The Use of Peirce’s Pragmatism for Qur’anic Interpretation

Isra Yazicioglu
St. Joseph’s University


This paper emphasizes the importance of reading scriptural texts with a focus on their implications for the reader by demonstrating the use of the pragmatic method for Qur’anic hermeneutics . Using Peirce’s pragmatism, the article analyzes how the miracle stories in the Qur’an can be relevant for a reader.  Peirce’s “pragmatic maxim” defines the meaning of concepts in reference to their actual or potential consequences. When applied to hermeneutics, this approach forces the interpreter’s attention to: (1) the text’s practical and conceivable consequences, and (2) the ways in which these consequences instantiate general tendencies for the reader.   Even though at first sight Peirce’s pragmatic method may seem too sterile for reading scriptural texts, it actually corresponds with the Qur’anic emphasis on consequences. By using the pragmatic method, one may offer meaningful readings of even the most challenging scriptural passages, such as the miracle narratives in the Qur’an.


Charles Sanders Peirce, (1839-1913), arguably the best American philosopher to date, had an advanced degree in chemistry from Harvard, years of scientific practice at the US Coastal Survey, and an early-kindled interest in philosophy and logic.  He is known for his great contributions to semiotics, and also as the father of ‘pragmatism.’ Peirce developed his pragmatism as an alternative to Cartesianism. According to Peirce, Cartesian dissatisfaction with medieval scholasticism was justified but not mature enough.  When his pragmatism quickly became popular and was developed by William James and others in ways he had not intended, Peirce renamed his approach ‘ pragmaticism ‘ to distinguish it from pragmatism.  Despite the differences between pragmatism and pragmaticism, both are defined by their emphasis on the consequences of ideas and concepts.  At first, it may seem that this emphasis on practical outcome is unhelpful for ‘lofty’ spiritual purposes, such as reading scripture faithfully.  Yet, Peter Ochs’s work on Peirce has shown that pragmaticism can have an intimate resonance with the scriptures of Judeo-Christian tradition. [1] In a similar vein, the aim of this article is to suggest the possibilities offered by Peirce’s pragmaticism for the interpretation of  scripture and especially the Qur’an.  In what follows, I shall first discuss some of the basic elements of Peirce’s pragmatic method and then explore their implications for scriptural hermeneutics and, more specifically, Qur’anic hermeneutics, by using the case of miracle stories in the Qur’an.

Defining Pragmatism: The Pragmatic Maxim

In one of his early articles, “What Pragmatism Is,” Peirce notes that he first coined the term as a man of science who had been reflecting on the task of philosophy.

…[ as a “man of laboratory,” I] framed the theory that a conception , that is, the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life; so that, since obviously nothing that might not result from experiment can have any direct bearing upon conduct, if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it . (5.412, 1905, underline added.) [2]

The definition of a concept only in terms of its actual and potential consequences is the heart of pragmatism and the pragmatic maxim.  According to the pragmatic maxim, if a concept has no experimental consequence whatsoever, then it is meaningless. In other words, if a concept or proposition has any meaning, it should be translatable into a certain attitude or action that can be experienced by us. Peirce’s famous example is the proposition that a diamond is hard. The indicative mood in such a proposition is actually a summation of a range of possible conditionals, such as ‘if you press it, it will resist; if you try to scratch it, it will not easily scratch, etc.’ To say that the hardness of the diamond means something that is not expressible in any form of conditional or imperative does not make sense, “just as it is entirely without meaning to say that virtue or any other abstraction is hard.”(7.340, c. 1873)

Two clarifications about the pragmatic maxim are in order.  First, by insisting on the consequences, Peirce does not mean to reduce all conception to action; he does not mean to “make Doing the Be-all and the End-all of human life.” (5.429)   In fact, he does recognize that action is important in so far as it is fulfillment of thought. Second, it should be noted that with his emphasis on experiment, Peirce does not simply mean the experience of an isolated event; rather, he means experimentation as part of a larger project of discerning a general pattern in the world through manipulating and modifying given conditions. [3] Thus, Peirce’s emphasis on action and experimentation should be understood as the background of his regard for generals and overall tendencies. In a letter to William James, Peirce feels the need to bring into attention the significance of generalization for his pragmatism:

That everything is to be tested by its practical results was the great text of my early papers…In my later papers, I have seen more thoroughly than I used to do that it is not mere action as brute exercise of strength that is the purpose of all, but say generalization, such action as tends toward regularization, and the actualization of the thought which without action remains unthought. (8.250; 1897, italics added.)

In sum, the pragmatic maxim attends to two things in its analysis of the meaning of a concept: (1) the practical and conceivable consequences of the concept, and (2) the ways in which these consequences instantiate general tendencies.

What would this pragmatic approach mean in the realm of religion and more specifically in the realm of scriptural hermeneutics? Peirce himself saw his approach as having transformative implications for discussions about metaphysics and ontology. He noted that once the question of the actual or potential consequence of a concept is brought up, all the “meaningless gibberish” in ontology would be exposed and disposed of. (5.423, 1905)  He also noted that his approach is a form of “prope-positivism,” that is, it is similar to a positivistic approach, but is different from it in that it does leave room for “properly executed metaphysics.” (5.423, 1905). Thus, Peirce’s pragmatism defines the meaning of religious/ metaphysical discourse by its practical or conceivable consequences, without precluding its possibility a priori .  Furthermore, Peirce notes that his pragmatic approach is actually an application of Jesus’s saying,  “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).

Applying the pragmatic maxim to scriptural hermeneutics means reading the text by paying attention to its suggestions for the practice of the reader.  Pragmatic hermeneutics in itself does not guarantee that any scriptural text will be meaningful in pragmatic terms.  Rather, this method of reading gives the text the opportunity to be interpreted meaningfully if the text’s pragmatic purport makes sense.  In the next section, I argue that pragmatic hermeneutics helps for reading the Qur’an in better ways and even reconciles apparent tensions in the Qur’anic text.

Applying the Pragmatic Maxim to Qur’anic Interpretation

To start with, Qur’anic discourse in general seems friendly toward Peirce’s pragmaticism. At the heart of Qur’anic discourse lies two main claims: there is only one God (the concept of tawhid ), and there is life after death.  It is significant that both of these key themes are discussed with an emphasis on their practical consequences. [4] For instance, the Qur’anic criticisms of idolatry are often couched in pragmatic terms. The Qur’an claims repeatedly that the idolater worships that which can “neither harm nor benefit” him. [5] Thus, the emptiness of idolatry is suggested on the basis of its being inconsequential for the life of the person. Similarly, the descriptions of the afterlife time and again make connection between wrong attitudes and their consequences. [6]

On a deeper level, we see that the pragmatic definition of meaning may allow better readings of apparently puzzling passages in the Qur’an. One such puzzle is the Qur’anic narrative of miracles. On the one hand, the Qur’an narrates many miracle stories, most of which involve biblical figures such as Noah, Abraham, Jonah, Moses, David, and Jesus.  On the other hand, the Qur’an repeatedly rebukes those who demand miracles and instead repeatedly calls the reader to reflect on the world around her, insisting that the normal course of nature is a miracle itself.  Hence, miracle stories about ancient prophets seem to be in tension with the more frequent Qur’anic emphasis on the ordinary course of nature.  Apart from this tension between miracle stories and emphasis on ordinary events, the very miracle stories themselves seem problematic. Traditionally, these texts were read as proving God’s power, but it is unclear how the story itself constitutes evidence for readers, since the readers do not actually witness the miracles themselves. Thus the miracle stories seem meaningless, at least to a current reader.  I argue that bringing the pragmatic maxim to bear on these texts is promising in that it can clarify what is at stake and help us discern empty talk from meaningful readings of these texts, if the latter are at all possible.

Reading the Miracle Stories Pragmatically

Reading the Qur’anic miracle stories with the pragmatic maxim requires us to raise the following questions:

(1)   If the Qur’anic miracle stories have any significant meaning, then it must be expressible in the form of actual or potential consequences in our lives. The pragmatic question is: Can these stories in the Qur’an have any actual or conceivable bearing on human life?

(2)   More specifically, we need to ask whether these miracle narratives suggest the formation of a sustainable general tendency or habit for the reader. This means that even if there were a way to document the historicity of these events, it would not necessarily make them sufficiently meaningful from a pragmatic perspective if we cannot derive any consequence from them for us. In order to be relevant, these stories should convey to the reader something more than particularistic bits of information.  The question is: Can these stories nourish in the reader certain habits of thought and action in the world? If so, are these habits sustainable and applicable in our lives?

Let us apply these pragmatic questions to a miracle story in the Qur’an, the narrative of virgin birth. According to the Qur’anic narrative (Qur’an, 19:17ff), Mary conceives Jesus miraculously, without any act of intercourse, a situation that is met with suspicion and rebuke from her people.  From the perspective of pragmatic hermeneutics, the text is meaningful only insofar as it successfully answers the question: “so what? What does the text want me to do by telling me this?” Putting this question clearly to the text reveals in what sense the text is meaningless and in what sense it may be meaningful, if at all.  The virgin birth text in the Qur’an is strange and irrelevant if the text’s implication is “Since God can do anything, if you ever encounter a pregnant lady who claims to be a virgin, you must give her the benefit of the doubt.” Indeed, if the miracle stories are calling the reader to give up her commonsensical trust in the stability of the course of nature, then most readers will rightly find these texts meaningless and absurd. [7] The famous medieval Muslim thinker Abu Hamid al Ghazali (d. 1111) articulates such a concern about the loss of capacity to predict future as follows:

… if [one] leaves a [servant] boy in his house let him allow the possibility of his changing into a dog; or [again] if he leaves ashes, [let him allow] the possibility of its change into musk, and let him allow the possibility of stone changing into gold and gold into stone. If asked about any of this, he ought to say: “I do not know what is at the house at present.  All I know is I left a book in the house, which is perhaps now a horse that has defiled the library with its urine and dung, and that I have left in the house a jar of water, which may have turned into an apple tree. For God is capable of everything and it is not necessary for the horse to be created from the sperm, nor the tree to be created from the seed- indeed, it is not necessary for either of the two to be created from anything. Perhaps [God] has created things that did not exist previously.” [8]

A similar concern lies behind medieval Muslim thinker Ibn Rushd’s reaction to Qur’anic miracle stories. For Ibn Rushd, miracle stories in their literal sense imply a rejection of scientific endeavor: why study nature if the order can indeed change at any time? [9] Indeed, less nuanced than Ibn Rushd, many readers of miracle narratives have found these stories meaningless and unacceptable, insofar as they read the pragmatic implication of these miracle stories as living a life of uncertainty.

The question is, however, whether this is the only possible pragmatic rendering of the virgin birth story – or any other miracle narrative – in the Qur’an. Is it possible that the text can be read as asking the reader to do something other than acting hesitantly in her daily life? Could the practical implication of miracle stories be something other than giving up scientific study on the basis of the belief that God can do anything at any time? An important cue for a different reading comes from the very reception history of these miracle texts. Most readers of the virgin birth text in the Qur’anic tradition, for instance, do not display any change in their general attitude toward pregnancy. They all treat virgin birth as an exception, and see no reason to read it as an indication to change their expectation that all pregnancies require sexual intercourse. Similarly, no Islamic legal text to my knowledge allows pregnancies that take place without a marriage contract to be considered as legitimate because of Mary’s virgin conception. Even Ghazali, who, unlike Ibn Rushd, insisted on reading the Qur’anic miracle stories literally, emphasized that the possibility of miracles should not distract the believer from predicting the future on the basis of causal patterns that she experienced in the past. If the destruction of a commonsensical assumption of regularity of the natural order is not the pragmatic import of these texts, then what could it be? Does the text actually ask the reader to do something at all?

Indeed, for many interpreters, the text does ask the reader to do something other than giving up science. For Ghazali, for instance, the text is calling the reader to change the way she interprets the natural order by contemplating the exceptional break in the order portrayed in the story.  According to Ghazali, the miracle texts are about making the reader aware of the fact that the apparent causal links between things are not in themselves necessary, and that there is a wise maker who constantly maintains the order. [10] In this sense, the miracle stories in the Qur’an are meant not to disrupt the order but to highlight it. The miracle stories are meant to make the reader notice and appreciate the continuation of the order itself as a gift.

From this new perspective, the virgin birth narrative indicates a practical consequence that can be relevant for the reader: the reformation of the reader’s habit of interpreting the world around her. In her uninterrupted state of mind, she may take the regularity in the world around her as something that is not worthy of wonder or attention. When the story portrays an interruption of order, it serves to break this inattentiveness to the very order itself, calling the reader to rethink what she assumes to be ‘normal.’ All creation is, in fact, wonderful. If virgin birth is a miracle, is the evolution of a full human being in a woman’s womb after sexual intercourse really less wondrous than that? Thus, in a narrative of another miraculous birth in the Qur’an—the story of Zachariah having a son—we read how Zachariah is reminded of his own normal birth: “Thus it is. Thy Sustainer says, ‘This is easy for Me, even as I have created you aforetime when you were nothing.'” (Qur’an: 19:9). In other words, the text’s call to see God’s work in a miraculous birth is not an end in itself; it is actually a means to start seeing normal births as God’s handiwork.

Moreover, the miracle stories can also have another, albeit less direct, meaningful consequence: the exploration of further possibilities in nature. For instance, a contemporary Muslim exegete, Said Nursi, understands the miracle texts as indirectly encouraging the reader to progress in scientific discovery.  For instance, he interprets Jesus’s healing miracles mentioned in the Qur’an [11] as encouraging readers to discover cures for all kinds of diseases. The healing miracles, therefore, imply that God will enable human beings to progress medically to the extent that they will eventually discover cures for the most difficult diseases and even temporarily reverse death. [12] In other words, the One who enables His prophets to perform wonders is indirectly promising the reader that he shall be granted similar feats if he works diligently at it. [13] Read from this perspective, the virgin birth narrative can also be taken as hinting at the horizons of reproductive technology and helping the reader to entertain the possibility of conception even when sexual intercourse is unsuccessful.

It is important to note the way Nursi comes to this conclusion. His assumption is that the miracle stories, like other stories about the lives of the prophets in the Qur’an, have the purpose of guiding the reader in her attitudes and actions. The Qur’an presents prophets as exemplary figures to follow, the stories of their miracles “are not merely historical stories, but rather comprise numerous meanings of guidance.” [14] According to Nursi,

Just as the wise Qur’an sends the Prophets to man’s communities as leaders and vanguards in respect of spiritual and moral progress, so too it gives each of them some wonders and makes them the masters and foremen in regard to humankind’s material progress…Thus, just as by speaking of the spiritual and moral perfections of the Prophets, it is encouraging people to benefit from them, so too in discussing their miracles, it is hinting encouragement to attain to things similar to them and to imitate them. [15]

Hence, Nursi’s approach here is in effect a pragmatic approach. He is able to suggest valuable consequences for the reader precisely because he is looking at the text with an eye on its performative/pragmatic implications rather than reading it as if it is told for the sake of historical narrative.

To summarize, the miracle narratives in the Qur’an can have two useful consequences in practice: (1) to reform the reader’s habits of thinking about the regular patterns she sees in the world and enable her to receive the order as a gift rather than being blind to its everyday wonderfulness; (2) to encourage the reader to think and experiment for further possibilities in nature. Needless to say, the implications of the miracle stories cannot be limited to these possibilities alone. These two implications simply show that there are alternative ways of mapping the consequences of these texts, other than reading them as absurdly calling us to abandon commonsense and scientific inquiry for the sake of faith.


By raising the question of the use of the text, pragmatic hermeneutics enables the reader to clarify in what sense the text is meaningless and in what sense it is meaningful . Even the texts that seem irrelevant or absurd to many readers at first sight may become meaningful if one engages with them in pragmatic terms, asking the text: “what do you want me to do? Are you making a generalizable and applicable suggestion or burdening me with empty concepts and useless implications?” The reception history of a text may provide a good clue in answering this question.   The way virgin birth has been read in the Muslim (and Christian) tradition gives us the clue that it cannot be simply taken as a strange claim about judging the virginity claims of pregnant ladies in general. Similarly, the fact that the binding of Abraham’s son has not been interpreted to justify child sacrifice in any of the three traditions of Islam, Christianity or Judaism may provide useful guides in trying to read the texts pragmatically significant ways.

Approaching the Qur’anic text, or any scriptural text for that matter, with the pragmatic maxim does not guarantee the presence of a cogent answer from the text. Yet it opens the possibility of doing more justice to the text. It is also fair to say that a text that does not have any potential whatsoever to make a difference in the life of the reader is a problematic text, even by the standards of the scripture itself.  One cannot help but believe Peirce’s claim that the pragmatic maxim is inspired from the scriptural dictum “ye shall know them by their fruits.”

[1] See: Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture , (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 246 ff.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Peirce are from the online Past Masters text, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce , abbreviated as CP, which is drawn from The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce ,  Vols. I-VI ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1935), Vols. VII-VIII ed. Arthur W. Burks (same publisher, 1958). Following the scholarly convention, I note the volume number and the paragraph number. The dating of the texts is also gathered from this source, and all italics are from the original unless otherwise noted.

[3] In fact, as Hookway notes, Peirce’s pragmatism is “a form of empiricism that employs a much richer understanding of experience than is familiar from the work of Hume and from twentieth-century logical empiricists.” Christopher Hookway, Truth, Rationality, and Pragmatism – Themes from Peirce , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4.

[4] For a good introduction to the Qur’an and its major themes see Colin Turner, Islam: the Basics , (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 41-71.

[5] “and they worship, side by side with God, things or beings that can neither harm nor benefit them…” (Qur’an, 10:18, see also: 22:12, 25:55, etc.)

[6] Thus, for instance, Qur’an claims that the wrongdoer will taste the consequences of what she does in this world and in the next: “This is an outcome of what thine own hands have wrought – for, never does God do the least wrong to His creatures!” (Qur’an, 22:10).

[7] An author notes the general weariness about miracles in this sense as follows: “If a full debate on the possibility and reality of miracles were to take place on American university campuses today- a highly unlikely event- such a debate would be tolerated in many quarters only with a strained smile that could hardly mask a sneer.  Before any positions were articulated or discussed, the solemn creed of many university professors, especially the religion departments, would be recited sotto voce: ‘No modern educated person can accept the possibility of miracles.’ ” John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 2. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 520.

[8] Ghazali, Tahafut al-Falasifa , [ Incoherence of Philosophers ], tr., intr., and ann. Michael E. Marmura, (Utah: Birmingham University Press, 2000), 170.

[9] See: Taneli Kukkonen,. “Possible Worlds in the Tahâfut al-tahâfut : Averroes on Plenitude and Possibility,” in Journal of the History of Philosophy , 38.3 (2000), 347.

[10] Ghazali, 166 ff.

[11] “[Jesus said] ‘I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by God’s leave.'” (Qur’an 3:49)

[12] Said Nursi, The Words: From the Risale-i Nur Collection , new and rev. ed., tr. Sukran Vahide, (Istanbul: Sozler Publication, 1998), 262.

[13] Ibid., 274.

[14] Ibid., 262.

[15] Ibid.

© 2009, Society for Scriptural Reasoning