What Is Qur’anic Critical Thinking?


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


The main goal of the Qur’an is Guidance or Hidayah. It is this guidance, which is all encompassing, that we should strive for as well. One of the ways that we can get this guidance is by turning to the Qur’an and understanding it. To do so requires that we first approach the Qur’an with an open mind in order to allow the Qur’an to speak for itself. One cannot approach the Qur’an with the mentality that one already knows the truth, as this will cause one to try and twist the Qur’an to meet what one wants to believe. The Qur’an itself speaks of the error in approaching the Qur’an this way when it states, “You command humanity to virtuous conduct and you yourselves forget while you recount the Book? Will you not then be reasonable?” (2:44). Unfortunately, today’s extremists like Daesh have turned their backs to such teachings, favoring distorted and impulsive interpretations that give them a false sense of confidence so that they can preach that only their vision of Islam is the true one.

The Qur’an contains God’s Infinite knowledge as a gift to humanity so that we may read it and find guidance within its words. In his article, “Reading the Signs: Qur’anic Perspective of Thinking,” Professor Hashim Kamali writes, “The Qur’an teaches an essential doctrine of the ayat (God’s signs in the universe) functioning as pointers to the providential purpose at all levels.”1 This is confirmed in the Qur’anic verse that states, “Truly in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alteration of the nighttime and the daytime and the boats that run on the sea with what profits humanity and what God sent forth from heaven of water and gave life to the earth after its death and disseminated on it all moving creatures and diversified the winds and the clouds that are caused to be subservient between heaven and earth are the signs for a people who are reasonable” (2:164).

Professor Kamali explains that inherent to this Qur’anic virtue is that human beings are required to use reason and become critical thinkers when interpreting the signs and guidance of God. This means that, as with any of God’s signs, we must approach the Qur’an critically using our God-given reason to understand the divine revelation, engage with it, reflect on its meaning, ask questions, and solve issues facing our community (ummah). Muslims are told this is what God has intended for how human beings should approach and use the Qur’an in verse 38:29,2 stating: “It is a blessed Book that We have sent forth to you so that they may meditate on its signs and those imbued with intuition may recollect.”

Although God has gifted us all with the knowledge and capacity to understand and apply His guidance, it is our responsibility to access and apply this knowledge in order to access his guidance as it is contained in the Qur’an. Doing so requires that we first develop our natural cognitive process of discernment (furqan) and reflect on the questions before us, before asking ourselves: “What is my intention, what do I consider when understanding a Qur’anic verse? What questions does it raise when I reflect? What reasoned judgments does it give me as evidence? How do I understand it? How do I recall the concepts to help me understand the verse? What assumptions or opinions do I have about it? What implications or consequences do I ponder? What is my point of view as I take a verse to heart?” By asking ourselves these questions when interacting with the Qur’an, we are engaging our thoughts and feelings in interpreting and understanding God’s message as He intended, and discovering the deeper, essential meaning of a verse.

There are many different ways that we may interpret the Qur’an to find this guidance as well. For example, one may choose to approach the Qur’an using a mystical or esoteric interpretation in search of its hidden meanings. Likewise, one may choose to pursue a philosophical or modern interpretation to develop an understanding that is compatible with the modern era and where reason and scripture do not clash. There even exist feminist lenses for interpreting the Qur’an, which emphasize the egalitarian nature of the Qur’an and the ungendered nature of God. There is, of course, a literal interpretation of the Qur’an that takes its verses at face value without considering the deeper, essential meaning. Each of these approaches, however, demands that the integrity of human reason and discernment remain intact, or else we run the risk of allowing our suppressed feelings to influence our understanding.

Today’s extremists are the greatest perpetrators of this. Based on their suppressed feelings, these uncritical thinkers act impulsively and tend not to see any relationship between their feelings and their thoughts, leading them to disregard the feelings of others. They cling to a literal, scripturally rigid approach to the Qur’an, assuming that their view is the only view, and disregard any verse or criticism that contradicts their worldview. Similar to the people of innovation (Ahlul-Bid’ah), Daesh and modern-day extremists only accept the Qur’an for what they already believe—or want to believe—it says. Such an approach, however, is as if to say that they are not in need of God’s guidance and are merely reading the Qur’an to validate their own egocentric worldview. They close their minds to any sort of critical reasoning or discernment when reading the text, which prevents them from seeing the relationship between their feelings and how they have come to interpret the meaning of the Qur’an.

Because Daesh are self-centered, they have to be right about everything, they lack interest in consistency and clarity, and they hold an all-or-nothing attitude: I am 100 percent right, you are 100 percent wrong. This is the opposite of having discernment and it leads to a “group-think” prejudice: a belief formed before the facts are known, resistant to evidence and reason, and irrespective of facts that contradict it. This way of thinking enables extremists to sleep peacefully at night even while flagrantly abusing the rights of others, and allows them to sanction their actions with a superabundance of self-righteousness. Their belief in their own rightness is easier to maintain because they suppress the faults in their thinking. They automatically hide their egocentricity from themselves. They fail to notice when their behavior contradicts their self-image. They base their reasoning on false assumptions, and they fail to make relevant distinctions. They deny or conveniently “forget” facts inconsistent with their conclusions. They often misunderstand or distort what others, including the Qur’an, say.

Unlike these extremists, active and critical Qur’anic thinkers use their God-given reason and wisdom to understand, engage, and apply the text within their own lives and in a way that is beneficial for all humanity. As Professor Hashim Kamali writes: “To read the Qur’an in light of hikmah (wisdom) thus means a comprehensive reading that reaches beyond the obvious meaning of its words to encapsulate the goal and purpose of its message and then also reflection on the ways and means of how its benefits can be realized for the individual and society.”

Unlike extremists, active and critical Qur’anic thinkers approach the Qur’an with the realization that the Qur’an is universal, that its verses and guidance are not restrained by time and place. They reflect on each verse, asking themselves, “What does God mean for me in this passage? What is the point I’m supposed to get out of this passage?” They understand that the Qur’an was revealed in a specific sociohistorical context and so they will engage more deeply with the text in an admirable quest for God’s guidance. Yet, they also realize that the Qur’an is, in essence, a gift from God to humanity so that we may be able to heal and save ourselves not only in the time in which it was revealed, but for all times, and that it should not be taken lightly.

Muslims have to realize that the Qur’an has been taken hostage. The way to free it is to intellectually engage with it, open it, study it, “own” it, and take it back in a language in which they understand it as they continue to listen and recite the Arabic for spiritual reward. They have to confront its literal interpretation with discernment and critical thinking. Just as the Qur’an commanded the Prophet to say, moderate Muslims should say to the extremists: “Say, ‘Shall We tell you who will be ones who are losers by their actions? Those whose endeavoring goes astray in this present life while they assume that they are doing good works.” (18:103–4).