The Principles of Interpretation of the Quran
 


At the beginning of Islam it was commonly believed by some Sunnis that if there was sufficient reason one could ignore the outward meaning of Quranic verses and ascribe to them a contrary meaning. Usually the meaning which opposed the outward, literal meaning was called ta'wil, and what is called "ta'wil of the Quran" in Sunni Islam is usually understood in this sense.

In the religious works of Sunni scholars, as well as in the controversies that have been recorded as taking place between different schools, one often observes that if a particular point of doctrine (that has been established through the consensus of the ulama of a school or through some other means) is opposed to the outward meaning of a verse of the Quran, that verse is interpreted by ta'wil to have a meaning contrary to its apparent meaning.

Sometimes two contending sides support two opposing views and present Quranic verses in proof of their contentions. Each side interprets the verses presented by the other side through ta'wil. This method has also penetrated more or less into Shi'ism and can be seen in some Shi'ite theological works.

Yet, sufficient deliberation upon Quranic verses and the hadith of the Household of the Prophet demonstrates clearly that the Holy Quran with its attractive language and eloquent and lucid expression never uses enigmatic or puzzling methods of exposition and always expounds any subject in a language suitable for that subject.

What has been rightly called ta'wil, or hermeneutic interpretation, of the Holy Quran is not concerned simply with the denotation of words. Rather, it is concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men ; yet it is from these truths and realities that the principles of doctrine and the practical injunctions of the Quran issue forth.

The whole of the Quran possesses the sense of ta'wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only the prophets and the pure among the saints of God who are free from the dross of human imperfection can contemplate these meanings while living on the present plane of existence. On the Day of Resurrection the ta'wil of the Quran will be revealed to everyone.

This assertion can be explained by pointing to the fact that what forces man to use speech, create words and make use of expressions is nothing other than his social and material needs. In his social life man is forced to try to make his fellow-men understand his thoughts and intentions and the feelings which exist within his soul. To accomplish this end he makes use of sounds and hearing. Occasionally also he uses to a degree his eyes and gestures. That is why between the mute and the blind there can never be any mutual comprehension, for whatever the blind man says the deaf cannot hear, and whatever the mute makes understood through gestures the blind man cannot see.

The creation of words and the naming of objects have been accomplished with a material end in view. Expressions have been created for those objects, states, and conditions which are material and available to the senses or near to the sensible world. As can be seen in those cases where the person addressed lacks one of the physical senses, if we wish to speak of matters which can be comprehended through the missing sense we employ a kind of allegory and similitude.

For example, if we wish to describe light or color to one who is born blind, or the pleasures of sex to a child that has not reached the age of adolescence, we seek to achieve our purpose through comparison and allegory and through providing examples.

Therefore, if we accept the hypothesis that in the scale of Universal Existence there are immense levels of reality which are independent of the world of matter (and this is in reality the case), and that in each generation there are among mankind but a handful who have the capability of comprehending and having a vision of these realities, then questions pertaining to these higher worlds cannot be understood through common verbal expressions and modes of thought. They cannot be referred to except by allusion and through symbolism. Since religious realities are of this kind, the expression of the Quran in such matters must of necessity be symbolic.

God says in his book, "Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture in Arabic that haply ye may understand. And Lo! in the Source of Decrees, which We possess, it is indeed sublime, decisive." (Common comprehension cannot understand it or penetrate into it.) (Quran, XLIII, 3-4) He also says, "That (this) is indeed a noble Quran, In a book kept hidden, Which none toucheth save the purified" (Quran, LVI, 77-79). Concerning the Prophet and his Household he says, "Allah's wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the Household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing" (Quran, XXXIII, 33).

As proved by these verses, the Holy Quran emanates from sources beyond the comprehension of common man. No one can have a full comprehension of the Quran save those servants of God whom He has chosen to purify. And the Household of the Prophet are among those pure beings.

In another place God says, "Nay, but they denied that (the Quran), the knowledge whereof they could not compass, and whereof the interpretation (in events) [ta'wil] hath not yet come into them" (Quran, X, 40) (meaning the day of Resurrection when the truth of things will become known). And again he says, "On the day (the Day of Resurrection) when the fulfillment [ta'wil] thereof (of the whole Quran) cometh, those who were before forgetful thereof will say: The messengers of our Lord did bring the Truth!" (Quran, VII, 53)

Hadith

The principle that the hadith possesses validity, as attested by the Quran, is not at all disputed among Shi'ites or in fact among all Muslims. But because of the failure of some of the early rulers of Islam in preserving and guarding the hadith, and the excesses of a group among the companions and followers of the Prophet in propagating hadith literature, the corpus of hadith came to face a certain number of difficulties.

On the one hand the caliphs of the time prevented the writing down and recording of the hadith and ordered any pages containing texts of hadith to be burned. Sometimes also any increase in activity in the transmission and study of hadith was forbidden. In this way a certain number of hadiths were forgotten or lost and a few were even transmitted with a different or distorted meaning. On the other hand another tendency also prevailed among another group of the companions of the Holy Prophet who had had the honor of seeing his presence and actually hearing his words.

This group, which was respected by the caliphs and the Muslim community, began an intense effort to propagate the hadith. This was carried to such an extent that sometimes hadith overruled the Quran and the injunction of a Quranic verse was even considered abrogated by some people through a hadith. Often the transmitters of hadith would travel many miles and bear all the difficulties of traveling in order to hear a single saying.

A group of outsiders who had worn the dress of Islam and also some of the enemies within ranks of Islam began to change and distort some of the hadith and thus diminished the reliability and validity of the hadith that was then heard and known. For this very reason Islamic scholars began to think of a solution. They created the sciences concerned with the biography of learned men and chains of transmission of hadith in order to be able to discriminate between true and false hadith.


The Method of Shi'ism in Authenticating the Hadith


Shi'ism, in addition to seeking to authenticate the chain transmission of hadith, considers the correlation of the text of the hadith with the Quran as a necessary condition for its validity. In Shi'ite sources there are many hadiths of the Prophet and the Imams with authentic chains of transmission which themselves assert that a hadith contrary to the Quran has no value. Only that hadith can be considered valid which is in agreement with the Quran.

Basing itself on these hadiths, Shi'ism does not act upon those hadiths which are contrary to the text of the Quran. As for the hadiths whose agreement or disagreement cannot be established, according to instructions received from Imams they are passed by in silence without being accepted or rejected. Needless to say there are also within Shi'ism those who, like a group among the Sunnis, act on any hadith whatsoever which they happen to find in different traditional sources.

The Method of Shi'ism in Following the Hadith

A hadith heard directly from the mouth of the Prophet or one of the Imams is accepted as is the Quran. As for hadiths received through intermediaries, the majority of Shi'ites act upon them if their chain of transmission is established at every step or if there exists definite proof concerning their truth, and, if they are concerned with principles of doctrine which require knowledge and certainty, according to the text of the Quran. Other than these two kinds of hadith, no other hadith has any validity concerning principles of doctrine, the invalid hadith being called "tradition with a single transmitter" (khabar wahid).

However, in establishing the injunctions of the Shari'ah, because of reasons that have been given, Shi'ites act also on a tradition which is generally accepted as reliable. Therefore it can be said that for Shi'ism a certain and definitely established hadith is absolutely binding and must be followed, while a hadith which is not absolutely established but which is generally considered as reliable is utilized only in the elaboration of the injunctions of the Shari'ah.

Learning and Teaching in Islam

To acquire knowledge is a religious duty in Islam. The Prophet has said, "To seek knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim." According to fully established hadiths which elucidate the meaning of this saying, knowledge here means the three principles of Islam : unity or tawhid ; prophecy or nubuwwat; and eschatology or ma'ad. In addition to these principles, Muslims are expected to acquire knowledge of the subsidiary branches and the details of the injunctions and laws of Islam according to their individual circumstances and needs.

It is clear that acquiring knowledge of the principles of religion, even if it be in summary fashion, is possible to a certain extent for everyone. But acquiring detailed knowledge of the injunctions and laws of religion through use of the basic documents of the Book and the Sunnah and technical reasoning based upon them (or what is called demonstrative jurisprudence, fiqh-i istidlali ) is not possible for every Muslim. Only a few persons have the capacity for demonstrative jurisprudence, nor is such acquiring of detailed knowledge required of everyone, for there are no injunctions in Islam requiring one to do what lies beyond his abilities.

Therefore, the study of Islamic injunctions and laws through reasoning has been limited through the principle of "sufficient necessity" (wajib-i kifa'i) to those individuals who have the necessary capability and are worthy of such study. The duty of the rest of the people, according to the general principle of the necessity for the ignorant to depend on the one who knows, is to seek guidance from capable and worthy men of learning, who are called mujtahids and faqihs.

This act of following mujtahids is called imitation or taqlid. Of course this imitation differs from imitation in the principles of religious knowledge which is forbidden according to the very text of the Quran, "(O man), follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge." (Quran, XVII, 36).

It must be known that Shi'ism does not permit imitation of a dead mujtahid. That is to say, a person who does not know the answer to a problem through ijtihad and through religious duty must imitate a living mujtahid and cannot depend on the view of a mujtahid who is not living, unless he had received that guidance while the mujtahid was alive. This practice is one of the factors which have kept Islamic Shi'ite jurisprudence alive and fresh throughout the ages. There are individuals who continuously follow the path of independent judgment, ijtihad, and delve into the problems of jurisprudence from one generation to another.

In Sunnism, as a result of consensus of opinion (ijma') that occurred in the 4th/10th century, it was decided that submission to one of the four schools (of Abu Hanifah, Ibn Malik, al-Shafi'i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal) was necessary. Free ijtihad or imitation of a school other than these four (or one or two smaller schools that died out later) was not considered permissible. As a result, their jurisprudence has remained in the same condition as it was about 1100 years ago. In recent times certain individuals in the Sunni world have turned away from this consensus and have begun to exercise free ijtihad.

Shi'ism and the Transmitted Sciences

The Islamic sciences, which owe their existence to the ulama of Islam who organized and formulated them, are divided into the two categories of intellectual ('alqi) and transmitted (naqli). The intellectual sciences include such sciences as philosophy and mathematics. The transmitted sciences are those which depend upon transmission from some source, such as the sciences of language, hadith, or history. Without doubt the major cause for the appearance of the transmitted sciences in Islam is the Holy Quran.

With the exception of a few disciplines such as history, genealogy, and prosody, the other transmitted sciences have all come into being under the influence of the Holy Book. Guided by religious discussions and research, Muslims began to cultivate these sciences, of which the most important are Arabic literature (grammar, rhetoric, and the science of metaphors) and the sciences pertaining to the external form of religion (recitation of the Quran, Quranic commentary (tafsir), hadith, biography of learned men, the chain of transmission of hadith, and the principles of jurisprudence).

Shi'ites played an essential role in the foundation and establishment of these sciences. In fact, the founders and creators of many of these sciences were Shi'ites. Arabic grammar was put into a systematic form by Abu'l-Aswad al-Du'ali, one of the companions of the Holy Prophet, and by Ali.

Ali dictated an outline for the organization of the science of Arabic grammar. One of the founders of the science of eloquence (rhetoric and the science of metaphors) was Sahib ibn 'Abbad, a Shi'ite, who was a vizier of the Buyids. The first Arabic dictionary is the Kitab al-'ayn composed by the famous scholar, Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Basri, the Shi'ite who founded the science of prosody. He was also the teacher of the great master of grammar, Sibuwayh.

The Quranic recitation of 'Asim goes back to Ali through one intermediary, and 'Abdallah ibn 'Abbas, who in hadith was the foremost among the companions, was a student of Ali. The contributions of the Household of the Prophet and their associates in hadith and jurisprudence are well known. The founders of the four Sunni schools of law are known to have associated with the fifth and sixth Shi'ite Imams. In the principles of jurisprudence the remarkable advances accomplished by the Shi'ite scholar Wahid Binbahani and followed by Shaykh Murtada Ansari have never been matched in Sunni jurisprudence according to existing evidence.