The great religions of the world all have a central text which the faithful adhere to and interpret constantly as their companion in the quest for meaning. Islam is the proto-type example of this typology of religion, a faith with an unmistakably central and crucial text, the Quran. The Quran the ultimate example of a Sacred text which guides intimately the life of Muslims, offering peace and tranquility and its message of mercy.If one is to refine our understanding of religion to tear down assertions of patriarchy and autocracy then a new framework of Quranic hermeneutics has to be established.
Hermeneutics is quiet simply the philosophy of interpretation, it recognizes human agency in the act of encountering the text. Hence in this respect hermeneutics is known within the Islamic traditions as tafsir operating in a traditional exegetical setting. However, the first to use this concept was German Protestant theologian and philosopher, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), whose founding role is now widely recognized. Others include the great German philosopher and hermeneuticist Gadamer, a modern exponent of hermeneutics. The art of interpretation is a delicate act with many factors and variables in play with the assumptions and presumptions of the reader, the intricacy of the text and the interaction of the two.
The encounter of both reader and text is an event that one can neither foresee nor define. The greater the work, the richer is the meaning which is for generations of its readers to disclose. The reader brings to the text assumptions and presumptions, intelligible ideas of justice and ethics and these inevitably mesh into the interpretive scheme. Hence interpretation is a fully human act.
We must be careful in what respect we talk of a Quranic hermeneutic. A framework of hermeneutics is needed to understand the ethico-legal content of the Quran (as Abdullah Saeed puts it), to do with the issues of law and society. The beliefs of the religion (the Five Pillars for instance) cannot be re-interpreted, that is heresy and sacrilege. What is at stake here then is the interpretation and subsequent implications of the ethico-legal content of the Quran. How to determine the law, who determines it and how to implement it are some important questions to be asked.
Within the Islamic tradition it has become difficult to introduce hermeneutics within the framework of Quranic exegesis. Many have tried from Nasr Abu Zayd, AbdolKarim Soroush, and Mohammad Arkoun who have advocated very novel frameworks which have been extremely controversial to say the least. Others such as the Pakistani professor Fazlur Rahman have tried a synthesis of traditional and modern techniques of literary analysis and theory, but even they have found it difficult to break through the conservative hold on the interpretation of the Quran. In recent times Tariq Ramadan’s presentation of the text and context and the systematic exposition of this in his recent new works can also be an example of a cautious but transformational reformism. Also Khaled Abou El Fadl’s specific and robust presentations of the role of interpretation in the fiqhi discourse have also been illuminating.
There are many major differences between classical tafsir and the new exegetical efforts of modern intellectual in the domain of hermeneutics, but one of them is of history and social context. Historically, Muslim exegetes and jurists often relied on linguistic criteria only to interpret the ethico-legal content and to determine whether a particular ruling in the Quran is to be universally applicable or not, hence framing their exegetical inquiry in atomistic terms, interpreting solitary verses without taking into context the holistic message, the global message of the Quran. This of course is not totally true; there is the school of Maqasid in medieval Islam with the likes of al-Juwayni, al Shabiti and the great Al Ghazali. The Maqasid (the objectives of the Sharia) has now taken centre stage in many of the modern hermeneutic schemes constructed by Muslim scholars and intellectuals, indeed Ramadan has used the framework of the Maqasid quiet effectively.
Hence the question of social and historical context in which the ruling was given at the time of the revelation of the Quran was seen as irrelevant or unimportant, bar a few exceptional cases.
Hence the quarrels of interpretation lie in the area of fiqh and law, (with some associative issues in theology) rather in the core principles and beliefs. Hence fundamentalism in this sense alone means a negation of history, and the role it has in the shaping of our religiosities and interpretations of law. It means a negation of human agency and free will, human beings do not and should not have the capability to reason independently rather should do what God tells them to because it is clearly self evident. In this respect fundamentalism refuses to take social change and the evolution of societies into account.
But as many historical inquiries by modern scholars show the interpretation of Islamic law (jurisprudence) has been in constant flux with an irreducible diversity hence the many schools of law.
The recognition of socio-historical contexts in the act of interpretation is the barrier preventing any dynamism and creativity in the discourse of faith in Pakistan today. Unquestioning reverence of past authorities and clerics of law and theology has stifled any dynamism and pluralism.
One of the doyens of modern Quranic hermeneutics Fazlur Rahman suffered a great deal of hostility and persecution in Pakistan; hence he pursued the rest of his scholarship in the West. His influence though minimal in Pakistan has been great across the Far East in Indonesian and Malaysian scholars. His influence on the American discourse of Islam too has been greatly felt; hence this sad event was a loss to Pakistan but a gain to other discourses across Muslim communities elsewhere.
If the issues of gender relations, war and peace, democracy and political philosophy, ethics and pluralism are to be resolved one needs to take the hard road of hermeneutics. By introducing hermeneutics into Islamic discourse, clerical authoritarianism can be countered and more penetrating and holistic interpretations of the Quran can surface. We must constantly remember that Revelation is infallible and from God, but interpretation is fully human endeavour, capable of fault and error, a fallible expression of human reasoning. Hence reform is never in the context of religion itself but in our understanding of faith. By taking the road of a pluralistic and liberal hermeneutical framework we will give the respect and sanctity that our central and Sacred scripture deserves, whilst engaging with our Scripture in a contemplative manner.
The hope that a sensitive and reformist hermeneutical framework can bring is enormous. A comprehensive hermeneutical framework can counter the assumptions of conservative jurists in their exegetical endeavours. Piece meal reforms will never succeed (for instance questioning one aspect of the pre-modern fiqh framework but leaving the other aspects untouched is counter-productive), a wholesale ijtihad on ijtihad will need to take place, and the pre-modern paradigms of fiqh though useful have perhaps outlived their purposes in a new world where the epistemological (epistemology refers to the theory and framework of knowledge) realities are very different.