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The Issue of Laymen Interpreting the Quran

As a community primarily built to facilitate Muslims and non-Muslims interacting with each other to promote goodwill and awareness of the tenets of Islam, a common obstacle that we face is regarding the interpretation of the Qur’an itself. As the foundational stone of our religion and the final promulgation of God’s revelation on earth, we often find ourselves having to address questions pertaining to the clarity of the Qur’an with regards to the lucidity it claims to possess, namely in the following verse:

“And We have certainly made the Qur’an easy for remembrance, so is there any who will remember?” (54:17)

Prima facie this would run in conflict with the vast corpus of exegesis that scholars have historically dedicated voluminous texts to. So we feel it necessary to provide you with some insight through the following passage by the 20th century exegete Mufti Muhammad Shafi on why there seems to be friction between the understanding of the scholarly tradition as opposed to the laity, among whom we include non-Muslims.

(Excerpt)

A misconception about the tafsir of the Qur’an

Hopefully, details given above have made it clear that the tafsir (exegesis or interpretation) of the noble Qur’an is an extremely
delicate and difficult undertaking for which getting to know the Arabic language alone is not enough. In fact, it is necessary to have expertise in all related branches of knowledge. Therefore, scholars say that a mufassir or commentator of the Qur’an must have vast and deep knowledge of the syntax, etymology, rhetoric, and literature of the Arabic language, as well as, that of prophetic Traditions, principles governing jurisprudence and exegesis, doctrinal articles of belief and scholastics. The reason is that one cannot arrive at correct conclusions while explaining the Qur’an unless there be that adequacy in these fields of knowledge.

It should be understood very clearly that this is a highly dangerous pattern of behaviour which, in matters of religion, leads to fatal straying. As regards secular arts and sciences, everyone can claim to understand that should a person simply learn the English language and go on to study books of medical science, he would not be acknowledged as a physician by any reasonable person anywhere in the world, and certainly not trustworthy enough to take care of somebody’s life unless he has been educated and trained in a medical college. Therefore, having learnt English is not all one needs to become a doctor.

Similarly, should anyone knowing English hope to become an engineer just by reading through engineering books, it is clear that no sane person in this world would accept him as an engineer. The reason is that this technical expertise cannot be acquired simply by learning the English language. It would, rather, need a formal training in the discipline under the supervision and guidance of expert teachers. When these stringent requirements are inevitable in order to become a doctor or engineer, how can the learning of Arabic language alone become sufficient in matters relating to the Qur’an and Hadith ? In every department of life, everyone knows and acts upon the principle that every art or science has its own particular method of learning and its own peculiar conditions. Unless these are fulfilled, the learner’s opinion in given arts and sciences will not be considered trustworthy. If that is so, how can the Qur’an and the Sunnah become so unclaimed a field of inquiry that there be no need to acquire any art or science in order to explain them, and anyone who so wishes starts passing out opinions in this matter?

Some people say that the Qur’an has itself stated that: وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ : “And surely We have made the Qur’an easy for the sake of good counsel.” And since the noble Qur’an is a simple book, its explanation hardly needs much of a support from any art or science. But this argument is terribly fallacious, which is, in itself, based on lack of intellect and plenty of superficiality. The fact is that the verses of the Qur’an are of two kinds. Firstly, there are the verses that offer general good counsel, relate lesson-oriented events and introduce subjects dealing with taking of warning and acting on sound advice. Examples of this are the mortality of the world, the accounts of Paradise and Hell, the discourses likely to create the fear of God and the concern for the Hereafter, and other very simple realities of life. Verses of this kind are undoubtedly easy and anyone who knows the Arabic language can benefit from their good counsel by understanding them.

It is in relation to teachings of this kind that, in the verse cited above, it was said that “We have made them easy”. Hence, the word لِلذِّكْرِ (for the sake of good counsel) in the verse itself is pointing out towards this meaning.

Contrary to this, the other kind consists of verses which include injunctions, laws, articles of faith and intellectual subjects.
Understanding verses of this kind as they should be rightfully understood and deducing and formulating injunctions and rulings from them cannot be done by just any person unless one has the insight and permeating reach into the Islamic areas of knowledge. This is why the noble Companions, whose mother-tongue was Arabic and they did not have to go anywhere to get trained into understanding Arabic, used to spend long periods of time in learning the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet(SAW). ‘Allamah al-Suyuti has reported from Imam Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman Sulami that the Companions, who formally learned the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet(SAW) such as Sayyidna ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan and ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and others, have told us that, after having learnt ten verses of the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet(SAW), they would not proceed on to the next verses until such time that they had covered all that was intellectually and practically involved in the light of these verses. They used to say:

فَتَعَلَّمْنا القُرْآنَ وَالعِلْمَ والعَمَلَ جَمِيعًا
We have learnt the Qur’an, knowledge and action all in one.
(al-Itqan 2/176)

Consequently, as reported in Mu’atta’ of Imam Malik, Sayyidna ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar(RA) spent full eight years memorizing Surah al-Baqarah alone and, as in the Musnad of Ahmad, Sayyidna Anas(RA) says that “one of us who would learn Surah al-Baqarah and Surah ‘al-‘Imran had his status enormously raised among us.” (Ibid)

Worth noticing is the fact that these noble Companions whose mother-tongue was Arabic, who had the highest degree of expertise in poetry and letters and who would have no difficulty in having very long qasidah poems perfectly committed to their memories with the least of effort, why would they need, just to memorize the Qur’an and understand its meanings, as long a time as eight years, and that too, for mastering one Surah? The only reason for this was that proficiency in the Arabic language was not enough to have a learning of the noble Qur’an and areas of knowledge bearing on it. In order to do that, it was also necessary to seek the benefit of the teaching and the company of the Holy Prophet(SAW). Now this is so obvious that the noble Companions inspite of having an expertise in the Arabic language and notwithstanding their being direct witnesses to the revelation, still needed the process of going through formal education at the feet of the blessed master in order to become the ‘alims of the Qur’an, how then, after all these hundreds of years following the revelation of the Qur’an, just, by cultivating an elementary familiarity with Arabic, or by simply looking at translations, can anyone claim to having become a commentator of the Qur’an? What a monsterous audacity and what a tragic joke with knowledge and religion! People who opt for such audacity should remember well that the Holy Prophet(SAW) has said:

من قال فى القرآن بغير علم فليتبوا مقعده فى النار
Whoever says anything about the Qur’an without knowledge, then
he should make his abode in Hell. (Abu Daw’ud, as in al-Itqan, 2/179)

من تكلم فى القرآن برأيه فأصاب فقد أخطا
Whoever talks about the Qur’an on the basis of his opinion,
and even if says something true in it, still he made a mistake.
(Abu Daw’ud, Nasa’i)

(Maariful Quran, Vol1, English, p42-44)

A better method of the study of the Quran(or even Hadith) is to seek the counsel and guidance of the trusted scholars from Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah(the people of the Sunnah and the Majority). They will be able to answer questions during the learning process and also recommend books(like Maariful Quran) to the seekers of knowledge.


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