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Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-first Century

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.

Islamic ethics, law and theology are based primarily on the Qur’an and its practical application by the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest Muslim communities. Given the centrality of the Qur’an for Muslims, one of the most important disciplines in Islamic tradition is that of Qur’anic exegesis. Over the course of the last 1,400 years, Muslims have developed a variety of approaches to the Qur’an and sub-disciplines to support Qur’anic exegesis. This rich literature shows that, by and large, Muslims have not adopted a purely “literalist” approach to the Qur’an, but have developed a variety of interpretive principles and tools to relate the guidance, advice and instructions contained in the Qur’an to the shifting contexts, circumstances and needs of Muslim societies.


Despite this exegetical diversity, the modern period has seen the re-emergence of a strongly literalist approach to Scripture, which tends to emphasise certain understandings of the Qur’anic text as transmitted in the tradition at the expense of other possible and potentially equally valid understandings. Such an approach can be referred to as “textualist.”



Those who follow the textualist approach seem to believe that their approach to the Qur’an provides the highest degree of certainty as far as the “meaning” of the text is concerned and offers a way to navigate the extreme complexity and fluidity of contemporary experience through a simple and straightforward framework of ideas. As such, the strengthening of this textualist approach, and its consequent attractiveness to a large number of Muslims around the world, is one of the most difficult challenges for Muslim intellectuals and thinkers today.1



1Abdullah Saeed, Reading the Qur’an, in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach (Routledge, Oxon and New York, 2014), p. 182.



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