The challenge of interpreting Islamic tradition

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:19:58

Review of Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad. The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, Oneworld Publications, London 2014.

One of the most disorienting aspects of Sunni Islam, a religion without Church, is the dialectic relationship between the unitary nature of its dogmatic core and the plurality of the interpretations made of that core. In his latest book, Jonathan Brown, a professor of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University, sheds some light on this apparent contradiction. To shed light does not necessarily mean to resolve however. As Brown writes, “Some aspects of Islam that seem glaringly problematic today actually results from efforts to answer some questions so fundamental that they have never been resolved definitively by anyone. Their answers to these questions are not so much right nor wrong as they are choices between competing priorities” (p. 6). The proliferation of sometimes conflicting interpretations and trends emerging from this single body of doctrine therefore remains a matter of fact that the author addresses by taking his cue from an ancient master, the great Indian theologian and reformer Shah Wali Allah (1703-1772), author of Al-Insaf fī Bayān asbāb al-Ikhtilāf (“An Evenhanded Elucidation of the Causes of Disagreement”).

The journey on which Brown embarks in the company of his mentor can be divided into three stages. The first corresponds to the formative period of Islamic tradition, during which the meaning of the Qur’an was unlocked through the efforts of the scholars, who interpreted it through the lens of Muhammad’s sunna and resort to reason. Brown proceeds to give a lucid and compelling review of the methodologies that the different schools developed to approach the Scriptures, collect and preserve the words and deeds of the Prophet, and thus derive from them practical rules.

The second stage was the consolidation of what Brown defines, not without admiration, as “the edifice of classical Islam” and the sharia system. In the author’s words, “far from a myopic or rigid body of law, the Sunni Sharia tradition thus became a swirl of stunning diversity.” For this reason, he observes, “The statement that ‘The sharia says ...’ is thus automatically misleading, as there is almost always more than one answer to any legal question” (p. 50). During this second stage, Islamic scholars elaborated their complex epistemological apparatus. This was made up of distinctions in the Scripture between attestation and indication, literal and allegorical meanings, general and specific language, of cross-references between the Qur’an and hadīths and instructions on how to decode a language that is often idiomatic and hyperbolic. Brown suggests at this point that many of today’s exegetical approaches, be they contextualist or hermeneutical, might not perhaps be as original as is often thought.

The third stage refers to the fracture caused by the incursion of modernity, as a result of which some Muslims, uncomfortable with the conflict between modern reason and theological reason, began to question the value of the medieval edifice. The interpretative divergences of the past, of which Brown gives an abundance of examples, were transformed into even more radical and seemingly intractable conflicts. An emblematic example is to be found in the interpretation of a verse (4:34) in the Qur’an that, in case of acts of disobedience by wives, suggests that husbands should proceed from verbal reprimands to physical violence. Here the dilemma really is insoluble, since no possible compromise may be made between obedience to God’s word and accommodation to the spirit of the times. Brown himself, whose interest in the Islamic tradition is not merely academic, leaves the question in abeyance. He rejects a literal interpretation of the text (“There is no such thing as literal meaning”, he says [p. 273]), but adds, “One must accept that a husband using violence to discipline his wife is not inherently, absolutely and categorically wrong. There must be some time, place or situation when it is allowed, or God would not have permitted it” (288). It is a position that may well leave a bad taste in the mouth, but, neither fundamentalist nor modernist, it probably best captures the feeling of many Muslims. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “The Conflict Between Modern Reason and Theological Reason”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 130-131.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “The Conflict Between Modern Reason and Theological Reason”, Oasis [online], published on 26th July 2016, URL: