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The Qur'an in the modern world



North America | Islam

Muslims believe that the Qur'an is God's word, as told to the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic
through the angel Gabriel in the 7th century. Today, as the community's social needs have
almost entirely changed since that time, should this holy book be interpreted differently?
"Yes," says Prof. Abdullah Saeed, a noted Muslim scholar.
Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne,
Australia, challenged a widely held traditional view - that the Qur'an is God's eternal speech and is
therefore unrelated to any particular context.
"This is a key issue in the 21st century today as [Muslim] scholars are dealing with human rights,
gender equality, citizenship, rights of non-Muslims, especially in relation to the ethical/legal texts [in
the Qur'an]," Saeed told the participants - academics, research students, clergy and journalists - at
the Witherspoon Institute's recent seminar, "The Quran in the Modern World," held at the Princeton
Theological Seminary.
"From a traditional view of Islam, you must look at how the Qur'an explains itself, then go to the
traditions of the Prophet [Hadith, meaning reports of statements or actions of Muhammad, or of his
tacit approval or criticism of something said or done in his presence], and then to the first generations
[of Muslims] as to how they understood the text." Saeed said.
The view that a change in social and political realities can have no bearing on the interpretation of the
Qur'an leads many to reduce exegesis to a mere linguistic exercise, said Saeed, who spent his early
education at traditional Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Qur'an, Saeed said, was an oral text for 22 years at the time of the Prophet. The very first word
revealed to the Prophet was "recite." "The spoken word functions in a specific context," he stressed.
"For those who were in immediate contact with the Prophet, the question of interpretation as a formal
endeavour did not arise, as the Qur'an was coming to them in their own language, in bits and pieces,
and in a particular context - social, political, economic, cultural, intellectual. It made perfect sense to
them; they could relate to it."
"The writing [of the Qur'an] was done to preserve," Saeed said. Part of the Qur'an had been written
down during the time of the Prophet, but it was put together as a book after his death. When the
Qur'an was written down and became a closed book, "it lost something very important: the big picture
or the overall context."
That's natural for any text, not just the Qur'an, Saeed said. "When a text moves to another time, we try

to reconstruct that big picture. We go back, as much as we can, to that period or time." And today,
"we have a cumulative tradition of what that big picture was like. But what we have is an incomplete
sense of that big picture."
Saeed used the example of the description of the paradise, which the Qur'an says will have trees and
rivers among other things. In Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet received the revelation, there
were no rivers; it was a desert region, he explained. "So for the people there, this description of the
paradise was very attractive. The description was relevant to their context. But it may or may not be
so for a person who lives in another part of the world, for example, in a place where rivers often flood."
Saeed also quoted Sura 4:34: "Men are maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them
excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient ,
guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion,
admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping places and beat them; then if they obey you, do
not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great."
To understand the Qur'an, as well as controversial verses like 4:34, he said, "understanding the
context is absolutely essential." "What did that [verse] mean to the first generation of Muslims? We
need to go back to the 7th century" and look into the issues they were facing.
The Maldivian-born scholar added that many ask him what is the mainstream view on women, or
generally on the Qur'an. "No one can define or decide what the mainstream view is. For those who
hold a particular view, it is very mainstream for them. There are many schools of thought in Islam.
There are endless debates on various issues in Islam," he said.
The tafsir (the Arabic word for exegesis) tradition is also rich and complex, Saeed said, as he briefly
explained three classical Sunni tafsirs and how each of them interpreted the first part of Quran 4:34.
Some tafsirs use reasoning - as opposed to solely looking for answers within the text - than the
Tafsir al-Tabari, by the Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923), relies on both the
text and reason, he said. This tafsir interprets Quran 4:34 maintaining that God has given certain
advantage to some over others (irrespective of whether they are men or women).
Tafsir al-Razi, by thetheologian and philosopher Muhammad ibn Umar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (11491209), relies heavily on reason. On Quran 4:34, it says men have been given preference in
inheritance only because they are maintainers of women, as per the provision for dowry and providing
for the needs of the wife.
On the other hand, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, by Syrian historian and Quran scholar Ibn Kathir (13011373),
relies heavily on the Quran and Hadith texts for interpretation, Saeed said. Ibn Kathir sees the
husband as the master, superior to the wife, and does not allow leadership roles for women. Todays
Salafis rely heavily on this tafsir, he added.
"There are some very progressive ideas in the Qur'an, but many such ideas were marginalized in the
early development of Islamic law," Saeed said. In the early period of Islam, many hadith were
fabricated and attributed to the Prophet. A number of such hadith appear to suggest that women are

inferior to men, he added. "When Islamic law was developed, scholars perhaps relied on some such
hadith in their understanding of the role of men and women in society.
Muslims regard hadith of the Prophet as a commentary on the Qur'an, as the Prophet experienced
and understood the book first hand and put it into practice, Saeed explained. Saeed's sessions at the
seminar drove one point home: while revelation is divine, interpretation of that revelation is a human
endeavor, and can change in a changed context. He made a case for a contextual interpretation of the
Qur'an in the modern world as opposed to the traditional textual approach.
"One could argue that there is nothing sacred about the personal interpretation given to a verse even
by a Companion of the Prophet, or by a Successor or by early imams," Saeed writes in the
introduction of his book, "Interpreting the Qur'an." "Their understandings, like ours," he adds, "are
limited by context and culture and may or may not be relevant outside their culture, their context."
Saeed proposes that Muslim scholars today should explore the tradition in light of contemporary
experience, including modern knowledge and method of research.
"The methodologies, terminology and concepts provided by the classical scholars of exegesis are not
necessarily relevant for all times and places, or invariably applicable as the sole source of
understanding the Qur'an."