By Dr. Eren Tatari
When we are studying the verses of the Qur’an, we must keep in mind that while the author of the Qur’an is God, He is speaking directly to us to teach something. When we approach the message, we must be aware that each and every verse is addressed to us by our Creator. Since we know that God is speaking to us to teach us the purpose of our creation, we must try to see how each verse is educating us about our purpose.
For instance, God says in the Qur’an, “We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain…” (Qur’an, 38:27). We need to study the creation in order to confirm this claim. When we observe creation, we realize that everything is created (and is being created every instance) to make us know who our Creator is and the purpose of our creation. Thus, we are surrounded by purposeful creation and infinite letters bringing us messages from our Creator. When we study the creation, we observe that nothing comes into existence by chance and their existence points to infinite power and wisdom. Created beings demonstrate that their Creator can only be the Absolute One through the various qualities they have been given.
Our understanding of each verse must be the result of a conscious effort to comprehend God’s speech sent to guide us. In the same way, even if a verse may be seemingly simple, when we bear in mind that it is God who is talking, then our expectations and attitude towards it changes. The same is true for God’s revelation in words (scriptures) and God’s revelation in action (the creation).
For example, let’s look at a fig. Do we realize that a single fig has to be created by the One who has absolute power? Unbelievers would take the fig lightly and thus not get its real profound meaning. This particular attitude of unbelievers is deliberate. Since unbelievers do not want to submit to a higher being, they do not accept that created beings have an owner/maker. With this attitude, a fig becomes only a means to nourish living beings. This is equivalent to saying it is created in vain. The Creator of the fig did not create it only to feed us. Its ultimate purpose of creation is to bring news from its Creator and make the Creator known to us.
For instance, if God suggests keeping our houses clean this suggestion should not be taken lightly at face value, thinking that the only reason is, say to be healthy. We must approach this suggestion in such a way as to help us build and secure our belief. When we are reading each verse, we have to be mindful of the ultimate aim of the Qur’an, and try to understand each sentence in light of the bigger picture. In a sense, every verse must take us to the transcendental world. Interpretations of Qur’anic verses that lack this attitude have shortcomings and are bound to be misleading.
Before reading the “Speech of God,” we need to define what “Speech of God” really means. God speaks in two ways: a) with words (scriptures), and b) with action (creation). God says in the Qur’an:
“They will ask their skins, “Why have you borne witness against us?” They will answer: “God who makes everything speak has made us speak.” It is He Who has created you in the first instance, and to Him you are being brought back” (Qur’an, 41:21).
These two kinds of speech support each other. God’s speech is not historical, it is universal; it addresses all humanity, at all times, and in all situations. When we read God’s speech we need to bear in mind the following principles:
1. Who is speaking?: The Creator of the universe
2. To whom is He speaking?: All humanity
3. Why is He speaking?: To answer basic existential questions
4. In which capacity is He speaking?: As a merciful God
The general principles of exegesis are:
1. Reading the Scripture to check if it is really God’s word
2. Reading the Scripture as a potential elucidator of the meaning of life
3. Abstaining from drawing hasty conclusions; we need to interpret every single verse within the context of the above four principles
4. The stories of the lives of the prophets and their miracles need to be interpreted in a way that would not contradict the universality of the Scripture
5. Information about the hereafter is to be interpreted in order to organize our lives here in this world
When studied in light of the above principles, four overarching themes emerge from the Qur’an:
1. The Oneness of God
2. Existence of the hereafter
4. Justice and worship
What is the nature of the Qur’an or in general all scriptures? And how should our attitude be towards them? What are the particularities of a text for it to be called scripture? Scripture means the holy or sacred text; God’s word as revelation (not inspiration). Prophets received revelation, as well as inspiration. For the prophets, revelation is when the meaning and the words are from God, where as inspiration is when the meaning is from God, but the words are not.
So there is the Qur’an, hadith qudsi, and hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). Revelation comes to messengers via angels, because nothing from the world of the unseen (alam al-ghayb) is translated to the world of witnessing/creation (alam al-shahadah) without angels. We cannot experience the World of the Unseen as it is. The Qur’an is the word of God, brought to a Prophet through Angel Gabriel, and no one has the right to change the words. But when it is Prophet Muhammad’s sayings through inspiration, it is called hadith qudsi (sacred/inspired sayings): the meaning is from God, the words are from Prophet Muhammad. Additionally, there are the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), hadith, uttered by the best student of the Qur’an: the word and the meaning are from Prophet Muhammad. The teacher for us in the Qur’an is God. In the latter two, the teacher is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but he is not the source of the wisdom or the message. During Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, it was forbidden to write down hadith qudsi and hadith in order to avoid potential mix-up with the Qur’an. Hence, only the Qur’anic verses were written down during his lifetime.
When we are reading a hadith we need to know the historical event related to it. If not, we may read a saying of Prophet Muhammad (hadith) that was from, say 617, the Meccan period, and if we do not know the verses of the Qur’an revealed prior to this event, we cannot interpret this saying properly. So Prophet Muhammad might have acted at this event according to the tradition of the society, since certain verses of Qur’an were not revealed yet at that time. Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) sayings as such do not establish the religion. He is not the founder of religion. We can find a Christian, Jewish or Meccan tradition at that event, because when there was no revelation about the matter, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) applied the common tradition of the place.
Tedrij, gradual development, implementation, establishment of religion is a principle of Islam. The human tendency is that everyone wants to elevate their leader as much as possible, but we should not exaggerate. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was honest to his nature, followed the monotheistic (haneef) tradition of Prophet Abraham, and did not participate in any polytheism. As a man, he was an honest man, did not do anything deliberately wrong. Yet still, he was not the founder of the religion. However pure his personality is, he was not the establisher of the religion, but he was the best student and the teacher of the religion, because he was the person chosen to present God’s religion. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his community what God taught him. So, Islam is not Muhammadanism, but the religion of God.
All of the misunderstandings and quarrels among the Muslim community arise from the avoidance of this principle of gradual establishment (tadrej). Studying the Qur’an and the hadith requires scholarship, expertise in history, and knowledge of the entirety of the matter. The most developed science in Islam is hadith, followed by the interpretation of the Qur’an.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.