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.

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

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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.

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]

Accordingly, literalist readings have received criticism by a variety of contemporary Muslim scholars due to its simplicity. Muhammad Hashim Kamali, a prominent scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, for example, argues that such textual literalism is unsuitable for addressing the contemporary challenges faced by Muslim societies and Islamic law.[2] Yudian Wahyudi, an Indonesian scholar of Islam, argues that, by focusing solely on the literal meaning of the text and ignoring crucial factors such as context, literalists produce partial and often contradictory understandings of the text.[3] Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a scholar of Islamic law, goes on to emphasise that one of the most alarming characteristics of the literalist approach is the lack of consideration accorded to the moral and ethical principles in Islam. For Abou El-Fadl, this results in a distorted picture of the Qur’anic God, and misrepresents key issues such as the Qur’an’s perspective on women.[4]


A Search for New Tools

It is against this background that Muslim scholars from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and schools of thought have begun developing new tools for interpreting the Qur’an today, particularly for its ethico-legal texts. The basic idea of their approach is that some of the teachings of the Qur’an are contextual in nature, meaning that there is a close relationship between the text and the context of its original Qur’anic revelation in the early seventh century CE. This of course is not a new idea as such. While most of the teachings of the Qur’an have remained relevant and applicable to subsequent contexts and generations, some may have become less relevant or even irrelevant as times have changed. For example, significant changes have occurred in how the role and function of women in society is understood. In the early seventh century CE, women in Arabia were often socially and economically dependent upon their male family members, particularly their fathers or husbands. Today, this is no longer the case in many societies, and the related Qur’anic teachings may need to be interpreted accordingly. Otherwise, they may perpetuate norms and values that are problematic and may even disenfranchise certain segments of the population.

Broadly speaking, “contextualisation” involves two essential tasks: first, identifying the basic message (or messages) emerging from the Qur’anic text in the process of interpretation and, secondly, applying that message to subsequent contexts. The message is determined based on how the Qur’anic text was understood and applied in its original context. The message is then “translated” to apply to the new context of our time. The process of “translating” the message requires extensive knowledge of both the original and the current “macro” contexts, that is, the social, political, economic, intellectual and cultural contexts. Throughout the process of interpretation, a contextualist reader of the Qur’anic text moves back and forth between these two contexts – early seventh century and our own – without ignoring the contexts through which the understanding of the text moved throughout Islamic tradition. Thus, one of the key tasks of contextualist interpretation is to engage with the relevant sources, history and tradition in order to reconstruct the context in which the Qur’anic text was revealed, including the dominant values of the time. Given that today’s interpreter of the Qur’an is so far removed chronologically (some 1,400 years) from that context, there will always be difficulties and problems in the reconstruction of that context. A complete picture of the world then, with all its complexities, the key players, the institutions, the values, the norms, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks is not easily available. Therefore, any reconstruction of the context by the Qur’anic interpreter should not be considered sacrosanct or final. Despite this limitation, however, this process of reconstruction remains an important part of contextualist interpretation. However, reconstruction needs to be approached as an ongoing project; the more information that is gathered about the world in which the Qur’anic text was revealed, the more accurate the reconstruction will be. In terms of today’s macro context, the contextualist interpretation must analyse the political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual contexts related to the specific issues dealt with in the particular Qur’anic text being interpreted. Perhaps one of the most dominant aspects of the modern macro context, in the intellectual sphere, is the emphasis placed on the importance of “reason,” and the avoidance of blind imitation of early scholars.

In the modern period, scholars such as Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) from Egypt – and those influenced by him – have re-emphasised the role of reason in the interpretation of the Qur’an. Indeed, ‘Abduh’s approach has been described as a “rational and modern hermeneutics.”[5] For ‘Abduh, the relationship between reason and revelation was clear: both are important sources, and they should complement each other.[6] ‘Abduh argued that reason is not antithetical to the Qur’an and Islam, but rather holds the key to understanding.[7]

With this emphasis on reason, the contextualist interpreter analyses the relevant issues, norms, values and institutions associated with the particular issue raised in the Qur’anic text and compares them to those of the macro context of the early seventh century in order to determine how the Qur’anic message can be “translated” to a twenty-first century context.


Four Steps

While there are many ways in which a contextualist interpreter may approach the Qur’an, in my own writings I summarise this approach as consisting of a four-step process.

In step one, the interpreter should reflect on the world of the Qur’anic text, the nature of the text, and its importance for Muslims. The interpreter should also ponder over his or her own worldview, life experiences, education, values, presuppositions, likes, dislikes, and influences, as well as the norms and values of his or her society. The purpose behind this process is to recognise how these factors have an impact on the interpreter and the task of interpretation.

In step two, the interpreter should ask questions about the text itself, including its accuracy and reliability. As far as the Qur’an is concerned, Muslims believe it to be the very Word of God, preserved by Muslims. As such, they believe that its historical authenticity should not be questioned and it should be interpreted as a historically reliable text. Nevertheless, the interpreter must investigate the reliability of a variety of associated texts, such as the variant readings (qirā’āt) and traditions of the Prophet (Hadīth), which can be used in the process of interpretation.

In step three, the interpreter addresses the text’s “meaning.” This is a complex process that involves a range of sub-steps and types of analysis. The first goal is to arrive at the basic linguistic meaning of the text by understanding the linguistic and literary context in which the text functions, and its thematic unity. This also requires a linguistic analysis of the text, which could involve syntactical, morphological, stylistic, semantic, or pragmatic investigation. Part of this process requires identifying the type of text, any parallel texts in the Qur’an or hadīth on the same issue, the time frame, and the addressees. In effect, the interpreter should reconstruct the macro context of the revelation as much as possible in order to understand what the first recipients of the revelation (the first generation of Muslims) emphasised or de-emphasised in the text and its meaning. Such a multi-layered analysis is required to generate the most comprehensive picture of the text.

In step four, the interpreter’s focus should be on how a Muslim living in the present time may relate to the meaning of the text arrived at through step three. Rather than neglecting or rejecting the long interpretive history of the particular text, the interpreter acknowledges the significant role played by that tradition in shaping our understanding of the text today. A key part of this step involves comparing and contrasting the modern context with the original context of the text, and taking into account the ‘connector’ contexts, that is, intermediary contexts between the original context and our own context today. This approach is expected to lead to a relevant contemporary interpretation of the text that does not detract from the underlying objective of the text or overall message of the Qur’an. Any interpretation arrived at should be checked for its reasonableness among members of the interpretive community to which the interpreter belongs. In other words a contextualist approach does not only ask the question of what the meaning of a text is but what its significance might be in different contexts.


Two Examples

Most of the Qur’an explores ethical, moral, theological, spiritual, and historical issues, and addresses the human being in a way that transcends specific contexts. The Qur’an often discusses issues at the level of general moral principles, which is exemplified in the Qur’an’s references to how God constantly upholds the moral imperatives of fairness and justice; its concern for the marginalised, the weak, and the vulnerable alongside issues of accountability and the afterlife; and the morally edifying value of historical narratives. In other words it does so for didactic purposes. Consequently, these Qur’anic references can be read and re-read, interpreted, understood and applied in a wide range of circumstances.[8] In fact, there are relatively few Qur’anic texts that pose difficulties with regard to interpretation and application today. However, there are some Qur’anic texts of an ethico-legal nature where the contextualist approach can offer a more appropriate interpretation, given the significant changes that have occurred in the macro context of today.[9]

One key area where a contextualist approach can be quite useful is certain Qur’anic texts dealing with women and equality. While most Qur’anic texts on women are not problematic as far as the issue of equality is concerned there are a few texts that can be read or understood as supporting inequality. One of the leading women scholars of the Qur’an, Amina Wadud, for example, argues that the bulk of the Qur’anic text has nothing to do with unjust or discriminatory practices. In many ways the Qur’an emphasises the values of fairness, justice, and equality (musāwāt) between men and women in all aspects of life.[10] Wadud explains that, when one searches for the underlying rationale for specific Qur’anic injunctions, one can uncover new moral, social, and political trajectories that extend beyond the literal and concrete meanings of the text.[11]

Another area where a contextualist approach can be very useful is in the interpretation of certain Qur’anic texts related to interreligious relations. While many Qur’anic texts encourage a healthy, cooperative and friendly relationship with people of other faiths, there are some texts that can be interpreted as supporting a hostile attitude towards certain peoples of other faiths. Such texts, if interpreted using a contextualist approach may indeed show that the negative attitudes advocated by such texts are related to specific circumstances and issues of the time. The following Qur’anic text is considered by many Muslims to be advocating positive relations and, for them, other Qur’anic texts may need to be understood in the light of this text:

As for such [of the unbelievers] as do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity: for, verily, God loves those who act equitably. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth: and as for those [from among you] who turn towards them in friendship; it is they who are truly wrongdoers! (Qur’an 60:8-9)

Set out here are important instructions in relation of how Muslims should engage with people of other faiths. It is clear that Muslims are not prevented from establishing good relations with non-Muslims. On the contrary, Muslim treatment of non-Muslims should be based on principles of good relations and justice, especially with respect to those who have peaceful intentions towards Muslims. More specifically, Muslims are asked to deal with non-Muslims kindly and justly, unless the latter are out to destroy Muslims and their faith.[12]

Overall, the contextualist approach provides a valid method of interpreting the Qur’an – one that gives due recognition to earlier interpretive approaches, while also being aware of changing social, political, and cultural conditions that need to be taken into account when interpreting the Qur’an in a contemporary context.[13] Crucially, the method seeks not to reduce but to expand the contemporary significance and relevance of Qur’anic teachings by acknowledging both the context at the time of revelation and the current context of the twenty-first century.[14]

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

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

[2] Mohammad Hashim Kamali, “Issues in the Legal Theory and Prospects for Reform,” Islamic Studies 4, 2001, pp. 1-21.

[3] Yudian Wahyudi, “Hasan Hanafi on Salafism and Secularism,” in Ibrahim Abu Rabi’ (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (Blackwell, Oxford, 2006), p. 260.

[4] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name-Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oneword, Oxford, 2003).

[5] Aliaa Ibrahim Dakroury, “Toward a Philosophical Approach of the Hermeneutics of the Qur’an,” The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 23, 2006, no. 1, p. 22.

[6] Dakroury, “Toward a Philosophical Approach,” p. 24.

[7] Massimo Campanini, The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations, (Routledge, London & New York, 2011), p. 14.

[8] Saeed, Reading the Qur’an, p. 180.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 44.

[11] Ibid., p. 45.

[12] Maher Y. Abu-Munshar, “In the Shadow of the ‘Arab Spring’: The Fate of Non-Muslims Under Islamist Rule,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23, 2012, p. 491.

[13] Saeed, Reading the Qur’an, p. 4.

[14] Ibid.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Abdullah Saeed, “Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-first Century”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 14-20.


Online version:
Abdullah Saeed, “Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-first Century”, Oasis [online], published 29th July 2016, URL: