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Towards an African Qur'anic Hermeneutics

Michael Mumisa


There already exist two Islamic theological genres in sub-Saharan Africa, both foreign and regarded as normative: The Arabo-
Islamic Theology - a theology that evolved out of the cultural, social, political and historical experiences of Muslims in the
Middle East; and what may be described as the Indo-Pakistani Islamic theological phenomenon, also born out of the socio-
cultural context of India and Pakistan. Until recently, it has never been felt necessary to re-read Islamic theology in the context
of the African experience, although in some parts of Africa Islam continues to be viewed as an Indian or Arab religion while
Christianity is seen as a European religion. There have been calls to stop looking beyond Africa's borders for spiritual and
Islamic understanding and to start looking within Africa for an interpretation of Islamic theology. There is no doubt that this is
an idea that is emerging out of the contemporary discourse of the' African Renaissance,' an idea that is still in its infancy.

The received Islamic theology is a theology that was a result of interpretations, which obviously affected the self-understanding
of their societies and were largely influenced by the socio-cultural, political and historical conditions in which they developed -
conditions which are different from those of contemporary Africa. Moreover, there is a time-space gap not only between the
African and the classical interpretations of Islamic theology, but just as much between the African Muslim and the Qur’an
itself. He cannot just read these texts and understand what he sees because of the gap that divides past and present. To him, the
received Islamic theology and the classical tafsir genre constitute the 'tribal other'. To the Indian or Arab Muslim in Africa, the
African is still regarded as 'the undesirable other'. Therefore, the African theological and hermeneutical voice must be grounded
in and must grow out of this identity of otherness. In this way decontextualisation and recontextualisation of Islamic theology
with regard to the texts as with regard to their readers is imperative. The terms 'African Islamic theology' or 'African Qur'anic
Hermeneutics' stress the contextual nature of this theological and hermeneutical genre in Africa. It is predominantly concerned
with the ways to reconstruct Islamic theology independent from the Arab or South Asian socio-cultural influences. It is an
attempt to bring Africa's existential experiences to the text - what is typical of Africa, and to search for an African intellectual
self-definition. This is because the Qur’anic truth is open, dynamic and subject to reinterpretation and recontextualisation.
Therefore, the theory of interpretation of the Qur’an from an African perspective, with its model of dialogue focused primarily
upon the response of the African reader to classical Islamic theology, does allow for a responsible pluralism of readings based
on the recognition of the plurality in text and reader. The very plurality and diversity of tafsir in its present state confirms this

In order to appreciate fully the significance of this current work, it is necessary to have some perspective on the dialogical
nature of any tafsir discourse. I myself am convinced, as I will argue in this article, that rather than the disinterested mufassir
(interpreter) collecting and stitching texts together, free from any pre-understanding and prejudice, the mufassir is a flesh and
blood reader situated and embodied within a specific, historical context, in a relationship of dialogue with the 'object'. My pro-
posal throughout this article is that any hermeneutical methodology proceeds from an act of massive exclusion and inclusion.
The task of re-reading the Qur'an from an African perspective is therefore a two-fold operation. It is not only a negative work of
exposing the problems in classical interpretations, nor is it merely a sanctimonious attempt to pass judgement on the personal
character of the non-African interpreters of the Qur'an. It is, in fact, the positive production of another tafsir, another reading of
the Qur'an, of a Qur'an demythologised, of a tafsir read against itself. In this way, deconstruction, reading carefully and re-
reading, are positive operations.

Tafsir as Dialogue and Narrative
Traditional tafsir has always been based mostly on historical criticism as a hermeneutical model. The understanding of the
Companions of the Prophet (sahaba) of the Qur'anic text, by virtue of having learnt its interpretation directly from the Prophet
himself has always been considered as the true and final meaning of the text, and hence Allah's intention. This historical critical
model calls for a radical contextualisation of the text. Such a task is broadly conceived, involving extensive knowledge of the
period and area under consideration, for example, historical framework and social institutions. For this model, therefore, the
meaning of the text resides either in the world represented by it or in the intention of the author, in the case of the Qur'an, in
what Allah wants to convey to His servants. The task of the contemporary reader is to search and recover the original audience
of the Qur'anic text, along with its original message and intention. This kind of reading is informed by an operative though
implicit theological principle to the effect that what comes earlier is better.
The model of historical criticism has a strong positivistic foundation and orientation. The understanding of the Qur’anic text
derived from the Companions of the Prophet is regarded as univocal and objective, and thus it can be retrieved if the proper
methodological tools - scientific in nature - are rigorously applied. The meaning disclosed is for all times and cultures. In other
words, the meaning of the text, properly secured and established, can dictate the overall boundaries or parameters of the
Muslim’s life everywhere and at all times. The proper task of the exegete (mufassir) is to engage in exegeses, not eisegesis - a
reading and interpretation of the Qur'anic text, and not a reading into the text; allowing the text to speak on its own terms rather
than inserting one's words into the Qur'an.

This model presupposes and entails a very specific and universal pedagogical model: all readers, regardless of ideological
persuasions and sociocultural moorings, can become such informed and universal exegetes if the right methodological tools are
disseminated and acquired. This is a pedagogical model of learned impartation and passive reception, highly hierarchical and
authoritative in character, with strong emphasis on academic pedigree (who studied under which scholar or shaykh) and schools
of thought.

The problem with the historical critical model, however, is that its methodological development fails to successfully address the
emerging new questions, concerns and challenges; challenges and questions such as those arising under the rubric of religious
pluralism, gender, race, to mention just a few. Moreover, the claims to detached objectivity, characteristic of modernism, can be
questioned because of the problematic nature of positing a disinterested mufassir and of the view that there can be a pure
universal tafsir without evaluating judgments. It is here that the post -modem critique of metanarratives is very important. All
academic inquiries are narratives, local stories, and according to De Certeau 'however scientific it may be, an analysis always
amounts to a localised practice that produces only a regional discourse'. (1)

The relationship between the socially located reader of the Qur’an and the process of tafsir, becomes dialogical in the sense that
the reader or interpreter is forced into a critical dialogue with the Qur'an. This critical conversation between the text and reader
always takes place within history. Therefore, the process of understanding between 'self and 'other' is through a historicised and
dialogical encounter. Unlike the disinterested social scientist merely recording and theorising data, the process of tafsir must be
a kind of research, to use Bakhtin' s words, an 'inquiry and conversation'. (2) This critical hermeneutics gives a voice to those
that may have been previously silenced or written out of history during the crucial stage of the development of tafsir.

Perhaps the main criticism against this post-modern approach to the Qur'an is that it makes thinking difficult by questioning the
habits to which we have grown accustomed. At the same time, this is what makes post-modern thought so important since not
all habits are good. As we will discuss below, we have become accustomed to some readings of the Qur’an that violate justice
and human dignity. Perhaps this again is the most important lesson of post-modern thinking: We cannot guarantee either the
correctness or the soundness of our thinking by merely adopting the right method, or by starting from the right point.

Since it is now acknowledged that all tafsir is done from a certain perspective, a space may be cleared for an African reading
of, for example, Qur'an 3:106.

Reading from an African Perspective

The day when some faces will be extremely white, and some faces will be extremely black. To those whose faces will
be extremely black, it will be said to them: Did you reject faith after accepting it? Taste then the penalty for rejecting
faith. But those whose faces will be extremely white, they will be in Allah's mercy, they shall dwell therein forever.
(Q.3: 106)

Any reading done from an African perspective will have to take place within the discourse of black or liberation theology.
Before we start, it is important that we have a general perspective on liberation theology as a whole. Liberation theology can be
defined as a theology of protest against oppression and social injustice. It is that form of reflection that attempts to discern the
religious significance of the socio-political struggles in which the poor, women and people of colour are engaged as they free
themselves of their present state of socio-political oppression and economic exploitation. (3) The contribution of liberation
theology over the years has been precisely in raising the questions of the relevancy of the reading of religious texts in the light
of the social, political and economic situations of the oppressed people of the world. It has contributed to the development of a
hermeneutics of reading from the perspective of colonialism, poverty, underdevelopment, economic exploitation and cultural
victimisation. The other positive contribution of this theological genre has been an emphasis on theory and praxis rather than
mere metaphysical theorisation.

The very suggestion of a theology for liberation in Islam has always been met with suspicion and criticism from the
conservative Muslim scholars who argue that Islam is itself liberating and therefore there is no need to engage in any other
discourse of liberation. While it is true that Islam in its pristine form as propagated and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad is
liberating, it is debatable whether the 'islam' we have today can offer any solutions to the problems of racial, gender or class
discrimination. Unfortunately after the demise of the Prophet, through the influence of Greek philosophy, like Christianity,
Muslims came to view Allah as outside of human history. Little, if anything, was said about His role in history. The fact that
the expression found in the Qur'an: rabb musa wa haroon (the Lord of Moses and Aaron), confirms that Allah revealed Himself
by acting in history to bring liberation and Justice to the enslaved Bani Isra 'il (the children of Israel) was overlooked. The ayah
(Q.8: 17): wa ma ramayta idh ramayta wa lakin Allah rama, meaning, 'you did not slay them, but it was Allah who slew them;
nor did you shoot when you did shoot, but it was Allah shooting,' which tells us that Allah intervened in the battle of Badr to
deliver victory to the Muslims is again not properly examined. As a result, the revolutionary Islam was transformed into a status
quoist 'islam' and the received 'islam' became an ally of the establishment and the theologian benefactors of the status quo. (4 )

The classic meaning of theology in Islam is an intellectual understanding of the faith (lman or ‘aqida) - that is, the effort of
human intelligence to comprehend revelation (wahi) and iman. Faith in Islam also does not mean only truths to be affirmed, but
also an existential stance, an attitude, a commitment to Allah (huquq Allah) and to human beings (huquq al-‘ibad). Islamic faith
is not limited to affirming the existence of Allah (wajib al-wujud). It tells us that Allah has mercy upon us and demands a
merciful response. This response is given through mercy for human beings, and that is what we mean by huquq al- ‘ibad (the
rights of human beings). The Prophet is reported to have said: 'for the merciful people, Allah shall show His mercy upon them.
Be merciful to those on earth, and the One in heaven shall show mercy upon yoU.' (5) In yet another tradition recorded in
Muslim's Sahih he said: 'Allah says: Indeed I have prohibited oppression upon myself, and I have made it unlawful upon you, so
do not oppress others'. (6) When we speak about theology, therefore, we are not talking about an abstract and timeless truth, but
rather about an existential stance, which tries to understand and see this commitment in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah.

The main objection against liberation theology has been what is seen as the uncritical use of Marxist theories of interpretation
by some liberation theologians, which has resulted in it being described as a 'Marxist theology'. Moreover, Muslims also
consider the theology of liberation as being of Christian origin. It is important to understand right at the outset that liberation
theology seeks to address social problems. In order to fully understand the situation of racism, poverty and gender
discrimination, and for those suffering under them to escape from them, an analysis of these problems from the sociological
perspective becomes increasingly important, and requires recourse to the relevant disciplines- The social sciences are a means
to gain accurate knowledge of our society as it really is. Marxism also approaches the same problems from a sociological
standpoint and employs the tools provided by the social sciences. The connection, therefore, is not between liberation theology
and Marxist philosophy, but between liberation theology and the social sciences. (7)

The afore-mentioned ayah (Q.3: 106) has always presented a problem for many readers of African origin. Some Christian
missionaries have often cited it as an example of Islam's racial prejudice. (8) According to Yusuf Ali's interpretation:

The 'face' [wajh] expresses our personality, our inmost being. White is the colour of light; to become white is to be
illumined with light, which stands for felicity, the rays of the glorious light of God. Black is a colour of darkness, sin,
rebeIlion, misery; removal from the grace and light of God. These are the signs of heaven and hell'. (9)

Another interpreter of the Qur'an, Maulana Muhammad Ali, writes:

Faces turning white is meant their being expressive of joy, and by turning black, their being expressive of sorrow...
you say a man is white when you mean that he is free from dross and defects. (10)

What traditionalist scholars have overlooked is the fact that Qur'anic Arabic, its vocabulary, idiom, style, and syntax is the
language of the pre-Islamic and Prophetic milieu, well known and understood by the Arabs of that period. The Qur'an's primary
discourse is directed at the Quraysh of Mecca and it is for this reason it has been reported in hadith that it was revealed in the
dialect of the Quraysh. This language represents Arab culture and society at the dawn of Islam, a culture and society much
different from ours because our language keeps on evolving due to social change. There is a time-space gap not only between
us and the classical interpretations, but equally between us and the Qur’an itself. We cannot just read the Qur’an and understand
what we see, because of the gap that divides past and present. Understanding linguistic communication from a different time
and social context obviously requires some set of interpretive tools to carry off the task of cross-temporal and cross-cultural
inquiry. Unfortunately, classical Islamic scholarship and Arabic linguistics do not provide us with such tools. The social
sciences and contemporary theories of literature can provide us with the tools that enable us to bridge this gap between past and

According to Saussure, language is not merely a naming process or a list of words corresponding to the signified, 11 rather it is
the sign which is the combination of two elements linked in the mind: the signifier and the signified. (12) The signifier is the
sound-image of a sign and the signified is the concept it expresses. The combination of signifier and signified gives us a sign.
The linguistic sign therefore is a two-sided psychological entity that is a combination of sound-image and concept.
Saussure's theory of language exposes, among other things, that the way we use language can affect our weltanschauung or our
worldview because of the indivisible link between our concept of something and the language we use to represent it. If you
were born or lived in South Africa during the apartheid era where the word kaffir was used to refer to all blacks, you would
have an image of a black person whenever you heard this word. Since the word kaffir (which in Saussure's terms is the
signifier) was always used where the black racial group was being vilified, you would form a negative stereotype or perception
of the blacks (signified) because the word is a complete linguistic sign: the thought and the term are one and the same. This
theory also leads to the reification of words such as islam, iman, kufr, etc., as terms of inclusion and exclusion.

Muslim theologians, philosophers, and legal pragmatists have always debated whether there is any natural indivisible link
between al-ism (signifier) and al musamma (signified). According to al-Ghazali (1058-1 III CE), 'the truth is that the ism
[signifier] is different from both the act of naming and the thing named, and that those three terms are distinct and not
synonymous.' (13) A lion in Arabic is called asad and yet it can also be called layth. This goes for everything which is one in
itself and yet has two synonymous names, the only difference of which exists in their letters. According to al-Ghazali, things
exist as individuals, in speech, or in our minds. Existence as individuals is the fundamental real existence, while existence in
mind is cognitional, formal existence; and existence in speech is verbal and indicative. (14)

Saussure refers to this phenomenon as the arbitrary nature of the bond between the signifier and the signified. There is no
reason why we cannot call a chair an orange. Every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective
behaviour or on convention. (15)

The unchanging nature of the sign is a product of the structure which makes it comprehensible in communication between two
or more individuals. (16) To understand this communication, the link between the signifier and signified in the listener's mind
must be the same as that in the speaker's mind, otherwise meaning is not communicated. As such, the sign must be the same in
both the speaker's and listener's minds and consequently not subject to change. (17) Signs are socially normalised and beyond the
control of individuals, that is, they form a structure. Conversely, the changing nature of the sign is a consequence of agency in
the communication of meaning. That is, despite being socially normalised signs change over time as they are used by speaking
individuals. (18) As such, signs, and the meanings they convey, must be structured to be comprehensible, but must also involve
agency in their articulation.

That is, Saussure focuses on the unchanging nature of the sign, dismissing change as the product of time. This gives a
structuralist account of meaning in that it is understood as constitutive of individuals.

According to fuqaha', the meaning of words can change as a result of social change, and words which may have referred to
something specific can change to refer to something completely different, to the extent that the first meaning is completely lost.
The most effective way of illustrating the creation and acceptance of distinct realities by speakers of one language is to look
at examples of where it has actually occurred, One such area where the process can be observed is the terminology of 'othering',
In apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa the term kaffir was used to refer to all blacks regardless of what religion they
followed. The Oxford Companion to English defined kaffir as follows:

Kaffir [17c: from Arabic kafir ('one who denies'), an unbeliever, probably through Portuguese or Dutch]. Also
formerly Cafar, Caffer, etc, (1) Originally, a non-Muslim, an infidel: 'He was to drive the English Caffers out of India'
(T. Munro, letter, 1799); 'Being Mahommedans, they gave the general name of Cafer (Liar, Infidel) to all the
inhabitants of the coasts of southern Africa' (A. Plumtre, Liechtenstein's South Africa, 1812). (2) In southern Africa, a
European term for any black African, often used neutrally in earlier times, but general1y disparaging, increasingly
resented, and now an actionable insult in South Africa. (20)

This term was also used by some Indian Muslims to refer to blacks in general whether those blacks were non-Muslim or
Muslim. The original relationship between signifier and signified was lost as a result of a historical and social process. It
became a term which assumes the inherent superiority of the white race over the black race and thereby the right to dominate.
Kufr and kafir was no longer a theological discourse but a discourse about relations of dominance and subordination which are
rooted in the 'othering' of others as a social process of exclusion in which particular personal attributes were identified as the
basis for a racialised 'othering' to occur. These attributes were no longer a person's iman but biological, linguistic and cultural
aspects of the African identity which were castigated as inferior by the dominant group which had the power to enforce its
definitions of reality on others. According to Foucault, our selves and our bodies, as wel1 as the 'discursive regimes' within
which we think and relate, are a result of the 'endless repeated play of domination,' which is what comprises human history. (21)
Accordingly, understanding who we are involves unearthing the mechanisms of our historicity. (22)
The dominant and ethnic majorities often have the tendency to label the minority groups in ways which emphasise the
minorities' status as outsiders. Emphasising the othemess of the minorities leads to a situation where each group speaks of 'us'
and 'them', and the use of negative labelling we have discussed above. In pre-Islamic as well as other classical genres of Arabic
literature produced after Muhammad's era, negative label1ing of minorities of African ancestry was very common. Antar ibn al-
Shaddad, a black slave who died seven years before the dawn of the Islamic era, was one of the greatest Arabic poets of the pre-
Islamic era and one of the authors of the celebrated Mu’allaqat al-Sab’a (The Seven Suspended Poems) (23) which are
considered the best poems to ever come out of Arabia. Although Antar was and still is considered a great war legend and hero
for his battle skills and bravery (some Arab films producers have described him as 'the black knight of Arabia'), his generosity
and compassion, he experienced great injustice and racial discrimination to the extent that he could not marry the woman that
he loved. (24) His own father and other family members hated him for being the son of a black female slave. (25) It is still not
very clear how all this must have affected his work as a poet but from some of his verses we can see that he hated himself as a
black person and that he also hated his mother for having given birth to him:

Ana ibn sawda' al-jabin ka'annaha dhi'b tara’ra’a fi nawahi al-manzili
Al-saq minha mithlu saqi na’amatin wa sha’r minha mithlu habbi al-fulful


I am the son of the one with a black forehead as though she is, a wolf which has grown in the precincts of the house.
Her legs are like the legs of an ostrich, and her hair is like the grains of black pepper. (26)

Another Arabic poet of Spain, Ibn Shahid al-Andalusi (d. 426 H), describes a flea as:

Aswad zinjiyyun, ahliyyun wahshiyyun...
Ka' annahu juz' la yatajazza' min layl, aw nuqtat midad...


A black negro, domesticated savage,…as though it is a portion of
darkness from night, or a drop of ink... (27)

Other examples of the negative depiction of black minorities in Arabia can be found in pre-Islamic as well as classical Arabic
poetry after the Prophetic period. In, some circles the racial prejudice was so intense that some even fabricated Hadith vilifying
blacks. The following is an example of such many fabrications:

There is no good in a zanji (black), [in another narration, 'there is no good in a habasha - Ethiopian or African, '] he
commits adultery when he is contented (with food and drink), and steals when he is hungry. However, there is
generosity and a helping hand among them as well. (28)

The situation became so serious that hadith scholars had to reach a unanimous ruling declaring that, al-hadith al-marwiyya fi
dhammi al-habasha wa at-sudani kulluha makdhuba wa mawdu'a (All Traditions which are biased against the blacks or
Africans are fabrications and lies (mawdu’]). Based on this qa'ida kulliyya (general principle), it became a general practice
among scholars and students of hadith methodological sciences to reject any hadith they found to be prejudiced against any
tribe, race or women.

The fact that the Prophet Muhammad came to eradicate all forms of social injustice and discrimination cannot be disputed.
Hadith literature is full of examples of his efforts to establish a true egalitarian society. In his last sermon, he emphasised that
there was no distinction between the Arab and non-Arab or between Black and White. However, the use of 'ethnically marked
terminology' such as 'the black woman' (the one who was given glad tidings of paradise by the Prophet), 'the Black slave,' 'the
Persian,' 'the Roman,' in hadith literature shows us that there was still an 'invisible ethnic majority' and a 'visible ethnic
minority' in the Prophet's period. We are told that 'a black woman' was given glad tidings of paradise and yet we are not told
that the other people given the same glad tidings were Arabs. Modern socio-linguistics would explain that the Arab ethnicity of
the others will be undisclosed since they are the norm, and the ethnicity of the minorities is made distinctive by using a label
that emphasises their difference from the majority. (29)

In his final sermon, the Prophet Muhammad commanded his followers:

Listen to the man in position of authority and obey him even if he were a slave maimed (and disabled).
In another version of the tradition, we have the wording: 'Even if he were an Abyssinian slave maimed and disabled.'

It is clear from the above hadith that the Prophet is addressing an ethnic majority that previously looked down upon the
disabled and black ethnic minorities; otherwise it would be irrelevant to mention the 'maimed Abyssinian slave.'

What do the words 'black' and 'white' stand for when we know that there are no real white people and black people? They are
either more pink than white or more brown than black. Thus .the words 'black' and 'kaffir' in South Africa's case are ideological
terms, not biological or theological ones. However, those who have been subjected to the 'othering' process are constantly
challenging the dominant group's definition and language. 'Black' and 'kaffir' are some of the terms of 'othering' which require

Arabs have also often used the terms 'black' to denote evil and 'white' to denote good. In Ibn Manzur's (630-711 H) Lisan al-
‘Arab, when Arabs say: Kallamtuhu fa ma radda 'alayya sawda' wa la bayda’ ay kalima qabihatan wa la hasana, (31) what they
mean is that, 'I spoke to him and he never responded with either a bad word or a good word. The Arabic words ‘sawda",
meaning black and ‘bayda" meaning white are used here to denote 'bad' and 'good' respectively. Al-Zabidi writes in his

Our Shaikh once said, while quoting one of the Imams of research: The master in most of the cases is always white
and the slave is always black. Black and white are opposites just as master and slave are opposites… (32)

However, the word black has also been used to refer to other colours suggesting again that the relationship between signifier
and signified is arbitrary. A study of classical Arabic poetry and literature shows that the word 'aswad' (black) has been used
for the following: to describe a green, (33) a yellowish colour, (34) a human being, (35) water, milk. (36) What is interesting to note
is that the word 'aswadayn' (lit. two blacks) which is used to refer to milk and water and sometimes water and dates, has at
times been replaced with the word 'abyadayn' (lit. two whites) as shown in Ibn Sikkit's classical poetry. (37) Moreover, the word
'white' in Arabic has also been used to refer to brown wheat. (38) Its derivative baydat has also been used both as a derogatory
term referring to a despised person and as a term referring to a person of unique and great personality. (39) In ancient Arabic
literature Arabs are referred to as aswad (black) while Persians are referred to as abyad (white). (40)

Although the Muslim believes in the supra-historicity of Kalam Allah (God's speech), the revelation of the Qur'an is an event
that took place within human history, and the message of the Qur’an was revealed in human language since language is a
human and social phenomenon. Language or meaning per se is a product of human efforts in their local and social
environments, and humans are linguistic beings. It is not possible for a person to think of, or try to imagine, something that does
not exist or has never existed and try to assign a name to it. When we say that language is a human phenomenon, and that it is
human beings who determine the relation between noun and object or signifier and signified, we mean that names pertain to
things within the realm of human empirical knowledge and that it is human beings who set them by convention. Such named
things are most certainly finite and changing. Consequently, if we say that Allah translated His divine message or His divine
language into human language, we must accept that revelation came within the confines of human concepts and that God
translated His divine language into human language in order for them to understand it. The words 'aswad' and 'abyad',
therefore, are human concepts used in the Qur'an to refer to something that is beyond the human's physical world. Perhaps this
translation of God's language and message into human concepts is what the Qur'an refers to when it speaks of God having sent
every prophet in the language of his people (lisan qawmihi):

And we never sent a messenger save with the lisan [translated 'language'] of his people, that he might make the
message clear for them. Then Allah sends whom He will astray, and guides whom He will. He is the Mighty, the Wise.

If lisan in this ayah is taken to mean 'language', e.g. Arabic as opposed to Zulu, we will have a problem justifying the
universality of the Prophet since among his people are the English, Swahili, Shona, Chinese, just to name a few of the Prophet's
ummah (nation). The Qur'an would have to be revealed in all these languages if lisan was taken literally to mean language.

The Qur’an and the Prophetic hadith use mythical language to convey their message regarding what happened before this
physical world and what will happen after it. The words used to describe the creation of the universe, words such as nafs, zawj,
turab, etc. and those words used to refer to life after this world, words such as aswad, abyad, the description of paradise and
hell, are mythical terms. By that I mean the objectification of concepts and images to explain that which is beyond this physical
world. Because of the otherness of God and the otherness of the place He speaks from, understanding His message will require
us to demythologise and de-objectify the language of the Qur' an.
When we read the Qur’an and hadith we are told that God has prepared for his servants in paradise such beauties, favours and
bounties which no eyes have seen and no mind can ever imagine. Imam Muslim has reported a number of traditions on this
topic in his Sahih collection:

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying that: Allah the Exalted and Glorious, said: I
have prepared for My pious servants which no eye has ever seen, and no ear has ever heard, and no human heart has
ever perceived but it is testified by the Book of Allah. What God has prepared for you is much more precious than
what he has informed you [balha ma dhukira]. He then recited: 'No soul knows what comfort has been concealed from
them, as a reward for what they did.' (xxxii. 17)

Sahl ibn Sa’d al-Sa’idi reported: I was in the company of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) that he gave a
description of Paradise and then Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) concluded with these words: There would
be bounties which the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard and no human heart has ever perceived them. He then
recited this verse: They forsake (their) beds, calling upon their Lord in fear and in hope, and spend out of what We
have given them. So no soul knows what refreshment of the eyes is hidden for them: a reward for what they did.'
(xxxii. 16-17)

In the above traditions we are told that the beauties and bounties of paradise are such that no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever
heard and no human heart has ever imagined and yet what appear to be detailed descriptions can be found in other traditions
particularly those reported by Imam al-Tirmidhi. This, therefore, confirms our thesis that the Qur'an and hadith are using
mythical language. We have been promised honey, silk, velvet, fruits, milk, to mention just a few, and we have all seen these
things or tasted them. Therefore, the honey that we know is not the honey that God has promised us. God is using our human
language to refer to something that is beyond that language because this is the only way we can understand. He is using earthly
images and objects that we are familiar with such as fruits, milk, honey, hur al-‘ayn, to describe heavenly images and objects
which are much more precious and wonderful. We can never know or imagine what 'honey' in paradise means m those ayaat
and ahadith wherein it has been mentioned.

In the same way, ayaat speaking of 'white faces' and 'black faces' need demythologising particularly in our present context
where 'black' and 'white' have become Ideological terms of exclusion and inclusion. We cannot simply accept that they are used
as majaz (metaphor) because majaz is something that can be understood here and now. These terms are used to refer to another
world; a world that is beyond us. Therefore our laws of human language may not always provide the answers to our questions
'and we still need to develop a contemporary hermeneutics of interpreting divine language to humankind.

An interpretation for liberation will call for the involvement of a flesh and blood mufassir socially located in the process of
interpretation and doing tafsir. Tafsir should cease to be an exclusive task of the benefactors of the status quo and should
involve the women scholars, activists, the poor and the oppressed if any meaningful social justice and liberation is to be
achieved. Such a way of reading will ultimately look upon all interpretive models, whether traditional or contemporary. It
means challenging the system that we may have become accustomed to, particularly when we have found those systems to be
oppressive and exclusivist. Thus, each person should interact with the text. In the words of Amina Wadud:

The assertion that there is only one interpretation of the Qur'an limits the extent of the text. The Qur'an must be
flexible enough to accommodate innumerable cultural situations because of its claims to be universally beneficial to
those who believe. Therefore, to force it to have a single cultural perspective - even the cultural perspective of the
original community of the Prophet - severely limits its application and contradicts the stated universal purpose of the
book itself. (41)

The universality of Islam is in its being open, dynamic and subject to reinterpretation and recontextualisation. It is important to
understand that we are not dealing with a closed text- tafsir is contingent upon the historical context, the cultural situation and
level of development, and the philosophical presuppositions of the period in which the tafsir is done. It is not static, instead, it is
in a constant state of flux, change and development. What all this means is that there is nothing such as the 'final and absolute'
interpretation. What we may consider to be the correct meaning of Allah's word may be contingent upon numerous factors.
What was a correct tafsir in the classical period may be incorrect and dated in the contemporary period and what we may regard
correct today may be incorrect in the future.

However, this does not mean that tafsir is relative for there are certain Usul (principles) that carry over from one era to another
and each era adds to our basic knowledge and understanding. The Prophet also illustrates this point in a tradition recorded in the
chapter of knowledge in al-Tirmidhi's Jami", Abu Dawud's Sunan and authenticated by al-Dhahabi that, 'many times the person
who transmits knowledge may not be that knowledgeable [rubba hamil fiqh laysa bi faqih] and yet he may transmit it to
someone who is more knowledgable than him [wa rubba hamil fiqh ila man huwa afqa minhu].' In yet another tradition he
equates his ummah to rain; it is never known whether the first part or the last part of the rain is better. (42) Thus, each period is
not just an isolated time slot cut off from both the past and future. From the position that we occupy, contemporary tafsir must
build upon the tafsir of the past and at the same time point toward a tafsir for the future. It is extremely important for us to
realise this point, otherwise we risk the danger of being caught in the conservative-liberal dualism in which the conservatives
look to the past and disregard the present and future while the liberals look to the future and disregard the past. Islamic schol-
arship must be able to conserve from the past that which is vital to its tradition and yet at the same time be moderate enough to
be open to new insights so that Islamic scholarship has a past, present and future. Qur'anic tafsir must be in the present a bridge
between the past and future.


(1) Michael De Certeau, Cultural in the Plural (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 123.
(2) Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Essays, tr. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996) p. 114.
(3) Ismael Garcia, Justice in Latin American Theology of Liberation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987) p. 7; and Timothy G.
Kiogora, 'Black Theology' in (eds.) Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology
and Hermeneutics (Pretoria: JL van Schaik, 1998) p. 337.
(4) Asghar Ali Engineer, Islam and Liberation: Essays on Liberative Elements in [slam (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1990)
p. 6.
(5) See Sunan Abu Dawud, 'kitab al-adab'; and Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 'Bab al-Birr'.
(6) Sahih Muslim, 'Kitab al-Birr'.
(7) Gustavo Gutierrez, Essential Writings (New York: Orbis Books, 1996) p. 47.
(8) See 'An African Asks Some Disturbing Questions of Islam', a pamphlet compiled by an interdenominational group of
evangelical Christians concerned with Muslim-Christian dialogue, 12.htm
(9) See Yusuf Ali's commentary on the verse in his translation of the Qur'an.
(10) See Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur'an: Arabic text, English translation and commentary (Lahore: Ahmadiyyah
Anjuman Isha' at Islam, 1973) p. 160.
(11) Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, tr. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966) p. 65.
(12) Ferdinand De Saussure, 'The Nature of the Linguistic Sign', in (eds.) L. Burke et al., (tr.) W. Baskin, The Routledge
Language and Cultural Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 1916) pp. 25-7.
(13) Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid, al-Maqsad al-Asna fi Sharh Asma' Allah al-husna, ed. Fadlou A. Shehadi (Beirut: Dar al-
Mashriq, 1971) pp. 8-9.
(14) Ibid.
15 Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, tr. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1966), p. 66.
(16) Ibid. p. 67
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Al-Amid’, ‘Ali ibn Abi ‘Ali, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1984) vol 1, pp. 26--7.
(20) Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford: University Press,1992).
(21) Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Col in Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1981).
(22) Ibid.
(23) Arabic literature sprang into existence between the middle of the sixth and the middle of the seventh centuries C.E., before
the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad and the advent of Islam, with an outburst of poetry. All over northern Arabia poets
appeared reciting poems, in which a series of themes are elaborated with vivid imagination in richly varied language and cast in
complex rhythmic and rhyming schemes. Seven of such great Arabic poets were selected to have their works suspended on the
Ka’aba, the equivalent of today's Nobel Prize in Literature. These seven poems are collectively known as the Mu'allaqat
(suspended) poems, because they were transcribed in letters of gold on linen and suspended on the Ka’aba at Mecca as
masterpieces of the qasida form.
(24) See Imam Al-Zawzani's commentary: Sharh al-Mu'allaqat al-Sab’a (Beirut: Maktaba al-Ma’rif, 1994)
(25) Ibid.
(26) Mustafa Amin & 'Ali al-Jarim, al-Balagha al-Wadiha (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'rif, ] 959) p. 57.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Al-Albani, Muhammad Nasir al-Din, Silsila Ahadith Da'ifa wa al-Mawdu'a (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1964) vol. l,
p. 50.
(29) See Norman Fairclough, Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (London: Longman Publishing
Group, 1997) and Language and Power (London: Longman Publishing Group, 1996).
(30) Sahih Muslim, Book 020, hadith no. 4526.
(31) Ibn al-Manzur, Lisan al-'Arab (Beirut: Dar Ihya' Turath al-'Arabi, 1993) vol. 6, p. 420.
(32) Murtada al-Husayni al-Zabidi, Taj al-'Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus (Beirut: Dar Ihya' Turath al ‘Arabi, 1990) vol. 8,
p. 226.
(33) Ibn al-Manzur, Lisan al-'Arab, p. 422.
(34) Ibid. p. 424.
(35) Ibid. p. 425. 36 Ibid.
(37) Al-Jawhari, Isma'il bin Hammad, al-Sihah (Lebanon: Dar al 'Ilm lil Malayin, 1956) vol. 3, p. 1067.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Al-Zabidi, Taj al-'Arus, p. 258. 40 Ibid. p. 268.
(41) Amina Wadud Muhsin, The Qur'an and Women (Kuala Lumpur: Bakti Sdu. Bhd., 1992), p.6.
(42) Sunan Tirmidhi, Bab al-Adab.