Read the Quran in Islam


For five weeks, "La Croix" questions the relationship of the great religions with their sacred texts.

What place for the study of the Koran among Muslims?

The word Koran itself (Al-Qur'an in Arabic) expresses the idea of ​​an oral communication, of a message transmitted in the form of recitation aloud. For Muslims, the text is "descended" on the prophet Mohammed, "in a clear Arabic" (Arabicun mubin) then set in the form of a book (mushaf) repeating the statements memorized and collected by his companions. The immense respect that Muslims have for the object itself comes from the fact that this book is a copy of the Book (kitaboriginal preserved with God.

However, it has never ceased to be studied and commented, and this, from the first centuries of Islam. Its status – well known – of "uncreated" book is itself the result of controversy. At the beginning of the IXe century, while the mutazilites refuse to make the word of God a divine attribute – to preserve the uniqueness of the latter – and claim to make use of their reason to determine the meaning of a text, their opponents claim that the word of God can not be truly understood. It's only since the latter's victory (ahl al-sunna, the people of Tradition, from which "Sunnis") that the "revealed" verses are considered to form a "closed body" which contains everything, and capable of lighting up by itself.

What were the main stages of interpretation?

Several anecdotes kept in the life of the Prophet (the Sirâ) or in compilations compiling facts or words lent to him or his companions (the hadith) show a faithful coming to consult Mohammed on the meaning of this or that verse. "After his death, this need for explanation and enlightenment, far from drying up, only intensified", notes the historian François Déroche (1). "Thus was born the day of the Koranic sciences which dominates the others: exegesis. " This immense effort of explanation unfolded in two directions: to comment on the text verse after verse (tafsir), and to decipher the allegorical or mystical meaning (ta'wil). Thousands of works of exegesis have been written, some by great authors like Fakhr Al Din Al Razi (1150-1210).

The commentators used several methods: some helped themselves with linguistics and Arabic grammar, with the aim of solving the problems arising from writing the Koran; others of lexicography to penetrate the meaning of some rare words; others have studied the recitation of the text … The most numerous have tried to explain the meaning of the Qur'anic verses based on the circumstances (asbâb al-nuzûl) in which they were revealed to the prophet.

What is the current situation ?

The immensity of Islamic libraries should not obscure the reality: rather than exegesis, we must speak of "commentary" of the Koran. Only the Koran itself or the Muslim tradition (hadeeth and Sirâ) are solicited in these works to enlighten the understanding of the text: no history, geography or archeology. Neither tafsir nor the ta'wil do not go in the direction of a "Historical criticism, textual (…) as envisaged by scientific exegesis", recalls Brother Emmanuel Pisani, Director of the ICP Institute of Science and Theology of Religions (2).

The other difficulty is the recent and growing influence of a current from Saudi Arabia: Salafism. His assumption? Just open the Quran to understand it. Worse, venturing to interpret it is a source of discord (fitna) and misguidance. "To believe that a text, and especially a text considered holy, speaks for itself and that it is enough to open it to understand it is an illusion", however, recalls the Dominican Adrien Candiard, author of Understanding Islam or rather why we do not understand anything (Flammarion, 2016). "Every text necessarily calls for an interpretation, and even those who deny its necessity, who claim to practice the most rigorous literalism, in fact also propose a method of reading and interpreting. "

What are the new methods proposed?

Today, pressure is emerging from within the Muslim world to resume a real work of interpretation. On the one hand, the atrocities committed by Daesh and his fellows in the name of a return to "the Islam of the sources" have shown how much it imposes itself on every believer, in every age, out of fidelity even to divine project. On the other hand, advances in university research make certain claims of the Muslim tradition untenable.

Some Muslim believers choose to stay in the traditional setting but take an interpretation beyond mere commentary. They strive to discover the deep intention, the moral purpose (Maqâsid) of the Koran. They also argue for a contextualization of the text by integrating the achievements of modernity, human rights, etc. (3).

Researchers work in two main directions. Highlighting the importance of biblical characters and episodes in the Qur'an, one insists on the inscription of the latter in the context of quarrels between Jewish and Christian sects in the Arabian Peninsula. Others seek to place the Koran in its Arab context, that of the tribes living in Mecca and Medina at the time of Muhammad and thus explore the different strata of meaning of his words.

It remains to reconcile these two approaches: confessing on one hand, scientific on the other, long remained siled. In Europe, due to the lack of good Muslim institutes, a growing number of young Muslims are turning to the Arabic language and civilization departments at the university and are experimenting with the historico-critical approach or approach. intertextual. Some come to reintroduce questioning into traditional Koranic exegesis and "Take the text out of a purely reductive and utilitarian reading", remarks Emmanuel Pisani. "Behind this hermeneutic stance is a philosophical issue, that of the conception of man and his identity, considered as a historical being. "

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner

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