Qur'an: Global Text or Local Context?

Question and answer details
  As-salamu `alaykumWhen reading certain verses or chapters of the Qur'an, one must take into account the context in which they were revealed. What I am wondering is, why didn't Allah reveal the Qur'an to Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a way so that the Qur'an would not have to be applicable to the time period? Because when people point out "violent" verses and try to connect them with terrorism, we as Muslims need to remind them of the context in which they were revealed. Great website you have here, and I eagerly await your reply. Thanks.
Ahmad Saad

, Brother.

First of all, I would like to thank you for such an intriguing question, which is more needed now than anytime before. Thank you also for your encouraging words. May Allah make our work purely for His sake.

It is unquestionably valid that every Muslim believes from the core of his or her heart that the Qur'an is the word of Allah and His Last Testament that is applicable and valid for all times and places. This unique quality is very particular to the Qur'an as it stands as the final word that links the creation to the Creator and the undisputable text that helps people know their mission on earth and how to conduct themselves in private as well as in public.

A close examination of your question shows that it speaks about something that has been put forward before by many people. Some of them wanted to really get an answer and understand the matter, while others raised such a question as an objection to the applicability of the Qur'an to all times and places or its universality.

Taking all this into account, let's agree that regardless of where and when they live, people are people everywhere: They need food, water, systems to govern their lives; they need rest as much as they need work. Certain conditions recur in their lives every now and then, and regardless of how advanced they become, they are still affected by those conditions in the same way. These could be given the name of as-sunan al-ilahiyah or divine universal laws.

For example, when obscenity and indecency spread in a certain culture, diseases and illnesses also start to spread. This is one of the divine laws that are profoundly elaborated on in the Qur'an. Another one stipulates that in a society that lacks social justice, crimes will spread rampantly.

If we look deeply into the basic themes and events addressed in the Qur'an, we can distinguish between two levels of relations inherent in such events and themes: the locality of their contexts and the universality of their occurrence. This can give us a hint on how the Qur'anic verses are to be understood. They relate to certain contexts and universal themes. The events when they were revealed are, in many aspects, recurrent in a human and global context transcending time and space.

When we speak about the occasions of revelation and their importance in understanding the meanings of the verses of the Qur'an, we are actually trying to explore the specific human contexts in which the verses were revealed, not in a limited sense, but rather to distinguish them from other contexts which we may be confused about.

When we discuss or try to explore the occasion of the revelation of a certain verse, we are endeavoring to discover the human context in which this exact verse was revealed in order to be able to apply it in other exact contexts and never confuse contexts of similar, but not exact, nature.

One more fact to be highlighted here is that since the Qur'an is a universal book and the final word of Allah, its perfection requires it to cover all times and places. It is not a mere book of futurism, nor is it a mere book of science, history, or psychology; rather, it is all these but not one of these alone.

Being the perfect and the final word of the Creator, the Qur'an relates the story of mankind since the dawn of time, passing through all times and spaces, not bound by any borders or locations. This means that it tells the events of the past and responds to occasions at its time of revelation, relating them to their global and human context to link all aspects of life in all times to the fact that this Qur'an is the book of the whole universe.

Someone may say, so what is the benefit of speaking about a certain event at a certain time when the Qur'an was revealed and linking the event to this present time? Why do we need this?

The simple answer will be to link all human beings to one another, to show people at all times that human beings are similar to their ancestors and that their children will be similar to them.

The pagan Arabs of Makkah could have raised a similar question and asked what is the point of telling us stories of the people of the past? Why does the Qur'an bring to us facts and lessons that relate to people who lived long time ago or events that happened before our time?

However, they never did that simply because they realized that the themes are universal and the contexts are similar, and they saw that when a certain context does not exist at a certain time, this does not mean that there is no use of it as such a context or occasion may happen sooner or later.

A perfect manual shows us how to troubleshoot or what to do in case of emergency. To illustrate this further, we can take the story of the People of the Cave, which was revealed in a specific occasion as an answer to a question by the pagan Arabs to the Prophet (peace be upon him) to test his answer and to know whether he is a prophet or not.

The specific context serves as an answer to a question. However, looking at the universality of the verses, we realize that they depict a human situation in which people of faith flee from a tyrant who does not allow them their freedom of faith.

At the time of the Prophet, the story could relate to the situation of the emerging Muslim community and the early migrants to Abyssinia; now it relates to any who have to leave their home because they are not allowed to practice their faith.

In the future, the verses will continue to serve as a message to all believers who are forced to flee from tyranny that their name will be written in history and the name of their persecutor will be also disgraced therein; that they will end up getting victory and their opponent will get nothing and will never be able to oppress the word of truth.

With this in mind, we can see that the Qur'an is universal in both its themes and its contexts. We may look at some of its verses revealed to respond to certain events and occasions as being limited, but in fact they can be understood in a wider and universal context that transcends the times and the places in which they were actually revealed.

Taking this human and universal context into account will help us greatly in realizing that the Qur'an is perfect and valid and that its verses never expire because they depict the human self in all situations and in relation with the environment, the universe, and its Creator.

Speaking about what you call "violent verses," I would like to say that there is no such a thing as violence in the Qur'an simply because violence is not a Qur'anic phenomena or instruction.

The Qur'an allows the oppressed and the persecuted to remove injustice by defending themselves against oppressors. It also enjoins establishing justice by removing oppression from those who cannot defend themselves, including the weak, the aged, women, and children.

Therefore, the Qur'an wages a war against tyrants and oppressors, and requires justice in a unique way wherein it wages war against terrorism and terrorists.

When anyone is wronged or harmed in a certain way, the Qur'an tells them to choose between two options: either to pardon or to establish justice by retaliating exactly without transgression. Now what is violent in this? A deeper look into the Qur'an will show that it promotes patience, tolerance, and dialogue; never does it accept violence or adopt it as a way of dealing with people.

I hope my answer can satisfactorily give enlightenment in this respect.

Please stay in touch.


Useful Links:

Credibility of the Revelation

True Teachings of Islam

Peaceful Harmony… or Violent Intolerance?

Explaining Verses about Jihad

The Concept of Revelation in Islam