Variety of Interpretations of Holy Texts. Research Seminar by Mohsen Najafi (University of Exeter)

Al-Mahdi Institute’s very own head librarian, Mohsen Najafi, presented his ongoing research on the philosophical hermeneutics of Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, a leading reformist figure in Iran. Hermeneutics deal with how we ought to interpret holy texts, such as the Quran; an issue that is integral to our understanding of Islam. As a prelude, Mohsen explained the evolution of hermeneutical theories from text centred, relying on linguistic rules to determine the intent of the author, to modern approaches that go beyond the text to the author’s phycology and mindset. Following on from modern hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics, as propagated by Heidegger and Gadamer, focused on the interpreter and the dialogue between the interpreter and the text.

Shabestari, who received a traditional seminarian education in Iran, reached a turning point in his life when he became acquainted with German Protestant theology during his time as the Director of Islamic Centre of Hamburg. His own approach to interpreting the Quran follows the philosophical hermeneutic approach, according to which the text alone doesn’t convey meaning, but rather the meaning depends on the pre-existing knowledge and presumptions of the reader. The reader is the interpreter of the text and the one who discovers what the author could have meant. As such, the interpreter’s presuppositions need to be examined and understood. Shabestari’s views on how to interpret texts have also led him to critique the official reading of Islam employed by the Islamic Government of Iran which he considers to be based on the traditional hermeneutical approach as it creates conflict with modern day issues such as human rights.


Mohsen Najafi is currently pursuing a PhD in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His research topic is The New Approaches to the Nature of the Qur’an and Revelation in Post-revolutionary Iran: The cases of Mojtahed Shabestari and Abdolkarim Soroush, supervised by Prof. Robert Gleave. His interests include Islam and Politics, Islam and Modernity, Muslim Intellectual History, Qur’anic Studies, Qur’anic Hermeneutics and Islamic Theology and Philosophy.