The Problem with Interpretation

Those who are firm in their belief maintain that interpretation is like a labyrinth or a maze with a single exit. The beginning leads to the end – although you can get lost along the way – it is essentially a straight path. They maintain that there is only one interpretation, a truth – a true interpretation, that is pure and perfect. To them, it is like an escalator or stairwell that leads from one place to another in only one direction.

The reality of interpretation is that it is akin to that of M.C. Escher’s “Relativity” painting (pictured above). There is a colossal amount of options; variety, diversity, each one unique in its own way when it comes to interpreting any one complex thing. Although there may be trends or patterns, common ways of understanding, which one do you take as truth? Do you trust someone to tell you which one to take? Or do you look for guidance?

Here in lies the ultimate problem with interpretation: it is so varied that a singular outlook on a particular understanding is blindsiding yourself to other understandings.

Understanding our enemy is key to understanding how to defeat them. Any ideological-driven violence must be defeated both kinetically where necessary – and by countering the ideology. If we fight them purely on the battlefield without defeating the ideology, they will spring up elsewhere, as other recruits are drawn towards their cause – whether right or wrong, correct or incorrect,  by anyone’s standards.

Who wants the blind leading the blind? When it comes to Islamic extremism, the problem is apparent. Moderate Muslims have a common understanding of the religion: the deeds, acts and worship is repeatable and reliably transferred to the majority of worshipers. In this sense, the repeatability is purely ritual and based on a common religious dressing that everyone can involve themselves in (e.g. praying – salat or alms-giving – zakat).

In light of this there are contradictory Qur’anic injunctions and Hadithic riddles that confuse the mind. Religious interpretation is monumental – and confusing. Created within the prism of interpretation is a diverse, varied and complex range of practices and doctrine. The young mind does not look upon a straight path or a simple crossroad, but thousands of paths and interconnections.


Above: The interpretation problem.

Consider these factors clouding interpretation below.

Education-related factors:

  • Materials (e.g. a range of religious books, primary vs secondary vs tertiary material).
  • Methods (e.g. scientific vs non-scientific, qualitative vs quantitative, funding bias, time allocated to understanding, referencing, cross-referencing, collecting data).
  • Education (e.g. formal vs informal, paid vs free, institution reputation).
  • Organisations (e.g. local Mosque position, charismatic authority and speakers).
  • Standards (accepted authority, rulings and understandings e.g. the golden standard of the individual).

Language-related factors:

  • Language (e.g. native vs learned vs non-speaking).
  • Translations (e.g. Arabic-English, conflicting translations).
  • Classical language (e.g. classical vs non-classical/modern standard Arabic).
  • Islamic meanings of language (i.e. specific religious concepts such as jihad).

Context-related factors:

  • Context (e.g. history, literary history, commentaries, circumstances of revelation – asbab al-nuzul vs tafsir).
  • Historical relevance (i.e. how historical revelation is relevant to today or how some scholars are remembered over others in the bracket of history).
  • Intent and nature (e.g. verses intended for the wide Muslim community vs individuals vs historic events, opinion vs literary evidence).

Authority-related factors:

  • Authority of person and position (e.g. scholar vs layman, PhD vs no degree, Imam vs non-religious speakers, politicians vs media; official vs unofficial narratives).
  • Religious authority (e.g. Allah vs Angels vs Prophets vs scholars vs jurists vs Imams vs Sheikhs vs Ustadhs).

Practice-related factors:

  • Use of texts (e.g. practices ordained for modern day, relevance to daily life, sunnah – doings – vs hadith – sayings).
  • Contradictory nature of texts (i.e. Hadith sayings which contradict themselves).

Law-related factors:

  • Legal rulings (e.g. law based on religion in modern day).
  • Schools of thought (e.g. fihq positions and fatwa positions, similar to above).

Text-related factors:

  • Contradictions and conflicting opinions (e.g. abrogation, Hadithic confusion).
  • Investment in meaning and exportation of meaning (e.g. looking for peaceful interpretations will find peaceful interpretations vs looking for violent interpretations will find violent interpretations). Invest to text and export to self.
  • Extraction of meaning and importation of meaning (e.g. literalism vs traditionalism vs mainstream opinions). Extract information from text and import that information to self.

Individual-related factors:

  • Reading comprehension (e.g. individual intellect, personal values).
  • Grievances (e.g. current geopolitics, precarious grievances, proclivity or inclinations for violence vs non-violence, political vs apolitical stances).
  • Distractions (e.g. work, family, pets, house chores, friends).
  • Emotional connection (e.g. individual response to interpretation or current events).
  • Previous experience (e.g. previous involvement in crime, terrorism, extremism).

Environment-related factors:

  • Country of upbringing (e.g. Saudi vs Indonesia vs Pakistan).
  • Family-orientation (e.g. traditional or conservative vs secular or nominal; public vs private thought, belief and practice).
  • Community-orientation (opinions of community vs world, East vs West, local statistics, discrimination and racism).
  • Global-orientation (representation, world-wide statistics, radical opinions).
  • Open Culture (public understanding and daily practices).
  • Closed Culture (private understanding, homophobia, anti-Westernism).

Other factors:

  • Agendas and conspiracies (other agendas e.g. media-figures vs moderate vs pseudo-moderate vs out-right extremists, and predominant conspiracies in the Muslim world and Muslim mind).
  • Criticism (counter-arguments, openness to new or different understandings).

It all gets rather confusing, doesn’t it?

As you can see interpretation is a mixed-bag. It is not a straight, simple path. Terrorists do not simply ‘get it wrong,’ but understand the world in a different format to other people. There are a range of interpretations. Only textual evidence gets to different which ones are right, wrong or otherwise.

So what is a “misinterpretation,” “misquotation” or “misrepresentation”?

A misinterpretation is the act of getting something wrong. It is to make an error, a judgment which is incorrect or to misconstrue something. Someone does not understand something based on certain standards.

Think about this for a second. Half of the Muslim world say the other half misinterpret faith. Whether it is Shia vs Sunni vs Ahmadi vs Wahhabi vs Salafi vs Neo-Salafi vs Traditionalist vs Ex-Muslim. Or whether (in Sunni jurisprudence) it is Hanbali vs Hanafi vs Shafi’i vs Maliki. Historically it may have been Asharites vs Mutazilites. The standards used are different in each conflict. Who has it right?

To get a base understanding of religious interpretation, you have to go to the core texts, the life of the core religious leader and the major events throughout history. This is where we should start if we want to counter-act the terrorist ideology that attaches itself to this religion. It is as simple as that.

A misquotation is to repeat something that someone has said in a way that is not accurate. In other words, if someone said X, you say Y. If someone says you must do something and you say you can do something, they are different interpretations and different statements.

When Muhammad said that he has been commanded to fight those who do not believe, until they believe in the Oneness of Allah, he was not saying to not fight, to remain peaceful, and to bring our modern standards of justice to the world. He was advocating divine violence. To deny this is to deny what he did say at one point in time. And this means to deny other, just as applicable, interpretations of Islam that re-invigorate these commands.

A misrepresentation is the action of giving a false or misleading account into the nature of something. Representation in the modern sense usually accounts for what the majority believe as opposed to what the system exalts and calls for. For example if the system calls for violence and the majority of believers advocate non-violence, it is the system that is in the wrong – and they cannot disconnect themselves from that fact.

Another example is the “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.” This is the biggest misrepresentation of them all in the debate. Islam does, observably so, have something to do with Islamic terrorism in the way groups interpret and use religious instructions – they are standards for their practices. To say it has nothing to do with terrorism is misleading the nature of Islamic terrorism and ignoring what the Islamic terrorists say themselves.

If you ignore your enemy, you ignore their goals and their orientation. You ignore how they use the religion to recruit, motivate and succeed in planting pockets of cells and carrying out violence all over the world.

I will end it here with these final thoughts: interpretation is mixed-bag. It’s ginormous in size and variety. One religious interpretation only trumps another in the religious evidence it has to justify its very own existence. When people speak of misinterpretations, misrepresentations and misquotations, it is to suggest that there is a finalized and sure-way of understanding a very complex and contradictory doctrine and set of practices known as Islam. Be very wary of such people.


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