Like any scripture, and indeed any text, the Qur’an is open to different interpretations. Some interpretations are plausible, others are possible but unlikely, and many more are impossible so they can only be forced on the text. Among the latter category are interpretations that accuse the Qur’an of supporting unjustified violence, such as waging war against others for no reason other than being non-Muslims. Such misinterpretations are used by Muslim terrorists, such as ISIS, but they are also favourites of critics of the Qur’an who have their own agendas. While people with particular agendas deliberately use certain misguided methods to force certain misinterpretations out of the Qur’an, anyone reading and interpreting the Qur’an may inadvertently use those flawed approaches.
In order to avoid and counter such false interpretations of Qur’anic verses, we need to identify the various reasons for misinterpreting the Qur’anic text and how to deal with each. I will presume here that the interpreter of the Qur’an knows the Arabic language well, as relying on translations introduces a whole set of completely different difficulties and pitfalls. There are four different but related reasons of misinterpretation. The first two are common in textual interpretation and the other two are specific to the Qur’anic text. I will use examples from the subject of violence in the Qur’an because of its impact on the world today.
1) Taking Verses Out of Context
When a verse is read with no reference to the verses that precede and follow it, its context is lost and misinterpretation becomes likely, if not certain. One popular example here is the misleadingly named “verse of the sword”:
When the Inviolable Months have passed away, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. (9.5)
When read in isolation of its context, one may conclude that this verse commands the Muslims to kills non-Muslims if they do not accept Islam by force. But see how interpretation is exposed as a complete misunderstanding as soon as the surrounding verses are quoted:
A proclamation from Allah and His Messenger to people on the day of Greater Pilgrimage that Allah is clear of the polytheists, as is His Messenger. If you repent that is better for you but if you turn away then know that you are not beyond the power of Allah. And give [O Muhammad!] glad tidings of a painful chastisement to the disbelievers. (9.3) Except those of the polytheists with whom you have a treaty and they did not break its terms or aid someone against you, so abide by their treaty until their term. Allah loves the pious. (9.4) When the Inviolable Months have passed away, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. (9.5) If anyone of the polytheists seeks your protection [O Muhammad!], then protect him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and escort him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know. (9.6)
Verse 9.4 unambiguously instructs the Muslims to honour any peace treaty they have with their enemies. Verse 9.6 makes it clear that the Muslims not only did not kill people who did not share their faith, but they even offered them help. For a detailed analysis of the misinterpretation of verse 9.5, please consult my article “Myths About ‘The Verse of the Sword.’”
It is difficult to see how one can take any verse out of its context innocently.
2) Treating the Qur’an as a Collection of Disconnected Verses
While the Qur’anic verses were revealed over 22 years, they form one book, which is bound in one volume, and which was revealed to one Prophet. The Qur’an calls itself a “Book” in many verses. It is the fact that the Qur’anic verses are interlinked and form one book that underlines the established exegetical principle “the Qur’an interprets itself.” One application of this is that when trying to understand a particular word or term, the reader should check all its occurrences in the Qur’an. Also, in order to interpret a verse one needs to consider all other related verses in all chapters. For instance, verse 9.5 cannot be claimed to promote the killing of non-Muslims once one has considered any of the many relevant verses in other chapters in the Qur’an. Here is a few of them:
And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you, but do not transgress. Allah do not loves those who transgress. (2.190)
There is no compulsion in [the acceptance of] religion. The right way has become distinct from the wrong way. (2.256)
Say [O Muhammad!]: “You have your religion, and I have my religion.” (109.6)
But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and rely on Allah. He hears and knows. (8.61)
O you who believe! When you travel in the way of Allah, investigate and do not say to someone who offers you peace: “You are not a believer,” seeking riches of this world, for with Allah there are abundant spoils. You too were such before, then Allah conferred favors on you. Therefore, investigate. Allah is aware of what you do. (4.94)
Let me comment on the last verse, as an example. Here God condemns the attempts of some Muslims, acting under the pretence of defending Islam, to attack non-Muslims who did not show any sign of aggression. He exposes the driver of this unjustified violence as being nothing more than robbing the would-be victims of their possessions. God then goes on to remind the Muslim abusers they were exactly like their intended victims, i.e. non-believers, before He conferred His favour on them and made them Muslims. In other words, He did not send someone to kill them for being non-Muslims, and so He has not given them the right to kill others for not being Muslims. He stresses that even though the Muslims were at war with various enemies, they must be completely certain that someone has the intention of committing violence against them before they can launch a preemptive attack. Note how this verse describes the criminal behaviour of today’s terrorist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and others.
There are literally many tens of verses that were revealed at different times during the mission of Prophet Muhammad that make it clear that Islam opposes forcing people to embrace it, permits the Muslim to fight others only in self-defence, and commands the Muslims to establish peace with any people as soon as the latter decides to have peace with them.
How difficult or easy and intentional or not it is to fail to study all related verses depends on the subject. When it comes to subject of violence, it is not possible to think that following this interpretative practice was unintentional. The reason is that the Qur’an is full of verses similar to the one I quoted which undermine the claim that any verse promotes unjustified violence.
3) Using Claims From the False Doctrine of Abrogation
Abrogation is defined as the replacement of a divine ruling, that is from the Qur’an or the Sunna of the Prophet, by a later one. This doctrine was introduced decades after the Prophet and was developed in full over three centuries by many scholars. In other words, abrogation is not a genuine Islamic doctrine. One of its particularly noxious claims is that verse 9.5 abrogated tens of verses that command the Muslims to be tolerant, forgiving, and accommodating of other faiths. I have written a detailed refutation of this false doctrine in my book Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law.
Abrogation is considered a genuine doctrine by most scholars, but there were always scholars who rejected it as false. But even among its supporters the overwhelming majority of scholars reject claims such as the suggestion that verse 9.5 abrogated many verses that command the Muslim to be peaceful and accommodate other faiths, as I discuss in my article on this subject.
4) Using Wrong Extra-Qur’anic Information
The main source of such information is the Ḥadīth literature. The Ḥadīth records sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, which include reports from the literature genre of Sīra or “biography” of the Prophet. Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have always agreed that the Ḥadīth contains numerous sayings and deeds that are falsely attributed to the Prophet, not to mention their contradictions. There is also disagreement between scholars about which narratives are authentic and which are not. Such disagreement is not only between scholars from different denominations but also within the same one. False Ḥadīth narratives were invented at different times by various people for a number of reasons.
The danger in depending on the Ḥadīth literature for interpreting a Qur’anic verse is that one could end up using a narrative that is inaccurate or completely false, thus leading to misinterpretation. Yet the use of Ḥadīth narratives to understand the Qur’an is very common. At times it is difficult to tell whether a narrative is authentic or not, so both innocent mistakes and deliberate misuses of such reports can happen. To safeguard against unknowingly using a false Ḥadīth account, one should not rely on the Ḥadīth as the sole source of interpretation.
These are the main reasons behind deliberate or unintentional misinterpretation of the Qur’an. We have also discussed how to avoid them. Of course, avoiding these causes of misinterpretation is no guarantee that one would end up with the correct understanding. General analytical and linguistic skills, attention to detail, and, in some cases, knowledge of the subject matter, are necessary requirements. It should also be noted that some texts are easier to interpret than others.