Scriptural Reasoning, Hermeneutics, and Public Discourse

Scriptural Reasoning, Hermeneutics, and Public Discourse

Willie Young

King’s College, Pennsylvania


In this issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning , our primary focus is on the forms of reasoning and interpretation that Muslim members of the society have developed through this engagement and shared form of study. Working with both the Qur’an and traditions of its interpretation, the essays in this issue explore questions of textual interpretation, hermeneutical principles, practices of questioning, and political theory and the use of violence. This issue therefore provides a range of topics and approaches in relation to which the broader, intra-traditional conversation of scriptural reasoning can enter into conversation and study. The concluding section of the issue, also, will introduce a new genre of essay into our collection, “Scriptural Reasoning in the Public Square.”

This issue is particularly important as scriptural reasoners seek to develop their understanding of both their own traditions, and of our practices as a community. For, by articulating the interpretive principles and practices that guide Muslim readings of scripture, these essays can help to develop scriptural reasoning in Islam, and Christian and Jewish practices as well , either by agreement or through contrast. Additionally, as we listen to the forms of reasoning articulated here, this may lead us, both non-Muslim and Muslim, to rethink the forms and patterns of reasoning with which we approach and interpret scriptural texts.

In ” The Nature of Scriptural Reasoning in Islam ,” Abdulaziz Sachedina proposes a way of scriptural interpretation that negotiates both the modernist crisis of meaning and addresses sectarian issues. Sachedina presents scriptural reasoning as a practice that integrates historical investigation regarding the Qur’an itself, study of multiple traditions of commentary, and intra-textual scriptural reading, so as to recognize and attest the vitality of the Qur’an for study and interpretation today. The practice of scriptural reasoning, here, is intended to clear away objectifying or overly subjective interpretations, so as to enable an appropriation of the text. Thus, the traditions are not a “closed discourse,” as Sachedina writes, but rather a guide that can help to open a contemporary reader to the potential meanings of the Qur’an, yet always retaining an openness to recognizing that the specific teaching of the Qur’an, today, may require innovation.

In a similar vein, Yamina Mermer’s essay ” Principles of Qur’anic Hermeneutics ” explores the universality of the Qur’an’s teaching-such that it can speak to any audience, in diverse spatiotemporal (and sociopolitical) locations. Like Sachedina, Mermer emphasizes the importance of intra-textual reading, relating the interpretation of one verse or sura to others. However, her essay also incorporates a different approach, focusing on the symbiotic relationship between interpreting the ayat of the Qur’an and the ayat of creation. Here, then, Mermer suggests that a dynamic relationship between religious thought and exegesis, and an understanding of the natural world via science and other modes of reflection, are equally necessary to the practice of interpretation.

With a somewhat different approach, Isra Umeyye Yazicioglu takes up the theme of questioning, and its relation to faith, in ” Learning to Ask Questions: The Cases of Abraham and Noah (p) in the Qur’an .” Drawing on Nursi, but also in conversation with Augustinian patterns of questioning as seeking understanding, Yazicioglu delineates the sorts of questioning which are operative in Muslim reasoning. These are questions guided by faith-questions seeking a response, rather than questions that doubt or challenge in a skeptical way that would refuse to allow a response. Such questioning is central, she argues, to the recognition that the Qur’an speaks to us, and makes room for our understanding in this way, enabling appropriation.

Lastly, Mohammad Azadpur’s essay explores the relationship between Muslim political philosophy and violence. In ” Interpreting Political Violence in Muslim Philosophy ,” Azadpur argues that an interpretation of political justifications for violence (or refusals thereof) cannot be developed simply via a study of Qur’anic sources and political theory. Rather, by exploring the conflicting tendencies within both Aristotelian and Platonic political philosophies, he argues that the sociopolitical context must be taken into consideration as a third aspect of these thinkers’ reasoning, without which their arguments may seem insufficient. Thus, in this essay, many of the ideas and tenets of scriptural reasoning in Islam are put to work in relation to the issue of violence-a way for Azadpur and the readers, clearly, to consider how the Qur’an addresses the world today.

From these essays, there are several dimensions of scriptural reasoning in Islam that I would highlight at this point. First, reading the text requires attending to one’s own context. Recognizing the ayat of the world, historical and hermeneutical issues of one’s time, working as part of a tradition, and the sorts of questions we must ask, all require recognition of our situatedness, on a variety of levels, and through the incorporation of various forms of scholarship. Turning to scripture requires turning to reasoning, as a form of engagement with the world.

Second, scriptural reasoning in Islam emerges from reflection on the conjunctions between disparate texts, and disparate readings, and the tensions and provocations that arise therein. Scriptural context, like our context, must be considered. In a way analogous to midrash in the Jewish tradition, or figural reading in the Christian tradition, it is by studying the relationship between texts that one comes to a deeper understanding of a particular passage. Much as with Augustine, this intertextual approach seeks to correct prideful reading, so that one may hear the text in its own voice, rather than as constrained by tradition or subjective prejudice. Beyond Augustine, Sachedina’s approach also suggests that it is by hearing the readings of others that our own approach may be corrected, or freed from submission to a particular commentary. Where Augustine argues for the possibility of multiple readings, [1] it is less clear what value such readings serve in shaping a particular reader’s approach. Very much in the spirit of scriptural reasoning, as shared study among traditions that generates a dialogue among different interpretations, Sachedina provides a clear articulation of how working with and through divergent traditions within Islam may be the way for a contemporary reader to address and repair issues of sectarianism, as well as overcoming the limitations of one’s reading.

In these rules, as well as in consideration about the political import regarding scriptural reasoning, resonances with discussions of hermeneutics in Christian and Jewish thought emerge. The dialectic between appropriation and fidelity to tradition, the relationship between the text and the world, and issues regarding the shaping of community, display striking similarities, for example, to debates between Ricoeur and Frei, just war and pacifism, and the relationship between historical criticism and theological reflection. Yet, the interpretive moves remain distinctive, and significantly so; perhaps in the particular ways that these papers engage these and other issues, new forms of faithful questioning for all three traditions will begin to emerge.


This issue also marks the beginning of a new section of the journal, “Scriptural Reasoning in the Public Square.” In this section, we will publish essays addressing scriptural reasoning in engagement with the broader public, and how we present our work in and as public discourse. In this piece, ” Beyond the End-Time: The Temporality of the Biblical Promise ,” Randi Rashkover takes up the biblical thematic of the promise, as a way to reconfigure contemporary issues regarding eschatology, and does so in the setting of an interfaith pastoral conference. It is, then, a piece that seeks to address and repair particular issues in the reading and study of scripture in communities today.

Rashkover’s essay, though, is quite significant for the practice it brings to bear on these issues. Working within the tradition of modern Jewish thought, she also engages with Luther in a form of shared scriptural study, thus modeling how an engagement between traditions may go. The conversation between traditions, so often polarized, particularly by Luther, here becomes repaired through the shared practice of reading. As scriptural reasoners seek to share this practice with the world in ways that are reparative, it is important that examples of such engagement be provided, to shape and facilitate discussion of how we move from study to public discourse.

We therefore thank Randi for her contribution, and encourage and invite solicitation of other essays for the “Public Square” section of the journal. And, as usual, readers are encouraged to submit responses for publication in future issues, as a way of continuing reflection on how scriptural reasoning can be a form of public discourse, and the distinctive form scriptural reasoning takes in relation to Islam.

[1] Here, I am referring to De Doctrina Christiana , where both literal and figurative interpretations are possible, but Augustine does not foreground conversation and debate with others as a way to repair one?s own reading.

Title Page | Archive
© 2005, Society for Scriptural Reasoning