Quran have been interpreted in context of time and ideology suiting interests of certain groups. This generates an inquiry towards the notions of historicity of the revelation and its metahistorical characteristics. A common example of the notion of historicity is the exegeses carried by Mutazalites and Asharites where the former used certain verses of the same Quran in their interests to prove the existence of free will so that the caliphs were ruled out of scrutiny for the injustice whereas the latter supported the pre-destination. Even there were questions raised regarding Quran as divine or created.
Such interpretations were deeply rooted in the textual nature of Quran whereas before the revelation became a scripture, it was spread orally with interaction between the prophet and the followers. Writing and compilation is an event of later periods. History is not only within Quran but also around the transformation it brought; therefore revelation in totality is the utterances of prophet in relation to the context but with divine inspiration. Examples that were used 1400 back had a mytho-religious language and symbols. Symbols delimit limits. Thus contextual nature of Quran becomes meta-historical with the use of metaphors.
These metaphors are not needed to be scrutinized under its historicity as the lessons from that era can be easily implied to socio-political conditions of today. Therefore there will always be a need to avoid factual obsession or textual interpretations but a strong base to understand the underlined ethical principles and goals that it served through contextual interpretations. Briefly, one can understand the history and culture of Arab from Quran but while looking answers in it, one needs to go beyond historicity and find shelter in its meta-historical nature.1
Surah Joseph serves as a good example where narrative comprising the contextual/historical part was equally interesting for Arabic literary tradition but the messages transcend timelessness when there is discourse on signs for seekers, ethics of justice and the power of dreams. While the Surah starts with the story of Joseph but ends with the messages that are addressed to the humankind; hence it’s narrative starts from person-specific (historical), and later leads towards humanity (transcendental). In this way, the ancient signs of prophets can provide inspiration to people of any generation, in this case patience, though one might not see it appropriate in this age to spend years in prison without any sin as Joseph did.
God’s rope, Ayah Nur and terms like ‘rasikhuna fil-ilm’ are the ones which will have timeless interpretation. For Ismailism the interpretation for these is the Imam under whose guidance the symbolic application of Quran is sought. This won’t change for any Ismaili Muslim. Concurrently an interpretation by some other sect will be static in terms of metaphors used, though interpretations can be diverse across the Muslim Ummah. Interpretations help to find solutions to problems of today and bring religiosity in one’s daily life interactions. Without interpretations 2, Quran becomes a residue of history; one cannot see its lessons in the light of today and its applications in ethos remain as blind imitation – the problem arising from the fundamentalist theories. Beauty of Islam lies in its openness towards interpretation without upsetting the message of divine.
1- “Introductory Notes on the Qur’an” (2003) The Institute of Ismaili Studies.
2- to be seen as reflecting and thinking process on various signs, instead of taking such metaphors and situations literally.