The Quran is the foremost source that guides humanity to the right path (Quran 7:2-3, 2:185, 54:17) and the ultimate source of law (Quran 5:44, 6:114, 5:48, ,etc). Without proper insight and understanding of the Quran, even the most ‘pious’ person can be strayed from the truth. Even if the person has good knowledge in fiqh, hadith, sirah, but if the Quran is not understood, then that means the ‘base’ is loss, because every Islamic branch of knowledge must start with the Quran.
Misinterpretation of the Quran is often employed by anti-Islamist, religious fanatics, and even Muslim scholars either intentionally or not, for their respective agendas. Therefore it is important to understand the Quran because the Quran is al-Furqan (the differentiator between truth and falsehood) (Quran 2:185, 25:1).
It is of utmost importance then, that we not to be fooled by false interpretations of the Quran. This article aims to enlighten the readers with basic skills they should practice in order to identify false interpretations of the Quran. It should also be noted that the writer himself is a student of knowledge, and that any human can be imperfect, therefore, the writer ardently invites the readers to give their opinions out in the comments section. If God willed, I will write a better version of this article in the future.
- How to not be fooled by misinterpretations of the Quran
– 1.1) The Quran is like the stars in the sky
– 1.2) Context, Context, Context
– 1.3) Repetitions in the Quran
– 1.4) Understanding the language
– 1.5) Understanding the language style
– 1.6) Basic understanding of the Sunnah and Sirah
– 1.7) Consulting tafsirs
- Principles to keep in mind
– 2.1) Iqra’ bi ism rabbika allazi khalaq
– 2.2) Have a pure intention
– 2.3) Trust that the Quran is that which guides to the truth
– 2.4) Trust that the Quran is capable of guiding to the truth
- Habits to practice
– 3.1) Ask for guidance and protection
– 3.2) Read to understand, not blindly without understanding its meaning
– 3.3) Read the Quran regularly
– 3.4) Do not read the Quran hastily
1) How to to not be fooled by false interpretations of the Quran
1.1.1) The Quran is like the stars in the sky (keyword: narrative)
If you’re lost somewhere in the desert at night without a compass, how would you know the directions? Yes, we depend on the stars to guide our journey. But how do travellers look at the stars? Do they look at only one star or they look at many stars as a group? The latter, of course. If we only look at one star without looking at the other stars, the star is useless as a guide. Similarly, when looking at the Quran, we should not look at only one verse in isolation but also together with other verses which says about the same topic 1 2 . Only by looking at the other verses with the same system of meaning, only then we can expect to understand the verse in its true light.
Observe the following example. This is a verse used by Shiites to ‘prove’ the sanctity of the 12 imams doctrine:
إِنَّمَا أَنْتَ مُنْذِرٌ ۖ وَلِكُلِّ قَوْمٍ هَادٍ
You are only a warner, and to every community is a guide.
(Quran, Al-Ra’d 13:7)
The ‘you’ in the verse clearly refers to Muhammad (saws), so some Shiites try to justify that the word هاد (guide) refers to the 12 imams. For each community, from the time of Muhammad (saws) until today, there is an ‘imam’ for each age*. However, one who regularly reads the Quran can easily appreciate the baseless-ness of this argument. When looking at other verses about the same topic, we will come to appreaciate that ‘guide’ does not refer to imams, but they refer to the messengers that Allah sent to every nation:
وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَسُولٌ ۖ فَإِذَا جَاءَ رَسُولُهُمْ قُضِيَ بَيْنَهُمْ بِالْقِسْطِ وَهُمْ لَا يُظْلَمُونَ
And for every nation is a messenger. So when their messenger comes, it will be judged between them in justice, and they will not be wronged
(Quran, Yunus, 10:47)
وَلَقَدْ بَعَثْنَا فِي كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَسُولًا أَنِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاجْتَنِبُوا الطَّاغُوتَ ۖ
And verily, We have sent among every Ummah (community, nation) a Messenger (proclaiming): “Worship Allah, and avoid Taghut.”
(Quran, al-Nahl 16:36)
While referring and comparing with the verses above one can easily get the idea that the word ‘guide’ in Quran 13:7 is referring to the messengers to diferrent communities. In our age, Muhammad is our guide, who left the Quran as for us to be guided (in fact the Quran calls itself as “al-huda”- the guide). If the Shiites really insist that ‘guide’ means imams, then they would have to prove that there are other verses talking about the 12 imams and these verses form a narrative which pushes the reader to understand that the word ‘guide’ in Quran 13:7 means ‘imams’. Sadly, there aren’t any other verses which supported the Shiite notion of 12 imams.
1.1.2) Context, context, context
Not only should we look at other verses of the same system of meaning, but also, the previous and preceding verses, and also the context of the chapter itself. The infamous ‘verse of the sword’ can illustrate this:
“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.“
(Quran, al-Tawbah, 9:5)
Unfortunately many people ‘who have disease in their hearts’ argues that this verse promotes violence, and that Islam teaches to kill the polythieists. However just a peep at the few verses surrounding the verse will tell us it is talking about the polytheists who were betraying their promises to the Muslims 3:
A proclamation from Allah and His Messenger to people on the day of Greater Pilgrimage that Allah is clear of the polytheists, as is His Messenger. If you repent that is better for you but if you turn away then know that you are not beyond the power of Allah. And give [O Muhammad!] glad tidings of a painful chastisement to the disbelievers. (9.3) Except those of the polytheists with whom you have a treaty and they did not break its terms or aid someone against you, so abide by their treaty until their term. Allah loves the pious. (9.4) When the Inviolable Months have passed away, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. (9.5) If anyone of the polytheists seeks your protection [O Muhammad!], then protect him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and escort him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know. (9.6)
(Quran, al-Tawbah, 9:1-6)
Verse 9:4 unambiguously states that those polytheists who abide by their treaties, it is obligated upon Muslims to honour the peace treaty. Only when they dishonour their treaty, the command to fight them is given. A contention might arise, however, that Muslims only know how to solve problems through violence. This contention is weak for many reasons. First of all, Muslims during the time of Muhammad were not only any kind of community, they had their own political system and governance. Their enemies were the polytheists, especially the Meccans. War is necessary in some conditions for self-defense. Without war, no sovereign state can survive. Secondly, verse 9:6 also states that if the polytheists seek for our protection, then Muslims are ought to protect him. This shows, that only the hostile polytheists that breaks his promise should be fought. Third, there are many other verse of the same system of meaning, which only indicates that only hostile non-believers should be fought (Quran, 2:190, 2:256, 109:6, 8:61, 4:94).
1.3.1) Repetitions in the Quran
Some of the ayat, stories, laws, teachings, belief, commandments are repeated throughout the Quran; that it is strong enough to form a narrative 4. Or in other words, it repeats itself many times that it will force us to have only one way of understanding it. Utilize this feature of the Quran designed by God the Wise.
1.2.1) Understand the language
This is important. We will never understand the true import of the Quran until we try to understand its language. Arabic is a very rich language for 3 reasons (as far as I know):
- Arabic has very large vocabulary
- One word in Arabic can have many meanings
- Uses the trilateral root system
It is important for one to have at least basic Arabic grammar and know how to read the Arabic script. This is because there is not even one single translation of the Quran that can import the truest meaning of the Quran to another language. For example, when I say kitaab it doesn’t only mean “book” in English. The word kitaab generally means book, but it also brings the connotation and idea of an “ordinance” and “law” 5. This is a simple example why no translation can ever import the true import of the Quran. In fact, even Arabic experts cannot know the full import of the Quran unless willed by God!
Is it hard to learn Arabic? Basic Arabic is fairly easy to learn. You can learn grammar online. For the vocabulary, get a word-by-word translation of the Quran. Read both of the Arabic and the translation text. I got myself used to Arabic this way. It worked very well for me. After some time, you’ll notice that when someone recites the Quran, you’ll be able to guess what the verse is being recited about. No joke.
1.3.1) Understand the language style
The Quran has a language style of its own, and whenever the language is used, it comes along with some connotations and idea. Consider the following example:
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ ۚ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face (wajh) of Allah . Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.
(Quran, Al-Baqarah, 2:115)
Some literalists understood the verse above that Allah does has a ‘face’. This cannot be farther from the truth. The ‘face (wajh) of Allah’ in the verse above doesn’t literally mean face as in the face that has eyes, nose, mouth. The word “face” here is to symbolize the pleasure/will/countenance of Allah. It makes sense when we read other verses with the same phrase:
“…and you do not spend except seeking the face (wajh) of Allah…” (Quran 2:272)
What does spending has anything to do with face of Allah? It only makes sense if we understand it as the “pleasure of Allah”.
“…believe in that which was revealed to the believers at the face (wajh) of the day…” (Quran, 3:72)
Does ‘day’ has a face? No, it will only make sense if we understand ‘face’ to mean the ‘beginning’ of the day. It can be deduced here that the meaning of the word face (wajh) can be extended depending on context.
Another example to explain about the language style, Dr Shehzad Saleem has explained it well in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQrHJIQTccM
1.4) Basic understanding of the sunnah and sirah
Sunnah does not mean hadith. Sunnah is the perpetual (tawattur) practice taught by the Prophet (saws) to the companions.6
There are people who reject the sunnah altogether because they think the Quran is strictly the only source to understand Islam, and any other secondary source is prohibited. This is a problematic view, because when they don’t know the meaning of a word in the Quran, what do they do? They look at the dictionary- which is a secondary source. This will require a lengthier discussion on my future article entitled “The Relationship between the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith”, which, if God willed, I will write it soon. The current article I have on the same topic can be accessed here.
Some strict quranists went so extreme in their view to the extend that they think salaat has nothing to do with ritual prayer, but salaat means a ‘divine system’ (what is meant by that divine system according to them, and how it works, God knows). The salaat actually has a long history and practice stretching way back in history up to (at least) Ibrahim’s time. It was practiced by the children of Ibrahim, the children of Israel, and became a common practice and spread throughout the believing community even before Muhammad’s time. If indeed the salaat by the ahl al-kitaab were wrong. God would have corrected it! Furthermore, the practice of salaat was observed during the time of Muhammad (saws) and also after the time of Muhammad (saws). And it wasn’t only practiced by one or two people, the whole community of Medina were doing it! To say that the word salaat has been corrupted to mean ‘ritual prayer’ is to say the the whole people of Madinah has conspired against Allah and Rasul!
As we can see the Sunnah (perpetual practice) and the Sirah (History of the Prophet and the Companions) provides some contextual insight on how is the Quran to be carried out. Reading the Quran without knowing where it is from, who wrote it, how it got to us, etc- is similar like trying to read books on mechanical engineering and trying to repair a car on your own after that. Besides, it also limits our wild interpretation of the Quran unlike the strict quranists who think salaat has nothing to do with rituals.
The strict quranist approach has never been practical in any sense. Do read primaquran’s** articles which explains deeper and intellectually why quran-only fails.
1.5) Consulting tafsirs
Tafsir means any book written that attempts to explain the Quran. Examples of famous tafsir include: Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad, Tadabbur-e-Quran by Amin Ahsan Islahi and many more.
The word used here is ‘consult’. It means we can and are encourage to look at this tafsirs, but not to blindly take them as truths. Only God knows the true interpretation of the whole Quran and He guides whom He wills. Therefore it is best we use our own reasoning and decide carefully for ourselves, after weighing the arguments of the mufassir (the person who writes tafsir), which is the best interpretation. Sometimes there could be more than one correct interpretation in terms of perspective.
There are many methods mufassirun use to interpret the Quran. Generally, tafsir can be divided into two:- Tafsir al-Riwayah and Tafsir al-Dirayah (bi al-ra’y). Tafsir al-Riwayah mainly depend on riwaayah (narratives) from the Quran, Hadith, sayings of the companions, asbab al-nuzul. Examples include Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Al-Durr al-Manthur, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran. This kind of tafsir is useful to gather traditional information about a verse.
Tafsir al-Dirayah, also known as tafsir by opinion, mainly depend on the use of reasoning and analytical skills. Examples include: Mafatih al-Ghayb by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kashshaf by al-Zamakhshari, Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad and so on.
So which is the better mode of tafsir to consult? It is hard to say. Each has its weakness. Riwayah tafsir needs dirayah tafsir and dirayah tafsir also needs riwayah tafsir. It is hard to only depend on one way of tafsir. I would argue however the best form of tafsir is which fully utilizes the Quran to interpret the Quran itself (by virtue of Quranic verses 12:111, 7:52, 16:89, 6:114). Tafsir Quran by the Quran is mostly attributed to Riwayah tafsir, however we mostly see it being utilised in some good Dirayah tafsirs. To tafsir the Quran by the Quran requires both knowledge of the riwayaat and reasoning skills. Therefore I won’t say which is better than which. Instead the presence of both kinds of tafsir enables us to view, weigh, analyse and evaluate for ourselves. Both are a blessing to the ummah.
Some of the tafsir which i recommend are The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad 7 and Fi Zilal al-Quran by Sayyid Qutb 8. Although I haven’t read Tadabbur-e-Quran by Amin Ahsan Islahi 9, i think it would be an extraordinary tafsir because of its unique approach based on coherence.
All in all, what is most important is to use our reason and think for ourselves because ” Verily the ear, the eye, the heart, each will be questioned.” (Quran 17:36) and take the best view as the words of God ” Therefore, congratulate My servants who listen to all views, then follow the best. These are the ones guided by God; these are the intelligent ones” (Quran 39:17-18)
2) Principles to keep in mind
2.1) Iqra’ bi ism rabbika allazi khalaq
“Read! With the ‘ism’ of your Lord that created” (Quran 96:1)
We do things in the name of something. For example lawyers shout out “in the name of the law”, patriots shout out “in the name of [insert country]”. Interestingly, and importantly, the first Quranic verse sent down to the Prophet was to “Read! With the name of your Lord”. To read with the name of your Lord is to aim to understand the Quran how God wants you to understand, not how you want to understand. Is it a coincidence that the word ism (name) is similar to the English suffix -ism (like capitalism, libetarianism, nationalism)? We can understand that to read the Quran we need to throw all our -ism’s behind and try to find out the ism of God. In other words, we throw away all our prejudices and biases but only aim to understand the Quran how God wants us to understand.
2.2) Have a pure intention
Almost the same as the point above, only here I explain that our own hearts must be pure and inclining to the truth. We read the Quran to learn, not to fulfill our own agendas. 10
2.3) Trust that the Quran is that which guides to the truth.
“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed, a guidance to men and clear proofs of the guidance and the distinction; “ (Quran 2:185)
There’s a wide misconception that it is the ulama, imams, and/or mullahs which guides to the truth. This is inaccurate. The people of knowledge makes easy for us to find the truth, but they are not the yardstick of truth. Always trust the Quran as guidance and the distinguisher between right and wrong.
” Follow what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not follow guardians besides Him, how little do you mind. “ (Quran 7:3)
2.4) Trust that the Quran is capable of guiding to the truth.
Some people know that the Quran is what guides them to the truth, but they do not trust the Quran as capable for guiding them to the truth. In other words, they would say that a guru is always needed when studying the Quran. I have no problem if one consults a guru, the problem arises when one doesn’t trust his intellectual facilities at all and hence depend solely on the guru to interpret the Quran for them.
If it is true that we can’t trust our intellectual facilities, then why did God told us to use our eyes, ears and heart (10:100)? Why did God told us to use them (7:179) ? And why would God hold every person’s eyes, ears and hearts to be questioned (17:36)? In fact, Islam is a worldview of reason, and their believers become satisfactory through the use of reason. How would one believe in God in the first place if he doesn’t trust his reasoning?
We need to appreciate that God has created us with intellectual facilities for us to use them, and to acquire the truth. Undoubtedly, we shouldn’t trust 100% on our reasoning, such attitude can even lead to shirk. But God has indeed endowed us with intellect to use it to a certain extend.
وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ
And certainly We have made the Quran easy for understanding and remembrance, but is there anyone who will mind?
(Quran, al-Qamar, 54:17, 22, 32, 40, repeated 4 times exactly the same)
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا
Will they then not reflect on the Qur’an, or are there locks on the hearts?
(Quran, Muhammad, 47:24)
Allah has made it easy for the Quran for zikr which does not only mean remembrance, but also learning and having deep thoughts about it. It is a big blessing that God gave us the Quran as guidance, if not where else can we depend on to measure the truth? Sadly, there are people who think that the Quran cannot guide them to the truth.
3) Habits to practice
After knowing (some) ways to not be fooled by false interpretations of the Quran, and knowing (some) principles which may help us in our usage of the Quran, finally it must be sealed with habits. Without it, we would might not succeed gaining guidance from the Quran.
3.1) Ask for guidance and protection
We ultimately depend on Allah for everything. It is Allah who guides us, not merely our study, our prayers, or our reading. Continuously make prayer to God that he would guide us all. “Allah chooses for Himself whom He pleases, and guides to Himself him who turns (to Him), frequently.” (Quran 42:13). When you open the Quran start with asking protection from syaitaan (ta’awuz) ” So when you recite the Qur’an, seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the expelled [from His mercy]. “ (Quran 16:98). Then if possible read the chapter of the opening (literally the meaning of surat al-Fatihah). Remember to practice the prayer as taught by this verse: “So high [above all] is Allah, the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur’an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”” (Quran 20:114). Then begin the study/reading.
3.2) Read to understand, not reading it blindly without understanding its meaning
Most people read the Quran as to exercise their singing skills, if you know what I mean (tarannum). This has no point whatsoever as to the purpose of the Quran. The Quran is a book of guidance not poetry.
Then there are also those who use the Quran just for so-called ‘blessing’, to ease the pangs of death, crediting rewards to the dead, making talisman etc. The Quran is so much more than this. There is no book in the world which stresses on serious deliberation on its messages than the Quran. Yet we read it blindly without understanding its meaning. To quote Amin Ahsan Islahi, “These people could be likened to such people who were given artillery to destroy the fortress of Satan but took it for an insecticide machine.”
3.3) Read the Quran regularly
There is no better and faster way to study the Quran than reading it regularly. By reading it regularly we will make ourselves used to the language and language style of the Quran, which are important skills to not be fooled by false interpretations as mentioned in 1.2 and 1.3. Besides, we will also slowly begin to understand the context of a chapter, understand the background of Islam before Muhammad (saws), and many more.
A hadith ascribed to the Prophet (saws) suggests that we should read the Quran end-to-end every 30 days. That means 20 pages a day, divide it with 5 prayer times, that means 4 pages after/before prayers. Seems easy. However, I tried to follow it, but it was a success for only 12 days. I couldn’t be consistent after that. Perhaps, the suggestion was more specially directed towards the companions rather than ourselves. If you are up for the challenge, you can try to follow the suggestion. But if you can’t like me, then just read it every time after or before prayers (maybe set 5 or 10 minutes for reading, what’s important is consistency).
3.4) Do not read the Quran hastily.
لَا تُحَرِّكْ بِهِ لِسَانَكَ لِتَعْجَلَ بِهِ
Move not thy tongue concerning the (Qur’an) to make haste therewith.
(Quran, al-Qiyaama, 75:16)
Do not read the Quran just to finish it quickly. It would only be a waste and you would miss the important points. Sadly, we see today when most Muslims read the Quran they read it very fast. Their focus is just to read the Quran with a good voice, but they forgot that the Quran is a book of guidance, not poetry.
What you can do is try to pause and reflect on some verses that ‘hit’ you, either emotionally or intellectually. Try to ask questions why God would ask this, or use this word etc.
“Blessed is He Who sent down the Furqan (distinguisher) upon His servant that he may be a warner to the nations;”. Praises be to Allah who sent down the Quran, for without it we would surely be astrayed. Unfortunately, there are parties who teaches false interpretations of the Quran, either intentionally or not, which resulted in many Muslims being fooled by their false interpretations. Since the Quran acts as guidance, explanations of all things and distinguisher between right and wrong, it is of paramount importance we acquire ourselves with Quranic skills and knowledge. To do so, a true pure heart is needed along with the principles to keep in mind and habits we should practice. And most importantly, pray to Allah that He guides us to the right path.
*For those who are not familiar with the Shia’s doctrine of 12 imams, Shiites believe that after the time of the Prophet, there comes these imams which receives revelation from God, and they are ought to be obeyed like a prophet. The first imam according to them is Ali ibn Abi Talib.
** Primaquran.wordpress.com is a website dedicated to vindicate about the importance of putting the Qur’an as the highest source of guidance and law. Primaquran argues against those who put hadith as equal or higher than the Quran, and also argues against the Quran-only. I personally love primaquran’s articles for his logical arguments, and the prowess of knowledge he displays.
1. Sheikh Imran Hosein, “Methodology for Study of the Quran.” (2016), 102. http://imranhosein.org/inhmedia/books/MethodologyforStudyoftheQuran.pdf.
2. Israr Ahmad Khan. “Understanding the Qur’an : a reflection.” (2006), ix. http://irep.iium.edu.my/242/
3. Louay Fatoohi, “Reasons for Misinterpreting the Quran”, (2015) http://www.louayfatoohi.com/2015/04/islam/reasons-for-misinterpreting-the-quran/
4 Israr Ahmad Khan. “Understanding the Qur’an : a reflection.” (2006). 52. http://irep.iium.edu.my/242/
5. Edward Lane, “Lane’s Lexicon, k-t-b”. http://lexicon.quranic-research.net/data/22_k/023_ktb.html
6. Amin Ahsan Islahi, “Fundamentals of Hadith Interpretation”, 18. http://www.amin-ahsan-islahi.org/books/english .
7. Muhammad Asad, Message of the Quran, http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf
8. Sayyid Qutb, Fi Zilal al-Quran, https://tafsirzilal.wordpress.com/
9. Amin Ahsan Islahi Official Website, http://www.amin-ahsan-islahi.org/