Monday, October 22, 2018


During the most of the pre-classical period of Islamic thought extending to the first two and a half centuries of the Islamic calendar, a conceptual differentiation between the Qur’an as oral discourse and the Qur’an as text (mushaf) was made.[1]This resulted in important differences in interpretative strategies employed by pre-classical and classical Islamic scholars.[2] The Qur’an’s textualisation and its subsequent standardisation[3] and proliferation of hadith compendia brought into the foreground a philologically-centered approach to Qur’anic interpretation.[4]By philologically-centred approach to Qur’anic interpretation I mean that various philological sciences and their role in the process of derivation of (Qur’anic) meaning came to be considered as the Qur’an’s most decisive and hermeneutically powerful interpretational tools.[5]  This, aspect of the pre-modern embedded approaches to the legal theory methodology originating in the writings of   Shafi’i (d.204 AH)[6] was based on a type of reasoning which assumes that:

The language is a series of exterior signs representing a pre-existing string of internal thoughts…It is the absolute signifier,’ clear text’ (nass), and signified, elucidation (bayan), that coalesces and transparently constitutes the articulated truth of God as embodied in the eternal language of the Qur’an….where all arguments are indeterminately shaped by a logic that is derived from the grammar of the Arabic language with its implicit logical premises.[7]
This approach to the nature of the function and nature of language is described by Jackson as formalism, that is,
the tendency to stress the essential relationship between the observable features of language( e.g. morphological patterns) and specification of meaning, to strive to preserve a systematic relationship between meaning, textual items and the syntactical structure of sentences.[8]

Furthermore, argues Jackson, this manhaj is predicated on the assumption that there is an objectively identifiable relationship between morphology, syntax and meaning [which] permits us to have access not simply to the meanings of words and sentences but to the actual thoughts in the minds of speakers.[9] In other words interpretation is largely restricted to observable features of language. In the opinion of Auda, ‘[T]his added to the general literal character of linguistic evidences, which were also given priority over all other rational evidence.”[10]
This pre-modern embedded interpretational method, therefore, had a strong positivistic foundation and orientation according to which “the understanding of the Qur’anic text derived from the Companions from the Prophet is regarded as univocal and objective…[t]he meaning disclosed is for all times and cultures….” and as a corollary, “the proper task of the exegete is to engage in exegesis not eisegesis-a reading and interpretation of the Qur’anic text , not a reading into the text” .[11] In the context of examining the legal epistemology and methodology of Saudi Arabian scholars’ Bramsen refers to this aspect of manhaj as ‘literalism’ which assumes fixity of meaning and adherence to the canonical text’s wording alone.[12]
Another characteristic of the pre-modern approaches to usul-ul-fiqh, its view of the nature of language and thus the nature of the Qur’anic text, is the belief in the “uncreatedness” of the Qur’an and its metaphysical existence prior to the actual event of Revelation. The standpoint is closely linked to the concept of the Qur’anic language and text being operational outside, originating prior to reality and history thus not being subject to interpretation against this background. According to this “revelationist” theory, the origin of   language is a result of Divine designation ( tawfiq) rendering  its formation  outside the space-time dimension.[13] This belief is based upon an assumption that Divine Speech (goettlische Rede) is not subject to rational, human methods of analysis.[14]
An aditional characteristic of the pre-modern manahij concerns the nature of Revelation or wahy. The pre-modern embedded concept of wahy or Revelation and the role of the Prophet in it is based on a mechanical, non-symbiotic, independent dynamic between the two, a relationship that posits God as a Speaker (in an anthropomorphic sense) and the Prophet as the God’s loudspeaker whose persona, psychological make up, mind and ‘situatedness’ in history do not affect the nature and the content of Revelation whatsoever.[15]
The interpretational consequences of the formalistic approach to the nature and the function of language in interpretation of the Qur’anic text combined with the ahistorical view of the concept of revelation   are several. Firstly, they lead to the adoption of the view of the Qur’anic text as being largely and in essence fixed in meaning (not just in text) and the imposition of Qur’anic interpretational reductionism and uniformity considered to be the norm. Secondly, the dominant pre-modern notion of  the “uncreatedness” of the Qur’anic text further reinforces this interpretational method as it places Revelation outside the domain of linguistic/literary criticism and reason and considers the Scripture to be on a higher epistemological plane than that of the reality and human beings as Scripture’s interpreters.[16] This leads us to the issues pertaining to the assumptions present in the pre-modern approaches to the discipline of reading hermeneutics.

[1] H. N.  Abu Zayd, Re-thinking the Qur’an –Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutic. Humanities University Press, Utrecht, 2004.p.11; M.Arkoun, ‘Rethinking Islam Today’ in Ch. Kurzman (ed.), Liberal Islam, pp.205-222.A.Souaiaia,’On the Sources of Islamic Law and Practices’, Journal of Law and Religion, pp.125-149.
[2] Souaiaia,’On the Sources’.
[3] In the case of the Qur’an the last official decision closing any discussion on the various versions of the ‘orthodox’ Uthmani codex was made by qadi Ibn Mujahid in the fourth century Hijrah/tenth century AC. Arkoun – ‘Rethinking’, p.214.
[4]As  based on Arkoun’s survey of some 80 categories (naw’) pertaining to ulum-ul Qur’an as found in Suyuti’s Itqan. See Arkoun, “Introduction: An Assessment of and Perspectives on the Study of the Qur’an.” in Formation of the Classical Islamic World, (ed.) I. Conrad. V.24., Chapter 18, pp.297-332.
[5] B.G.Weiss, The Spirit of Islamic Law, University of Georgia Press, Georgia, 1998, pp.38-65;
[6] Previous efforts prior to Shafi’i have been characterised by the leading scholars in the field of usul-ul fiqh as not systematic. See , for example, Hallaq, A History, 1-35.
[7] E.Moosa, ‘The Poetics and Politics of Law After Empire: reading Women’s Rights in the Contestations of Law’, in 1 UCLA, J. Islamic & Near E.L.1,pp.1-28,8.
[8] Sh. Jackson,’From Prophetic Actions to Constitutional Theory: A Novel Chapter in Medieval Muslim Jurisprudence’, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies,1993, 25,71-90,78.
[9] Jackson,’ Towards’,182.
[10] J.Auda, Maqasid al-Shari’ah as Philosophy of Islamic Law,IIIT,London,2008,p.229.
[11] M.Mumisa,’Toward an African Qur’anic Hermeneutics’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies,2002,1,62-63.
[12] D.Bramsen, Divine Law and Human Understanding: Interpreting Shari’a within Institutions of Ifta’a and Qada’a in Saudi Arabia, Københavns Universitet , M.A.Thesis, 2007,  76, 85.
[13] Mansoor, The Unpredictability of the Past, 219-220
[14] H.N.Abu Zayd, Politik und Islam: Kritik des Religiösen Diskurses,  Dipa-Verlag, Frankfurt, 1996. p.162, author’s translation.
[15] Soroush, The Expansion, op.cit..
[16] On this see P.M. Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics, Ph.D. Study, Chapell Hill,2008, chapters two and three.

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