Dear brothers and sisters,
Alhamdullilah, by the grace of Allah SWT, we’re in the last ten days of Ramadan. The Ashra of odd nights is upon us, and an opportunity presents in the form of Lailat-ul-Qadr. We’ve already passed the first odd night yesterday and as we go about the coming week; we still have four more nights to
look forward to. I am sure, at this point, it's safe to assume that several of us are already engaged in reading and listening to the Quran or a lecture on the Quran. Even if not, at least almost all of us here are actively striving to do as much Zikr as possible in whatever capacity their schedule permits
them. In today’s khutbah, knowing that many of us are reading the Quran in some form or capacity, I wish to talk about the Quran and the methodology of interpreting it. In case you didn’t know, Ramadan was the month when Quran was first revealed. Allah SWT mentions this in Surah Baqarah [2:185] “The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion...” According to this ayah, Quran is for guidance that serves to provide us with criteria to measure what is right/prescribed from what isn’t. Hence, if something is being prescribed to be implemented in our lives, it is of utmost importance to know the basics of how to interpret the Quran when reading it. Word of caution though... this Khutbah is not intended to serve as an alternative to the learning of the Quran as people spend lives understanding and lecturing about it and still don’t get all of it right.
The spirit of today’s khutbah is not to replace what the ulema and the scholars say... it's simply to provide a regular person such as me and you with basic understanding on how to improve on our ability to interpret the Quran when reading it and how to provide context to its verses. To begin the discussion, let’s acknowledge the most fundamental idea and right of the Quran... to us, is the literal word of Allah SWT. This book is the divine revelation sent from Allah SWT directly via Angel Jibrael to our beloved prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and apart from being a library of stories about morality and ideas, it is how Allah SWT speaks to us about life and beyond. For more than 1400 years, it has been preserved in its original text with no new versions of it and Muslims have intentionally kept the original recitation of it in Arabic as that was the original language Quran was revealed in. This
practice also allows uniformity in reading the text from the Quran throughout the world, hence any surah read in one part of the globe is going to sound almost exactly the same as surah in another part of the globe, minus lingual dialects. This uniformity also enables us for a miracle to take place, which is that this book can be completely memorized by regular people among us.
Allah SWT has incentivized reading and memorizing of it by giving major rewards to those to do so. This is perhaps Allah SWT’s way to preserve the Quran in its original context & meaning as he said he will. But having said that, however, we must realize that there is a risk of taking literal words of Allah SWT out of context when reading it. This is because several stories that are narrated in the Quran... their full form is not available in the Quran e.g., while discussing the story of prophet Yusuf AS, also known as Joseph in the Bible, Quran neither discuss nor take names of any of his brothers when referencing them but Bible does name one of Yusuf As brothers who helped him... Ben-amin, aka Benjamin. To reasons known best to Allah SWT, Quran only explains what it needed in reference to the message it's trying to deliver while narrating the lives of the prophets and then omits all unnecessary details. So, it’s clear that the Quran is not a history book but instead, it chooses to stay focused with its primary mission, which is to be the book of guidance. But with that said, every verse in the Quran also has the potential to be misread when read alone without context. This is where generally we recommend to look for ulemas for guidance but as a basic rule, to supply context to the Quran in general, Quran recommends following the Sunnahs of prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as suggested in Surah Al-Ahzab [33:21] where Allah SWT says; “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often.” Allah SWT has recommended that we follow the last messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم as an example, in order to provide us with a basic sense about how to interpret the Quran. It’s so easy... we don’t need to form opinions, just try to find one that is derived from the Sunnah of the prophet .صلى الله عليه وسلم He’s not only to be used as an example, He صلى الله عليه وسلم is the best example to follow because he was the embodiment of the Quran. According to Sahiḥ Muslim, Hadith 746, after the death of prophet ,صلى الله عليه وسلم one of the companions Qatadah RA came to Hazrat Aisha RA and said: “O mother of the believers, tell me about the character of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم “Aisha said, “Have you not read the Quran?” I said, “O course.” Aisha RA said, “Verily, the character of the Prophet of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم was the Quran.”
The companions that the time of prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم knew who to use as their yard stick when they needed help in understanding the Quran and the stories of the prophets mentioned in it. It is our belief that all prophets who came prior to prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم were carrying the divine message of Allah SWT and that they were pure and clear in their intentions. And while we can look for wisdom from other sources to understand the Quran, it is the prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم‘s life that is considered authoritative. Hence, when there is anything that requires interpretation or elaboration, we must seek answers through the Sunnah of the prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and in extension, of the companions since that’s an instruction he left for us. So, while we must acknowledge the wisdom in the stories in the older revealed books of Zabor, Torah and Bible, we must retain the authority of Quran over them and look at the life of the prophet to interpret it in the best way possible. This is our way of balancing between the spirit of any
story narrated in the Quran while retaining the context and the meaning of the revealed scriptures. This is also Allah SWT’s way to show that the Quran is indeed consistent with the previously revealed books of Allah SWT and that by itself, it is only a continuation of the same message as delivered to other nations by prophets prior to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.
This approach, of interpreting a book via the lens of the life of prophet Muhammad ,صلى الله عليه وسلم is a very unique approach of interpreting a book. Unlike other religions including the Abrahamic ones such asChristianity and Judaism, which rely on central institutions or figures such as the Church or Rabbis to interpret the scripture and then to create guidelines which may or may not be reflective of the scripture itself, our method gives power to regular people by decentralizing the role ofinterpretation. This is so even a regular person like us can connect to Allah SWT directly without any part acting as a middleman such as a priest. Hence, at least in the Muslim world, while we do have ulemas (scholars) all round the world, we don’t have a central figure who serves as an authority on religion like e.g. the pope. This way, Quran maintain its supremacy over any other party or person and what it teaches stays at the top, and then from there, we can use the Sunnah to help us interpret it as many times as needed as long as it’s not conflicting the teachings of the Quran. So, for us, it’s always, the Quran at the top, then the Sunnah of the prophet ,صلى الله عليه وسلم then the scholarly opinions of the Ulemas if something needs further elaboration and if there is still room for interpretation, then it’s whatever you feel personally as long as it’s made with the best of intentions. May Allah SWT reward all of us who are helping or are directly involved in learning the Quran.
Dear Brothers and sisters,
To summarize what I had said, to understand the Quran and to truly be able to interpret it, we must see it through the lens of the life of prophets, especially prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as we have been instructed to do so. His life’s sunnahs carry authority and hence, they are and should be the first place to check when looking for answers or explanation in reference to the Quran. This approach has many benefits:
• For starters, while the Quran may leave something purposely ambiguous, it would be prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم‘s sunnah that would explain how to perform it or how to conduct, let say an act. The best example is prayers (salat/namaz) ... Quran only explicitly says to establish them and never details how but it is through prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم‘s sunnah that we learn how to perform it. Different imams and sheikhs reported slightly different methods which were used to pray, but the majority of it remains the same.
• Similarly, by looking to prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم as an example, we are reducing our chances to misread any verses from the Quran. E.g., many verses in the Quran can be taken to justify violence against another human being, even if it is in context of disciplining another individual, but it is through the prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم‘s life we know that Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم never raised his hand on women or children and was incredibly forgiving even to those who wronged him. This is not contrary to what the Quran is saying, its simply putting context. There are certain special circumstances
where certain actions, even being physical, may become a permissible choice but do know that just because it’s permissible doesn’t mean it's what is recommended. Hence, if you wanted to know what’s recommended and be closer to Allah SWT, then follow what prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did as that’s the closest to anyone’s understanding of the Quran. Lastly, my final advice to all who are reading the Quran and are trying to understanding the lives of all the prophets it mentions, please take everything into context and judge the lives of the prophets, accordingly, including the era and the circumstances they were in. Nowadays, we love to look to the past and think that its behind us, and we forget that the context keeps evolving because we, as humans, change according to the times that were in. Not one human can stay with one homogenous thought process... not one person anywhere can say that this was my opinion 20 years ago and since then, it has not changed even 1%... that is impossible. Hence, to judge someone in the past by today’s standards is not only a disservice to the message in the Quran, but it's also arrogant because by doing so, we’re somehow insinuating that we currently, somehow, represent the most refined version of morality today, to which I say give me a break! No person on earth can live up to a certain number of years and say their views on a social issue have not changed at all. Our views are on a spectrum... a conservative today maybe a liberal tomorrow and a liberal today maybe a conservative tomorrow... views move one way or the other, but we cannot and should not let our views tamper with how we interpret the Quran. This essentially means we cannot sanitize the stories of the prophets we read for others simply because it makes us uneasy. If Allah SWT has mentioned it in his books, there is a reason for it... that should be our Aqeedah, thus we should be bold and open about embracing it. We should be unapologetic about it because there is wisdom in it that may not Dawn on us today but if we stay patient and firm in our belief in Allah SWT, soon enough inshallah... we’ll be able to appreciate it.