By Dr. Eren Tatari
1. Descent from God to human beings: When we read the Qur’an we must not forget this fact that it is the word of God, expressed for our understanding. It is coming from the Absolute, Infinite, Unlimited One, yet we understand within our capacity, because the One sending it knows that it is us who will read it. However, it is a mistake to think that since it is reduced/simplified to my level, I can understand it easily. It is still originating from the Absolute. For instance, if Einstein comes to an elementary school and speaks to the first graders, he will try to simplify his teachings for their level. Likewise, the Qur’an is the Absolute One’s teachings explained at our level. When people write commentaries on the Qur’an, it is their interpretation/understanding: we are swimming in an ocean, yet all of us have our way of swimming. That is why in principle, if two Islamic scholars contradict on one subject, their opinions are respected and still rewarded for their effort to understand God’s words.
We must be aware that we are swimming in the ocean, so we are only swimming in our path, we cannot swim everywhere in the ocean at once. We understand the Qur’an as much as our capacity allows us. The Qur’an is published with no name on it, but when there is a translation or commentary, one can see the scholar’s name on it. Most of the commentaries are subjective interpretations. Even if it is written by the best scholar, it is still her translation and her commentary; not the original. Hence, translations of the Qur’an are not called the Qur’an
2. Purpose in sending the revelations: What is the purpose of God speaking to us through the scriptures?
a) To disclose/explain Himself: to make Himself known to us, teach human beings who their Creator is.
b) To answer our existential questions and to teach us how to interpret the creation: we cannot find the answers on our own, but if someone explains to us, we are able to use our reason and other faculties to make sense of it, to judge if it is true or not.
c) We cannot get out of our own paradigm (or bias): so we need another source, an all-encompassing conscious to guide us with an unlimited knowledge, and to teach us how to interact with the things around us, what to do with our lives, etc.
3. Book of education: Given these purposes, the Qur’an is an educational text; it is intellectual and can transform us. Sometimes, we read the Qur’an not as an educational text that will transform our inner being, but just to carry out the dos and don’ts without reflecting on them. In a way, this attitude is out of reverence for the Qur’an: we take a verse from the Qur’an and say “since this verse says so, it must be so.” This is not reading the scripture to learn something from it or to be transformed by it. Reading it as a book of prayer is fine, but it must also be read as an educational text. We should not read the scripture to condition ourselves, to brainwash ourselves. We are told to memorize and recite the national anthem to fortify our already existing prejudices, to condition ourselves. Is it wise to read the scripture like this? We have to read the Qur’an, as if we are listening to our teacher, to learn from it, not to imitate it. We tell ourselves we have to “read in the name of our Lord who created us” but what if we do not know how to do this?
To actually benefit from the Qur’an, we must ask ourselves: Is it really true? Is it possible to read in the name of our Creator? What does it really mean? We need to educate ourselves through its teachings. We will be drawn out of some ignorance. If we are not familiar with this approach, we exclaim, “God says so in this verse so it must be so.” But the real question is: What did you understand from it and how did it transform you? From which state to which state you were transformed? When we recite the verse, we must not speak on behalf of God. After we complete our education at the nursing school, we go to the hospital and practice, because we have already been educated. If someone is my nurse and she takes care of me perfectly, I ask: where did you learn this? They tell the name of the school. Likewise, we must learn from and be transformed by the Qur’an, and practice what we learn, so when someone asks how and where you learned this from, we refer them to the Qur’an.
Sometimes people just “shoot” a verse from the Qur’an to back-up a point they are making. Since they are reciting the Qur’an, they feel as if the argument is over because you cannot “argue” with God’s word. If we cite verses from the Qur’an, without being transformed by them, or give evidence from the Qur’an to prove the truth of the Qur’an, this is a literalist attitude. Just relating a verse from the Qur’an and saying “I am not saying anything God is saying it,” is not neutral. You put your interpretation onto it. In a particular context, topic, someone relates a verse, but it is our interpretation that God is meaning this in this context. You, narrating the verse at that moment is an interpretation. When a doctor performs a medical procedure, she is practicing what she learned in medical school. In reality, it may or may not be what she was actually taught at school: she may be remembering it wrong; she may be adding her own take to how the procedure must be done, etc.
There was an argument between two communities during the time of Ali’s leadership. One side’s position was something like: “Let’s make the Qur’an a witness to our argument. Let the Qur’an decide about who is right. Let the Qur’an be the judge.” Ali, as a very wise man brought up in Prophet Muhammad’s household, brought the mushaf, the book containing the Qur’an. He explained that this book does not speak for itself, it stays there, you make it speak. This is in fact the first hermeneutic approach. When we come up with a verse in an argument, we make the verse speak as we understand it, we locate it into our paradigm and use it in a specific context. This is the literalist attitude into which we fall commonly. It is a crucial but extremely fine point that is often overlooked. This literalist approach, no matter which religion it is framed as, is wrong/deceptive.
Another example is the war between Ali’s supporters and Muawiya’s supporters. Towards the end of the war, when Muawiya’s supporters were about to be defeated, he ordered his soldiers to attach pages from the Qur’an, knowing that Ali’s supporters were extremely respectful to the Qur’an and that they would not fight. Indeed, Ali’s supporters ceased fighting. As a result of this incident, a well-known phrase came about: “you never put the Qur’an to your spear!” meaning that you do not use the Qur’an to support your point. Nursi says:
“Do not hide yourself behind the Qur’an, and read the verses to justify your own paradigm, ideas. But put the Qur’an behind you if you are a brave man, and come up as yourself to defend yourself. Say this is my understanding of the verse, if you do not like it, it is because of me. Yet the literalists say if you criticize what I say, it is what God says, so you are a heretic. If the nurse does a wrong injection, and paralyzes the patient, and says I graduated from such university… Do not blame the educator, blame yourself. Accept that your interpretation is wrong. Say I have not got good education, I was not a good student, but that university teaches very well.”
So when we read the Qur’an, we must be humble and admit that this is our understanding. If someone disputes our interpretation, we can say: “maybe, it is possible that my interpretation is wrong. Let’s go back to the source and try to get educated by it. Let’s study together, admitting that we are both students trying to understand the text/teacher.” But the literalist says, “I am not saying anything; God says this in the Qur’an. Speaking on behalf of the Qur’an, and if you oppose me, you are a heretic, an infidel.” Our personal approach and ideas should not be equated with the original text. We cannot narrate the text to justify our argumentation and claim that this is the ultimate meaning of the verse.
4. Qur’an needs to be confirmed by the reader: When we read the scripture, we must always keep in mind that we are its students and it is our teacher. The student listens to his teacher, hears something that he does not know already and needs to learn. Our goal in the classroom, while God is speaking to us, is not to be a parrot, we are expected to understand and confirm. When the teacher says 3×3=9, some students just repeat and memorize it while others process it in their minds. These students are not judging the teacher, but they need to confirm it for themselves. The confirmation comes a few minutes later. One of the pillars of belief in Islam is to believe in the Qur’an as the word of God: this means to confirm (tasdiq) it.
 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.