Latitude Within Religious Texts

All religious texts have some latitude: they require interpretation and they often contain contradictions within themselves (some of which can be explained by their compilation over a long time period).  Tariq Ramadan, for example, in his book What I Believe, discusses the need to reinterpret religious texts according to current circumstances [in chapter 8].  If more than one section of text might be applied, it is necessary to decide which should take precedence and how it should be interpreted in the particular circumstances.

Some religious texts were either originally intended as metaphor or can be interpreted as such.  For example, the Biblical rule “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” [Exodus 21.24-25] need not be taken literally.  Maimonides interpreted it, in his book Laws of Wounds and Damages, as meaning that penalties should be proportional to the original offence, but in financial terms rather than physical retaliation.

Scriptural interpretation can allow for historical context: people were exhorted to comply with the customs of the time, but the norms have now changed.  Professor Mona Siddiqui gave the example of apostasy, in her lecture Is Islamic Law ethical?, where she pointed out that Shariah law has been interpreted as requiring the stoning to death of someone who wishes to leave Islam – whereas the Quran doesn’t specify punishments and it explicitly allows freedom of religion [PDF page 43].  It is therefore possible to avoid conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Western law in this case by allowing the Quran to take precedence over the mediaeval interpretation of Shariah.

Tradition (i.e. a custom from a different time or place) should not be used as a justification for practices which are unacceptable in a different society.  Again, this can often be resolved by looking for helpful rulings elsewhere within the same religious tradition.  For example, Hanafi law (the most widely accepted of the four schools of law in Islam) expressly permits female autonomy in marriage, even though some communities had a tradition of parents choosing husbands for their daughters – as Mona Siddiqui pointed out in the same lecture [PDF page 45].



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4441.htm.