From my studies, people appear to utilize four paradigms when understanding scripture and settling disputes. I don’t believe this is limited to the Quran, but for the sake of this article, I will limit the references to the Quran. These four different approaches serve as a coping mechanism to keep the subscribers to any of these paradigms aligned for the sake of the congregation. While some may be 100% of the mindset of a single paradigm, many will straddle or bounce between paradigms. The reason for these paradigms is because understanding the scripture is not always cut and dry and often leads to confusion, ambiguity, and in-fighting among adherents.
Paradigm #1 – Traditionalism
The most common paradigm people utilize in understanding Quran is attempting to understand the scripture based on how the people who initially received the scripture understood the material. If the Quran states a command, a traditionalist will try to understand how the first generation who received the Quran understood the command. A hallmark of this approach is the infatuation many Muslims have with Hadith, tradition, and Sunnah. They are of the impression that their ability to understand the Quran solely depends on uncovering how the earliest recipients of the Quran understood the verses. So anytime a new moral question arises, they try to find an analogous situation in the tradition that they can apply to their current situation. Additionally, people of this paradigm will attempt to apply the verses of the Quran based on how they understood it was applied at the time of revelation.
Paradigm #2 – Leaderism
The next paradigm in how one can choose to understand the Quran is by means of following an authority. This paradigm requires a sole individual or group of individuals (council) with the authority to settle disputes. Sunnis rely on the ulama (scholars) who create ijma (consensus), which becomes law among their adherents. Shias have imams who they believe are representatives of God’s will and are authorized to make rulings for their followers regarding any disputes that arise. Additionally, you have followers who consciously or subconsciously follow the understanding of some leader. This person doesn’t even have to be widely recognized, but their followers will outsource any points of contention to them for them to settle. This paradigm is also seen in the different schools of thought (madhabs).
Paradigm #3 – Mysticism
The third approach treats every word, verse, lesson, and commandment of the scripture as open for any interpretation. People of this persuasion are not interested in how the verse may have been understood in the past, like in the traditionalist approach. Instead, they prefer to understand the meanings of verses based on what makes the most sense to them. The degree of leeway they grant themselves in interpretation varies on a spectrum. While some attempt to stay within the confines of the rules of Classical Arabic grammar and historical definitional meanings of words, others take a laissez-faire approach and give themselves free rein to adjust the possible meaning of words until they find an understanding they deem suitable. This paradigm is the most common among Quranist.
Paradigm #4 – Rationalism
The fourth paradigm is the rationalist approach. This approach attempts to understand the Quran as literally as possible based on the grammar of the Quran, the definitional use of words within the Quran, and the utilization of historical understandings of the definitions of words from Classical Arabic and steers away from abstract understandings when a straightforward understanding is available. This paradigm does not use tradition to apply the Quran and does not look for a referee to settle disputes. Instead, this paradigm tries to understand the foundational universal lesson from the verses and commandments and apply that to their life. This paradigm understands that the Quran was written for an original audience of the 7th century but believes that the Quran today should not be applied as it was when it was first revealed. While the commandments may not transcend time and place, the lessons that are inherent in them do.
Why Multi-Meaning Verses?
Ironically, despite the Quran being a clear book, this perceived ambiguity is deliberately part of the system.
[3:7] He sent down to you this scripture, containing straightforward verses—which constitute the essence of the scripture—as well as multiple-meaning or allegorical verses. Those who harbor perversity in their hearts will pursue the multiple-meaning verses to create disputes and to extricate a certain meaning. None knows the true meaning thereof except GOD. And those well founded in knowledge, say, “We believe in this—all of it comes from our Lord.” Only those who possess intelligence will take heed.
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
The natural question one would ask is: why does the Quran even contain multi-meaning verses if it causes so much discord among followers of the Quran? I find this question similar to the question regarding Adam and Eve in Paradise and: why would God put a tree if the sole purpose of the tree is to not approach it?
The function of the tree was to bring out Adam and Eve’s true convictions, just like the purpose of the multi-meaning verses. The only requirement they had in Paradise was to not approach the tree, and similarly, our requirement when studying the Quran is to not turn into a tyrant regarding our understanding. This doesn’t mean that we condone the understanding of others, but only that we live and let live as long as their understanding does not infringe on the liberties of others.
Regardless of what approach and understanding one decides to take, their reckoning is between them and God.
[6:52] And do not dismiss those who implore their Lord day and night, devoting themselves to Him alone. You are not responsible for their reckoning, nor are they responsible for your reckoning. If you dismiss them, you will be a transgressor.
وَلَا تَطْرُدِ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ رَبَّهُمْ بِالْغَدَاةِ وَالْعَشِيِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجْهَهُ مَا عَلَيْكَ مِنْ حِسَابِهِمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ وَمَا مِنْ حِسَابِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ فَتَطْرُدَهُمْ فَتَكُونَ مِنَ الظَّالِمِينَ