The Qur'an in the modern world
Muslims believe that the Qur'an is God's word, as told to the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic through the angel Gabriel in the 7th century. Today, as the community's social needs have almost entirely changed since that time, should this holy book be interpreted differently?
"Yes," says Prof. Abdullah Saeed, a noted Muslim scholar.
Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, challenged a widely held traditional view - that the Qur'an is God's eternal speech and is therefore unrelated to any particular context.
"This is a key issue in the 21st century today as [Muslim] scholars are dealing with human rights, gender equality, citizenship, rights of non-Muslims, especially in relation to the ethical/legal texts [in the Qur'an]," Saeed told the participants - academics, research students, clergy and journalists - at the Witherspoon Institute's recent seminar, "The Quran in the Modern World," held at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
"From a traditional view of Islam, you must look at how the Qur'an explains itself, then go to the traditions of the Prophet [Hadith, meaning reports of statements or actions of Muhammad, or of his tacit approval or criticism of something said or done in his presence], and then to the first generations [of Muslims] as to how they understood the text." Saeed said.
The view that a change in social and political realities can have no bearing on the interpretation of the Qur'an leads many to reduce exegesis to a mere linguistic exercise, said Saeed, who spent his early education at traditional Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Qur'an, Saeed said, was an oral text for 22 years at the time of the Prophet. The very first word revealed to the Prophet was "recite." "The spoken word functions in a specific context," he stressed. "For those who were in immediate contact with the Prophet, the question of interpretation as a formal endeavour did not arise, as the Qur'an was coming to them in their own language, in bits and pieces, and in a particular context - social, political, economic, cultural, intellectual. It made perfect sense to them; they could relate to it."
"The writing [of the Qur'an] was done to preserve," Saeed said. Part of the Qur'an had been written down during the time of the Prophet, but it was put together as a book after his death. When the Qur'an was written down and became a closed book, "it lost something very important: the big picture or the overall context."
That's natural for any text, not just the Qur'an, Saeed said. "When a text moves to another time, we try to reconstruct that big picture. We go back, as much as we can, to that period or time." And today, "we have a cumulative tradition of what that big picture was like. But what we have is an incomplete sense of that big picture."