How to Interpret the Quran

“Let me show you”, she said.

She stood at my front door smiling. I smiled back and inquired, “How is that possible?”

She turned the pages with confidence, holding the book with one hand. Her friend, standing next to her, looked on as if she was about to pull a rabbit out of the book.

In slow motion, she moved her index finger across the page and said, “You see. Here it is.” Her friend’s smile got wider.

“What? What is it?” I inquired.

She said, “You see. You do believe in the trinity. Right here, in the Quran, God refers to Himself as ‘We’.”

Precise and Unspecific Verses

The Quran, although claiming to be clear, recognizes that its clarity does not preclude it from being misinterpreted. It is a fact that its clarity is divinely authored and delivered, but its interpretation still relies on human endeavor.

The Quran presents the reader with two kinds of verses: precise and unspecific. Precise verses are definitive; they do not leave room for other possible meanings. Some precise verses are: “God is one” or “There is no compulsion in religion”.

Next, the unspecific verses, by their nature, allow for multiple interpretations. The verse, “And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps”, does not explain, at the outset, what “We” means.

Does “We” indicate that God is more than one? Is God a trinity? Or is the “We”, perhaps, a royal “We”— a term that does not indicate plurality, but majesty instead? Which is the correct interpretation?

The Quran prescribes a method of interpretation that eliminates a-needle-in-a-haystack hunt for the intended interpretation. The method tells us to let precise verses pinpoint the intended meaning of the unspecific verses.

Assigning this crucial role to the precise verses, the Quran calls them, “the foundation of the Book”.

{It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses that are precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific.} (3:7)

What does “We” mean in the Quran when used by God? The precise verses pinpoint the intended meaning:

{God is one.} (37:4)

{Do not say trinity.} (4:171)

The “We”, therefore, can only mean the royal “We”, and not that God is a plurality or a trinity.

Misinterpretation comes about through neglecting the Quran’s prescribed method of interpretation. Biases often influence the sidestepping of this method, resulting in unsanctioned interpretations of the unspecific.

“As far as those in whose hearts is a deviation, they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation suitable to them.”

The censure against following unspecific verses does not suggest ignoring their meanings. Making an effort to understand their meanings by referring them to the precise verses is commendable.

The censure, however, is for the eeny meeny miney moe interpretation: “seeking discord and seeking an interpretation suitable to them”.

It is not possible to arrive at the correct interpretation every time. After all, figuring out the correct interpretation relies on human endeavor, and as humans, we are susceptible to error.

As a result, Islam recognizes that error is probable, and is tolerant of it. “He will have one reward”, said the Prophet Muhammad for a scholar that arrives at an incorrect ruling. The scholar does not receive the reward for erring, but rather for his efforts, and as an incentive to keep trying.

After speaking about the precise and unspecific verses, the Quran encourages objectivity, a necessary quality for interpretation, through prayer:

{Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower.} (3:8)

Keep the History

The Quran was not revealed in one shot. It was revealed over a span of 23 years, much of it around events. By its nature, the Quran is fused with documented history. Interpreting an event-related verse without its historical reference will make the interpretation go adrift.

An eclectic collection of history offers rich information about event-related verses. The Hadith includes statements by the Prophet Muhammad, the Reasons of Revelation (asbab-un-nuzul) give background, The Prophet’s Biography (Seerah) illustrates an account of events, Poetry delivers details about a certain era or circumstance, and works of historians tie them all together.

Interpreting the verse:

{Do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated}, in a vacuum yields an interpretation permitting the drinking of alcohol if not imbibed before prayer— a misinterpretation.

However, if the verse connects with its historical references, in this case, either with the Hadith or Reasons of Revelation, a completely different interpretation arises— God revealed the prohibition of alcohol in stages, the final stage came with an unequivocal and full prohibition:

{O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, sacrificing on stone alters (to other than Allah), and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful. Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?} (Quran 5: 90-91)

The prohibition was now for all times as the Prophet clarified:

“A person is not a believer while he drinks khamr (any substance that intoxicates the mind).” (Al-Bukhari)

Reference to People

“The Chinese constitute a fifth of the world’s population” is a statement that includes all Chinese people. “The Chinese like noodles” is a statement that generalizes their taste.

However, the statement “The Chinese scored higher on math exams than the British at the International School of Wiz” does not generalize all the Chinese or British in the world. If we leave out some of the sentence details and just say, “The Chinese scored higher” it still does not generalize the Chinese. If the results were the same year after year, the statement could evolve to say, “The Chinese score high.” Yet, it still would not generalize all the Chinese. Why?

These statements are all referring to a specific incident, unlike the statement providing facts about the Chinese population.

When Paul Revere alerted the colonial militia by saying, “The British are coming”, he didn’t mean all of Britain had arrived at the shores of the east coast. He meant the British forces on the ground in Massachusetts.

As humans, we tend to generalize because it’s easier than analyzing facts and statistics. Hasty generalization is a fallacy that occurs when the mind draws a conclusion from a small number of instances.

{Those who disbelieve have claimed that they will never be resurrected.} (Quran 64:7)

To allege that the verse claims all non-Muslims disbelieve in the resurrection, in essence, would be a hasty generalization. The verse is actually part of a larger dialogue between the Prophet Muhammad and the pagan Arabs.

{Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day} (Quran 9:29) was revealed in response to the Romans’ aggressions against the young community of Madinah. To claim that the verse calls for fighting any and all non-Muslims indiscriminately would be a sweeping generalization that does not represent the facts, but does reveal possible biases of the claimant.

It is clear then, that the Quran challenges us to deal with our biases so we can arrive at the correct interpretation. The Quran warns those who approach it without objectivity, who give in to biases, who throw their hands in the air upon encountering a hurdle in seeking its interpretation:

{And We send down of the Quran that which is healing and mercy for the believers, but it does not increase the wrongdoers except in loss.} (17:82)

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