Interpreting the Quran


Communication is interaction. When you read a text there is an interaction between the words on the page and your own inner script. The reader’s script is composed of his or her prior store of information, motivations and world-view.
Thus when you read a translation or a commentary (tafsir) of the Quran you are reading the result of the interaction of Quran’s words with the inner script of the writer. In a second step, the interaction of the reading with your own attitudes creates your understanding.

Since the Quran is the speech of God, it conveys eternal wisdom. Its application in different ages has to be deciphered according to the social and spiritual context of the time, and the need of the individual.

There are two paradigms of reading the Quran.

(1) Paradigm of Obedience: The book gives God’s commandments. You must obey what it says.

You read and accept the commentary by a scholar and you arrange your life according to the understanding of that scholar. Depending upon how traditional or modern the scholar is, you and others think of you as a traditional or progressive Muslim.

(2) Paradigm of Guidance: The book gives guidance from God. It speaks to you directly. It is your responsibility to cultivate your understanding of it, and live by it.

The goal in this method is to gain a personal and intimate knowledge of the book, to let it interact with you on an ongoing basis so its noble intentions can manifest in your life. In this approach each of us seeks to find purpose in life from the eternal values in the sacred book. It is, in my experience, the preferred paradigm of reading the Quran.

Some objections to this approach can be made and therefore it is important to address them.

How can I understand the Quran if I don’t know Arabic?

First it is important to mention the obvious fact that knowledge of the Arabic language does not guarantee an understanding of the Quran. It is likely that you know of people who are Arabic speaking but you do not consider them sources of Quranic wisdom. The reason for this is that Quran is transcendental and non-linear. Its observations are based on Total Reality and not the visible reality. The barrier to understanding is not in the Arabic but in our patterns of thinking and feeling. Understanding the Quran involves explorations and re-alignments in our deeper selves where language has little relevance.

It is not a contradiction to also state that knowledge of Arabic is essential to obtaining a more than superficial understanding. Moreover, every student of the Quran deserves to experience the majesty of Quran’s language. Its verses convey wisdom in constructs of aesthetic and linguistic excellence.

Learning Quranic Arabic takes effort but is possible for everyone who wants to study it seriously. The Quran uses only five hundred words and their derivatives. How difficult can it be learn this small vocabulary?

When meanings of the Quran penetrate you, they awaken you to the dynamic behavior of its words in varying circumstances. You see Quran as a living book which embodies psychological and spiritual richness that enhances life at all levels. It articulates and illuminates the depth, range and subtlety of the human experience.

Are not the commentaries of the scholars of the past important?

The interpretations given by ancient and modern scholars are the great storehouse of Quranic understanding as it has unfolded over the centuries. You will inevitably begin your studies by reading them, discussing them and comparing them. But these esteemed people lived in times and circumstances very different from the present. The knowledge-base of how the world works and how people behave available in the past was miniscule compared to what we know now. The Book of God has wisdom and power applicable in all ages. It is your task to extract meanings and interpretations that will help, guide and motivate the present generation.

What is needed to develop your own interpretation of the Quran?

There are only two requirements: sincerity of purpose and persistence.

Sincerity: It is a spiritual quality that everyone can perceive and control in oneself. The Quran is accessed by only those who respect it, believe in it’s value and who want to live a life of higher purpose. There is no help for someone who lowers the interpretation for self-seeking reasons, or someone who distrusts all that is invisible. Similarly, those who are angry and contemptuous will not find guidance from the Quran.

One has to strive to obtain everything that is of lasting value. Temporary efforts give temporary results. Long term study is perquisite for developing a personal relationship with the Quran.

“Everyone will be given a reward proportional to his/her efforts” –Quran

The Quran is a transformative text. While the act of reading it on a particular day appears to be an event of little consequence, there are far-reaching changes on a cumulative basis. You experience creative revelations of your inner self, and these are often triggered in small periods of time. It interacts with you, guides you and breaks your limiting patterns; it creates an increasing richness of life and a deeper grasp on ourselves.

July 15, 2006
Progressive Muslim Meetup
Long Island city

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