My methodology for reading, understanding, and interpreting Qur’anic verses is not a unique one; however, it is inarguable that over the past centuries, the Qur’an has been subject to gross misinterpretations, particularly by individuals who read to indulge their debauchery rather than with the best meaning as the Qur’an advises. Thus, I’m compelled to describe some aspects of my approach and explain its differences.
One thing to note is whom the Qur’an addresses. There are several audiences, which I can describe in detail later, but the main addressees of the Qur’an are the Prophet and believers. Since Arabic distinguishes between the singular and plural ‘you’ it is easy to recognize, at this surface level, when we consider only these two audiences, when a verse is addressing the Prophet in particular rather than all believers. Sometimes, there is a transition within a verse, where the singular (Prophet) and plural (believers) shift. (10:61) This is important to note particularly because, while we are inclined to imitate the Prophet, the Qur’an itself makes a distinction between the Prophet and those believers who walk his path.
This brings us to the voice which delivers the message to the addressees. As I’ve mentioned before, the voice of the Qur’an is a feminine one. The Qur’an makes references to sex, but its references to gender and gender roles are tied to sex only loosely, and sex itself is transitory. In one commonly cited verse where the God(dess) declares that everything is created in pairs (36:37), a verse frequently employed by adherents of man-made patriarchal systems to establish rigid gender roles based on rigid gender identities, the Qur’an itself discusses the transitory nature of pairs, such as removing the light of day from the night in order to make darkness—an allusion to dawn and dusk—or the phases of the moon, another example of transformation. In fact, 22:61 describes the God(dess) as merging night into day and day into night. Imagine if our approach to gender had not stopped at a simple declaration of pairs but had considered the entirety of the Qur’anic description. Our understanding of gender might have likened it to phases of the moon or the transition of light to darkness rather than stark night and day, female and male.
My approach to the Qur’an can be likened to moon phases—the presence of the full moon should be evident in every waning, every waxing excerpt of the text. Each Qur’anic verse incorporates within it the entirety of the Qur’an; therefore, our understanding of each should encompass Qur’anic entirety.
A third item to note is the most obvious—the Arabic language has evolved. There are nuances in meaning between classical and modern Arabic. For example, walad (child) in classical Arabic carries no gender specifications. In modern Arabic, it refers specifically to a male child. There are several parts of the Qur’an where this information becomes pertinent. In general, considering the entirety of the Qur’an especially in verses mentioning children permits a deeper understanding. It is also important to note where the Qur’an subtly addresses and subverts the limitations of the Arabic (and any human) language especially pertaining to gender. In verses 53:19-23, the God(dess) refers to the deities worshipped by Meccans prior to the arrival of the Qur’an and demands, “So have you seen the Goddesses and their daughters? Is for you the male and for the Him/the Goddess, the female? This is an unfair division. They are nothing except names.” In these few verses, the hypocrisy of assigning gender is criticized (“an unfair division”), and the Oneness of the God(dess) is emphasized (“they are only names”) over the arbitrariness of gender.
Allah (swt) is not criticizing Meccans for worshipping goddesses, as is the common patriarchal reading. Instead, it is blatantly and indisputably clear that the God(dess) is condemning the insincerity and pretense of feigning reverence toward femininity while burying one’s daughters alive. In fact, this hypocrisy is consistently stressed throughout the Qur’an. Verses 43:17-19 point out the hypocrisy between men expressing grief during the birth of daughters yet depicting the angels as female and worshipping them (“raised in ornaments”). In the same breadth, he debates murdering his female children (16:58-60).
Only after arguments are firmly substantiated with Qur’anic verses and sound in Qur’anic principles should we apply hadith. Hadith that contradict the Qur’an must be discarded. Consider the infamous verse 4:34, in which a man is instructed to advise against his wife’s suspected adulterous actions, then forsake her (in the bedroom) if she persists, and then bring her forth to court (daraba) if she refuses to listen. The Qur’an proceeds to instruct that if the matter cannot be dealt with fairly, the couple should appoint arbitrators (4:35), which confirms that the third and final action against yet unproven adulterous behavior is to cite the spouse to a court of law with 4 witnesses. While patriarchal readings have left open the subject of these proceedings to include petty “disobedience,” in the Qur’an the violation is the sin of adultery—and nothing short of. Imaan Az-Zahra arrived at this same conclusion by a different means than I did, by linking 4:34 with a preceding verse, 4:19, in which men cannot seek a way against their wives unless an open and lewd sin (adultery) has been committed. Therefore, in 4:34, in which a man suspects he has been wronged, he cannot seek action against his wife until she is brought to a court of law. Forsaking the wife in bed is level with addressing unproven adulterous actions. The dropping of the charges in 4:34 is consistent with court proceedings regarding adultery in which the woman denies the action, in which case her testimony is sufficient to overturn any sentence against her.
In this manner, the entirety of the Qur’an is considered in interpreting 4:34 (for example, this interpretation is supported by 58:1-4, “in which a woman cites her husband to the Prophet after her husband pronounces zihar on her,” as my beloved disciple Imaan Az-Zahra pointed out in conversation), as well as the verse’s surrounding context. Imaan is also expecting to write a post about the Prophet’s farewell sermon in regards to this verse, thus referring to hadith only as supplementary to the Qur’an.
Of course, I could (and just might) write 150 pages on how to read and interpret the Qur’an. This article is only a fragment of the methodology, and hopefully in the coming weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to survey other aspects.
3 thoughts on “Methodology”
This was really good! The only thing I would say I can’t agree with was the interpretation of ‘walad’, because cross-linguistic evidence points to the root ‘w-l-d’ being masculine as a default grammatically in most if not all Semitic languages unless adjusted with usually what would be a feminine suffix. Whether you’re speaking Harari, or the Himyaritic of Wahb Ibn Munabbih’s mother, the root is indeed default masculine. Many times Semitic languages are default masculine in singular forms, which is entirely normal. In Tigrinya the default is masculine for singular while for plural it’s grammatically feminine in many cases when using an external plural marker. Admittedly Semitic languages themselves (well all of Afroasiatic really) cannot be disassociated grammatically or semantically from gender because in many cases they contain no neutral gender out right.
A word’s grammatical masculinity is different from its use in referring to non-masculine subjects
Well.. that’s debatable. Maybe let’s say in an Indo-European language, sure that’s possible. But Semitic languages tend to not have a truly “neutral” gender and usually a word that is grammatically masculine is semantically masculine. Gender is Semitic languages is much more reduced and admittedly not as complex as it would be in English. So of course while Arabic’s semantic ambiguity due to the lack of the concept lexically in English could make it debatable, the Arabic form is very straightforward. Even if you take a batīn approach to the Tasfir as opposed to the more common dhahir approach.