Can people read the Quran and draw their own meanings from it?


Question: "Can people read the Quran and other resources on their own and draw their own personal meanings from it? Or is it necessary to always ask someone above, such as an imam? I feel like it's not fair to have to always ask for meanings from someone higher up, as it should be accessible to all of mankind. For example, when you read a novel, we do not need to ask an English teacher to see that we are understanding it correctly. And with the Quran it should be for all people, not just for people who are imams."


Answer by Dr. Shabir Ally:


Watch Dr. Shabir Ally’s video response here.


There is a certain message in the #Quran that is accessible to all. For example, the idea that there's only one #God is mentioned repeatedly in the Quran in so many different ways that one can hardly miss that message when reading the Quran. But there are other subtleties which require deeper study and expertise.


We can’t just pick up a piece of writing by Shakespeare and understand it immediately. We rely on experts who have studied the language of Shakespeare and the works of Shakespeare as a whole to be able to understand him. When it comes to the sacred scriptures, we also have this difficulty, not only with the Quran, but for example, with the Old and New Testaments. If we’re reading the story about Jesus, let's say #Jesus lived and walked and this is where he went, we have a kind of story here, a sort of #biography, which doesn’t seem that difficult to understand. But there, too, scholars will go deeper and they'll tell us, for example, about which emperor was ruling at the time and the effect this had on the message that Mark is conveying. What was Mark writing about? What were the tensions in society that are there behind the text? These are only detectible by a scholar.


For parts of the #Bible that are more poetic, (e.g.) the #Psalms, there too, any #translation will be an interpreter's attempt to tell us what they understand from the highly poetic language, which can be interpreted in two or three different ways. We're merely getting one interpretation through an English translation. We need to know not just the language, but also the social and historical context, because if David is composing the Psalm, or at least the Psalm has this impression of David experiencing something, what was David experiencing? What were the political problems in his age?


For background details and information, we do not always need to consult a live person, because detailed studies have been published. We have commentaries on the Quran in English. We have books with not only the translation, but with the notes on the same page. So you can consult these notes and that will get you a better understanding.

To add to this, the #Quranic language itself is very elusive. It doesn’t offer a detailed description of things; rather, it alludes to things which people are presumed to have known already, especially at the time when the Quran was being revealed. It assumes a kind of background knowledge. Without that background knowledge, we might be puzzled as to what is being referred to in the text.


Finally, with regards to the Quranic text, language evolves over time. So a word could have a meaning in #Arabic at one time, and then many generations later, it takes on a new meaning. For example, sayara nowadays means a car, but in the Quran, sayara means the one who is traveling by sea. One has to consult classical dictionaries to find the meanings of the Quranic words. Plus, because the mode of expression is poetry, things are expressed in a kind of a condensed form; one has to really parse the language very carefully to understand what is being said here. So yes, some aspects of the Quran need scholars to expound them for us.


Watch Dr. Shabir Ally’s video response here.


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