Two people reading the same text, or looking at the same object, can often come to different conclusions. Some of these differences are legitimate while others are not. After the Prophet’s death, Muslim scholars immediately recognized the need to establish rules for interpreting the Qur’ān in order to preserve its meaning and protect it from being misinterpreted. This allowed room for different interpretations, but it also established boundaries for things considered outside the fold of legitimate interpretation. Below are general criteria Muslim scholars have set to properly understand the Qur’ān:
The Context of the Qur’ān
Each verse must be understood in light of the Qur’ān itself. If a verse is interpreted in a particular way, it should be in conformity with other affirmative evidence provided by other verses of the Holy Quran. If this evidence is absent or if the interpretation clearly contradicts other Qur’ānic verses, then this understanding of the verse is incorrect because it is not possible for the Qur’ān to contradict itself. For instance, there is a verse in the Qur’ān that says: Woe to those who pray (Qur’ān 107:4). By itself, one might think that God is criticizing those who pray. However, the context of this verse is that it is criticizing those who pray are heedless and lazy concerning their prayer. This is indicated by the following verse: Those who are heedless of their prayer (Qur’ān 107:5).
The Interpretation of the Prophet
The life of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him is understood to be a living example of the Qur’ān. All other Muslims are fallible in their interpretation of the Qur’ān. However, if the Prophet peace be upon him interpreted a verse in a particular manner then that is the absolute meaning of the verse. Furthermore, the Qur’ān must be understood in light of his actions. If the interpretation of a Qur’ānic verse contradicts the Prophet’s life, then that interpretation is incorrect, and the verse has a more specific meaning. A popular example is a verse used by many Islamophobes to claim that the Qur’ān tells Muslims to kill all non-Muslims: And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them (Qur’ān 9:5). This verse cannot mean to kill all non-Muslims for several reasons. First, the verse does not state to kill all non-Muslims. It is referring specifically the polytheists.
When the Qur’ān uses the term polytheists it is almost always referring to the idol worshippers of Mecca who were attacking the Muslims. What it does mention are time and place. In Arabia, the Arabs agreed to not fight during the holy months in order that pilgrims feel safe to travel. The Muslims also thought that they cannot fight in Mecca, and God gave them permission to do so if they are attacked in the city. Lastly, the Prophet peace be upon him did not kill all non-Muslims. Rather, he had non-Muslim relatives, neighbors, friends, and allies. Another example is the Qur’ān commands Muslims to pray, but it does not say how many times. The Prophet peace be upon him taught Muslims that the prayer is five times a day. If someone claimed it was more or less, this interpretation would be incorrect because it is not in accordance with the teachings and life of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.
The Interpretation of the Companions
The Companions of the Prophet peace be upon him hold a special status in Islam. Throughout the Qur’ān God notes that He is pleased with them, they are truthful, honest, and dedicated to the message of Islam. They also had a close relationship with the Prophet peace be upon him. Therefore, their interpretation of the Qur’ān is always taken into consideration, especially if the interpretation is held by a significant number of Companions or the scholars among them.
The Arabic Language
God revealed the Qur’an in the Arabic language for a reason, a reason that is perhaps beyond the grasp of human understanding. God says in the Qur’ān: We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you may learn wisdom (Qur’ān 12:2). This is not because Arabs are superior to others, but because the Arabic language is the richest of all languages in depth and breadth.
Translations, no matter how sincere and excellent, are always lacking. This is due to the fact that there is always meaning lost when a message delivered in one language is translated into another. The Qur’ān must be understood in light of the Arabic language. For example, one might read the following verse and argue that there is a possibility of God having a son: If Allah had intended to take a son, He could have chosen from what He creates whatever He willed. Exalted is He; He is Allah, the One, the Prevailing (Qur’ān 39:4).
Muslims believe that it is not possible for God to have a son because it is against His nature. The translation of this verse seems to indicate that it is possible. However, when we refer to the Arabic language used in this verse, we quickly see that is not the case. In English, there is only one “if,” but in Arabic, there are several ways to say “if.” The word used in this verse is lauw, which is the if of impossibility. This means that anything that follows the word lauw is impossible. This is consistent throughout the Qur’ān, the Prophet’s speech, and the language of the Arabs. It is like saying “If I can fly” or “If I was alive a thousand years ago” or “If only I made a different decision in the past.” All of these are impossible. This is but one example of how the Qur’ān can be misinterpreted when one bypasses the Arabic language.
Language also changes over time and the meanings of particular words can change. However, the Qur’ān must be interpreted according to the understanding and usage of the words at the time of the Prophet peace be upon him.
When is an interpretation incorrect?
Generally, when the above criteria are ignored or not met, the interpretation is not valid. If the interpretation is based simply on personal opinion, whim, or desire without taking the above criteria into consideration. Sincerity and open mindedness are essential components of properly interpreting any text, but by itself sincerity is not enough. One must have considered the overall context of the verse and when it was revealed, the Qur’ān’s overall message, the teachings and life of the Prophet peace be upon him, the understanding of the earliest Muslim generations, as well as the grammatical, syntactical and etymological nuances of the Arabic language.
This obviously requires a level of scholarship. This is not to say that the Qur’ān can only be understood by scholars. The general message and lessons from the Qur’ān can be understood by everyone, even the unlettered. The message of the Qur’ān is simple, there is one God, Muslims believe in all Prophets, the hereafter, prayer, charity etc. However, not all of the Qur’ān is as simple. Several Qur’ānic verses deal with issues of law and creed, these require a level of scholarship to properly understand. This is why the Qur’ān commands Muslims to ask the people of knowledge when they do not know (Qur’ān 16:43 and 21:7).
The Qur’ān, through its guidance and divine origins, will always stand as evidence of interpretations that best represent its true meaning. God says in the Qur’ān: He sends down rain from the sky, causing the valleys to flow, each according to its capacity. The currents then carry along rising foam, similar to the slag produced from metal that people melt in the fire for ornaments or tools. This is how Allah compares truth to falsehood. The ˹worthless˺ residue is then cast away, but what benefits people remains on the earth. This is how Allah sets forth parables (Qur’ān 13:17).
Ultimately, incorrect and intentionally false interpretations of the Qur’ān hold no weight and will be cast away just like the foam or residue that sits on top of water. And interpretations which are truthful will remain in the hearts of people and produce spiritual growth and understanding. The above criteria make the Qur’ān unique among other scriptures. Other scriptures are often read only in translation because the original language is lost, and their authenticity is very questionable. The Qur’ān is the only book among all other scriptures that promises that it would be preserved. God states in the Qur’ān: We have sent down the Quran Ourself, and We Ourself will guard it (Qur’ān 15:9).