Going forth to study the verses of the Qur’an with preconceived notions is one of the greatest of dilemmas in the exegesis of the Qur’an. The person who, with prefabricated beliefs looks at the Qur’an and feels that his goal is to search for proofs to back up his own predetermined thoughts through the Qur’an will never become aware of the true objectives of the Qur’an and will not be able to reach his outcome.
The commentator of the Qur’an must look towards this Book with complete objectivity and with no sort of preconceived notions so that he may be able to arrive at the true objectives of the Qur’an.
Any sort of preconceived ideas act as a major veil between the commentator and the (true) objectives of the Qur’an and will lead the commentator to having the Qur’an submit to his beliefs rather than he submitting to the Qur’an. Instead of being a student of the Qur’an, he would try to become the teacher of the Qur’an (imposing his beliefs on the text of the Qur’an)!
The narrators of hadith from within the Muslim world are in complete agreement that the Noble Prophet (‘s) has stated that:
مَنْ فَسَّرَ الْقَُرَآنَ بِرَأْيِهِ فَلْيَتَبَوَّء ْمَقْعَدَهُ مِنَ النَّارِ.
“Whosoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion must take for himself a place in the hell fire.”
The meaning of ‘interpreting the Qur’an according to one’s own opinion’ can be nothing other than that which we have just mentioned.
The interpretation of one verse of the Qur’an with the assistance of another verse, like when an allegorical verses of the Qur’an is interpreted by using one of the decisive verses of the Qur’an, is not in the least problematic. Such a form of interpretation is not considered as commentary of the Qur’an according to one’s own opinion. Rather, this is elucidating upon the Qur’an through employing the Qur’an itself which is something which we have already spoken about in one of our previous discussions.
What is not permissible is that without relying upon other verses of the Qur’an and the definitive ahadith, due to a person’s previously formed opinions and ideas, he goes forth to explain the verses of the Qur’an with his own goals in mind! It goes without saying that if a person did not have such preconceived notions (to implant into the Qur’an) then he would never think about interpreting the Qur’an in such a fashion.
In the course of history, we see groups of people, referred to as the Batiniyyah [those who claimed to be researching into the inward content of the verses of the Qur’an] and others who claimed to be ’Urafa’ (mystics), and as of recent, other misguided groups - even within our own era - who have played around with the verses of the Qur’an who have sought to explain The Book according to their own wishes. Not only are these people themselves misguided, rather, they are also the source of misguiding others!
At this point, we bring forth the following simple example and leave the detailed examples and illustrations for another time.
There are a series of verses in Surah Al-Rahman which read:
مَــرَجَ الْبَحْرَينِ يَلْتَقِيَانِ
“He has made the two seas to flow freely (so that) they meet together.” (55:19).
بَـيْـنَهُمَا بَــرْزَخٌ لاَّ يَـبْغِيَانِ
“Between them is a barrier that they cannot pass.” (55:20).
فَبِأَيِّ آلاَءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
“Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?” (55:21).
يَخْرُجُ مِنْهُمَا الْلُؤْلُؤُ وَالْمَرْجَانِ
“There comes forth from them pearls, and coral.” (55:22).
In these verses, the following topics are covered:
1. There are two bodies of water which meet together.
2. Between these two bodies of water, there is a barrier present which does not permit the waters to mix with one another.
3. From these two bodies of water, there are jewels such as pearls and coral, which are extracted.
What is the meaning of these two seas or bodies of water from which pearls and coral are extracted? What is the meaning of the two different types of water which meet together somewhere in this, world; however, as we are told, the water of one sea never mixes with the water of the other sea?
Is the difference in the two types of water a natural one - such as one being sweet and delicious tasting water, while the other one is salty and bitter; or is one body of water clear, transparent (clean) water while the other is dark, murky and dirty?
Where do these two bodies of water exist in the world today and where can they be found? At present, our discussion is not the actual location of these bodies of water. However, when Muhy ad-Din al-Arabi (d. 1240 ad), who was absorbed in the teachings of mysticism (’Irfan) and philosophy, went forth to comment on these verses, he did so with a mind so engrossed in philosophy and mysticism that he wrote:
“The meaning of the ‘bitter body of water’ are the corporeal and physical issues (related to the human being) whereas the meaning of the ‘sweet and pleasant body of water’ is the human spirit; both of these meet in the existence of the human being, and the barrier and separator between them is the ‘animal soul’, which although does not reach to the level of the human spirit in terms of purity and refinement, is higher and better than the physical body in terms of darkness and murkiness. At the same time neither of the two dimensions transcend their boundary: neither does the spirit bestow immateriality to the body, nor does the body make the spirit descend and place it among the material entities.”1
This example should give us a good understanding of what ‘exegesis of the Qur’an according to one’s own personal opinion’ is and how such a preconceived notion and belief (in a particular science or discipline) can have an effect on the actual commentary of the Qur’an which a person wishes to express.
- 1. Tafsir of Ibn ‘Arabi, vol. 2 pg. 280. This is just one example of exegesis of the Qur`an according to one’s own personal opinion and the book of Tafsir of Ibn ‘Arabi, just as his work Fususul Hikm is full of such examples of Tafsir of the Qur`an according to his own personal whims and opinions which is both – from the viewpoint of the intellect and also the Islamic jurisprudence – not permissible.