Hermeneutics and The Qur’an

Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie Arrival (2016). If you haven’t watched it, I strongly suggest you do that first.

Watching the movie Arrival reminded me of the short story Flatland: A Romance in Two Dimensions and how there is a difficulty in attempting to convey messages sourced from a dimension higher than the recipient’s native dimension.

In Arrival, aliens (Heptapods) who come from a dimension that does not experience time in a linear fashion like humans do, land on Earth and try to send a message to human beings. This was reflected in the language and writing of the aliens, as shown in the video below.

Arrival Movie’s Language: Talking in Circles

This led me to draw parallels with the Qur’an, being from God who created all of reality, would be similar — sourced from a position of more than our 3-dimensions and that it can only look like Arabic at best, with its own definitions and contexts.

Essentially, like the aliens’ language, the Qur’an would be a hermeneutic circle.

Definition: “The whole defines the meaning of its parts even as the parts define the meaning of the whole.”

For instance, if I say the word “hand”, it’s natural, given our past experience, to assume I’m referring to the most common meaning of that word in our language. But “hand”, depending on the words which follow it, may, in the end, reveal that I meant something else, like help or applause.

That’s because there’s no automatic relationship between a sound or written symbol and the meaning it’s intended to convey. The same symbol, like “hand”, may have any number of meanings that only the connections of a complete context reveal.

The whole and part of a text are working simultaneously together to form a text’s true meaning. That means, to truly understand the meaning of any part, we have to first come to know the whole.

I think the Qur’an works in a similar manner – the language may look like Arabic, but it is well known that the Qur’an introduced phraseologies that had never been used in the Arabic of the time. Surah Al Mudassir (Ch 74) has only 56 verses, but it contains 65 expressions that were not used before the Qur’an was revealed.

To understand it, therefore, you must understand it holistically first, and only then you can understand the parts of it better.

For example: the Qur’an’s main themes are truth, justice, love, compassion, and equality

Application (1): therefore, وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ in 4:34 cannot be translated as “beat her”

Application (2): أَيْدِيَهُمَا in 5:38 (cut off hands of thieves) cannot be taken literally, because the quantum of punishment cannot be made equivalent to the quantum of theft (same punishment for someone who steals RM1000 compared to RM1,000,000 is not justice)

Now imagine that into this perfected (11:1) circle some other text is introduced that imposes their meaning onto the words that are used in the system, irrespective of the original self-referenced meaning.

Your understanding of the word, and subsequently the whole text is now changed by this introduction.

What we cannot know for sure is if the introduced meaning was induced with good intentions, to serve political needs, or merely human misunderstanding and error.

The fewer such introductions into the system, the closer we are to the purity and the truth of the system. Hence, God’s assertion that the Qur’an is complete guidance (11:1, 12:111), that it explains itself (25:33, 75:19) and issues injunctions against extra-Quranic narrations to influence it (45:6, 77:50).

Historical References

I’m not the first to think of this, obviously – hermeneutics has been employed since the early centuries to aid in the interpretation of the Qur’an. However, many traditional translators and interpreters also use secondary sources which are man-made and subject to human foibles – hadith, seerah, asbabul nuzul (circumstances of revelation), and grammatical rules.

As such, early interpretations of the Qur’an seem to depend more on context imposed by hadith and asbabul nuzul, ignoring the embedded Quranic context at best, or the overall philosophy at worst.

More recently, Dr Adis Duderija wrote in an article:

Many modern exegetes recognize the interconnectedness of Qur’anic concepts and themes and undertake a holistic and corroborative-inductive approach to interpreting the Qur’an, based not only on insights stemming from the traditional scholarly principles of conceptual/textual chaining (munāsaba) and corroborative induction (istiqrā’), but also on modern linguistics approaches to textual coherence, sequentiality, and progression

Traditional and Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics in Comparative Perspective, Dr Adis Duderija (link)

What If?

In the movie, as our protagonist Dr Louise Banks learns the Heptapod language and gains the Heptapods perspective of time, she begins, as she assimilates the language, to experience time supra linearly. What if a proper understanding of the Qur’an could have a similar effect on humans?

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Understanding scripture in the 21st century and beyond

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