The Universal and Historical are not Contrary: Reconciling Interpretative Applications in Approaching the Qur’an

“And certainly we have propounded for humanity in this, the Qur’an, every kind of parable, so that perhaps they would recollect a recitation without any crookedness, so that perhaps they would be Godfearing.” (Qur’an 39:27)

Many Islamic theorists and exegetes are resistant to the idea that specific Qur’anic regulations refer to a historical period; this is because implying that certain contents of the Qur’an address the circumstance of the century in which they were revealed can be viewed as opposed to the universality of the Qur’an. However, to maintain that Quranic content is shaped by the situation of a time period in history is not the same as to restrict Quranic content to that time in history, the same way any text can encompass all the qualities (universal truths) and values that preserve its relevance while set in a distinct period. In other words, we can make the distinction that content is different from context and that specification is different from restriction. In fact, the notion that regulations dictated by the Qur’an are circumscribed by their time periods is essential to maintaining the Quran’s universality, and it is in removing these regulations from their contexts that universality is by turn removed.

For example, imagine that a (any) social law is decreed (“A murderer must be sentenced to death,”) but, rather than described and executed in degrees based on the variable of circumstance, the law is instead executed rigorously and indiscriminately for all circumstances (such as self-defense) and peoples (those whose good consciences are inclined toward imprisonment.) What then unfolds (other than injustice) is the severing of that law from the significance of its purpose, and the law, once written to be universal as to dictate the enormity of murder, ceases to be universal. This is because the imposed universality was an artificial universality: the law was written to be unyielding to circumstance with the goal of achieving universality, and that is the very thing that defeated it. In order for a regulation to be universal, it must encompass the flexibility—an essential quality—of universality. It must recognize the varying degrees of an act as well as the historical circumstances in which that act was executed.

The Qur’an accomplishes this by revealing verses as their needs arise. Let’s think about this for a minute. The Qur’an was revealed in increments according to circumstances faced by the Prophet’s people. The very nature of the way in which the Qur’an is slowly uncovered, verse by verse according to circumstance, as though it is an interactive discourse, is demonstrative of its inseparable tie with circumstance.

As an example, cited is verse 2:228 (the context for which is divorce):

And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. (Sahih International)

Some translations of this read along the lines of, “And the wives have rights similar to what is claimed of them [of wives], but men have a degree over them,” with varying vocabulary. Before I discuss how this verse is an example of universality obtained through the consideration of specific circumstance, I will draw attention to the nuance of the words themselves. Notice that the “degree” men have over them (“their wives”) in “responsibility and authority” is not a Divinely sanctioned one. The verse does not read that men should have a degree of responsibility or authority over their wives, nor does it read that the degree is in accordance with how they were Created. Instead the verse reads simply that they do in the social laws that were applied at a time of patriarchal reign. And at the time of Revelation, a man could invoke a divorce by stating so thrice. Since these matters in context are financial, the “degree” of responsibility can arguably also refer to the portions of inheritance—of which, for those of you who remember, Zeina and I share a different interpretation—for those who interpret this verse according to the mainstream understanding. But one thing is clear from the context of the verse (which, in dealing with divorce, must consider a social reality in order to address it): the “degree” is not an ontological one. The Qur’an continues to decree that a divorced woman must be looked after for three months following the divorce so that she is not abandoned in case of pregnancy because of this social reality.

So what happens when the circumstances change, but the rules are rigorously upheld? (With, no doubt, the objective of “helping” them maintain universality?) The answer is that they cease to be universal. Because it is not the decree alone that is meant to be universal. It is the circumstance that determines the universality of the decree. And the circumstance is this: In a society (and that is universally in any society) in which a woman has less social power than a man, she must continue to be supported by him for three months after he has decided to divorce her. This, since it is a law that is actually dictated in the Qur’an and not one that is merely acknowledged as already existing, is her Divinely Sanctioned right over her husband.

Of course, in a society that is patriarchal, this verse is interpreted so that the “degree” men have over women is read as ontological, Divinely Sanctioned, rather than an acknowledgement of an unjust social structure, and therefore the consequent decree that follows is a patronizing display of ownership rather than a means of support or a “right” that a woman has to the finances of her newly divorced husband. And when the circumstance changes, and the law that the circumstance dictates is not accommodating in its application, it is a direct act of disrespect toward the Qur’an. When women work and earn as much or more (individually, that is, we are not there yet statistically) as men and are then expected to support their families financially (and yet this part is simultaneously true) as a consequence, but still inherit less according to the traditional interpretation of the inheritance verse, which depends on the premise that women are not expected to financially support their families, the Qur’an has been disobeyed. In fact, the Qur’an does not say “all men over all women” in patriarchal society—it acknowledges circumstance in using the word ‘ba’d (some) as to recognize exceptions. To overlook this is the true meaning of picking and choosing.

Aside from flexibility being a characteristic of universality, it is also an undeniable truth that the Qur’an makes both universal and specific assessments, a second quality of universality (the all-encompassing-ness), and that when Qur’anic assessments are specific, these assessments refer directly to the people of the historical society to which the Qur’an was revealed; accordingly, in turn, when analyzing these verses, the individual naturally is encouraged by the Qur’an to interpret these verses according to her time. Thus the universality of the Qur’an is reinforced in its historical “limitation” (it is a linear understanding of time [and of the experiences ruled by time] that introduces the restrictive understanding of time-specific context as unable to be universal) in two ways: (1) the universal elements of historical circumstance, the “themes” such as love or justice, applied seamlessly to the contemporary time period and (2) the allowance, granted by the Qur’an in its demonstrative consideration of its initial audience, for an interpreter to consider her time period.

3 thoughts on “The Universal and Historical are not Contrary: Reconciling Interpretative Applications in Approaching the Qur’an

  1. I do not take the Christian Bible at face value but am very familiar with the huge amount od scholarly research that has gone into the creation of what is now called the Bible. Unfortunately, I am totally ignorant of any research on the origins of the Qur’aran. Is there any scholarly research of the origins of your Holy Book or any research be blasphemous?

  2. Ibtisam

    I’ve been wondering, recently, whether perhaps the Qur’an was meant to be a starting point of sorts. I mean, morality evolves with societies. So while the themes of the Qur’an such as love, justice, compassion, mercy, fairness and the rest remain relevant to all societies, the specifics would not be identical in different societies so that these themes are not compromised.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve thought about that as well. It’s almost a collection of starting points, arranged in framework to be placed over all societies, so that we might shift according to its uncompromised themes while including our idiosyncrasies in its discourse.


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