- Never goes out of fashion
While there are countless ways to mislead oneself (and others), arguably the easiest one is to quote a part of the scripture out of its context and give it a meaning of one’s own liking. There are those who have a vested interest in intentionally doing so. Others do it unconsciously; and they too, in turn, often end up misguiding numerous others. This article isn’t for the former; only for those who are genuinely mistaken or are victims of somebody else’s misconception or machination.
The tendency to consciously or unconsciously quote scripture out of context has a long history. There has been a rich tradition among the Christians to quote the Bible this way. However, in what follows I will limit myself to the Quran, and how it has been misquoted to give interpretations to some of its verses that their contexts clearly reject.
One of the most frequently quoted verses of the Quran is 33:21 (‘Indeed, in the Messenger of Allah you have an excellent example for whoever has hope in Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah often.’) There could be any number of opinions on the meaning of this; and if the context is neglected, one opinion is as good as another. Indeed, there is a school of thought that maintains that anything and everything that the messenger (peace be upon him) ever did is an example for the rest of us. What is the verse talking about though? The passage discusses the Battle of the Trench when thousands of Arabs had laid siege to Madina. Though the Muslims did finally prevail when their enemies were forced to leave unsuccessful, many among them had started losing heart and doubting their own cause during the frightening ordeal. This context is not from some source outside the Quran but from the verses immediately preceding the verse in question, which exhorts Muslims to follow the excellent example of their leader, the messenger, who remained steadfast in the face of all adversity. Stripped of this context, one man could easily take it to mean that dates and pumpkins are ideal foods; another to conclude that we should all start moving around on camels; and yet another to surmise that tahband and turban are recommended dresses for us. Taken in its proper context, the verse has just the one meaning of course, which has nothing to do with apparel, food or preferred modes of transport.
As is the case with any discourse, some things must stand upon the shoulders of others. If each verse was independent, it would be a random collection of verses, not a book to start with. That the context is crucial shouldn’t even be a point of discussion; and it isn’t, until it comes to religious texts
Then there are those who present a part of 16:89 in support of their stance that one could find everything in the Quran (‘And We have sent down to you the Book as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslims’). These people are apt to find everything in the Quran: scientific discoveries, health science, and political science – the lot. No doubt the Quran says on many occasions that it is quite complete; but in what respect is that so? Is it complete as far as the vital theological matters are concerned? Or is it complete regarding every subject under the sun? Again, it’s the context that will decide the matter one way or the other. I will let the reader to look up the context of this, and similar verses, himself.
Sometimes the context is right there in the very same verse; and if so, only a part of the verse is quoted to make the point that can’t be made using the complete verse. This is the case when only a part of 33:33 is quoted to conclude that women should stay home. The complete verse makes obvious the impossibility of this interpretation, because the verse is clearly addressed to the prophet’s wives alone. The preceding verse (33:32), which starts with these words: ‘Oh wives of the prophet, you are not like other women’, is also a dead giveaway.
There’s a common position among Muslims that one-man-one-vote is against the spirit of the Quran because it doesn’t discriminate between the learned man and the ignoramus. A part of 39:9 is usually pressed into service to support this stance (‘Are those who know and those who don’t know equal?’) Of course, no answer is forthcoming if one demands to know who gets to decide which man knows and which doesn’t. But besides that, reading the chapter from the start makes it obvious that politics is not under discussion at all. The knowledge mentioned regards understanding of the accountability of one’s attitudes and actions in the Hereafter, the central theme of the Quran.
Let me end with probably the most common misconception of all. Many Muslims are of the view that 56:79 mandates the state of ablution (wuzu) before touching the Quran (‘None can touch it except the purified’). It’s not completely unreasonable to attribute this meaning to the verse torn loose from its context; but if one starts reading from 56:75 onwards, one realizes that the subject under discussion is the faultless and pure transmission of revelation and has nothing whatever to do with the law.
Of course, the Quran is by no means peculiar in requiring its verses to be taken in their proper contexts. As is the case with any discourse, some things must stand upon the shoulders of others. If each verse was independent, it would be a random collection of verses, not a book to start with. That the context is crucial shouldn’t even be a point of discussion; and it isn’t, until it comes to religious texts. For there’s this strange tendency among men to have absolutely no difficulty with a concept as they apply it in their everyday lives; but to suddenly start having all sorts of problems with the very same concept the moment it has anything to do with religion.