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Interpreting the Koran

In this blog post, I want to provide some principles of interpretation for interpreting the Koran. I have already been interpreting the Koran in many of my blogs. Now, I want to provide my readers with those basic principles that I use to understand the Holy Book of Islam.

The Koran was originally written in Arabic script without any vowels. The vowels were added later. I think that it is important, therefore, to examine the Arabic text and see how certain Arabic words in the Koran are used in other passages. I use corpus.quran.com to examine and analyze the Arabic text. There are, however, at least 26 different Arabic versions of the Koran. So, I am only able to examine the text used on that website and not any of the other 25 versions. There is another site on the internet that helps one to learn Arabic for free: arabic.speak7.com.

The Koran itself provides some principles of interpretation. It says that it is “fully explained.”

Shall I seek other than Allah for judge, when He it is Who hath revealed unto you (this) Scripture, fully explained? Those unto whom We gave the Scripture (aforetime) know that it is revealed from thy Lord in truth. So be not thou (O Muhammad) of the waverers. (Koran 6:114, Pickthall)

It also says that there are some passages which are figurative or allegorical.

He it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book – and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, forsooth, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. None knoweth its explanation save Allah. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed. (Koran 3:7, Pickthall)

So, one needs to discern the figurative passages from the clear ones.

The Koran teaches us to believe the Bible. The Koran tells us that the Torah is “a light and guidance for mankind.”

And they measure not the power of Allah its true measure when they say: Allah hath naught revealed unto a human being. Say (unto the Jews who speak thus): Who revealed the Book which Moses brought, a light and guidance for mankind, which ye have put on parchments which ye show, but ye hide much (thereof), and (by which) ye were taught that which ye knew not yourselves nor (did) your fathers (know it)? Say: Allah. Then leave them to their play of cavilling. (Koran 6:92, Pickthall)

It says that in the Gospel is “guidance and light.”

And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous. (Koran 5:46, Sahih International)

It says that both the Torah and the Gospel are “a guidance for mankind.”

He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, for a guidance to mankind; and hath revealed the Criterion (of right and wrong). Lo! those who disbelieve the revelations of Allah, theirs will be a heavy doom. Allah is mighty, able to requite (the wrong). (Koran 3:3,4, Pickthall)

It says that people who reject the Bible have wandered far astray and are disbelievers in truth.

O ye who believe! Believe in Allah and His messenger and the Scripture which He hath revealed unto His messenger, and the Scripture which He revealed aforetime. Whoso disbelieveth in Allah and His angels and His Scriptures and His messengers and the Last Day, he verily hath wandered far astray. (Koran 4:136, Pickthall)

Lo! those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers, and seek to make distinction between Allah and His messengers, and say: We believe in some and disbelieve in others, and seek to choose a way in between; such are disbelievers in truth; and for disbelievers We prepare a shameful doom. But those who believe in Allah and His messengers and make no distinction between any of them, unto them Allah will give their wages; and Allah was ever Forgiving, Merciful.(Koran 4:150-152, Pickthall)

It says that the People of the Scripture (the Jews and Christians) should observe the Torah, the Gospel, and the rest of the Bible.

Say O People of the Scripture! Ye have naught (of guidance) till ye observe the Torah and the Gospel and that which was revealed unto you from your Lord. That which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) from thy Lord is certain to increase the contumacy and disbelief of many of them. But grieve not for the disbelieving folk. (Koran 5:68, Pickthall)

The Koran says that those who disbelieve Jesus’ disciples will be severely punished in the afterlife.

(They said:) We wish to eat thereof, that we may satisfy our hearts and know that Thou hast spoken truth to us, and that thereof we may be witnesses. Jesus, son of Mary, said: O Allah, Lord of us! Send down for us a table spread with food from heaven, that it may be a feast for us, for the first of us and for the last of us, and a sign from Thee. Give us sustenance, for Thou art the Best of Sustainers. Allah said: Lo! I send it down for you. And whoso disbelieveth of you afterward, him surely will I punish with a punishment wherewith I have not punished any of (My) creatures. (Koran 5:113-115, Pickthall)

The writings of Jesus’ disciples are in the New Testament.

The Koran says that Muhammad and his followers accepted the Bible.

Say (O Muhammad): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was vouchsafed unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. (Koran 3:84, Pickthall)

Say: O People of the Scripture! Do ye blame us for aught else than that we believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed aforetime, and because most of you are evil-livers? (Koran 5:59, Pickthall)

And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our Allah and your Allah is One, and unto Him we surrender. (Koran 29:46, Pickthall)

Therefore call thou, and go straight as thou hast been commanded; do not follow their caprices. And say: “I believe in whatever Book God has sent down; I have been commanded to be just between you. God is our Lord and your Lord. We have our deeds, and you have your deeds; there is no argument between us and you; God shall bring us together, and unto Him is the homecoming.” (Koran 42:15, Arberry)

There are those who say that the Bible has been corrupted and cannot be trusted. The Koran, however, says:

The word of thy Lord doth find its fulfilment in truth and in justice: none can change His words: for He is the one who heareth and knoweth all. (Koran 6:115, Yusuf Ali)

For them are glad tidings, in the life of the present and in the Hereafter; no change can there be in the words of Allah. This is indeed the supreme felicity. (Koran 10:64, Yusuf Ali)

And recite (and teach) what has been revealed to thee of the Book of thy Lord: none can change His Words, and none wilt thou find as a refuge other than Him. (Koran 18:27, Yusuf Ali)

Even the Bible itself it says:

But the word of the Lord endureth forever. (I Peter 1: 25, KJV; see also Isaiah 40:8.)

The Koran confirms the Bible. It does not contradict it.

He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it. (Koran 3:3, Pickthall)

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. (Koran 5:48, Pickthall)

Muhammad did not receive any new doctrines in his revelations.

Nothing is said to thee that was not said to the messengers before thee: that thy lord has at his Command (all) forgiveness as well as a most Grievous Penalty. (Koran 41:43, Yusuf Ali)

Say: “I am not an innovation among the Messengers, and I know not what shall be done with me or with you. I only follow what is revealed to me; I am only a clear warner.” (Koran 46:9, Arberry)

So, the Koran essentially contains the same message as that of the Bible. Any interpretation of the Koran that contradicts the teachings of the Bible is a false interpretation. So, those who interpret the Koran to mean that Jesus did not die on a cross and arise from the dead on the third day are misinterpreting it. The Koran teaches us to believe the Gospel and not to reject it.

The Koran does not contain contradictions.

Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah , they would have found within it much contradiction. (Koran 4:82, Sahih International)

Therefore, passages that appear to contradict each other must be examined in the light of other passages in the Koran and the Bible in order to better understand them. The so-called contradictions need to be “reconciled.” We Christians do this sort of thing with the Bible quite frequently. For example, compare Romans 3:28 with James 2:24. The two verses appear to contradict each other but we “reconcile”the “contradiction” by saying that genuine faith is manifested by a life of good works.

Whenever the Koran talks about Christian beliefs, it does not restrict itself to only Orthodox Christian doctrines. It frequently condemns various heretical beliefs, such as, Tritheism, Bitheism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and the Maryamite heresy. Orthodox Christians are called believers in the Koran. (Koran 30:2-5; 85:7) The Koran recognizes the existence of the different sects among Christians.

The sects among them differ: but woe unto the disbelievers from the meeting of an awful Day. (Koran 19:37, Pickthall)

But sects from among themselves fell into disagreement: then woe to the wrong-doers, from the Penalty of a Grievous Day! (Koran 43:65, Yusuf Ali)

Verses of  the Koran need to be interpreted in their historical context and in the context of the passage in which they occur. For example, in Koran 5:33 it says:

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom. (Koran 5:33, Pickthall)

This verse is talking about what will happen to the polytheists who wage war against the Muslims in the seventh century. It is not talking about the types of punishments to be inflicted upon criminals. People fought with swords in ancient times. So, some of the polytheists who attacked the Muslims would lose their hands and feet in battle. Another example is the infamous “Sword Verse.”

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Koran 9:5, Pickthall)

In the verse which comes immediately after this one, we can see that the purpose of the war was not to force Islamic monotheism on the idolaters.

And if anyone of the idolaters seeketh thy protection (O Muhammad), then protect him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and afterward convey him to his place of safety. That is because they are a folk who know not. (Koran 9:6, Pickthall)

All that an idolater seeking the protection of the Muslims was required to do was to hear the Word of Allah. He was not required to accept it.

In verses 12and 13 of this surah, it says:

And if they break their pledges after their treaty (hath been made with you) and assail your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief – Lo! they have no binding oaths – in order that they may desist. Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them? Nay, it is Allah Whom ye should more justly fear, if ye believe! (Koran 9:12,13, Pickthall)

The war that was being waged against the idolaters was a defensive one. So, the “Sword Verse” (Koran 9:5) is not a commandment to engage in offensive military jihad. The war the Muslims was fighting was started by the idolaters who broke their treaties and attacked the Muslims first.

Another principle for interpreting the Koran is found in the Tenth Surah.

And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers. (Koran 10:94, Pickthall)

I think the best way to apply this principle is to study the writings of the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Church Councils. There are many passages in the Koran which are very similar to those in the Bible. Look at how the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Church Councils interpreted such passages.

Then, there is the principle of abrogation. This principle is found in the Second Surah.

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things? (Koran 2:106, Yusuf Ali)

An abrogating revelation is either better than or similar to the abrogated one. So, for example, this verse in the Fifth Surah cannot be possibly interpreted literally.

As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Koran 5:38, Pickthall)

It is not similar to any revelation found in the Bible regarding punishing thieves. The Bible says that thieves must pay back what they have stolen plus restitution. (Exodus 22:1-15; Leviticus 6:2-7) It is not better than any revelation found in the Bible either, because it creates a class of handicapped individuals who need others to help  take care of them. Furthermore, a person’s hand is worth far more than anything he could have stolen. So, a literal interpretation of this verse must be a false one. The verse must be interpreted figuratively. In another place in the Koran the verb translated “cut off” in this verse is translated “obstruct.”

Indeed, you approach men and obstruct the road and commit in your meetings [every] evil.” And the answer of his people was not but they said, “Bring us the punishment of Allah , if you should be of the truthful.” (Koran 29:29, Sahih International)

So, the verse should be translated:

As for the thief, both male and female, obstruct their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.

This can be done by some form of detention or imprisonment. Since the Koran teaches the same message as the Bible, the thief should still be required to pay back what he stole plus restitution.

I used three principles of interpretation in determining the correct meaning of this verse.

The Koran is a very good book. It contains a lot of truths. It needs to be rightly understood and interpreted by those who read it. All of the misinterpretations of this book have produced Pseudo-Islamic extremism and violence in the name of Islam. I also think that it is unfortunate that so many critics of the book have never attempted to really understand it and interpret it the way I have. They quote verses from the Koran out of context, like the “Sword Verse,” for example. They quote the book’s denunciation of Christian heresies as if Muhammad were attacking some of the most basic doctrines of traditional Christianity when in fact he was calling Orthodox Christians believers. (Koran 30:2-5; 85:7) It was the teachings of the heretical Arians, Paulinianists, Nestorians, Tritheists, Maryamites, and Sabellians that he rejected. He rejected the idea that Jesus is another God in addition to the true God. He rejected the idea that all three hypostases of the Deity are Jesus. He did not reject the Orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Word of Allah is a different hypostasis of God from the Father and the Holy Spirit, but not a different God. All Three are one and the same God. Jesus is the Word of Allah incarnate. (Koran 4:171) The Word of Allah is Allah. (John 1:1-4) The Koran tells us to believe the words of Jesus’ disciple, St. John the Theologian. (Koran 5:113-115) So, the Koran does not teach some doctrines which are contrary to those of Orthodox Christianity.

I hope that these principles of interpretation help someone to better understand the Koran.

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