Teasing the meaning out of ancient texts: A Muslim approach

Christians, Jews, and Muslims face one challenge that is much the same for believers in each of these religious communities. We honor certain ancient writings as essential guides to faith and practice, but we live in a world vastly different from the worlds in which these writings came into being. How can these old texts be used to guide us as we deal with issues that are radically different from those with which the ancient writers were dealing?

Since my religious life has been lived within the framework of liberal Protestantism, I have always worked with principles of interpretation that help me with this challenge. I am well aware of the process by which my sacred texts came into being and I am at ease with practices of biblical study that encourage me to use all that I know from the modern world as I draw upon the books that were written over a period of several hundred years, the newest of which are nearly two thousand years old.

Even so, I have received new insights into this process from Ziauddin Sardar, a prolific writer who is described (on the book jacket) as “both a lay believer, like the majority of Muslims, and an astute scholar of Islam.” The title of his book points readers toward what they will find this volume: Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

The book is adapted and expanded from a yearlong blog that Sardar wrote for The Guardian. He discusses technical issues about Islam’s central text, but he does so in ways that are accessible to readers who have little or no background in the scholarly disciplines upon which he draws. It is carefully organized so that readers will benefit from a straightforward reading of the book, starting with the Preface and Introduction and continuing straight through to page 374.

Many readers, however, will do as I did, which is start at the point that they find most interesting or pressing. For me, that was Part Four, Contemporary Topics, which includes chapters 41-52. Among the topics discussed are The Sharia’h, Power and Politics, Sex and Society, The Veil, and Freedom of Expression.

In the introduction to this part of the book, Sardar provides a concise restatement of principles that have guided him throughout the study. One of the most important is that he reads the Qur’an thematically rather than by the much used verse-by-verse method. His preferred pattern of reading “has enabled us to connect various verses in different parts of the Qur’an and see the text in much more holistic terms as interconnected, bound together by the interrelationships of what it is saying.”

A further advantage of this approach, he continues, is that it has also “allowed us to use tools of critical analysis ranging from semantics, hermeneutics and cultural theory to contextual analysis and old-fashioned intellectual (Socratic) questioning.”

The result is that “the whole can sometimes produce a bigger, more nuanced and hence more moral picture than the parts” (p. 283).

Sardar tells readers that contrary to what many Muslims believe, “morality does not end with the Qur’an” but, instead, begins with the sacred text. “The Qur’an paints the boundaries of the moral universe in broad brush strokes, points to the outer limits, and illuminates universal precepts. After that, it asks believers to explore, enhance, expand and develop their own understanding of morality and ethics according to their own context and times.”

He frequently calls attention to the shortcomings of the verse-by-verse method of interpretation. It leads to literalism. It keeps readers from recognizing the “cohesive outlook to the universe and life which the Qur’an undoubted posseses” (here Sardar quotes Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman). This method of studying the Qur’an “has led to the practice of citing specific verses to justify certain positions, no matter how far these positions may be from the overall spirit of the Qur’an” (p. xviii).

The contrasting method that Sardar recommends is that we have to take each verse and then “make connections with other verses of the Qur’an, elsewhere in the text, examine the context, and tease out what the Qur’an is saying to us in our time. The purpose of the exercise is not to discover some sort of ‘absolute truth’, which is known only to God, but to get a more holistic and nuanced picture” (p. 284).

The clarity of Sardar’s defense of the thematic approach to reading the Muslim sacred text helps me, as a classic Protestant, to renew my own use of a similar method for studying my sacred text. The Bible is shaped by broad principles that emerged over time, and these principles take precedence over any one verse or group of verses. Both in devotional readying of the text and in more formal study, my ability to use the Bible to help me face the modern world is greatly enhanced by staying focused on the broad themes.

4 Responses to Teasing the meaning out of ancient texts: A Muslim approach

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Thanks for reminding me to get & read Ziauddin Sardar’s book, recommended to me months ago by a wonderful Muslim friend I first met as two long time active participants in the Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding of Greater Portland.

    For a lifetime, or since an undergrad philosophy major, my approach to the Christian scriptures has been theamatically rather than verse-by-verse, largely for the reasons Sardar cites in his book, as shared in your review. The two primary themes I discern in the Hebrew/Christian Bible: 1) God is with us full of passion; and 2), God’s presence/passion is with us in a particular way — a way that is not defeated by our behavior, attitude or beliefs. All the rest is commentary through particular ‘experience’, hand me down tradition and ‘beliefs’.

    And indeed, I fully embrace that “the whole can sometimes (I’d even suggest, nearly “always” rather than only “sometimes”) produce a bigger, more nuanced hence more moral picture than the parts.” (page283/Reading the Qur’an……by Sardar)

    I further suggest that our political & sociological climate whould be more humane, inclusive, moral and effective, if the approach that Sardar advocates to approaching the Qur’an was used as well in our U.S. ‘community’ and other national communities, *and* our global community, for a general ethos to guide our living together as well as approaching our sacred scriptures.

    Thanks again Keith for this excellent post.

    • Rod, your summary of themes in the Bible is a formulation I have not seen before and is amazing in its simplicity and persuasiveness. Thanks for adding it to the discussion. I intend to post a second section of my review of Sardar’s book in which I highlight a second principle, contextuality. Keith

  2. Sacredise says:

    Hi Keith,

    Thank you for this review. I had not heard of this book before, but I’m going to try and track it down so that I can read it for myself.

    I was amazed (although perhaps I shouldn’t have been) that the principles for interpretation of the Qur’an were so similar to those that are used by good Christian scholarship in interpreting the Bible. There can be no question, in my mind anyway, that a thematic approach is always far more helpful than a verse-by-verse approach, and I agree with the assessment of the dangers of the latter.

    I also found Rod’s comments helpful – especially his thoughts that this approach can be applied wider than just to religious texts.

    Thanks for a very helpful post!

    • John, I appreciate your comments both on my review and Rod’s response. Judging by Sardar’s discussion, it would seem to be the case that a large part of the Muslim world continues to follow the verse by verse approach to interpretation. Continuing debate among Christians over topics such as homosexuality and the place of women in church and society make it clear that verse by verse thrives in the Christian world, too. I am planning one or two more posts prompted by Sardar’s book. Keith

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