Contests over Contexts: From Scholarly Project to Liberating Exegesis
The question of context has become an increasingly salient feature of Qur’anic exegesis. This is quite a recent hermeneutical development, as classical commentators concentrated on the linguistic study of the text, such as its philology and grammar. The Pakistani Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) played a pioneering role in raising the question of historical context in commentary, engineering an entirely new method in approaching scripture: namely, the ‘double movement theory’. It was historical criticism par excellence. The first ‘movement’, Rahman proposed, was an exhaustive examination of the immediate setting of revelation—that is, seventh-century Arabia—and thus a comprehensive study of the societal, cultural, political and economic milieu of Meccan life. Broader socio-moral objectives would be extracted from this classical context and then, in the second movement, these general Islamic principles would be applied to the specificities of the present. An interesting aspect of this interpretive strategy is that the ‘ulama (the traditionally trained and historic interpreters of the faith) and lay experts in fields of knowledge outside Islam like sociology, law, history and philosophy would have to work together in order to see both movements through. This was a shared scholarly project, therefore, between lay and learned. Islamic scholars have built on this notion of a shared ijtihad, or critical intellectual enquiry. The Muslim reformist Tariq Ramadan, for example, has classified scholars into two groups: ‘ulama al-nusus (‘text scholars’), denoting specialists in Islam, and ‘ulama al- waqi‘ (‘context scholars’), or those who are experts in other fields of learning. And it is through the collaboration of both, Ramadan argues, that an Islam that speaks to the challenges of modernity can be articulated.
Esack’s principal interest is not the classical context, however, but the immediate present. The historical criticism of Rahman denotes a certain distance, a rift between the average, contemporary reader and the Qur’anic text. The underlying assumption of his scholarly project is that the Qur’an, as a historical document, had a primary audience and that this was the Prophet’s community in seventh-century Arabia. With the passing of generations, then, distance is inevitably created between the initial act of revelation and the present. The following description of the text by the Islamic scholar Bruce Lawrence, clearly conditioned by the logic of historical criticism, encapsulates this assumption:
The Qur’an as written in Arabic is less than the revelation given to Muhammad; it is a second-order revelation. The Qur’an written, then translated from Arabic into English, becomes a third-order revelation. Distance from the source handicaps us, yet we can still learn about Islam by engaging with the Qur’an, even as a written text, translated from Arabic into English. (My italics)
The subtext here is that the most authentic encounter with the text is as an essentially oral, Arabic discourse. There exists an enduring and inherent hermeneutical gap, rooted in time, which cannot be bridged. But where a connection can be made, however limited it may be, is through the mediation of the immediate audience of the text: the very first generation of Muslims to whom God revealed the Word. And it is precisely because the Qur’an, Esack interjects, is not speaking primarily to the community of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia but to all of humanity, that his key interest is the contemporary context of the reader. This is not to say that Esack ignores the conditions of seventh- century Arabian life. In fact, he devotes the second chapter of his textbook on the Qur’an, entitled The Word Enters the World, to this topic, examining the prior circumstances and immediate social context of revelation. Furthermore, because the Qur’an and its interpretation cannot be stripped of time and locale, and because the Qur’an was undoubtedly revealed in a particular historical moment, that historical moment must always, to some degree, be engaged. Rather, my point is that the chief, the overarching framework of Esack’s hermeneutic is the here and now—not late antiquity—and that he consciously privileges the former over the latter.
It is worthwhile noting that Esack’s emphasis on the present bears a striking resemblance to Islamist readings. Leading Islamist thinkers, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) and the Pakistani Abu’l-A‘la Mawdudi (d. 1979), urged ordinary Muslims to read the Qur’an themselves—and, therefore, to bypass the accumulated scholarly commentary on the text—arguing that the Qur’an spoke directly to the believers, addressing their immediate circumstances and struggles. The following is an excerpt from a set of guidelines on how to read the Qur’an by Khurram Murad, a member of the Jama‘at-i Islami—the most influential Islamist movement in South Asia—and a student of Mawdudi:
Be aware that you are always in Allah’s presence.
Feel, as though you hear the Qur’an from Allah.
Feel, as though the Qur’an addresses you directly...
Consider each aya [verse] as relevant today, not as a thing of the past...
Reflect deeply upon what you read...
Take each passage of the revelation as addressed to you.
In other words, scripture does not speak through the mediation of a primary audience (classical Arabia) to a secondary audience (the present). Rather, a direct hermeneutical link is forged between God and the faithful, transcending time and space. Another common characteristic between Esack’s readings and those of Islamists, then, is their markedly lay character. South African Muslims engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle routinely came together in religious circles (halaqat) to reflect collectively on a translation of the Qur’an, asking one another what they felt the various verses meant and how these verses spoke to their experiences. Such communitarian exegesis and direct access to the Qur’anic text—a hallmark of Islamist interpretation— stands in stark contrast to the elite manner in which sacred authority operated historically in Muslim societies, wherein the ‘ulama functioned as the main arbiters of Islam. Unsurprisingly, these reading practices have been met with much antagonism by the ‘ulama, who have been quick to dismiss such readings as skewed, as lacking requisite exegetical skills. According to the ‘ulama, without the guidance of a scholar well versed in the Qur’an and its interpretation, a lay reader will go astray. And it is this scholarly claim to own the Qur’an that violates, for Esack, the profoundly universal spirit of the text. In our interview, he described the ‘ulama’s deep-seated reservations about direct access to the Qur’an as follows:
I think it has something to do with control. You have all of these barricades, all these walls, and they are not just walls. All these walls, all of these barricades have gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers derive their own meaning from their role as controllers or managers of the sacred. So once you say that, look, I want to parachute into the centre and seek an audience with the centre, all these people who have made their livings and have derived meanings from being interlocutors with the centre, you are threatening them. So they have sacralised all these borders, all these boundaries and so on, but it is also really about their authority. They will say we want to protect the centre.
This points to another problem in Rahman’s approach: that it is an essentially elitist enterprise. For if the classical context is to be hermeneutically positioned between the Creator and the contemporary reader then so, too, must religious authority be delegated to those very few people, traditionally trained or otherwise, who can partake in this scholarly project.
In Esack’s reading of the Qur’an through the lens of the present, he consciously privileges the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. The following guideline from Murad’s essay on how to approach the text betrays a key difference between the readings of Esack and contemporary Islamists: ‘Read the Qur’an with a mind free from bias and preconceived ideas, as otherwise you will read your own notions into the book.’ There is no acknowledgement, therefore, that the reader brings a pretext, conditioned by class, religion, ethnicity, gender, time, and place, among other factors, to the text and that this contextual baggage constitutes an inescapable reality of reading. This is not to imply, however, that classical Islamic scholars acknowledged their own biases when approaching scripture. Within traditional exegesis—a dense body of knowledge built on the continuous accumulation of commentary over the generations—interpretations that lay outside the fold of orthodoxy were hastily consigned to the categorical dustbin of tafsir bi’l-ra’y, or ‘commentary by opinion’. In contrast to this lack of reflexivity, Esack is keenly aware that he cannot approach the Qur’an as a disembodied figure, appreciating that he brings to the text limited horizons rooted in his own reality. And it is through this acknowledgement that all readings are contextual that he chooses to favour a specific context: that of the oppressed. The principal subjects of Esack’s interpretation are not the powerful and the affluent, but the marginalized (al-aradhil) and the downtrodden (al-mustad‘afun). It is important to clarify here that he is not interested in merely including the perspective of the marginalized into a growing pool of existing accounts. Esack’s hermeneutic is not one in which the discourses of the powerful and the powerless weigh in side-by-side. Instead, he privileges the vantage point, the experiences of the oppressed.
But Esack does not read from the perspective of the oppressed as a neutral and disinterested observer. Rather, he approaches the text as an ally actively engaged in struggle with the oppressed against their oppressor. Esack’s understanding of Islam is one that emerges in the heat of resistance, for ‘understanding is viewed as the product of engagement for justice combined with reflection’. Praxis—the idea that the struggle against oppression ought to form the framework through which theology emerges—is a cornerstone of his exegesis. And it is precisely this overtly political aspect of Esack’s reading that makes his hermeneutic a hermeneutic of liberation. The pioneering Christian liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, sums up the difference between liberating and conventional exegesis:
the theology of liberation offers us not so much a new theme for
reflection as a new way to do theology. Theology as critical reflection
on historical praxis is a liberating theology. (My italics)
Theology and struggle, therefore, are inextricably interwoven into a dialectical paradigm of action, religious reflection, and renewed action—a mode of reading sanctioned, Esack argues, by the very nature of the Qur’an’s revelation. For the text never presented itself as a coherent and closed scripture, but as ‘a revealed discourse unfolding in response to the requirements of a society over a period of twenty- three years (Q. 17:82; 17:106)’. God was thoroughly immersed in the struggles of the early Muslim community, manifesting the divine presence, through the act of revelation, in response to various situations as they emerged. In other words, the seemingly insulated categories of text and context were collapsed into a hermeneutical circle of liberation: struggle, followed by revelation and introspection, followed by further struggle.  Hence, the Qur’an’s revelation reflects a deity who engages history and whose discourse is shaped by that history, intervening in and conversing with the affairs of humankind. Esack calls this Qur’anic commitment to praxis ‘progressive revelation’—a form of scriptural engagement that characterized the lives of the first Muslims. And it is because the text speaks to all times and places that the principle of progressive revelation, too, is universal. To be sure, Esack clarifies that the process of revelation was completed with Muhammad as the Final Messenger and Seal of the Prophets—a key Muslim belief—and so when Esack refers to interacting with the Qur’an today through praxis he is referring to the process of understanding.46 Through this commitment to praxis, the Qur’an becomes alive and speaks in a liberating way to every generation of Muslims, who draw their own distinctive meanings and inspiration from the text.
It is misleading and simplistic to dismiss interpretations rooted in praxis as being politicized or contextual, for all readings are inescapably shaped by context and reflect vested political interests. Many contemporary Islamic scholars, traditional or otherwise, have hastily dismissed what they have deemed as politicized readings of Islam. Rahman is a compelling case in point. Operating on the assumption that there exists a pristine, apolitical state of being, Rahman criticized the mixing of religion and politics which, he argued, had led to disastrous consequences for Islamic thought. What is even more problematic in Rahman’s discourse is that while he was reluctant to partake in political activity, justice remained a core component of his exegesis, reiterating time and again that a key objective of scripture was the attainment of a socially just order. This incongruence between Rahman’s emphasis on Qur’anic justice on the one hand and his criticism of the mixing of religion and politics on the other— or, to put it another way, speaking of justice in purely abstract terms and thus divorced from specificity, from concrete contexts of oppression—raises larger ethical questions about those who preach justice but who are not, at the same time, engaged in struggle. The refusal to locate oneself within a decidedly political context is not restricted to Rahman, however. During the anti-apartheid movement the ‘ulama, many of whom chose to remain silent and complicit in the face of oppression, kept an arm’s length from Muslim youth in confrontation with the state, dismissing them as having radicalized and politicized Islam. Not only are detachment and neutrality hermeneutical impossibilities, but, within a context of manifest injustice, the claim to be apolitical, and thus to allow one’s passivity to justify the existing status quo, constitutes the very foil of liberation: a theology of accommodation.
Indeed, within the expressly politicized discourse of liberation theology, praxis is a central text that is to be read alongside the Qur’anic text. Most Islamic reformists who have sought to reread scripture in light of contemporary circumstances have, in spite of their differing methods, searched for the right way to expound the text. Rahman, for instance, was pre-occupied with finding the ‘correct method’ of interpreting the Qur’an, and this objective lay at the heart of his pioneering scholarship. His interest in unearthing the proper methodology of Qur’anic exegesis, culminating in the double movement theory, was premised on the deep-seated conviction that there exist concrete and unchanging principles within the text. The trick was simply to discern the universals from the particulars. And it is here that a fundamental divergence emerges between Rahman and Esack, for whose understanding of the universal gets universalized? As Esack exclaims: ‘It’s not just: Oh, the Qur’an must be studied in its context. Whose context?’ The context and vantage point of the slave is radically different from that of the slave-master—a lived experience that will inevitably shape the type of exegesis that emerges. Thus, within a theology of liberation, lived realities of inequality and oppression constitute the interpretive point of departure, reflecting an embodied text (‘life’) that is as significant as the written text (‘scripture’). Because context is never universal or stable, and because context is hermeneutically on a par with scripture, truth— what Rahman calls the underlying principles of the Qur’an—can never be singular and absolute, timeless and disembodied. Rather, through the process of praxis truth manifests itself, in complex and manifold ways, as an ever-unfolding discourse to those immersed in struggle.