Muslim Students in Scriptural Reasoning: Transgressive Readings of the Qur’an

Nermeen Mouftah
University of Toronto

“For me, scriptural reasoning is like Islam, it is about ‘wholeness-making.'”

This is the final meeting of the year. It is a Tuesday evening, a few minutes past six, and we are seated around the white cloth dining table, our dinner plates in front of us. The members of Reading Abrahamic Scriptures Together are answering the last warm-up introductory question they will get to answer: What did you get out of RAST? Tonight, like all of the bi-weekly meetings of the last three years, we begin with an ice-breaker question as members break bread in the Burwash Private Dining Hall of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. This evening the group reads Matthew 1.18-25 and 27.15-23 to examine how dreams function in the Gospel as a confirmation of truth. It is an evening of scriptural reasoning that brings together faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students belonging to Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, and others who do not belong to any. The group chose the final topic, dreams, and already read Daniel and Yusuf before coming to tonight’s text. The selection is printed as a handout and passed along. Some people reach for pens and start to mark their pages. Then we begin to read aloud, taking turns; each person reads a verse until we have come to the end of the passage. Some moments of silence pass as readers reflect. One student has a question about Matthew’s audience, and there is another who asks about the occasion of the festival in the passage. These are the beginnings of the litany of questions that lead to reasoning.

“For me, RAST is like Islam, it is about ‘wholeness-making.'” This is Mona speaking. [1] She is invested in RAST and the practice of scriptural reasoning. It is more than an extra-curricular activity or even the basis of her academic career: it is how she understands her faith.

Scriptural reasoning (SR) has its roots with Jewish text scholars engaging in “textual reasoning,” a practice that brought together religious text scholars with scholars of theology and philosophy. The impetus for the union of textual studies came from a desire to heal after the Shoah and contemplate Judaism in a modernity that produced the Shoah. Textual reasoning discussions suggested a need to return to scripture, while also inviting in Christian Scripture with a “postliberal” hermeneutic. In the 1980s, the Jewish pragmatist Peter Ochs led a scriptural interpretation group at Drew University that came to include Christians and later Muslims by the 1990s (Ford, 2006, p. 3). Timothy Winter, a leading Muslim academic voice in the SR community at Cambridge and in the growing body of SR literature, observes: “SR is not a method, but rather a promiscuous openness to methods of a kind unfamiliar to Islamic conventions of reading” (Winter, 2007, p. 109). Although many practitioners and individual groups explicate specific rules of SR, there are no set doctrines adhered to in all circles. One reason for this is the understanding that methods of interpretation are embedded in the texts of scripture themselves, which come into contact with literary and historical methods in reasoning sessions.

I came to my first RAST session in September 2008, in the first month of my doctoral studies in Islamic religion and philosophy. The idea to introduce SR to undergraduates was born in discussions between Victoria College President Paul Gooch, and Professors Robert Gibbs and Anver Emon, who each had various levels of engagement with SR. RAST was introduced to the student body in September 2005 with the support of a grant from the university’s Student Experience Fund. It was decided that the faculty would act as group facilitators with marginal roles in group discussions to allow for three graduate students to present scriptures and lead discussions for undergraduate students, primarily students of Victoria College. Interest in RAST grew through word of mouth, and in 2008 additional graduate students and a small number of community members joined the group. Between ten and fifteen people typically sit around the dining table and are greeted by Mia with the Hebrew Bible, Diana with the New Testament and Mona with the Qur’an. All of the leaders are doctoral candidates nearing the completion of their dissertations. [2]

My engagement with the group and interests in Qur’anic hermeneutics drew me in deeper than my role as a scriptural reasoner as I found myself observing how my own reading strategies were shifting as I trained myself to read across the scriptures for critical themes and formative differences; I discovered new questions to bring to the Qur’an that were born out of my encounter with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. By turning to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as a novice reader, I was able to bring myself back to a state of a sort of textual innocence with the Qur’an—at moments consciously, and at others involuntarily. It was a challenging, humbling and, at moments, terrifying experience. Within the reading community, I felt more alone in making sense of the texts as a result of the novelty of the reading task. I could no longer read Surat Yusuf without thinking of Joseph from the Hebrew Bible. I wondered how other readers were affected and set out to explore the impact of SR on Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an by talking with Muslim RAST members. I wanted to know: how do the Hebrew Bible and New Testament shape your understanding of the Qur’an? What I discovered was that in many ways, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are incidental to the effects of SR on Muslim RAST members. While Muslim readers are propelled into the group to read from the other scriptures, they are most affected by confronting their own tradition. As equally important as the intertextual encounter is the site of encounter: the secular university where members attend classes that preach critical reading, writing and thinking skills that influence how the readers approach scripture. I argue that the practice of SR pluralizes interpretations and meanings for readers in what I call a “transgressive” reading.

The transgressive reading of the Qur’an is a reading that is not preoccupied with the canon of traditional interpretations and is unconstrained by the authority of religious orthodoxies. A transgressive reading is marked by its personal inquiry into the text where the reader’s subjectivity is acknowledged and is integral in forming a relationship between the reader and the text. Transgressive readers may share communities, but transgressive reading is an intimate act that transpires between the reader and the page. While its goal is not to subvert orthodoxy, this is often its effect. Ignorance is accepted as part of the readers’ subjectivity and is a part of the process of reading. The transgressive reading is filled with contradiction as it seeks to open up new meanings by closing off others that claim the final word. SR itself does not promote transgressive reading, however among the Muslims of RAST, it both attracts and nurtures the transgressive reader. None of my interlocutors describe themselves or their readings as transgressive, rebellious, or even particularly unique. The distinguishing feature of the description of their own reading is a longing for intimacy with the text and a desire to make meaning from it.

In Saba Mahmoud’s “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Mahmoud describes the convergence of the scriptural hermeneutics of liberal Islamic reformers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Hasan Hanafi and Abdul Karim Soroush and those of the U.S. State Department. This hermeneutic is characterized most notably by the primacy of the individual subject and their break from tradition, accompanied with such interpretive moves that regard the historicity of the Qur’an and a literary appreciation. While Mahmoud explores a secular hermeneutic of the Qur’an as central to an American political project, my own examination of transgressive reading is preoccupied with the experience of the individual encounter with the Qur’an; critical questions regarding how and why these readings are cultivated and what the political ramifications that a transgressive reading may present, lay outside the scope of the present study, although the issues remain pertinent to an ongoing study of Qur’anic hermeneutics and transgressive readings.

My analysis is intended to contribute to an anthropological understanding of SR in campus student groups, specifically how SR impacts the Qur’anic hermeneutics of Muslim members. The study is informed by participant-observer field notes of RAST discussions since September 2008, as well as interviews with six former and current Muslim participants. I also engage the ongoing theory and scholarship of SR. My textual interlocutors include essays found in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning and Scripture, Reason, and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter, currently the only booklength publications of SR, as well as the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, an online and print publication that takes up the practice of SR discursively.

The DON’Ts that Muslims DO

The Muslims of RAST include those who read the Qur’an daily and others who identify as Muslim through their cultural heritage. Despite the diversity of educational background, age, gender, piety, and sect, (although the issue of sects did not come up in any interview), all of my interlocutors situated themselves outside of their own conception of a Muslim majority. Members regarded themselves as somehow different from their Muslim upbringing or their friends or colleagues. All of my interlocutors see themselves on the fringes of Islam, whether as a result of their lifestyle or gender, or in how they interpret the Qur’an, believe, or do not believe. As individuals they share a curiosity for the texts and a desire to submit the scripture to questioning. By reading scriptures together, members’ identities are shaped and challenged and by the process.

Part of the disaffection of the Muslim members that attracts them to RAST challenges the theoretical work on SR that presumes a reverence for the authority of traditional Qur’anic interpretations. In Scripture, Reason, and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter, Nicholas Adams, a Christian voice in SR circles and Timothy Winter, a Muslim contributor to SR discussions, suggest a particularly Muslim contribution to SR that is based on their proximity to their texts and witness to the authority of their traditions. I observe an ambiguity of the RAST community that is attractive to students who are open to the texts and their traditions. I suggest that the undergraduate, non-specialist membership of RAST subverts the theory on how Muslims regard their traditions and the Qur’an and how they participate in the SR process. The SR circles of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) conferences and Cambridge reading circles are different from RAST’s primarily undergraduate circle. RAST members are not academics in religion or theology, but rather come from a variety of departments with varying levels of knowledge of their own tradition, and little or no knowledge of the others. As a result, readers do not privilege one traditional interpretation over another, calling on classical tafsirists to support their understanding of the Qur’an. Instead, the discussions approach the texts openly, in naiveté and in anticipation of what the reasoning will yield.

In Adams’ “Beyond Logics of Preservation and Burial: The Display of Distance and Proximity of Traditions in Scriptural Reasoning,” he argues that there is a Muslim way of reading the Qur’an that non-Muslims should be attentive to. He refers to these points as a rule of “DON’Ts” that Muslims successfully avoid in SR: “Muslims do not approach their sacred texts in the dominating attitude of an expert, one who has command over the text and can bend it to his or her free will” (p. 130). He elaborates, explaining that Muslim readers do not espouse “Western liberal paradigms” of regarding the Qur’an as a historical text, and distinguishes Western SR participants from a “Middle Eastern seer who claims that none but the initiated can understand them” (ibid.). What shapes these “Western” and “Middle Eastern” readings? At the university, RAST’s Muslims are trained in the same critical reading and thinking as all other members. They are similarly interested in the historical context, literary approaches and other entry points of analysis into the text, just as other readers in the group are. If we are to accept either of the binaries that Adams presents us with, it is that SR itself belongs to a Western paradigm: Muslim readers engage in a process that is not indigenous, and that is at the same time not foreign in its principles. Adams continues:

Muslims do not approach their sacred texts in the dominating attitude of the absolutely free reader, whose interpretations are always valid because they arise from his or her own personal experience. They do not force the texts to submit to the demands of their own infinite subjectivity, or distort them into meaning whatever they want them to mean. Rather, they approach the texts with a sense that their own subjectivity is evoked by the texts, and made possible by the divine love that shines in those texts, again disciplined by the history of the authoritative interpretation. (ibid.)

SR brings together academic tools of historical analysis, literary theory and philosophy while simultaneously drawing on the interpretative traditions of each of the texts. Rather than understanding Muslim engagement based on a “Qur’anic reasoning” that Winter explores in his writings on SR, Adams understands interpretive tradition to be a devotion to and service to the Qur’anic commentaries. For Adams, the Muslim participant evokes previous historical interpretations to interpret. In other words, Muslims do not interpret the Qur’an at all, but rather recruit canonical tafsir for their own understanding of scripture; the interpretive act is the selection of Qur’anic commentary. At RAST, tafsir is used to prompt discussion, but do not constrain readers in their own readings. Often interpretative traditions of all of the texts are shared with the group in introducing the scripts and providing context and a starting point for discussion. Canonical interpreters and theologians become additional RAST members; they are speakers in the dialogue. Their ideas are often seminal to the conversation, whether they inspire readers to continue their line of reasoning, or depart completely from their interpretation. This is a part of Mona’s vision of “wholeness-making,” where dialogue is critical to interpretation. She explains how Bakhtin’s dialogism reflects this ideal:

In Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination, you have to know yourself to know the other. Without the other, you can’t know yourself. This is different from Hegel’s dialectic where someone wins and someone loses, like siblings fighting. It is also how I think about motherhood.

As an interpretative authority at RAST, Mona’s conception of dialogue shapes the SR practice. She incorporates her knowledge of the interpretive tradition into RAST discussions; the transgressive reading is not so radical in its postmodern disposition towards scripture that there is no room for the interpretative tradition. As Mona reflects on her role in moulding discussion, she begins: “I’m not interpreting text.” She says that she does not feel any pressure to interpret, however, as she continues, she revises her previous statement: “Sometimes I do interpret. If the group discussion is not bringing ideas out into the discussion of my own reading, I will include my own… Everyone is entitled to an opinion.” Mona does not consider the selection of the texts to suit each topic as interpretive, nor does she regard her glosses on translation as formative to the reasoning process. For Mona, her role in leading the readings of the Qur’anic texts is minimal and non-authoritative.

As a facilitator, Anver comes to RAST with the experience of SR groups at Cambridge and the AAR. Anver is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, where he specializes in Islamic law and history. At the academic SR groups, he finds himself confronted with the limitations of readings that adhere to a particular religious position. He opposes this kind of engagement, because it differs from his understanding of the process of SR. As the Muslim facilitator, he explains that one of his goals was to destabilize orthodoxies when reading the Qur’an: “For me it was about reading the texts with a possibility for pure openness and recognizing that all orthodoxies are about choices made… What are the other possibilities of reading?” Anver articulates a yearning for a freedom to approach the texts in new ways that is likened with Western paradigms. This new reading invigorates some of my interlocutors, such as Aminah.

Of all of my interlocutors, Aminah is the most animated in describing how she reads the Qur’an. Raised in Saudi Arabia with traditional Islamic teachings, she followed the faith that her parents taught her. As an adult, she shed some of the Muslim practices of praying and fasting that held no meaning for her. While studying for her MA in genetics, Aminah discovered a website that explained the mathematical significance of the number 19 in the Qur’an. Aminah understood the explanation as a scientific proof of the miracle of the Qur’an and was inspired to begin to read. In discovering the Qur’an for herself, she came to believe that she was responsible for its interpretation:

The more I read the Qur’an, the more I learned, and the more it was clear to me that the Qur’an is clear. It says: “We made the Qur’an easy to learn if you wish to learn.” It says “Only the sincere can grasp the Qur’an.” If your heart is sincere and you want to learn then God will help you and it’s an easy book. In Saudi Arabia everyone goes by what the imam says. What I grew up with is that we are not intelligent enough to know what is in the Qur’an, but when I read the actual verses, they are saying that they are easy to learn.

She concedes that she knows that most Muslims do not agree with the way that she understands the Qur’an, but she is undeterred. Her newfound reading is what makes her close to the Qur’an and her faith. She tells me that she reads the Qur’an in the evening and after her morning fajr prayer. As she tells me about her experience, she says, not boastfully, that it was not until she felt that she could read the Qur’an on her own that she became a Muslim. Unlike the other Muslims from RAST who do not attend Muslim study circles, Aminah tells me that she is involved in two other Muslim reading groups where there are other people like her who make meaning out of the Qur’an on their own. She describes the group members as “regular people: there’s a security guard, a software engineer.”

Aminah’s reading experiences across the groups do not fit Winter’s (2006) description of the Muslim relationship with scripture and the interpretive process:

Properly speaking, a Muslim may only interpret scripture after authorization (ijaza) from traditional masters, who have themselves been authorized as part of an unbroken succession (isnad) stretching back to the Prophet himself. Historicity is hence an axiom… In this way Muslims see themselves not just as interpreters, but as para-witnesses to the scripture and to the exegetic cumulation. This imposes formal restraints on the reflections they are likely to offer. (p. 110)

Winter’s “properly speaking” refers to his understanding of a specific orthodoxy that is itself, among other orthodoxies, contested. Tracing authorization of interpretation of the Qur’an through an isnad that finds its way back to the Prophet is itself a specific interpretation of how the interpreter is granted authority. Winter’s understanding vests the authority of interpretation with the Prophet, and all interpretations are thus situated as descended from the Prophet, an understanding that suggests a limit on meaning in its claim for authenticity. While RAST members are cognisant of authoritative interpreters and are aware of the unique nature of their Qur’anic interpretation at RAST sessions, most would be unaware of Winter’s formalistic limitation on interpretation. Winter’s account of Muslim reasoners does not account for the Muslims who do not regard Qur’anic commentaries and other extra-scriptural literatures. When I ask Aminah if there are any scholars that influence her, she tells me:

The level of my influence from scholars is zero. I think a lot of what they have to say is inaccurate. They sometimes directly contradict the Qur’an. There are a lot of verses that say that the Qur’an is complete and fully detailed—the only source of guidance—there are plenty of verses saying that. But if you talk to a scholar, they’ll tell you that you need three or four other sources to understand the Qur’an. But that is in contradiction to the Qur’an…There is a very clear verse that says that people take scholars as their lords. So it says: reflect and think on your own.

Aminah is referring to the Rashad Khalifa English translation of 9:31 that is prefaced with the thematic subtitle “Upholding the Teachings of Religious Leaders Instead of God’s Teachings.” The verse reads:

They have set up their religious leaders and scholars as lords, instead of GOD. Others deified the Messiah, son of Mary. They were all commanded to worship only one god. There is no god except He. Be He glorified, high above having any partners. (Sura – 9 Ultimatum (Bara’ah))

Khalifa translates ihbarahum wa ruhbanahum as ‘religious scholars,’ where Pickthall and Mohsin translate as ‘their rabbis and their monks.’ Aminah understands the ‘they’ of the surah, that is understood from the conjugation of the verb and pronoun suffixes, to be in reference Muslims, despite the previous verses referring to Jews and Christians. Her reading is supported by the footnote:

If you consult the “Muslim scholars” about worshiping God alone, and upholding the word of God alone, as taught in this proven scripture, they will advise you against it. If you consult the Pope about the identity of Jesus, he will advise you to uphold a trinity. If you obey the “Muslim scholars” whose advice is contrary to God’s teachings, or if you take the Pope’s advice instead of God’s, you have set up these religious leaders as gods instead of God. (ibid.)

Khalifa’s commentary illustrates a distrust of Muslim scholars that interfere with and constrain the meaning of the Qur’an. While Aminah is critical of Yusuf Ali’s translation, the Khalifa translation and commentary inform her commitment to a Qur’an that is unmediated by scholarly interpretations. The limits of the transgressive reading are apparent. Aminah’s reading of 9:31, a critical verse in forming her approach to the Qur’an, is dependent on a dubious English translation and a questionable assessment of who is being referred to in the verse.

Of all of my RAST interlocutors, Aminah is the boldest in her independence as a reader, although some of her critical views of a Muslim malaise with the Qur’an are echoed in the views of my youngest interlocutor, Khadija, a twenty-one-year-old, second year commerce student who grew up between Toronto and Karachi. Khadija credits RAST with pushing her to “stop taking things at face value” in the Qur’an and in her academic studies. While Khadija articulates the possibility of reading independently, she witnesses the RAST readings unfold without actively shaping the new readings. As Muslim readers seeking to be close to their faith, they are faced with the desire to read the Qur’an in a way that is meaningful to them that transgresses a Muslim tradition of drawing on text scholars. Reading independently—or independently among other readers, as in the act of SR—is a transgressive act. Aminah tells me that when she shares her ideas with her sister; her sister suggests that she is being too simple, but Aminah persists: “I feel like people don’t want to believe that they can understand the Qur’an,” she tells me.

It is this transgression that Anver describes when he refers to the possibility of the “suspension of orthodoxy” at RAST. For Muslim members, RAST is a space where people are looking for something different: to experience the liberty of reading the Qur’an without feeling the need to exit religion and enter the secular. Similar to all of the other RAST members, Muslim participants resist readings of the Qur’an that Adams suggests are admirable. While reading strategies are shaped by the practice of SR, Aminah’s approach to the Qur’an took shape prior to her participation in the group. Aminah’s reading suggests a Qur’anic reasoning that Winter (2006) refers to in his essay “Qur’anic Reasoning as an Academic Practice” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning. Winter’s notion of Qur’anic reasoning suggests an inherent hermeneutic for reading the text embedded in the Qur’an itself. In Basit Bilal Koshul’s (2002) “The Semiotics of Ayah: An Introduction to Qur’anic Scriptural Reasoning,” he states:

The most authentic commentary on the Scripture is the Scripture itself. The way the Scripture employs a certain term or phrase at one place is clarified and detailed by the way it uses the same term/phrase at another place. To understand the Scripture it is of pressing importance to do a great deal of cross-referencing–as one part of the Scripture details, highlights, illuminates other parts, and is illuminated by other parts. This means that we have to meet the Scripture on its own terms, leaving aside other terms, methodologies, and/or theories that we might be tempted to bring to the table. (The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning–Some Preliminary Remarks section, para. 2).

Qur’anic reasoning and the notion of a hermeneutic that is indigenous to the scripture itself is a significant component of SR. Aminah’s reading represents an individual effort at a Qur’anic reading that is sensitive to the sign posts of scripture that illuminate “God’s will” of interpretation. Yet Koshul adds that readers must avoid a “tunnel vision” that limits the Qur’an’s frame of reference to the Qur’an alone. He explains the significance of ayaat in the Qur’an as referring to the signs of the cultural, social and historical world that are necessary for understanding. Koshul suggests a Qur’anic hermeneutic that adds natural sciences to the SR union of religious and non-religious textual practices. Life beyond the text cannot be left out of a Qur’anic hermeneutic. Koshul’s notion of ayah understands the universe as a witnessing of the text, much as the Qur’an signals to the universe in its verses. Ayaat, the signs of God, highlights the individual’s encounter with text and the living world to witness God. Ayah makes the link between world and text that suggests reading outside of the Qur’an to understand its meaning. In this configuration, text is central to a witnessing of God’s word, while the world beyond the scripture, “God’s Word,” proves the signs of the text and testifies to God’s presence.

From Islamic Contexts to Qur’anic Text

Peter Ochs explains that the process initiates a “return to Scripture” that Winter problematizes when he states that Muslims cannot “return to Scripture” since the scripture has not been abandoned and “Muslim interlocutors in SR are much more likely to feel part of an unbroken tradition than advocates of a latter-day ressourcement ” (Winter, 2006, p. 110). Winter explains the different approach of Muslims to SR as based on the historical and societal experience of Muslim participants:

Unlike many Christians and Jews in SR, who come from societies wounded by a great divorce from scripture, Muslim participants are apt to come from societies wounded by fundamentalist misappropriations of scripture, and their appreciation of the insights and moral teleology of the encounters will inevitably be very different. (ibid.)

In my discussions with my interlocutors, they distinguish between their knowledge of Islam as experienced in their households and communities and a knowledge of the Qur’an. For students raised in the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was part of a community experience, whether recited in prayer, or quoted to uphold cultural norms. While the Qur’an was a part of their cultural context of growing up, they note this is different from a personal reading of the scripture. They sense the limits of their own knowledge and education in Islam and the Qur’an. An analysis of RAST suggests that the literature on SR that presumes that Muslim participants know their texts better than their interlocutors from other traditions does not anticipate the SR practices outside of specialized academic and theological circles. The lack of familiarity with scripture that characterizes the student Muslim participants cannot be associated with ideas of Western secularization, as posited by Adams, as all of the RAST participants were raised in Muslim countries. Muslims exhibit a similar scriptural illiteracy as their other reading partners, which appears to be a product of the contexts my interlocutors are raised in. Islam was a critical part of the cultural milieu; however, close readings of the Qur’an were not. RAST is a site for a new Qur’anic encounter where recitation is replaced with close reading and questioning.

Additionally, not all Muslims who are interested in the practice of SR are educated in Qur’anic commentary. While the Qur’an is invoked as part of an Islamic household or classroom, these invocations are to passages that teach principles and do not reflect a deeper engagement with the scripture that seems to be part of the motivation of members’ participation in the group. SR literature presumes a Muslim familiarity with their scriptural and extra-scriptural sources that is not characteristic of RAST’s Muslims. Student members themselves, particularly undergraduates, highlight the limits of their own familiarity with the Qur’an and describe their familiarity with the scripture as something taught to them as part of Islam. Sahar is a third year student of International Relations who joined RAST shortly after arriving in Canada from Dubai. She describes her parents as secular and explains that she does not see herself as a Muslim in a traditional way. Participation in RAST was a way to learn more about Islam and began to shape a new Muslim identity for her. She describes how group members looked to her as a Muslim and she felt as though she were represented Muslim views: “RAST was my connection to Muslims. And people treated me like I was a Muslim and they wanted to know what I thought, as a Muslim.” While Sahar assigned herself the role of Muslim representative to the group, she was discovering the limits of her familiarity with the Qur’an and Islam: “The biggest challenge was realizing that maybe I don’t know Islam as well as I thought I did. I started wondering: why didn’t my parents tell me more about this stuff? I thought I knew, but I didn’t.”

Khadija expresses her own dissatisfaction with her education in Islam. She is critical of the superficial curriculum at the study circle she attended in her early teenage years when she recalls attending Saturday Islamic lessons in a suburb of Toronto. The lessons taught proper Islamic etiquette: how to eat, how to fast. Khadija’s experience is not unique. The other side of Islamic education for non-native speakers of Arabic is language. In describing their reading habits and rituals with the Qur’an, Aminah, Sahar and Khadija share that they learned Arabic to read the Qur’an, although they do not understand it in Arabic and rely on English translations. While none of the women expressed a frustration with the task of learning a new language to read the holy text of their tradition, none of them felt it necessary to know Arabic to understand the Qur’an. Aminah explains:

I don’t speak Arabic, but I can read it because I was taught that as a little girl. I still don’t understanding it. But I find that reading a good English translation is good enough. I don’t have to start learning Arabic. Maybe that’s why some people feel limited. I used to read Yusuf Ali. I used to read his footnotes and they’re crazy. He has these long footnotes… It was more like reading his personal take on it than the real thing.

While the women are willing students of Arabic, they are not limited by the mediation of the English translations they rely upon. Aminah exercises her own judgment to deem the most popular English translation of the Qur’an to be inaccurate and burdened with the author’s interpretation. Is their comfort in reading English translations confirmed by their RAST experience? While the Qur’anic texts are presented in handouts to members in English translation, Mona is meticulous in highlighting common errors in translations, such as addresses to men that are taken from the gender neutral Arabic word nâs. The multiple meanings of Arabic words continuously occupy significant attention in discussions as do common Hebrew and Arabic roots. When it comes to language, RAST sends mixed messages to its members. On one hand, the Qur’an is presented in English—with no accompanying Arabic—on pieces of paper that are studied while drinking a coffee or finishing a cookie. It is a text made accessible to all readers, like a poem. On the other hand, members are introduced to the significance of the text’s language and an appreciation for the literary argument for the Qur’an made in the scripture. There is a tension between the accessible Qur’an that sits in front of the readers and the Qur’an that is referred to in its analysis as a performance by the Arabic speakers of the group.

Yusuf is the only student in the group who speaks Arabic as his native language and reads the Qur’an in its original Arabic. He is a first year doctoral student of the Modern Middle East who describes himself as a person of Muslim heritage. He explains the significance of knowing Islam through his community and how this impacts on an understanding of scripture:

From my experience, if you are brought up in a particular tradition, your understanding of the text is understood first and foremost through its interpretation and practice. So before you are even able to read the Qur’an, you hear the Qur’an, you see it being quoted and used. It’s referred to as a text of authority. So before you even read the Qur’an, you have an idea of what it is saying.

Yusuf is joined by other RAST members in their descriptions of Islamic environments that shape their approach to the Qur’an. While Winter identifies the Islamic culture as a connection between Muslims and the Qur’an, something that is distinctive from the Jewish and Christian participants, I argue that the religiously imbued Islamic culture of my interlocutors’ formative years does not include a personal connection with the Qur’an. In this sense, the Muslim RAST participants are “returning to Scripture” by experiencing the Qur’an in a different context of reading for reasoning and questioning. My interlocutors describe an Islamic environment where direct engagement with the text is an independent and lonely venture. With the exception of myself, all RAST members were raised outside of Canada in Muslim majority countries. The Qur’anic lessons of juma’ prayer do not substitute for the individual encounter with the Qur’an. My interlocutors articulate a desire for a personal encounter with the text that is unmediated by authority. While Sahar complains of the absence of the Islamic tradition, Khadija and Yusuf describe navigating through an Islamic environment to access a more direct and meaningful experience. Yusuf explains:

I didn’t have any formal training. All I did was I attended juma’ prayers as most kids do from a young age. My dad is a religious man who talked to me a lot about Islam and the text. My first personal engagement with the Qur’an was at the age of fifteen when I spent almost two months at the balcony of my house with the tafsir of Mohammed Jawad Mughnaya who is from the Shi’ite tradition, and the Qur’an. It was self-designed.

While for Khadija the endeavour of reading the Qur’an is marked by curiosity and faith, Yusuf explains that he regards scripture like any other literature. While he may be motivated from the questions (answered and unanswered) posed by an Islamic upbringing, he is similarly motivated to reason at RAST as a secular, non-religious reader. Unlike any of my other interlocutors, for Yusuf, the reasoning process brings him to “exit religion,” as Anver calls it in his description of RAST as an activity that allows its readers to question without abandoning faith.

Throughout my many conversations with Yusuf regarding the group, we examined the different meanings derived from the texts. The sessions on the topic of same-sex relationships represents his understanding of how the group operated. He was surprised that the Qur’anic scripture selected for the topic was the story of Lut, since his previous scriptural reference to the topic that he grew up hearing in his surroundings was what he refers to as “the fahisha verse” (4:16). The RAST sessions on same-sex relationships dealt with the story of Lut in the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible, as well as Leviticus (Leviticus was given much less attention). The intertextual reading of the story brought forward a reading that suggests that Lut was sent to a debauched people who were xenophobic highway robbers and rapists. While Mia and Diana suggested that the sin of Sodom is related to a lack of hospitality, Mona’s reading was more ambiguous and seemed to suggest that the proximity of Sarah and Abraham’s news of having a child to the story of Lut suggests a Qur’anic message about bringing forth children. As Yusuf and I discuss the different meanings for the story of Lut raised at RAST, he states flatly: “That’s wrong. People should face the issues, not avoid them; don’t make it about hospitality, that’s avoiding it.” Lut is a troubling story for Yusuf, who does not accept that a God would exterminate an entire people. As he reflects on the text, he asks questions of it as a reader who treats the text as any other, “there is nothing divine about it.” It is this position that he believes affords him the ability to think about it more critically, since he is not limited by accepting all of the Qur’an, a principle he believes is central to belief in it:

I tend to believe “critically” means you don’t have to have an overall position of the text. Parts can make sense and other parts don’t have to. That seems to go against belief because it says “if you don’t believe in the entire text, so if you don’t believe in all of the Qur’an, you have a problem.” I can see how that would be problematic.

For Yusuf, the idea of the wholeness of the Qur’an limits how much one can question and be troubled by a particular passage, while for Mona, her definition of Islam as “wholeness making” is a method of reading that interprets passages in the light of an overall message. Yusuf maintains that passages such as the Lut story have definite meanings, essences, that cannot be healed through reasoning that changes the meaning of scripture. While the other Muslims of RAST participate in the “suspension of orthodoxy” as they probe for meaning in scripture, Yusuf, who describes himself as a person who has left faith in Islam, holds on most tightly to traditional readings. Mona comes to RAST with an openness to her understanding of the Qur’an that does not challenge her faith; the interpretations brought out in discussion are not final or determinate: “We’re not making fatwas, we’re exploring what text says.” Aminah is similarly open to the possibility of multiple meanings.

There is a verse that says that there are multiple meanings. So I know that they are there. For me, if something doesn’t seem to make sense, I don’t get stuck on it. I read it and I try to come up with what I think it means, but I’m not bothered. Maybe when I come back to it again, maybe I’ll get it later.

Aminah’s sense of a plurality of interpretations does not unhinge her notion of good and bad. The human ability to interpret is shaped by the individual’s goodness that is inspired by God’s guidance. A good person can reach a proper interpretation while a bad person will interpret at their own will and use scripture to do as they please. This sense of divinely inspired interpretations and erroneous ones humbles Aminah: “I ask God for the correct understanding… I tell myself I shouldn’t be too confident.”

Openings and Closings

Anver and I are sitting in his office. He leans back in his chair, stumped by the last question he has asked himself: “Do I think I learned something from RAST?” Our conversation is winding down and he will be my final interview. After some moments of pause, he answers: “I don’t know. It has given me the sense that I am not alone, in a field like mine when it is easy to feel alone.”

As much as SR is opening new hermeneutical possibilities for its participants, the open readings that SR is conducive to are not necessarily guided by the side-by-side reading with the HB and NT. While Muslim readers may be influenced by how their Jewish, Christian and non-religious co-readers interpret the text, RAST is shaped less by a reasoning that is found within faith traditions, and more by methods of critical reading that are taught in the university classroom. Questions of the hermeneutics of SR are irrelevant to undergraduates beginning their academic programs in fields unrelated to religion or scripture. The “academics” of RAST are witnessed and appreciated; however, they are not pivotal to the personal experience of the group members. At the same time, as my interlocutors describe their own interpretations of the Qur’an, I am reminded of modern Qur’anic hermeneuts whose methods are characterized by their subjectivity and confrontation with authority. Amina Wadud’s rereading of the Qur’an for a ‘gender jihad,’ as well as Abu Zayd’s humanistic hermeneutic, are only two examples of a return to the Qur’an for new readings that redefine Islam by uncovering a call to justice, equality and ethics; it is an Islamic reform that draws energy from the encounter between text and world. Through SR, my interlocutors bring themselves to the text to find a meaningful way of being in the world.

For readers who find religious significance in the practice of SR, the transgressive reading—the reading of text independently of religious authority and guided, however ‘openly’ by academic authority—offers them a personal relationship to the Qur’an and develops a new sense of Muslim identity. While Muslim RAST members may come to the group and to each other as misfits, the RAST reading simultaneously reinforces this sense of isolation as they engage in the risky practice of interpretation, while it also gives them a sense of community where they engage with other Muslims in the same transgressive readings. Their ‘Muslimness’ is confirmed in their commitment to read their tradition in news ways. It is also shaped by meeting Muslims and non-Muslims in a university space that allows them to return to their tradition with the skills they acquire in the classroom and in the SR process, uniting their Muslim pasts with their reading training in a new form of Islamic education that places the task of critical reading in religion as paramount.

The significance of the transgressive reading is not that it displaces traditional religious authority, but rather that it resynthesizes tafsir canons into the reasoning process. Readers are not cut off from interpretive tradition as they navigate the Qur’an, yet conclusions are submitted to interrogation. Interpretation is open for readers to make their own decisions. The process comes to represent the very crux of Islam itself for some of RAST’s members. It is Khadija, my youngest interlocutor, who articulates the point most finely when she tells me: “In the Qur’an, some things are open-ended and I think that they are supposed to be that way. We’re not supposed to close them up ourselves.”


[1] All names that appear are pseudonyms, with the exception of faculty members.
[2] In particular, Mona’s dissertation is a commentary on Surat al-Baqara, where she applies a ‘holistic reading’ in a project that employs intertextual methods that highlight the interconnectedness of the scriptures of the Near East in Late Antiquity.


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