Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought at the University of Tunis (Tunisia)
Tlili observed that Christmann’s presentation provided a natural transition to Abdelmajid Charfi’s intervention in the discourse on Qur’anic interpretation. Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought, University of Tunis, Charfi distinguishes between Islam as history and as message. That distinction is made possible, Tlili continued, by the application of critical tools borrowed from the humanities and social sciences. Both Arkoun and Shahrur arrive at the same distinction, yet Charfi has dedicated most of his scholarly work to this particular issue. Moreover, Tlili stressed, Charfi is the head of a school of thought and has mentored an entire generation of young scholars, equipping them with the tools of modern critique. Tlili concluded by highlighting Charfi’s important book, Islam Between Message and History (L’Islam entre le message et l’histoire) , translated into French in 2004 and English in 2009, and encouraging all to read it. 7
Charfi began by discussing his initial approach to the topic of the symposium. He first tried to list all the social, ethical and political implications of interpreting the Qur’an as a foundational text. Yet he immediately realized this approach was futile because Muslims living under different conditions necessarily approach the text from diverse perspectives. As an example, Charfi compared a wealthy young Malaysian man with a poor Nigerian, or a Saudi woman living in tribal conditions with an Iranian who has internalized the dominant ideology of the theocratic state. Each would clearly arrive at a different, even completely contradictory, interpretation. The only trait shared among them is the influence of a particular social, political, and cultural context. Based on this observation, Charfi revised his approach, deciding instead to focus on the historical and epistemological aspects of interpreting the Qur’an. With this framework, he sought to avoid time–bound polemics and encompass the entire range of interpretation, from extremism to mysticism.
Charfi pointed out that, while it may seem natural to acknowledge the external factors affecting interpretation, in fact this notion is informed by modern linguistics and semiotics. Moreover, he said, it contradicts traditional assertions about Qur’anic interpretation that are upheld by the overwhelming majority of Muslims today. He described his presentation as an attempt to reveal truths often overlooked and clarify the terms of debate about Qur’anic interpretation and its legitimacy.
Before delving into these “truths,” Charfi noted that it is first necessary to understand the role of the Qur’an in Islam and the history of Qur’anic exegesis. To illustrate the importance of the Qur’an, he contrasted it with the Bible in Catholicism. In Catholicism, church teachings inform the understanding of the gospels, whereas, in Islam, the Qur’anic text is sacred and preeminent. Charfi asked rhetorically: do modern approaches, such as those that use recently developed critical tools, therefore challenge the sacredness of the text or its interpretations? In answer, he argued that even traditional interpretation was based on contemporary culture and historical conditions, contending that modern readers are no different.
Taking a historical view, Charfi said, it is possible to see the two–stage process whereby Islam evolved from a spontaneous, oral, prophetic message into an institutionalized, dogmatic, and ritualized religion. Charfi said that this process was driven by the ulama, whose readings of the Qur’an were inflected by their particular social position. Unlike the majority of Muslims, the ulama were urban, had a direct relationship to the ruling power, and were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. By the 11th or 12th Century, their Qur’anic readings, rooted in their specific class interests, were firmly established. This resulted, according to Charfi, in the formation of “Sciences of the Qur’an” — the opinions and methods of the ulama that go unquestioned as orthodoxy.
Charfi opined that the entrenchment of orthodox interpretations abrogated alternate readings. Becoming aware of the historical processes by which such interpretations evolved allows us to consider those other possibilities. Charfi outlined three such alternate readings: the Qur’an as created, the theory of revelation, and the idea that the Qur’anic message can stand alone without the hadith (stories of the Prophet’s life).
According to dominant Muslim belief, the Qur’an is the uncreated word of God. In an alternate interpretation, Charfi proposed the idea that the Qur’an is created, explaining that this view would acknowledge the text’s historical as well as divine dimensions. Rather than assuming the Qur’an exists outside of history, such a reading would allow Qur’anic moral injunctions to be understood in light of the particular historical context in which they were revealed.
The second idea, which Charfi described as having been rejected by orthodox belief, pertains to the theory of revelation. The Prophet is traditionally understood to have been a passive recipient of Gabriel’s message. An alternative, Charfi suggested, would be to understand his role as active, implying a stage of mediation between the direct word of God and the Qur’an. In another formulation, Charfi added, we might describe the Prophet’s role as expressing the divine message in human language.
Finally, Charfi described the possibility that the Qur’anic message is sufficient without the hadith of the Prophet. Though today this idea is widely considered heretical, it had proponents in early Islamic history. Charfi claimed that this idea was suppressed because the Qur’an did not provide an answer to every problem encountered in Muslim societies. Social institutions were formed to legislate for societies, and the hadith provided necessary religious legitimacy.
Charfi noted that these three positions can be considered from a perspective of modern rationality without being seen as an attack on the sacred nature of the Qur’an. Yet they are often suppressed for breaking with orthodox belief. Thus, in Charfi’s view, they are fertile avenues of inquiry and consistent with the spirit of the text.
Charfi reasoned that the Qur’an should no longer be considered a text of law, but a text of faith. Indeed, despite traditional assertions to the contrary, Qur’anic commandments are primarily moral in nature and not legal. Legal commandments in the Qur’an, Charfi continued, responded to concrete problems in the contemporary social order. For example, when the Qur’an portrays the law of retaliation as necessary, it must be understood in a context in which the state did not have a monopoly on violence. Such commandments, Charfi claimed, are therefore not ahistorical or normative, and Muslims should remain free to legislate on the basis of general Qur’anic values rather than taking literally the specific cases depicted in the text.
In another example, Charfi pointed to the idea of shura, or consultation, which Islamists now consider a central Qur’anic concept. Historically, because there was a separation between the political and religious spheres, traditional exegetes did not treat shura as an imperative in governance. Charfi again pointed out that modern readings find in the text what traditional readings did not.
Charfi concluded by summarizing his four main points: first, that the Qur’an does not contain a single meaning, but addresses readers in all times and places with multiple meanings that renew themselves on the basis of changing historical conditions. Therefore, as Charfi himself demonstrated, readers should seek a hermeneutic interpretation rather than follow a single exegesis. Second, in order to free Qur’anic interpretation from the dogmatic straitjacket of orthodoxy, it is necessary to acknowledge the limits imposed on traditional exegesis by the “Sciences of the Qur’an.” Third, the relationship between exegesis and jurisprudence should be reversed. Instead of subjecting the Qur’an to theologically–based interpretations, as has traditionally been done, the text should be the basis for new theological constructs. Finally, the linear method of exegesis—reading the Qur’an from beginning to end—is neither rational nor necessary. suras were not compiled in order of revelation, but according to their length. Charfi elaborated on this point by dismissing all idealogical models of interpretation, including that of Shahrur. Instead, he admonished Muslims to find their own relationship with the Qur’an, a relationship that takes into account the interactions between sacred text, history, and truth. It is futile, he argued, to propose ideas that are only valid to Muslims today, as opposed to Muslims of the future, or, for that matter, the past. Muslims must struggle individually and collectively to find a peaceful relationship with the text. The implications will differ from traditional interpretations, which do not account for the logic of the Qur’an’s organization and its spiritual value.Back to the top.