Friday, August 24, 2012

Contextualizing the Quran

This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God, who believe in the unseen, keep up the prayer, and give out of what We have provided for them; those who believe in the revelation sent down to you [Muhammad], and in what was sent before you, those who have firm faith in the Hereafter. Such people are following their Lord’s guidance and it is they who will prosper. Quran 2:2-5
Although all Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God, interpretations of the Quran have evolved and changed over time. As I have blogged about my reading of the Quran over the past few weeks, I have received comments and emails both praising and criticizing my interpretation. Here are the primary sources I am basing my reading on.

Although some believe that the Quran should never be translated from Arabic, Allah makes it incredible clear that the Quran is only in Arabic to make it easier for Muhammad’s contemporaries to understand it's guidance.
We have made it easy, in your own language [Prophet], so that you may bring glad news to the righteous and warnings to a stubborn people. Quran 19:97
I absolutely love the Haleem translation of the Quran. Unlike the extremely popular Yusuf Ali translation, Haleem didn’t artificially translate the Quran into biblical english. An Egyptian hafiz, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and editor of the Journal of Qur'anic Studies, Haleem has produced a highly readable yet accurate text. The Yusuf Ali translation has lost popularity since the Saudi Arabian government ceased distributing free copies of it in 1989 in favor of the Wahabi influenced Hilali/Khan translation with footnotes and parenthetical clarifications coming straight from several controversial works. Unfortunately, because copies are freely distributed by the Saudi Arabian government, the Hilali/Khan translation is available in virtually all North American mosques. The differences become obvious when reading the same verse side by side:
Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful. Haleem 33:59 
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Ali 33:59
O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever OftForgiving, Most Merciful. Hilali/Khan 33:59

Within 100 years of the Prophet, Muslims began noting the situations and context surrounding each verse in the Quran. The earliest commentators, such as Al-Dahhak (720 CE) and As-Suddi (744 CE) were first compiled by al-Wahidi (1050 CE) in his Asbab al-Nuzul. You can download the entire work here. al-Wahidi's work was considered the authoritative commentary (tafsir) of the Quran until the Mongol invasion. When Al-Ghazali, one of the last pre-Mongol scholars, was asked why he didn't write his own commentary on the Quran, he replied:
What our teacher al-Wahidi wrote suffices. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (~1100 CE)
Unfortunately after the genocidal Mongol invasion (1219-1260 CE), perhaps because so much source material was lost during the destruction of the Great Library of Baghdad (Bayt ul Hikma), and so many scholars were amongst the 40 million dead, a series of substantively different Tafsirs were released such as Tafsir ibn Kathir (1350 CE), Tafsir Ibn Abbas (1414 CE), and Tafsīr al-Jalālayn (1505 CE). My strong preference is to use source material prior to the Mongol invasion.

You can see how interpretations change over time by looking at the same verse across all 6 of these sources. The 3 sources prior to the Mongol invasion interpret Quran 33:59 as providing advice to a specific group of women in Medina to avoid harassment by a group a specific group of men, while all three of the post-Mongol invasion commentators interpret 33:59 as providing advice to all Muslim women for all time.
The corrupt of Medina also used to go out at night. Whenever they saw a woman with a cover, they said: 'This is a freewoman', and they left her alone. But whenever they saw a woman without cover, they said: 'This is a slave', and tempted her to commit adultery. Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse about this matter. Al-Suddi (~744 CE)
Here Allah tells His Messenger to command the believing women -- especially his wives and daughters, because of their position of honor -- to draw their Jilbabs over their bodies, so that they will be distinct in their appearance from the women of the Jahiliyyah and from slave women. Tafsir ibn Kathir (~1350 CE)
Another great source of context is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Written within 100 years of the Prophet (died 761 CE), it is the first true biography of the Prophet and history of the Sahaba we have access to.


The canonical books of hadith by Bukhari (7,275 / 870 CE), Muslim (9,200 / 875 CE), Dawud (4,800 / 888 CE), Tirmidhi (4,400 / 892 CE), Al-Nasa'i (5,270 / 915 CE), and Maja (4,000 / 886 CE) represent a laudable attempt to collect the oral sayings of the Prophet ~200 years after his death. Although many Muslims point at the stringent requirements and independent narrations chains needed to label a hadith mutawatir, few realize that only ~100 (per Al-Suyuti) to 310 (per Al-Kattani) hadeeth out of the thousands in these collections meet those requirements and are extremely limited in their scope. A typical scholar's take is:
The Āhād or solitary Hadith (also known as Khabar al-Wahid) is the Hadith which fails to fulfill the requirement of Mutawātir. Āhād Hadith may be sound (Sahih), good (Hasan) or weak (Da’eef). It is a Hadith which does not impart positive knowledge on its own unless it is supported by extraneous or circumstantial evidence. Mufti Muhammad Ibn Adam al Kawthari
Single sourced (Ahaad) Sahih hadith from multiple collections commonly contradict each other as shown with the story of Ma'iz ibn Malik (when he confessed to the adultery in 33:59) which is told with different details in Bukhari, Muslim, and Dawud. The errors of transmission become clear when lined up side by side. In this example The Prophet's questions, Ma’iz’s reactions, and the Prophet's final assessment of Ma’iz after his death all differ, with major theological consequences:
Ma'iz ibn Malik came to the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) and said that he had committed fornication and he (the Prophet) turned away from him. He repeated it many times, but he (the Prophet) turned away from him. He asked his people: Is he mad? They replied: There is no defect in him. He asked: Have you done it with her? He replied: Yes. So he ordered that he should be stoned to death. He was taken out and stoned to death, and he (the Prophet) did not pray over him. Dawud 38:4407
...When we came out with him (Ma'iz ibn Malik), stoned him and he felt the effect of the stones, he cried: O people! return me to the Apostle of Allah. My people killed me and deceived me; they told me that the Apostle of Allah would not kill me. We did not keep away from him till we killed him. When we returned to the Apostle of Allah we informed him of it. He said: Why did you not leave him alone and bring him to me? and he said this so that the Apostle of Allah might ascertain it from him. But he did not say this to abandon the prescribed punishment...Dawud 38:4406
A man came to Allah's Apostle while he was in the mosque, and he called him, saying, "O Allah's Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.'" The Prophet turned his face to the other side, but that man repeated his statement four times, and after he bore witness against himself four times, the Prophet called him, saying, "Are you mad?" The man said, "No." The Prophet said, "Are you married?" The man said, "Yes." Then the Prophet said, 'Take him away and stone him to death." Jabir bin 'Abdullah said: I was among the ones who participated in stoning him and we stoned him at the Musalla. When the stones troubled him, he fled, but we over took him at Al-Harra and stoned him to death. Sahih Bukhari 8:82:806
Ma'iz ibn Malik came to Allah's Apostle (peace_be_upon_him) and said to him: Messenger of Allah, purify me... When it was the fourth time, Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) said: From what am I to purify you? He said: From adultery. Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) asked if he had been mad. He was informed that he was not mad. He said: Has he drunk wine? Someone stood up and smelt his breath but noticed no smell of wine. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace) be upon him) said: Have you committed adultery? He said: Yes. He made a pronouncement about him and he was stoned to death... Then came Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) to them (his companions) as they were sitting. He greeted them with a salutation and then sat down and said: Ask forgiveness for Ma'iz ibn Malik. They said: May Allah forgive Ma'iz ibn Malik. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) said: He (Ma'iz) has made such repentance that if that were to be divided among a people, it would have been enough for all of them. Sahih Muslim 16:4205
The complications of these contradictory hadeeth are apparent. Did Ma'iz know he was about to be stoned? Did the Prophet stone Ma'iz only because he was married? Did he try to run away after the punishment was announced? Did the Prophet pray for Ma'iz after the stoning? Was Ma'iz a praiseworthy Muslim who feared Allah or just a coward that was tricked by his tribe? In other versions of the story a woman made pregnant by Ma'iz is also stoned. Multiple ahad hadith give extremely divergent answers about this event which is why scholars have historically been extremely wary of using non-mutawatir hadith for rulings.

A recent internet trend (here, here, here, and others) has been to incorrectly label al-bayan hadeeth as mutawatir. Al-bayan represents 1,700 (~10%) hadeeth that are common between Bukhari and Muslim (but potentially with the same chains of narration and contradicted in the other collections) while the 100-300 (<1%) mutawatir hadeeth are redundantly reported with multiple transmission chains.

Another trend has been to push ahad hadeeth as an integral part of the sunni canon. When confronted with obvious problems with 2nd order hadeeth, hadeeth hurlers love to say that only an expert can really decide if a hadeeth should be considered for a ruling or not. My counter-argument is that the real expert is Allah, and if he really thought something was important he put it in the Quran or the mutawatir hadeeth.

Closing Thoughts

I am no expert on any of these topics, which is probably why I try to extensively document my blog with as many sources as possible. My only goal is to find the most accurate intent of Allah’s commandments in the Quran with the earliest and most accurate context possible. With that said, I almost universally reject post-Mongol invasion sources as unreliable, along with non mutawatir hadeeth that do not tie directly to Quranic verses. I have a lot of respect for the al-Wahidi’s Asbab al-Nuzul along with Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah and cite those documents often. I may turn to Tafsir Ibn-Kathir for obvious context, but am extremely wary of his post-Mongol sourced pronouncements. I do occasionally cite specific hadeeth if they provide obvious commentary about a specific Quranic verse, but refuse to use ahad hadeeth as the sole source of a religious requirement, even if it is sahih.