“You Are Not Qualified To Interpret my Religious Text”: How to Respond to Attempts to Close the Public Domain- Part 3

By Farish A. Noor

These days we often hear the accusation that someone or another is doing something nasty by interpreting a book or text out of context. The common refrain that follows goes something like this: “Who are you to interpret our holy book on your own without the guidance of our supreme religious elders who are so knowledgeable in scriptural knowledge that your own petty knowledge is like that of a gnat’s in comparison?” From this bombastic salvo there usually follows the same train of accusations and slander, which include the following: Muslim/Christian/Buddhist/Hindu feminists are simply reading and re-reading the holy scriptures with their own agendas in mind; that they are engaged in wilful and unregulated interpretation that goes against orthodoxy, etc.

Before we deal with the political nature and consequences of such accusations, let us return to the original premise and deconstruct it a bit.

Interpretation, of any text, is necessarily a subjective, historically-determined and culturally-contextualised endeavour. Every act of reading is necessarily subjective and therefore contingent and we cannot escape from the possibility of error, misinterpretation and misappropriation. This is true of reading a holy scripture as it is true about reading the menu of a restaurant, for the fact is that reading is necessarily a risk-laden enterprise and this has more to do with the nature of language as a social phenomena than anything else.

Going back to the genesis of all the major religious belief-systems in the world, we see that the foundational movement of such religions entailed the act of reading and interpretation. From the very outset of revelation itself, the possibility of error and misunderstanding has always been there. This is simply because communication – even in the case of divine communication with mortal beings – carries with it the risk that the message may get lost.

With the passing of time however, religious texts in particular gain a certain degree of consistency in meaning because of the way that the reading, interpretation and dissemination of such texts is left in the hands of a few, who in turn are elevated to the status of experts. In the history of the Jewish faith, for instance, the interpretation of Jewish scripture was monopolised by the Rabbinical classes; until the advent of Jesus who was the first to challenge the hegemonic grip of Rabbinical authority. Likewise in Hinduism, the interpretation of Vedantic texts was left in the hands of the Brahminical classes, and only challenged by the likes of the Buddha who trespassed the norms of the discursive economy with his emphasis on the emotional-spiritual (as opposed to ritualistic) development of the individual. In the Islamic tradition, the monopoly over religious textual interpretation was guarded by the Ulama classes, but often challenged by independent lay scholars who opened up and expanded the space of Muslim religious discourse and praxis.

It is therefore ironic that today Muslim women’s groups like Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam are deemed to have gone beyond the pale of religious normativity by allegedly interpreting the Quran in a manner that goes against tradition or the sanction of the religious scholars. But hasn’t this been the case with so many other Muslim intellectuals who were in fact pioneers in the process of modernising the Muslim mind?

If groups like Sisters in Islam are deemed guilty of ‘freely interpreting’ religious scripture, then what would we have to say about men like Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan? Syed Ahmad Khan – who founded the Aligarh Muslim University – was one of the first who claimed that unless and until Islamic thought could be measured and judged by the standards of modern science it would not survive the modern age. For his efforts to modernise our understanding of Islam, he was deemed a materialist and secular thinker; yet he was the one who built the first modern Islamic university in the world, that proudly stands until today at Aligarh, India.

Likewise Abul Alaa Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb were also Muslim thinkers well ahead of their time who broke from sedimented traditions and who offered radically new and modern interpretations of Islam in their time. And when we look at their profiles, they were certainly not traditional ulama by any stretch of the imagination: Maudoodi was trained as a journalist and worked as a pamphleteer and propagandist for his cause. Qutb, on the other hand, was even accused of desecrating the Quran by offering an activist-oriented exegesis of the text that went against customary practice then. But today, does anyone doubt the impact that both Maudoodi and Qutb have had on contemporary Muslim thought and praxis?

Closer to Southeast Asia we have thinkers like Syed Sheikh al-Hady and Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin who were modern thinkers who wanted to adapt the Muslim mindset to the needs of the modern age. Syed Sheikh al-Hady even wrote the Hikayat Faridah Hanum, which remains as the first modern feminist novel in vernacular Malay literature. For his pioneering efforts to emancipate Muslim women from patriarchal tyranny, he too was deemed a secularist and modernist by the conservatives among his peers. But do we doubt or deny his achievements, or the achievements of any of these modernist thinkers today? Certainly not.

So let us clear the decks and understand some simple truths about textual analysis and exegesis: Reading anything – be it a novel or a holy book – is necessarily a subjective process that is always going to be particular, historically specific and necessarily contingent. No text can escape this, for the reason that reading involves an inter-subjective process of engagement with an author that is not present. We can try our best to remain true to the intended meaning of the text, but we cannot ever claim to have complete knowledge of it.

On that basis, no group can claim to have a monopoly over truth value, and no group can claim to be right simply because they have settled on an agreed consensus. Traditional conservative scholars who live, work and interact only among themselves and their closed circle of confidants and acolytes may think that they have closed off the process of interpretation simply because they have engineered a consensus among themselves; but this does not mean that the process of reading and interpretation is over and closed for good. Furthermore consensus does not guarantee truth value, for even if the whole planet thinks that the earth is flat it does not make it so.

For the sake of keeping religious texts and scriptures alive and relevant to the needs of our times, alternative readings are required time and again. That was the intention of scholars like Maudoodi, Qutb, Ahmad Khan, Abduh and Sheikh al-Hady. And interestingly, that too happens to be the intention of religious activists like Sisters in Islam and other Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhists activists today.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 9:31 am

    This is a sick subject from a sick country.
    Religion and race are backwards and not worth discussing.
    I have a strange feeling….Farish A Noor want to bring this subject up…for an agenda not beneficial to unity at all.
    TRUTHS is the name of the game with religions…all religions….and we can observe how much truths have we learn in Malaysia..on religions..when the government itself is not truthful…with Muslims.
    For your information…I just found out in Morroco and Afghanistan…Muslims love and rare dogs openly.
    Here..one needs to bathe 7 times..with chanted leaves..if a dog saliva touches his skin!!
    Whole world knows.dog is the men’s best friend.
    Here in Malaysia.. UMNO teaches Muslims ..it is haram…no no get near to that poor great animal.
    By the way..in Indonesia…it is more open minded….although it is also haram to certain Muslims.
    But being a country with more than 250 million….race and religion dirty politics is almost non existence.
    They focus to develop Indonesia and is doing a great job.
    Here with 17 million..so much problems…..all because race and religion…to divide and rule…on going……love to see it go backward…….and rule Malaysians like jungle people.
    Do not be fooled by Twin Towers…developed cities and those UMNO guys dressed in suits.
    Stand few feet backwards and see the real picture.
    We have never been united by UMNO at all.

  2. #2 by OrangRojak on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 9:45 am

    ‘a social phenomena [phenomenon?]’

    Great conclusion to the article – Good job.

    Not sure about the value of Qutb’s contribution to the article. Some impacts serve to make Islam more concrete and extend its reach. Others may seem to weaken Islam or restrict its reach. Qutb’s contribution would be welcomed while SIS’ might be rejected because their contributions respectively increased and decreased the power of those in control of Islam.

    It’s not relevant in a series of articles in support of the Sisters’ plight (among others), but – given the qualification in your conclusion – how do you feel about non-religious interpretations of religious texts, in the arts for example? It’s not a challenge, I’d be interested in your view. Maybe you should wait a few years, so the two subjects are not confused with each other!

  3. #3 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 11:02 am

    There are literally hundreds of books written, offering differing interpretations on the Christian faith, yes even questioning Jesus’ birth, life and death – even his morals and whether he was mere man and not God. The BIBLE is not spared all the scrutiny either – by priests, politicians and pariahs.

    There is nothing to conceal if TRUTH is investigated, flipped around a million different ways and studied.

    We shouldn’t take out the machetes simply because someone has a different opinion. Hey, this is 21st century, man. God gave us all ears to listen, eyes to see, mouths to speak and minds to think. Or are we saying there are some are mentally handicapped and have lesser senses than these?

  4. #4 by TomThumb on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 12:45 pm

    salman rushdie has written all there is to know about the satanic verses

  5. #5 by frankyapp on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 1:17 pm

    God is love,God is rightious.God is merciful and God is greatest.Most of all GOD is perfect.Men/Wemen are sinners and are never perfect.No one particular race who claims to own a particular religion can claim to be exclusively correct in the interpretation of the religion he processes.Hence I think any qualified person be he a muslim or christian has the right to interprete and express his opinion on his own religion and the reiigion of others.Anyone who thinks otherwise is not only narrow minded but also goes against his religion and GOD.

  6. #6 by alhafar on Friday, 26 June 2009 - 11:03 pm

    All religions are the same, in that it is fundamentally the quest of the individual for his/her connection with God, some higher being, or his/her true inner self depending on which is one’s religious approach. And because this is a personal quest, no one can dictate how a person approaches religion. No amount of law, legislation or force and help a person reach his spiritual goal. All this regulation and politicisation of religion is purely political and opportunistic. In Buddha’s teachings all humans, by fact that they are born into this world, are imperfect. Who can claim to be superior is surely a charlatan.

  7. #7 by frankyapp on Saturday, 27 June 2009 - 1:50 am

    Monsterball,please double check that dog is haram in our country.You know I have a muslim malay friend in KK and he’s a qualified DR.Binatang or a veterinary surgeon. His major business is handling dogs.He once told me he handled or did surgery for men’s best friend at almost a dozen times daily.If it’s haram then how he gets a federal health ministry certificative to run his medical animal centre. Other than Monsterball,can someone please enlighted me on this haram or no haram matter .

  8. #8 by monsterball on Saturday, 27 June 2009 - 3:17 am

    frankyapp……..I am 100% sure ..dog is harm to Muslims in Malaysia.
    But try to fool professionals…not so easy.
    That’s why UMNO dare not touch your Muslim animal doctor.
    Go to man in the streets and ask them.
    100 out of 100..will say…..muslims cannot have dogs in their house……..yet many retired police inspectors I know..simply love dogs…especial Alsatians.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Saturday, 27 June 2009 - 3:24 am

    I have many Veterinarians as friends.
    All said…they seldom or never treated dogs brought in by Malays.
    I have 10 dogs…one died two months out of old age.. and I gave one away to a Muslim friend…one week ago… and visiting Vets is my weekly chore..costing me a bundle tough… medical fees……hahahahahaha
    So many Malays..all brought in cats..and other animals….never once I saw a dog.

  10. #10 by monsterball on Saturday, 27 June 2009 - 3:31 am

    Surgeons and Veterinarians are saving lives..and animals,.
    They see no race nor religion…nor what breed that animal is.
    Unfortunately…we had a very corrupted doctor for 22 years as PM…played race and religion to the limit.
    What if he is a surgeon?
    So you see…doctor’s good reputation in Malaysia…..gone to the drain..led by half Indian..half Malay ba…trd.

  11. #11 by frankyapp on Saturday, 27 June 2009 - 12:20 pm

    Hi Monsterball,can you please tell me whether blood from non muslim is haram or non halal.Can muslim receives blood directly from non muslim.Oh yeap another matter I want you to enlighten me ,is it ok for muslim to receive cash from a pork seller ?.

  12. #12 by monsterball on Sunday, 28 June 2009 - 7:21 am

    hahahahahaha….frankyapp…what do you I am?….a third kind …came to Malaysia?
    Can you tell me….which skeleton is a Muslim or a Christian..or Buddhist…if I lay down 3 for you to identify?
    Does Muslim blood have different formulas?
    Pork seller do not deal with Muslims la.
    But pork seller sells fruitsin the evening at pasar malam..God help the muslims….hahahahahaha
    What is important…money changed hands..from pork seller to Muslims…how?..smell it first before taking the change ah? How does a Muslim ringgit smell from a pork seller ringgit?
    OK..frankyapp…seriously speaking..a dying person cares two hoots what blood it is from….as long as the blood saves lives.
    Surgeons have not time for this crabs.
    Do not mix our idiotic UMNO unpractical Islamic values with commonsense.
    No religions teaches race separations nor discrimination.
    It is stone age law and order…and we are still living in the stone age Islamic laws….interpreted by UMNO…to suit their evil and selfish agendas….to rule us forever.
    I hope you are satisfied with my reply.

  13. #13 by monsterball on Sunday, 28 June 2009 - 7:28 am

    One more thing….universal to all religion..although UMNO will never endorse it.
    As long as you do or say things with no selfish ulterior motives…no personal benefits…nothing is said or done wrong.
    Buddhist monks do not kill any living thing,.but they kill hundreds of ants or any living thing of the ground …while walking.
    No sin la….hahahahahhaha

  14. #14 by monsterball on Sunday, 28 June 2009 - 8:11 am

    Concerning pork…this is an interesting subject..why Muslims cannot eat pork in Malaysia.
    You see….1500 years ago…hundreds of Chinese Muslims go to Mecca….and they bring along dried or roasted meat.
    Roasted pork meat attracted the local inhabitants.
    So Chinese gave and share…so much so…it became the most wanted meat. Chinese took the advantage and set up stalls to sell roasted pork meat.
    In Middle East..only lambs and camel meat available.
    That got Mohammad’s smart wife…to come out with the haram story…and what Mohammad commands…..all must follow.
    And it was logical too!! Pork was real dirty. It was mostly wild boars…..not like what we eat today.
    So eating wild boar meat…people get diarrhea easily and die.
    Stuck for 1500 years…never change..even though pigs are so clean and consumed by all others.
    I went to India few times and love to talk to Indians..a real bunch of open minded democratic people..from road side to the most well educated..all open minded fellas.
    I asked them…why no eat cow meat…knowing what they will tell me.
    Battling them…not logical..so poor country…so idiotic…some confessed… they do eat cow meat at home secretly.
    I say ….why not openly. Shiva…Ganash…Murugam will not punish them…I guaranteed that. They smiled and said…but government will lock them up….end of story.
    So you see…no good practical and up to date laws..to suit time and conditions…do make people hide to do thinks.
    I am a Buddhist and supposed not to eat beef too.
    In USA….you don’t eat beef…you may not enjoy food at all.
    So I ate….and that’s it….it is the “Way Of Life” I see fit for myself.
    I tried to be vegetarian..no good. I need meat to have strength and energy.
    To eat only vegetables..once a week…no problem. Simply love it.
    Back to pork….few of my Muslim friends simple enjoy eating it..and all have Chinese wives.
    The power of women over men is cocksure…hahahahahahaha

  15. #15 by frankyapp on Sunday, 28 June 2009 - 8:19 am

    Hi monsterball,thanks so much for your info,I really appreciate it. You are a good person indeed.Please continue your insightful views and thoughts.

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