How do Muslims interpret the Quran?

JAY (no location listed) ASKS:

Who / What do Muslims look to to understand what the Quran teaches?


Jay’s full posting says that when questions or confusions about the Bible arise his fellow Catholics can refer to ample, officially sanctioned explanations, including those in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He wonders whether a Muslim has such standardized resources on the Quran, in addition to guidance from a local imam.

Actually there are varied Bible interpretations within Catholicism. But matters can be more challenging for Muslims (also Jews and Protestants) since they lack the unified teaching authority that Catholicism calls the “magisterium.” Islam contains many schools of thought and there’s no one single or simple source of interpretation on disputed points. Yet Islam has a strong consensus on much of the faith that’s similar to the “magisterium.”

The science of understanding the Quran is known as tafsir, the Arabic word for “interpretation.” The primary principle is that the whole of the Quran is used to understand individual passages, just as Christians sometimes say that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” However, in Islam the Quran is God’s word only in the Arabic text, so even translations are regarded as mere interpretations. (Although Christians freely use translations, they’re well-advised to read various versions and commentaries on important questions.) Many Muslims around the world lack fluency in Arabic and that means they cannot read the Scriptures for themselves and must rely upon secondary sources. Correct understanding often depends on the context addressed by a Quran passage, on which even experts may differ.

Scholars in the dominant Sunni tradition say the second-highest source for interpretation after the Quran itself are the Hadith, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that carry near-scriptural authority. Third in status are traditions from the Sahaba (Muhammad’s original “companions”) and then those from the Tabi’un (“followers”) in the next generation. Beyond that, established scholars have used ijtihad (“reasoning”) to offer guidance when the Quran and early sources are unclear. Many of the important traditions and commentaries are not available in modern languages, though some Hadith and tafsir resources in English are posted online.

A useful tafsir example involves the much-discussed Quranic verse 4:34 about treatment of wives. The English translation by Majid Fakhry (2004 edition, endorsed by Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University) reads in part: “Those of them that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them. Should they obey you, do not seek a way of harming them.” Instead of “beat,” some translations say “scourge” or “hit.”

Instead, the widely distributed English translation by A. Yusuf Ali (1934) reads “beat them (lightly),” adding in parentheses an interpretive word that’s absent in the literal Arabic. Ali’s edition provided many comments in footnotes and on 4:34 he said “some slight physical correction may be administered” but “all authorities are unanimous in deprecating any sort of cruelty.” He also cited an important early jurist, Imam al-Shafi’i, who believed such physical punishment is “permissible” and yet “inadvisable.”

One comment posted by Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute said wives should be scourged “in a mild, unexaggerated manner” while another advised, “strike them, but not violently.” Ahmad Shafaat of Concordia University in Montreal has written that the husband should not “seriously hurt the wife.” But he said  Muslims should not be “apologetic about any part of the Quran” and criticized exegetes who’ve said beating is permissible but inadvisable because “we can expect the Holy Quran to mention beating only if there was some wisdom in that mention.”

Interpretation of the Hadith is crucial and can also be complex, what with six major collections followed by Sunnis and others of varying authority. To illustrate, consider the pertinent debate over Muhammad’s teaching that anyone who “leaves the Muslims” should be executed (found in Bukhari volume 9, book 83 or 87, number 17). Strict interpreters think that means apostates who convert to other religions should face capital punishment. But Muslim  scholars who oppose convert executions argue that no statement is binding if it’s contained in only one Hadith collection, or else contend that the Prophet was addressing a particular historical situation that doesn’t pertain today.

Alan Godlas, an Islamic specialist in the University of Georgia religion department, posts useful tafsir materials at [Note that some posted hyperlinks are defunct.]




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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.