Teasing the meaning out of ancient texts: A Muslim approach

The Qur'an, like the Bible, is considered to be a sacred text.  It's foundational to Muslim theology and life, but it's a rather different sort of book.  Whereas the Bible was written over many generations by numerous hands, the Qur'an, at least in Muslim understanding was given directly to Muhammad over a period of years. Unlike the Bible, it's not considered sacred text unless read in its original language (Arabic).  But how does one read such a text in the 21st Century?  This is the premise of a book by Ziauddin Sardar.  My friend Keith Watkins has written two posts that focus on Sardar's engagement with the Qur'an, seeking a less literalist reading of the text.  Such an engagement may help us read other sacred texts.  So, I invite you to share today and tomorrow in my reposting of Keith's interaction with the book and the way we read sacred texts.

This is the first of the two posts:  "Teasing the meaning out of ancient texts."  

By Keith Watkins

Christians, Jews, and Muslims face one challenge that is much the same for believers in each of these religious communities. We honor certain ancient writings as essential guides to faith and practice, but we live in a world vastly different from the worlds in which these writings came into being. How can these old texts be used to guide us as we deal with issues that are radically different from those with which the ancient writers were dealing?

Since my religious life has been lived within the framework of liberal Protestantism, I have always worked with principles of interpretation that help me with this challenge. I am well aware of the process by which my sacred texts came into being and I am at ease with practices of biblical study that encourage me to use all that I know from the modern world as I draw upon the books that were written over a period of several hundred years, the newest of which are nearly two thousand years old.

Even so, I have received new insights into this process from Ziauddin Sardar, a prolific writer who is described (on the book jacket) as “both a lay believer, like the majority of Muslims, and an astute scholar of Islam.” The title of his book points readers toward what they will find this volume: Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

The book is adapted and expanded from a yearlong blog that Sardar wrote for The Guardian. He discusses technical issues about Islam’s central text, but he does so in ways that are accessible to readers who have little or no background in the scholarly disciplines upon which he draws. It is carefully organized so that readers will benefit from a straightforward reading of the book, starting with the Preface and Introduction and continuing straight through to page 374.

Many readers, however, will do as I did, which is start at the point that they find most interesting or pressing. For me, that was Part Four, Contemporary Topics, which includes chapters 41-52. Among the topics discussed are The Sharia’h, Power and Politics, Sex and Society, The Veil, and Freedom of Expression.

In the introduction to this part of the book, Sardar provides a concise restatement of principles that have guided him throughout the study. One of the most important is that he reads the Qur’an thematically rather than by the much used verse-by-verse method. His preferred pattern of reading “has enabled us to connect various verses in different parts of the Qur’an and see the text in much more holisticterms as interconnected, bound together by the interrelationships of what it is saying.”

A further advantage of this approach, he continues, is that it has also “allowed us to use tools of critical analysis ranging from semantics, hermeneutics and cultural theory to contextual analysis and old-fashioned intellectual (Socratic) questioning.”

The result is that “the whole can sometimes produce a bigger, more nuanced and hence more moral picture than the parts” (p. 283).

Sardar tells readers that contrary to what many Muslims believe, “morality does not end with the Qur’an” but, instead, begins with the sacred text. “The Qur’an paints the boundaries of the moral universe in broad brush strokes, points to the outer limits, and illuminates universal precepts. After that, it asks believers to explore, enhance, expand and develop their own understanding of morality and ethics according to their own context and times.”

He frequently calls attention to the shortcomings of the verse-by-verse method of interpretation. It leads to literalism. It keeps readers from recognizing the “cohesive outlook to the universe and life which the Qur’an undoubted posseses” (here Sardar quotes Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman). This method of studying the Qur’an “has led to the practice of citing specific verses to justify certain positions, no matter how far these positions may be from the overall spirit of the Qur’an” (p. xviii).

The contrasting method that Sardar recommends is that we have to take each verse and then “make connections with other verses of the Qur’an, elsewhere in the text, examine the context, and tease out what the Qur’an is saying to us in our time. The purpose of the exercise is not to discover some sort of ‘absolute truth’, which is known only to God, but to get a more holistic and nuanced picture” (p. 284).

The clarity of Sardar’s defense of the thematic approach to reading the Muslim sacred text helps me, as a classic Protestant, to renew my own use of a similar method for studying my sacred text. The Bible is shaped by broad principles that emerged over time, and these principles take precedence over any one verse or group of verses. Both in devotional readying of the text and in more formal study, my ability to use the Bible to help me face the modern world is greatly enhanced by staying focused on the broad themes.


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