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Interpretation of the Scriptures: The Qu'ran PDF Print E-mail

By Ghaleb Beincheck

As international communities are more and more preoccupied with increasing violence and integrism in the name of God, the First World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace stimulated reflection on what religions promote, their relationships, and their influence on populations.



With the use of texts from the Qurán and the Torah, the task was to illustrate cohesion of Islamic and Judaic ethical and humanistic values remaining at the heart of conflicts. These values are: Life is sacred and particularly that one cannot kill in the name of God, illegitimacy of the domination of a population over another in the name of God or any other religious principle, tolerance and recognition of others in one's religion, one's practice and one's values, call to peace, culture of Peace, etc..

Prior to this exceptional congress, we asked Ghaleb Bencheikh to share his views on the Scriptures that are at the bottom of all violent interpretations in the Qurán. Ghaleb Bencheikh is Vice-President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, physician, professor and host of the french  television show "islam". Son of  Cheikh Abbas, former  Rector of the "Grande Mosquée de Paris".

Historically, The version of Koran that we have in hands – research works are almost unanimous today - is the one known as ''Othman's vulgate'', third caliph of Islam. Othman decided to consider only a watered-down version, definitely set it as the base, while all other versions where burnt.

In my opinion, this text as well as any other written material transmitted throughout the last 14 centuries must be read and interpreted according to the following approaches:

- If by definition, God's word is inexhaustible for a believer, its' projection into Man’s world is limited. Opposed to divine infinity, stands human contingency. History structures the revealed religion using culture to pass it on.
- Hence the interpretations of the word are subject to the conditioning of the one who understand it. We thus realize that the Koran is a succession of multi-secular interpretations, nothing more. Throughout the history and throughout the world Muslims have acquired a different approach and apprehension of the Koranic text due to the diversity of their cultures and traditions. So that the text must be determined within its' context and not used as a pretext for a new context.

Two types of Koranic verse

I distinguish on my part, two types of Koranic verse:

- Prescriptive or legislative verses, less numerous since they only represent around one-thirtieth of the koranic corpus. It is a great error to give them a normative, universal, meta-historical value. Some are solely jurisprudence of divine nature intended to a VII Century Arabian tribal society.

- As for the rest, they are parables, metaphorical and allegorical narrations that must be apprehended with anagogy: a teaching and ethical reference. On the other hand, one can find the history of the prophets and some narrations that could be assimilated to legends by the non-believers. These narrations are presented in a way that stuns the imagination of the audience, namely the Bedouins of the Arabic peninsula during the VII century. Had those texts been taught in Holland a few centuries ago, the description of paradise or hell would have acquired a Jerome Bosch or Van der Wayden touch. Back in 7th century’s Arabia, descriptions of paradise and hell had an impact on the Bedouins psyche – picturing greenery, lush gardens palaces, houris – their naive interpretation making God look ridiculous; allegoric descriptions vary according to places and eras. A positive anthropological point of view would induce that the speaker, namely God, orchestrates everything to serve a faith that is let to establish.

Today, the problematic rather stands in the prescriptive part.
As an example, the frantic debate over the veil in France is but a part of the general problem. Modesty, virtue, honor and recognition are the values at stake. Then, reading must be a vector, the finality of which being to achieve one’s goal.

If the Koran were revealed to the Nunavut people, the veil issue would never have been arisen since the Eskimo women already got muffled up. However, if this revelation had been made to the Massaï tribes, the injunction for modesty would have been much more explicit…

The prescriptions will remain intact till their finality, though the means to enforce them will differ. To agree or not to agree with this prescription is another matter.
The gist of the religion is to enhance morality in order to protect order, and to achieve this goal, religion will word the adequate speech, using the appropriate hints to be understood at the time when it touches the human contingency.
I do not understand why my co-religionist, men and women from afar, stick to such or such prescription and think without due consideration of other prescriptions that underwent a similar evolution. We owe to Lao Tseu this aphorism: "When the finger points to the moon, the imbecile looks at the finger."

With all due respect for religious freedom, I am not sure that the persons who demonstrated in Paris France on January 17 and February 7 in favor of the veil, would accept the meaning of extracts that also are prescriptions of the Koran, on testimonies, legacy or tetragamy. On the other hand and as an anecdote, the Koran states about pilgrimage: "And proclaim the Pilgrimage among men: They will come to thee on foot or (mounted) on every camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways" (verse 29, Sourate 29 ).
But, today, no one in the world goes on pilgrimage on camel’s back ! We go by jumbo jet or by air-conditioned bus. On fasting, and again as an anecdote, we read: "Permitted to you, on the night of the fast, Allah Hath ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread" (verse 187, Sourate 2) No one in the world our days opens their window to distinguish the white thread from the black thread before fasting. Scandinavian would not be able to stick to such prescription. Then, either the Koran uses a universal dimension that enables its application up to Lapland, or this verse is to be interpreted as the rise of dawn. And for those who are offended by relating woman’s decency and honor to passages obviously obsolete impact, we will argue that it is the same epistemological approach. Simply, in the case of woman, Freud’s time had not come yet. The true veil for woman nowadays is her education, her up bringing and her knowledge attainment.

Legitimizing violence and hatred

The scope of passages of the Scriptures that give warlike hints and are used to legitimize hatred and violence is to be defined in time and in space. The problem stands in the fact that to answer these scriptures, a selective choice of verses is often made that put forth peace and love to better silence the other ones' and to dodge their consequences…
Their historical and economical contexts must be put in perspective. It is obvious bad faith to grant them a universal and timeless span. And supposing that his normative value is conceivable, they still remain obsolete since they do not go towards the direction of peace and do not honor man.
Their consequences are being made absolutely obsolete and antiquated. We must not take these texts literally. It is not embarrassing to quote the verses of Sourate nine that substantially claim:

"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, ye repent, it were best for you; but if ye turn away, know ye that ye cannot frustrate Allah. And proclaim a grievous chastisement to those who reject Faith. (But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom ye have entered into alliance and who have not subsequently failed you in aught, nor aided any one against you. So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term: for Allah love the righteous. But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye 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, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. If one amongst the Pagans ask thee 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."

An instrumental reading of these verses by a vulgar game of analogy would identify the Russians, Americans and Israelis as those who unjustly expelled from their homes Palestinians, Chechens and Iraqis. Therefore they have to be fought wherever they are to be found.
In order to thoroughly read a sacred text, the knowledge of the actual circumstances of their revelations is compulsory, and such knowledge is really a science in itself. This passage actually refers to the Meccans who chassed fellow-Meccans out of their homes –eviction that led them to become converted to Islam, and to flee to the town that would become Medina.

That are the reasons why the Imams must provide exegesis and interpretation work. Provided they possess the competence in doing so: knowledge in human sciences, in hermeneutics, philology, grammar, anagogy, theology and theodicy.


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