There has been a long standing debate between the Ahl As-Sunnah (Traditionalists) and the Mu’tazilah (Rationalists) camps in Islam with the with regards to the nature of Quran. The Traditionalists say that Quran is uncreated (ghayr makhluq). It has always existed with Allah since the beginning as one of His Attributes. The Rationalists disagree, saying that the Quran was created in time (makhluq, like the rest of us). What was the point of this debate, if anything. From an interpretative point of view – that if Quran was uncreated, its interpretation is frozen. It always meant the same thing since its existence also relates to truth. But if it was created in time, then its interpretation is dynamic like time itself.
However, is this the right question to ask? I feel there is a more relevant question is in the title of this essay – What is the position of Quran in the Islamic Tradition and subsequently, what are the implications? I prefer to ask this question because it is more relevant to how we view the text. There seems to be two possibilities that I can see:
Possibility 1 – Quran is part of the Islamic Tradition. This means that it was revealed to the subscribers of that tradition. It was revealed piecemeal and each time a portion was revealed, there is accompanying information from that tradition. Any further thought on that portion or indeed on Quran itself is, at best, second rate to that original understanding (usually called the ‘salaf’). At worse it is outright deviance.
Possibility 2 – Quran is not part of the Islamic Tradition. This means that it was revealed to humankind of any given time. It was received as a book and its constant revelation is in terms of meaning. While people can write materials expounding on its meaning, these are mere attempts and cannot be objectively proven. The only way one can prove truth of interpretation is through subjective experiences.
Possibility 1 is the standard position Traditionalists have taken. They believe Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad who was tasked to interpret it. This position has some issues which I would like to discuss.
Firstly, if Quran was part of the Islamic Tradition, this would mean that it is not part of other traditions. Quran calls itself ‘al-furqan’ (the criteria – 2/185) and ‘muhaymin’ (guardian over all other systems – 5/48). There are no stated exceptions to this and therefore, no reason why Quran cannot be used in other traditions as well. In fact, the Islamic Tradition is only ‘first come, first served’. Quran itself gives them no authority to interpret for others. Also, if Quran can only be understood through the lens of Tradition, then it cannot be a criteria to it since the logic involved would be circular.
Secondly, if Quran was part of the Islamic Tradition, this would mean that Allah requires a partner in interpretation. Quran cannot be understood without Tradition and so Quran would be inferior to other books which can. Ordinary books of philosophy (the genre to which Quran belongs) and even fiction can be understood with knowledge of the language so why can’t Quran itself?
Thirdly, if Quran can only be understood within Islamic Tradition, this detracts from the limits of Allah’s capacity. Traditionalists themselves (as mentioned above) believe that Quran is uncreated and is part of Allah’s attributes. This being the case, how then can it only be understood within a narrow portion of the wider human experience? It would be the equivalent of obtaining a drop from the ocean then claiming one has sailed the seven seas!
Fourthly, if Quran can only be seen as a response to particular situations, then it is incidental to that particular set of events. It is no longer relevant for any other set of events. If 2/217 for example is about ‘fighting in the precincts of the sacred mosque’, then this verse is longer relevant and since Quran is directly God’s uncreated attribute, then God Himself must be partly irrelevant! Therefore, if Quran is eternal, its relevance must also be eternal. The problem also applies to abrogated verses. If those verses are no longer relevant, then God Himself loses some of his relevance.
Fifthly, if Quran was confined to the Islamic Tradition, there should be a single authorized reading since the Prophet was a single person interpreting the text. This is simply not the case. There is a great latitude of interpretation allowed within Traditional Islam. That is the key word – allowed. As long as it is authorized by the relevant guardians, it is acceptable. However, the varieties of interpretations show that consistency does not exist.
The positioning of Quran is an important aspect of its phenomenon. To me, Quran must transcend any and all human traditions, be they reified or current. That is the only way to concord with the belief than it is authored by Allah who is ever living and the only source of Truth.
Next part: Thoughts on Possibility 2 , Its Problems and Solutions.