For as long as I can remember studying books about Quranic hermeneutics, I have always been told that we must try to elicit how the ‘earliest community’ understood revelation. My earliest readings were Traditionalist in nature (Khurram Murad type books) or Traditionalist-Reformist (Amina Wadud’s Quran and Woman being an example). In both cases, I was told the same thing albeit in different ways. Basically, the idea is as follows – 7th century Arabs understood things in a certain way and by aiming for this understanding, we may thereby come to understand the true meanings of the words Quran uses.
This puts forward a certain assumption – that there is a fixed, unchanging meaning which was the intent of the Author of the text (let’s call this meaning ‘X’). X is what the Author wanted to say and what he meant and all Readers are to attempt to elicit ‘X’. In Traditional Islam, ‘X’ is determined by the Prophet’s explanations in the hadith or tafseer literature. Of course, the politics behind this literature is obvious – whoever controlled these meanings controlled authority. By claiming that the Prophet provided the meanings, Traditionalist scholars gained this legitimacy and controlled Islamic discourse.
In Quranist Islam,hadith and tafseer literature are generally ignored and even vilified. However the idea of discovering ‘X’ still exists. The Quranist aims to discover in X in a variety of ways:
1. By saying that ‘religious’ terms such as ‘salat’, ‘sawm’ , ‘hajj’ etc are enacted upon by the practices of the Muslim community and thus explained in that way. These are the Traditionalist quranists.
2. By saying that the ‘previous revelations’ such as the Bible provide the details of various Quranic ideas. In doing so, Biblical terms indirectly provide meanings for Quranic ones. A good example of this is the Quranic term ‘tawraat’ which is interpreted by the Biblical term ‘Torah’ meaning ‘instruction’ or ‘law’. This method is called Biblical quranism.
3. By saying that the meanings are in classical Arabic dictionaries. Quranic words are explored through their various roots and the meanings recorded in these dictionaries. These meanings are sometimes calibrated using Quranic ayat (but often cut and pasted on!) and a consistent meaning is produced. This method is called lingocentric Quranism and is closest to my own method.
Although I have problems with all three methods above, this essay is not meant for responses against those methods themselves. Rather it is to point out that these methods are based on the assumption that X exists in the past. One need to return to that past experience in order to discern X. Is this assumption fair and just? I do not believe so for the following reasons:
1. For one who accepts Quran’s claim that it is inspired by Allah, then it follows that Allah knows that the majority of the Readers of Quran will not experience its reception (i.e. when Muhammad was alive and practiced it). For those who believe the meanings should elicited from that period, this is the time when the meanings came to life. People who were not privy to this would not have the full effect of revelation but rather would have to rely on dead, stagnant texts (hadith and dictionaries) in order to understand the book. They can never recapture the true living experience of texts descent as the world would have moved on. If Allah is the author of Quran, then then Quran must bear his ability to foretell the future and it is in the future that language will change.
Language is not static. Think of the word ‘mouse’. If you said 50 years ago ‘I broke my mouse’ , you would probably get a very baffled look but today say it to anyone and you will be told to go to Pc World and get a new one. Meanings evolve out of the every changing human experience and therefore people who came after Muhammad will not have the same effect
2. Did the original recipients actually acquire X understanding? If so, how do we verify it? Let’s think about this – what are the indicators that indicate our understanding has reached X. If we said for example ‘the car is blue’. We then look to the car and find that it does not match the general agreed meaning of blue, how can it then the meaning of the word ‘blue’ be correct. Our human experience must therefore match the indicators. And Quran is not a text which is divorced from human experience. One of the most powerful verses it has, 41/53, actually connects the individual experience of signs with the clarification that Quran is the truth. This process must take into account the organicity of meaning.
In conclusion, in order arrive at the X meaning, the true meaning of the text, the only way is for us to measure our readings in accordance with our human experiences. We cannot assume that the original recipients truly understood Quran 100% and in any case, there is no way to verify it. If the reading is meant for all time and the author is Allah, then the evolving nature of language must have been factored into the process of understanding. Therefore, it is important for us to connect our human experience in order to access the text. Once we have derived a certain meaning, it is important for us to apply it to get a feedback. While language changes, the nature of truth does not.