How to read the Quran according to the Quran

I still remember this time last year, I developed my approach to exegesis based on structure and textual coherence. A few months later, I questioned that approach, and tried to figure out a revision. I used to argue with structure and textual coherence, but I never managed to answer a question: Why can structure and textual coherence justify my argument? This winter, what I found is that, I didn’t really follow the Quran itself when working out the approach, and it’s very likely that most other Quranists also failed to do so. It doesn’t mean that the Quran is hard to read, since the instructions to how to use the Quran is pretty straightforward, but most people ignore them and don’t take them into practice. So how to read the Quran according to the Quran? This article will address this question in several interrelated parts, from the most obvious to the least obvious. This article will be expanded when more discoveries are made.

  1. Be truthful

See 2:59, 6:112, 10:15, and etc. Please note the context those verses are in. It’s a common practice to cite a few verses and try to force them into certain ideologies without sufficient knowledge, whether traditional or modernist. However, this is one of the practices most strongly condemned in the Quran, and is associated with the rejecters. This is where the transgressions of Children of Israel when Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s revelation began. Asserting what’s not God’s revelation as part of God’s revelation is a form of this sin. This issue can also be viewed from other perspectives. Firstly, there’s the idea that the truth will remain, while the falsehood will perish (13:17; 14:24-27, 23:71, 42:24, etc.). Thus, claiming that falsehood is the truth is fooling the self and this will eventually backfire. Secondly, claiming that falsehood is the truth is blasphemous to God by ignoring His might. God is Omniscient; nobody can hide anything from God, so using falsehood to deceit can’t escape from God’s judgment. And if the god you believe in advocates falsehood, then that god is not God, since this directly contradicts God’s characteristic as the True Lord who has created the universe with the truth.

2. Read the Scripture as a whole

The idea of holistic reading is directly stated in several verses, including 2:85, 3:23, 4:44, 4:51, 5:41, 15:91, etc. and please don’t contradict yourselves by taking those verses out of context. Myriads of interpretations can be made when we take verses out of context, but when context is taken into account, most of those interpretations are rejected. Here’s a clichéd example. If taken out of context, some verses in Chapter 9 can be interpreted as violent and militant killing of non-believers. But when Chapter 8 and 9 are read together, we know that we must not first aggress unless others are invading and the war in those chapters was initiated by the other nation’s breaking of pledge. Combining ideas from other chapters, the interpretation can be further limited, such as we should ensure freedom of conscience and only punish when the equivalent and should never kill unless with justice.

Furthermore, taking verses out of context is only part of the idea in the verses just cited. Those verses cited above (except 5:41) did not specify that the people who only take portions of the revelation necessarily do so by ignoring the textual context and we should extract the most accurate interpretation possible. What does it really mean to take the Scripture apart? Firstly, the verses cited refer to behaviors obviously opposed to the teaching of God, which means that the people who take the Scripture apart did not follow the Scripture, and this leads to Part 3 of this article. Secondly, there shouldn’t be contradictions in the Scripture (4:82), so our interpretation of verses must not create contradictory ideas. In order to know whether a contradiction exists, integration of ideas is necessary, since just like verses, an idea orphaned from other ideas can be interpreted in myriads of ways, but most of those interpretations are rejected when we bring in other ideas. An example is the idea of following God’s revelations. Taken alone, this idea can lead to dogmatism and close-mindedness. However, when we look at other ideas such as people fabricating lies about God and the dogmatism of rejecters, then we must reject the above interpretation, since first, we must think critically to distinguish between what’s really from God and what’s fabricated by people, and second, if the Quran means to advocate dogmatism, then it’s contradicting itself.

3. Listen and obey

See 2:93, 2:285, 3:112, 4:46, etc. There’re a lot of verses on this topic, and not all are cited here. Let’s consider an analogy. Someone has a cold, and he buys some drugs, but he doesn’t follow the instruction of the drugs, so they don’t work as they’re designed, so he sues the pharmaceutical company. If you’re the judge, provided that the instruction of the drugs is clear, will you let that person win the lawsuit? God has commanded us to do many things, such as feeding the poor, caring for the relatives, wayfarers, and orphans, not to blindly follow, not to take the Scripture apart, and etc. Instructions on how to treat the Scripture itself are also given through examples of how people reject God’s revelations and in self-references in the Quran (see Part 4). How does this relate to taking the Scripture apart? Since verses and ideas with instructions for us are still part of the Scripture, not following them means rejecting part of the Scripture (2:85). We’re not only playing a puzzle called exegesis; the Scripture should be the guide for our lives as it instructed.

4. Pay attention to self-references in the Quran

Let’s begin with an example. People are condemned for rejecting God’s revelation. So what did they reject? This is just another way of asking what God talks about in the revelation. Also remember that the story condemning rejecters itself is part of the revelation, so rejecting the revelation also means rejecting that story, which means refusing to confess the sin if you’re doing what the rejecters are doing. In fact, many of us Quranists are easily tempted to do what rejecters do, such as clergy worship, taking the Scripture apart, and etc. and this kind of awakening can be painful, but it has to be accepted. “This Quran guides to what’s more upright…” (17:9), so what guides to what’s more upright? So we look at the teachings in the Quran. In the first sight, the self-references can seem mysterious. Say, “this is the guidance,” but where’s the guidance? It’s the Quran itself, so have you ignored something? Those self-references won’t make sense unless we follow where they point to.

Another form of self-reference is the characteristics of the Scripture itself. Take “this is the guidance” as an example again. So why not use the Quran as the guidance? Also, if an interpretation fails to make the Quran the guidance, then it must be problematic, since it’s contradictory. Similarly, if an interpretation fails to embody any of the characteristics clearly and directly stated, such as the Quran being clear and complete, then that interpretation must be problematic.

5. See if it works in real life

In Part 1, I talked about truthfulness. Also, in the Quran, there’re many verses with “conjecture can’t substitute the truth,” “bring forth your proof if you’re truthful,” and “they fabricate lies without knowledge.” So how to judge whether something is true? First of all, just repeating those verses, we should base what we say on knowledge and proof and don’t do nothing but conjecture. There’s not an explicit definition of proof in the Quran, but from the verses I was just referring to, knowledge is not conjecture, and only the truth can be called knowledge.

In this article, only one method of verifying an assertion is elaborated on when it’s impractical to solely use the internal logic of the Quran, which is to see whether the assertion works in real life. What counts as “work”? Not necessarily economic growth, since wealth doesn’t count towards eternal success. What about happiness? Maybe, but what counts as happiness? There’s one thing that can be easily used to test whether something works—the promise made by God. This is derived from the idea that the truth will remain, while the falsehood will perish (13:17, 14:24-27, etc.), and that God’s promise is true, while the devil doesn’t keep promises (14:22). God promised that: The revelation is true (13:1), is a healing, guidance, and mercy (10:57, 17:82), will guide to what’s more upright (17:9), can only be produced by God (2:23, 10:37), gives glad tidings to believers and warns rejecters (2:25, 17:9-10), has the best stories and all examples (12:3, 17:89, 18:54), separates between believers and rejecters (17:45), and etc. If an interpretation is true, then God’s related promise should come true. If you can prove that all possible interpretations of a passage fail to lead to fulfillment of related promises, then perhaps someone has added something wrong into the Quran or the translation you’re using is terribly wrong.

Note that this sounds like the scientific method that tests hypotheses using empirical data. In other words, if a promise does come true, then you disproved the null hypothesis that doing something has no effect. We can’t really do experiments on ourselves with the intention of experiment, since this intention means failure to reproduce the entire deed, and we don’t want to try evil, such as we don’t want to try to steal or cheat. So we can look at our own life histories as well as history of other people. There’re already stories of Noah, Abraham, Lot, Moses, David, Jonah, Saleh, and Shuayb in the Quran (see 12:109, 16:36, 22:46, 27:69, 29:20, 30:9, etc.), but to verify if things do work that way, we can look at other sources of history. However, this method is often inductive; it can support or reject a hypothesis, but it’s very hard for it to prove that the hypothesis is true in all circumstances. Moreover, one way works doesn’t mean that it’s the only possible way. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other methods, but I haven’t found the other methods yet.

6. Problems to be solved

There’s a problem. What about promises about the hereafter and resurrection? We can’t test whether those promises work until we die, but then we can’t change anything. The absoluteness of God’s judgment can be deduced from God’s characteristics as Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Just, but what’s more problematic here is the hereafter and resurrection themselves. We can say that if God is Just, then judgment after death and the hereafter are necessary for justice to play out because not everyone is paid all the dues over the lifetime, and some dues are impossible to be paid over a lifetime, such as a genocide—even the death of the person committing genocide can’t be enough to punish him for that crime. But what is God? There’s no point to discuss whether God exists before knowing what God is. If God is mightier than we are, then it’s impossible for us to know everything about God. Also, if we don’t begin with the Judeo-Christian theology when we read the Quran as that theology is not necessarily true, we find that God’s characteristics are not always explicit, but theology is not the theme of this article.

There’s another problem. Why accept that the Quran is the truth as itself asserted in the beginning? Or does the above question have any merit? If we want to see whether something is true or not, we have to have a method, such as critical thinking. You may question critical thinking itself, but this process itself is critical thinking, so you hit a dead end. As critical thinking is advocated in the Quran, there is this dead end. What about the other concepts in the Quran? There might be other such dead end concepts. Also, I just talked about testing the other concepts in this article: anything that contradicts must be rejected, and follow the instruction and see if it works. Those are not the exclusive ways. I found a special interlocking logical structure in the Quran mentioned in this article, but I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to write about it.

Another possible solution to the above problems is alternative perspectives to perceive the world. Rationality and logic have been used in this article so far, and the scientific method has been mentioned. Science is but one of many perspectives to perceive the world, and nowhere in the Quran specifies that the scientific and logical perspective is the only one perspective permitted. Yes, we should distinguish between truth and falsehood, but rationality is not necessarily the only way. The verses about natural phenomena are often tied to resurrection, and they’re not always written in a “scientific” way. For instance, we don’t know what are jinns and what are towers in the sky or number of heavens. Also, if God is understood as the impersonal force behind nature, then we can’t explain the existence of revelations and communication between humans and God, as well as other characteristics of God such as Gracious. We can’t deny the existence of emotions and intuition, although they’re often subjective and can’t be quantified. We can’t deny what’s supernatural if it indeed happens. Art and religion are other perspectives that we often ignore. Indeed, for philosophers like Henri Bergson, rationality exists for convenience and is not neutral, while intuition tells us the truth. What’s the perspective that the Quran sets us to perceive the world? What’s the place for rationality? These are questions awaiting answers. Moreover, the Quran is the revelation of God doesn’t mean that it’s the only revelation of God. We aren’t instructed to show that all other religions are nothing but falsehood. We live not for the sake of a label, but for the truth, so we can investigate other religions, and we may find ways that the Quran is unique, increasing the likelihood that it’s from God.

Another problem: If I have to read the Quran in order to know how to read the Quran, then I can’t know how to read the Quran. The answer is, some concepts are more explicitly stated than others, and the implicit ones will be understood if the explicit ones are already understood, and many instructions to how to read the Quran is very explicit, directly stated in verses, so just follow them and don’t ignore them. Forget about what others have told you before about the Quran if you don’t know if they’re true and read it de novo, according to its own instructions.

Summary

How to read the Quran according to the Quran? We should look at verses about the Quran itself, including those about fabricating lies about God, taking the Scripture apart, self-reference, characteristics of the Quran itself, and related promise of God. God willing, this article may be expanded, and I hope that this approach will be successful.

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