Date: July 18, 2005


The Development of Tafsir from

Other-Worldly to Worldly Orientation


By Azam Puya

In 1992, Mehdi Bazargan, an Iranian lay Muslim intellectual, expressed a new theological opinion on one of the most important issues that has been the concern of Muslim thinkers and interpreters of the Quran: the purpose of the mission of the prophets. He said that the only purpose of the prophetic mission was to inform people about God and the afterlife, and that religion is for securing the happiness of human beings in the next life. He based his opinion on the following verse of the Quran:

He it is who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelation and to make them grow, and to teach them the scripture and wisdom, though heretofore they were indeed in error manifest (Jom‘eh: 2).

Bazargan’s opinion met with three different reactions: The first reaction came from Traditionalist scholars, who were mostly clerics and strongly opposed his opinion. In newspapers, journals, and Friday prayer sermons, they tried to show that his opinion was in opposition to Islam, that is to say, it was that of a Kafir. The second reaction came from Bazargan’s own political group, his friends and fellow-thinkers, members of a religio-political group known as the ‘Iran Liberation Movement’. Although they remained loyal to Bazargan until the end of his life, they did not accept his new opinion. The third reaction came from Abdolkarim Soroush, who accepted the opinion but also criticized it and expanded it.

Before describing Bazargan’s views, let me introduce him briefly. Born in 1907, Bazargan was a French–educated engineer, and a long-time pro-democracy activist. While studying in France he voluntarily entered the French Army and fought against Nazi Germany. He co-founded the Iran Liberation Movement in 1961, and was imprisoned several times before the 1979 Revolution. Immediately after the revolution succeeded, Ayatollah Khomeini asked Bazargan to form a provisional government, and thus he became the first post-revolutionary prime minister. In 1980, during the referendum about the Constitution, Bazargan tried unsuccessfully to have the word  “democratic” kept in the title of the new regime, declaring that he believed in an “Islamic democratic republic”, not an “Islamic republic”. He resigned within a year, complaining that radical clerics were undermining his government. He died in 1995.

Bazargan’s intellectual production can be divided into two periods. In the first period, like other reformers, he tried to prove that the main mission of the prophets was to direct people’s affairs in this world. His writings and political struggles were all geared to this objective. This period forms the larger part of his life. In the second period, which consists of the last 8 years of his life, Bazargan changed his mind and took the following opinion: the main mission of prophets was to inform people about God and the next life. It was not the prophets’ mission to teach people how to manage society, or what kind of government to have. That is to say, it is not necessary for Muslims to refer to the Quran in order to discover laws for politics, economics and society, or theories of mathematics or natural sciences, and so on. To discover these laws, Muslims, like non-Muslims, must refer to collective reason; that is, to rely on achievements in the fields of science and philosophy.

The question whether the main mission of the prophets was to secure happiness in this life or the next life is a new question to which interpreters of the Quran and Muslim reformists have started to pay attention in the last century. In fact, the question belongs to the modern world. In the past, none of the interpreters of the Quran even posed this question. It appeared evident to them that Islam directs people’s life both in this world and the next. To them, the social precepts and regulations in the Quran seemed sufficient for managing and governing societies that were not as complex as modern ones.

But science, technology, philosophy, psychology, sociology and economics faced Muslims with new questions. They found themselves unable to provide answers for these on the basis of their religious teachings. On the one hand, in the face of the progress of the West, they felt backwardness; and on the other hand, they were worried about losing their identity to the domineering West. These two factors, that is, a feeling of backwardness and the problem of identity, caused Muslims to look for a solution; and eventually some of them found the Quran to be the best weapon for fighting this problem. They started to interpret the Quran from a new perspective. I stress the word “weapon”, because this approach to the Quran, which at first had only an academic aspect, eventually gave rise to violence. Later on, this approach gave some Muslims a real weapon for holding on to power.

This period saw the start of efforts by Muslim reformers, who were mostly interpreters of the Quran, to reconcile tradition and modernity. From their point of view, the reason for the backwardness of Muslims was that they had removed the Quran from their daily life and only recited it, and they had not been thinking about the verses of the Quran. For instance, according to Jamaleddin Afghani, if Muslims had explored the Quran, they would have progressed as the West had done. We can say that the project of rationalising and secularising Islam started in this period, and has continued until now.

This period also saw the expansion of Quranic studies; outstanding interpreters appeared, such as Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Tantawi, Mostafa al Maraghi, and in Iran Mahmud Taleghani, and Muhammad Taghi Shariati and so on. These interpreters had two presuppositions: First, there is no conflict or contradiction between the Quran and new human achievements in science and philosophy. Secondly, the Quran can fulfil all the needs of human beings in the modern world, and provides answers to all questions in all aspects of life.

These early interpreters drew attention to 3 kinds of Quranic verses:

First, those concerning magic (sehr), Satan (sheitan), Angels (mala’ek) and Jinns. Thinking these concepts unsuited to the modern human sense of rationality, and considering them superstitious, some of these interpreters focused on the linguistic dimension of the Quran. They said that the language of the Quran in these verses is metaphorical and allegorical, and we should not look for literal meaning in them. Muhammad Abduh, the most distinguished commentator of this period, rejects the impact of magic in the universe and takes it as a metaphor.

For example, Sura Falaq, verse 4, which  has been seen as referring to magical power:

Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak,

From the evil of that which He created;
From the evil of the darkness when it is intense,
And from the evil of malignant witchcraft,

Abduh says that ‘malignant witchcraft’ refers to those people who through their evil deeds try to incite distrust among friends and to create distance between them. He considered the Hadith (narrations) in Bukhari’s collection that confirmed the existence of magic to be weak. Other commentators of this period also take a critical attitude to Hadith. Unlike early commentators, such as Tabari, who rely on Hadith for understanding every Quranic verse, an interpreter like Abduh simply considers many Hadith to be weak, and puts them aside.

So, we can say, this period marks the beginning of the priority of reason over Hadith  (‘aql over naql). The seed of this approach is found in the Tafsir of Fakhreddin Razi and Zamakhshari, but in the past, the criterion for commentary by someone like Fakhreddin Razi is reason in the Aristotelian sense, while in modern times the criterion is reason in a positivistic and scientific sense.

This is evident in the way Abduh approaches the Meccan Sura Fil and tries to provide a rational and scientific explanation:

Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant?
Did He not bring their stratagem to naught,
And send against them swarms of flying creatures (tairan ababil),
Which pelted them with stones of baked clay,
And made them like green crops devoured (by cattle)?

Whereas previous interpreters regarded this a miracle, Abduh says that the swarms of flying creatures (tairan ababil) were a kind of bacterial agent that destroyed the soldiers of Abrahah (the Abyssinian governor seeking to capture Mecca in the year the Prophet was born).[1] Likewise, with Satan and the Angels, Abduh believed that these are inner powers that draw people towards evil deeds or good deeds. We cannot see interpretations like these in the first period of Tafsir. For example, Tabari makes no effort to give any other interpretation of these verses apart from the literal sense that was current in the culture at the time of the Prophet; for him, belief in magic, Satan and Jinns did not violate his sense of rationality.

The second type of verses that modern interpreters have focused on are those verse that relate to plants, wind, and natural phenomena in general. Here they tried to show that these verses were not incompatible with modern sciences, and in fact that new scientific discoveries and theories have their roots in the Quran. One of the acknowledged interpreters of this period, Al-Tantawi, author of Al-Javaher fi Tafsir Al-Quran, sees the Quran as a scientific book and tries to reconcile Quranic verses with scientific knowledge.

Finally, we come to verses concerning government and social regulations. According to these commentators, the Quran invites Muslims to establish an Islamic government. They believe that rules and regulations required for government are found in the Quran. In their opinion, as the Prophet governed a state, so Muslims too must do so. Therefore, they offer new interpretations of this kind of verses. For example, Jamaleddin Afghani, who interpreted only a few verses, rejects polygamy and argues that this rule was specific to the Prophet’s time. These commentators tried to show that these social regulations were in accordance with the culture of the Prophet’s time, and they are not applicable to all times.

Therefore, one salient characteristic of the work of these commentators and reformers is that they are attentive to the cultural context in which the verses of the Quran were revealed. By the end of the 20th century, more attention was paid to this issue. Muslim reformers divided the rulings (ahkam) in the Quran into two kinds: emza’i (endorsed) and ta’sisi (legislated). They emphasized that the Prophet established few new laws and norms, and endorsed many of the existing laws and norms of his time. That is to say, the Prophet legislated some laws and affirmed or accepted others that were current in Arab society, as he saw them not to be in conflict with his mission. According to these new reformers, these kinds of laws and regulations are changeable, not immutable. Abdolkarim Soroush goes as far as to say that all the social regulations of Islam, even those that are found in the Quran, can be changed. In fact, Shah Nematollah Vali, an Indian Muslim of the 18th century, in his book Hojjat ol-balagha, had already argued that many social regulations, such as khums and zakat, are changeable.

With this background, I’ll come back to Iran, which is the focus of my study. Mahmood Taleghani, author of a book of Tafsir named Partovi az Qur’an (A Ray from the Quran), was influenced by Muhammad Abduh, and like him, had a worldly orientation in Tafsir. Taleqani was opposed to the Shah, was imprisoned and wrote his book in prison. He didn’t provide a commentary on the whole Quran, but only on a few Suras from the beginning and some from the end.

Ali Shariati is another Iranian Muslim reformer who also opposed the Shah and did all he could to provide a new reading of the Quran and to redefine Islam. Many young people who participated in the Islamic revolution were among his followers. Although we cannot regard him as an interpreter of the Quran, he too subscribed to the view that the mission of the Prophet was to secure people’s happiness in this life. He put the emphasis on Jihad and Islamic government and his work eventually contributed to the ideologization of religion, which became dominant when Ayatollah Khomeini’s came to power.

As I already said, the commentators early in the 20th century believed that the Quran has answers to all questions and needs of human beings. This attitude gradually led to the opinion that we Muslims don’t need other people or countries, as the Quran is enough for us and we have the truth. This opinion led to the emergence of ideological interpretations of Islam. The book, Fi Zilal al-Quran (In the Shadow of the Quran) by Sayyid Qutb, is the first ideological Tafsir. One of the important characteristics of ideological Tafsir is an emphasis on identity, power, and jihad against unbelievers. They took the early wars or jihad of Muslims against jaheliyat (pre-Islamic society) as their model, and argued for a struggle against “the Jaheliyat of the 20th Century”

But the 1979 Revolution in Iran and the establishment of an ideological government became the best means for waking up some Islamic reformers. It changed the presupposition that had ruled the thought of Muslim interpreters for a century, as reformers such as Mehdi Bazargan came to realize that the same Quran that was a weapon for guarding Muslim identity is now used as a weapon for gaining and keeping power. It was in this context that Bazargan stated his new opinion: the Prophet’s mission was not to create a government or to regulate the affairs of this world, but to tell people of the existence of God and the other world.

We can see a similar shift in presuppositions in the Arab world, but unlike in Iran, the shift was not openly acknowledged. Examples of non-ideological Tafsir are the books of Ahmad Khalafallah, especially Al-Fann al-Qisasi fi’l-Quran al-Karim (The Art of Story-telling in the Quran)  and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s work.

In my view, two factors are responsible for an explicit acknowledgment of the shift from this-worldly to other-worldly Tafsir in Iran

The first is the establishment of an Islamic government. This was the utopia of the early 20th-century Muslim reformers, a dream that was held for a long time. They thought that, with the establishment of an Islamic government, all obstacles to enforcing Islamic rulings and precepts would be removed and all human needs would be fulfilled. That is why at the beginning of the Revolution in Iran some spoke of Islamic sociology, Islamic economy, and Islamic agriculture and so on. But once an Islamic government was created, the flaws in that line of thinking became apparent.

The second factor has to do with the creation of a theoretical system that was not only hermeneutical but also philosophical/theological at the same time. I mean, the system whose foundations Soroush began to lay in 1979, resulting in 1990 in his book entitled: Qabz o Bast-e Teorik-e Shari‘at (The Expansion and Contraction of the Sharia). He developed his ideas in his later books.

As I said earlier, Soroush accepted Bazargan’s opinion but also offered a criticism, which I want to discuss now. According to Soroush, the reason why Bazargan’s critics would not accept his opinion, and yet they couldn’t convince him, was that both sides offered intra-religious arguments, namely, they used the Quran and Hadith. But the question whether religion is for this world or the other one is an extra-religious one, and goes back to our expectations of religion. Soroush approached the issue through our “expectations of religion”. He said that, before someone accepts a religion, that is when he or she is trying to learn about a religion and has not accepted it, one of the important questions that arises for this person is: “What are my expectations of religion?” or “Does this religion meet my expectations or not. I might have this expectation that religion secures my wellbeing in this life, or that it should inform me about God and the other world and introduce me to a bigger world. Or I might have the expectation that it secures my happiness both in this world and the other. This is an extra-religious question. We cannot expect religion to provide us an answer. Answers to this question  – whether they are argued on a rational basis or not – must be sought outside religion. By outside religion, I mean through human reason and other sources that we have at our disposal; in a nutshell, collective reason.”

The issue of   “our expectations of religion” is a subject that belongs, on the one hand, to the field of hermeneutics; on the other hand, it belongs to the philosophy of religion. When we want to understand or interpret a text, our expectations of the text will be a frame for understanding the text; we understand that text within the bounds of our expectations. This is a matter for hermeneutics. But when we speak about the rationality or non-rationality of a religion, our expectations will be a frame for regarding that religion as rational or non-rational. The issue of   “our expectations of religion” exactly goes back to the functions of religion. What are the functions of religion? That is to say, which of our needs does religion fulfil? These are matters related to the philosophy of religion. The philosophy of religion is a second-order discipline, that is to say it is a discipline that examines religion from outside the religion. A person  who wants to know about a religion and then decide whether to accept it or not, enters the field of philosophy of religion. In sum, the philosophy of religion is a discipline that investigates religion rationally.

Soroush defines the question of “our expectations of religion” as follows: We can have two kinds of expectations: maximalist and minimalist. The maximalist expectation is the same expectation that reformists and interpreters had in this past century. They expected Islam to fulfil all the needs of humankind and to regulate their affairs in this world. But the minimalist expectation is to have fewer expectation of religion.

But what is this minimalist expectation in Soroush’s view? At first, Soroush used to say that, if Muslims say that the Quran contains social and criminal injunctions, such as those relating to the required number of witnessed in court, the ban on usury, or cutting of a thief’s hand, and so on, this means that, for them, Islam wants to regulate their affairs in this world. In response to these Muslims, it can be said that these laws and injunctions are not enough to manage a society in modern times, and we need more laws. If the Quran has introduced laws, they are few, and this shows that Islam pays attention to this world only minimally, and has left the rest to human beings. This shows that the mission of the Prophet was not concerned with such matters.

In recent years, Soroush no longer speaks of even this minimum. It seems that he has changed his opinion and believes that all social regulations in Quran are changeable or can be put aside - although those in the realm of ‘ibadat are more resistant to change since they are more orientated towards the hereafter. His emphasis on the term “all social regulations” no longer allows for this-worldly expectations from religion. Thus we can have only two expectations: to satisfy the human need for eternity and to inform humankind of the existence of a God with specific qualities. The functions of religion are these two things; and religion gives these two things to people.

Those who opposed this opinion felt that it leaves little for religion and diminishes its importance. They didn’t realize that these functions are of utmost importance. The issue of eternity is an important concern of humankind. Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish Christian existentialist philosopher, deals with the subject of eternity in his books. And Miguel de Unamuno, a Jewish existentialist philosopher from Spain, in his book The Tragic Sense of Life, writes about the concern for eternity and demonstrates the human need for being eternal.

In short, Soroush limits religion to a personal relationship with God and declares that politics, sciences, ethic and law are independent from religion. One can say that secularizing of Islam came to a climax in Soroush’s view. He repeatedly declares that Islam is a secular religion, and that more than other religions it contains the seeds of secularity.

Let me conclude by summarizing my argument.

In the 20th century, Muslim thinkers and reformers sought secularized and rationalized interpretations of Islam, but they adopted two very different approaches in their interpretation of the Quran, based on two radically different understandings of the purpose of religion. The early reformers held that the mission of Islam was to secure happiness of people in this world, which led them to adopt a this-worldly orientation in their Tafsir, holding that the Quran contains all kinds of knowledge, including modern science. For example, they believed that the law of Gravity that Newton discovered had already been mentioned in the Quran, but Muslims had failed to discover it earlier as they had neglected the Quran and also failed to use their reason to understand the Quran. In their view, it was wrong to assume that the Quran provides only spiritual guidance for Muslim, with the aim of happiness the next world.

This approach to Islam was dominant in the thought of the Muslim reformers until the last two decades of the 20th century. At the end of the century, we witness a shift in approaches to secularization and rationalization. This change is very important. The new reformers also sought to secularise Islam, but in a very different sense: that is, they tried to show that no social, political or economic laws and theories are found in Quran. It was not the Prophet’s main mission to resolve people’s economic, social and political problems in this world, but to introduce and explain God and the next world. That is, God wants to change people’s orientation, He wants people to know that the universe is expanded not limited. Of course, in the new reformers’ view, this attitude to the universe will also affect people’s life in this world. The most important effect is serenity and peace of mind. In their opinion, religion does not aim to replace reason, so people must use reason in order to improve their lives in this world, which means understanding and interpreting the Quran in such a way as to discover how to know God and the next life and to ensure happiness in the next world.


Presented in Germany,2005


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