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Text and interpreter

June 21, 2013

WRITING, reading and interpreting a text are complex processes. What is meant by text here is a wide range of things — a written text, an oral rendition, a phenomenon, an art piece, or a form of architecture. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on written texts.

Often, reading/interpreting of a text is seen as a simple exercise, but it is not. It involves very complex processes. If beauty lies in the beholder’s eye, surely the meanings lie in the interpreter’s mind. What this means is that interpretation is a human process.

The same text can be interpreted in many different ways. It is a process, not a product. The traffic of meaning flows from the interpreter to the text and back to the interpreter. The journey may be seen as ‘circular’. There is a dynamic, organic, not a static, relationship between a text and a reader.

The study of the art/science of interpretation of texts (hermeneutics) has entered a new phase in postmodern times from a simple traditional linguistic analysis to complex social, sociological, psychological, political and historical processes.

Today, texts — sacred or profane — are seen as complex things, not ‘facts’. The richness of the interpretation of a text is directly proportional to the richness of the interpreter’s background knowledge about the text, and his tools or skills of interpreting a text.

For example Farid Esack, a South African scholar on Islam (Quran, Liberation, and Pluralism) quoting Hazrat Ali says that the Quranic interpreters were/are people, human beings (implying that they were not angels and hence were bound by human weaknesses).

People’s orientations are predicated by the circumstances of their time and place, personal choices, and therefore, what they choose to tell is not necessarily the ‘absolute truth’, but how they see the truth in their contexts, from their perspectives.

In Esack’s terms, all interpreters reflect their times, their needs. He rightly suggests, “Indeed, each and every generation of Muslims … carrying its peculiar synthesis of the human condition, has produced its own commentaries on the Quran and various kinds of interpretations with every generation”.

Esack concludes by arguing that the present generation of Muslims, like the many preceding ones, faces the option of reproducing meaning intended for earlier generations or of selectively appropriating traditional understandings to reinterpret the Quran as part of the task of reconstructing society.

Right from the beginning of the Islamic faith, Muslims have approached the Quran in diverse ways. Hence there are today so many translations and exegeses, reflecting these tendencies. These developments have enriched our understanding of the Quran.

The Quran itself generously invites its readers to “reflect” and “contemplate” on the verses, both written and living (in Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s terms, reflect on the “word” of God, the Quran, and the “work” of God, the universe). If the process of interpretation would have been so simple, why would the Quran require us “to reflect” on its verses?

How important it is to understand a text’s context may be gauged by an example from the Quran. Glorifying the blessings of God to the people of the time, in the Holy Book it is stated, “And the cattle hath He created … wherein is beauty for you, when ye bring them home, and when ye take them out to pasture … And horses and mules and asses (hath He created) that ye may ride them, and for ornament. …” (Surah an-Nahl).

These verses tend to reflect the aesthetic values of the 6th/7th century Hejaz where the cited animals were seen as markers of social status and even ‘beauty’. Take these verses out of this context and situate them in another context, say, Beijing, Cairo, Karachi, Paris, Toronto or Tokyo and the verses assume different meanings, where animals today are no longer a sign of wealth, but things like bungalows, cars, mobile phones, laptops and iPads are.

The Quran, therefore, is inextricably linked to the contexts in which it was revealed. This does not mean it is frozen in time, but the words are eternal in the sense that they will remain the same. We the readers/interpreters, have to see how we can understand them in our own contexts.

Alluding to this need, Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman argues that interpreters, often ignoring these contextual factors “…Began to confuse the issue; and the strictly legal injunctions of the Quran were thought to apply to any society, no matter what its conditions, what its structure and what its inner dynamics. ...” (Islam).

He further argues that “There is a good deal of evidence to believe that in the very early period, the Muslims interpreted the Quran pretty freely. But after a period of juristic development during the late 1st/7th and throughout the 2nd/8th century … the lawyers neatly tied themselves and the community down to the ‘text’ of the Holy Book until the content of Muslim law and theology became buried under the weight of literalism”.

Scholars today suggest taking a multidisciplinary approach to studying texts, involving disciplines like hermeneutics, semantics, linguistics, sociology (particularly the critical discourse analysis), politics, besides many others.

The process of interpreting a text is complex. The text, the interpreter and the reader meet at the crossroads of enormous complexity. They counteract in dynamic ways, influencing each other.

Gross misunderstanding is the result when these complexities are ignored and a text is interpreted and applied blindly. Some of the issues in Muslim societies regarding sectarian interpretations stem, to my understanding, from this miscalculation.

The writer teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.