How to Approach Reading the Quran

In order to understand what the Quran says about something it is of extreme importance to begin with the understanding of the context in which it is stated and whether there are other statements, which appear to be saying something different.

The Quran and the statements and example of the Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) are Islam's constitution. In the case of the Quran, in particular, and because the whole spectrum of possible scenarios of life and belief are presented in such a condensed fashion and unique style it is highly likely that someone, untrained in its study, might misunderstand some of its edicts. This is usually the case in situations which have to do with social, political and military issues since they may offer many opposing possibilities: friend and enemy, war and peace, just and unjust etc. As such, each statement has to be taken in immediate textual context as well as overall Quranic thematic context.

To bring this issue closer to understanding, let us take the rights of the individual as stated in various branches of U.S. political, judicial, and civil contexts. Each individual is given constitutional civil rights for freedom of expression and protection of civil liberty. However, a criminal forfeits many of these rights and is suddenly covered by the requirements of criminal law. No one would dream that statements about handcuffing and jailing a law violator meant that the police would apply such measures to every single law abiding citizen. Nor do we expect a person being trained in the military to attack and kill the enemy in war would then turn around and understand that he was being directed to kill anyone he had an argument with. The main connecting thread here is context and as a result of education and common sense we are able to mentally separate between the different situations.

The Quran outlines principles that have to do with civil and criminal law as well as peaceful and warlike situations. The confusion arises when one does not understand when and where the Quranic statement applies. This is no different than a sick lay person entering a pharmacy and deciding that he or she, without knowing the disease nor consulting a physician, can just pick up any medicine from the shelf since, in principle, medicine helps in the curing of sickness. The Quran is somewhat akin to Islam's pharmacy and it is not possible, particularly in social and conflict situations, without understanding and learning to just select any statement and say that it generally applies. 

N. H.
New York, USA

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