:72). While living in the Realm of Souls, they testified that God was their only Lord (Q. 7:172). This resulted in the fitrah (human nature) that we know today.

The Quran is, in essence, asking us to return to the natural fitrah of humankind: The understanding of one God and the need to be good, compassionate, fair, just, merciful, kind.

Humans, unfortunately, depart from this fitrah far too often, spreading corruption and bloodshed on Earth. Even the angels asked why God would create such a creature: “Will you place therein one who will commit crimes?” (Q. 2:30). But God knows what we do not. Neither slumber approaches Him nor sleep, and He encompasses all things but is above our comprehension, as described by the famous Ayatul Kursi (Q. 2:255). He is Al Hayyul-Qayyum, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of all created beings.

God tells us that human beings can be good without the aid of Scripture. For instance, Abraham pondered over the sun, the moon and the stars, wondering if they could be his Lord (Q. Ch. 6). Eventually he set himself upon natural monotheism: He was a hanif, one of pure faith (Q. 16:123), who worshiped not celestial bodies but their Ruler. Abraham was of exemplary character, so compassionate that he argued with God when he heard that the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah were to be destroyed (Q. 11:74).

Indeed, this raises yet another question: How Merciful must God be to allow us to argue with Him? We know that He allows us to argue with the Prophet himself: When a woman debated with Muhammad (sws) regarding her husband’s injustice towards her, God accepted her pleas (Q. 58:1-4). According to the Quran, believers, men and women, must make their voices heard in the face of evil. Nobody can shut them down–not even the Prophet.

Yet Abraham was not arguing with the Prophet. He was arguing with God. What sort of Lord allows this?

Our Lord does.

Let us remind ourselves of Maryam, mother of Isa, who got angry with God during childbirth: “Oh, how I wish I was never born! How I wish I had been a thing forgotten, out of sight!” (Q. 19:23) She raged against God for putting her on earth–yet God’s response was to tell her to “Eat and drink and cool your eyes” (Q. 19:26).

These personalities, Mary and Ibrahim, are exalted throughout the Quran. They are seen as examples for us to emulate and even to revere (although this reverence should never border shirk). What do we take, then, from these narratives, in which they get upset with God?

We learn of God’s Mercy, of course, but also of the high status human beings can be granted. Disbelievers are debased (Q. 98:6) yet believers are described as “the best of creatures” (Q. 98:7). It is through merit that rank is earned in God’s eyes. We are expected to make use of the “Faculty of Discernment” (Q. Ch. 7) and the “Ascending Stairways” (Al Ma’arij) (Q. Ch. 70) in order to attain faith. And God tells us exactly how to do this in the Quran–for even if the oceans were ink, His words would never run dry (Q. 31:27).

This ascendancy in faith leads to heavenly rewards, which are laid out in the form of parables. The Garden of Jannah is described as a ‘parable’ which mankind should aspire to inhabit (Q. 47:15). It is an eternal abode located on a plane beyond our earthly existence, and God promises to give us “all that our souls (nafs, plural: anfus) desire” (Q. 43:71). We will be surrounded by “pure, bright companions, Hur Al-Ayn” (Q. 44:54)–‘paired’ with them, in the sense of zawjain. I have wondered, often, what this alternate realm will bring. But it’s all part of the Unseen.

This embodies the Quran’s fundamental message: Trust God, the Keeper of the Unseen, and do good. This is the fitrah. We don’t need Scripture to arrive at this understanding, but God sent us His Word regardless. It would benefit us immensely to understand it, free from the chains of the past.

لاحول ولا قوة إلا بالله العلي العظيم

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7 thoughts on “Guidance for Whom? Notes on Interpretation and Quranic Teachings

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  1. I guess some more evidence that qawamoon in the verse of ‘ Men are qawamoon over women’ means sustain and stand up for and other such positive meanings is that God’s name, al-qayum, is the same word and has that positive meaning.

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