Muslim scholarship on the understanding of the Quran in various ways has continued throughout history. By the 20th century, especially from its second half as well as in the present century, the scholarship on Qur’anic studies has seen an increase proliferation because scholars have “approached the study of the Quran in a variety of ways”. Many Muslims, living both in Muslim countries and societies and in the West as well, have produced various prolific works on the various facets of this area. One such distinguished Muslim scholar is Prof Abdullah Saeed, Australian academician and an internationally recognised Muslim thinker, who writes on modern Islamic thought and has written some prolific works on the Qur’anic studies.
Saeed (basically from the Maldives) holds degrees from Saudi Arabia and Australia; completed his PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne in 1992, and since then, has been actively involved in the development of Islamic Studies in the same University. In 2003, he was appointed professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, and in 2010, was elected Fellow of Australian Academy of Humanities.
His research focus has been on some important issues in Islamic thought, like “the negotiation of text and context”, “ijtihad and interpretation”. A “strong advocate of reform of Islamic thought”, he has published widely on a range of issues concerning modern Muslim thought. His publications cover Qur’anic hermeneutics, the interpretation or reinterpretation of the Qur’an, ijtihad and Islamic law reform, Muslims in the West, extremism in Muslim societies, freedom of religion in Muslim thought and practice, aspects of extremist thought in contemporary Muslim societies and Islam and human rights. These are also his broad areas of research interest as well. He has been involved in “interfaith dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths” as well.
His major works, in the field of Qur’anic studies, include: Interpreting the Qur’an: Towards a Contemporary Approach (Routledge, 2006); Contemporary Approaches to the Qur’an in Indonesia (Oxford, 2005); The Qur’an: An Introduction (Routledge, 2008). He has also contributed various research papers, book chapter and encyclopaedia articles and entries in this area as well.
Interpreting the Qur’an: This book attempts to provide a foundation, and argument for the validity of a “contextualist approach”. Outlining a range of methodological principles, it relies on existing interpretations of the ethico-legal content by a variety of Muslim scholars today and derives from those interpretations the necessary principles and ideas relevant to a contextualist approach. Consisting of 12 chapters, Saeed attempts to explore the current debates surrounding the interpretation of the Qur’an, and their impact on contemporary understanding of this sacred text. Discussing the relevance of Text to modern issues without compromising the overall framework of the Qur’an and its core beliefs and practices, he proposes “a fresh approach, which takes into account the historical and contemporary contexts of interpretation.”
The book brings forth healthy debate, and is thus an essential reading for students and scholars seeking a contemporary approach to the interpretation of the Qur’anic text. Its aim, in the words of its author, is to “propose ideas and stimulate discussion.” For Prof Rippin, this book adds “a new voice to those debates and, as its impact is felt, broaden the popular conception of what Islam is all about today.” For him, “Using the tools of historical-critical scholarship to analyse the resources of the Muslim tradition”, Saeed sets forth “a model of Qur’anic interpretation that is solidly scholarly and, at the same time, relevant to the central concerns of the Muslim community.”
Saeed says that the aim of book is to “propose ideas and stimulate discussion”. But, at the same time, it is true that in this book, readers will find some useful and new ideas that need to be challenged, refines and questioned as well; after all, it is the “prerogative of the Muslim community to explore, accept, modify or even reject the ideas.”
Here, I would like to cite this passage, from the “Epilogue” of this book: “The tradition of tafsir”, which is the most versatile disciplines in Islam, “has incorporated diverse methods, approaches and principles, from the purely grammatical to the theological and symbolic.” And in order to “further Islamic thought and develop” it in line with the needs and concerns of Muslims in the twenty-first century, “bold steps need to be taken, in particular in relation to bridging the ever-widening gap between the Islamic disciplines and the daily needs of Muslims. Part of this is questioning and then finding solutions to the problems of Islamic thought created over the past several hundred years in the post-formative period of Islam. Notions such as mutability and immutability, religious versus non-religious, and sacred versus non-sacred, all may need to be rethought. Many approaches to Islamic disciplines not considered sacred in the formative period have since become sacred. Yet the calls for reinterpretation in any of these have been rejected by the conservative ulama, who consider themselves the ‘guardians’ of Islam. Those with the courage to take such a bold step are often labelled as agents of Orientalism or of the West, aiming to subvert Islamic tradition.”
Moreover, Saeed, while attempting to “explore the idea of a hierarchy of Qur’anic values, with particular reference to ethico-legal texts”, what becomes clear is that these ideas “do not necessarily go against the classical traditions of fiqh or tafsir or the essential beliefs (arkan al-iman), such as God, life after death, or what is spelt out as halal or haram”. For him, although these are “part of the basic structure of Islam”, but in their “interpretation” not only there may still be some “ambiguities”, but however, where there is a high degree of “ambiguity and complexity, we should be confident of developing ideas that will guide interpretation in new directions.” This is, for Saeed, “not to discard the traditions of fiqh and tafsir, but to recognise that a simplistic approach to the behaviour of a Muslim vis-à-vis the Qur’an is problematic.” And thus, Saeed ends the book, with this bold statement: “The book attempts to emphasise the dynamism that has withered since the post-formative period of Islamic disciplines”.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Aligarh Muslim University, India.