The Originalist Approach to Understanding Islam

In order to understand the true message of Islam, we need to ensure that the Qur’anic text is interpreted properly.[1] The Arabic text of the Qur’an has to be given meanings by the reader to find out what God Almighty, its author, has stated. It is the correct interpretation of the book of God that would bring forth the true understanding of the message of Islam. In order for us to be able to do that, we should know what different possibilities of interpretation are available and which one of those possibilities is worthy of being pursued for achieving the purpose of that understanding. Quite often, the decision regarding the method of interpretation would decide conclusively the kind of meanings that are likely to emerge from it.

Although numerous ways have been adopted to interpret the Qur’anic text over the last fourteen centuries, it could be said, in retrospect, that they can be broadly divided into three categories: the Traditionalist approach, the Modernist approach, and the Originalist approach. The Traditionalist approach to interpreting the Qur’an is, strictly speaking, not just one narrow way of understanding the Qur’anic text. However, the Muslim Traditionalists of the contemporary times have adopted a stance that views the enormous body of diverse literature on interpretation made available in the first twelve centuries of the Muslim history, or at least the more popular part of it, as one category of approach to interpretation. The contemporary Traditionalists have come to believe that a valid interpretation of Qur’anic text can only be the one that has already been done by at least some of the earlier scholars. No new interpretation of the Qur’an can be acceptable if it doesn’t enjoy the support of another interpretation that has already been done in the past. In other words, according to the Traditionalists, if an interpretation is to be taken seriously, it must first prove that it also occurred to someone else in the past, or else it is not worthy of even being seriously considered as valid.

This obsession with the need to confirm the validity of an opinion from what the earlier Muslim scholars said leads traditionalists to invoke ijma‘ to support their view. Ijma‘ is claimed to be the consensus of Muslim scholars on a certain religious opinion. Although it is impossible to prove ijma‘ on even a single religious view, Traditionalist Muslim scholars, because of their peculiar mindset, have used this expression as an effective tool for proving their point whenever they have felt the need to prove the correctness (or conversely, the incorrectness) of an opinion, especially when proving it through more direct arguments seemed difficult.

The Modernist approach insists that an acceptable interpretation of the Qur’anic text must be relevant to the contemporary times. Thus, according to them, if an understanding of a Qur’anic text makes sense in the context of the modern academic research in the physical and social sciences, it would be considered valid. In case the intellectual of the contemporary times is not at ease with a certain interpretation because of the peculiar way of thinking he has become accustomed to, the interpretation of the Qur’an in question would not be considered serious enough to be valid.

The Originalist approach[2], on the other hand, considers the Qur’anic text as the ultimate criterion for deciding whether an interpretation is valid or not. Although it deems it desirable to consider whether a certain interpretation is supported by the earlier scholars, such support is not regarded to be crucial for accepting the validity of it. Likewise, although it deems it to be a useful consideration that an interpretation should make sense to the modern man, that consideration too is not decisive. The only indispensable principle for an interpretation to be valid is that it should be strictly loyal to the Qur’anic text. To a Originalist, it would make no difference whether no one has come up with a peculiar interpretation of the Qur’an before it is presented so long as it is supported by valid arguments showing its compatibility with the Qur’anic text. It also makes no difference whether or not the interpretation appeals to the modern mind or not, if that interpretation is bringing to light the Qur’anic text in a way that the reader gets a strong feeling that God’s word hasn’t been tampered with and that the end result of the exercise is indeed the true meaning of God’s words.[3]

To sum it up, if you are a Traditionalist Muslim (scholar or otherwise) your greatest concern while deriving opinion from a given Qur’anic text would be to know what earlier Muslim scholars have said. Having seen a few names of well-known scholars of the past on the side of an opinion, you will be satisfied that the interpretation has a right to claim that it is giving reliable meanings to the message of God. On the contrary, if you are a Modernist, you will need to first know what the currently popular intellectual understanding on the issue at hand is. In case the religious opinion under discussion concurs with it, it would be sanctioned as valid. However, if you are an Originalist, your interest in knowing the Traditionalist and Modernist views on the subject of enquiry would be secondary. Your real interest would be in ensuring that the meanings you are deriving are genuinely emerging from the words of the text, whatever the consequential outcome of the exercise. Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930), Amin Ahsen Islahi (d. 1997) and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (b. 1951) are the most prominent scholars belonging to this category.


[1] The reader should not be led to believe that it is being claimed that the Qur’an is the only original source of knowledge in Islam. Indeed the sunnah – the religious practices of the prophets of God which were reconfirmed by the last of the prophets, Muhammad, alaihissalaam – is an equally authentic source of knowledge. However, their description is not directly relevant to the scope of this article because most of the significant criticisms that have been raised against the Islamic teachings are the ones that have to do with the interpretation of the Qur’anic text.

[2] There could be other names assigned to this approach, like the Qur’an-based approach, the rationalist approach, or the textual approach. I have preferred to call it Originalist because it captures the true spirit of what this approach stands for: It is original in its methodology and true spirit even though at times it may appear to be new, because the outcome of a genuinely original approach gives a picture of Islam which is, as we shall see, by and large and not surprisingly, acceptable to the modern mind.

[3] An additional feature of the Originalist approach that is very likely to occur more frequently is the keenness on the part of the interpreter to continue to review his views in order to be more compatible with the text. That feature would also figure in the approach of the modernist, although not for his concern to interpret the text to enable it to be more consistent with the text but with the modern context and the latest scientific understandings. The traditionalist is the most likely to be insistent that once an interpretation from the elders has been accepted, it should not be altered. There are cases amongst the traditionalists too of changing opinions, but such changes have taken the form of a movement from one earlier opinion to another.

5 thoughts on “The Originalist Approach to Understanding Islam

  1. Marwan Boustany

    The originalist approach is really the only acceptable approach.

    I would be interested if you could: -

    1: Provide Qur’anic evidence that any literature encompassing hadith with the sub group of sunnah (They are NOT separate), contains original Islamic information.
    2: Provide Qur’anic evidence that there is ANY other Islamic source of information other than the Qur’an.
    3: Provide this evidence without first assuming the validity of the hadith and/or ‘sunnah’ tradition.
    4: Finally, that you allow me to respond to the evidence presented.

    Muslims practice shirk and will continue to do so until they stop following the words and traditions of arab and persian fabricators in partnership with and instead of the words of Allah.

    “Is it not enough for them that We have revealed to you the Book, which is recited to them? Most surely there is a mercy in this and a reminder for a people who believe” (29:51)

    “Shall I then seek a Ruler other than Allah? When He it is Who has revealed to you the Book (which is) distinctly elucidated;” (6:114)

    “And the Messenger will say: O my Lord! Surely my people have neglected this Qur’an.” (25:30)

    [Dr. Khalid’s Response to this comment.]

  2. Muhammad Tahir

    Bismillah, Assalamolekum.

    There are multiple sources as dicussed by earlier (main stream)scholars (1) Tafseer ul Quran bil’Quran, (2) Lugha’tul Arab and (3) Sunnah of Rasool S.A.W.

    I do not deny the need of first two sources yet the Sunnah is utmost necessary & unavoidable as it guards the true meaning of ‘wahee’. The only difference occurs when some start interpreting the both – Quran and Sunnah – by his own. This is indeed very important to note that the moment we ignore understanding of companions (Sahaba R.A.) we are most likely to go astray.

    History kept the accounts of those who chose this path, some intentially and some by mistake. It normally happens when one is keen to infer out of the either texts what he likes the way to be, just by lodging criticism on accepting ‘human opinion’ in the “Deen”. One must not forget to distinct the opinion (Rai) from the understanding (Fehm-e-Sahaba R.A). Indeed, the Fehm-e-Sahaba R.A is the knowledge gained from Rasool S.A.W.

    [Dr. Khalid’s Response to this comment.]

  3. Farhan

    Great Post Mr.Khalid!
    Indeed, the Originalist approach sets a very intuitive paradigm to pursue Islam or any other religion for that matter. No wonder it makes it difficult to follow religion with the other two approaches and especially with the Traditionalist approach. Why still majority of people follow the traditionalist approach? My personal understanding tells me that there are countless reasons why people adopt this approach. For example, It’s far easier to pick-up-and-use someone else’ interpretation then doing the hard work of reading and interpreting the Quran, or, may be it’s really not the first priority of many people to find out the ultimate truth in religion.

    Most of us, are brought up with a list of religious scholars to follow. And few can claim that they were pushed or at least advised to refer to Quran to find answers. No wonder why so many of us are traditionalist!

    I think once an individual is commits to be a true truth-seeker, he/she will find the Originalist approach very close to his/her heart and soul.

  4. Riz

    Here you say that one should follow the Originalist approach and be blind to the current modern values of society – however in your other articles it seems that you’re taking some other stance, e.g. in your essay about Human Rights, you’ve mentioned this about injunctions about women’s status compared to men:

    “since it was to be only one station towards the ultimate goal of complete equality of both sexes in all respects, the bridging role of Islam between dark ages and the era of enlightenment has been completed and therefore Islam has outlived its utility in this field of human interest as well”  

    This is clearly the Modernist approach, and inconsistent with what you’ve posted here. The Originalist approach, being blind to the current moral values of the society, cannot say that Islam has outlived its utility because we’ve passed the era of darkness and contemporary society has more rights for women [compared to 700AD]. If you were following the Originalist approach and being “strictly loyal to Quranic text”, you must agree to whatever is present in the original text of Quran without prejudice to what rights women currently have, so you must agree then that women should not have equal rights as men, particularly in the case of testimony in financial matters, inheritance laws, divorce laws, roles in marriage, to name a few – I’m sure you and other readers know of several other verses in the quran too which talk about disparate rights.

    You may very well say that these rights are to protect woman’s honor or to keep the society and family institution stable [a totally separate debate whether that actually is the case], but the point remains that they are no longer equal rights.

    [Dr. Khalid’s Response to this comment.]

  5. Zaeem

    Bismillaah, wal hamdulillah, wa salaatu wa salaamu ala rasool Allaah wa ala aliyhe wa ashaabihe ajama’een, amma Ba’aad: Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatuAllaah.Well I must say very interesting and informative blog. I, for very first, would say that best tafseer of al Qur’an is or best way to interpret Qur’an is what the sahaaba understood and what the salaf-as-saliheen understand, and we must try to understand the Qur’an the way they interpreted. There are basically four things in tafseer of Qur’an. 1. Qur’an as a text itself 2. Sunnah of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) 3. Ijmaah (of scholars) and 4. Qiyaas. All these things must be kept in mind for understanding any tafseer. Many of tafaseer (without mentioning names) actually promote their so-called sects where as clearly making sects is haram in Islam (3:103 and 6:159). So best way to interpret is the way salaaf interpreted (according to my understanding). However while giving a little more thought I would say one has to have a traditionalist approach because the best of Muslims were the salaaf and they knew the best about Qur’an and Sunnah. However, considering the scientific discoveries and new meanings of the verses that in past were not discovered like the word ‘ala’qa’ (leach like substance) etc, for that one can adopt the mothodology of ‘originalist approach’. However a lot of things can be sought out being a traditionalist by the ‘ijmaah / concensus’ of the scholars. I would still say ‘tafseer ibn abbaas and tafseer ibn katheer or tafseer al qurtubi’ maybe traditionlist but still stand out infront of any other tafseer of this era. If any thing what I said was wrong it was my own fault and the fault of shaytan and if what I said was correct then it was from Allaah, so may Allaah forgive me on wrong and give me and others jazay-e-khayr if I was right. And Allaah knows the best.

    [Dr. Khalid’s Response to this comment.]

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