Against “Proof-texting” in the Qur’an

mage tile showing Medinana mosque
Muhammad’s house – now the grand mosque – in Medina

Chapter 3 of Qur’an in Conversation begins with Jamal Badawi’s discussion of the factors affecting the interpretation of “one of the most misunderstood verses of the Qur’an”(78) 9:5, “Kill the idolaters [mushrikin] wherever you find them, capture them, besiege them, lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

Badawi uses the verse as an example of an “adequate methodology for reading the Qur’an”(78). The method he advocates, far from being a recent innovation, has been the practice of learned Qur’anic exegetes for centuries. The innovations, Badawi would argue, have been introduced by those who would read this verse as an absolute command independent of context – historical as well as literary.

He notes that the criteria for “normative teaching” in Islam are established primarily first in the Qur’an and second in the hadiths. Secondary sources include scholarly consensus ( ijmaa) and analogical deduction (qiyaas). These sources already give rise to different schools of reasoning about Islamic law, the “schools” of fiqh. All this study will focus on the Arabic text of the Qur’an, it almost goes without saying. Any particular passage of the Qur’an will need to be read in context of other passages, on the principle that “the Qur’an explains itself” (80) – something which ought to sound familiar to those students of Biblical literature who hold the same idea about the Bible.

It’s common to hear that scholars of the Qur’an don’t use “historical criticism,” and this might be accurate if by “historical criticism” people mean the kind of “higher criticism” that has been applied to Biblical studies since the nineteenth century. But as Badawi points out, attention to the historical setting of the revelation of a passage of the Qur’an is indispensable for reading the Qur’an. In the case of 9:5, for instance, the historical conditions of revelation were the breaches of the treaty of Hudaybiyya by the Meccans during early years in Medina, which supports a reading of 9:5 that “is limited to those who carried arms and killed innocent people”(81) in the Medinan context. Whether what was appropriate to that particular context can be generalized as appropriate to any other similar historical and political context, then, becomes a matter of further interpretation.

Badawi further argues that the noun mushrikin, which is often translated as “nonbelievers” or “infidels,” should be translated “idolaters” and specifically refers to the particular treaty-breakers in the historical situation in which 9:5 is understood to have been revealed. In light of another interpretive principle familiar to students of Biblical literature, “the few should be interpreted in light of the many,” he takes the permission to fight granted in 9:5 as generally limited, because to interpret it as a blanket or general permission or instruction to fight would “disregard many Qur’anic texts that are inconsistent with that interpretation” (82). Since “the dominant voice in the Qur’an” advocates peaceful inter-communal relations, it is simply a mistake for Muslims or non-Muslims to read this verse as a proof of a general permission or command to wage war on non-Muslims.

Badawi also takes up the issue of “abrogation” or, as he prefers, “supercession” (naskh), according to which some later revelations superceed earlier ones. Some interpreters (including influential ones, like Sayyid Qutb) have understood 9:5 in this light. (Qutb, for instance, regards the Qur’an’s treatment of warfare as progressive, and keyed to the capabilities of the Muslim community; God would not have commanded the nascent and vulnerable Muslim community in Mecca to undertake the same actions it later became capable of after the hijra.) Here Badawi recommends a limited approach, restricting claims of supercession, and in particular comparing verses that are supposed to superceed others to the body of other text revealed at approximately the same time. This will again, according to Badawi, limit the general applicability of the fighting authorized in 9:5.

Ironically, the inadequate methodological approach with which Badawi takes issue is an approach often ascribed to “real Muslims” by a specific segment of non-Muslim readers of the Qur’an. The ascription of this approach may seem even more plausible because the de-contextualized, absolutist approach to the interpretation of sacred text is in use today in Biblical studies in the same quarters. People who read the Bible this way – as a collection of oracles that can be taken out of context and applied absolutely to the reader’s situation, without qualification, according to the way their translated words are understood by contemporary readers – may assume readers of the Qur’an read that sacred text in this way, too. People who are suspicious of readings of the Bible that make allowances for historical circumstances, literary values, and contextualized meanings are likely to be equally suspicious of claims that the Qur’an needs to be read that way. If “real Christians” read the Bible literally and absolutely, then “real Muslims” must read the Qur’an in the same way; if only suspect Christians modulate their readings, then the modulated readings of the Qur’an must be coming from “faux Muslims.” The basic argument “real Muslims” read the Qur’an literally, coming up with the most absolutist interpretation possible, is in fact, advanced routinely – and not just on anti-Muslim internet sites. (See Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants”, and Caner Dagli’s response ) People holding this position then have an easy time dismissing kinder, gentler readings of the Qur’an as “fake Islam.”

It’s too bad, since Badawi and those who read as he does clearly have the weight of Islamic tradition and history on their side. In essence, he lays out a claim to be the real “real Islam.” And while such authenticity claims are matters of intra-religious politics, so it isn’t really my business, this ongoing struggle will have consequences for those of us outside the Muslim community, and from that perspective, too, Badawi’s method seems to have everything in its favor.

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