The Question of (Mis)interpreting the Qur’ān by Muslims

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Zakyi Ibrahim

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Abstract

Although the Qur’ān calls Muslims to make peace with their enemies
(Qur’ān 8:61‒62), some early Qur’ān exegetes1 interpret that to be abrogated
by subsequent war verses (Qur’ān 9:5; Qur’ān 9:12‒13). This,
according to a sound methodology, is a misinterpretation. So why is the
Qur’ān often taken out of context on many issues, and on peace and war
injunctions in particular? In other words, why does misunderstanding seem
so pervasive among Muslims of different generations on different matters?
This is certainly one of the most important questions in the context of intellectual
discussion about the Qur’ān and Islam for at least two reasons:
1. The consequences of this question effectively undermine all genuine
efforts to both divorce Qur’ān or Islam from the misconducts of
some Muslims on several fronts, and to convey its universally
positive messages.
2. The implications of this question appear to lend some credence to
the claims and analyses of those who see the pervasive nature of
this misunderstanding as truly representing Islam ‒ one that, in their
eyes, has to be considered rather genuine. Here, their underlying
presumption is that there is no “misunderstanding” of the Qur’ān,
for the very fact of its pervasiveness means that it must be the true
representation.
The following are some honest attempts to offer a much-needed explanation
in the face of these two potent and critical observations, but not
as a way to justify the problem. Although the pervasive nature of misunderstanding
the Qur’ān may be overplayed (one always finds dissenting
voices that tend to offer more logical and supported opinions ‒ in this
case, al-Ṭabarī or Ibn al-ʻArabī, the Jurist), it is true that Muslims rarely
acknowledge it as a problem, hardly address it adequately, or even contemplate
its negative implications for Islam. The misguided understanding of
the verses of peace and war, for example, came about through a delicate interplay
of at least three factors ‒ namely, interpretive methodology, cultural
environment, and ideological pursuits ‒ each of which is analyzed below ...

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