Hermeneutics in Islam in the midst of Text and Context

Bulent SENAY

Text and context is an old story. But it is still what we do when we do `humanities`: trying to read texts in contexts whether these texts are written documents or buildings or religious artifacts. There is still an overwhelming interest in hermeneutical theory. The impact of religion on public life still continues. Religion strongly remains an important dimension of everyday life that lies behind the headlines. In any attempt to understand religion, one inevitably finds him/herself in the midst of text and context. How much of `the text` should I relate to the context?` has been the question. It is therefore important that we have a coherent understanding of the task of `understanding religion`. Understanding religion is the most challenging task for us in the face of globalisation with its own worldview. If one understands that `understanding` is in fact a way of `standing under what one calls TRUTH`, then we have even more sophisticated task to deal with. Curiosity about spiritual questions is common, inter-faith relations have acquired significance in countries where religious diversity is on the increase, public visibility of religion is on the rise. This brings forward the most crucial task of living together while keeping religious diversity on public manifestation of religion. The very meaning of religion is negotiated and challenged in everyday life. It is here that comes in the question of interpretation of the sacred text. Anything that is interpreted becomes an issue of understanding. We want to UNDERSTAND as we STAND UNDER what is ABOVE that is revealed through the text.

Understanding religion is preceded by certain assumptions and principles which are necessary conditions for its intelligibility and interpretation. All understanding assumes suppositions and entails categorization, that is subsuming the particular under universal categories and concepts. When we want to understand a text then we begin `doing` hermeneutics. Hermeneutic as a western concept is a term derived from the Greek verb to interpret (hermēneuō) and may be described as the theory of interpretation. Thus it is a branch of philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of texts. At the heart of hermeneutics lies a set of systematic, coherent, well-developed set of principles and procedures governing textual interpretation of scriptures whose historicity is acknowledged a priori. Thus, texts are essentially seen as having an organic link with the environment and the peoples prevailing customs and traditions in which they were revealed/written as opposed to be seen as revealed in a spatio-temporal vacuum.

Islamic tradition of `humanities` has had the discipline of `understanding` for centuries under the name of `usool at-tafseer` and `usool al-fiqh` far long before biblical hermeneutics emerged in the west as discipline. Although today the subject of different interpretations of religion has largely been taken from modern philosophical hermeneutics, it should be noted that the discussion on the interpretation and understanding of religion has a long history in the Islamic sciences. This is especially the case in the fields of usool, Quranic commentary, and theoretical mysticism. Hence, the different kinds of intellectual, textual, symbolic, and mystical commentaries of the Quran, the commentary of the Quran by the Quran, the commentary by ones own opinion, semantics, and the method of obtaining the apparent meaning of the words of a text, all serve to show the presence of this perspective in traditional Islamic scholarship. As far as Islamic hermeneutics is concerned, the very first point of divergance between the two approaches is the strong tendency of or belief in the classico-traditional approach to view Quranic and Sunnahic legacy as developed in a ahistorical, spatio-temporal vacuum whilst progressive approaches emphasise the historicity and socio-cultural embeddedness of Quran and Sunnah. It is from this very premise that different methodologies eminate when interpreting these sources. The interpreter looks through the textthe Quran or the traditionsto the intentions of the author, allowing it to be called a text centred approach. It aims at revealing the intentions of the author or speaker as correctly as possible and uses all the means that can possibly help him in this regard.

The interpretation of texts is a process central to understanding the social and cultural dimensions of religion but it has been curiously neglected by social scientists. This is so because social scientists are not well trained or acquainted with religious texts and religious `realities` as much as they should be. Religion is seen as a cultural `element` to be left to theologians and philosophers to investigate relations between the meanings of texts and the contexts that lend them meaning. The very term `hermeneutics` is considered mostly a task for theologians and philosophers. However when something falls into the field of interpretation it enters into the field `probability` and hence `flexibility` therefore facing the question of `changebility`. In other words, interpretation of texts religious texts- that is religious hermeneutics is also a social practice as well as a philosophical enterprise. Not only religious studies specialists/scholars but sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists too should have a genuine interest in understanding religion, and how it is that texts are understood and related to certain contexts, legitimated or challenged, grounded and perceptions of the meanings of which change over time.

It is important that we recognize that religious texts are not merely written documents. They carry meanings which, in the eyes of its interpreter, can be interpreted in relation to its context. This does not mean that context is everything, in fact when and if religious texts are interpreted in relation to contexts only this leads to an extreme relativism in understanding even facts let alone meanings. Faith traditions crystallize around beliefs that texts reveal truths integral to the traditions` claim about authenticity and ultimate reality. It is hardly surprising that the data of those studying religion should be first and foremost written texts which might be called `canonic` (the Quran, the Bible. The Bhagavad Gita, etc.) in many cases.

In Islamic context, ijtihad has utilized and still does utilize `context` without going to the extreme of contextualism. Therefore we can safely say that classical-traditional fiqh has already a comprehensive methodological tool/approach in adapting the norms into the everyday life through contextualization nevertheless without making `context` the most important criteria in interpretation. Because besides the asbaab (the reasons conditions in which `text` was revelaed), a Quranic text has three dimensions in general. Rationale (illah), text (matn) and the purpose (maqsad). Yes the Quran has come in time and space but not limited in time and space. For the simple believer, the Quran is a text with cotext not with context. The context is and can only be `reconstructed` to determine the situation in which certain passages of the Scripture had been revelaed. So yes for contextualization, no for contextualism.

Through contextualization, words and sentences must be read in the context of the document, and the document as part of its community of discourse of the belief system that gave it meaning at the time. Discourses, worldviews, and beliefs in turn must be understood in the context of their cultures and times. However, when one goes to extreme in contextualization, the end result is contextualism as a worldview. Underlying principle of contextualism is historicism which leads to or derives from a cultural and moral relativism which leaves the `truth` outside the door, places the `truth` in brackets in the name of phenomenology. Then interpretation becomes a question of position. Context reflects position in the face of a particular truth-claim. Likewise, human activities and institutions are to be understood in relation to the larger network of behaviour or social organization and structure of which they are said to be part. Social, political, religious, economic, family, and other institutional practices make sense only when placed in their social and cultural contexts. Contextualization in Islamic studies predominantly operates as a modernist methodology and in the end tend to turn into contextualism. This is exactly what non-modernist scholars of Islamics criticize. According to them, contextualization is also a question of position. The study of religion itself becomes a question of position. A position, such as phenomenology, which seems to deny the link between religious phenomena and meaning is, for example, necessarily a critical position regarding religion.

The most interesting and contemporary manifestation of `text-context` hermeneutics occurs in the field of Islamic law-Fiqh. In terms of the study of religion, Islamic Law with its methodological philosophy (Usl al-Fıqh) is not any discipline but a discipline reflecting the whole Islamic Weltanschauung; and that Islamic studies cannot follow the phenomenological approach, through which the discourse/study is separated from the subject and the truth is bracketed. According to Ustadh Hayreddin Karaman (Professor of Fiqh in Turkey), the recent trends in Muslim academic circles that claim to reread and reinterpret Islamic origins are essentially confused methodologically and epistemologically. He believes that these re-readings are just new attempts to rewrite Islamic thought and history overall in the name of a new hermeneutical approach. This approach is no more than a reductionist and simplistic way of incorporating the ontological presuppositions of modernity into the Islamic framework under the pressure of secularism. In doing so, these modernist interpreters of Islamic sources (the Qur`an and the Hadith), origins (the Early Islamic History) and traditions (Fıqh, Kalm, etc.) simply take the easy road to arrive at both modern and at the same time Islamic solutions, bypassing the challenging and more systematized method and approach of Ijtihad as an internal interpretative dynamic in Islamic scholarly tradition, thereby producing hybrid and at best superficial answers. Karaman suggests that the method and approach of Ijtihad is certainly worth taking seriously in religious studies discourse in relation to Islamic studies. He strongly believes that Islamic tradition of scholarship needs only to revitalise and reformat its methods, approaches and meta-theories in the light of modernitys (and post-modernitys) ontological and sociological challenge. Ijtihad1, from this perspective, is the premier theoretical approach and method for recasting the Islamic studies tradition, rather than putting everything into the basket of historicism, since historicism is essentially a secular-modernist stance in relation to religion and society.

In the views of non-modernist Muslim scholars, historicism is a principle underlying the contextualist approach. Contextualism is not necessarily the same as contextualization. Contextualism as a methodology in religious studies presupposes that events and ideas can be explained only by being set within the context of their occurrence. Why they occurred as they did is to be explained by the revelation of the specific relationships they bore to other events occurring in their circumambient historical space. The contextualist insists that what happened in the field can be accounted for by the specification of the functional interrelationships existing among the agents and agencies occupying the field at a given time. Whether or not contextualism produces accurate explanation with regard to religious phenomena according to social scientific standards, its exponents, whether in Islamic studies or Christian studies, believe that historicism is the principle approach for contextualism. Historicism, therefore, means that what happened is described and thereby explained in terms of when it happened (such as referring certain Islamic traditions back to the Arab jaahiliyyah/pre-Islamic culture) and what happened around it at the same time or over time, depending upon emphasis is put on synchronous or diachronous interpretations. This is not to argue whether historians do or do not abstract, generalize, select, and organize data as they contextualize, for they do. As a consequence of contextualisms presuming and producing uniqueness as its chief explanatory or interpretive mode, modernist scholars in the area of Islamic studies tend to describe past ideas, activities, events, and institutions as more and more self-contained and distant from the present day as they are increasingly contextualized to their times. This contextualism through historicism results in various degrees of cultural and historical relativism. This is a major challenge facing Muslim scholarship in theology and religious studies.

One of the essential tasks of theology and religious studies in Islamic world has to be to develop a meaningful, stronger but contemporary discourse, over the old question of whether religion (interpreted through metaphysics, theology, and general religious studies) can be taken as a source for the genuine knowledge achieved through the methods of science. A contemporary discourse within Islamic studies tradition will help to develop a reflexive contextualization of the religious phenomenon without going to the extreme of contextualism.

Having said all this, one can safely add that what muslims need today is a a `fiqh of ma`roof` which, in interpreting the text, takes the context into account but does not fix or limit the meaning in the context. `Maroof` as a Quranic category meaning `common good` indicates that muslims can live in a diverse society in which different `sides` recognize what is `commonly known as good (khayr and birr). The concept of maqased as developed by al-Ghazzali, al_Shawkani and ash-Shatibi can still provide us with enlightening hermeneutical guidance to the future. How much I wish that Ricoeur, Gadamer and others could have read and understood al-Ghazzali and ash-Shawkani. Perhaps then they could have offered better theories of hermeneutics for us. The responsibility however falls on the shoulders of Muslims that contemporary reader including Muslims themselves do not and cannot read al-Ghazzali or ash-Shatibi in the context of contemporary hermeneutics.

It seems that the search for truth in the midst of text and context will continue. At the end of the day, as the sufi master Rumi says,
`every horse has its stable,
every beast its pen,
every bird its nest.
And Allah knows best.`

Recommended Readings

Bleicher, J. (1980) Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Denffer, Ahmed Von (1994) Ulum Al-Quran: An Introduction to the Sciences of The Quran, Leicester: The Islamic Foundation.
Gadamer, H-G. (1989) Truth and Method, London: Sheed and Ward.
Izutsu, Toshihiko (2002) Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
Kamali, Mohammad Hashim (2000) Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society.
Kamali, Mohammad Hashim (2003 ) Freedom of Expression in Islam, Cambridge UK: The Islamic Texts Society.
Khadduri, Majid (1999) Al-Shāfiīs Risāla: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic Jurisprudence, Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society.
Philips, Bilal (1997) Usool at Tafseer: The Methodology of Quranic Interpretation, IIPH International Islamic Publishing House.
Ricoeur, P. (1991) From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, trans. K. Blamey and J,B. Thompson, Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press.
Siddīqī, Muhammad Zubayr (1993) Hadīth Literature: Its Origin, Development & Special Features, Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society.
Dr. Bulent Senay, Professor in Comparative Religion – Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey

1.Ijtihad literally means hard striving, but technically it means exercising independent juristic reasoning to provide answers when the Qur`an and Sunnah are silent. Islamic jurisprudence dealt with questions of religion and acts of worship, and with legal transactions, along with all provisions, rules, and particulars derived from them. That is why jurists in Islam were at once men of religion and jurisprudence. They were called scholars (`ulam) because their field of study included all departments of ancient knowledge. As a result, Islamic jurisprudence played such a significant role in the history of Islamic thought as well as in all aspects of Muslim life. It is known that Islamic jurisprudence is based on two sources: the Qur`an and the Sunnah (The Prophetic Tradition). There are various methods accepted by the majority of the jurists to derive rules from these two sources. Ijm` (consensus of opinion) and qıys (analogy) are the two major ones. There are other methods acknowledged by some schools but refuted by others. These are based on necessity, custom and equity; such as istihsn (appropriateness) in the Hanaf school, al-masleh al-mursalah (excepted interests) in the Mlik school, and the like. The jurists took up all these sources and methods, known as evidence (adillh) of the law, in a special branch of knowledge called `ılm al-usl (science of basic sources and methods). They began to work at discovering legal solutions from such sources and evidences. This sort of activity was and is referred to as ijihd (endeavor or interpretation). It was a cause and approach at the same time for expanding legal provisions to comprise new cases, as well as strong factor in the development of Islamic law according to the needs of countries and the conditions of changing times. If questions arose about the meaning of a Qur`anic text or tradition or revelation and early Muslim practice were silent, jurists applied their own reasoning through these methods to interpret the sources. İjtihd essentially consists of an inference (istinbt) that amounts to a probability (zann), thereby excluding the extraction of a ruling from a clear text. The laws or rulings are provided by clear texts from a specific framework called al-ma`lm min ad-dn bid-darra, meaning that they partake of the fundamental essence of Islamic jurisprudence and that they lead, if rejected, to the negation of Islam. Nevertheless the great majority of the Qur`anic verses and the Prophets traditions are not of this very strict nature. The Qur`an is authenticated per se (qat` ath-thubut) but the majority of verses containing legal rulings (yt al-ahkm) are subject to analysis, commentaries and interpretations (zann) as is the case for the Prophets traditions (ahdith) which are for the most part open to speculation regarding both their authenticity (thubt) and their meaning (dalla). İjtihd as a whole (as both a source and approach), has in fact been considered by many `ulam (scholars of Islam) as the third chief source of the Islamic Law in which one will find ijm`, qıys, istislh, istihsn along with all the known subdivisions among the so-called supplementary sources of the Islamic law. The various methods of Islamic law that feature next to the Qur`an and Sunna are all manifestations of ijtihad, albeit with differences that are largely procedural in character. In this way, consensus of opinion, analogy, juristic preference, considerations of public interest, etc., are all inter-related under the heading of ijtihad (For further details, see M. Hashim Kamal, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Cambridge: UK, 2000).

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