Among Quranists, the question of reading and interpreting the Quran is a relatively subtle issue but nonetheless, very important for us to build a open and accepting association.
The question is ever present in Traditional Islam too. Traditional Muslims ask ‘who speaks for Islam’ just as we ask ‘who has the right to speak for the Quran’. The answer to this question is tied who will be answering for us on judgement day: we ourselves. If we are to answer for ourselves, then it really is our right, nay our duty to offer our opinions on Quranic interpretation.
Let’s get back to the question of reading and interpretation. This question may also be phrased as the question of objectivity and subjectivity. Is it possible to read the Quran objectively, that is, without any kind of human element involved?
I believe that yes, it is possible. The Quran itself tells us it is possible touch the Noble Quran which is in a guarded book but not everyone can do so. One must be instigating purification of the self (56/79-80). This is, of course, hidden to us (there is no tattoo on one’s forehead saying ‘He is purifying himself, trust him’) so it would be difficult for us to convince anyone that we are rightly guided. Indeed this is the problem with Traditional Islam (TI). TI has knowledge regimes which has turned tafseer (exegesis of the Quran) into an industry. Traditional Muslims are hardly allowed to differ from these individuals or risk being ex-communicated (being labelled ‘fasiq’/impious or kafir/disbeliever). This seems of course rather ironic the mufassireen/exegetes of TI can hardly agree even among themselves on many issues. Yet these people assume to be reading rather than interpreting.
We Quranists must never fall into this trap.
We need to realise, from the very beginning of the Quran’s answer to humankind which is Chapter 2, it starts with the enunciation of three Arabic alphabets: Alif Lam Meem. If the text of the Quran with words is open to interpretation, what more these three letters and others like them? TI itself has a long history of opinions on these letters which apparently ‘The Prophet’ never explained. These letters show that there is a mental agility needed and further, a spirit of accommodation for the opinions of others.
Quranists also sometimes have the notion that because they have left TI, the Quran becomes immediately a hundred percent clear. All they need is an Arabic dictionary and all will be clear. They then assume to be reading the Quran while in fact, they are still like everyone else, interpreters of the text. While the Arabic language definitely goes a long way in clarifying the Quran, there are other elements like the basic philosophy of the Quran, the context and consistency. The dictionaries, however ancient or authentic they claim to be, cannot have the final word. They are human products after all and also susceptible to tampering.
So where does this leave us? Is it a hopeless exercise to engage with the Quran? Absolutely not. It is not that we cannot arrive at a correct interpretation, it is only that we cannot objectively prove it to anyone. Not that this matters. The Quran speaks to the individual reader. The reader, once convinced, sets out to implement the Quranic programme. The Quran doesn’t really seem to care about the reader convincing anyone of his interpretation. Once we put our interpretation of the Quranic programme into practice, people would be convinced of the truth …or not.