Intolerance and Fanaticism in the Muslim World

Abdul H. Manraj

Generally speaking, Islam can be classified as having a private and public sphere. The private sphere covers personal belief and is between an individual and his / her Creator. The public sphere is not so much about religious belief but rules and regulations (some of which may be based on divine guidance) that engender stability, justice, and a civil society. The latter (public) sphere can be governed by elected officials for obvious reasons as law and order benefit society and inhibit anarchy. The former (private) sphere cannot be regulated as faith is personal, and no one has a right to dictate creed since “there shall be no coercion in religion.” (Q2:257)

The late Nasr Abu Zaid (1943 – 2010) was one of many Muslim intellectuals throughout Islamic history who was persecuted and exiled on the basis of academic research and critical analysis. Abu Zaid argued that there is a human dimension to the Qur’an, and it has to be understood in the milieu in which it was revealed. He identified himself as a Muslim, declaring that he was born a Muslim, raised as a Muslim, living as a Muslim, and God willing, will die as a Muslim.1 Nonetheless, some of God’s “self-appointed, psychotic, religious police” declared him an apostate and called for his execution because of his views. Additionally, they attempted to break up his marriage, claiming that his wife (who was also Muslim) could no longer be married to Abu Zaid given that they (the religious police) proclaimed him an apostate. A retired Egyptian judge and prominent Islamic scholar, Sa’id al-Ashmawy, noted:

For me, the most frightening thing about the Abu Zaid precedent is that the courts have no jurisdiction to judge whether a person is a believer or not – they can judge only concrete issues, not ideas. But in Abu Zaid’s trial it was ideas that were on trial. This is the first time that the courts have ruled someone an apostate in modern history. We’re returning to the Inquisition.2

Another example is the case of Ali Abdel-Raziq. In 1925, he wrote a book in which he argued against the caliphate system, asserting it was not essential to Islam and is nothing more than a political system used by Muslims. Furthermore, Abdel-Raziq declared that Islam does not advocate any particular form of government, and the Prophet Muhammad never claimed to be a king or ruler. As expected, Abdel-Raziq was ostracized for his views. Or take the case of another scholar, Taha Husayn, who suggested that pre-Islamic folklore was mentioned in the Qur’anic revelation given the Arabs’ familiarity with it, so the stories are not meant to be taken as actual historical events but were used to convey messages. Furthermore, Husayn added that due to pre-Islamic mythology and allegories in the Qur’an, some of the characters mentioned may not even be real flesh-and-blood people. For this, he was accused of heresy.3

The above instances, while extremely disturbing, are not surprising given the unprecedented levels of ignorance and intolerance in much of the Muslim world. Abu Zaid ended up in the Netherlands as a professor at Leiden University. He lamented that Muslim intellectuals only converse among themselves, leaving a gap for unschooled imams to preach a fossilized interpretation of Islam, and in some cases vitriol, to the Muslim masses. Like another Egyptian scholar and theologian, Muhammad Abduh, who is considered a pioneer in modern Islamic thought, Abu Zaid also believed that education was essential to bring about a better society.4 Abu-Zaid believed that the Muslim world is experiencing stagnation in Islamic thought because Muslims overemphasize the divine dimension of the Qur’an at the expense of acknowledging its human characteristics. Additionally, he stressed that we cannot understand the Qur’an properly without studying history in order to learn about the context (geography, politics, society) in which the Qur’an was revealed.5

It is a historical fact that Muslims from the eighth and ninth centuries rubbed shoulders with a variety of other cultures, including Indian, Egyptian, Persian, and Greek. They incorporated knowledge from these cultures into Muslim theology, philosophy, language, and even jurisprudence. Since Islamic theology has evolved over time, it is ludicrous that many of today’s theologians believe that we should treat our understanding of human history as a static phenomenon. Muhammad Abduh believed that Muslims are backward and cannot come to terms with modernity not because we are Muslims, but because we do not understand Islam.6

The idea of Islam as a blend of religion and state is a modern concept and was absent from the seventh to ninth centuries. There must be a clear separation between religion and state in order for religion to blossom and progress. In the absence of this, creed becomes a religious and political weapon with which to persecute minorities and those with differing religious and political views.7 Abu Zaid believed that Shari’a law is human law and there is nothing divine about it. The penalties stipulated in the Qur’an for fornication, robbery, murder, etc. predated the Qur’an so they cannot be considered Islamic or divine. Some of these laws are Roman, Jewish, or even go further back.

Shari’a law reached its final expression in the thirteenth century and has not been developed since; moreover, Muslims just parrot their ancestors’ understanding of Shari’a from the thirteenth century.8 The Qur’anic message has to be continuously discovered and rediscovered in light of culture, society, and human advancement. This idea that religious texts are historically determined and culturally constructed is not only rejected in much of the Muslim world but also condemned as atheism; however, the Qur’an alludes to a metaphoric reading within its own text. Several verses admonish believers to lend to God by way of charity, and it will be returned to them multiplied many times over. So the Jews of Medina asked the Prophet a logical question: “How is it that God prohibits usury and then promises to give it on loans?”9

Interestingly, Abu Zaid believed that as long as the festering Arab / Israeli conflict remains unsolved, there will be no intellectual progress and reformation of Islamic thought in the Muslim world. While Abu Zaid credits the West for providing an environment in which he could flourish intellectually, he is equally critical of its policies towards the Muslim world. There is a sense in the Arab / Muslim world, not without foundation, that American foreign policy towards Palestine is absolutely unjust. Because of this injustice and blind loyalty to Israel, the majority of Muslims also feel that America and the West are against Islam. When he looked at today’s landscape of exclusiveness, Abu Zaid was pessimistic that all of the gains that Muhammad Abduh made in integrating Islam and the West might be wasted.10 Abduh had distinguished between the beneficial parts of Western culture and its colonizing aims, accepting the former while rejecting the latter.

American / Western bias towards Israel is firmly planted in the myth of Zionist Christianity. Jerusalem is perceived as belonging to the Jews, not even the Christians, and certainly not the Arabs. The story is that the Jews lived in Jerusalem, built a temple, left in the first century, and lived in other places. Even if we accept the myth that all of the Jews were expelled and the people returning after two thousand years are Jewish descendants of those who left in the first place, does history entitle them to displace the people already living there and lay claim to a specific piece of real estate? Zionist Christianity says yes, but this is based on giving myth the weight of factual truth.11 God is just and does not sanction such an injustice. Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to coexist peacefully as the ongoing conflict is unsustainable.

The Western media especially portrays Islam as an inherently violent religion and antithetical to Western values. While there are many benefits to Western culture, including universal values such as freedom and democracy that Muslims yearn for (as demonstrated recently with the so called “Arab Spring”), the West’s priorities are political and economic interests, as it props up brutal dictatorial regimes while hypocritically claiming that it wants freedom and democracy for Muslims. It appears that modernity, human rights, and democracy are more the domain of the privileged. When the cry for justice goes unheeded, violence is the inevitable result, regardless of religious affiliation.12

Another late Muslim intellectual, Muhammad Arkoun (1928 - 2010), had this to say about Abu Zaid’s efforts at reforming Islamic Thought:

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, the first Muslim scholar to face the Arabic world directly by writing in Arabic while teaching at Cairo University, tried to break the many taboos which prohibit the application of the most relevant achievements of contemporary linguistics to the Qur’an. Before him, Muhammad Khalafallah tried to apply literary criticism to narrative in the Qur’an, and in spite of its modest scientific span, his essay caused a major upheaval. The works of Abu Zaid contain nothing revolutionary if one places them within the scholarly production of the last twenty years, since they explain quite straightforwardly the conditions necessary for applying the rules of defining and analyzing the text of the Qur’an (Mafhum al-nass). Once more, the violent reaction to attempts intending only to popularize knowledge long since widely accepted, underlines the area in contemporary Islamic thought of what [many believe] cannot be and has not been thought.13

Abu Zaid believed that Muslims are "damn lazy in thinking that what our ancestors accomplished is the be-all and end-all." He added that this notion is stupid given that knowledge continuously grows. As we study and learn from the world in conjunction with the Qur’anic text, new knowledge emerges. Glorifying the past is misunderstanding the past and gets us nowhere. Given our heritage, our propensity to stagnate is odd in light of the Qur’anic admonition against jahiliyyah (the tribal mentality of the pre-Islamic era), which fosters fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.14

Today, any critique of traditionally accepted Islamic thought fuels panic in the Muslim world, accusations of being Western stooges, and in some situations is considered criminal as in the case of Abu Zaid and many other Muslim intellectuals. The fifteenth-century encyclopedist Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti forthrightly stated that the Prophet Muhammad received revelation (the Qur’an) only in content, and the actual phrasing of the Qur’an came from the Prophet himself. Such an idea cannot be discussed or even mentioned publicly today, and people have lost their lives for speaking out in this manner.15

Abu Zaid believed that the Qur’an’s paramount message is one of social justice. He felt that Muslims focused too much on a literary reading of the Qur’anic text and the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit of the law. For example, God’s directive to produce four eyewitnesses for a crime is meant to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that a crime is committed, not produce four eyewitnesses per se in every instance. Similarly, the Prophet’s alleged command to look for the moon to start / end the lunar month was not intrinsically about naked-eye sighting of the moon, but ascertaining the start and end of the month. In an era with such technological advances as fingerprints and DNA, and pinpointing to the second the moon’s conjunction when it starts to emit light, it is infantile to argue for adherence to archaic rules and methods.

Chapter 11 of Abu Zaid’s book “Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam” was most enlightening. As an Islamic Studies scholar, Abu Zaid was convinced that people who think that everything mentioned in the Qur'an is binding and should be obeyed and followed literally, are going against God's Word. For example, with regard to the punishment for crime, he argued that the goal we are after is justice. In order to establish justice, a society needs to punish people who commit crimes against that society. But the form of punishment mentioned in the Qur'an is a historical expression of punishment carried out by a specific society in a specific time and place – it is not a divine directive. Punishment for crime is a principle that, when carried out, establishes justice. Justice is a principle reflected in the divine, universal Word of God. Punishment is part of constructing a just society, but the form that punishment takes is historically determined – it is not fixed.

Reading classical Islamic thought should be a critical exercise. Abu Zaid proposed that we have to assess what our ancestors accomplished, and what we can add or develop as a result of their accomplishments. Based on his research and study, Abu Zaid concluded that the Qur'anic objectives that jurists long ago agreed upon were deduced from the penal code during the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula. The objectives were not deduced from looking at the paradigm of the entire Qur'an.

The first objective, which is the protection of life, emerged from the penal code's prohibition of illegal killing. Retaliation, according to the Qur'an, is sanctioned only to maintain life itself. Protection of sanity was deduced from the Qur'an's directive to abstain from alcohol. Protection of property was lifted from the penal code's condemnation of theft and then incorporated into the Qur'an. Protection of progeny can be traced to sanctions already in place against committing adultery. Regarding the protection of religion, the Qur'an does not dispense any earthly punishment for people who turn their backs on Islam (or any religion for that matter). Those who reject faith after once accepting it and remain defiant will suffer in the hereafter. Later on, the death penalty for turning one's back on Islam became established as a way to maintain political authority in a region.

The Qur'an contains the penal code. We call it the hudud – all the verses that indicate specific punishment for certain crimes. Abu Zaid concluded that we need another reading of the Qur'an in order to make this particular manifestation of the Word of God meaningful in our present day circumstances. If we look at the hudud in a historical context, we find that these particular passages reflect a historical reality; they do not reflect Divine imperatives. For example, the killing for killing, eye for an eye, stoning for adultery, amputation of the hand for stealing, and death for changing one’s religion – all this was in effect either before the Qur'an came along or instituted after Qur'anic revelation. The Qur'an did not establish this kind of punishment. If the Qur'an did not initially establish a punishment, we cannot consider it to be Qur'anic. The Qur'an adopted particular forms of punishment from pre-Islamic cultures in order to have credibility with the contemporary civilization.

Punishment for crimes is a Qur'anic principle, but should a form of punishment, integrated into the body of the text from another source, be considered Qur'anic, and therefore binding on the community of believers? Abu Zaid believed that we can say that the Qur'an leads us to understand that those who commit crimes should be punished, but the Qur'an contextualizes itself within accepted practices during a particular time. Contemporary society has every right – even an obligation – to institute more humane punishment for crimes. To do so in no way violates God's Word.

The Qur'an took a particular shape so that it would be acceptable to people in 7th century Arabia. If we elevate historical aspects of the Qur'an to divine status, Abu Zaid believed that we violate the Word of God and it becomes twisted when we freeze it in a specific time and space. The absolute Word of God goes beyond its historical context – this is what we need to grasp. If anything spoken about in the Qur'an has a precedent in pre-Islamic tradition – whether Jewish, Roman, or anything else – we need to understand that it being mentioned in the Qur'an does not automatically make it Qur'anic, and therefore binding on Muslims.

Slavery as a socioeconomic system is mentioned in the Qur'an – it's a historical reality. Human beings have developed their thinking since the 7th century and slavery is no longer an acceptable socioeconomic system in most parts of the world. Abu Zaid asked how can we use the Word of God to legitimate a heinous system that human beings no longer generally practice. If we do legitimize such a thing, we freeze God's Word in history – but the Word of God reaches way beyond historical reality. Slavery is something that is not Qur'anic. Jurists, those folks in the Islamic world responsible for developing law, need to apply a healthy dose of critical thinking to their job as they go about the business of forming a just society – one that moves in the direction of God’s Word.

Something else Abu Zaid had in mind when he did research was discovering just what the ultimate objectives of the Qur'an really are. We learn, of course, from our ancestors. How did they go about deducing the meaning of the Qur'an? How did they read a text? To their accomplishments we add our modern disciplines of textual analysis, historical analysis, and hermeneutics.

For example, the concept of justice infiltrates all the passages of the Qur'an. "Just" is one of God's beautiful names. The Qur'an, when it admonishes people to avoid fraudulent practices, uses the image of a scale as a metaphor for justice. "Woe betide the unjust who, when others measure for them, exact in full, but when they measure or weigh for others, defraud them! Do they not think they will be raised to life upon a fateful day, the day when all mankind will stand before the Lord of the Universe?" (Sura 83:1-6).

Even the paradigms of life in the hereafter are based on the concept of justice. The entire universe, the whole cosmos, is built on justice: "We shall set up just scales on the Day of Resurrection, so that no man shall in the least be wronged. Actions as small as a grain of mustard seed shall be weighed out. Our reckoning shall suffice" (Sura 21:47). Keeping things balanced – establishing justice – is spoken about over and over again throughout the Qur'an. Every story and each commandment are there with the intention to establish justice in a society. Justice easily emerges as one of the major objectives of the Qur'an.

The Qur'an took shape within Meccan society – an unjust society in many ways – where wealthy people oppressed poor people by charging them riba (usury). Why did the language condemning usurious practice have to be so strong? Mecca was in the middle of trade routes between the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and northern destinations such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Meccan citizens who enjoyed privilege and status became extremely wealthy as a result of trade. If poor citizens could not pay their debts, they were forced to borrow money from the wealthy (via usury) in order to save their own skins. There are many stories showing how the wealthy took advantage of the vulnerable in cities that dotted the trade routes in the Middle East. The Qur'an as a text emerged from the midst of this concrete and harsh reality. Usury, within the context of this particular reality, was used as an instrument that perpetuated injustice.

Abu Zaid asked why the Qur'an so concerned about the orphans, the weak, and the poor? Muhammad himself was an orphan and poor. His father died before he was born. His uncle took him in after his grandfather died. He lost his mother when he was six years old. Because his uncle was so poor, Muhammad went to work early in his life. He belonged to the class of "have-nots" in a society where the "haves" flaunted their wealth, not caring an iota about the lives of people living on the brink or, as we say in more modern times, falling through the cracks.

The opposition to and harsh criticism in the Qur'an of the practice of riba stand in sharp contrast to the giving of alms – something the Qur'an commands as a path toward achieving socioeconomic justice. The two issues, alms and usury, are connected. The Qur'an gives us a nice image of those who give charitably, providing for needy folks without exposing them to embarrassment. This image stands in juxtaposition to the image of those who practice riba.

God has laid his curse on usury and blessed almsgiving with increase. God bears no love for the impious and the sinful. Those that have faith and do good works, attend to their prayers and render the alms levy, will be rewarded by their Lord and will have nothing to fear or to regret. Believers, have fear of God and waive what is still due to you from usury, if your faith be true: or war shall be declared against you by God and His apostle. If you repent, you may retain your principal, suffering no loss and causing loss to none. If your debtor be in straits, grant him a delay until he can discharge his debt: but if you waive the sum as alms it will be better for you, if you but knew it. (Sura 2:276-280)

During the past three decades, Islamic banks have been established all over the world, claiming to run on an economic system that practices no riba. But when it comes right down to it, these banks don't operate any differently than the existing banking system based on charging interest. Many jurists (those responsible for enacting Islamic law) have ignored the circumstances surrounding the prohibition of usury. By ignoring the context of the Qur'anic position, the debate about riba has taken on a wooden character. The question has become focused on whether or not the financial transaction in the modern banking system, based on a fixed interest rate on both savings and loans, is actually riba. Abu Zaid believed that this misses the point. The Qur'an forbade riba because it was used to oppress the poor. Riba has entered aspects of Islamic law as an acceptable practice in some circumstances. Modern Muslim scholars do not consider interest, used today by the modern banking system, to be riba. Jurists who tightly grasp those solutions more appropriate to another age (7th century Meccan society) believe that interest of any sort is riba, and therefore inherently wrong.

No matter what subject the Qur'an talks about – the universe, the cosmos, nature, God and His activities, social life, or the life hereafter – Abu Zaid believed that justice is at its core. Justice gives shape to all of them. In light of the Qur'an's emphasis on justice, it's surprising to Abu Zaid that the principle of justice is absent from the list of agreed-upon objectives in classical Islam. He felt that justice should be right there on top. If there were to be a conflict between justice and freedom, justice ought to prevail. Abu Zaid thought that is why we find the principle of freedom in the Qur'an somewhat limited. Even with our more modern understanding of freedom, freedom as a Qur'anic objective must be couched within the primary objective of justice.

Jahiliyyah is commonly known as the "Age of Ignorance" in the West. Abu Zaid felt that the phrase "the Age of Ignorance" did not convey an accurate meaning of the term. Jahiliyyah specifically refers to the pre-Islamic period, a time before Muhammad received Divine revelation, and refers to behavior based on the tribal code. The Qur'an condemns this code, a code insisting that members of the tribe comply with the group no matter what (it's similar to the American expression "My country, right or wrong"). According to the tribal code of conduct, the individual has no voice. The individual is expected to follow the leader and obey blindly. The Qur'an condemns this, admonishing us to follow our own conscience, built not on the tribal code but on right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad. Here we see the Qur'an coming up with something different, something in contradiction to the tribal code.

The Qur'an's language in reference to the Bedouin (tribal people who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula) is harsh. The word "Arab" is not even used in the Qur'an – just the word a'rab – a word synonymous with "Bedouin" and always used negatively. We can conclude from this that the Qur'an espouses a set of values and rules that is in direct contradiction to the Bedouin tribal code; therefore, the Qur'an considers the Bedouin tribal code jahiliyyah.

Qur'anic values are built on the concepts of freedom and justice – freedom of thought in order to bring about a just society, so your tribe going to war is no reason to think that you, the individual, must automatically go with them. In this way, Islam established a community, not a tribe – a community that went beyond the strictures of the tribal system. This was part of Islam: to establish a sense of community based on another set of values, another code. In order to establish this community, freedom is understood as a way to get out from under the stultifying practice of blindly following tradition and copying the past.

Abu Zaid argued that if we look at Arab and Muslim societies, we will see that most of the time no government has come to power by the choice of the people. We'll often find a military system in place, an archaic royal family at the nation's helm, or somebody who inherits power from his predecessor. Sometimes the new governing body takes a new name and puts on a modern appearance, but all we have to do is scratch the surface and we'll see it's the same old thing underneath. The tribal mentality is alive and well. The code is obedience. All our institutions – political, social, economic, and academic – have an authoritarian structure. Intellectuals have their own form of tribal behavior. You either belong to the right or belong to the left – you'd better not disobey the code of whatever intellectual tribe you belong to, it's a terrible situation.

For example, when the peace talks which led to the Oslo Accords began in 1992-1993, many intellectuals were in favor of establishing communication and cooperation between the Palestinian territories and Israel. People from the intellectual tribe – both the left and the right – said they were in favor of peace. But, when the two groups said that they were in favor of peace, did that mean that both groups had identical views about a situation? Not necessarily. In spite of that, some members of the intellectual tribe believed that here was an opportunity to speak from a united front, but no way did this happen. The group in favor of the Oslo talks called those folks who expressed some reticence about the talks stupid, retarded, and belonging to the old world. The reticent group shot back by calling their accusers traitors, using peace as a way to conspire with the "enemy" in order to wield influence and power. Abu Zaid was appalled at the discourse. If we all claim that we are looking for peace and we, those of us within the intellectual tribe, are unable to tolerate different opinions among ourselves – then it's very easy to despair. If you disagree with the tribe, you are expelled from the tribe.

Someone even accused Abu Zaid of having a Jewish mother. He replied to this "accusation" with a huge amount of indignation, stating that there is nothing wrong with being Jewish or having a Jewish mother, but there is everything wrong with being a stupid Muslim. Abu Zaid refused to play the tribal game and was subsequently marginalized as an Arab intellectual. He took some comfort in being marginalized as he does not try to vote with the center. He posited that it's only from the margins that he is able to threaten the center. If he were to be integrated into the center, he would not have much impact on the development of Islamic thought, and God knows the Arab and Muslim world desperately needs to see the relevance of modern scholarship on individual lives and on societies.

When he applied his critical scholarship to the subject of women, Abu Zaid saw how well this subject nestled into the concepts of justice and freedom, two essential objectives of the Qur'an. The fourth chapter of the Qur'an is simply titled "Women." The opening verse tells us that God created a human being from one single soul, and from this one single soul, God created its mate, and from there, God created all humanity. "You people! Have fear of your Lord, who created you from a single soul. From that soul, He created its spouse, and through them He bestrewed (scattered] the earth with countless men and women" (Sura 4:1).

From the above verse, we can see the unity of human beings and of the human race. Male and female are created from one single soul. The Christian understanding of Eve, created from Adam's rib, has been integrated into Islamic thought – into the exegesis of the Qur'an – and so it became part of Islam. Abu Zaid was aware that Genesis gives two accounts of the creation of humanity, one of them being more in line with the Qur'anic understanding (not the account where Eve emerges as a product of Adam's rib). But in the Qur'an, the chapter on women begins by establishing the unity and equality of human beings. There was one soul, and this one soul God divided into two and from them, the whole human race came forth.

Polygamy is a subject that is not well understood by most Muslims. Polygamy, historically speaking, was a popular practice in human societies long before the advent of Islam. It is a mistake to think of polygamy as part of the Islamic revelation. Yes, the Qur'an does address the issue of polygamy, but the verse so often used to legitimize polygamy is really addressing the issue of orphans who needed protection and custody after losing their parents in the battle of Uhud (625). Muslims lost ten percent of the army – seventy warriors – leaving many children orphaned. The historical context as well as textual analysis shows that permission was granted to marry a widow or a female orphan so that she would be protected and provided for in this particular society, a society that preyed upon widows and female orphans – often stealing their inheritance from them. Therefore the Qur'an admonishes:

Give orphans the property which belongs to them. Do not exchange their valuables for worthless things or cheat them of their possessions; for this would surely be a grievous sin. If you fear that you cannot treat orphans with fairness [giving them their inheritance], then you may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them [within a marital relationship], marry one only or any slave-girls you may own. This will make it easier for you to avoid injustice. (Sura 4:3)

The syntax of the third sentence in the above verse is conditional – if you are not sure that you'll be able to treat orphans with fairness, then you are allowed to marry two, three – even up to four other women. Again justice is the goal, and the means to reach that goal in these particular circumstances comes through the practice of polygamy, which is used as a solution to establish justice. The plural "orphans" here is feminine and the focus is on doing justice for orphans. If that is not possible, there is a solution, which comes from pre-Islamic practice.

The Arabs living in the Arabian Peninsula of the 7th century mistreated orphans and denied them their rights. They took the orphans' inheritances and made them virtual slaves in the household, which was common practice. So the Qur'an asks: "OK, if you Arabs are so greedy, why don't you marry them?" Marriage brings about a whole new relationship and a means to a more just society. The solution established by the Qur'an is not the same thing as establishing polygamy. It is using polygamy as a solution to a real problem in the 7th century, the problem of orphans. Since polygamy was widely practiced already, we cannot say that polygamy is Qur'anic law. It is not a law but a practical solution to a pressing, historical problem. Justice is the broader issue.

Abu Zaid concluded through his research that the Qur'an does not favor polygamy. The Qur'an, in its attempt to establish justice, realizes that even if the Arabs chose the path of marrying orphans, the goal of justice remained out of reach. He did not believe that he could conclude that the Qur'an is against polygamy – that would be jumping over history. The Qur'an recommends polygamy as a solution to a social problem. Since the Qur'an is not in favor of the practice, jurists in the business of establishing modern law would be wise to put tight restrictions around its use. This way, Islam will be developing societies in the same direction the Word of God takes – the establishment of justice.

Given our present-day social circumstances, polygamy is insulting to women as well as to the children born into the family. Abu Zaid was appalled that there is no discussion in modern Islamic thought about what effects polygamy might have on children. The questions have remained the same over centuries: Is polygamy allowed in the Qur'an, is it legal? It's time we asked: "What about the children, and what impact does the practice have on them?" We have to consider this first and foremost since the Qur'an is all about establishing justice in society.

When we look at other verses in the Qur'an about women, we should envelop them in the same context – justice. If certain practices in the Qur'an appear to be contrary to this concept, the context can usually explain it. For example, the beating of wives is mentioned in the Qur'an so it cannot be ignored. The thinking goes like this: If beating is mentioned in the Qur'an, I have the right to beat my wife. Abu Zaid recalled hearing a professor from the Islamic University in Rotterdam saying in an interview that the Qur'an allowed a husband to discipline his wife by beating her, so it's not only the fundamentalist or radical people who think like this. Somehow, if something is mentioned in the Qur'an, people think it is permissible.

It is possible to state from a supposedly academic position that the Qur'an allows a husband to beat his wife in order to discipline her. If everything mentioned in the Qur'an is to be literally followed as a divine law, Muslims should be consistent and reinstitute slavery as a socioeconomic system, since it's also mentioned in the Qur'an. When we speak of something being Qur'anic, we are talking about that which was initiated by the Qur'an and therefore is binding on Muslims. There is a distinction between the historicity of the Qur'an and the Word of God in its absolute form. We're back to the double nature of the Qur'an, human and divine (according to Christian doctrine, not everything that Jesus said was said as the Son of God, sometimes Jesus behaved just as a man). The Qur'an is a mode of communication between God and humanity. When we take the historical aspect of that communication as divine, we lock God's Word in time and space and limit the meaning of the Qur'an to a specific time in history. Far better – and more faithful to the Word of God – is to ferret out that dynamic within the Qur'an which has been able to shape the lives of Muslims over centuries as they have wrestled with the question "How can I be a good Muslim in a changing world?"

Why is it, then, that when we read passages in the Qur'an dealing with women, the reading has concentrated on the historical aspect, not on the objective of establishing justice? Going back to the subject of polygamy, the Qur'an tells us: "Try as you may, you cannot treat all your wives impartially" (Sura 4:129). If you think that you will not be able to be fair with your wives, this verse confirms that fear. The problem comes as pre-Islamic social traditions have mixed with Islamic jurisprudence. This mixture has found itself woven into the fabric of Muslim societies, and then enforced there.

The name of the chapter – "Women" – is itself misleading. Muslims titled it according to its subject matter rather than the larger principle it encompasses, justice. The subject matter is women but could just as easily have been war or the poor. Justice is the larger issue under which pressing social issues can easily be subsumed.

A problematic verse reads:

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme. (Sura 4:34)

The English translation of this verse needs to be addressed. The Arabic word qawwamun is translated in some English texts as "protectors." Muslims generally understand this word to mean "superiors," indicating that men are financially responsible to maintain their families. The question comes down to this: Is the Qur'an here descriptive, merely describing what is going on, or prescriptive, admonishing believers to carry on the practice? Many folks argue that it is prescriptive. Going to the context, though, gives us amazing insight. A woman came to the Prophet Muhammad complaining that her husband had slashed her face. Muhammad simply said: "Slash him back." What we note here is that Muhammad is going beyond the historical restraints placed upon women (this anecdote always creates a lot of negative reaction from Muslim men).

The Word of God continuously emphasizes equality between women and men, there is no distinction made regarding the rewards or punishments both women and men reap in the hereafter. If there is equality in the spiritual realm, does it make sense that God would smile upon inequality in societies in the here and now? There is equality in creation itself and equality when Muslims perform religious duties and rites. We have seen how the Qur'an does not favor polygamy and how the entire thrust of the Qur'an is toward justice. So how do we understand the Qur'an's directives regarding financial support, wife-beating, and inheritance?

Men have superiority over women because of their contribution to the expenses of life. It has nothing to do with human worth. Human societies, though, have equated financial wealth with human worth, and this has shifted the balance of power between women and men unfairly. Men, as a rule in patriarchal societies, have more earning power than women. Abu Zaid understood this superiority that the Qur'an refers to as responsibility. This same term – responsibility – is a word used about God in relation to God's work in holding the universe together. Power is certainly involved, but the emphasis is on responsible action. We talk about God as being qayyun in regard to the heavens and earth, He keeps watch, He keeps things in order, He keeps the world from destruction. The Qur'an uses the same word with regard to men – they are qawwamun. They are responsible for the family – they keep the family in order. It has more to do with responsibility than authority. Of course, responsibility could imply some authority.

In modern times, because of the changes that have affected all our social institutions, and therefore our social structure, women can be considered qawwamun. If the woman is the major source of family income, then she is superior. Textual analysis shows that God considers some people to be superior (responsible), depending on their financial contribution. The pronoun used could refer to either women or men. It keeps open the possibility of interpretation, but certainly if the woman is the only source of income, and therefore responsible to protect the family, then she is definitely qawwam.

The context of wife-beating revolves around instances where a wife's behavior threatens the stability of the family, and therefore the survival of the community. The expression nushuz means "going way out of bounds." The Qur'an says that if a woman goes way beyond the boundaries, she should first be admonished about her behavior. If this is not successful, she opens herself up to punishment. Her husband may refuse to share their bed or may beat her (the Qur'an also mentions a case where a husband goes beyond the boundaries – in the mode of nushuz). Again, are these particular punishments mentioned the Word of God or do they only reflect history? Abu Zaid believed these punishments were a historical solution to current social problems.

Of course it is entirely possible that some women would not have considered desertion from the marital bed to be punishment. We are dealing with the Qur'an, a historical text, coming into existence at a time when patriarchy was well established in cultures throughout the world. Patriarchy, literally meaning "rule by the fathers," is a social system with "domination over" somebody or something (men over women, masters over slaves, kings or queens over subjects, elites over commoners, human beings over nature) at its core. A patriarchal perspective sees things through a male-centered lens, and even though women can (and do) replicate the patriarchal order as their lives unfold, the gender roles that a society enforces on both women and men ensure that a male perspective remains dominant. Products of any given culture (and the Qur'an is a product of a specific culture) reflect the way things are in a society. The language of the text situates itself within a specific material reality – one that expresses itself through a patriarchal bent. Nevertheless, the absolute Word of God transcends the text. Part of Abu Zaid’s research had to do with distinguishing between the human and divine aspects of the Qur'an.

Before Islam made its appearance on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, women inherited nothing. The eldest son received everything. Islam changed this.

God has thus enjoined you concerning your children: A male shall inherit twice as much as a female. If there be more than two girls, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance: but if there be one only, she shall inherit the half. Parents shall inherit a sixth each, if the deceased has a child; but if he leaves no child and his parents be his heirs, his mother shall have a third. If he has brothers, his mother shall have a sixth after payment of any legacy he may be bequeathed or any debt he may have owed. You may wonder whether your parents or your children are more beneficial to you [nearer to you in benefit]. But this is the law of God: surely God is all-knowing and wise. (Sura 4:11)

If you accept the reading that the above verse establishes change – women have a right to be included in inheritance as the direction is toward justice. However, a deeper reading shows that this text is not about establishing the rights of women – it is about limiting the rights of men. The Qur'an here is moving in the direction of equality between women and men so it's a step in the right direction. Women should have a share in an inheritance just as men do.

"A male shall inherit twice as much as a female." The structure of the verse concentrates on the share of the male, not the share of the female. Suppose the structure were different? Suppose the text read, "A female shall inherit half of what a male inherits"? This gives us a different semantic reading. If the Qur'anic verse began, "A female shall inherit," we would know that the Qur'an is busy defining the share of the female. But it begins, "A male shall inherit." We see that the Qur'an busies itself defining just what the male's share is to be.

Abu Zaid reminded us that before Islam, the male received all of the inheritance. The Qur'an here is limiting the share of the male, not defining the share of the female. He believed that the Qur'an's intention is limitation – it's the semantic focus of the text. Placing a limitation on what the male receives is not absolutely defining what he should get, but by saying "no more than this," it leaves open the possibility that he could receive less.

Men should not go beyond that which the Qur'an entitles them to. Grammatically speaking, the Qur'an limits the share that men inherit. The Qur'an does not give an absolute share to either women or men. The structure of the Qur'an clears the way for societies to enact inheritance laws that reflect equality between the sexes. Its structure doesn't box us into absolute numerical amounts.

How should we understand "You may wonder whether your parents or your children are more beneficial to you"? Just because the context reflects the jahiliyyah code of behavior, this does not necessarily imply that the Qur'an is trying to guide the believers to go beyond the blood bonds on which the inheritance passages rest. Nonetheless, reading the whole Qur'an in terms of its strong opposition to the tribal code would suggest such an implication. If we add the fact that Prophet Muhammad clearly indicated that his inheritance was to be distributed for charity, we can suggest that the whole inheritance system is really historically determined.

Abu Zaid believed that much work begs to be done in the field of Islamic Studies. The 19th century saw a movement of revivalism in the Arab and Muslim world that for a variety of reasons lost its momentum. The process of reforming Islamic thought by looking at the Qur'an and trying to differentiate between what is history and what is the absolute Word of God has continued since then in spite of that loss of momentum. Abu Zaid did not consider his work exceptional but he did not come out of a vacuum. He counted himself among those few who have been trying to keep the Qur'an relevant to life in the modern age, and they have experienced heavy resistance.

There are reasons for this resistance. One of the reasons stems from the absence of what Abu Zaid called a "free market of ideas." The acceptance of the economic free market in Muslim societies does not include the acceptance of this free market of ideas. In the Arab and Muslim world, the media are totally controlled by the government. There is no space for free thinking to flourish. Yusuf Idris, one of the contemporary Egyptian writers (playwright and novelist), said that all the freedom in the Muslim and Arab world is not enough for a single person. Abu Zaid agreed with him. Political authority in Egypt is oppressive authority.

Democracy, rationalism, and freedom are not instilled in our consciousness. We have not incorporated these values into the way we go about living our lives. That's why it's easy to find refined, intellectual men talking about women and the rights of women, but treating their own wives with scorn and contempt.16 Abu Zaid has provided much food for thought and earned a well-deserved and privileged place among the Muslim intellectual elite.

Works Cited

1.    Abu Zaid, Nasr. Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam” (Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, USA, 2004). p. 11

2.    Ibid, p. 11

3.    Ibid, p. 49-53

4.    Ibid, p. 30

5.    Ibid, p. 57, 60

6.    Ibid, p. 113, 151

7.    Ibid, p. 183

8.    Ibid, p. 89, 90

9.    Ibid, p. 100-101

10.   Ibid, p. 187-188

11.   Ibid, p. 191-192. For more on this subject, see Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People,” in which he posits that the Palestinians have much more Hebrew blood than the returning diaspora (primarily descendants of converts) claiming Jewish lineage. Sand is a professor at Tel Aviv University and is not the first to make this assertion; Harry Ostrer also did in his book “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.” Sand believes that the exile of the Jews is a monumental hoax on par with the sacrifice of God's only son for the salvation of humanity.

12.   Ibid, p. 207-208

13.   Ibid, p. 194

14.   Ibid, p. 196

15.   Ibid, p. 201

16.   Ibid, p. 165-180

Posted November 29, 2012