Critics of Islam often insist that they can read a translation of the Qur’an and interpret all of the verses as is, without any knowledge other than the ability to read words in succession. I am not sure if it is hubris, ignorance, ulterior motives or a combination of all three which fosters such a state of unawareness in some people. (See most recent article Islam 101: What does the verse in the Qur’an ‘kill the unbelievers wherever you find them’ mean? and accompanying comments)
Usually these critics point out a few selected verses in the Qur’an and insist that they know everything about Islam that they need to know, deeming themselves experts. As fate would have it, just today I unexpectedly came upon a passage in the book Al-Maqasid: Nawawi’s Manual of Islam (Translation and Notes by Nuh Ha Mim Keller) that addresses this issue nicely.
The passage states in part:
“The knowledge that every Muslim takes from the Qur’an and the hadith is of several types: the first and most important concerns his faith, and is the knowledge of Allah and His attributes, and other basic tenets of Islamic belief such as the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Last Day, and so on. Every Muslim can and must acquire this knowledge from the Book of Allah and the sunna [practice of the Prophet (saas)].
This is also the case with a second type of general knowledge, which does not concern faith, but rather works: the general laws of Islam to do good, to avoid evil, to perform the prayer, give zakat, fast Ramadan, to cooperate with others in good works, to seek the reward of pious acts and fear wicked ones, and so forth. Anyone can learn and understand these general rules, which summarize the Sirat al-Mustaqim or ‘Straight Path’ of our religion…
A third type of knowledge is of the specific details of Islamic practice. Whereas anyone can understand the first two types of knowledge from the Qur’an and hadith, the understanding of this third type has a special name, fiqh, meaning literally ‘understanding.’ This, people differ in their capacity to do…
while the Qur’an and the sunna are ma’sum or ‘divinely protected from error,’ the understanding of them is not. Someone who derives rulings from the Qur’an and hadith without training in ijtihad or ‘deduction from primary texts,’…will be responsible for it on the Day of Judgment, just as an amateur doctor who had never been to medical school would be responsible if he performed an operation and somebody died under his knife.
Why? Because Allah has explained in the Qur’an that fiqh, the detailed understanding of the divine command, requires specially trained members of the Muslim Community to learn and teach it. Allah say in Sura al-Tawba:
Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may gain understanding of the religion, and to admonish their people when they return, that haply they may take warning? (Qur’an 9:122)…
This Qur’anic verse establishes that there should be a category of people who have learned the religion to be qualified in turn to teach it. And Allah has commanded those who do not know a ruling in Sacred Law to ask those who do, by saying in Sura al-Nahl,
Ask those who know well if you know not (Qur’an 16:43),
where the words ‘those who know well,’ ahl al-dhikr, indicate those with knowledge of the Qur’an and sunna, at their forefront the mujtahid Imams of this Umma. This is clear first of all from the fact that the Qur’an and hadith are in Arabic, and the translator can assure readers that it is not just any Arabic.
To understand the Qur’an and sunna, the mujtahid must have complete knowledge of the Arabic language in the same capacity as the early Arabs themselves had before the language came to be used by non-native speakers…” (some emphasis supplied)
The passage then continues explaining other knowledge that is needed before one can be qualified to teach this third type of knowledge. The point here is that it is well known among the vast majority of Muslims, both Arabic and non-Arabic speakers, that scholarly input is necessary to understand many of the verses in the Qur’an and statements of the Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace, because most of us do not have the necessary expertise.
Thus, when someone without this specialized knowledge quotes a verse of the Qur’an without relying on reputable scholars, his or her interpretation cannot be taken seriously. If the error is pointed out to that person, yet he or she insists—against all evidence to the contrary—that he or she is qualified to make such an interpretation, that person’s motives should be questioned.