International: On normative and contextual in understanding the Qur'an

Islam and Modern Age
The interpretation of the Qur’an is not possible without dividing verses into normative ones ie. norms that are transcendent in character & contextual ie. those verses revealed in response to a given situation and the Prophet (PBUH) responding to queries.
A scholar while critiquing my methodology of so dividing the verses maintained that I am doing so rather arbitrarily. I am writing this paper in response to that critique.
The Qur’anic tafsir literature is full of references to what is called asbab al-nuzul i.e. occasions of revelation. The mufassirun (commentators) of the Qur’an discuss every verse in the light of the asbab i.e. why a verse was revealed. No serious commentator can or has avoided this. There is also an elaborate discussion on which verses have been cancelled (i.e. mansukh) and which are cancellers (nasikh). The great Islamic thinker of eighteenth century in India Shah Waliyullah has also discussed at length on this subject and he identifies very few verses as cancelled.

This clearly means that certain Qur’anic verses were revealed in response to the historical situation. In fact no revealed scripture can entirely transcend the given historical situation in which it is revealed. Basically the scriptures including the Qur’an were revealed to respond to the given historical situation. Otherwise it makes no sense as to why a scripture was revealed at all?

Allah sends His messenger to bring about necessary changes in the given society, to reform it, to remove its social malaise and create a healthy society what is called a salih mu’ashirah. Therefore, the scripture criticises what is munkar (evil, unhealthy, morally corrupt) in the society and also provide transcendent values to spread ma’ruf (i.e. what is good, what is healthy and morally acceptable). That is why the Qur’an enjoins on all believers to enforce what is good (ma’ruf) and contain what is evil (munkar) However, it does not mean what is contextual will not be included in the compilation of the scripture. If that is done the scripture would loose its historicity and believers would not know why a scripture was revealed at all, in the first place. Thus all those verses which commentators point out, were mansukh (i.e. cancelled) have been included in the Qur’an along with those who are supposed to be nasikh (i.e. the ones which cancelled those verses).

It is needed for two reasons: firstly, the scripture would lose its very historicity and its historical need. The coming generations would not even know why the Qur’an was revealed in the first place. Secondly, by designating them as contextual it is not implied that they have lost their validity entirely. Similar situation as in the 7th century Arabia can arise in our own time too and in that case even the contextual verses can provide guidance.

Even contextual verses were revealed to provide healthy alternative to the then immoral and unhealthy practices. One can give numerous examples. Muslims were in minority in Mecca before the Prophet (PBUH) migrated to Madina. The Qur’an had provided them valuable guidance in that situation. Thus some verses of Meccan origin, though contextual, can still provide valuable guidance to Muslims in minority situation throughout the contemporary world.

There are some verses, which, can be termed as contextual-normative. For example, the Meccan surah (chapter) 109. This small chapter is very significant even today for coexistence between religious majority and minority in today’s pluralist world. This chapter addressing unbelievers who were in majority then in Mecca proposes that O! unbelievers you have your way and I (the Prophet) have my way. This is the best formula for co-existence on the basis of mutual respect for each others religion.

In a way the chapter 109 revealed in Mecca is contextual in the sense that it was revealed to tackle a particular historical situation then facing Muslims, the adherents of a new faith to which the unbelievers of Mecca were hostile and so it proposed the formula for coexistence. Thus this chapter also provides a norm for a given situation that is coexistence with others. The chapter 109 was revealed in response to a given situation but also provides a norm of co-existence, which is normative and is applicable in the contemporary world and may continue to be useful in future societies also.

Thus a normative verse is one, which provides value-guidance for future situations and societies and is essentially value-oriented. Co-existence peacefully is a value for all societies to come and cannot be discarded. But there are also verses which are contextual in their essence. For example all the verses dealing with slaves and slavery or slave-girls. There is no more slavery in the world and so those verses become purely contextual and have lost their application.

No one can argue that since these verses are there in the Qur’an and the Qur’an is eternally valid so we will practice slavery anyway. The exclusion of these verses from the Qur’an would have deprived it of its historical significance and the believers would have lost an insight into as to how the Qur’an guided people on such vital question of its time. Though according to some interpreters of the Qur’an sexual intimacy with slave-girls is allowed (I do not agree with such interpretation at all and the Qur’an is clear that one should marry slave-girls before sexual intimacy) how it could be practiced today? Thus it is obvious that these verses about slavery and slave-girls are contextual and have lost their applicability today.

It is also important to understand that for every contextual verse, there is a normative one. The Qur’an not only deals with the given situation but also lays down norms for future societies. Thus for the verses on slavery there is verse on equal dignity of all human beings i.e. verse 17:70 which says We have made all children of Adam (equally) honourable. Thus this verse lays down the norm. All human beings are equally honourable but in certain historical situation slavery may be found. And until slavery is abolished treat slaves as humanely as possible and also manumit them on all possible occasion.

Similarly the verse 49:13 also is normative. It states “O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female and made you tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful of you.” This verse lays down the norm that since all of you have been created from one man and woman all of you are equal though you have been born into different tribes and families. But most honourable of you is not one who belongs to this or that tribe or family but one who is most dutiful i.e. conscious of his/her duty. Allah thus will not give preference to one who is from a distinguished tribe or a family but one who performs his/her duties. This norm is applicable to all the ages present as well as those to come.

Thus the Qur’an values good deeds, not any thing else. Good deeds alone will ensure dignity and honour unto Allah and not ones family background. If we follow this norm rigorously our world will become meritorious and not aristocratic or hierarchical. Our so -called modern societies also follow either caste hierarchy or power hierarchy. This is totally against value-system of the Qur’an. Thus we see that in Qur’an there is clear tension between what is and what should be. It is this tension, which is most important and a believer can reduce this tension between what is given and what aught to be by transcending the given situation.

The Qur’an does not support status quo. It wants believers to transcend and subvert it and if it is not immediately possible to do so to at least reform it to the extent possible. The Qur’an thus combines revolutionary with evolutionary method. If for given historical reasons it is not possible to abolish slavery in one go, abolish it gradually and meanwhile treat slaves with human dignity. In any case status quo should not be protected. And it is this approach of the Qur’an, which seriously upset kuffar of Mecca. They wanted to retain status quo and their privileges at any cost. In fact it was not attack on idol worship, which seriously upset them. It was attack on their privileges, which did. They desired to protect their unjust privileges under the garb of protecting idol worship. Thus it was idols of their privileges, which was dear to them, not idols of stones and clay.

Qur’an attacks privileges acquired through accumulation of riches. The Qur’an attacks accumulation of riches in several Meccan and Medinese verses. See for example see chapters 104 and 107 and verse 9:34. Certain tribal chiefs of Mecca had accumulated huge amounts of wealth and were proud of their riches and lived life of luxury and privileges neglecting morality and moral uprightness. It is this exhortation which pinched them most they became sworn enemies of the Prophet (PBUH) and Islam. And the Prophet was not prepared to make any compromise with them.

The Qur’an also declared its open sympathy with weaker sections of society in the verse 28:5. Allah wants to oblige those weakened on earth and make them the leaders and inheritors of this earth. Thus according to the Qur’anic norm social and economic justice is most important and any status quo, which allows accumulation of riches, must be done away with. The Qur’an invented the institution of zakah to bring about social justice and left it to the believers to devise more such institutions for ensuring social justice. Thus justice is an eternal norm in the Qur’an. The given society was unjust and in that historical situation it levied zakah on believers to reduce socio-economic injustices.

The institution of zakah also is both normative as well as contextual. It is normative in as much as it obliges the believers to take money from ones income to help weaker sections of society, the orphans, the widows, liberation of slaves, paying the debt of indebted and for travellers and in the way of Allah. All these indicate deep concern for weaker sections of society. The Prophet (PBUH) fixed 2-1/2 per cent of one wealth and income by way of zakah. The Qur’an, however, did not fix any rate. In view of changed situation one can add more, to meet more exigencies. What is normative is the concept of zakah, not its rate. Rate will depend on the context. Also, other taxes can be levied if situation so demands. In fact the Qur’an requires believers to give away in the way of Allah what is surplus or left after meeting the basic needs. See the verse 2:219.

Thus the verse 2:219 provides us with norm i.e. one should not spend on oneself more than basic needs and rest be given away. Of course the concept of basic need is also quite dynamic and can vary from time to time and has to be defined with general consensus. What Qur’an is emphasising is the need-based economy. Today’s economy is greed-based economy, which results in lot of loot, plunder and exploitation and great deal of crime, including economic crimes. It is need-based economy, which can provide greater stability at home and abroad.

It is greed-based economies, which result in colonialism and neo-colonialism and wars like Afghan and Iraq wars. America needs more oil and raw materials from other countries to satisfy insatiable greed of its economy. America and other western countries are not prepared to reduce their high consumption levels and for maintaining those levels they have to subjugate or invade other countries. Unfortunately the so -called Islamic countries also follow patterns of western economies rather than develop need-based economies as directed by the Qur’an.


This is most important issue being hotly debated in the Islamic world. The conservative ‘ulama maintain that men and women are not equal and Allah has made them unequal and quote certain verses of the Qur’an like 4:34 and ignore those verses which lay down the norm for gender equality. Here on this issue this concept of normative and contextual verses play very important role.

During the pre-Islamic period and also to some extent during Prophet’s time women did not play an important role in public life and in economy. Since the Qur’an was addressing that society in its immediacy it took notice of this situation and the verse 4:34 was revealed. This verse should be understood only in that context and should not be applied as if it provides a norm. But this is what our ‘ulama in general do. This verse is also among those in which reason has been clearly given for its application. Also, it throws light on what is rather than what should be so there is clear tension between what is and what should be.

Since women in those days generally did not earn and were looked after by their husbands or fathers or brothers, men, not husbands, (al-rijal, not zawj) were described as Qawwamun ‘ala al-nisa’ i.e. maintainers of women but our ‘ulama generally interpret it as men’s superiority over women. Firstly, this verse is not discussing biological superiority but only functional aspect of men and women.

In those times men were maintaining women but Qur’an does not say women can never earn or should never earn. It is only a statement of fact as it existed on those days. Also, this verse is not referring to husband and wife, as pointed out but to men and women in general and only shows that men are maintainers of, not superior to, women. And this was purely in the context of 7th century Arabia.

Throughout medieval ages when women continued to be confined at home the verse retained its validity However, in contemporary world increasing number of women are joining working population and are also specialising in various professions. They are earning members of family as much as men are and hence this verse, which was revealed in 7th century Arabian context, must be revisited and its contextual significance properly understood.

Qur’an, normatively approves of women’s right to earn and occupy public space. Thus the verse 4:32 says, “For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn.” Thus Qur’an recognises her right to earn and this verse is not related to merely 7th century Arabia. In fact it invests women with right to earn. Also women have been given absolute right to property and men, father, husband or brother, cannot take away her property unless she gives it of her own will.

Also, the Qur’an makes a normative statement in verse 2”228, “And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner.” This is clear statement of gender equality in the Qur’an and in this verse the words “in a just manner (bi’l ma’ruf) is quite significant. Gender equality should be in a manner in keeping with justice. Again, this is not the only verse proclaiming gender equality in the Qur’an. There are some others.

Most clearly propounded gender equality is in the verse 33:35. It is worth quoting this verse in full. The verse is as follows: “Surely the men who submit, and the women who submit, and the believing men and believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah and women who remember – Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and mighty reward.”

This verse is clearly normative and valid for all times to come. Both men and women with above mentioned qualities merit equal rewards in the eyes of Allah. Also, the verse 17:70 clearly implies all children of Adam – men or women – are equally honourable. Thus this verse also accords equal dignity to men and women. Women have as much obligations in terms of ibadat (i.e. religious rituals) and mu’amalat (i.e. mutual relations between human individuals) as men. No where she has been exempted from these obligations either in ‘ibadat or in mu’amalat. Then in what can we say she is in any way inferior to men as our ‘ulama often maintain. Not only this she is equally liable for ‘uqubat i.e. punishments. For example her punishment for zina (adultery or fornication) is equal to that of man and her punishment of theft no less than that of man.

All this clearly implies gender equality as a norm in the Qur’an though in the 7th century Arabia she was made a degree below that of men (see 2:228). According to one well -known hadith it is equally obligatory for her to acquire knowledge. Thus she has not been spared even in the matter of acquisition of knowledge. And these are all norms.

The Qur’an makes coexistence with people of other religions also obligatory on Muslims and these verses making co-existence obligatory are clearly normative and will apply for all ages, past, present as well as future. Thus though Qur’an does not approve of idol worship it, in the interests of co-existence with idol worshippers, makes it obligatory on Muslims not to abuse others gods. It is said in the verse 6:109, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest, exceeding the limits, they abuse Allah through ignorance. Thus to every people have We made their deeds fair-seeming; then to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did.”

In all ages we have to co-exist with other people who may not believe in Allah as Muslims do and to tolerate them. Qur’an also makes a significant statement that for every people Allah has made their deeds fair-seeming. Every people think that their beliefs are right and their deeds virtuous. This is very necessary for tolerance of others beliefs and deeds. If we start condemning others’ gods or deeds there will be nothing but conflict and bloodshed.

Similarly in Qur’an war is contextual and peace a norm. War can be resorted to only when attacked and to defend oneself whereas establishing peace is the eternal norm. Salam (peace) is Allah’s name and so peace is associated with Allah. War, on the other hand, is permitted in certain contexts. Thus in 2:190 the Qur’an allows Muslims to “fight in the way of Allah those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors.”

This verse also is both contextual and normative. The earlier part is contextual (to fight against those who fight you) but the later part is normative i.e. do not be aggressive as Allah does not love aggressors. This later part is eternally applicable.

From above examples it is easily established that there are both types of verses in the Qur’an contextual as well as normative and this distinction is far from arbitrary. The verses speak for themselves. The value giving verses are normative and can be applied for all times to come. Thus verses which speak of truth, justice, peace, equality, human dignity, love, gender equality, compassion, wisdom, good deeds (ma’roof) and sensitivity for others suffering are clearly normative and those referring to war, man being a degree above women, certain punishments, women being half witness etc. are contextual. It is this understanding which makes changes and reforms possible.

by Asghar Ali Engineer, December 2005