The importance of the tafsir heritage

The importance of the tafsir heritage

Critical Thinking Skype Seminar #1 with Dr Shuruq Naguib

For our inaugural Critical Thinking seminar, Shuruq Naguib argued for the importance of continuing to read historical commentaries of the Quran (tafsir), even as we seek new answers for today’s challenges.

According to Shuruq, the modern reader often thinks that they stand alone in direct relation to the Quran. Many modern readers want to be unfettered by past interpretations, perceiving them to be less sophisticated, lacking creativity, stuck in time, invested in protecting orthodoxy, and simply regurgitating certain dogmatic views.

A prime example would be verse 4:1: “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul”. Although modern interpreters have conceptualised the “soul” in more egalitarian, non-gendered ways, before the 20th century it was largely interpreted to refer to the prophet Adam.

The approach to interpretation that has grown in the last two centuries results from some assumptions that are embedded in “post-enlightenment” values. There is the notion that human subjects can achieve certainty without any guidance from the metaphysical realm and that in order to be “enlightened” we have to liberate ourselves from tradition. This method puts humans at the centre of existence and was once described by some Western philosophers as the “death of God”. It has also been summarised as a paradigm shift – from upholding an all-knowing God to an all-knowing human subject.

Shuruq clarified that there is not much disagreement among Muslims about the importance of returning to the Quran and investigating what it means for us now. Most Muslims will accept that the Quran needs to be understood in a way that responds to the concerns of today, answers new questions, empowers the vulnerable, and addresses injustices in our communities and beyond. But, she asked: how do we do this? Do we start with a “clean slate” because the past is irrelevant? Or do we engage with the past mainly in a critical way to show that it’s obsolete? Or is there a more constructive way of addressing how Muslims understood the Quran in the past?

We looked at one of the earliest revelations, verse 74:4, “And your garments purify”, and discussed its meaning and significance. We noted that the verse had no gendered connotations. Shuruq explained that Tabari (a Quranic commentator from the 9th century) included multiple interpretations from different commentators to this verse - both literal and nonliteral - and that he did not think one meaning excluded the other. There was room for multiplicity.

This brief example sparked off a livelier discussion that covered the rules of interpretation, the rigidity of current understandings of Islam, the distinction between religion and culture, and the strengths and limitations of Islamic feminist hermeneutics. These themes are compiled in the following section.  


Participants: Surely revelation was intentionally imprecise to allow for flexibility and adaptability in different contexts, and surely multiplicity was a good thing. After all, Quranic commentators were human interpreters of divine text - they were just as capable of mistakes as any other human.

Shuruq: This may be the case, but the question remains: where should we, as 21st century individuals, start when looking for new Quranic meanings? What process did Tabari follow? Was he interpreting the Quran in response to particular questions of his time? Tabari’s commentaries can give us helpful clues into how he sought guidance from the Quran (and its other commentators) in response to his own specific concerns.

Participants: This is probably why there have to be rules for interpreting divine text that need to be followed. But even if Tabari had followed these rules, he was neither the sole nor most prominent Quranic interpreter of the time. Maturidi was a 9th century Quranic scholar who represented another hermeneutical school, and he may have had different interpretations from Tabari. How do we grapple with this tension – the insistence on strict rules of interpretation by some people and the vastly different insights that can be derived as a result?

Shuruq: Actually, Tabari was not the most authoritative interpreter of his time. The authority that he carries with many Muslims today is the result of more recent developments. There are, for example, much earlier works of Quranic interpretation from the 2nd century of Islam which still need to be edited and studied.  

Unlike the jurisprudential tradition (fiqh), however, Quranic commentary did not have a set of rules to be followed in any particular order. Thus, whilst Tabari was influenced by his time, he was not answering the questions of that time. He was actually referring to concerns that were raised from the earliest days of the Muslim community.

Participants: This raises the question of false binaries – an issue that repeatedly comes up for Muslim women. For example, either face repression within Islam or lose your Muslim identity. Yet the bigger challenge is the huge gap between the knowledge of academic scholars and what is being taught in the mosque. For example, there was the recent incident at a mosque in Birmingham where women were not allowed to sit in the main hall to listen to a speaker after the men had finished praying. Why does scholarly knowledge, which is often more nuanced and flexible, not trickle down to the mosque?

Shuruq: The binary choice is unrealistic. It’s also a constructed argument that was often presented in earlier Muslim feminist literature. It’s important to deconstruct the binary and show it as being problematic and unreflective of the richness of the Islamic tradition.

​What’s happening in mosques is connected to the kind of scholarship that is supported more widely. Feminist discourses remain highly scholarly and, to a large extent, are caught up in binary thinking.

Yet basing one’s authority solely on the Quran has historically never been the way Muslims understood the message of Islam. The Quran is central, but it’s always been engaged with in its historical context (including the Prophet’s biography or sira, the sayings of the Prophet or hadith, and the cumulative traditions of meanings and interpretations, or tafsir). By leaving these aside and centralising the Quranic text, some Muslim feminists are giving up on some important ways in which we can become authoritative and open the gate from within.

Still, we are beginning to have female leadership that engages critically with all the traditions. For example, there’s Sadiyya Shaikh’s work on Ibn Arabi and gender and Ayesha Chaudhry’s work on hadith. There is also movement away from Quran-only hermeneutics among some Muslim women scholars.

At the same time, dominant Muslim attitudes towards the traditions need to change. In particular, British Muslim communities valorise tradition too much and imagine it in very narrow ways.

The Islamic tradition does not have a problem with women being authoritative - not just in gaining knowledge but also in producing it for the guidance of all. Al-Nawawi, a Shafi‘i scholar from the 13th century, argued that anyone (be they disabled, enslaved, or a woman) could have religious authority so long as they had the requisite knowledge and level of reasoning.

Muslim women should draw upon sources like this to make an intervention and claim this authority for themselves.

Participants: But when we talk about drawing upon the tradition, should we also emphasise the distinction between religion and culture? Don’t people mix the two up too often?

Shuruq: Knowledge about the core values of the Islamic traditions was always understood in relation to culture, so culture is not necessarily a bad thing. It is impossible to completely transcend any contextuality or cultural positioning. Bearing this in mind, we should still engage with different religious understandings from the past.

Participants: Many Muslims feminists appear to focus their criticisms on the men who dominated Islamic interpretations. Yet there are prominent females who have made commentaries like Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, and Rabia, the Sufi theologian. Is this because Muslim feminists are too influenced by Western feminism and its stereotypes about Islam? Why do we not focus on Islam’s history of women being theologians, muftis (jurisconsults), scholars, or founders of universities? Shouldn’t these aspects be celebrated more?

There is also a need to move beyond unhelpful dichotomies. People can be both Muslim and feminist – this is not oxymoronic. Feminism, in its wider sense, is not entrenched in “the West”. Is there a trend amongst Muslims to move away from these false dichotomies and to democratise religious knowledge (e.g. through social media and better access to academic scholarship)?

Shuruq: Yes, many people are now questioning the dichotomies that frame our worldviews. But too often people perpetuate those binaries in their everyday existence. And yet talking about the compatibility of feminism and Islam is part of a discourse on gender and Islam that has developed over decades. We're always partly agents of the discourse and partly subjects of the discourse – we produce it but we are also produced by it. It's not something that we can all transcend.

In “A Critical Reassessment”, Aisha Hidayatullah claims that it is not just past interpreters who had certain dogmas they tried to impose on the Quran – modern interpreters, particularly feminists, are also transposing their own dogmatic framework onto the Quran.

Participants: It seems that some Muslim feminists will also only recognise their own opinions and discard the opinions of predecessors. But coming to the truth is only possible through dialogue, because the Quran is so multifaceted - it’s impossible for one person to see the whole picture.

Shuruq: I agree, and dialogue has to proceed in a language that most people can understand. To clarify, my own work has been inspired by Muslim feminists. And I’m extending an invitation to go beyond some unhelpful binaries rather than to abandon Islamic feminist scholarship altogether.

For example, Aisha Hidayatullah doesn't really comment upon whether there are any potential signs of hope from within the tradition. By not doing so, Hidayatullah projects this idea that the tradition is all-patriarchal. But perhaps both feminists and traditionally trained male scholars did not know the Quranic interpretation traditions (tafsir) very well. And so, the tradition has not just been misconstrued by feminists but by traditionally trained male scholars too.

Participants: Is there a third way to approach gender and Islam? Islamic tradition is very rich, so with patience, time and effort shouldn’t we be able to find new insights? It’s so worrying that women in local mosques so often parrot patriarchal sentiments. How can Muslim communities encourage critical thinking more widely?  

Shuruq: I agree with these concerns. A lot of this has to do with the structures of Islamic education which focus on very narrow, literal understandings of hadith, and largely ignore Quranic interpretation. The British madrassas do not have the same academic approach that you would expect from larger centres of Islamic studies. But there are signs that this is changing. Some new colleges are doing some great work, for example the Cambridge Muslim College and the Islamic College in London.


According to Shuruq, if we're going to take anything from the tradition, it's that it was communal, conversational, and cumulative. No single person can effect change – it will only happen in conversations that we need to keep having. This is the core of all interpretive traditions. Meanings in the past have always been produced in conversations that were acknowledged by the community as being important. The problem today is that we don’t often acknowledge the importance of conversation. Many of us prefer an individual’s take on the argument – “my view”, “my perspective”, what some scholars refer to as the Cartesian subject.

May our Critical Thinking series contribute positively to the larger, developing conversation.