Textual Interpretation

Human Rights Dialogue 1.5 (Summer 1996): "Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia"

June 5, 1996

Discussions of cultural sources of human rights bring up the sometimes problematic need to reinterpret and even reformulate cultural texts to bridge a gap between international rights regimes and local cultures. Textual interpretation poses the twin phenomena of variable meanings and contested readings.7 When applied to cultural sources of human rights, the phenomena translate into a question of power. Who interprets these texts? And who decides whether the interpretations are right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, legitimate or deviant? The answers to these questions may determine practical outcomes that directly affect the lives of human beings, such as the case of women in Islam (discussed by Othman), the freedom of social-political action by Buddhist monks (described by Sulak), and the arrest and detention without trial in Malaysia of the leader of Al-Arqam (analyzed by An-Na im). The process of examination toward consensus-building is as crucial as the substance of the text under examination.

The workshop dealt less with the question of power and more with what criteria to apply in interpreting cultural texts. One safeguard proposed in some of the papers is the assiduous application of historical contexts in the analysis of cultural sources. Sulak, for example, explains why the Buddhist canon makes no reference to rights. When Siamese society was in its organic, cohesive phase, duties served as a sufficient guide for human and social conduct. As Siamese society modernized, however, guidelines on rights became imperative. This, in fact, mirrors the development of rights in the West.

Othman's exposition on the history of the Qur an also stresses the importance of historical context: the difference between Muslim societies at th time the Qur an was revealed and at present; the topical, rather than chronological, organization of the Qur an; and the problem of language and literary structure, which are based on Arab experience.

Therefore once the divine manifested itself among humans in the form of the Qur anic word—and was launched by the Prophet, as the bearer and messenger of that word, into human history—everything in Islam from that point on is undeniably historical. There can be very few literal interpretations or interpretations of enduring, immutable validity. Muslims have to be clear about general principles and have to work out for themselves the two levels of the text—the transitory or contingent and the permanent. This ultimately relies upon the human practice of ijtihad (informed, critical reason).

Othman's call for the analysis of Islamic texts within their historical framework is intended as a defense against literal and potentially injurious interpretations. There were participants, however, who perceived such a view as an unwarranted attack on tradition and an attempt to inject a modernist, secular, and, by implication, damaging agenda into Islam.

To strengthen an argument for a certain interpretation, it is necessary to establish criteria to distinguish between essential elements of cultural texts and historically contingent elements. This can refer to interpretations that do not rest on misconceptions (for example, the belief that the earth is flat), that are not distorted by powerful interests (for example, arguments put forth by government officials that are determined more by political requirements than by a desire to truly understand the tradition), that are internally consistent, that better cohere with other cherished values like human rights, that serve as a guide for practice in the modern world, and so on.