How to Reinterpret the Quran

Let me get personal for a moment. It is true I want everyone on the planet to “come to Jesus” and leave Islam behind, but since that’s not happening fast enough, let’s see if we can lift the religious oppression, especially for women, in the meantime.

Some doubt Islam can be reformed. Maybe they’re right. I’m not naïve about it.

Whatever happens, it is certain that for even the remotest possibility of an Islamic reformation to take place, the Quran will have to be at the center of it, not ignored.

So how do Muslim reformers respect their book and at the same time conclude some verses have expiration dates on them—back in the seventh century—while others are timeless and transcultural?

One key: does it inflict brutality or allow people to live in peace?

They need a new vision of the Quran that still respects and treats it as divinely inspired (my belief that it isn’t has nothing to do with possible reform).

Maybe three interpretive guidelines developed by today’s Protestant scholars who view the Bible as inspired and inerrant—Moses walked right up on Mt. Sinai and received the Law, particularly the Ten Commandments, personally from God (Exod. 31:18)—can clarify matters.

I alter the wording of the original guidelines to reflect reinterpreting the Quran.

  1. Some situations, commands or principles pertain to moral and theological subjects, repeated elsewhere in the Quran, and are therefore permanent and transferable to the modern era.

The best examples are the Five Pillars. There are many verses that reinforce them. Though I disagree with each pillar theologically, those commands harm no one monetarily or physically. Even the zakat tax can be adjusted for the poor.

They are timeless and transcultural (except maybe the tax) and can be transferred to Muslims today

  1. Some situations, commands or principles are nonmoral and nontheological, but influenced by ancient culture and practices and are therefore not transferrable to the modern era.

Let’s use two examples: bodily mutilation and wife beating. I lay out the historical context and then what the Quran says.

1. Physical mutilation like chopping off the hand comes from laws that had been circulating for centuries in the Greater Middle East. Deut. 25:11-12 is the only command in the Bible to chop off a hand, and it’s not clear it was ever applied even back then (see the Middle Assyrian Code, Article Eight). Article 195 of the code of Hammurabi, emperor of Babylon, commands a citizen’s hand to be chopped off if he strikes his father.

Moses said a thief must make restitution, but there’s nothing about his hand getting chopped off see (Exod. 22:3 and Lev. 6:4).

Jesus transformed the physical act into a metaphor for radical discipleship: purging out inward sin (Matt. 5:29-30). Paul said a thief should work with his hands, so how could the thief get one chopped off (Eph. 4:28)?

Romans were experts at crucifying whomever they considered criminals.

Christian scholars don’t follow the harsh punishments in the old Law of Moses literally, but leave it behind in the ancient world—even while believing the Mosaic law was dictated in some parts by God himself. He was speaking to the culture back then.

The Quran commands mutilation of a thief’s hand (5:38) and crucifixion and opposite hand-foot amputation for a person who causes mayhem in the land (5:33). The new interpretation says Allah was dictating a punishment that was culture-bound; he was speaking in seventh-century terms because the ancient world had long been imposing those punishments.

They are brutal and have expiration dates back in the seventh century.

2. Despite what a Muslim emailer recently wrote without evidence, there is no Biblical verse—not one—that allows a husband to hit his wife. But if, hypothetically, a verse in the old Law of Moses had permitted husbands to hit their own wives, then Christian scholars today would conclude it should be left behind, for God was speaking to the ancient world.

Wife beating was common in Arabia, however, long before Islam came. At first hesitating, Muhammad says he got a divine revelation that it was allowed, after intervening steps are followed (4:34).

However, Allah was speaking to seventh-century culture. Hitting is culture-bound and degrading. In contrast, the Quran has some verses that speak highly of womankind (3:195, 4:19, 4:124). Those three verses are timeless and transcultural because they reflect our updated knowledge about women.

Thus, 4:34 is brutal and has an expiration date back in the seventh century.

  1. Some situations, commands, or principles pertain to cultural settings that are only partially similar to ours and in which only the principles are transferrable to the modern era.

Our example here is the head and face veil, except the eyes.

Tertullian (c. 160/70-215/20 A.D.) lived long before Islam arrived on the scene. He argues that women, both unmarried young girls and married ones, should wear a veil, but not like the women of Arabia. He said they wore veils that allowed them to see with only one eye. He called the custom barbaric. He advocated only a head covering but not over the face.

Throughout history, the church has had to wrestle with 1 Cor. 11:2-16, which must have influenced Tertullian. It speaks of women wearing a head covering (not a facial veil), which could either be her long hair or a shawl, depending on one’s interpretation. To modernize a little, should women today trade in their shawls for hats in church?

However, using even more modern interpretive methods and historical research, Protestant churches today simply believe Paul was discussing a first-century custom done in the larger Jewish and Greco-Roman world. The only transferrable principle is women showing respect both before God and their husbands (pp. 96-97).

Muslim belief that women should cover up is not clear in the Quran (24:31, 33:53, 33:59). But if one interprets those verses as commanding a covering, it is obvious that Allah was dictating them in response to the times in seventh-century Arabia. While the custom is not physically brutal, it does degrade God’s creation—women.

Can Islam move forward and not impose a seventh-century custom on Muslim women today?

The only transferrable principle is womankind’s respect for Allah without the trappings of head and face coverings.

Let’s conclude.

Those three interpretive guidelines—and there are more—were developed by Protestant scholars who respectfully view the Bible as divinely inspired and inerrant. They believe God dictated the law to Moses.

However, Christians today don’t advocate bringing back harsh punishments like executing adulterers (Lev. 20:10) or lashing for sexual misconduct or other offenses (Deut. 25:2-3). He was speaking to the world back then. The New Testament has moved on (1 Cor. 6:9-11), and so have we. See our short Eighth Amendment. Therefore we won’t let the Quran, appearing after the New Testament, march society backwards.

The three guidelines can help Muslim reformers reinterpret the Quran for today.

Further, though I don’t believe in the Quran’s inspiration, extra-devout Muslims, as they reinterpret it, don’t have to abandon their belief that Allah dictated it through Gabriel.

However, similar to conservative Protestant scholars, Muslims must be realistic and reach the obvious conclusion that the Quran is no different from any other ancient book claiming to be inspired.

Namely, Allah’s dictation still reflects the Quran’s immediate historical context, so some verses are culture-bound, have expiration dates on them, and should not be brought forward to the modern era, while other verses are timeless and transcultural.

Only with this new vision of the Quran can the reform of Islam begin.

Only then will archaic and brutal Quranic laws no longer be used to oppress Muslims today, especially women.

And only then will the larger world enjoy any religious peace.


Series on sharia;

Thirty Sharia Laws;

How to Judge Sharia;

Time to Reform Islam;

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