Latitude Within Religious Texts

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4441.htm)

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).[1]  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, Maimonides interpreted the Biblical rule “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as meaning that penalties should be proportional to the original offence, but in financial terms rather than physical retaliation.[2]

Scriptural interpretation can allow for historical context: people were exhorted to comply with the customs of the time, but the norms have now changed.  Mona Siddiqui gave the example of apostasy, where 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.[3]  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.[4]

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[1] Tariq Ramadan, for example, in his book What I Believe, discusses the need to reinterpret religious texts according to current circumstances (in chapter 8).

[2] Maimonides interpreted Exodus 21.24-25 in his book Laws of Wounds and Damages.  The relevant extract was available in March 2018 at https://www.mhcny.org/parasha/1210.pdf.

[3] Professor Mona Siddiqui gave the example of apostasy in a lecture at the LSE on 26 February 2008, entitled Is Islamic Law ethical?  The text of this lecture was available in March 2018 at http://www.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2008/20071203t1304z001.aspx.

She also cited other writers on this topic: Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, Ashgate 2004; also, Wael Hallaq, `Apostasy,’ in Encyclopaedia of the Quran, Vol.1, Brill, Leiden, pp.119-122.

Reza Aslan makes the same point in his book No god but God (p.  85), where he cites several passages from the Quran – including the well-known line: “there can be no compulsion in religion” (2.256).

[4] Mona Siddiqui cited Hanafi law, with regard to female autonomy, in the same lecture.