Sources or Criteria for Interpretation of the Holy Quran

Source: The Muslim Times

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

I will describe here the four main sources, as I understand them, under the four headings:

1. Commentary from the Quran itself

2. Commentary from Sunnah and Hadith

3. Commentary from one’s honest and unbiased opinion

4. Laws of nature as a source of understanding the Quran

Commentary from the Quran itself

Muhammad Asad, born Leopold Weiss; 12 July 1900 – 20 February 1992, was a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian journalist, traveler, writer, linguist, thinker, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic scholar. After traveling across the Arab World as a journalist, he converted to Islam in 1926 and chose for himself the Muslim name ‘Muhammad Asad’—Asad being the Arabic rendition of his root name Leo (Lion).

Asad was one of the most influential European Muslims of the 20th century. He writes in regards to the Quran itself being the main source of its own commentary:

I have tried to observe consistently two fundamental rules of interpretation.  Firstly, the Qur’an must not be viewed as a compilation of individual injunctions and exhortations but as one integral whole: that is, as an exposition of an ethical doctrine in which every verse and sentence has an intimate bearing on other verses and sentences, all of them clarifying and amplifying one another. Consequently, its real meaning can be grasped only if we correlate every one of its statements with what has been stated elsewhere in its pages, and try to explain its ideas by means of frequent cross—references, always subordinating the particular to the general and the incidental to the intrinsic. Whenever this rule is faithfully followed, we realize that the Qur’an is — in the words of Muhammad ‘Abduh — ‘its own best commentary.’

We believe that this is not Asad’s original idea. It has been expressed by numerous commentators and is grounded in the following verse of surah Zumar:

Allah has sent down the best Message in the form of a Book, whose verses are mutually supporting and repeated in diverse forms at which do creep the skins of those who fear their Lord; then their skins and their hearts soften to the remembrance of Allah. Such is the guidance of Allah; He guides therewith whom He pleases. And he whom Allah adjudges astray — he shall have no guide. (39:23)

Now a video message of Hamza Yusuf, who is an American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College, about the holistic understanding of the Quran:

Commentary from Sunnah and Hadith

The second most important source for commentary is sunnah, the practice of the holy prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him and his sayings that have been collected in a very extensive hadith literature.

The hadith literature is very extensive and almost none of us has extensive grasp of the subject.

We have, however, borrowed from prior commentaries, whenever we felt that expressed useful ideas from hadith. We up hold the sentinel principle that if any hadith is contradictory to the Quran, we disregard it as a later fabrication, rather than a genuine saying of the prophet.

Likewise, sayings of the prophet’s companions or saintly people in the last 1400 years are also a good source of commentary. This can, of course, be extended to all the good commentaries that have gone before.

Commentary from one’s honest and unbiased opinion

Muhammad Asad writes in his introduction to the translation of the holy Quran, regarding commentary from one’s opinion:

If, on occasion, I have found myself constrained to differ from the interpretations offered by the latter (early commentators), let the reader remember that the very uniqueness of the Qur’an consists in the fact that the more our worldly knowledge and historical experience increase, the more meanings, hitherto unsuspected, reveal themselves in its pages.

We believe that this is an information age and human learning is increasing at a dramatic pace. We hope that our commentary serves some of the needs of our contemporary times, with that inspiration we have tried to put forth our additional contributions, while we also try to preserve what we feel has been the best in the most popular commentaries of the last century.

Asad continues:

The great thinkers of our past understood this problem fully well. In their commentaries, they approached the Qur’an with their reason: that is to say, they tried to explain the purport of each Qur’anic statement in the light of their superb knowledge of the Arabic language and of the Prophet’s teachings — forthcoming from his sunnah — as well as by the store of general knowledge available to them and by the historical and cultural experiences which had shaped human society until their time. Hence, it was only natural that the way in which one commentator understood a particular Qur’anic statement or expression differed occasionally — and sometimes very incisively — from the meaning attributed to it by this or that of his predecessors. In other words, they often contradicted one another in their interpretations: but they did this without any animosity, being fully aware of the element of relativity inherent in all human reasoning, and of each other’s integrity. And they were fully aware, too, of the Prophet’s profound saying, ‘The differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the learned men of my community are [an outcome of] divine grace (rahmah)’ — which clearly implies that such differences of opinion are the basis of all progress in human thinking and, therefore, a most potent factor in man’s acquisition of knowledge.  But although none of the truly original, classical Qur’an-commentators ever made any claim to ‘finality’ concerning his own interpretations, it cannot be often enough stressed that without the work of those incomparably great scholars of past centuries, no modern translation of the Qur’an — my own included — could ever be undertaken with any hope of success; and so, even where I differ from their interpretations, I am immeasurably indebted to their learning for the impetus it has given to my own search after truth.

Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, first Foreign Minister of Pakistan and President of the UN General Assembly in 1962–63, in his book, Islam – Its meaning for the modern man, writes in the chapter on Quran:

It  has  sometimes  been  suggested  that  belief  in Divine  revelation  and  acceptance  of  revealed  truth  tend  toward  intellectual  rigidity  and  narrowness.  The exact reverse is the truth.  Revelation stimulates the intellect and opens all manner of avenues for research and   expansion   of   knowledge.   The   constant   and   repeated exhortation to reflect upon and ponder every type  of  natural  phenomenon  with  which  the  Quran  abounds  is  an  express  urge  in  that  direction.  History furnishes incontrovertible proof of this.  Within  an  astonishingly  brief  period  following  the  revelation  of  the  Quran,  darkness  and  confusion  were  dispelled  over vast areas of the earth, order was established, all manner  of  beneficent  institutions  sprang  into  life,  a  high  moral  order  was  set  up,  and  the  blessings  of  knowledge,  learning,  and  science  began  to  be  widely  diffused.  Human intellect,  which  for  some  centuries had  been  almost  frozen  into  inactivity,  experienced  a  sudden  release  and  upsurge,  and  the  world  became  witness to an astounding revolution. This was no freak occurrence,  no  sudden  flare-up  followed  by  an  even  more   sudden   collapse.   This   was   a   phenomenon   characterized by strength, beneficence, and endurance. It fulfilled to a preeminent degree the needs and yearnings of the human body, intellect and soul. It changed the course of human history. It flung wide open the gates of knowledge and progress in all directions.   Its   impact continues to be felt today through many and diverse channels.

But, all this is true only if the scripture is read with an open mindedness rather than dogmatically, with an absolutist mind set or agenda.  To achieve this at a societal level one needs complete freedom of conscience and speech and absence of the Blasphemy Laws, which infest most of the Muslim majority countries. Free speech and discussion necessitates that a few religious authorities are not put on such a high pedestal that leads to shunning of everyone else’s opinion if it differs from certain authority. The Muslims cannot benefit from the Quran in public life unless they create a culture where arguments are judged by reason and logic rather than arguments from authority, grand standing and triumphalism.

William Chittik writes in his book, Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God, in his first chapter as he quotes Ibn al-Arabi:

Ibn al-Arabi goes so far as to assert that every interpretation of the Qur’an for which a case can be made on the basis of the Arabic language was in fact intended by God, who knew from the outset every possible interpretation of His speech.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community writes:

The Holy Qur’an is not matchless merely on account of the beauty of its composition, but is matchless on account of all its excellences which it claims to comprise and that is the truth, for whatever proceeds from God Almighty is not unique only on account of one quality but on account of every one of its qualities. Those who do not accept the Holy Qur’an as comprehensive of unlimited eternal truths and insights, do not value the Qur’an as it should be valued. A necessary sign for the recognition of the holy and true Word of God is that it should be unique in all its qualities, for we observe that whatever proceeds from God Almighty is unique and matchless even if it is only a grain of barley, and human powers cannot match it. … For instance, if the wonders of a leaf of a tree are investigated for a thousand years, that period would come to an end, but the wonders of the leaf will not come to an end. … The verse, “Say, ‘If every ocean becomes ink for the words of my Lord, surely, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even though We brought the like thereof as further help;’” (18:110) supports this, for the whole of creation is Words of God….. Thus this verse means that the qualities of creation are without limit and endless.

Now when every created thing possesses unlimited and endless qualities and comprises numberless wonders then how could the Holy Qur’an, which is the Holy Word of God Almighty, be confined to the few meanings which may be set out in a commentary of forty or fifty or a thousand volumes, or could have been expounded by our lord and master the Holy Prophet [peace and blessings of Allah be on him] in a limited period? To say so would almost amount to disbelief, if it is deliberately persisted in. It is true that whatever the Holy Prophet [peace and blessings of Allah be on him] has set forth as the meaning of the Holy Qur’an is true and correct, but it is not true that the Holy Qur’an contains no more than the insights that have been set forth by the Holy Prophet [peace and blessings of Allah be on him]. Such sayings of our opponents indicate that they do not believe in the unlimited greatness and qualities of the Holy Qur’an. [Karamat-us-Sadiqin, Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol. 7, pp. 60-62]

There is a Hadith that stresses the judgment and conscience of the believer and suggests that he or she should bank on that. This is also true for our understanding of the Quran for our personal lives or presenting it to others. Narrated Wabisa bin Ma’bad, Allah be pleased with him: Said the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him: “Seek the guidance of your soul! Seek the guidance of your soul! The virtuous deed is one whereby your soul feels restful and your heart contented, and sinful act is one which rankles in your soul and which shrinks your heart, even though the other people endorse it as lawful.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Laws of nature as a source of understanding the Quran

It has been said that at least 750 verses of the holy Quran, almost an eighth of the book use metaphors from nature to make a moral or spiritual point or inspire the believers to study nature and so doing observe the signs of Allah.

I have cataloged and commented on these and many more verses of the Quran: Cataloging 750 verses of the Holy Quran inspiring believers to study nature.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community writes:

The Holy Qur’an is a Book so full of wisdom that it has brought out the accord between the principles of spiritual medicine, that is to say, the principles of religion which are truly spiritual medicine, and physical medicine, and this accord is so fine that it opens the doors of hundreds of insights and eternal truths. It is only that person who can interpret the Holy Qur’an truly and perfectly, who ponders the principles laid down by the Holy Qur’an in the light of the system of physical medicine. On one occasion I was shown in a vision some books of expert physicians which contained a discussion of the principles of physical medicine, among which was included the book of the expert Physician Qarshi, and it was indicated to me that these Books contained a commentary on the Holy Qur’an. This shows that there is a deep relationship between the science of bodies and the science of religion and that they confirm each other. When I looked at the Holy Qur’an, keeping in mind the books that dealt with physical medicine, I discovered that the Holy Qur’an sets out in an excellent manner the principles of physical medicine.[Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol. 23, pp. 102-103]

The above quote highlights that the Quran should be interpreted in the light of the laws of nature. Additionally, he names seven criteria for understanding the Quran in his book, the blessings of prayers and laws of nature are one them. His seven criteria are:

  1. Quran itself
  2. The interpretation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad
  3. The interpretation of his companions
  4. The fourth source is to meditate upon the meanings of the Holy Quran with the purity of one’s own self
  5. Arabic lexicon
  6. Laws of nature
  7. The seventh criterion is the revelation granted to saints

I have saved the PDF file of the English translations of his Urdu book here: Blessings of Prayer.

Charles Darwin came to a similar conclusion about relationship between study of nature and scriptures, living in a different age and studying a different scripture, namely the Bible, as he quoted Francis Bacon from his book, Advancement of learning, in the later editions of Origin of Species to establish the proper relationship between religion and natural science:

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both.

In conclusion, allow us to repeat a short quote from Muhammad Asad. He writes in his introduction to the translation of the holy Quran, regarding how one’s insight into the Quran improves as one’s worldly knowledge increases, which in our opinion also includes our scientific knowledge:

If, on occasion, I have found myself constrained to differ from the interpretations offered by the latter (early commentators), let the reader remember that the very uniqueness of the Qur’an consists in the fact that the more our worldly knowledge and historical experience increase, the more meanings, hitherto unsuspected, reveal themselves in its pages.

21 thoughts on “Sources or Criteria for Interpretation of the Holy Quran

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