Teaching About Islam: Insights from Hermeneutics
It is now common to stress diversity of Muslims in teaching and learning about Islam. Exam systems, textbooks, and academic writings bring out the importance of highlighting it. This move is sometimes seen as an antidote to an essentialised and monolithic image of Islam present in predominant policy, media, and educational spheres. Though this focus on diversity is helpful in challenging the monolithic perception of Muslims, it is not clear if it is sufficient to challenge the essentialised image of Islam as a body of unchanging doctrines, practices, and values. This is because it seems possible to acknowledge that there is diversity of views or practices within a religion and then go on to dismiss all other perspectives except one’s own as inauthentic or mistaken. This is easy to note in violent extremist groups. They do not deny the existence of religious diversity but reject it at the normative level, claiming their own understanding to be the only legitimate one. We can observe this even among progressive thinkers who too often end up believing that their progressive outlook is indeed the essence of Islam, thereby dismissing other positions as mistaken.
Methodologically, essentialism in Muslim contexts involves a belief that sacred texts have meanings in themselves which can be found by the application of a right interpretive method. This right interpretive method can involve linguistic skills, understanding of context and, in some cases, a need for piety and for proper character traits. The person reading the text is seen as the instrument which must be in a perfect condition to arrive at the correct meaning. This assumption about where the meaning of a text resides needs to be reconsidered. In this regard, the fundamental shift needed is in recognising that the human engagement with the text is not a way of “finding” meanings but is the basis for “meaning as an outcome” of the process.
The recognition that the reader’s historically situated human consciousness is a necessary element, and not a distraction to be overcome, is one of the major developments in the hermeneutical tradition in the 20th century, with Heidegger and Gadamer being its main architects. Gadamer (1975, 236) clarifies the point:
A person who is trying to understand a text is always performing an act of projecting. He projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text. Again, the latter emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning. The working out of this fore-project, which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges as he penetrates into the meaning, is understanding what is there.... This constant of new projection is the movement of understanding and interpretation.
Between Heidegger and Gadamer, we see a key turning point in the hermeneutical tradition, one that recognised that hermeneutics was as much as about the readers as it was about the text. A key insight was that the notion of “meaning in itself” of religious texts, of any text, which can be uncovered, is hard to sustain. Instead the layers of meaning only gradually emerge through continued attempts of interpretation.
There are now growing voices within Muslim traditions that are making a case for such a rethinking. Echoing Gadamer, Abdul Karim Soroush writes: “[..Jone can say [that] text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are here as actively at work as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception” (Soroush, 1998, 245). More recently, Shahab Ahmed (2016) has penned a massive work arguing for a hermeneutical approach. Panjwani and Revell (2018) have made a case for its application to the educational context.
The recognition of human agency in religious meaning making is a major epistemological and theological shift. It helps us to understand both religious diversity and religious change. For example, take an issue like the Qur’anic position about the relative status of men and women. We see a wide range of Muslim responses, from those stressing absolute equality between men and women to those who consider men to be superior to women, each one claiming authenticity by appealing to the Qur’an in the final analysis. Conventionally, the holders of each of these various positions believe that they have arrived at the true meaning of the Qur’an on this matter by applying the right interpretive method. This then leads to the dismissal of alternatives as inauthentic, thereby simultaneously accepting and rejecting diversity.
The alternative proposed here is to work with the insight that the meanings of any text, understood in the broadest sense, are not in the text completely. Nor are the meanings imposed by the reader completely. Meaning is created; it emerges through a dynamic interaction which Gadamer calls the “fusion of horizons” of the reader and the text. The horizon is as far as we can see or understand, from a given position and at a given time - it puts a limit to the vision. But this limit is not permanent. It changes when we change our position, for example by moving to a higher physical space. So the horizons are indeterminate and can change, and they do. This then becomes the basis of diversity and change in religious ideas and practices. From this perspective, religious meanings are produced through what Arkoun (1992, cited in Gunther [2004, 141]) calls “an act of alliance between God and humans”. The history of sacred texts is in fact the history of an ongoing fusion of horizons, of, on the one side, the range of sacred texts and the entire textual, and broadly religo-cultural, tradition around them, which includes the languages, commentaries, history of ideas, socio-political intellectual context and, on the other side, the diversity of people, the readers, the believers and their context, which includes their background, intellectual and emotional makeup, socio-economic contexts, and historically affected conciseness.
However, this shift can also create a serious concern. If meanings are the result of human engagement with a text, are there any limits, or does anything go? In one sense, there is no limit, except readers’ creativity in coming up with plausible interpretations. The key word here though is plausible because plausibility is not just in terms of the individual but also in terms of the text, the tradition, and the community of believers for whom the text is sacred. So the text, the tradition, and the community put limits to what is accepted as a legitimate interpretation at any time. Not everything goes. There are always boundaries. In some communities boundaries can be narrow, in others broad. Today, for example, some communities are practicing mixed-gender prayers led by women; others prohibit them. For some, any form of financial interest on capital is un-Islamic; for others the matter of interest has nothing to do with religion.
What are some of the pedagogical implications of this approach? The commonly asked questions such as, “What is the Islamic position on wearing the headscarf?” assumes an essentialist undertanding of Islam. The hermeneutical approach discussed above invites us to start with the tradition and to examine various Muslim positions on the headscarf. This will not only bring out the diversity of stances but will also prompt us to look into the reasons for diversity, from what aspect tradition was appealed to by various proponents, what was their social context, who was attracted to which position, and so on.
All this makes it very hard to make a final claim on behalf of Islam: Is it a religion of peace or of war? Is it compatible with democracy or not? Does it embrace religious diversity or does it see itself as superior to other religions? There are no final and uncontested answers to these questions because there are no final limits and shapes to human horizons. It is better to think of a religion as a work in progress rather than a finished product.
Ahmed, S. (2016) 117)«/ Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Gadamer, H.G. (1975) Truth and Method. New York, Seabury Press.
Gunther, U. (2004) Mohammed Arkoun: Towards a Radical Rethinking of Islamic Thought. In: Taji-Farouki, S. (ed.). Modem Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 125-167.
Panjwani, F. and Revell, L. (2018) Religious education and hermeneutics: the case of teaching about Islam, British Journal of Religious Education, 40:3, 268-276, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2018.1493269
Soroush, A. (1998) The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge. In: Kurzman, Ch. (ed.). Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 244-252.