A methodological approach that has been mentioned on this site numerous times in passing is the consideration of the Qur’an holistically; that is, each verse contains the message of the entire Qur’an within it. One verse cannot be isolated from the rest of the religious text. The Qur’an is continuous, self-clarifying, and self-defining.
This is not merely a chosen criterion, but one that has been dictated in the Book itself as a guideline for interpretation. In several verses of the Qur’an, God condemns those who have segregated parts of scripture from each other in previous Revelations (6:91, 5:14, 5:44), stating that by disrupting the continuity of the revelations followers forget a good portion of its clear message of benevolence. We are warned against interpretations that are decontextualized and selective.
It is with this methodology of holistic incorporation that we interpret men cannot continue to entitle themselves to more inheritance than their sisters if they simultaneously fail to provide for their wives, it is with this methodology that we interpret the people of Sodom were destroyed for the crime of rape (because Prophet Lut was not advocating for women to be raped instead of men in his specification that the rapists should be with their wives), it is with this methodology that we strictly employ the constraints of polygamy, and it is with this methodology that we apply the universal principle of compassion to religious interpretation.
While the Qur’an dictates that we consider it in context, it also acknowledges that we may derive different meanings from it, and states that those who have understanding are the ones who follow the best meaning in it.
Those who listen to the Word
and follow the best meaning in it;
those are the ones whom God has guided,
and those are the ones endued
with understanding. (Qur’an 39:18)
The Qur’an clearly insinuates here that some meanings are better than others. We naturally will derive multiple meanings from each verse, but only the best are to be validated and followed—this will demonstrate righteousness of character. And as it is clear that human beings exert their own biases into the religious text, the Qur’an differentiates its actuality from its exegesis, condemning those who read their prejudices and privilege into the text and claim that it is from God (2:79). We are not to confuse Divine Discourse with its exegesis/interpretation. Now, while it may not always be clear what the “best meaning” of each verse is, it is a little more difficult to pretend that certain interpretations don’t violate the Quranic principles of justice, equity, and compassion. What is best may be up for debate, but what is inappropriate is much clearer. These oppressive interpretations are not contextually valid, as they do not incorporate the Quran in cumulative totality in their justifications of abuse and degradation.
The best interpretations are those that consider the Qur’an holistically and recover its principles of egalitarianism and impartiality in every verse.
In interpreting using the methodology that God dictated for us, rendering us to employ our reason, we acknowledge that the Qur’an is coherent and practical, and we enable ourselves to apply it to our lives and function within the social and legal realms in a manner that is true to the just interpretations in the spiritual and moral realms, such as the Truth that men and women are of intrinsic equal worth. Our legal and social structures must reflect this equality established by God—crucially, as a means of worshipping God by submitting to the dictations of God.
We must question our understanding of Islam, to avoid succumbing to the arrogance that we understand it fully.