History and Sources

How do Muslims interpret their sacred texts?

Discussion of the Qur’an is a regular activity in most mosques, usually in connection with the Friday congregational prayer (and in the United States also held on Sundays). One or more discussion leaders might present a text and then open the floor to comments and questions. The first concern is generally to establish the “circumstances of the revelation.” What was the specific occasion on which this particular text was revealed to Muhammad? Was it revealed in connection with any unusual or momentous event? Was it a direct response to some question or predicament that had arisen in the early Muslim community?

Contemporary Muslims can dip into an enormous reservoir of traditional scholarship for help in interpreting the Qur’an. Exegetes began compiling detailed and extensive commentaries on the sacred scripture as early as the eighth century. They refined the tools of a specialty called tafsir (pronounced tafSEER, “explanation, elaboration”). Dozens of multivolume works in Arabic (plus countless more in various other languages) of great antiquity and authority are still widely available from publishers of Islamic books, and many are now being translated into Western languages. Classical commentators and modern-day interpreters alike look first to the Hadith for help on obscure passages of the Qur’an, for Muhammad himself often responded to questions about specific texts. Careful study of Arabic grammar and a wide knowledge of other works of Arabic literature for purposes of comparison are also essential background for professional exegetes. In addition to elucidating the basic or literal meanings of a sacred text, Qur’an commentary can also probe into further levels of meaning. Muslim mystics especially have written allegorical or symbolic interpretations (called ta’wil, pronounced ta’WEEL) to uncover the deeper spiritual implications of the scripture.


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