The Ultimate Problem with Re-interpreting Islam

I’ve just started reading Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam, and I came across a paragraph in which she explained perfectly my current dilemma with reformist Islam.  Many reformists/progressives have suggested that all that is needed for the Qur’an to be seen as applicable to modern Muslims is to contextualize problematic areas.  So for example, although the Qur’an says one male witness = two female witnesses, that is only for then: today, times have changed.

Two propositions: presuppositions of interpreters matter a great deal in implementation, and the idea that in some instances the Qur’an accommodates or gradually prohibits certain practices that God/Muhammad might have preferred to abolish immediately (e.g. consumption of alcohol).

An approach to revelation that takes both propositions seriously allows one to interpret scripture without being bound by the assumptions of previous generations of exegetes who accepted male superiority and other social hierarchies, including slavery, without question.  Additionally, one can see certain passages and Prophetic sunnahs as gestures in the direction of egalitarianism, capable of full realization only in a world where equality and freedom are common shared values.

While I see this process as absolutely necessary if I am to practice Islam today, a voice in my head still had one question: if God sees men and women as equally valuable, why did he allow men greater rights to begin with? Why did he allow men to have concubines? Why did he allow men to be polygamous and women to not be, when both sexes were polygamous before Islam?

Kecia Ali addresses this issue by questioning it herself:

What about the critical, and critically difficult, question: where is God’s justice in permitting slavery in the first place, if slavery constituted an injustice and a wrong in the 7th century, just as it would and does in the 21st century?  And if it did not constitute an injustice in the 7th century in God’s eyes, then on what basis may anyone subsequently declare it unjust without rendering divine justice subordinate to the vagaries of human, and therefore inherently flawed, moral sensibilities?

This is an extremely important question, and one that remains unanswered for me.  If we believe, as Fazlur Rahman suggested in his work, that God allowed certain things in the Qur’an because the 7th century context required that, then how can we believe in a God that not only gave in to constraints but also allowed things we see as unjust, such as slavery?  For me, the difficult thing is to believe in a God that allowed slavery, polygamy, and other such things.  Even if this is me reflecting my own subjective ideas of morality onto Islam, how do I overcome this?  I refuse to accept something like slavery.  So what does that mean? And before people comment and say that we should just blindly accept anything in the Islamic tradition, that is not a logical argument for me.

What do you think?

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12 thoughts on “The Ultimate Problem with Re-interpreting Islam

  1. These are questions I’ve been grappling with for quite some time. The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that the Quran is not the verbaim word of God and has been touched by man. This is troublesome, obviously. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, at least among the scholars, it is generally accepted that the books were written, although divinely inspired. That’s the reason why you see differing accounts of the same story within the Bible. The nature of revelation in Islam does not allow for this. I agree, this does make it hard for reformists.

    • Yeah, it’s true that in Islam we don’t have that idea. Even the idea that human interpretations are fallible is problematic for a lot of people :S

  2. you said ( For me, the difficult thing is to believe in a God that allowed slavery, polygamy, and other such things. Even if this is me reflecting my own subjective ideas of morality onto Islam, how do I overcome this? I refuse to accept something like slavery. So what does that mean?) and that’s exactly how i feel. How can i believe that the God i believe in in injustice to me- as a woman- and to others like slaves and homosexuals . Is there a greater thing beyond that my mind can not reach ? . i am struggling as well.

    • I think my position as a woman is the reason for all of this. I just find it difficult to believe in a God who is both just (supposedly) and unjust (to women, slaves, etc). I just can’t accept that homosexuals, especially, are doomed to an unhappy life because of the way they were born.

  3. I think some of the issues come from social biases in the translations – everyone who has ever translated or interpreted the Quran has colored it with their own views. And then their are even variations between old copies of the Quran, some of which remain hidden away and haven’t been properly studied. These variants suggest human mistakes, in my opinion. But when I read the Quran, my gut tells me it comes from God – hardly scholarly evidence, I know. I like Abdolkarim Soroush’s approach: “… it is true that sacred scriptures are (in the judgment of followers) flawless; however, it is just as true that human beings’ understanding of religion is flawed” and, “I believe that truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth.”

    Therefore, anything that can be claimed as true in the Quran must stay true throughout. Yes, slavery seems to be accepted, but then there are multiple calls for equality and condemnations against cruelty based on class, so I personally conclude that slavery was meant to be abolished, as well as class divisions. One thing that occurred to me is the struggle over slavery in the US… the economy of the South came to depend on slavery, and even after it was abolished there where huge social and economic problems that the US is still struggling with. Simply declaring from on high “there shall be no more slavery” doesn’t cut it. God granted us free will, and we created slavery. God gave us all the tools we need to end it – but if God did it FOR us, then it wouldn’t be our choice and it wouldn’t be based on morality, and we’d basically be reduced to puppets. I think this life is a test for victims and victimizers both.

    • “I like Abdolkarim Soroush’s approach: “… it is true that sacred scriptures are (in the judgment of followers) flawless; however, it is just as true that human beings’ understanding of religion is flawed” and, “I believe that truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth.”

      Very interesting…I really want to read more of his work. Still though, God clearly allows slavery, polygamy, etc…is that simply a matter of interpretation? Even if slavery was meant to be abolished, the fact is that it wasn’t – God allowed it at that time.

      Your suggestion to see it as a test is interesting…I haven’t thought of it that way before. I guess one could look at slavery and polygamy that way, in terms of the Qur’an allowing it. But then again, it’s hard to accept the idea that the Prophet had concubines…for me, that’s a huge issue.

  4. Certain aspects of the Quran would have been removed if we would have had another Prophet, like slavery. Its like with alcohol, it wasnt forbidden over night, it took a certain time. The Prophet showed how to act towards slaves, he didnt have 10000s of slaves, he bought slaves and let them free but he couldnt enforce that on all muslims, the whole worlds economy wouldnt have worked out that way. If you noticed, without slavery islam would not have been this hugh, many of the dynasties that came to rule the muslim world, were first slaves who came to fight for islamic rulers (your own native country Egypts slavewarriors mamaluks)

    According to shia fiqh for instance, if you break rules in Ramadan, you are to pay some kind of penalty, and one of the penalties is to free slaves. Nowdays you dont see any muslim have slaves or very few (Africa).
    As for women and marriage i dont see the injustice there. We know that there exist more women then men. If we live in a sharistate, we would have some women without a mate, that would lead them to doing haram..thus its better they ar married to a man who is already married.
    You have already once written about the view on polygamy and that Allah made it almost impossible for a man to have 2 women if he wants to be just.
    YOu cant reinterpret everything in the Quran. What if i wanted to allow drugs or alcohol and say that the rules of the Quran of the 700 century doesnt work now. As i stated earlier some things in the Quran are free for ijtihad and reinterpretation (Fadhallah has allowed cloning, some ulamaa have forbidden smoking others allowed it) and they all follow ijtihad from the holy Quran.

    As for ppl speaking of the Quran beeing written by men or such things, then i can only say your very ignorant about the Quran and about its science. If it was written by men and not given to us by Allah, then why would every muslim in the world be united in its form? Why dont shias have a quran and sunnis have a quran and wahabis have a quran and ismailis have a quran? WE all share one holy book, this shows that we are all united in the view that this is the book of Allah and that its sent by Allah as it is now.

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