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Islam

The Conflict of Interpretations

“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.

Sectarian violence, international terrorism and the persecution of minorities: for some, all this would be ascribable to the letter of Islam’s sacred text. And Islamic State2 would only seem to confirm this thesis, what with its propaganda stuffed with references to “the word of God” or the sayings of the Prophet.

 

 

Controversial talk, and not without an intended polemical side. We have decided to reckon with it, all the same, by dedicating this edition of Oasis to, precisely, the Qur’an. However, rather than tackling, head on, the subject of the relationship between religion and violence (already covered in a previous number3) or limiting ourselves to “static” observations on the Text’s contents, we preferred to ask ourselves about the “dynamic” driving the relationship between Muslims and their Scriptures and, thus, the ways in which they read them and have read them over the centuries. It is not our aim to pronounce verdicts of guilt or innocence. We are aware, moreover, that the issue of fundamentalist violence cannot be reduced to a matter of textual content but is, rather, interwoven with social, political and economic factors. If we have taken this reflection further, it is partly because certain questions are surfacing within Muslim societies, first and foremost. For example, in a document dating to January 2015, a group of important secularist intellectual “from the Muslim world” wrote, “The world is living a war sparked by individuals and groups who refer to Islam… Nowadays, the right way to respond to this war is not to say that that is not Islam, because it is precisely in the name of a certain understanding of Islam that those acts are being committed. No, the right way to respond consists in recognising and asserting the historical context and inapplicability of a certain number of texts that are part of the Muslim tradition. And drawing the appropriate conclusions.”4

 

 

It is in this same perspective that Abdullah Saeed begins our opening article: in his view, a contextual approach to the Qur’an offers a more appropriate interpretation of the verses posing particular problems of application today. It would be reductive to limit the problem of interpretation to the tension between past and present, however. As Mohammad Benkheira documents, from Islam’s dawning, “the objective of a Qur’anic commentary [has] not [been] so much to explain the Qur’an as to permit a generation in a specific region to take possession of its interpretation.” And the interpretations do not vary only according to place and time, but also by virtue of the diversity within Islam. Thus Shi‘ism – about whose hermeneutic vocation Mathieu Terrier writes – stands out for the role it accords the imam: he is the only one who can make an otherwise mute Text “talk.” In a Sunni context, on the other hand, it is primarily Sufism that gives life to a long tradition of spiritual interpretation: a subject explored in depth by Denis Gril.

 

 

Then there are the fundamentalist readings. As Michel Cuypers writes, these are fuelled by a literalist reading of the text that plays, in its turn, on the abrogation theory, according to which the Qur’an’s most conciliatory verses would have been abrogated by other, later, more intransigent ones. However, a more accurate analysis of the Qur’anic passages on which such a theory is based demonstrates that it is actually quite unfounded. Joas Wagemakers also writes about fundamentalist interpretations, specifically the jihadi-salafi ones. He analyses two different explanations of two Qur’anic verses used by Islamic State to justify the beheading of the American journalist, James Foley. Thus it emerges that, “that Salafis and their readings of the sources are not as straightforward as they may seem.” Just how varied the uses and abuses of the Qur’an are is demonstrated by Chiara Pellegrino’s article on scientific exegesis, a recent discipline (producing debatable results), which seeks to highlight the correspondence between the contents of Scripture and the discoveries of science. The definition of what constitutes Islam is not played out solely at the level of the Qur’anic text, however. It also involves preservation of the memory of what the Prophet said and did, as Roberto Tottoli recalls.

 

 

We could not neglect the political question. Islamists have been asserting for decades that the duty to found a specific system of government, identified with an “Islamic state” or with a “Caliphate,” would derive from the Qur’an. Ridwan al-Sayyid states, conversely, that “most Muslims have never been subjected to the authority of a Caliph, in any era” and that “the discourse about an ‘Islamic state’ is a recent ideology.” Nevertheless, the issue is perhaps more complex and involves the paradox on which the relationship between politics and religion is founded in Islam, from the founding texts onwards. As Leila Babès explains, Islam demands the establishment of a divine order and, at the same time, devalues the power of the men who give themselves the mission of realizing it.

 

 

Faithfulness to the past or the courage to innovate; a literal exegesis or attention to context; political interpretations or spiritual readings: the tensions permeating the field of Qur’anic hermeneutics today are not, basically, that new. Nor are they resolved in the “tradition v. modernity” dialectic. It suffices to turn to the Classics section, to be sure of this. The scholar Jalāl al-Dīn Suyūtī, who, as Martino Diez writes, “perfectly encapsulates the traditional approach to the Qur’an,” claimed to be bringing about renewal and has, perhaps, been more intrepid than many of the Qur’an’s contemporary interpreters. More recently, in order to free themselves from the shackles of tradition, modern exegetes such as Muhammad Abduh, Rashīd Ridā and Sayyid Qutb, above all, have paved the way for political and even violent readings, whilst the Egyptian academic Abū Zayd was considered a revolutionary and was convicted of apostasy, even though he referred to the teaching of medieval authors.

 

 

In short, the Islamic scriptures are at the centre of a genuine conflict of interpretations that is contributing (although certainly not exclusively) to the convulsions that contemporary Islam is experiencing. That this conflict must necessarily find a fundamentalist solution is not a foregone conclusion. The case of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world and featured in Rolla Scolari’s reportage, tells us not only that the bets are still on but also that the extremist movements can be countered. By reading, for that matter, the same Qur’an that those movements claim is their inspiration.

 

 

 

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1The phrase is Olivier Roy’s. See, for example, Catherine Calvet and Anastasia Vécrin, “Olivier Roy: «Le jihad est aujourd’hui la seule cause sur le marché»,” Libération, 3 Octobre 2014

 

2In this edition, we have used “Islamic State” to indicate the jihadist organization and “Islamic state” to indicate, more generally, the political project that aims to establish a state with a religious foundation.

 

3Sacred Violence? Religions between War and Reconciliation, Oasis No.20 (2014)

 

4Déclaration de laïcs issus du monde islamique, 15 January 2015

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