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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Muqaddimah (4): Historical Resources of Interpretation

Historical Resources of Interpretation

There are two types of historical resources of interpretation, (a) foundational and absolutely authentic and (b) secondary and supportive. The Holy Qur’ān, alone is the basic and foundational resource while the sound aḥādīth (the prophetic traditions), established historical facts and the Scriptures of the earlier nations constitute the ancillary and secondary resource. Had it not been for the uncertainly involved in the authenticity of prophetic traditions, historical facts and earlier revelations, I would have considered them among foundational resources along side the Holy Qur’ān. In that case, all of these resources would have worked to corroborate each other without mutual contradiction. It is only the lack of authenticity of the Ḥadīth narratives that obliges students of the Holy Qur’ān like me not to rely on any such traditions as contradicting the Holy Qur’ān. Some of the narratives even negate the verses of the Holy Qur’ān and disrupt their interrelation unless their obvious implication is abandoned. Strangely enough, some commentators disregard the obvious meanings of the verses they seek to interpret and do not bother to reinterpret the relevant narratives in accordance with the verses. They leave the apparent contradiction between the two unresolved. Some scholars dare to take the narrative as it is without even bothering to interpret the verse accordingly. In so doing they put the naẓmof the discourse at stake. When the roots and branches come to threaten each other every rational being would cut out the branches, not the roots. As the poet says:

وكأين رأينا من فروع طـويلة
تمـوت إذا لم تحييهن أصـول
How many tall branches we have seen die out if not nourished by the roots!

One wonders why the exegetes have freely employed the narratives which outright contradict the text they are supposed to interpret. Examples of such outrageous interpretations include the traditions ascribing lies to Abraham[1] and the narratives which tell that the Holy Prophet (sws) recited verses that were not revealed by God. We therefore, need to observe extreme care regarding such narratives. We may only consider the narratives which are in accordance with the Holy Qur’ān and which corroborate its statements. For example, the interpretations ascribed to Ibn ‘Abbās do not often violate the naẓmof the Holy Qur’ān. We will refer to them as corroborative evidence in our attempt to interpret the Holy Qur’ān.
As regards the history of the People of the Book, what has been reported to us of the eastern folklore regarding the Jewish and Christian milieu (the so called isrā’īliyāt) is not that authentic.  What the Scriptures of the People of the Book contain is a safer and a surer source of the required information rather than the isrā’īliyāt. The exegetes have indeed received the detailed isrā’īliyāt from the Jewish converts among the common folk who had little or no knowledge of the history of Israel and the Israelite Prophets. Therefore, it is only safer for us to resort to their reliable books instead of referring to the isrā’īliyāt. It must however remain clear that the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures have to be used only as supportive and explanatory resource. If these books contradict the Holy Qur’ān at a certain point they have to be abandoned. We know that truth these books contained has been consciously concealed. God has said to their bearers, “are you more knowledgeable or Allah?”[2] The issue of offering of Ismā‘īl is a clear example of such a manipulation as confirmed by the Holy Qur’ān, the undisputable foundation of religious truth. I want to make it clear that we, Muslims, have been taught not to differentiate between the revealed books. We must appreciate that the Holy Qur’ān is one of these divine books. However, when we find that these books, the sources of divine knowledge, differ over an issue, we should prefer the authentic over the corrupted. We have to measure the authenticity of the contradicting sources and consider only the more authentic. However when they are found in agreement, corroborating and strengthening each other, there is no harm in accepting even what is not historically authentic once we have critically reflected upon its contents. For example we may refer to the Psalms while discussing the following verse of the Holy Qur’ān:

وَلَقَدْ كَتَبْنَا فِي الزَّبُورِ مِن بَعْدِ الذِّكْرِ أَنَّ الْأَرْضَ يَرِثُهَا عِبَادِيَ الصَّالِحُونَ
We have written in the Psalms, following the reminder, that my righteous servants shall inherit the land.  (21:105)

We may also refer to Torah in an effort to appreciate what has been alluded to in the following Qur’ānic verse:

إِنَّ هَذَا لَفِي الصُّحُفِ الْأُولَى صُحُفِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَى
…and indeed this is what found in the earlier revelation, the books of Abraham and Moses. (87:18-9)

While referring to the history of the earlier nations, the Almighty says:

وَقَضَيْنَا إِلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ فِي الْكِتَابِ لَتُفْسِدُنَّ فِي الأَرْضِ مَرَّتَيْنِ
…and We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Book, “You will surely create mischief in the land twice”. (17:04)

What matters most in this exercise is to appreciate that the Holy Qur’ān does not depend on anything external to it including the earlier Scriptures in making its purport clear. It indeed governs the earlier revelations. It is the only true source that can settle differences among the books of God. However, when one wishes to confirm what the Holy Qur’ān says they may turn to the secondary resources for corroboratory evidence. They are surely helpful in that they increase our faith in the Holy Qur’ān and affirm our belief in its teachings. I believe that the following Qur’ānic directive guides us to this quest:

قُلْ سِيرُواْ فِي الأَرْضِ ثُمَّ انظُرُواْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
Tell (them), “walk in the land and then observe what has been the end of the rejecters”. (6:11)

Studying the earlier revelations, therefore, has its reward. A sound understanding of their contents helps us appreciate the excellence of the Qur’ānic teachings over them. This also proves useful in learning how the Holy Qur’ān has refreshed the guidance that which People of the Book had lost from their books and has exposed the changes they had made in the divine texts.
We must, however, not lose the line of difference between what the Holy Qur’ān says and what these secondary sources offer. We need to keep a clear barrier and a demarcating wall between the two sources and may never confuse one for another. What has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān is absolutely authentic and whatever these resources add to it is always subject to doubt and uncertainty. Therefore, if somebody rejects these secondary resources, on valid grounds, he cannot be equated with the rejecters of the Holy Qur’ān.
Similarly one must also appreciate that the Ḥadīth narratives, even if they are mutawātir,[3] cannot repeal the Holy Qur’ān. We will have to explain any apparent contradiction found between the Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth in accord with the Qur’ānic stance on the issue or keep the narrative under consideration. This is the reason Imām Shāfi‘ī, Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥambal and the majority scholars of the science of Ḥadīth never claimed that the Holy Qur’ān can be abrogated by the Ḥadīth narratives even if they were reported down by a large number of people supposed to be unable to unite over concocting a report. The owner of a house, they say, knows best what it contains and these great scholars of the past hold the status of the ‘owner of the house’ in this case. I am absolutely convinced of the untenability of the counter views offered by some of the jurists and the scholastics. I seek God’s refuge from saying that the Messenger of God could cancel the words of God. Such narratives as contradicting the Holy Qur’ān must always be ascribed to the misunderstanding and confusedness of the narrators. A thorough analysis of both of these views along with the line of arguments they offer would surely help add to our commitment to and satisfaction in truth regarding this matter. We cannot however go into a detailed discussion over the issue here and will discuss it partly in the last introduction titled “Interpreting the Holy Qur’ān in the light of the Ḥadīth.”





[1]. Whereas the word kadhiba (he lied) can be taken to mean ‘tawriyah’ (i.e. making use of ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation). The word kadhiba is conventionally used in this sense as well. This then clearly explains the narrative. (Iṣlāḥī)
[2]. The Holy Qur’ān 2:140
[3]. When a historical narrative is transmitted by such a great number of people that cannot be conceived to have agreed upon fabricating the narrative it is called mutawātirreport.