Dialogue with the Qur’an: Understanding the Divine Message in Its Context and Beyond

The message of the Holy Qur’an is believed to be relevant for all Muslims, including those who lived when it was first revealed (between 610 and 632) and those who will come until the end of time. Based on the incidents faced by Muslims over 23 years during the time of revelation and the stories of former nations, the Qur’an provides guidelines in the form of commandments, prohibitions, and good advice, which are simultaneously incident-specific and universally relevant, dynamically forced and firmly static.

The first collocutors of this Divine Address were fortunate to be able to perceive the Divine Intention without any synthetic interpretation and commentary; and whenever they needed any further explanation, they were guided by Prophet Muhammad himself, peace be upon him. Subsequent generations could engage in that endeavor only by accurately settling the association between facts and norms. The Prophet is the Final Messenger and the Holy Qur’an is the Final Divine Message and Scripture; thus Divine Messages that are believed to be “universal,” “comprehensive,” and “meta-historical” could by no other means be discovered and implemented. Intellectual rigor was required.

The Companions, the successors of the Companions, and their immediate successors engaged in an intensive intellectual endeavor, right after the Prophet passed away. While usul sciences set the methodology for their work, disciplines like Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Islamic theology (kalam), Islamic tradition (hadith), and Islamic exegesis (tafsir) reveal the outcomes of these methodical studies. Studies on the biography of the Prophet (seerah), military chronicles (maghazi), and the history of Islam (tarikh) also provided authentic or inauthentic resources to these disciplines.

These activities lost verve with time. Seeking Divine purpose by preserving the constants as they initially were and developing theoretical interpretations and practical transformations according to the ever-changing and evolving social, political, economic, moral, legal, military, etc. circumstances, have not always been possible. Social changes require dynamism, for dynamism – not inertia – is the nature of things and life. For many Muslim societies, a social life that remained frozen as exactly as it was in the time of the Prophet was one of the problems. Another problem was considering the surface meanings of the Qur’anic verses and the Hadith enough as solutions for real social problems.

This frozen social structure that sustained during the codification (tadwin) period affected Muslim viewpoints of the Qur’an and the Hadith, as well as their methodology of knowledge. Principles such as “the universality of the Qur’an,” or tenets like “Acting on the text is better than abandoning it,” “The particular cause of any Qur’anic revelation (asbab al-nuzul) does not mean its judgment does not have any universal validity,” and “Independent reasoning (ijtihad) cannot be exercised when there is explicit statement,” formed the keystones of knowledge production across many centuries. I believe this is a very important matter that needs to be covered in a separate article.

The verses of the Holy Qur’an are not detached from the social realities experienced between 610 and 632 in Mecca and Medina. In the words of Nasr Hamid, a creative and prolific dialogue existed between the Divine Intention and the first addressees of the Qur’an. Severing this correlative link between God and the community of revelation is the foremost reason for triggering what may be called the alienation from the Qur’an.

The first condition for accurately understanding the Divine Intention is knowing what the first addressees of the Qur’an had understood of and practiced from those verses during the course of revelation. Attempting to understand “what the Qur’an tries to tell” without knowing “what the Qur’an tells” does not lead to accurate results. On the contrary, such an attempt may turn out to be the first step taken toward disastrous results such as making God speak for one’s own pleasure and making the Qur’an say whatever one wants it to say.

Browsing the Qur’an from the perspective of “creative and prolific dialogue,” there are pages of narrations about events of the time. Among these events were, but not limited to, the battles of Badr, Uhud, and Khandaq, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the conquest of Mecca, the Tabuk and Mu’tah campaigns, the codes of conduct toward prisoners of war, how the daily prayers are to be performed in the event of war, etc. There are verses that cover the dispute between Khawla bint Tha’labah and her husband Aws ibn Samit and how God adjudicated that dispute conclusively. Other narrations in the Qur’an include Zayd ibn Harithah’s divorcing his wife Zainab and her subsequent marriage to the Prophet, the impending fate of Abu Lahab and his wife Umm Jamil due to their persecution of the Prophet, the funeral prayer of Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul, and tens or hundreds of events such as these. All of these point at the correlative relationship between God and society. Consequently, it may be said that it is impossible to think about the Holy Qur’an as detached from the social incidents experienced during the course of its revelation.

Jihad

The same applies to the Qur’anic verses about concepts like jihad (endeavor), qatl (killing), and qital (warfare) – generally, the verses about military jihad. Each of these verses was revealed independently as related to particular incidents and expressed, in a crystal-clear style, how Muslims should react to incidents; in other words, the Qur’an produced tangible solutions to tangible problems. For instance, when looked at from the perspective which we attempt to illustrate, it is seen that the verses “(While at war) kill them wherever you come upon them, and drive them out from where they drove you out (thus recovering your lands from their usurpation). (Though killing is something you feel aversion to,) disorder (rooted in rebellion against God and recognizing no laws) is worse than killing”; and “(But if they persist in causing disorder, continue to) fight against them until there is no longer disorder rooted in rebellion against God, and the religion (the right for worship and the authority to order the way of life is recognized) for God.” (2/191 and 193) are from the roadmap detailed by God for Muslims to solve their problems with the polytheists of Mecca. However, many adopt a universal, atomic, or overgeneralizing approach, and these verses are discriminatorily interpreted as proof that Islam is “a religion of violence.”

These verses, from Surah al-Baqarah, were not revealed separately and at different times, but within a bundle of six verses revealed before the “Compensatory Minor Pilgrimage,” meant to be performed a year after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The cause of revelation was to teach Muslims how to respond should the polytheists of Mecca – who a year earlier had violated the prohibitions for the forbidden months – violate the Treaty once again and wage war against the Muslims. Therefore, an accurate interpretation of these verses is possible by understanding “what God says” before “what God means to say” and handling this bundle of verses while considering the cause of revelation as a whole.

Scholars must jointly deliberate on the cause of revelation, analyze the links within the verse and with other verses, take into consideration the holism of the Qur’an, and social, economic, military, cultural, and religious conditions at the time. All of this is necessary contextual information. When taking these factors into account, it is clear that Islam is not a religion of violence or war, as claimed by some orientalists. This approach would also falsify the argument that considers the warfare as essential and peace as secondary in Islam, as some so-called Muslim scholars purport. These are deeply troubled arguments that are seriously radicalized and ethically flawed.

Yet, it is upsetting that there were and are groups that define themselves as Muslims and reach such conclusions. ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, etc. are violent groups that have adopted methods exploiting the Holy Qur’an, severing the Qur’anic verses from their contexts and cherry-picking concepts to legitimize their defective approaches. Having been engaged in such violent exploits, they generated a theology, and later laws, from their political ideology. Unfortunately, while they perpetrate heinous crimes, they forget the Qur’anic verses which expound that enmity is to be shown to oppressors only, not to others (2:193); belief is a personal choice and what falls on Muslims is only advice (18:29; 49:14); that there is no coercion in religion (2:256); and that hatred and anger harbored against non-combatant unbelievers should not prevent believers from doing good to them (60:8; 5:2). They disregard the practices of the Prophet and accepted them as overruled, such as the Charter of Medina, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the general amnesty during the Conquest of Mecca, and the prohibition on the killing of women, children, the old and the men of religion even on the battlefield.

When trying to understand the true meaning of Qur’anic verses, it is important to delineate the line between the fact and the norm, between realpolitik and idealism. While facts or realpolitik is the context for which the Qur’anic verses bring tangible solutions to the incidents experienced during the course of revelation, idealistic perspective refers to the values and principles that need to be obtained from a holistic look toward the Qur’an, including the jihad verses. “Kill them wherever you find them,” in Baqara 191, (“them” referring to the aggressive polytheists of Mecca) indicates realpolitik circumstances of revelation. “Disorder (i.e. oppressing and torturing people because of their faith) is worse than killing,” indicates idealism and stipulates freedom of belief and conscience.

Concepts introduced by the Qur’an

During its course of revelation, the Qur’an did not only use the established concepts of the contemporary society, but introduced its own concepts as well. The concept of jihad is in the second category. Other concepts such as zihar, nikah, and talaq (concepts about marriage and divorce), which are mentioned in the Qur’an, were already in the lexicon of the society. However, the concept of jihad has gone through sharp semantic shifts and variations over the fifteen centuries since the time of revelation, and especially after the freedom movements in Muslim countries during the nineteenth century for independence from colonialism. This shift moved further from the Qur’anic foundations due to the works of orientalists; media outlets thriving on an anti-Islamic furor; and persecution of Muslim minorities. The weakness of Muslim states, authoritarian regimes, distribution of oil revenue, economic crises, and a large youthful population that cannot be easily brought under control given current circumstances are other major reasons that have led to the misuse of the concept of jihad. The idea has also been exploited by numerous radical-minded Muslim individuals, groups, and organizations. Concepts are like living organisms. The meanings encompassed by them contract, expand, change, and transform according to experienced realities. Nowadays, it is incumbent on Muslims to revert this concept to its original state by placing it back on the Qur’anic foundations in theory and practice.

Consequently, I think neither the battle cry “Islam is a religion of war” nor the slogan – yes, I term it a slogan – “Islam is a religion of peace” are accurate. Indeed, I think such a reductionist and cliché discourse form a massive intellectual block, preventing a complete understanding of Islam as a religion. The jihad verses in the Qur’an seems to have received their share from this minimalism. A literalist approach to the Qur’anic verses addressing realpolitik conditions is an indication of adopting the Qur’an solely as a book of law or policy. Individuals having this viewpoint may exploit the Qur’an to have it speak to their desire. It is compulsory to make a distinction among the Ideal Islam experienced during the lifetime of the Prophet, the Scholarly Islam expressed theoretically in the course of the academic activities of scholars in subsequent years, and the Historical Islam that has been experienced by Muslims in various locations worldwide for the last fifteen centuries. The minimum condition to achieve this distinction is studying the Qur’anic verses vis-à-vis the circumstances and context behind their revelation and understanding what the Qur’anic verses really “say,” before going deeper into analyzing what they “mean to say.” Intra-textuality, inter-textuality, reason for revelation, holistic approach to the Qur’an, and contextual knowledge are key terms for reference in this regard.

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