Modern Interpreters of the Quran: The Resurgent Power of Islam

Sultan Ahmad Shah I Mosque
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At the turn of the 18th-19th centuries CE, the Muslim world saw the destruction of traditional Islamic foundations and their replacement with practical, comfortable and materially profane customs of the Western world. At the turn of the century, Muslim leaders clearly understood that without reforming Islamic philosophy and institutions it would be extremely difficult to resist this expansion. One of the ways of such reforming was Islamic modernism which offered to take a fresh look at the various sources of the Muslim faith in order to draw fresh strength from them. The main source and the first one that came to the attention of the reformers was the Holy Quran, the Book of Allah, given to people through the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Thus, new tafsirs (interpretations) of the Holy Quran began to emerge, which were addressed to understanding the relevant aspects of modernity through its new reading.

The first reformer of tafsir was the founder of Islamic modernism and pan-Islamism, the Egyptian Islamic leader Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1839-1897). Al-Afghani believed that the main task of Islam is to establish social justice, fight colonialism, and uphold the ideas of Muslim solidarity and socialism. He was the first to call on Muslim scholars, when interpreting the Quran, to pay attention not to legal aspects (the rituals and actions and how to perform them), but to how the Quran will determine the laws of the development of society and the establishment of justice and how to achieve the realization of these ideals in real life.

From this viewpoint, a student of Al-Afghani, the Supreme Mufti of Egypt and the reformer of Islam, Muhammad Abduh wrote a new tafsir of the Quran, which was to be used as a teaching aid in madrasah. Muhammad Abduh used a journalistic style in his tafsir, which later became the standard of new interpreters. Muhammad Abduh’s Tafsir emphasizes the role of Islam in the modern world, touches upon social issues and issues of social structure. Muhammad Abduh suggested reflecting on the verses of the Quran in order to see in them the meaning consonant with the modern era, explained in detail why this or that rule was established. Like all modernists, Muhammad Abduh expresses some thoughts that appeared too bold, for example, he denies witchcraft, although it is described in the Quran and authentic Hadith, is critical of the world of angels and jinns. But in general, his tafsir encourages Muslims to discover new possibilities of the Greatest Book of All, since these possibilities are truly endless.

Other tafsirs worthy of note include the tafsirs of Muhammad Rashid Ridda (1865-1935) (a more traditional interpretation of the Quran verses with references to the Hadiths), the rector of the Muslim University of al-Azhar Mustafa al-Maraghi (1881-1945) (a breakdown of the Quran into logical fragments with a detailed explanation of the background of each word and the reasons why they were sent by Allah, al-Maraghi demonstrates the absence of contradictions between sacred texts and scientific knowledge) and the Egyptian reformer theologian Professor Amin al-Huli (1895-1966) (literary criticism, defending the position that the Quran is able to give revelation to everyone and for this it is not necessary to be a Muslim, the founder of the literary school of the interpretation of the Quran who tried to expand the readership of the Holy Book beyond the Muslim ummah).

The activities of contemporary modernist interpreters of the Holy Quran have played an important role in shaping the worldview of Muslims of our century. The convergence of the text of the Eternal Book with the realities of social and political life gives new strength to our religion and faith and allows us to understand not only the present, but also the past, despite the controversies present in some modernist views.