Is context Important?


A friend accidentally saw the last sentece of my inbox email from a girl, “I love you. I can’t wait to see you on our great day in August.” He suddenly concluded something, and once he met my other friend, the closest one, he asked whether I would be marrying soon. He said no, and the email must be from my little sister as we planned to graduate on the same day. A question rises here; why could this happen? There is a simple answer; a text (or conversiation in this case) has context, and the awareness on it affects the quality of understanding. I would say the same case happens with any text, including the Qur’an.

Yuksel (2007: 17) does not share the same idea. He decides not to use any historical context in his translation of the Qur’an as he considers the Qur’an to be self-sufficient. It is Divine revelation, for which there is no need to consider any external materials in order to understand. A translator only has to come into the text, see what it says, ignore anything else, and he/she will get what it means. “The idea that the Quran is incomplete … implied that God was not a wise and articulate author; He could not make His message sufficiently clear and He failed to provide guidance on many issues,Yuksel says (2009: 39).

In addition, Yuksel (2009) suggests the invalidity of the works related to, or referred to, any historical accounts of the Qur’an, be it asbab al-nuzul (the occasions of revelation), codifications of prophetic traditions, and classical exegesis works. He criticizes those literatures in which the traditional perspective relied on the authority of the narrators or authors rather than the substance. He is also critical of the nature of these texts as being contradictory or even self-contradictive. No wonder many translations or interpretations referring to such literatures have failed to address the universal teaching of the Qur’an, but rather are trapped in apology, distortion, gender bias, etc. He (2007: 11) argues that only by ignoring all those literatures “the Qur’an conveys clearly a message that proclaim freedom of faith, male and female equality…; it is God’s command for realization of justice for every man, woman, child irrespective of ethnic origin or religion.”

In contrast, Abdullah Saeed (2006) emphasizes the significant role of context. He insists that any approach to the Qur’an ignoring the context will fail to reveal the its real meaning. However, the concept of context for him is not limited to micro context that was commonly used by traditionalists. There is also macro context i.e. socio-cultural information of the Arabs in the seventh century in a much wider sense which necessarily contributes to socio-cultural issues adressed by the Qur’an. He also suggest one other type of context, namely contemporary context which refers to the current context in which we are living. Comprehending this context will contribute to the well-controlled method in applying the universal message of the Qur’an to each local in more practical sense under a methodology known as contextualist approach (Saeed, 2008).

Unlike Yuksel, Saeed is less critical to the contradictions among texts in which information about historical context of verses of the Qur’an appears. He sees that as differences instead of contradictions. Some verses encourage people to respect their spouses, but several prophetic traditions allow husband to hit his wife for her disloyalty. Yuksel wrongly judges it as contradiction and therefore completely ignores them. However, Saeed argues that it is the duty of an interpreter of translator to analyze the text which varies, see the special context of each, and see the relation of the context and the way the text responded to it. Unless he/she does it, the appropriate meaning of the Qur’an would not be revealed.

A little example would show the difference approach of both thinkers into particular verses. The Qur’an says ‘As to thief, male or female, cut off his or her hand…’ The original word for ‘cut off’ is iqta’u. Yuksel, in his translation, mantain the literal meaning as long as it corresponds to the universal view of the Qur’an. If it does not, the translator must look for alternative meanings of each word, as it is very likely that certain word of the Qur’an has numbers of possible meaning. He insists that the meaning of iqta’u is not simply cut off. He (2007: 21) than chooses to translate it ‘you shall mark, cut, or cut off their hand.’ Here, Yuksel seems work too far to seek the alternative meaning of iqta’u, so that he show that peculiar translation. It is true that certain word has various alternative meaning, somehow Yuksel does not have a tool by which it is proper to choose certain individual meaning (mart, cut, or cut off, in this case) rather than the other.

Unlike Yuksel, contextualist does not have that phobia to admit that the literal meaning of iqta’u is to cut off as the history shows that that kind of punishment had been usual not only in the Arabs but also in Roman since the very long time ago to the age of Prophet Muhammad. It is than actually logical if the Qur’an have that attitude towards thief. However, it does not mean that the punishment is still reliable today as values in humanity and their right has changing. Comprehending the contemporary context, taking thief in jail is a way in punishment which contextualizes the idea of hand-cut off as both have the identical purpose i.e. to protect people from that crimes and to give some trauma for the offender.

Yuksel’s theory contains fundamental weakness that the Qur’an occurred in a particular place and time. Historical context is just an axiomatic truth (Abu Zayd, 2000: 18) as it was revealed in the seventh century in a range of 22-year period; It took place either in Mecca, Medina, or several other places around. It even depicts some very small particular events and gives direct response. Comprehending the context is therefore one of key components in understanding the meaning of the Qur’an and applying it to the community in the more practical sense. All these justify that Saeed stands in the right side and the flaw of Yuksel’s argument.


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