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The modern era has witnessed the re-emergence of a strongly literalist approach to Scripture that emphasises certain understanding handed down by the tradition to the detriment of other, equally valid readings. Those who adopt the textualist method seem to believe that it provides the highest degree of certainty as to the text’s “meaning.” Others maintain that it is necessary to consider the context in which Muslims are living.
The Muslims’ Holy Book is a “mirror-book:” the meanings promoted by the exegetes lie not in the text but, rather, in an interaction between the text and the exegetes’ own experience. Even when the legal rules do find a foundation in its verses, they are not obtained by way of a simple reading. The prohibition against wine demonstrates this quite clearly: the exegetes reorganize the text of the Qur’an after reworking it and then, relying on external data, they propose an interpretation.
It is a fundamental principle of Shi‘ite exegesis that the imam is the only person who may legitimately interpret the sacred Text, having been chosen and inspired by God for this purpose. Indeed, according to a saying attributed to ‘Alī, the Qur’an “does not speak in a language; it needs its own interpreter.” The latter can only be an infallible imam, just as the Prophet was. At the purely literal level, without the imam’s hermeneutics, the Book does not mean anything; it is a “mute Qur’an.” It is the imam who renders it intelligible and it is for this reason that he is called the “speaking Qur’an.
The first glimmerings of an interpretation of the Qur’an that goes beyond the text’s immediate meaning can already be glimpsed in the works of the first exegetes and the imams in the Prophet’s family. Yet it was primarily the birth of a specific way of knowledge, Sufism, that started a long tradition of spiritual and esoteric interpretation: an inexhaustible well-spring, fed just as much by the text as by the Sufi tradition, which has always sought the source of its inspiration in the Revelation.
The theory of abrogation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself has a long history in Islamic tradition and continues to find wide-ranging currency in preaching nowadays. A literary analysis of the text shows the theory to be without foundation, however. It is thus a total nonsense when, by virtue of a manifestly erroneous traditional interpretation, this theory is exploited nowadays by some people in order to abrogate all the Qur’an’s open, tolerant verses in favour of the most combative and exclusivist ones
“It’s Voltaire’s fault. It’s Rousseau’s fault,” sang Gavroche, the street urchin in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In an era when the great narratives are over and “jihad is the only cause on the market,”1 one is more likely to hear that it is the Qur’an’s fault.
Salafis and their readings of the sources are not as straightforward as they may seem, because the text does not necessarily result in a clear-cut and obvious interpretation. Even within the most violent religious extremists current there are important differences. And old Al-Qaeda, Scriptures to hand, does not see eye to eye with Isis on many issues.
It is called tafsīr ‘ilmī in Arabic and it breaks a centuries-old tradition dominated by a tendency to absolutize the interpretation established by the Forebears. Freeing itself from the traditional commentary, this type of exegesis favours readings that also borrow from other disciplines and seeks (with bizarre results) to demonstrate that the contents of the Revelation are in agreement with the discoveries of science
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Although subject to different trends and assessments, the Hadīth continues to play a leading part in contemporary Islam, too. Preserved in the most prestigious medieval works, the most famous episodes in Muhammad’s life enjoy a fame comparable to some passages of the Qur’an and are cited and used in every context. They are an inescapable point of reference for every aspect in the life of believers and the community.
Most Muslims have never been subjected to the authority of a caliph. The discourse on the “Islamic state” as a legitimate state is a recent ideology that, emerging between the 1930s and the 1960s, links the legitimacy of a state’s political regime to a particular understanding of religion. Today’s Islamic world needs both a religious reform that can stimulate fresh reflection on the polity, understood not as a religious institution but as the administration of public affairs, and a political reform that can promote alternation in power.
Anyone wishing to interpret the Noble Book “must seek its explanation first of all in the Quran itself,” wrote Jalāl al-Dīn as-Suyūtī, the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar. In particular, knowing the circumstances of the prophetic revelation is “an art that offers several benefits,” and is essential to its full understanding.
To understand the Book as a religion that leads men to happiness in this life and the next; expose the corruption of those who love their low desires more than God; analyse the sacred Text as a communicative relationship between God and man, to show that the Absolute reveals itself to men through their linguistic and cultural system: the approaches of three Muslim thinkers of the modern era
Islam’s founding Texts reveal the requirement to establish a divine order but no man is vested with the authority to do so: indeed, government belongs to God alone. In this sense, the very concept of an Islamic state, that would seek to eradicate idolatry and enforce the divine law, is blasphemous because it implies the existence of men who substitute themselves for God in His judgment. Theorized by Pakistani and Egyptian thinkers, this ideology has inspired numerous extremist movements.
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