Reading the Qur'an in the 21st Century – A Contextualist Approach

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There is a need when reading the Quran in the 21st century, so everyone can understand and identify with it and the importance of looking at previous verses and the verses after it – a contextualist approach is needed. Prof. Abdullah Saeed of the Centre for Islamic Excellence has written one such text on this topic.

Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-First Century considers the development of Qur’anic interpretation and highlights modern debates around new approaches to interpretation. It explores how Muslims from various theological, legal, socio-political and philosophical backgrounds think about the meaning and relevance of the Qur’an, and how their ideas apply in the contemporary world.

Abdullah Saeed provides a practical guide for interpretation and presents the principal ideas of a contextualist approach, which situates the original message of the Qur’an in its wider social, political, cultural, economic and intellectual context. He advocates a more flexible method of interpretation that gives due recognition to earlier interpretations of the Qur’an while also being aware of changing conditions and the need to approach the Qur’an afresh today.

Abdullah Saeed is Sultan of Oman of Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. His publications include Islam and Human Rights (edited, 2012), The Qur’an: an Introduction (2008), Interpreting the Qur’an (2006), Islamic Thought (2006), and Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (co-authored, 2004).

On his website, Abdullah Saeed writes:

Contextualism provides a critical alternative for contemporary Muslims to textualism, the dominant mode of interpretation of the Qur’an today. Textualism ranges on a continuum from approaches that place an almost exclusive reliance on the literal meaning of the Qur’anic text (‘hard textualism’) to perspectives that take some contextual elements into account and so provide a degree of interpretive flexibility (‘soft textualism’). There are a number of political, intellectual and cultural reasons for the prominence and popularity of textualist (particularly the ‘hard textualist’) approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an today.

A textualist approach that relies largely on the ‘literal’ meaning of the text, with some consideration given to the complexities of practical application, has been the chief approach within the tafsir tradition, particularly regarding ethico-legal texts, and in the Islamic juristic literature (fiqh). But in all its forms, a textualist reading fails to do full justice to certain texts it interprets. The result is that those texts of the Qur’an are viewed as irrelevant to many of the vexing problems contemporary Muslim societies face or are applied inappropriately, in ways that distort basic Qur’anic principles. This should be considered a strong justification for embarking on an approach to interpretation that emphasises the continuing relevance of all Qur’anic texts to the twenty-first century.

Contrary to the hard textualists’ position that new ideas or approaches to the interpretation of the Qur’an are un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic, I argue that a contextualist approach is very Islamic, and is in fact rooted in the tradition. There are many such ideas in the Islamic juristic and Qur’anic exegetical literature which attempt to relate the Qur’anic texts and their teachings to the changing circumstances and contexts, even though there is no systematic contextualist approach as such. Both jurists and Qur’an commentators attempted to understand the circumstances in which particular Qur’anic texts were revealed as well as the specific people those texts were addressing and the time of the revelation. Even in the first century of Islam, immediately after the death of the Prophet, figures like Umar b. al-Khattab (d. 23/644), the second caliph, interpreted a range of texts in a manner that could be considered ‘contextualist’. Umar understood Qur’anic revelations in terms of their fundamental principles or objectives—and, critically, his understanding was highly contextual. Such ideas remain at the heart of the contextualist approach to the interpretation today as well. But a contextualist approach of today takes this idea of context much further and develops a method of interpretation based on the notion of context both of the time of revelation and of the twenty-first century.

Available on Amazon and Routledge websites.

You may also wish to read further examples of contextualisation in an article by Abdulla Saeed on ABC Religion and Ethics.

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