Are Linguistic Interpretations of Sacred Texts Arbitrary?

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

As Muslims become more aware of differences in deduction and interpretation among scholars of fiqh and tafsir, some have expressed concern that it seems like language-based interpretation seems arbitrary. I have met many young people who ask me about this. It almost appears to be the case that a scholar can say anything about sacred text to get out of a tricky question.

Young enthusiasts of the Islamic sciences have a different concern: if there are indeed a spectrum of valid interpretations instead of fixed specific positions, then what is the dividing line between a valid interpretation and an invalid one? This question was actually what drove me to travel abroad and study, so I do not propose to answer these questions in detail here, as that would require me more than one volume to fully explain. Rather I will attempt to give a brief snapshot of the answers to these questions.

First of all, an important disclaimer:

Some differences of deduction and interpretation that the average Muslim may encounter today are indeed arbitrary with respect to the tradition or as representatives of textual truths. This is because of the many unqualified individuals interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah for themselves or others. Unfortunately there are many adopting or offering their personal tafsir or fiqh opinions without a strong grounding in either the Arabic language, Usul-ul-Fiqh, Tafsir or the Fiqh tradition as a whole.

The Psychology and Function of Language

This is the first way that interpretation is regulated, and critical to understand properly. If you can understand this section well, the rest will be easier.

This is where studying the Arabic language and Usul-ul-Fiqh to an advanced degree are extremely important for a scholar, mufti or mufassir. Epistemology and the philosophy of language are very important as well, and this is why Usul-ul-Fiqh texts would contain sections on these subjects in the beginning, although it is important to note that both epistemology and the philosophy of language have developed tremendously since the classical Islamic period, especially in the Western tradition. It is worth filtering through the current Western philosophical tradition and identifying concepts that would be useful in the Islamic sciences.

To demonstrate how language regulates interpretation. Let us do a quick and harmless activity that doesn’t require knowledge of Arabic. It’s best done in a group setting, but should still be effective here inshaAllah. I want you to read the following sentences and then for each one, take a minute or two to reflect carefully on the image that your mind instinctively generates in your imagination. Do NOT read ahead until you have done so:

1) The black car drove by me quickly.

2) Save some of the sandwich for me.

3) Where did you put the keys?

Once you’ve reflected over the images your mind generated, move on to the next paragraph.

Let’s look at the first sentence, which is a statement. What make was the car that flashed in your mind? What hue of black was it? Was it night or day? Where were you standing? Exactly how fast was the car going? In what direction was it moving? Almost every single person will have a different composite of images in their head.

Look at the second sentence, which is a command or imperative. How much of the sandwich did the person intend for you to save? How much did you end up saving for them? What kind of sandwich was it? How big was it? How ‘dividable’ was it? What’s at stake in your following of the command? Again, almost every single person will have a different perspective.

Finally, look at the third sentence, which is a question. Who is the person asking you this question? Did you lose the keys? How long have the keys been missing? Is the person asking the question asking you calmly or are they frustrated because they’re in a hurry and have been looking around for a while? Is this even a question in the first place or is the person yelling at you and venting their frustration at you? Depending on your experiences and personality, this question may have stressed you out or made you chuckle.

So it almost seems like that we will all look at the same sentence and interpret something completely different from it. Right?

Not really. Look at the sentences again. We might all have different images in our head, but we can all agree on a range of understandings. For example in the first statement, we can all agree that there was a car. It was black in some way. It was moving, and we were at the scene and witnessing it moving past us. In our second example we all agree that someone asked us to save some of the sandwich for them. Consider the conversation you would have if you didn’t act on that command. Not recognizing that minimal breadth of meaning would probably land you in some sort of disappointment or trouble. In our last sentence, we can all agree that in some way, shape or form, someone has either misplaced or lost their keys.

I did this activity with my kids in my school, and then again with my own private students. The latter found it so effective that they said I should write a post about this. Hence this piece.

This example demonstrates the function of language and how our minds process it. It forces us to ask: What is language? Language is a tool we use to communicate ideas in our minds. One mind uses verbal utterances, written symbols or even body signals to convey meaning to another. The ultimate function of language is human communication. But for the second mind that is receiving language, it has to to decipher the meaning intended by the first mind, and this is not always a straightforward task, which is why conflict in our understanding of spoken, written or visual speech is common. Depending on the number of contextual clues available to us, ‘receiving’ minds will differ on the interpretation of the language used by the first mind. But more on contextual clues later.

Language and Usul-ul-Fiqh

Obviously we want to take what we just read about and apply it to our subject for interpretation. To do this, we need to talk about Usul-ul-Fiqh, as it is the Islamic science that discusses the principles of how the Qur’an and Sunnah are to be interpreted.

Scholars of Usul-ul-Fiqh from Imam al-Shafii onwards understood the critical importance of epistemology & language in Usul-ul-Fiqh. In early Islamic History epistemology and language were limited to either primitive and instinctual understandings from the Arabic language as spoken by the Arabs. But as the need for theoretical clarification, practical application, teaching and study deepened, scholars expanded their explanation and writings on the role of language in the interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Some ideas were borrowed from Greek logic and metaphysics, but many ideas came from scholars of the Arabic language.

Let us see a few examples of concepts they discussed. Note that this is a small sample. The language & epistemology section of an Usul-ul-Fiqh book is usually the longest.

1) The Mantuq and the Mafhum – Mantuq means ‘what is spoken’ and Mafhum means ‘what is understood’. This division alone means that scholars understood there was a difference between mere words in the sacred texts and what was understood from them. A good historical example of this is from Ali رضي الله عنه’s debates with the Khawarij, where he presented them a copy of the Qur’an and asked them to make it speak on their behalf. He was trying to show them that the Qur’an cannot speak on its own behalf, rather it needs human beings i.e. interpreters, to do so.

2) The Dhahir and the Mu’awwal – Dhahir is the ‘apparent’ meaning and Mu’awwal is the ‘interpreted’ meaning. This shows us that the meanings of some texts are plainsense in that we take their meaning at face value, while in other cases texts require some sort of interpretation that is not considering the plainsense meaning as authoritative. If you reflect over our previous section, you should be able to tell that even the Dhahir or plainsense meaning is not always that easy to identify, and one may differ in that type of textual interpretation as well, although to a much more limited degree than a Mu’awwal meaning.

3) The Mutlaq and the Muqayyad – Mutlaq is the ‘unrestricted’ meaning of a text and Muqayyad is the ‘restricted’ meaning of a text. Usually a beginner’s text in Usul-ul-Fiqh like Imam al-Juwayni’s Waraqat will mention a few examples like ‘istithna’ (exceptions) using the word ٌإلا or غير etc. That is an example of a restriction mentioned within the same passage. A restriction can also be mentioned in a completely different passage when the same topic is discussed, and we will touch upon this later.

4) The Amr and the Nahiy – An Amr is a command and a Nahiy is a prohibtion. We are speaking about language here and not fiqh. The default rule according to many scholars in Usul is that a command in the sacred text indicates compulsion and obligation. However a quick look at all the linguistic commands in the texts indicates this is usually not the case. A linguistic command can indicate obligation, recommendation, permission, a threat, advice, giving permission, warning etc and many others. Imam al-Mahalli in his explanation of Imam Taj-ul-Din al-Subki’s Jam’-ul-Jawami’ listed 26 possible meanings to a linguistic command. Think about our sandwich example from the previous section, what if the person intended from their command that they would dislike it if you ate any of it at all and would rather they get to eat the whole thing?

An Example of Language & Usul-ul-Fiqh Applied to Sacred Text

This is an example I have on my Facebook page, but I have adjusted it here to correspond to our discussion.

Let us use the example of texts to do with a Muslim man’s beard. All the narrations from Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim regarding the beard use variations of wording similar to the following:

قصّوا الشارب وأعفوا اللحى

Now let’s apply what we’ve learned so far. The Mantuq of this statement would be: “Trim your moustache and leave the beards.” No matter how we interpret this hadith, we know that to some extent the Prophet ﷺ wanted us to maintain our moustaches and beards. We are not discussing the epistemology of hadith authentication here, so assuming the Prophet ﷺ did indeed say this using this wording, what exactly was his intent?

For example, what did the Prophet ﷺ mean by the words ‘trim’, ‘moustache’, ‘leave’ and ‘beard’? When does the act of cutting hair become trimming and when does it become something else like shaving or plucking? When does our acting on or lack of acting on an object comprise of ‘leaving’ it? What part of a man’s facial hair is his moustache or beard?

Its easy to say that we should just look at how the Arabs used these words in their speech and poetry, but just like in the first section how we demonstrated the diversity of how human minds process language differently, we could do the same thing in Arabic poetry. We could find the same passage or word in Arabic poetry and differ on our interpretation of how the Arabs were using it, despite there being some common central interpretation. This is exactly why a classical dictionary on the Arabic language will sometimes be dozens of volumes long, because scholars of the Arabic language differed on their interpretation of the Arabs’ usage of language itself. Because of this, the Dhahir meaning of the text could be extracted, but debated in itself.

So to understand the fiqh ruling emanating from this text, we need to understand what the Mafhum of this text is. And this is exactly what the scholars of fiqh tried to do.

Right away, almost all the scholars of the four schools of fiqh understood that the text is unrestricted. The Prophet ﷺ did not explicitly mention to what extent the moustache should be trimmed, or to what extent the beard should be trimmed. He did not specify exactly where a man’s beard or moustache were his beard or moustache and when they were other parts of his facial hair. But they all understood the text was talking about trimming the moustache and leaving the beard. Beyond that core meaning, they had their own interpretations.

In the official Shafii position, this command is not even one of obligation. It’s one of recommendation. The Shafiis say that it is disliked to either trim or shave the beard. They understood the beard as the part of the facial hair that wraps around the jaw line. Because the hadith is unrestricted and the Prophet ﷺ himself did not restrict this command elsewhere, the Shafiis left it unrestricted and did not specify a specific extent to which the moustache should be trimmed or the beard left. So as long as someone has what we could call a beard, then that is sufficient – only if it didn’t seem to be a beard (like stubble) or didn’t wrap around the jaw line, then the command would be violated. And even then it would not be a sin, as the command was of recommendation, not obligation.

Other schools understood this to be a command of obligation. Therefore someone who acted against it was sinful. The Hanbalis found restriction in this hadith from the narration of Abdullah ibn Umar رضي الله عنه, where he trimmed his beard to a fist length. This was taken as a restriction because Abdullah ibn Umar was known to be very meticulous in his following of the Sunnah. The Shafiis (and others) did not follow this however. For Shafiis they did not agree that the individual actions of Companions were able to restrict the meanings of Prophetic hadith (to be more specific, they did not consider the individual interpretations of the Companions as legal evidence), as this could have been the individual ijtihad of Abdullah ibn Umar and not what the Prophet ﷺ actually did or commanded.

These rulings would exemplify our Mafhum or Mu’awwal meaning of this text Prophetic hadith. This is shows how the philosophy of language and epistemology would affect our understanding of sacred text. Language itself creates the room for both a fixed common, core meaning and the possibility of multiple interpretations.

Can A Text Have Multiple Acceptable Meanings?

But given what we’ve talked about so far, what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a text? And how and why is this even acceptable in the first place? Let us answer this second question first. We will answer the first question in the next section.

The most common evidence quoted to demonstrate the acceptability of multiple interpretations in Islam is the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ where he told the Companions to meet him at the tribe of Banu Quraydhah who had broken their treaty with the Muslims during the battle of al-Khandaq. He ﷺ said:

Do not pray Asr except in Banu Quraydhah.

The Companions realized that by the time they got to Banu Quraydhah it would already be time for Maghrib. So some of them prayed Asr first anyway and then went to Banu Quraydhah, while others waited until they got to Banu Quraydhah and prayed it after the time for Asr was over. When the Prophet ﷺ was told about this he did not reproach either of them.

How do we understand this hadith? Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani in Fath Al-Bari when explaining this hadith says that some of the Sahabah interpreted this command of the Prophet ﷺ in light of other commands in the sacred texts to pray the daily prayers within their time, and assumed that the Prophet ﷺ was not being literal, rather he was expressing the urge to make haste. Other Sahabah understood this statement literally even if the time for Asr would run out, as the circumstances of warfare demanded such an exception.

This shows us that the Prophet ﷺ approved of such a difference in interpretation, and that the Shariah does not take us to account for language-based differences in interpretation as long as:

1) They do not ignore the Mantuq and Dhahir in its entirety. Regardless of how they interpreted the command of the Prophet ﷺ, the Sahabah recognized that they were ordered to immediately go to Banu Quraydhah. This is similar to our examples we have mentioned before. The default ruling among scholars of Usul is that texts must be interpreted according to their Dhahir meanings (whatever they might be or discussed to be) unless there is a reason to do otherwise.

2) They are grounded in knowledge and sincerity towards Allah and His Messenger. The Companions’ native language was the original Arabic and they were well aware of both the sacred texts and the context of the command. The default rule is that the Companions were mujtahids – able to conduct independent interpretation of the sacred texts.

This may seem at first to be contrary to the nature of sacred text as ‘guidance’ but in fact it increases the universality of sacred text – in that multiple yet restricted interpretations are allowed across time, space and experience. This reinforces the proposition in the Qur’an that the Prophet ﷺ was sent to ‘all of mankind’ and not just people of a specific time & place.

From the examples we have been mentioning so far, you might notice that there is more being taken into account in the interpretation of a text besides merely the linguistic aspect.

What Else Regulates Linguistic Interpretation Besides Language?

There is more in Usul-ul-Fiqh that restricts our possible interpretations. Let us suppose for any given sacred text, we can have a range of possible linguistic interpretations. We will use (x) to denote one interpretation. So let’s say I apply the understanding from the first section of this article, together with the rules of the Arabic language and I end up with 27 possible interpretations, i.e. 27x.

But is this not our final, approved-of range of acceptable interpretations. There is more that regulates our understanding of a text. These are the ‘contextual clues’ we alluded to in the end of the first section. Let us mention some examples:

1) The contextualization of an interpretation by the interpretation(s) of other texts – Our interpretation should be coherent within the context of other sacred texts (and their interpretations). For example, let us say I have 3 other texts whose meanings are related to my current text. We will call their sets of interpretation y,z, and m. When we combine these 4 texts together, some interpretations will contradict each other. The more texts we add, the more we exclude certain interpretations as we provide more textual context to our interpretation from either the Qur’an or Hadith. This can also be called ‘Taqyid’ i.e. other texts are restricting our understanding of our initial text which we may have assumed to be Mutlaq in parts of its meaning.

Here is the same concept in visual form, where our valid set of possible interpretations is finally reduced to only 3, even though we may have a very large amount of seemingly possible interpretations the make linguistic sense. Of course, the final number of possibilities can itself vary according to the scholar combining the texts.

2) Scholarly consensus – This is can either be assumed (Dhanni) or definitive (Qat’i). I am not going to discuss the validity of scholarly consensus here, except that I strongly believe that those who criticize scholarly consensus and its validity as a foundation of fiqh are mistaken in either their motivation to criticize it (as it is a critical pillar in our tradition), or their understanding of it (I think a more comprehensive and fluid understanding of consensus is using the concept of postmodern interpretive communities, except that the only community whose consensus matters is that of the scholars). Some seem to be criticizing definitive cases of consensus and not recognizing that assumed consensus can still be valid.

Although the following hadith is generally regarded as weak, scholars have generally accepted the meaning of it as authoritative when it comes to consensus:

لا تجتمع أمتي على ضلالة
My ummah will not unite upon misguidance

For our purposes here though, it is important to recognize that scholarly consensus on an issue restricts possible interpretations. For example if there is explicit scholarly consensus that xyzm (as in our previous example of regulation) is limited to only 1 possible interpretation (or just x, y, z or m by themselves), then this regulates our possible and acceptable interpretations. Alternatively there may be explicit consensus that either xyzm or just x, y, z, and m have interpretations that are completely unacceptable.

Consensus is very important. It’s like a self-regulating mechanism among scholars of Islam. One of my students said it resembles ‘homeostasis’ as known in animal physiology. Scholars have a responsibility to pull each other towards the centre when they stray too far into outliers and ‘problematic’ views and they have a responsibility to respect the ‘peer evaluation’ process and the views of the community as much as they can. Do you think a scholar is wrong? Get someone who is part of self-regulating process to correct them, i.e. another scholar. If scholars themselves see it as acceptable, then its most likely that you, not being part of the process, have the wrong understanding.

3) The Maqasid al-Shariah – i.e. the goals and objectives of the Shariah. These are often called the ‘spirit’ of Shariah, the general themes that permeate its meanings and interpretations. The simplest explanation of it is that the Shariah ‘intends’ to preserve, protect and help attain religion, life, intellect, lineage and wealth. Although the application of the Maqasid in modern fiqh is often contentious, its theoretical role in the interpretation of and understanding of sacred text and Islamic Law is almost universally accepted. It’s often studied together with other general themes in the Shariah, such as Maslahah (public benefit), and the Qawa’id al-Fiqhiyyah, or the general principles of fiqh.

These regulate our interpretations too. In our first example we contextualized interpretations and meanings with each other through deduction. But here in this last example we are contextualizing them using induced understandings and more subjective inferences.

An example of all these examples applied onto a text would be the hadith:

لا يؤمن أحدكم حتى يحب لأخيه ما يحب لنفسه
None of you shall believe until they love for their brother what they love for themselves

Suppose if someone were to intepret this hadith according to its Mantuq, i.e. That if we don’t love for our brothers what we love for ourselves, we are not believers. Although this is probably the most literal understanding of the hadith, the interpretation would be unacceptable and invalid in light of our 3 examples of regulatory mechanisms given.

1) This interpretation does not make sense in light of other textual evidence that shows us how the Companions were human and had conflicts and disagreements with each other. They were also vulnerable to personality flaws and arguments just like anyone else. But they never saw this as removing them from Islam, and neither did the Prophet ﷺ ask them to ever renew their Islam because of such traits or occurrences.

2) By consensus, this interpretation was never accepted by the scholars of Islam for the reason above, as well the fact that it probably just sounds unreasonable and extreme. It was interpreted as being figurative in its meaning and as a form of exhortation for believers to be loving and generous to each other.

3) This interpretation doesn’t fit under the general ‘spirit’ of the Shariah. If we were to declare Muslims as disbelievers for such a common human failing, then no one would be left Muslim and this would cause chaos in our purpose of helping Muslims to stay on their religion and not shed each other’s blood.

Conclusion

The goal of this piece was to give a brief snapshot into why the plurality and diversity of linguistic interpretation of Islamic texts is not arbitrary, but rather there is a process & regulatory mechanisms built into language itself (and recognized by scholars of textual intepretation) as well as the rest of Usul-ul-Fiqh that results in a limited range of interpretations. It also shows why despite that diversity of interpretation, there is still an immovable core of meaning in Islamic texts that must be acknowledge and cannot be ignored.

Scholars have written on this, although usually in legal terms. A useful way of stating this is Dr. Sherman Jackson’s expression of it as ‘two-tiered orthodoxy’ in his analysis of Imam al-Qarafi’s analysis of the same phenomenon,

One tier of orthodoxy is linguistically grounded in the Mantuq, Dhahir, and Mutlaq core meanings of the sacred texts – such as how we all agreed in the first section that there was a ‘car’ that was ‘black’ in our statement. The second tier of orthodoxy is that regulated by the community of scholarship – where our spectrum of valid interpretations is regulated by scholarly method and scholarship itself.






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