The Qur’an: closing an open text

Khaled Abou El-Fadl has written an amazing book, And God Knows the Soldiers. He discusses the issue of authority in Islam, and how certain “authorities” have blurred the lines between their interpretation and the actual text itself, in this case the Qur’an.  He argues that many of today’s ‘ulama have crossed the line between being authoritative and authoritarian.  Although God is sovereign, this sovereignty can only be exercised through human agents.  Since humans do not receive direct guidelines and communications from God, they must therefore examine God’s will through a medium.  In Islam, this medium is the Qur’an, which as a text exercises total authority.

Human agents negotiate the process of determining the authenticity and meaning of the text.  In fact, the role of human agency in expressing the Will of the Divine is unavoidable (31).

The two extremes that often result from this process of negotiation are the following.  One is that you end up with a religion that is completely subjective and individual, and this is risky as it could weaken the authority and dilute the value the text has.  The other extreme is that you could see all issues of meaning resolvable and thus you only need to worry about carrying out the resulting instructions.  This is also risky because it could leave you with a religion that is rigid and inflexible.  Abou El-Fadl defines authoritarianism as being

manifested by the act of empowering oneself with the moral weight of religion in order to obtain unjustifiable deference from others (34).

In this process, a text with different meanings could be appropriated by someone and recast instead as a text with a single meaning.  Authoritarianism cannot be anything but negative, as it is an abuse of power and a betrayal of the trust others place in the agent as an authority.  Instead, we should make it clear that our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.  This is how the text remains authoritative.

In this process, a text with different meanings could be appropriated by someone and recast instead as a text with a single meaning.  Authoritarianism cannot be anything but negative, as it is an abuse of power and a betrayal of the trust others place in the agent as an authority.  Instead, we should make it clear that our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.  This is how the text remains authoritative.

Finally, there is a worrying process involved in an interpreter becoming authoritarian: the closing of an open text.

Effectively the interpreter approaches an open text – open because the text is accessible to all readers and interpreters – and closes it, rendering it inaccessible (41).

The meaning of the text and the interpretations of the speaker become the same as the speaker and the text become one.  This last point is important – closing an open text – because in my opinion it is one of the most noteworthy critiques of the contemporary ‘ulama and the traditionalists in general: that the Qur’an is an open text, accessible to all, but it has been effectively “closed” due to authoritarianism and monopolization by the ‘ulama and pre-modern Islamic jurists and scholars.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “The Qur’an: closing an open text

  1. Fascinating stuff, I’ll have to look into this book. I’m currently reading “The Quran in Its Historical Context”, a collection of essays edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds. I’m trying to understand, in addition to the translation issues above, where the narrative surrounding the Quran originated. How do we know surah 96:1-5 happened in the Cave of Hira at such and such a time, or that surah 9 took place after the Peace Treaty of Hudaibiyah? Hopefully this book will help me understand how much of what we know of the events surrounding revelation is historically accurate and how much is… not?

    The point you made about the Quran being “closed” is a good one. Its not unlike how Bibles were at one time only available in Latin, limiting its understanding to an elite few.

  2. I found your blog through Born Confuzed’s blog. Your writing is another refreshing view on Islam which is helpful in my quest to understand the religion of my boyfriend and his struggle to juggle a life with an atheist girlfriend and muslim parents who disapprove of the path he has chosen in life. Thank you

  3. I agree with much of what Khalid Al Fadl says concerning the Quran. As soon as the interpreting scholars decided on a fixed meaning for the Quran…all other meanings became invalid…and thus not open for discussion. But “speaking for the Quran” is not a cut and dried piece of work…supposedly if God wrote it then its GOD people…how can Muslims say…THIS is what God means and thats final? So now we know what God is thinking…what he truly means…and apparently we know it better than God himself considering alot of interpretations and “meanings” obviously go against the “peaceful” message everyone claims Islam is.

    Also, when hadith come into play to “explain” better what God REALLY meant…so Muslims arent left in the dark…quite often those hadith do further injustice to the word of God.

    Yay Muslims.

    He is right…being and authoritarian about the word of God gives the implication that you have some “right” some “power” the rest of us dont…some secret decoder ring that lets you IN to the real meaning…and therefor the rest of us must wait patiently for you to explain what God REALLY means…or suffer the consequences for daring to believe something else.

    I might add…something that doesnt agree with what the “established” elite have already agreed upon for us.

  4. here is my problem with what you say. These authoritarian figures in islam they spend ages studying the Qur’an, its various supporting texts, its language and all its nuances, and the conclusions are not based on what one person thought or said but are based on ijma'(consensus) of a group(of scholars). If everyone decided to self interpret the Qur’an the original message is lost, as is the case now with judaism and christianity.

    Also what would make your word or interpretation more right than say an ‘alim of today.

    another argument that comes up is: Since Allah is All knowing His rules are eternal, and not open to interpretation. Like the example you stated of inheritance, Allah SWT has spelled out very clearly who gets what. What he didn’t explain was the why. Now if i am decide to take a principle and label it His and so now i as a woman bread winner should get the same amount as my brother, that causes two problems.
    1) the assumption that Allah SWT didn’t know that women would be bread winners and 2) You superimposing your logic onto that of Allah SWT and saying yours is better.

    i don’t quite understand why you can’t see traditional islam and feminism in the same light. One does not negate the other. Maybe limits it to the bounds of shariah.

    The power that ulema have is based around their knowledge of shariah and knowledge of shariah is not limited to men. In a narration of hadith it is stated that ulema are the heirs of the prophets. (mishkat) In another narration it is stated that one aalim is better than one thousand abids (person who performs many nafl acts of worship.) (mishkat)

    The ulema are elite only to the extent of their knowledge. That secret decoder ring is their years of study, from authentic ulema that link all the way back up to the Nabi AS.
    No one needs to wait around for any meaning. We spends years in schools and colleges but spending the same amount of time getting knowledge of this religion is considered bad form?

    you closed with Qur’an being an open text. but i believe i already highlighted this before: it is open so long as the interpretation is the same as that of the prophet AS. And this understanding is found in verses of the Qur’an.

  5. “it is open so long as the interpretation is the same as that of the prophet AS”

    Please take a look at what passes for Sharia Law today and see if it has any resemblence to what or how the prophet interpreted the Quran.

    SO all those shieks etc that have spent year and years studying…are merely studying what those before them decided upon…no new thinking…no new interpretations…no new nothing.

    they are studying what muslim men of days gone by, who were born and bred in a patriarchal society, and could only look through eyes from a male perspective (as there is no female voice when interpreting the Quran) and a place of privelidge and superiority…decided God meant THIS and not THAT…and thats the end of the subject.

    Despite what the Quran is SUPPOSED to mean…its interpreted in a very unfriendly way when it comes to women.

  6. have you been thru an ‘Alims education system to make this generalization? the reason i ask is that i am currently going thru it and take offense to your very ignorant generalization.

  7. required…Im assuming your referring to my comment since your right under heres my answer.

    I have studied the Quran and related material for well over 20 years. I can read with my own eyes, think with my own brain, and speak with my own tongue when it comes to how the Quran speaks to me. What I stated in that previous comment is what I see when I read what Muslims read into the Quran etc.

    You have every right to take offense, for what Im no sure tho…I didnt generalize..its easy enough for anyone to see…the doors of ijtihad (sorry for spelling) were “closed” centuries ago…so what you are studying..what any Muslim is in fact studying…is material that was agreed upon by men from a patriarchal society from long ago…no big secret. Im not generalizing.

    Neither am I ignorant…and I take offense to your name calling. Alim class is doing wonders for your manners.

  8. i am assuming you are calling “ignorant generalization” name calling>? what am i supposed to say informed generalization? mis informed? confused?
    i am sorry it sounded offensive though, you are right i should know better. please forgive me, i in no way claim to e perfect in my verbal dealings with people.
    The doors to ijtihad on agreed matters closed a long time ago because they were just that… agreed matters. are the doors to all kinds of ijtihad closed? no. thats where fatwas come in. A fatwa given the right way is done thru a shura on matters that are not clearly spelled out anywhere.

    as to reading with your own eyes, yes well we all do that. but have to read all the hadith? are you a hafiz of Quran. are you so fluent in arabic language and its nuances to be able to tell which verb goes with what meaning based on what it came with? or did you like the many masses read a translation?
    The “traditional islam” i study does not gender segregate but lays out a framework of shariah based entirely on the Quran and sunnah. I could care less if a man wrote it or a woman as long as they reference it back to the quran and sunnah.

    you havent answered my question though have you been thru an alims education system to make this generalization? i did not ask what you think of the studies but whether you had at some point in your life decided to take it up.

  9. The answer is no…because I was a firm believer that God meant what he said when he stated that this Book and religion is easy for believers etc…no mention of “nuances” and “verbs” having to be understood perfectly to get the meaning…then again…arab speakers and readers are a very small percentage of the Muslim world…are we to assume God meant his last and final word to be accessible to only those few that can read and understand classical arabic? Hell, most Arabs cant understand classical arabic…so this would mean that the “true” meaning of the Quran is lost to a very high percentage of Muslims around the world simply because of the language God decided his final message should be in.

    So, in fact EVERY rendition of the Quran is a translation of sorts…because even arabs that cant read and understand classical arabic have to be told what it means…go figure.

  10. no it means “read! read in the name of your lord…” It means learn. The prophet himself was illiterate, but was taught by Allah Himself.
    Allah SWT very clearly states many times over in the Quran that the Quran was revealed in arabic. He even guides the believer as to how to understand the Quran. In surah jumah (and other places) he commands the prophet AS to teach the companions the Quran, and the hikmat behind it.
    Obviously the arabs of the time knew arabic, why would they need a prophet to explain the Book to them>?
    It is related about hadrat Umar RA that he spent ten years trying to understand one ayat.

    I don’t understand how you are justifying the laziness of man in his neglect to learn the language of the Quran. it feel like what you are asking is direct wahy, not that i would know what you are asking. i would think its been made easier for us than for the people of bygone eras, because all the ground work as been done and in such a way that we can’t even compete because of our lack of knowledge.

    regardless then, since my original question revolved around whether or not you knew what traditional education is about you answered in the negative. so for you to make an assumption on what is taught is uninformed. maybe you should look into what is taught before forming any conclusions about it?

  11. Just because I havent attended a class doesnt mean I dont know what is taught. I spent 23 years in a Muslim/Arab country…my own children attended many such classes…my sons have attained high status and knowledge…my oldest being chosen to lead grown men in prayer etc when he was barely 15 due to his excellence in reading and understanding the Quran etc.

    And I never said I dont understand the Quran in arabic myself.

    I also didnt “justify” the laziness of man to read learn the language of the Quran…how quickly you make assumptions…but according to God..the Quran is an open book clear and easily understood for believers…but you and others want to make it this complicated mysterious “only a few can grasp its true meaning” book…directly contradicting what God stated many times.

    Islam isnt about nuances…nuances leaves it open to ambiguity…questions…difference of opinions…and you just said there can be no difference of opinions in when fixed meanings have been agreed upon.

    You want to make Islam complicated and unreachable to the masses by placing a wall between them and God and calling it…”nuances and verbs”…thats up to you..and whoever…while I prefer a God thats right in front of me…clear, open, easy.

  12. i am sorry but your first sentence summed it up for me. you accuse me of making assumptions but you are not far from making assumptions yourself.

    knowledge is open to everyone who wishes to attain it. there is nothing complicated about it. man just has to want to attain that knowledge.

    and i placed as proof a verse from the Quran and the doings of the Prophet AS himself, so…

    this argument is going in a circle. I respect your view and i withdraw from any more argumentation with you on this matter.

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