Thursday, November 1, 2018

Progressive Muslims’ Approach to the Process of Derivation of Meaning in the Qur’anic Text and Its Interpretational Implications

 By considering Qur’an, for interpretational/hermeneutical purposes, as a
piece of literature, the progressive Muslim manhaj renders it subject to
modern literary criticism like any other culture specific text. Qur’an is
still albeit considered to be of Divine origin yet not requiring any special
methods when attempting to understand and interpret it. 17

 The Qur’an is also considered to be capable of sustaining various
interpretations. The human understanding of its text is considered to
be dependent upon human knowledge of human sciences, which itself is
sociotemporarily contingent. 18

 By being largely oblivious to the discourses of modern literary theory,
premodern approach to derivation and determining of Qur’anic
meanings has largely focused on the role of authorial intent  and its
principal discoverability when engaging in this process. Progressive
Muslims do not share this presupposition. They argue that the task of
hermeneutics is not the recovery of elusive authorial intention but a
study of and a contribution to the ongoing and ever varying approximations
of it. 20
 Furthermore, there has been a shift of focus on the history of literary
criticism from being author centric to that of reader centered with its attendant
implication that the role of the reader of a text is not so much understood
as a process of reproduction of meaning but that of its production. 21
In this context a young Indonesian scholar and proponent of progressive Muslim manhaj Y.Rahman notes:
 It is considered that meaning of the text may lie in the author, the text, the
context, or the reader, that the task of hermeneutics is not only to discover
but also to create the meaning of the text. Given the many possibilities
of locating the meaning of the text, the methods and approaches used to
ascertain the analysis are consequently diverse. 22

 As such the progressive Muslim view of the nature of language and its
function in usul-ul-fiqh is more akin to the theory of New Legal Formalism
whose underlying premise is that “meaning is not discovered but rather
fashioned or created by the interpreter.” 23 Consequently, the meaning of
a word is not just given “by the one who posits the word [God] but rather
by a human being [reader] who is a subject of his own visions, presuppositions
and experiences.” 24 In other words, as Abu Zayd argues, the receiver
of the text, the human being conditioned by her sociohistorical reality, is
the starting and the end point of this process. 25 As Ashraf notes any Holy
Text, including the Qur’an, ultimately speaks through its reader since religious
texts do not interpret themselves but people do and they do so not in
an epistemological or methodological vacuum but always bring their own
insights, biases and knowledge into the interpretational process. As a result
the meaning of a religious text is more often than not only as moral as the
reader/interpreter. 26

 Wahyudi, in his study of the thought of three contemporary Muslims
scholars, namely, Al-Jabiri, Hanafi, and Majid, remarks that all three
authorities subscribe to the view that a text withstands or accommodates
a pluralistic interpretation “in more or less direct proportion to the sociopolitical
and cultural backgrounds of the interpreter.” 27 Furthermore, Abu
Zayd argues that the spiritual and cultural horizon of the reader plays an
important role in her/his understanding the language of the text and in
the extraction of its meaning (author’s translation). 28 That the understanding
of the text is dependent upon the reader is also implied by an Iranian
progressive Muslim scholar Soroush who argues that the understanding
of the Qur’an and Sunna is dynamic and changes along with the knowledge
of its interpreter because “every understanding of religion is founded
upon knowledge that is outside the scope of religion itself” (author’s
translation). 29

 The implications of this aspect of literary theory with regards to the
process of meaning derivation is that the full meaning of any text is in
essence partially indeterminate or relative to that of the interpreter. In this
context, Mabrook makes an important observation by considering a reader
to be “in history, of history and for history”; a reader who is limited by his or her own history and epistemology is affected in his or her role in understanding,
assimilating, and reshaping the reading matter. Therefore, the
progressive Muslims manhaj takes into consideration that the consciousness
of the context of that which is being read as well as the consciousness
of the reader engaged in the process of interpretation will determine its
outcome. 30

 Consequently, due to the dynamic nature of the readers it is to be
expected that a text, such as the Qur’an, exhibits semiotic poly-valence,
that is, it can withstand various interpretative strategies eliciting different
readings of the same (piece of) text all of which can be seen as contextually
 This is not to say that the proponents of progressive Muslim manhaj
consider that any and every reading of the text can be justified but it
does provide an insight into why and how various readings of the same
text developed, thus allowing for its subsequent criticism and revision. It
should also be noted that when readers share many of the factors governing
the “nature of a reader” (e.g., same sociocultural norms), a notion of “interpretive
communities,” 31 that is, a group of individuals who share similar
interpretive strategies in reading, arises. These communities of interpretation
impose some reading uniformity in an inherently divergent process of
meaning derivation, thus curbing and narrowing down alternative readings.
They in the words of El-Fadl “objectify the subjective” and marginalize
“unreasonable interpretations.” 32 Hence, commitment to textual
polysemy does not mean having to embrace unrestricted interpretational
relativism, because texts can withstand only “a limited field of possible
constructions.” Furthermore, El-Fadl, drawing upon Ricour, 33 Echo, 34
and Wolterstoff, 35 argues that communities of interpretation can “resist
imposed interpretations in details” and only certain interpretations of texts
can be considered as “ contextually legitimated.” 36 While this understanding
of how interpretative communities function has validity, it must be
kept in mind that when societies and cultures undergo [radical] changes,
they also have an impact on how contemporary communities of interpretation
deal with the efforts of the past interpretative communities. These
would require close scrutiny as every new community of interpretation
might not share the same sociocultural assumptions, norms, and values
as previous ones. Thus, in the words of Barlas, “the interpretive process
is [always] both imprecise and incomplete . . . and open to critique and
historicization.” 37 Therefore, meanings, according to progressive Muslim
manhaj are only fixable in the context of a given historical period characterized
by a particular hermeneutical method.

As a corollary to the above it follows that the reader is never in the
position to completely identify her [his] opinion with that of the author. Amirpour, who describes the nature of Soroush’s Qur’anic hermeneutic, asserts this by saying, “That which humans consider being the meaning/ intent of the Qur’anic text and its actual meaning/intent can never be considered
to be the same.” 38 In other words one can never afford to monopolize
the interpretation of God’s Word/s. Rahman asserts that this concept
of derivation of meaning “challenges, for instance, the absolutists who
claim to know the true meaning and the true interpretation of the text.” 39
According to progressive Muslim manhaj , therefore, interpretation is never
fully divine “but a kind of divinely inspired human value.” 40 Progressive
Muslim thought, thus, in words of Saeed, “recognises the complexity of
meaning” in its approach to Qur’anic interpretation. 41
 The implications of the progressive Muslim approach to derivation
of meaning and interpretation is based upon a polysemic nature of the
Qur’anic text that not only leaves scope for and accommodates multiple
interpretational strategies of the Qur’an but it renders it applicable for
future communities of interpretation as the act of interpretation of a text
(i.e., its meaning) is essentially pluralistic and significantly determined by
the reader. Thus, it reaffirms the widely held Muslim belief, conceptualized,
albeit very differently, but shared by both NTS and progressive
Muslim proponents, of the Qur’an’s timeless and perpetual quality/relevance
to human concerns.

Taken from chapter six of this book ( free pdf).

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