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Reading Farāhī   in the Postmodern Age

Fixing the Problem of Multiple and Sectarian Interpretations of the Quran
12:00 AM May 30, 2024 IST | Muhamad Maroof Shah
reading farāhī   in the postmodern age

Title: Rediscovering Maulana Hamiduddin Farā  and His Thought


Author: S M Mukarram Jahan


Given that the Quran seeks a response or transformation of addressees and its advent inspired new sciences and ushered in a new civilization and episteme, and given the Quranic structure of verses as signs – in the souls and horizon are signs – and the conviction that it is inscribed in the structure of cosmos (Quran-i takweeni) and within our very being, it is impossible to say that the Quran fails to communicate or be clear or elicit a response from each one of us, as its addressees.  It is Imam Farāhī   who has given us one of the most rigorous and engaging methodologies to decipher this clear or illuminating  content of the Quran.


Those who think they know the Quran or Islam on the assumption that they have read certain classical works on exegesis or know all the relevant prophetic traditions and opinions of the companions are taken to task by Imam Farāhī. Farāhī has created an impressive and compelling corpus of works and influenced key figures in twentieth century and afterwards and no study of Quranic sciences in the Muslim world can afford to ignore him. He was 6000 feet above his contemporaries in the courage to think with the Quran and in the depth of commitment to the Quranic universe and like Nietzsche couldn’t find his Master and he was one in his own right. He didn’t need a traditional Sufi Master, like some stalwart Sufis.


Hamidudin Farāhī is one of the very few scholars with whom one could add the epithet Allama and Imam. He knew modern thought much better than most of fellow ulama/commentators. His respectful but critical attitude towards modern scholarship is to be contrasted with generally dismissive and superficial engagement of majority of major figures in the Islamic world.  He embodies scholarship, rigour and courage to chart new paths. Very few know of his mystical poetry, his saintly credentials, his deep interest in Rumi and irfan and  translating Hatha Yoga work.


Farāhī stated the key problem in Muslim understanding and reception of its scripture – the problem of multiple even divergent interpretations, mostly framed by select ahadith or ideological preconceptions, and suggested a solution – the Quran  succeeds in stating its intended meaning and we can unearth it and agree on the definite or correct interpretation of the text and to find this is the job of an exegete. This puts onus in students and scholars of the Quran to engage with the heights and depths of the Quran.


It has been remarked by Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri, that great expert on Difficulties in the Quran (Mushkilat al Quran) that this Ummah has largely ignored the Quran. Amongst his great contemporaries or figures of recent past he could point out only at Allama Usmani’s exegetical effort as deserving notice. Farāhī though ignored by major seminaries has registered his impact. We owe to his influence, in addition to Tadabbur-e-Qur’ān by Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥi which is “entirely based on Maulānā Farāhī’s principles of exegesis, the commentaries of Abul Kalām Azad (Tarjumān al-Qur’ān) and Sayyid Abul A‘lā Maudūdī (Tafhīm al-Qur’ān).”


Farāhī’s interests encompassed the world of scriptures across traditions. His intended translation of Hath Yoga treatise was partly done under the title Addemdamah wa Shamaqamah. His notion of hikmah allies him with great sages of the past and the present. He didn’t choose formal philosophical and Sufistic mode of articulating his ideas but bore witness to their universe. He is a sufi, a philosopher, a theologian of first order. He is a brilliant star on the firmament of  Islamic intellectual sky.


It is with great joy that we need to greet the first of its kind work, in English, on Farāhī in Kashmir written by a promising  Kashmiri scholar S M  Mukarram Jahan. The author has discussed key issues in detail and argued for both reasonability and tradition centrism of Farāhī’s views, without losing sight of his unique creative interventions. He has discussed all key points in Farāhī  that  make him significant point of departure for modern  scholars of Islam.

  • A Critique of Classical Exegetes

For Farāhī it is impossible to arrive at the true interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān without taking into account its naẓām. Although Farāhī concedes some exegetes did take cognizance of similar notions, most scholars ignored it or didn’t give due attention to it. He is critical of atomistic, polysemic, hadith overdetermined exegesis that compromises Quran’s consistent, determinate and in-principle self contained universe of meaning that targets concrete response or action and transformation of addressee and as such can’t be vague, ambiguous or dependent on anything that is less than certain or far from clear and consistent.

Maulānā Farāhī argues that not all interpretations of exegetes are valid and well-founded and argues for need of strenuous effort of concentration on the Quran to unveil the treasures hidden in its ḥikmah to draw guidance from it. Farāhī criticizes the method of classical commentaries such as in al-Tabari by way of which “the exegetes collected all sorts of traditions pertaining to an āyah they thought was polysemic and only specified their level of acceptability. Some would leave it to the reader to pick a suitable interpretation.”

  • Critique of Hadith determined Interpretation

While maintaining the importance of aḥādīth and reports of the Companions in the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān, it is quite clear that the aḥādīth hold a secondary and not primary degree for Farāhī. For Farahi considers the Qur’ān to be the “only primary source (aṣal) with a single permanent denotation (as opposed to connotations) while all other sources are secondary, and to be judged in the light of the Qur’ān. Farāhī’s distinction between the Sunnat and Hadith has generally been forgotten/inadequately emphasized by modern Fuqaha resulting in large scale alienation of women and modern educated audience in general from continuators of medieval fiqh compendiums that are especially hadith(as distinguished from Quran and Sunnah) centric.

  • Seeking Rationale and Wisdom of Revelation

Farāhī   dismisses the impression that the Quran  is best approached with fideistic mindset or that we are required to just consent to the dicta and don’t need to engage with the underlying wisdom. He argues in Iḥkām al-Uṣūl, as Mukarram notes, that the Prophet (SAW) was deputed to instruct believers about the wisdom behind the articles of Shariah as well as the dialectics of its principles. This would ensure that the Ummah could undertake Ijtihād by employing their mental faculties on the arguments and meaning  of the Qur’ān that is apparent or otherwise. Muslim philosophers take the Quran as a source of knowledge and advocate what has been called illumined reason or theonomous reason. Hikmah as expounded in Farāhī   and Imam Kashmiri  is a product of this illumined reason.

  • Creative Engagement as distinguished from Innovation

Mukarram aptly notes that “Maulānā Farāhī was not an innovator and did not invent a new methodology for Qur’ānic interpretation. He only redefines and expands the principles of tafsīr which have already been in practice among classical scholars since the early days of Islām.”

  • The Quran isn’t Polysemic

Maulānā Farāhī asserts the Qur’ān to be “clear, forthright, absolute and independent in its meaning. The Qur’ān was revealed in the explicit Arabic language which makes it eloquent, conventional, and clear.” The Quran can’t fail in communicating and as such the thesis that the āyāt of the Qur’ān are polysemic, Farāhī  considers to be ludicrous as he asks given the Quran is self-described as Nūr (Light), Mubeen (explicit), Burhān (proof), and filled with ḥikmah (wisdom) how could it be imprecise and ambiguous in its legislation, directives, and teachings.

Positing uncertainty in the meaning of āyāt and interpreting them through fara‘ (carrying dubious elements) opens, for Farāhī, as Mukarram notes,  “floodgates to many evils and creates sectarian divide and eventual animosity among Muslims.” Farāhī believes that the key cause responsible for the debilitating trend of sectarianism is the inconsistency and massive discrepancy in interpretation of Qur’ānic verses between different sects. Arriving at definitive interpretation will help resolve this problem.

Farāhī  has proposed several principles to evade the problem of polysemy. One such principle reminds one of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana that resolves the problem of multiple contradictory interpretations of the scripture by positing that any interpretation that furthers the import of first two commandments – love of God and love of neighbor – is to be accepted.   For Farāhī  “The best possible meaning of the text shall be prioritized. This means the probable meaning which is in consonance with the best ethical values, agrees with the muḥkamāt of the Qur’ān, and is more conventional and prominent in Arabic vocabulary shall be preferred.”

It appears that Farāhī   hasn’t deeply engaged with certain difficulties such as encountered in the problem of mutashabihat. All the key points in his  arguments such as a) not delve into discussions regarding mutashābihāt because it would not yield any fruitful results  b) verses like the ones related to the affairs of the hereafter, in his opinion, are “mentioned in the Qur’ān only for Muslims to have faith in, and there is no use in or need to research them further as their knowledge lies with nobody except Allāh Subḥānahu” don’t gel with his overall rational and contemplative approach or his plea for unveiling underlying wisdom.

One needs to note Imam Kashmiri’s point that the mutashabihat constitute the major part of the Quran and they require deep engagement. The Sufi or Irfan centric approach unveils experiential dimension of verses on hereafter. The Quranic call for having faith in mutashabihat isn’t incompatible with the approach that requires engagement and contemplation of such subtle things as suggested in mutashabihat.

Farāhī ’s point, paraphrased by Mukarram, that “Atypical and unusual meanings shall not be trusted. Only those meanings of the words of the Qur’ān shall be considered reliable which are clear, known, accepted, and sound” may be read together with (and not necessarily in opposition to)  Ibn Arabi’s position that succeeds in reading profound and unintuitive meanings  while displaying loyalty to the word in all its nuances missed by those who distrust atypical and unusual meanings.

Ibn Arabi finds, on every new recitation, a newer shade of meaning.  Any meaning that language is capable of bearing or suggesting can’t be ignored even if it mayn’t be ordinarily used. We also need to underscore the central role of metaphor in creating meaning and that scriptures make varied uses of language.  Farāhī   isn’t for literalist ideological foreclosure either. For him it is beyond the capacity of a human being to comprehend everything there is about the Qur’ān.

Admitting to the possibility of leaving out from his own interpretation a large portion of the “treasures” still hidden in the Qur’ān, Farāhī  leaves scope open for new scholarship or exegesis or such exegesis as practiced by Sufis and philosophers. His profound discussion of Iman and hikmah shows how close he is to the Sufi/Irfani experiential/realizational approach. Mukarram has not dealt with these issues in this introductory work and it is hoped he will be exploring them in future.

Mukarram has not approached Farāhī   uncritically. He, for instance, notes that Farāhī seems to have ignored offensive warfare (qitāl) in Fī Malakūtillāh and focuses only on defensive war in the light of the Holy Qur’ān and the ways it prescribes for steadfastness during crises.

Augustine had also argued for need to know definite meaning of scripture – meaning in God’s mind so to speak – by strenuous effort in contrast to those who call for playful engagement with the text. Whether the postmodern project of polysemy of texts problematizes Farāhī’s position isn’t discussed by Mukarram.

Reclaiming  Space for Newer Interpretations

Maulānā Farāhī argues against overemphasis on/absolutization of tafsir bil mathur and seeks to restore space for personal effort in arriving at right interpretation but adds the caveat  that if the interpretation an exegete arrives at is not supported by the Qur’ān and Sunnah or undermines them, it should be abandoned. However, if the Qur’ān and Sunnah uphold or don’t contradict  the interpretation, it must not be hastily rejected as tafsīr bir-rāy. However, we don’t find detailed engagement with say Sufi or philosophical exegeses that mainstream exegetes have sidelined.

Rethinking Muslim Approach to Other Scriptures

Farāhī   was a meticulous scholar of the Bible and couldn’t but be impressed by noting many verses in it that suggest the continual survival of the original message they were revealed with. As such he strongly cautions Muslims to not take them in jest and rejects the practices of some Muslim scholars who  mock  its verses on account of their inconsistency and self-contradiction.

For Farāhī  the Quran should be used to restore the Bible in its original form and wanted Muslims to have a general idea of the reality and beauty of revealed scriptures, and have meaningful and sustained dialogue “in a way that is best” with the People of the Book as distinguished from point scoring or mud slinging that we witness in media.

However, as Mukarram notes, “Regrettably, Maulana Farāhī’s project remained incomplete and none of his pupils have taken up the task to study the Bible in the light of this thought.” Mukarram also notes that “any attempt at reconstructing the original text of the Bible will definitely be laborious for obvious reasons, and will never find consensus even among Muslims, let alone Jews and Christians.”

Post Script

Mukarram has not touched Farāhī’s interest in mysticism. He had undertaken a commentary on Mathnawi of Rumi in Persian  One of the teachers in Madaras tul Islah Saraeimeer and his student Mawlana Syed Abdul Gaffar Nadwi has asserted, on the basis of personal observation,  that he was “mustaned Sufi and exemplary mutaqi waliullah.”

After 12 in night he would be lost in contemplating the Quran till dawn oblivious of the world and everyday Islahi would come and he didn’t notice and  would say Ameen didn’t come.  He is convinced that  Farāhī ’s all exegetical work is inspired.  He had heard him recite his own three verses which he construes, as evidence of his perfect gnostic (aarif-i kamil): “Hon a geflet to kuch nahi juz haq/der haqeeqet yehi hae batil ek/baataeen do char poochni thi hameen/kaheen patae jo mard-i kamil ek.”