Does Quran Make Room for Interpretation?
Tafsir bi’r-Ra’y (or Tafsir bi’d-dirayah)
Tafsir bi’r-ra’y, or commonly known as tafsir bi-al-diraya, is the method of using one’s independent rational reasoning and mind (ijtihad) to form an opinion-oriented interpretation. The most distinctive feature of tafsir bi-al-diraya is the inclusion of the opinions of the commentator, thus forming the more objective view on Quranic verses. The relative paucity of traditional sources is also a practical reason why the scope of the methodology is augmented. This is considered sanctioned by the Quran itself, as written in the surah Sad verse 29:
(This is) a Scripture that We have revealed unto thee, full of blessing, that they may ponder its revelations, and that men of understanding may reflect.
— Quran 38:29
This method is not interpretation by mere opinion however, but rather opinions must be based on the main sources. Performing Quranic interpretation using solely one’s own opinion is believed to be prohibited by some Muslims. This is based on an authenticated hadith of Muhammad which states “He who says (something) concerning the Qur’ân without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire”. However, this hadith can alternatively be interpreted to refer to the importance of first properly studying and learning the Quran before attempting to teach or preach it to others. Accordingly, the method of independent reasoning (ijtihad) has several qualifications and conditions that need to be satisfied. Due to the nature of orientation toward opinions, this method is rejected by certain scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah, and prohibited by Wahhabi Islamic doctrine. Some important examples of such tafsirs include Anwar al-Tanzil by al-Baydawi and Mafatih al-Ghayb by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. Some parameters used by these scholars including linguistic resources, historical sources, methodological concepts such as maqasid or socio-cultural environment taken into consideration.
In terms of linguistic resources, literary elements of the Arabic language, including morphology, eloquence, syntax are an integral part of tafsir, as they constitute the basis of understanding and interpretation. Arabic has a systematic way of shaping words so one can know the meaning by knowing the root and the form the word was coined from. If any word can be given a meaning that is compatible with the rules of grammar, Quranic text can be interpreted that way. In terms of historical resources, scholars may choose to interpret verses according to external factors, including their historical context and their place of revelation. Historical context (Asbab al-nuzul) is particularly important to interpret verses according to how the Quran was revealed, when and under which circumstances, and much commentary was dedicated to history. The early tafsirs are considered to be some of the best sources for Islamic history. Classification of the place of revelation, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medina, is important as well. This is because in general Meccan verses tend to have an iman (loosely translated as faith) nature that includes believing in Allah, Muhammad, and the day of judgment, whether it be theological foundations or basic faith principles. On the other hand, Medinan verses constitute legislation, social obligations, and constitution of a state.
On the more conceptual level, the idea of maqasid (goals or purpose) can be taken into account. Verses may be interpreted to preserve the general goals of shariah, which may be considered simply as bringing happiness to a person in this life and the hereafter. That way, any interpretation that threatens to compromise the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect or property may be discarded or ruled otherwise in order to secure these goals. Further, the socio-cultural environment may also taken into consideration. This includes understanding and interpreting the Quran while taking into account the cultural and social environment to which it has been revealed; or according to the scholars’ own time. Often than not, the distinction can be made between the ‘amm (general) verses that aimed at universal conditions for Muslims, and khass (specific) verses that applied to specific conditions, time or need. This is considered an integral part of analyzing the universality of the Quran. Scholars usually do not favor to confine verses to a single time interval, but rather interpret according to the needs of their time.