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Why Does the Quran Require Context?

Questioner

Adam

Reply Date

Jul 02, 2016

Question

Hi brothers, I was reading a discussion on social media and one person asked "If the Quran is the perfect word of God, why does it need context? Surely it should be simple enough to understand so that everyone could follow it." And I was wondering, what would be the appropriate answer to this. Thank you, and keep up the great work you do here, you maintain the website very well Mashallah. Kind Regards,

Consultant

Answer


Why Does the Quran Require Context

Salam Dear Adam,

Thank you for your question, kind comments, and for contacting Ask About Islam. In today’s religious climate, this is indeed, a very good question.

While the Quran is the Word of God, the description of the historical setting, people’s actions and involvement in any event is not necessarily the Word of God. Compare with the Bible for example, and try to deduce the Word of God. If the setting was given then the Word of God would be mixed with the words of men. The Quran is a Book apart.

Many people read the Quran without understanding the context. English translations of the Quran either give no context, or a limited context. As a person’s understanding of Islam develops, so there is a necessary correlation with trying to develop a deeper understanding of the words of the Quran. This is greatly assisted, with the translations of the tafsirs (explanations) available today.

A brief comparison shows how much more information is available with the tafsirs and how much deeper our understanding could be, also, how many more volumes comprise the tafsirs. Note: The Christian equivalent to tafsir would be Exegesis which is the exposition or explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of”. Which means the interpreter is led to his conclusions by following the text.

It is important to study passages in the Quran and to know the context. Context has to do with four principles: literal meaning (what the words say), the historical setting – the event(s) in which the words were used, who were the words addressed to and how those words were understood at that time, the grammatical structure – of the passage and synthesis – comparing it with other passages in the Quran for a fuller meaning.

All of these things refer to context. Taking verses out of context leads to all kind of errors and misunderstandings. Sadly, taking passages out of context, giving some more importance than they deserved, and misinterpreting them
for their own reasons was initiated by the Orientalists and built upon, not only by the Media; but also, verses were (and are) used out of context even by “Muslims” to justify individual or group actions.

Taking phrases and verses out of context always leads to misunderstanding. For instance, taking the verse Quran 9:5:

{But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.} (Quran 9:5)

Now some people, with their own agenda only quote this verse as to what Muslims should do. They call it ‘the verse of the sword’.

However, if we consider just the next verse Why Does the Quran Require Contextas well:

{If one among the Pagans asks you for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah. And then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge.} (Quran 9:6)

We see the instruction now allows for options. I wonder how many lives would have been saved, if even non-Muslims had followed such principles.

But now, let us look at the first four verses of the same chapter/Surah:

Allah Says in the Holy Quran Chapter 9 Surah Taubah verses 1-6:

1       A (declaration) of immunity from Allah and His Messenger to those of the pagans with whom you have contracted mutual alliances.

2       Go you then for four months backwards and forwards (as you will) throughout the land but know you that you cannot frustrate Allah (by your falsehood) but that Allah will cover with shame those who reject Him.

3      And an announcement from Allah and His Messenger to the people (assembled) on the day of the Great Pilgrimage that Allah and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the pagans.  If then you repent it were best for you; but if you turn away know you that you cannot frustrate Allah.  And proclaim a grievous penalty to those who reject faith.

4       (But the treaties are) not dissolved with those pagans with whom you have entered into alliance and who have not subsequently failed you in aught nor aided anyone against you.  So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term: for Allah loves the righteous.

5        But when the forbidden months are past then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.

6      If one among the pagans ask you for asylum grant it to him so that he may hear the word of Allah and then escort him to where he can be secure: that is because they are men without knowledge.

These two verses (5 & 6) should be read together with the verses 9:1 – 4 then the picture becomes clearer. Note also, that all treaties were to end at a specific time – when the forbidden months had passed, there was a grace period, and it was not put into action immediately.

Now, we need the historical setting. For that we have to go to the Seerah – the Life of Muhammad peace be upon him. (This is included in the tafsirs.)Why Does the Quran Require Context

The setting for this passage is that a year earlier the Prophet (peace be upon him) conquered Makkah. Then, he marched to Tabuk to secure the northern border. After coming back from Tabuk, Allah revealed these verses to ensure there would be no sedition within the Muslim heartland.

While it was specific to that time and situation; in theory, if the same situation occurred it could apply again, but it is not generally applicable. It really applied only to that time when the non-Muslims had to be stopped from getting their small groups together to form a large group. The Muslims were strong enough to see this through. But also note, anyone who asked, was to be escorted to a place of safety. It wasn’t a question of killing everyone.

Compare with: search and destroy, take no prisoners and carpet bombing in the modern understanding of warfare, and also the situation in Burma, the former Yugoslavia, Red Indians in North America, Aborigines in Australia and Maoris in New Zealand etc. and also the Spanish Inquisition.

NOTE:

First, whenever a passage is quoted from the Quran the context should be determined.

Then, is the verse specific or general? Does it refer to a specific time or is it timeless etc?

If you don’t know, find out, but if someone starts to argue ask them the context. If neither of you know get back to them once you have found out. If they know (or so they say) check it out for yourself and see if they were right or not.

Check the passage out for yourself knowing the context. Just reading the one verse one gets completely the wrong picture.

May I suggest, if one doesn’t know Arabic that they obtain a copy of a good reference book on the Life of Muhammad (peace be upon him) e.g. The Sealed Nectar

And

A copy of a good tafsir e.g. Ibn KathirWhy Does the Quran Require Context

Try reading these two books and putting the information together. Then see how your understanding improves insha’Allah.

Also, remember we are required to perform ablution before touching God’s Word (The Quran). This is to cleanse/purify ourselves physically and spiritually; so we become receptive to what we are reading. That is, we want the words to play on our heart in sincerity so we may earnestly understand the Truth.

Insha’Allah this answer has convinced you not to take passages out of context.

Thank you for the question. May Allah reward you and give us all the ability to understand His Word in the correct context, Ameen.

Salam and please keep in touch.




About Daud Matthews

Daud Matthews was born in 1938, he embraced Islam in 1970, and got married in Pakistan in 1973.

Matthews studied physics and subsequently achieved Chartered Engineer, Fellow of both the British Computer Society and the Institute of Management.He was working initially in physics research labs, he then moved to computer management in 1971. He lived and worked in Saudi Arabia from 1974 to 1997 first with the University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran,and then with King Saud University in Riyadh. He's been involved in da'wah since 1986.

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