Imam Ghazali on Interpreting According to “Opinion”
Category : Interpretation
Excerpt from Ādāb Tilāwat al-Qurʾān (Book XIII of the first quarter of Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn)
Translated by Sohaib Saeed
So what of [God’s Messenger (S)] saying, “Whoever explains the Qurʾān by his opinion (raʾy)…” and prohibiting this, and what of the saying of Abū Bakr (R), “Which earth would carry me, and which sky would shade me if I were to speak of the Qurʾān by my opinion” – and similar reports forbidding interpretation of the Qurʾān according to opinion? There are only two possibilities: either these entail a restriction to transmitted narrations without inference and independent understanding, or they mean something other than that.
It is categorically mistaken to conclude from them that none may speak of the Qurʾān with anything other than what has been transmitted, for the following reasons:
First: that this would be on the condition that the report be heard directly from the Messenger (S) and narrated in a continuous chain to him, which only obtains with respect to part of the Qurʾān. As for the statements of Ibn ʿAbbās and Ibn Masʿūd themselves, they ought to be rejected on this basis as “interpretation by opinion”, in that they did not receive them from the Messenger of God (S). The same applies to the other Companions.
Second: that the Companions and the exegetes differed in their explanations of certain verses, offering a variety of irreconcilable opinions. It is impossible that they were all heard from the Messenger (S); if only one were heard, the rest would have been abandoned. Therefore, it is decisively clear that each exegete explained the meaning according to the results of his inference. This is to the extent that seven irreconcilable opinions were offered concerning the opening letters of some sūras. It was said that Alif-Lām-Rā represents the [first] letters of “al-Raḥmān”, or that the letters stand respectively for “Allāh, laṭīf, raḥīm”, and so on. These opinions cannot be simultaneously correct, so how can all have been heard [from the Prophet]?
Third: that the Messenger (S) prayed for Ibn ʿAbbās (R), saying: “O God, grant him understanding of religion and teach him interpretation.” If interpretation (taʾwīl) were just like the text of revelation – to be heard and memorised – then what could be meant by singling him out with this [supplication]?
Fourth: that Almighty God says, “The people of investigation would have known it” (Q 4:83), affirming for the people of knowledge [the ability to] infer (istinbāṭ), which is known to be a faculty beyond mere hearing.
All the traditions we have presented concerning understanding the Qurʾān refute this misconception and expose the falsehood of stipulating transmission for interpretation. Thus it is legitimate for anyone to derive meanings from the Qurʾān according to the limits of his own understanding and intellect.
As for the [stated] prohibition, it refers to two cases:
One is for a person to have a prior opinion about a matter, an opinion to which his nature and desire are inclined, then he interprets the Qurʾān in accordance with this opinion and desire. This is only to prove the veracity of his claim, since, were it not for his holding that opinion and desire, he would not have perceived that meaning in the Qurʾān.
This is sometimes done knowingly, such as by one who wishes to use verses from the Qurʾān to justify his innovation (bidʿa) while being aware that the meaning of the verse is contrary to what he claims, because he seeks only to outwit his opponent.
Yet other times it is done unwittingly, as when a verse carries several possible meanings and his attention turns to that which suits his purpose. He declares this meaning as the strongest on the basis of his opinion and desire. He has thus interpreted [the Qurʾān] by his opinion, meaning the [prior] opinion which led him to that interpretation; if not for his opinion, that meaning from the verse would not have presented itself to him as the strongest.
It may also be at times that his cause is valid, but when he seeks evidence in the Qurʾān, he cites something which he knows not to have that intended meaning. An example is someone who advocates seeking forgiveness in the early hours (asḥār), and supports this with the Prophetic saying: “Take suḥūr, for truly there is blessing in suḥūr”, claiming that it refers to remembrance (dhikr) while knowing that it refers to food. Another is someone calling to struggle against the hardened heart, who says: “Almighty God said: ‘Go to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed’”, pointing to his heart to suggest that that is what is meant by “Pharaoh”.
This type is sometimes employed by preachers while promoting correct purposes, seeking to beautify their speech and encourage their listeners; yet it is prohibited. At other times, the Bāṭiniyya (esotericists) employ it for corrupt purposes, to deceive the people and invite them to their false beliefs. In accordance with their desires and beliefs, they make the Qurʾān say things which they know with certainty are not intended.
These various types constitute one of the aspects of the prohibition of interpretation by opinion. The meaning of “opinion” here is the corrupt opinion stemming from desires rather than proper scholarly endeavour (ijtihād). The term “opinion” encompasses truth and falsehood, but it is possible that it be applied specifically to that which follows desire (hawā).
The second case is of one who hastily interprets the Qurʾān according to the literal Arabic without making recourse to narrated traditions addressing its difficult passages and unclear words as well as its phenomena of concision, ellipsis, implication and reversed word order. Whoever does not master the apparent exegesis, yet rushes to draw out its meanings relying purely on linguistic understanding, will fall into frequent error and be counted among those who interpret according to opinion. This is because transmitted knowledge is essential to establish the apparent exegesis first, in order to avoid such errors; after that, there is scope to pursue deeper understanding and inferences.
The difficult passages [of the Qurʾān] that can only be understood via narrations are many. We shall indicate a portion of these [in the passage following this] so that others of their kind may be identified, and so it may be known that the importance of learning apparent exegesis must not be underestimated, as there is no possibility of reaching the inner aspect (bāṭin) before mastering the outer (ẓāhir). A person who claims to have grasped the inner secrets of the Qurʾān without mastering its exoteric exegesis is like one who claims to have reached the inner sanctuary of a house before passing through the door; or one who claims to have comprehended the discourse of the Turks without learning Turkish. Indeed, the apparent exegesis is akin to the teaching of language in being fundamental to understanding.