Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

The Originalist Approach to Understanding Islam

In order to understand the true message of Islam, we need to ensure that the Quranic text is interpreted properly.[1] The Arabic text of the Quran has to be given meanings by the reader to find out what God Almighty, its author, has stated. It is the correct interpretation of the book of God that would bring forth the true understanding of the message of Islam. In order for us to be able to do that, we should know what different possibilities of interpretation are available and which one of those possibilities is worthy of being pursued for achieving the purpose of that understanding. Quite often, the decision regarding the method of interpretation would decide conclusively the kind of meanings that are likely to emerge from it.
Although numerous ways have been adopted to interpret the Quranic text over the last fourteen centuries, it could be said, in retrospect, that they can be broadly divided into three categories: the Traditionalist approach, the Modernist approach, and the Originalist approach. The Traditionalist approach to interpreting the Quran is, strictly speaking, not just one narrow way of understanding the Quranic text. However, the Muslim Traditionalists of the contemporary times have adopted a stance that views the enormous body of diverse literature on interpretation made available in the first twelve centuries of the Muslim history, or at least the more popular part of it, as one category of approach to interpretation. The contemporary Traditionalists have come to believe that a valid interpretation of Quranic text can only be the one that has already been done by at least some of the earlier scholars. No new interpretation of the Quran can be acceptable if it doesn’t enjoy the support of another interpretation that has already been done in the past. In other words, according to the Traditionalists, if an interpretation is to be taken seriously, it must first prove that it also occurred to someone else in the past, or else it is not worthy of even being seriously considered as valid.
This obsession with the need to confirm the validity of an opinion from what the earlier Muslim scholars said leads traditionalists to invoke ijma‘ to support their view. Ijma‘ is claimed to be the consensus of Muslim scholars on a certain religious opinion. Although it is impossible to prove ijma‘ on even a single religious view, Traditionalist Muslim scholars, because of their peculiar mindset, have used this expression as an effective tool for proving their point whenever they have felt the need to prove the correctness (or conversely, the incorrectness) of an opinion, especially when proving it through more direct arguments seemed difficult.
The Modernist approach insists that an acceptable interpretation of the Quranic text must be relevant to the contemporary times. Thus, according to them, if an understanding of a Quranic text makes sense in the context of the modern academic research in the physical and social sciences, it would be considered valid. In case the intellectual of the contemporary times is not at ease with a certain interpretation because of the peculiar way of thinking he has become accustomed to, the interpretation of the Quran in question would not be considered serious enough to be valid.
The Originalist approach[2], on the other hand, considers the Quranic text as the ultimate criterion for deciding whether an interpretation is valid or not. Although it deems it desirable to consider whether a certain interpretation is supported by the earlier scholars, such support is not regarded to be crucial for accepting the validity of it. Likewise, although it deems it to be a useful consideration that an interpretation should make sense to the modern man, that consideration too is not decisive. The only indispensable principle for an interpretation to be valid is that it should be strictly loyal to the Quranic text. To a Originalist, it would make no difference whether no one has come up with a peculiar interpretation of the Quran before it is presented so long as it is supported by valid arguments showing its compatibility with the Quranic text. It also makes no difference whether or not the interpretation appeals to the modern mind or not, if that interpretation is bringing to light the Quranic text in a way that the reader gets a strong feeling that God’s word hasn’t been tampered with and that the end result of the exercise is indeed the true meaning of God’s words.[3]
To sum it up, if you are a Traditionalist Muslim (scholar or otherwise) your greatest concern while deriving opinion from a given Quranic text would be to know what earlier Muslim scholars have said. Having seen a few names of well-known scholars of the past on the side of an opinion, you will be satisfied that the interpretation has a right to claim that it is giving reliable meanings to the message of God. On the contrary, if you are a Modernist, you will need to first know what the currently popular intellectual understanding on the issue at hand is. In case the religious opinion under discussion concurs with it, it would be sanctioned as valid. However, if you are an Originalist, your interest in knowing the Traditionalist and Modernist views on the subject of enquiry would be secondary. Your real interest would be in ensuring that the meanings you are deriving are genuinely emerging from the words of the text, whatever the consequential outcome of the exercise. Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930), Amin Ahsen Islahi (d. 1997) and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (b. 1951) are the most prominent scholars belonging to this category.
[1] The reader should not be led to believe that it is being claimed that the Quran is the only original source of knowledge in Islam. Indeed the sunnah – the religious practices of the prophets of God which were reconfirmed by the last of the prophets, Muhammad, alaihissalaam – is an equally authentic source of knowledge. However, their description is not directly relevant to the scope of this article because most of the significant criticisms that have been raised against the Islamic teachings are the ones that have to do with the interpretation of the Quranic text.
[2] There could be other names assigned to this approach, like the Quran-based approach, the rationalist approach, or the textual approach. I have preferred to call it Originalist because it captures the true spirit of what this approach stands for: It is original in its methodology and true spirit even though at times it may appear to be new, because the outcome of a genuinely original approach gives a picture of Islam which is, as we shall see, by and large and not surprisingly, acceptable to the modern mind.
[3] An additional feature of the Originalist approach that is very likely to occur more frequently is the keenness on the part of the interpreter to continue to review his views in order to be more compatible with the text. That feature would also figure in the approach of the modernist, although not for his concern to interpret the text to enable it to be more consistent with the text but with the modern context and the latest scientific understandings. The traditionalist is the most likely to be insistent that once an interpretation from the elders has been accepted, it should not be altered. There are cases amongst the traditionalists too of changing opinions, but such changes have taken the form of a movement from one earlier opinion to another.