A Contextualist Approach to Interpreting the Qur’an?

Contextualism provides a critical alternative for contemporary Muslims to textualism, the dominant mode of interpretation of the Qur’an today. Textualism ranges on a continuum from approaches that place an almost exclusive reliance on the literal meaning of the Qur’anic text (‘hard textualism’) to perspectives that take some contextual elements into account and so provide a degree of interpretive flexibility (‘soft textualism’). There are a number of political, intellectual and cultural reasons for the prominence and popularity of textualist (particularly the ‘hard textualist’) approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an today.

A textualist approach that relies largely on the ‘literal’ meaning of the text, with some consideration given to the complexities of practical application, has been the chief approach within the tafsir tradition, particularly regarding ethico-legal texts, and in the Islamic juristic literature (fiqh). But in all its forms, a textualist reading fails to do full justice to certain texts it interprets. The result is that those texts of the Qur’an are viewed as irrelevant to many of the vexing problems contemporary Muslim societies face or are applied inappropriately, in ways that distort basic Qur’anic principles. This should be considered a strong justification for embarking on an approach to interpretation that emphasises the continuing relevance of all Qur’anic texts to the twenty-first century. 

Contrary to the hard textualists’ position that new ideas or approaches to the interpretation of the Qur’an are un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic, I argue that a contextualist approach is very Islamic, and is in fact rooted in the tradition. There are many such ideas in the Islamic juristic and  Qur’anic exegetical literature which attempt to relate the Qur’anic texts and their teachings to the changing circumstances and contexts, even though there is no systematic contextualist approach as such. Both jurists and Qur’an commentators attempted to understand the circumstances in which particular Qur’anic texts were revealed as well as the specific people those texts were addressing and the time of the revelation. Even in the first century of Islam, immediately after the death of the Prophet, figures like Umar b. al-Khattab (d. 23/644), the second caliph,  interpreted a range of texts in a manner that could be considered ‘contextualist’.  Umar understood Qur’anic revelations in terms of their fundamental principles or objectives—and, critically, his understanding was highly contextual.

Such ideas remain at the heart of the contextualist approach to the interpretation today as well. But a contextualist approach of today takes this idea of context much further and develops a method of interpretation based on the notion of context both of the time of revelation and of the twenty-first century.