Perspectives from Some Modern Muslim Intellectuals

Abdul H. Manraj


This article is a brief summary of the book “Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an,” edited by Suha Taji-Farouki. The book is a collection of essays profiling ten Muslim intellectuals and their ideas, and since the profiles are brief and this synopsis is a summation of those profiles, it can only provide a glimpse into the minds of these great thinkers, so to truly understand their contributions in the field of Islamic Studies, one has to read their works. A tremendous amount of intellectual effort has been devoted to understanding the Qur’an from the earliest of times, and Suha’s book is a continuation of that endeavor, demonstrating that there is a wide diversity of opinions and plurality of methodologies when it comes to the significance and impact of the Qur’anic worldview over the ages.

There are a few key themes emanating from these Muslim scholars, including:

1) Muslims must find a way to come to terms with modernity as it is impossible to recreate 7th century conditions in today’s world in order to try and relive the past;

2) Islam in not monolithic, i.e., there is no consensus, central authority, or monopoly when it comes to interpreting the Qur’an, so there is plenty of room for debate and diverse views; and

3) The Qur’anic message is primarily one of social justice and egalitarianism, regardless of gender, race, or creed.

Furthermore, these academics demonstrate that while the Qur’anic message is divine and applicable to all times and places, how that message is interpreted depends on each commentator’s methodology, intellect, and prevailing knowledge and conditions. In other words, while the Qur’anic revelation is eternal, its rulings are not meant to be taken and applied literally regardless of time and place. Instead the Qur’an provides a framework from which humans can derive guidance as environments change and civilizations progress. This is not to say that there aren’t certain binding principles that remain unchanged, rather, much is needed in the way of Islamic reform that many Muslims either refuse to come to terms with and address rationally, or they advocate outmoded and / or myopic viewpoints which cannot realistically be applied in today’s modern world.

Muslims have been in a state of intellectual lethargy for over half a millennium. While the reasons for this state of affairs are varied, the primary reason for this ossification is most likely due to the fact that any kind of bid’ah (innovation) is viewed with skepticism and disdain. Since Islam permeates every aspect of a Muslim’s daily life, there is no separation between what is deemed religious and secular per se, therefore many Muslims have struggled to come to grips with modernity. What these Muslims fail to realize is that the Prophet’s reported directive on bid’ah is confined to ritual worship (like prayer, hajj, and umrah), however, innovation is an absolute necessity for all other aspects of life. The majority of the ummah (global adherents of the faith), comprised mainly of traditionalist-minded and largely uninformed followers, are content with banality and elect to remain within the confines of a straitjacketed, static version of Islam. They do so at their own peril, as is evident from the level of backwardness and chaos in the Muslim world. On the other hand, the intellectual Muslim class (albeit a small fraction of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims) believe that they have no choice but to adapt to the modern age in order to avoid putrefaction. Moreover, they feel that this is what Islam requires of Muslims, and settling for anything less is actually a disservice to the faith.

Since most Muslims adhere to what can be termed “popular Islam,” and as such function within a constrained, traditional Islamic construct, many will probably find the concepts outlined by these thinkers difficult to comprehend, and some may even consider them heretical. However, it should be borne in mind that our predecessors were products of their time, and their understanding of the Qur’anic message was based on the knowledge available during their respective eras and applicable to their surroundings. In any aspect of life (religious or secular), to remain static is to become a relic. Those who promulgate blind obedience to medieval directives, i.e., intellectual stagnation and laziness, should ponder the comprehensive meaning of the Qur’anic verse about “an ass carrying books.”(Q62:5) Muslims have trivialized Islam to a level where it essentially provides emotional gratification based on the timely performance of rituals, perfecting modes of dress / appearance, saint worship, waiting for saviors (viz., Jesus and the Mahdi) who will never come, and the like. A common thread throughout these scholars’ writings is that Islam needs to be reinvigorated so that it can once again become a beacon for humankind as God meant it to be. The Qur’an is a Book that appeals to reason, which in turn is supposed to foster action that benefits all of humanity and make the world a better place. The power to affect change starts with knowledge. Suha’s book is a refreshing contribution to Islamic scholarship and highly recommended for Muslims and non-Muslims alike who believe that progressive change is very much needed in the Muslim world. What follows is a synopsis of the aforementioned ten intellectuals, and in parentheses are the names of the academics who profiled them.

Fazlur Rahman: a framework for interpreting the ethico-legal content of the Qur’an

(Abdullah Saeed)

Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) was a Pakistani-American scholar and one of the most prolific Muslim thinkers of the 20th century. He was born in the Hazara district in what is now Pakistan. His father, Mawlana Shihab al-Din, was an alim (scholar, plural: ulama) and graduate of the Deoband Seminary in India. Under his father’s tutorship, Rahman received his religious education in tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), hadith (reported Prophetic sayings and actions) and law, and theology and philosophy. He obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Arabic from Punjab University in Lahore, and went on to write his dissertation on Ibn Sina’s philosophy at Oxford University. Rahman was widely read in Islamic law and history, ethics, tafsir, and hadith. After finishing his studies at Oxford, he went on to teach Islamic philosophy at Durham University in the UK from 1950 to 1958. From there he taught Islamic Studies at McGill University in Canada for three years. Rahman returned to Pakistan to lead their reformation program as Director of the Central Institute of Islamic Research under then President Ayyub Khan, however, he faced stiff opposition from religious conservatives mainly in the areas of women’s rights and family law. The country’s embedded traditionalism and mass illiteracy did not help, and threats were made against Rahman’s life. He returned to academic life in the United States and was Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago from 1968 until his death in 1988. In 1983, he was the ninth recipient of the Levi Della Vida award for Islamic scholarship presented by UCLA. In 1987, the University of Chicago made him the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in recognition of his contributions to scholarship.

While Rahman is not generally known in the Arab world or traditionalist religious circles, his sphere of influence was still extensive especially for a number of postgraduate students from countries like Indonesia and Turkey. He taught one of the other scholars profiled in Suha’s book, Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia), and profoundly influenced another one, Amina Wadud (United States). Rahman’s writings go well beyond his primary field of Islamic philosophy. He delved into the reform of Islamic education, Qur’anic hermeneutics, hadith criticism, early development of Islamic intellectual traditions, and reform of Islamic law and ethics. Rahman believed that the primary decline of Muslim societies was rooted in intellectual ossification, closing the gate of ijtihad (independent reasoning), and relying solely on taqlid (blind imitation). He argued relentlessly that pristine Islam as reflected in the Qur’anic message was lost with the formation of the orthodoxy, i.e., what later became known as Sunnism. Rahman believed that the Sunni Orthodoxy, which was established during the Umayyad dynasty, departed from Qur’anic teachings and developed as a result of sectarianism. He felt that this event had the most negative impact on the development of Islamic thought, and Sunnism coincided with the break between politics and law / Qur’anic ethics.

Rahman admired the Mu’tazili theories of prophecy, the nature of revelation, and use of reason, but he was also critical of their more extreme rationalist positions. His severest criticism was reserved for Ash’arism, which was plagued with the idea of predestination and stripping humans of responsibility for their actions. Rahman believed that the Ash’arite view was a gross misrepresentation of the Qur’anic message, which depicted humans as having free will. He devoted his intellectual energies towards a new Islamic methodology, as he thought that traditional methods could not bring Muslim thought into the intellectual framework of the modern age. Rahman’s opinion was that the Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophetic example) were mediated by certain historical realities, and neither one should be viewed as immutable as all religious traditions are in need of constant revitalization and reform. His view was that the rigidity of the jurists’ interpretation of the Qur’an, and their denial of a historical context to the revelation, had resulted in archaic laws that stymied Muslims from dealing with modernity and also placed stress on the vibrancy of Islam itself.

Rahman believed that the Qur’an’s primary objective was one of social justice, and he recommended judicious use of the hadith. He believed that the hadith included many superstitions that developed in the post-Prophetic period, e.g., the Prophet’s mi’raj (ascension) which has virtually no support in the Qur’an but is replete in the hadith literature. Rahman always gave priority to the Qur’an and its overall message on any given issue. When the hadith conflict with the Qur’an (as they frequently do), there was no doubt in Rahman’s mind that the Qur’an is to be given preference as it truly represents the Prophet’s legacy. Rahman thought that there was not a single authoritative interpretation of the Qur’anic text, and saw multiple interpretations as not only necessary but essential for the Qur’an’s relevance and the survival of the religion. While the linguistic phenomenon of the Qur’an requires multiple interpretations for it to remain valid as a universal message for all mankind, this in no way detracts from the sacredness of the text as originating from God. Rahman’s summary of his methodology from the late 1960s is still relevant today.

The implementation of the Qur’an cannot be carried out literally in the context of today because this may result in thwarting the very purposes of the Qur’an, and that, although the findings of the fuqaha (Islamic jurists, singular: faqih) or the ulama of Islam during the past thirteen centuries or so should be seriously studied and given due weight, it may well be found that in many cases, their findings were either mistaken or sufficed for the needs of that society but not for today. This approach is so revolutionary and so radically different from the approaches generally adopted so far in that it seeks to bring under strictly historical study not only fiqh (understanding of Islam) and sunnah of the Prophet but the Qur’an as well, that not only the traditionalists but even most of the modernists seriously hesitated to accept. But this would seem to be the only honest method of appraising the historic performance of the Muslims and of genuinely implementing the purposes of the Qur’an and the Prophet. There would be naturally bitter opposition to this kind of approach and particularly the results reached through it. But there is reason to believe that in the span of a decade or so the larger part of the liberals will come round to some such view. Failing this, this writer does not see any alternative for Islam except, in the course of time, to be reduced to a set of rites which will claim emotional attachment for some time to come.

From the mid to late 20th century, Rahman’s approach to the Qur’an was among the most original, daring, and systematic. He proposed what he termed the double movement theory, i.e., try to understand the socio-historic context of the revelation and determine the rationale behind certain decrees, and then apply the same logic in today's society, realizing that the Qur'an is not a law book with stringent rules but a book of moral guidance. His emphasis on the context of the revelation has had far reaching influence among Muslims when it comes to issues such as women’s rights, human rights, and social justice. An increasing number of Muslims have utilized Rahman’s methodology to relate the Qur’an to contemporary needs, and he continues to be a major influence among younger Muslim intellectuals.1 

Nurcholish Madjid and the interpretation of the Qur’an: religious pluralism and tolerance

(Anthony H. Johns and Abdullah Saeed)

Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) was born in Jombang, a small town in the plains of East Java and was one of the best known Muslim public figures in Indonesia. His father was director of a madrasa (religious school). Nurcholish attended it as well as a secular government school, and displayed a penchant early for combining religious with secular studies. During his adolescent years, he observed how divisions between Muslims were exacerbated by Muslim leaders of various leanings: reformist, traditionalist, etc. He also noted their failures to make any effective contributions for the public good. Nurcholish went on to complete his tertiary studies in Jakarta at the State Institute of Islamic Studies and in 1968, he submitted a thesis titled “The Qur’an: Arabic in Language, Universal in Significance.” The title indicated a significant shift in his intellectual development: a perception of the tension between the role of a single language given unique status by divine revelation, and the plural world in which this one language and the religion revealed through it were destined to play a universalistic role.

Nurcholish saw periods of turbulent politics in Indonesia and realized that religion could easily be politicized for nefarious purposes. He coined the phrase “Islam Yes! Islamic Parties, No!” This aspect of his thinking was firmly established by 1972:

The concept of ‘Islamic state’ is a distortion of the [properly] proportioned relationship between state and religion. The state is one of the aspects of worldly life whose dimension is rational and collective, while religion is an aspect of another kind of life whose dimension is spiritual and personal.

His life entered a new stage when he went to the University of Chicago in 1978 and transferred from sociology to philosophy in an Islamic Studies program under Professor Fazlur Rahman. In 1984, he submitted a successful thesis titled Ibn Taimiya on Kalam and Falsafa: problems of reason and revelation in Islam.” The years Nurcholish spent with Fazlur Rahman opened new intellectual horizons for him. He argued that the meaning and message of the Qur’an and the basis for its continued relevance lay not in any single verse, but in the book as a whole. This led him to develop a contextual approach to interpreting the Qur’an.

In 1984, Nurcholish returned to Indonesia with a broader perspective on the problems facing the Muslim world after his encounter with Fazlur Rahman. He loved and revered the Qur’an as a revealed Book that is simple and uncomplicated. Its status is unique and it is God’s divine word that is error-free. Nurcholish believed that the authority to interpret the Qur’an is open to everyone and not restricted to any priestly class. Moreover, the Qur’an is a revelation totally compatible with reason and it appeals to reason. Nurcholish regards modernity as synonymous with rationalism, and Islam as a religion par excellence built on rationality. Reason and revelation are interdependent. Reason and faith go hand in hand, they cannot be separated. Reason by itself cannot provide adequate guidance for humankind without revelation (the Qur’an). The challenge facing Muslims in the modern world is to recover the rational dimension of Islam that has become overlaid with habit and custom over the centuries.

For Nurcholish, contextualization involves relating Qur’anic logia to two contexts: one is the time and circumstances of the Prophet when it was revealed, the other is the contemporary for which its guidance is needed, the situation in which today’s ‘receptors’ of the text encounter it. His starting point is that the Qur’an is closely bound to the 7th century Hijaz, and its content includes the challenges faced by the Prophet and his community at that time. This is a significant shift away from the traditional understanding of Qur’anic revelation. While classical tafsir and fiqh scholars were equally aware that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic to an Arab prophet, they did not acknowledge the corollary that the Qur’an had to be understood as a historical text. Nurcholish believed that this distinction was critical. Traditionalists argued that a ruling should not be regarded as ‘specific’ in application simply because a circumstance of revelation related it to a particular situation. It was tacitly understood that a ruling was general and the onus of proof was on establishing that it was not. Nurcholish believed the opposite was true. For him, rulings were specific to time and place, and the onus of proof was on establishing that the rulings were general.

In Indonesia, Nurcholish observed divisions between Muslim communities over trivial matters like whether or not the intention for the prayer should be made orally or mentally, something that was bitterly contested between traditionalists and reformists. Contextualization was his weapon of choice to put an end to such absurdities and tackle more serious problems like the relationship between Islam and other religions, and the death penalty for apostasy. Nurcholish believed that the application of a law is determined by the reason for which it is prescribed, and if the reason changes, then the application of the law also needs to change. He cited the example of Umar refusing to allow Arab soldiers or clans to treat conquered land as part of the spoils of war, even though the Qur’an did not distinguish land from other booty. Umar believed that property was the permanent possession of a conquered community. Nurcholish explained that Umar based his judgment on the sense of social justice in the Qur’an as a whole. Umar showed awareness for the community he ruled and had an ethical sense that took precedence over any ad hoc applications of legal prescriptions, i.e., he demonstrated a profound understanding of the spirit of the religion. Nurcholish also questioned the law of inheritance and why a daughter today should only receive half the share of a son regardless of circumstances. At an international conference, Nurcholish challenged a Saudi delegate who spoke in defense of the death penalty for apostasy. He (Nurcholish) concluded that it is God (not the state) Who will pass judgment on apostasy based on the following verses.

One who seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter, he will be among the losers.(Q3:85)

Whoever believes, let him believe, and whoever rejects belief, let him reject it. We have prepared for those who do evil a fire that envelops them.(Q:18:29)

Nurcholish showed that the Qur’an, when properly understood, is universalistic and accommodating of other religions, which also lead to salvation. He cited Ibn Rushd who maintained that all religions were equal, and all were valid paths to God. Nurcholish felt that once tawhid (monotheism) was understood as an inclusive, overarching concept, within which every religion has a place, there is no scope for any one religion to claim superiority over another, let alone wage war in defense of its unique claim to truth.2 

Amina Wadud’s hermeneutics of the Qur’an: women rereading sacred texts

(Asma Barlas)

Amina Wadud was born into a Methodist family in 1952 in Bethesda, Maryland. Her family was impoverished and she faced discrimination on account of being both black and female. Wadud found Islam during her university career. She took the shahada (declaration of faith) in 1972 and is the only female scholar profiled in Suha’s book. Wadud completed her Ph.D. in Islamic and Arabic Studies at the University of Michigan in 1988, having received a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies from the same institution. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing her doctorate, Wadud taught at the International Islamic University in Malaysia until 1992. She now teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Wadud’s fight for women’s rights makes her very popular among many Muslim women, which means that she has been ostracized by the largely conservative segments of Muslim society. Instead of being discouraged, she appreciates the differences between Islam and Muslims on one hand, and her own ethical and intellectual choices on the other. She knows that tranquility and belonging can only be found with God and that strength lies in recognizing that as God’s khalifa (vice-regent, plural: khulafa), a person ‘cannot sit on the sidelines in the face of injustice and still be recognized as fully Muslim,’ so she continues to argue against the injustice of projecting sexual oppression and inequality into the Qur’an despite the personal cost to herself.

Like Fazlur Rahman, Wadud believes that reading the Qur’an piecemeal and in a decontextualized way ignores its internal coherence and results in failure to understand its broad principles. Furthermore, most exegetes end up generalizing specific Qur’anic injunctions, which Wadud believes is particularly oppressive to women as some of the most harmful restrictions against them result ‘from interpreting Qur’anic solutions for particular problems as if they were universal principles.’ Wadud provides several examples of this including how the exegetes have interpreted the Qur’anic provisions on dress codes. She clarifies:

The Qur’an establishes a universal notion regarding matters of dress and asserts that ‘the dress of piety is the best.’ However, shari’ah (Islamic law) uses the Qur’anic references to particular 7th century Arabian styles of dress as the basis of its legal conclusion regarding modesty. Consequently wearing a particular item of dress (for example, the head-covering / hijab) is deemed an appropriate demonstration of modesty.

Universalizing the veil, Wadud argues, thus also universalizes the ‘culturally and economically determined demonstrations of modesty’ in 7th century Arab society, thus imparting a cultural specificity to the Qur’an’s teachings. For Wadud, ideas of modesty vary among cultures, and taking the approach of universalizing 7th century Arab culture actually limits the application of the Qur’anic teachings. Wadud believes that what the Qur’an teaches and what we need to understand is the ‘principle of modesty … not the veiling and seclusion which were manifestations particular to [the Arab] context.’ She further argues that even though the Qur’an offers universal moral guidance, the ‘mere fact that [it] was revealed in 7th century Arabia when the Arabs held certain perceptions and misconceptions about women and were involved in certain lewd practices against them resulted in some injunctions specific to that culture.’

Of course Wadud is not alone in emphasizing the relationship between the Qur’anic text and the circumstances of its revelation (contexts). Faruq Sherif notes that many ayas (verses) ‘relate to a particular time and place’ and several of the Qur’an’s penal provisions were aimed at conditions of 7th century Arabia such that it would be a ‘lamentable anachronism’ to treat them as binding today. The challenge for every new Muslim generation is to ‘understand the principles intended by the particulars [since the] principles are eternal and can be applied in various social contexts.’ The Qur’an itself ‘provides, either explicitly or implicitly, the rationales behind [its] solutions and rulings, from which one can deduce general principles.’ As Rahman also argues, the Qur’an ‘occurred in the light of history and against a socio-historical background [and is] a response to it.’ In fact, it is ‘God’s response through Muhammad’s mind (this latter factor has been radically underplayed by the Islamic orthodoxy) to a historical situation (a factor likewise drastically restricted by the Islamic orthodoxy in a real understanding of the Qur’an).’ As such, ‘to make the Qur’an immune from history would be to make its own history irrelevant,’ and would also impede the process of its ‘creative repossession’ by later Muslim generations.

Silencing women’s voices, Wadud argues, prevents them from developing a ‘holistic understanding of what it means to be Muslim’ and keeps them from experiencing the full breadth of ‘Islamic potentiality’ since it only allows men to ‘determine legitimacy.’ She points out that while men and women are equal in Islam, they are distinct from one another, so their experiences are also distinct. Muslim men have usurped the right to tell women how to be women, and with their patriarchal readings of the Qur’an, have thus denied them the Qur’anic designation of equality and determining how to be God’s vice-regents on earth. Wadud embraces the modern hermeneutic insight that reading is subjective and incomplete, a fact that Muslims overlook when it comes to traditional tafsir. This allows her to free the Qur’an of its (anti-women) misreadings while also permitting her to argue in favor of some readings and against others. Hermeneutics as a discipline rests on the premise that ‘while multiple readings are not per se mutually exclusive, not all interpretations are thereby equal.’ Wadud notes that if anyone were to depart today from the Qur’an’s letter in order to adhere to its spirit, they ‘would be considered a heretic.’ She believes this is because Muslims ‘lack faith in the possibility that the Qur’anic whole could yield something greater than its parts.’

Therefore Wadud’s own reading of the Qur’an is meant to arrive at an understanding of its ethos and spirit and not merely its letter. For instance, Abdolkarim Soroush holds that while ‘the last religion is already here … the last understanding of religion has not yet arrived.’ This is why ‘revivalists’ periodically need to rehabilitate religious thought, correct misunderstandings, and redirect ‘religion towards its essence.’ Wadud challenges the arrogance of men who demand respect and dignity for themselves while denying the same for women simply because they are women. She particularly rejects the false justification of such arrogance through narrow interpretations or misinterpretations of the Qur’anic text, namely interpretations which ignore the basic principles of justice, equality, and common humanity that the Qur’an teaches. Had Muslims learned to extend such Qur’anic principles to their lives, she observes, they could have ‘evolved into leading examples of humane and just social systems.’ Instead, what Muslim men have done is fostered a witch-hunt mentality that looks for inherent evil in women, justifying constraints on their every move. At the core of Wadud’s reading of the Qur’an is the claim that it does not teach the concept of male ontological superiority and of female inferiority or subordination to men. Wadud continues her fight against misogyny, and when it comes to Qur’anic hermeneutics, she remains a pioneer in the field and the most influential.3 

Mohammed Arkoun: towards a radical rethinking of Islamic thought

(Ursula Gunther)

Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) was a Berber who was born in Taourit Mimoun in Algeria. He grew up in a poor background and his family led a traditional and religious life. He left primary school in Kabylia at the age of nine to join his father who owned a grocery shop in Ain-el-Arba, a wealthy village of French settlers east of Oran. It was here that he experienced culture shock and was confronted with discrimination and contempt for being neither an Arabophone nor Francophone, and this played a formative role in his outlook on life. He had to learn two languages at the same time in order to achieve social status and to be able to communicate outside the Berber regions. Thanks to an uncle, Arkoun did not become a grocer and was able to get a good education, being one of the few Muslims attending a French school. He went on to study Arabic literature in Algiers. On the eve of the war of independence, Arkoun left Algeria for France to register for study at the Sorbonne University. In 1970, Arkoun submitted his Doctoral dissertation on Miskawayh and Arab humanism in the 10th century. He held a chair of Islamic History of Ideas at the University of Vincennes and then at Sorbonne. In 1980 he was offered a professorship at Sorbonne Nouvelle including the Deanship of Arabic and Islamic History of Ideas. He has been awarded the highest French honors and received the prize of Levi Della Vida.

Arkoun describes himself as the combination of a researcher and thinker or a ‘reflective researcher,’ i.e., a critical thinker applying modern methods of humanities and social sciences in order to analyze Islamic thought according to a philosophical critique. He focuses on the hermeneutics of sacred texts, i.e., texts declared to be sacred and as such, providing meaning and transcendence. His approach is simultaneously historical, philosophical, and anthropological, and should not be confused with a general critique of religion as such. Instead he tries to unravel the unthought and unthinkable within Islamic thought in order to open up new horizons, while leaving the fixed scope of religion and religious dogmatics undisturbed, but at the same time, pleading for a rethinking. Arkoun never composed a muqaddima or prologue to his critique, however, his approach includes a radical rethinking of Islam as a cultural and religious system, which gives rise to a general critique of epistemology. Hence it necessarily follows that a philosophical perspective should be adopted in combination with an anthropological and historical approach. Such a framework provides the possibility of leaving aside theological and dogmatic ‘a priories,’ and enables the scholar to focus on philosophical and mental structures regarding Islamic reason. The next step is to embed these in the corresponding social, historical, and socio-cultural context, in order to provide documentation of a dialectic interrelationship. Arkoun considers Islamic reason as a specific manifestation of reason in general and a branch of religious reason in particular.

Despite increasing interest in Arkoun’s work, only one translation of his writings exists in English to date: Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers. Arkoun impresses through his diversity and his extensive knowledge of both the Arab-Muslim and the Occidental-Christian culture and history of thought including recent discourses in social sciences and humanities, all coupled with a sharp awareness of overlapping and comprehensive correlations. Furthermore, he is talented at forging exceptional links which at times are daring and radically challenging. Finally, he has courageously pursued his visionary ideas about how to approach Islam beyond the borders established by any kind of orthodoxy. In this, he has disregarded the serious consequences for his position as a scholar, being attacked or ignored both by his colleagues within Islamic Studies, and by representatives of the orthodoxy in the Muslim world. Only in the course of the last decade has he received acknowledgement and recognition and is now regarded not only as challenging but also as an innovative vanguard in the field of Islamic Studies.

The majority of authors criticize Arkoun’s complex and elusive expressions, abundant terminology, and lack of systemization. Additionally, a profound knowledge of recent discourses and innovations in the field of social sciences and humanities are indispensable to fully appreciate Arkoun’s work. There are additional difficulties arising from Arkoun’s failure to provide a systematic overview for his readers, which places the onus on them to acquire the relevant knowledge by consulting applicable articles. Instead of putting already formulated concepts and suggestions in concrete form and applying them, Arkoun elaborates his theses and adds more questions without providing answers. Despite this criticism, authors also show considerable approval for Arkoun’s works. He is described as a pioneer in the deconstruction of political Islam and for reconciliation of a hermeneutics of Islam with the political discourse of modernity; a liberal interpreter of Islam, a critic of orientalism searching for a modern ijtihad; the most important Francophone Muslim scholar in the field of Islamic Studies, a liberal thinker contributing to a different image of Islam, and as someone who breaks the monopoly of traditional and neopatriarchal interpretation of Islamic history and the Qur’an.

While Arkoun’s contributions are regarded as innovative, important, and challenging, the scholarly community has not really taken up the challenge inherent in his approach, including his critique of Islamic Studies. According to Arkoun, the notion of orthodoxy is ‘one of the keys to rethink the whole theology of Islam.’ Therefore a thorough analysis of orthodoxy is a prerequisite for an approach beyond dogmatic enclosure.

Orthodoxy is defined as the system of beliefs and mythological representations through which, and with which, a given social group perceives and constructs its own history. … In this context, orthodoxy can also be defined as the system of values which functions primarily to guarantee the protection and the security of the group. That is why any orthodoxy is necessarily an ideological vision overwhelmingly oriented toward the subjective interest of the group to which it belongs. But the group considered as a ‘collective consciousness’ is never aware of its subjective, biased use of history; it sees its ‘orthodoxy’ as a genuine expression of its identity.

Thus the notion of orthodoxy is always used in a theological sense, yet has never been thought in a historical sense; however, it is daring to point out that it is the result of a slow historical process of selection, elimination and diffusion of names, works, schools, ideas according to the objectives aimed at in each case by the group, community, and power in place. This is how tradition is formed that works like a security system for the religious or national community.

It is important to recognize that orthodoxy is a phenomenon that occurs not only in the field of religion but also in other fields, for instance in language, literature or historiography. However, religious orthodoxy plays a prominent role; firstly, for holding the monopoly of definition and interpretation with regard to the sacred texts; and secondly, for establishing the interconnection of theology with ethical-judicial concepts through the systemization of ilm al-usul (principles of jurisprudence). This in turn results in intensifying the dogmatic enclosure and in defining the sphere of Islamic reason and its limits. Arkoun believes that whatever was forbidden historically or politically needs to be explored, which may eventually lead to a liberation of Islamic thought.

Of all of the scholars profiled in Suha’s book, Arkoun’s ideas are probably the most difficult to grasp. This is due to a lack of systemization of his thoughts in general and his concepts in particular. It also requires that a scholar be well-versed in Arkoun’s terminology, the achievements of social sciences, and Islamic history. Nevertheless, Arkoun’s contribution to the study of Islam is unique for several reasons. First it is a holistic approach that replaces conventional analyses, while at the same time refraining from employing polarizing analytical categories, and focusing on a radical plurality of meaning and complexity. Second is its radical call for a departure from the cognitive bounds established by any kind of orthodoxy. Third, it includes a critical revision of reason as such, and calls into question the achievements of modernity and its hegemonic character. Fourth, it aims at an integration of ‘Islam and Muslim culture into a global critical theory of knowledge and values.’4 

From revelation to interpretation: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the literary study of the Qur’an

(Navid Kermani)

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) was born in the village of Quhafa near the lower Egyptian provincial city of Tanta. Abu Zayd was a devout student of the Qur’an from a young age, a qari (reciter of the Qur’an) and hafiz (one who memorizes the entire Qur’an), and able to recite the Qur’an verbatim at the age of eight. Abu Zayd joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was briefly imprisoned at the age of eleven in 1954. After leaving school and up to the 1960s, he worked as a technician to provide for his family following his father’s death. He was influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966. Abu Zayd began to study literature at Cairo University, specializing in Islamic Studies. In 1976, he received his Master’s degree from the Arabic Studies Faculty at Cairo University. He went on to lecture and study at the American University in Cairo and at the University of Pennsylvania. By 1981, Abu Zayd had completed a doctorate at the University of Cairo, and he worked as a visiting lecturer at Osaka University in Japan from 1985 to 1989. He returned to Egypt and took a position as ‘Assistant Professor in Islamic and Rhetorical Studies’ at Cairo University. In spring 1993, ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin, a professor at the Cairo Dar al-‘Ulum, publicly denounced Abu Zayd as an apostate, which blocked his promotion to the post of full professor. There were attempts to nullify his marriage based on the argument that Islamic law forbids a marriage between a Muslim woman and an apostate. To make matters worse, a group of professors at Al-Azhar University, the theological center of Egypt, called for Abu Zayd’s execution. As a result, Abu Zayd was forced into exile with his wife and from the winter of 1995 / 96, he was professor of Islamic Studies at Leiden University in Holland.

In Abu Zayd’s view, the outstanding civilizing role of the Qur’an makes Arab culture ‘a culture of the text.’ Arab culture, he argues, was spawned by ‘man’s confrontation with reality, and his dialogue with the text.’ To define Arab-Islamic civilization as a culture of the text implies that it is also a culture of interpretation; the language of the Qur’an – like any other text – is not ‘self-explanatory, since any understanding of the text and its meaning depends on the intellectual and cultural horizon of the reader.’ As such, the message of the text can only be revealed by its interpreters. If the Qur’an supposes a person who interprets, or in linguistic terms, ‘decodes’ it, then text and interpretation, nass and ta’wil, are bound to be inextricably linked. Abu Zayd deliberately and consistently used the term ta’wil instead of the more common term tafsir in order to emphasize the share of the human intellect in the act of interpretation, as opposed to a hermeneutical approach which gives priority to the narrated traditions in understanding the text. For Abu Zayd, the interpretative act goes beyond mere explanation or commentary, for without it the Qur’an would be a meaningless text, simply an ‘object with intrinsic value’ but devoid of any message for humankind.

The [Qur’anic] text changed from the very first moment – that is, when the Prophet recited it at the moment of its revelation – from its existence as a divine text (nass ilahi), and became something understandable, a human text (nass insani), because it changed from revelation to interpretation (li-annahu tahawwala min al-tanzil ila al- ta’wil). The Prophet’s understanding of the text is one of the first phases of movement resulting from the text’s connection with the human intellect.

Abu Zayd pointed out that if the information conveyed by the text varies according to the reader’s personal as well as his cultural and social horizons, then the essence of the message conveyed by the Qur’an to a 20th century reader must vary from the information conveyed to a Muslim in the 7th, 8th, or 11th century. Abu Zayd strongly condemned belief in one single, precise, and valid interpretation of the Qur’an handed down by the Prophet for all times:

Such a claim [that the Prophet’s understanding is sacred] leads to a kind of polytheism, because it equates the Absolute with the relative and the constant with the transient; and, more specifically, because it equates the Divine Intent with the human understanding of this Intent, even in the case of the Messenger’s understanding. It is a claim that leads to an idolization of a conferral of sainthood upon the Prophet, by concealing the Truth that he was a human, and by failing to present clearly enough the fact that he was merely a prophet.

In Abu Zayd’s view, an individual’s interpretation is never absolute; it is always relative, since the information in the divine message varies according to whoever receives it. Three key themes emerge from Abu Zayd’s work: (1) to trace the various interpretations and historical settings of the single Qur’anic text from the early days of Islam up to the present; (2) to demonstrate the ‘interpretational diveristy’ (al-ta’addud al-ta’wili) that exists within Islamic tradition; and (3), to show how this diversity has been increasingly neglected across Islamic history. Abu Zayd criticized what he described as ‘the hold of reactionary thought over tradition,’ which has often marginalized or banished critical, rational, heterodox, and mystical tendencies from the ‘paradise of Islam and the Arabic language,’ while reducing Islamic cultural history to politically conservative, traditional theology. This simplification advocates pure memorizing and repetition, without grasping the deeper levels of meaning in the text. Abu Zayd’s research and writings focused on how to achieve a scientific understanding of the Qur’an, and how to brush aside layers of ideological interpretation in order to unearth the historical reality of the text. He argued that it is necessary to focus on the historical context of the revelation if we hope to distinguish between its historical meaning (ma’na) and its broader, enduring significance (maghza).

Inspired by Toshihiko Izutsu’s pioneering work, Abu Zayd also believed that by transmitting the Qur’an in Arabic, God had adopted a human language and the culture that had produced this language. Hence the Qur’an, Abu Zayd argued, is the product of a particular culture. Like Abu Zayd, Amin al-Khuli, who developed a literary exegesis of the Qur’an at the University of Cairo, also stressed the role of the interpreter:

The person who interprets a text, especially when it is a literary text, colors it with his interpretation and his understanding. The personality of an individual who seeks to understand an expression limits the conceptual level of that expression. It is he who determines the intellectual horizon and who extends sense and intention to the expression. The interpreter does all this in accordance with his conceptual level and in the framework of his intellectual horizon, for he can never leave behind or step beyond his personality. One will not be able to understand a text without extending one’s thoughts and one’s intellect to it.

Amin al-Khuli described the Qur’an as the greatest book and the most spectacular literary work in the Arabic language. Abu Zayd reiterated the same views:

I treat the Qur’an as a text in the Arabic language that the Muslim as well as the Christian or atheist should study, because the Arab culture is united in it, and because it is still able to influence other texts in this culture. It is a text that took up the pre-Islamic texts and that all texts after it have taken up, even those that are produced today. I venerate the Qur’an more than all the salafis (fundamentalists). The salafis limit it to the role of prescription (halal) and proscription (haram). This is in spite of the fact that it is also a text that has been productive for the arts. The visual arts thus arose from the Qur’anic text, for the most important art is the art of calligraphy. The vocal arts arose from the art of reciting the Qur’an – all classical singers in the Arab culture began with Qur’anic recitation. How did this diversity of meanings and indications, this presence on all levels, become transformed? I enjoy listening to a recitation of the Qur’an. How much remains hidden because of the limitation to prescription and proscription! In reality, no one enjoys the Qur’an. We read the Qur’an and are afraid, or dream of Paradise. We transform the Qur’an into a text that provides incentives, and intimidates. Into a stick and a carrot. I want to liberate the Qur’an from this prison, so that it is productive again for the essence of the culture and of the arts, which are strangled in our society.

Abu Zayd’s critique argued for a plurality of exegesis, and he rejected claims that link Islam to one, eternally valid interpretation:

This is a statement that is disproved by the history of Islam, the history that witnessed a diversity of trends, currents, and groups that arose from societal, economic, and political reasons, and formed their standpoints by interpreting and trying to understand the texts. Whatever the intentions of one book or the other, this insistence on the existence of a single Islam and the rejection of the plurality that actually exists leads to two results. The first is a single, unchanging understanding of Islam, an understanding impervious to the influence of the movement of history and the differences between societies, not to mention the influence of the diversity of groups that take form within a single society, due to the differences between their interests. The second result is that this unchanging understanding is possessed by a group of people – the theologians exclusively – and that the members of this group are considered to be free of the arrogance and the natural bias of humans.

Abu Zayd gave an example when the Prophet’s companion ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas (who bears the title of interpreter of the Qur’an and scholar of the community) explained thunder as ‘an angel who drives the clouds before him with a silver catapult’ based on the hadith compilations (and a statement supposedly traced backed to the Prophet), adding that none of the Muslims grasped this as an absolute, holy, religious meaning which scientific research must not conflict. The Muslims understood that the explanations for natural and human phenomena are not found in religious texts, but are left to the activity of human reason, which develops continually in order to discover the horizons of humanity and nature. Abu Zayd condemned the ‘creation of a priesthood’ which claims to ‘understand true Islam’ in order to confine ‘the power of interpretation and commentary to this circle.’ In their view, the theologian has the sole right of interpretation, contrary to Islamic doctrine, which rejects a ‘sacred power or priesthood.’ Furthermore, these theologians venture into an area of “speaking in the name of God,” which eventually leads to the appointment of a certain species of human being who claim to have a monopoly on comprehension, explanation, commentary, and interpretation, and thus feel that they alone are entitled to speak about God. Abu Zayd believed that this monopolization contradicts the Qur’anic message, since this exclusivity negates the importance of human reason, and contradicts the tradition of understanding revelation in the Islamic world. He criticized the frequent contemporary calls for the Islamization not only of law, but of literature, art, and knowledge in general. He argued that during the Prophet’s lifetime, religious and secular affairs were kept quite separate. The most interesting aspect of Abu Zayd’s work appears to be his attempt – based on a profound knowledge of the traditional religious sciences – to adapt the findings of modern linguistics and the theories of philosophical hermeneutics to his analysis of the Qur’an and Islamic theology. There are other scholars who hold similar views, indicating that the field of Qur’anic studies in the Islamic world is becoming increasingly diverse and reflective.5 

Post-revolutionary Islamic modernity in Iran: the intersubjective hermeneutics of

Mohamad Mojtahed Shabestari

(Farzin Vahdat)

Mohamad Mojtahed Shabestari was born in 1936 in Shabestar, a district of Tabriz in Iran. He received a traditional seminary education at Qom, where he lived from 1950 to 1968. He became interested in modern and non-religious fields of inquiry. From 1970 to 1979, he was the director of the Islamic Centre at Hamburg, West Germany. Shabestari became fluent in German and well-versed in the German theological and philosophical tradition of scholarship. He is a professor of theology at Tehran University and established a reputation as a progressive cleric, interested in the place of Muslims in the modern world. Shabestari enjoys a large following among the youth of Iran, especially college students, many of whom come from religious backgrounds and seek a new interpretation of religion that is compatible with the exigencies of a modern society.

Referring to existential conditions such as history, language, society, and the [human] body, as four sources of human unfreedom, Shabestari has called for a migration from a ‘self’ caught in these ‘prisons’ toward divinity:

Islam is a ‘total (re)orientation,’ and when there is a reorientation, there is an emerging from the ‘self,’ a migration from the self, a travel from the self to the Other. It is our self from which we must migrate, the self which constitutes the dimensions of human identity; the historical self, social self, and the linguistic self. Humans are limited by four ‘dimensions’ in which they normally live: history, society, body, and language. The role of divine revelation is to open another horizon and, without negating the four [existential] dimensions, to make them transparent, traversing the human toward God. To be certain, this transcendence is always accompanied by dust and is never completely transparent.

At the same time, Shabestari warned against notions of humans becoming God-like in the process of historical development. He advocates that our understanding of revelation must be viewed in terms of a hermeneutic exercise, and that this understanding is not a fixed category. He posited that every text is a hidden reality that has to be revealed through interpretation. The meaning of the text is produced in the act of interpretation. In reality, the text comes to speak by means of interpretation, and pours out what it contains inside. As Shabestari puts it:

Verses do not speak by themselves. It is the interpreter (mufassir) who raises a question first, and then seeks its meaning by interpreting different verses. Wherefrom does the interpreter derive his basic assumptions? His question contains basic assumptions that are not derived from the Qur’an itself, but from various [human] sources of knowledge.

One of the radical corollaries of Shabestari’s hermeneutic approach is his advocacy that knowing God is impossible without a body of human-based knowledge. Knowing God and His prophets throughout the ages has not been possible except via human knowledge and the episteme of the specific period. Everyone who engages in understanding and interpreting utilizes the intellectual foundations derived from the human sources of knowledge available during the epoch in which they live. Since knowledge continuously grows with time, it is inevitable that our understanding of revelation will expand with intellectual progress. However, Shabestari does make a distinction between what is eternal and fixed, and what is subject to change in religion. He believes that only the general and broad principles fall into the fixed and eternal category, and specific precepts and rules, for the most part, belong to the realm of ‘change.’ Shabestari maintains that there are no given preferences in the political sphere and all that Islam emphasizes is the principle of justice. The Qur’an does not consider it within its purview to determine the form of the state and methods of ruling; rather it establishes the fundamental values of governing. Shabestari alludes that he concurs with some Islamic theologians and fuqaha that the general and principal purposes established by the Prophet and Shari’ah may be confined to the following: ‘The protection of persons (nufus), intellects (uqul), lineages (ansab), properties, and religion.’

Sciences such as modern anthropology, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, political science, and psychology are all necessary to inform the foundational assumptions in fiqh. Traditional philosophy is inadequate in achieving the task of distinguishing between the fixed and eternal principles, and the rules and precepts that are subject to change. Shabestari believes that human knowledge can never penetrate the depth of divine existence, but this does not mean that human knowledge is to be denied when it comes to the ultimate truth. According to him, every message is addressed to a specific receiver and the meaning of the message transpires in the interplay between both the sender and the receiver. Therefore in understanding divine revelation, both sides of the message, God and human, are equally crucial entities. Shabestari criticized those who claim that fiqh can provide the answer for all problems that Muslims encounter in modernity. This denies the ability of human knowledge to organize society and sets religion against reason. He explains that those who hold such views always consider the relation between God and humans in terms of opposition and domination from above, while in Islamic mystical tradition (irfan), this relation is one of ‘love.’ This means that Islamic revelation should not be pitted against human achievements in civilization and culture. As Shabestari puts it:

In sum, the Qur’an had declared that it did not come to nullify human culture and civilization. On the contrary, it came to give a new impetus to the existing [human achievements] in the direction of monotheism (tawhid). In the early centuries of Islam, a group of fanatic and benighted people appeared who, by denying the entire human knowledge and heritage, claimed all principles and procedures in life must only be derived from the exoteric dimensions of the Book and the Sunnah. But the Muslims did not submit to this shortsightedness, and the dignity of human sciences and knowledge was preserved. Had this not happened, there would not be a trace of Islamic culture and civilization today.

Shabestari has grounded his understanding of the notion of faith firmly in freedom of thought and free human will. He presented four approaches toward the concept of faith in Islamic tradition. According to the first approach, what he refers to as the Ash’ari doctrine, the truth of faith is the profession of belief in God and the prophets as well as divine decrees based on sincere feelings. In the second approach, espoused by the Mu’tazila, the essence of faith is comprised of ‘action based on responsibility.’ According to this formulation, faith stems from innate human rationality that makes us capable of distinguishing between good and evil, and charges us with duty and responsibility. The third approach is that of the Islamic philosophers, for whom the truth of faith is expressed as ‘gnosis’ (ma’rifa) and philosophical knowledge of the ‘realities in the sphere of being.’ Proponents of this view believe that faith consists of human evolution towards a state of contemplative perfection. And lastly, Islamic mystics have interpreted faith as ‘embracing (iqbal) God and turning away from non-God.’

As civilizations undergo changes, the political institutions of the Muslims societies must also assume new forms. Shabestari is critical of institutionalized religion and maintains that when religion is institutionalized, the peril of it negating the human looms large:

When religion is institutionalized, the danger appears that man is negated by the institution. Why? Because when religion is institutionalized, God’s ‘absoluteness’ is denied. With the institutionalization of religion, God is confined … within the closure of the Church or Mosque. God thus is eclipsed, and when He is eclipsed, man no longer finds himself before an absolute God, but before a God that is confined and reified. Under these circumstances man is negated and when man is negated, God is experienced as anti-freedom.

God’s legislation is primarily the enactment of general, but eternal value systems. God is the fountainhead of the ethical principles, which leaves room for human decisions such as “framing laws.” This way, the possibility of change in divinely inspired laws and regulations is not ruled out, while the divine values themselves do not change. Shabestari concludes that laws by themselves are not sacred, even though they might have been legislated in conformity with general religious values. He also considers state and political institutions as ‘civil’ as opposed to ‘religious’ in nature.6 

Mohamed Talbi on understanding the Qur’an

(Ronald L. Nettler)

Mohamed Talbi is one of the most prominent Muslim modernist thinkers of the 20th century. Born in Tunis in 1921, he received a traditional Islamic education of the madrasa type as well as secular studies. In 1947 he went to Paris for doctoral studies in Islamic history. From his Tunisian tradition-centered and somewhat Sufi Islamic background, itself no doubt somewhat influenced by European intellectual trends, Talbi’s European experience was crucial in his later development, and he had a distinguished dual career as a historian of medieval North Africa and as a Muslim modernist thinker. Talbi has been particularly prominent for his developed conception of a religious pluralism derived from Islamic history and tradition. His main claim for this pluralism is that it is an integral part of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. For Talbi, pluralism basically means respect of all parties for the views of others, in a context of intellectual and religious freedom. This mutual respect (ihtiram mutabadal) provides a basis for true dialogue (hiwar) which is the cornerstone of religious and intellectual pluralism. In addition to pluralism, Talbi’s thought contains a number of other main ideas which for him are also prominent and integrally associated with Islam. Salient among these are freedom, the notion of Islam as apolitical, and equality of status for women.

In Talbi’s view, freedom is an inherent and inalienable right of any individual in society. Essential to Islam, freedom is the absence of human coercive forces which would arbitrarily limit individual decisions and choices. According to Talbi, coercion by either governmental or religious authority would be central as the major potential threats to freedom. He argues against the idea of any particular Islamic governmental form. In his view, all such ideas and attempts to implement them are false. Islam has no intrinsic political principle or organization. Any ‘Islamic’ political claims made on behalf of certain ideologies and governments have been wrong and misguided. Islam is mainly a revealed system of belief, piety, and worship, not a polity. In light of Islam’s inherent liberal values and practices such as freedom, love, tolerance, and pluralism, it may be inferred that Islam prefers a government which exemplifies these values, and as it happens, democracy in our time is just that system and should be viewed (for now) as the best political system for Muslims, despite its human imperfections. However, democracy is still not an Islamic governmental form and one day there could very well be another type of political system that is better suited to the expression of Islam’s liberal features.

An issue close to Talbi’s heart is the status of women. He argues that Islam, at its inception, immensely ameliorated the suffering of women. The Islamic ethos is greatly sympathetic to women and equates their status with men. Talbi believes that the Qur’anic verse (3:34) dealing with the chastisement of women has to be understood in context. He explains that God’s intentions in revealing the verse was not to provide a continuing divine sanction for striking women, but to reduce tensions in Medina around the issue of treatment of women. Talbi said that this issue had threatened to cause civil strife between the Muslim parties who differed on it, and God’s intention in revealing the verse was to provide a temporary concession to those who preferred harsher treatment of women. This was meant to prevent the building tensions from shaking the very foundations of the new Muslim community. The Prophet’s ‘feminist’ inclinations would subsequently guide the community towards God’s true intention concerning this problem: equality and kind treatment of women.

The Qur’anic values which Talbi cites as a true Islam for our time reflect that universality of revelation and human nature are one. He believes that the great religions are all built on this same foundation, and the pluralism he sees as being deeply implicit within the religions is now more than ever urgently required for the good of this world. Talbi’s ideas and methods are highly Qur’anic in origin, conception, and application. For Talbi, all intellectual and spiritual roads lead back to the Qur’an. Just as he believes that Islam does not sanction the punishment of women by beating and abusing them, in the same way, he addresses the problem of apostasy and freedom of belief. Islam is a religion promoting religious freedom and there is no trace of the [later, traditional] legal judgment concerning apostasy in the Qur’an itself. Talbi argues that the legal judgment (death) for apostasy is a product of historical conditions in which apostasy was considered as treachery against the homeland during war time.

Talbi prefers intentional reading to analogical reasoning (qiyas), without rejecting analogy in all circumstances. He believes that analogy is inappropriate and unable to solve all of the problems of modernity and the issues of our present life. He further adds that analogical reasoning is devoid of a dynamic dimension, approaching the present by way of analogy with the past. It is a past-oriented understanding of the sacred text, dealing haphazardly with the present, within models of the past, and striving to force the present to conform to archaic models. This is something that leads to blocking any vision of progress and to a rejection of modernity. He cites another example (slavery), which neither Islam or any other religion prohibited. Talbi believes that the orientation of the Qur’anic text is with regard to freeing slaves, and even though the abolition of slavery is not in agreement with the letter of the text, its orientation, i.e., abolition of slavery, is the Law-Giver’s intent. The text, therefore, works within the Islamic orientation, though no verse seeks to forbid slavery. That is because to nullify and prohibit slavery in the historical and human conditions which accompanied the revelation would have been ahead of its time.

For Talbi, his interpretative method involves three approaches. The historical reading puts Qur’anic passages in their historical contexts to provide the situation of revelation, and the human reading would consider the special human peculiarities seen in that situation. The intentional reading, incorporating the findings of the other two dimensions, brings us to the goal: ascertaining the intentions of the Law-Giver in revealing the passage under review. The unity of these three dimensions is clear: the meaning common to them all is that the Qur’an may best be understood in its context, in order to discern God’s true intentions and meaning in His revelations to us. ‘Literal meanings,’ taken out of context and seen as applicable in all times and places, are often inappropriate and may even contradict God’s true intentions or misconceive them. The ongoing ‘intellectual crisis’ of Islam in the modern era, as Talbi sees and defines this, in his view requires a penetration of the ideas in the Qur’an which reveal the true intentions of the Law-Giver. This would break the logjam of retrogressive literal reading and pernicious attempts at their application. The result would be ‘the Islamization of modernity and the modernization of Islam.’7 

Huseyin Atay’s approach to understanding the Qur’an

(Osman Tastan)

Huseyin Atay was born in 1930 in Guneyce in Northern Eastern Anatolia, Turkey on the edge of the Black Sea. He began recitation of the Qur’an and its memorization in his early childhood, and had memorized the entire Qur’an before he reached the age of 15. He took private Arabic grammar lessons from Haci Hasip Efendi while studying in Kadirga Primary School in Istanbul. He continued these lessons under Mustafa Asim Haci Bilaloglu while attending Kumkapi Middle School. Upon completion of middle school, he took lessons in various Islamic disciplines from Mustafa Gumulcineli for three years. He moved to Baghdad to attend high school, and graduated from the Faculty of Shari’ah in Baghdad. He began his academic career back in Turkey at the Faculty of Divinity in Ankara University as a Research Assistant in Islamic Philosophy, and completed his Ph.D. thesis in 1960. Following this, Atay assumed the post of Associate Professor, and became full Professor at the same Faculty in 1974. Atay has a long and distinguished career as a Professor and has published numerous works on various subjects in the field of Islamic Studies.

Atay nurtured an aspiration for understanding the Qur’an in a progressive manner. He grasped the notion that nothing escapes being interpreted, and that there was both a possibility and an indispensable need to engage in interpretation towards a progressive Islamic thinking. Atay dared to understand the Qur’an directly through his own analysis of its text, in a bid to free his mind from any convoluted textbook discourse. Atay refutes belief in qadar (fate) by demonstrating that there is no evidence supporting it in the Qur’an. In Atay’s view, the word qadar, based on references to various Qur’anic verses: 6:91, 13:26, 54:12 and 49, 56:60, 25:2, 20:40, and 42:27, means limit, criterion, proportion, or plan. There is no indication that it signifies a compulsory fate of the individual or society. While everything is within God’s knowledge, there is no written qadar that preempts the will and freedom of a person. Atay argues that the reason Sunni Islam included qadar in the body of principles of faith lies in ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Umar’s defense of it against some who claimed that there was no qadar, and that things happened by chance. As such, in 1960 Atay reduced the principles of faith from six (belief in God, the angels, the holy books, the prophets, the Hereafter, and qadar) to five with the removal of qadar. Discussing the authority of reason compared to the hadith narrations, Atay opted for reason. He stresses that in principle, the Mu’tazila did not accept hadith as a proper source for matters of belief / creed. Other scholars like Abu Hanifa, al-Maturidi, and al-Ash’ari did not easily accept hadith either for the same reason, unless a hadith was proven to be mutawatir, i.e., narrated by a large generality of people at each link. Atay believes that the significance of reason trumps the hadith in serious matters such as creed, and plays a supervisory role against false attributions to the Prophet.

The legitimacy of a religious opinion, in Atay’s view, is related to a trio of interdependent sources: reason, the Qur’an, and the situation [context]. Atay believes that reason as a source of legitimacy is on par with the Qur’an itself as he notes:

The main sources of Islam are reason and the Qur’an. The words and acts of the Prophet Muhammad amount to examples in practice, methodology, interpretation, and explanation, or exegesis of these two sources. These examples may change according to different times, places, individuals, or societies. Taking the Prophet Muhammad as the model does not mean repeating literally what he did or imitating him; it should mean rather producing examples, in order to achieve goals in the interest of people.

When it comes to naskh (abrogation), Atay does not recognize the theory and explicitly rejects it. He considers the entire Qur’anic text to be valid for all times, and there is nothing redundant in the Qur’an. If the theory of abrogation is accepted, then the scope of the Qur’anic text will be limited. In line with his rejection of naskh, Atay is disinclined to understand the Qur’an via a historical contextualization of the text. He disagrees with Fazlur Rahman’s view that if, hypothetically speaking, the Qur’an is read by a man in the North Pole who speaks Arabic but has no knowledge of Arabia / Arabic culture at the time of its revelation, this man would not be able to understand the Qur’an properly. Rahman believed that it is necessary to understand the social and historical context of the Arab society in order to understand the Qur’an, as it came into existence within a certain course of history and culture. In contrast to Rahman, Atay believes in liberating the reader’s mind from historical and traditional culture, which in fact obscures a genuine understanding of the Qur’an.

In favor of a new understanding of Islam, Atay endeavors to explain the reasons for stagnation in Islamic thought. He identifies the shift from the logic of induction to that of deduction in the Muslim world as the reason for decline in Islamic thought. He posits that the Qur’an itself in verse 39:18 proposes the induction methodology:

Those who listen to the word and follow the best (meaning) in it. Those are the ones God has guided, and those are the ones endowed with understanding.

In pursuing his argument in this context, Atay articulates the contrast between the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools of law in terms of the former being pro-induction and the latter pro-deduction. He adds that Hanafis first studied specific cases and then wrote about their methods. In contrast, the Shafi’is first established their methodological rules and then dealt with specific cases on the basis of these rules. Atay asserts that these two methods were employed in contrast to each other until the 11th century, at which point the Shafi’i methodology began to dominate. This is also the juncture at which the decline in Islamic thought started. The Shafi’i method of deduction, Atay posits, leads to an authoritarian mentality as it is driven by imposing rules, rather than pursuing changing interests in changing cases. He cites three verses to show the significance that the Qur’an attaches to reason:

… They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning). (7:179)

For the worst of beasts in the sight of God are the deaf and the dumb – those who understand not. (8:22)

… And He will place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not understand. (10:100)

With his critique of taqlid (contrasted with ijtihad and the free use of reason), Atay blames the fuqaha for creating a formalism in religious thought and their interpretations, resulting in difficulty in approaching and understanding the Qur’an. He wants to free peoples’ minds from the perception that the Qur’an is something that is sacred and unapproachable. Atay provides an analysis showing that the traditionally held view that the Qur’an could not be touched without ablution does not refer to the text of the Qur’an available to us, but to the Qur’an in the lawh mahfuz (see Q85:21-22), which transcends the physical world in which we live. Atay advocates that we liberate our minds from what we carry in the way of history and culture, so that we might arrive at a proper understanding of the Qur’an.

There are three perceptions of religion in the Muslim world as Atay observes. First is the religion of the people, comprising popular traditions and culture. Second is the religion of the scholars, made up from the literature of fourteen centuries, plus narrations from scholars, including the generation of the Prophet’s Companions. Third is the religion of the Qur’an, which is expressed by the Qur’an itself. The religion of the people differs from that of the scholars, and the religion of the scholars differs in part from that of the Qur’an. Atay refutes both what he calls the religion of the people and that of the scholars, in order to prove that the religion of the Qur’an must be understood as clearly distinct from non-Qur’anic traditional perceptions. For example, in the case of divorce, Atay believes that the fuqaha entrusted the right of divorce to the husband and thus neglected the Qur’an’s proposed egalitarian procedure for divorce. He further adds that the fuqaha were overwhelmed by the patriarchal culture and existing practice of divorce, and were not able to properly formulate the Qur’anic principle of equality between husband and wife, as regulated in the Qur’aninc verses dealing with divorce. Atay also seeks to avoid theft in society without resorting to the amputation of hands, thus giving priority to the ends rather than the means. The punitive letter of the Qur’an is thus proclaimed valid, while in practice it is given almost no chance of application.8 

The form is permanent, but the content moves: the Qur’anic text and its interpretation(s) in

Mohamad Shahrour’s al-Kitab wal-Qur’an

(Andreas Christmann)

Mohamad Shahrour was born in 1938 in the Salihiyya quarter of Damascus, Syria. The norm at the time was to attend the local kuttab and madrasa, but his father opted instead to send him to the primary and secondary state school in al-Midan in the southern suburb of Damascus. In 1957 he went to Saratow (near Moscow) to study Civil Engineering until 1964. In 1968, he went abroad to the University College in Dublin for his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in soil mechanics and foundation engineering. As a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Damascus from 1972 to 1999, Shahrour never achieved formal training or a certificate in the Islamic Sciences. The way he gained knowledge in the diverse disciplines of the Islamic Sciences is that of an autodidact. Shahrour studied the Islamic heritage (turath) with the hope of finding a way out of the political and intellectual crisis. He was disillusioned with the madrasiyya mentality, which he feels is expressed in the regressive reiteration of ancient school traditions (including the Mu’tazila) that prevent real innovative solutions to the dilemma of Arab Muslims.

The appropriate term for Shahrour’s approach to Qur’anic studies can be described as de-familiarization, a process in which language is used in such a way that it attracts attention and is perceived as uncommon. This undermines the well-established canon of interpretations and suggests alternative ways of reading a text. Shahrour wants his readers to understand the Qur’an as though the Prophet has just died and informed us of this book, as if seeing it for the first time. This challenges traditional perspectives of the Qur’an, which he regards as corrupted by ‘inherited dubious axioms’ of the Islamic discourse. The most obvious thing in Shahrour’s attempt to undermine the mufassir and faqih is that he does not belong to any of those professions. He is an unwelcome intruder in the field of Islamic Studies and faced mass opposition from the majority of professional specialists, who accused him of being paid by foreign / Zionist organizations to undermine the Qur’anic authority and unity of the ummah, being one of the lost sheep of Marxism in the gardens of Islam, creating a completely new religion, plagiarism, or having committed an unforgiveable act of dilettantism in the field of Qur’anic exegesis. Shahrour believes these accusations are all typical strategies to avoid any serious, innovative discussion within the Islamic Sciences. Even sympathetic scholars like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who advocated change and reform in Islam, criticized Shahrour’s methodological naiveté.

In stressing the necessity to keep an epistemological openness despite the overwhelming importance of the Arabic-Islamic heritage (turath), Shahrour’s approach is strictly contemporary. The main thrust of this argument is that it is directed towards situating the Qur’anic interpretation within the larger framework of human knowledge in general, and in particular, within the context of modern philosophy and linguistics, and with reference to his qualifications as an engineer, of mathematics and the natural sciences. Shahrour sees a crucial distinction that must be made between two different forms of any religious discourse: there is divine reality, immutable, eternal, and absolute at one level; and at another level there is the human understanding of that divine reality, about which there is nothing divine, and which is changeable, partial, and relative. The latter is a constant process of evolving and perfecting since it is a product of interaction with the intellectual paradigms of specific human societies. Furthermore, the human capacity to grasp the complexities of the divine will increases with the progress of scientific achievements. With this notion, Shahrour concludes that contemporary attempts at interpreting the sacred realm are more advanced and better equipped than previous Islamic scholarship throughout the centuries.

The textual, linguistic form is the divine word of Allah, which is eternally valid and immutable, whereas its actual content is materialized by its readers, whose context is changing from one generation to the next, thereby establishing a constantly moving content. Shahrour’s notion of the Qur’an’s uniqueness is this dialectical relationship between permanence and movement, stability and progress, and objectivity and subjectivity. The problem with Shahrour’s overt break with the past, as several of his critics have observed, is that he does not apply the same strict criteria to the other historical persons whom he quotes as a kind of alternative canon of authority, e.g., al-Jurjani, Abu Jinni, and al-Farisi. Shahrour was compelled to leave this epistemological problem unresolved unless he wanted to base his work on no authority whatsoever. Similar to what Sir Isaac Newton did with his scientific findings that changed the religious doctrines of the Christian church, Shahrour destroyed the unquestioned paradigms of Islamic scholarship with his new terms and concepts, which are indigestible for the traditional scholar and incomprehensible for the lay Muslim reader.

Because Shahrour suspends any exegetical remarks by other scholars (which are important only as part of the turath), and because he does not contextualize the meaning of the Qur’an through its historical origin (only the form is historical, the content is moving, i.e., contemporary), his resultant readings are unique and have a taste of arbitrariness. Shahrour’s division of the revelatory process of the Qur’an into two distinct categories with two different contents and separate chronological sequences runs counter to mainstream opinion, which states that the whole Qur’an was sent down first from the ‘preserved tablet’ to the lowest heaven of this world (in the laylat al-qadr or night of power, traditionally observed as the 27th night of Ramadan), and then revealed to the Prophet Muhammad gradually over a period of 23 years until his death. While the Ash’aris and Mu’tazils differ over the question of whether the Qur’an was preserved in Heaven uncreated since eternity or created for the purpose of revelation, neither position has ever questioned the unity of the Qur’an. However, for Shahrour, a distinction is absolutely fundamental for a correct understanding of the Qur’anic text. For him, the first category is the revelation of al-Qur’an, which contains the mustashabihat (ambiguous, equivocal) verses of Muhammad’s prophethood. The second category is the revelation of the Umm-al-Kitab, which contains the muhkamat (distinct, clear) verses of Muhammad’s messengerhood, together with the Tafsil al-Kitab and al-Sab’ al-Mathani. The first type is revealed from the lawh mahfuz / imam mubin, transformed into Arabic and then transmitted via Jibril (Gabriel) to the Prophet, whereas the second type is given directly from Allah and stored in Muhammad’s heart without any intermediary.

There are three important implications of this division of the Qur’an into two separate parts:

1.       Shahrour does not want to identify himself wholly with either the Ash’ari or the Mu’tazili schools. According to his model, only one section of the text (al-Qur’an) represents the lawh mahfuz, the ‘uncreated, ever-existing, and everlasting truth,’ which humans are unable to fully understand in rational terms (the Ash’ari position). The other sections of the text represent those verses whose exact verbal formulation and meaning are ‘created’ in the light of the historical context of revelation, and are thus subject to rational investigation (the Mu’tazili position). Shahrour appears to support the Mu’tazili position through his insistence that the muhkamat verses do not form part of the eternally existing al-haqq (truth), since they are subject to alteration (tabdil), to the exercise of independent judgment (ijtihad) in the endeavor to understand them, and to rational investigation into their revelational circumstances (asbab al-nuzul).

2.       Through his distinction between inzal (the process of changing a matter outside the human mind from something unperceived to something perceived) and tanzil (the process of objective, other-human communication – reception by humans is uncertain, impossible, or unintended), Shahrour avoids acknowledging any spatial dimension of revelation. In traditional exegesis, the two recognized sources of revelation, the ‘preserved tablet’ or Allah’s throne (arsh Allah), were either interpreted in a literal sense or metaphorically, reflecting again the Ash’ari-Mu’tazili divide. However, in both interpretations, ‘revelation’ is conceptualized as a process of ‘coming down’ to earth from high above (the Heavens). This concept clearly imparts a spatial meaning to the term nazala in all its derivations. For Shahrour, this traditional notion is unacceptable, given his horizontally designed model of divine-human communication.

3.       Shahrour challenges the traditional concept that the first and complete revelation of the Qur’an occurred during one night (laylat al-qadr). Furthermore, he denies the possibility that one can identify Qur’anic verses as either naskh (abrogating) or mansukh (abrogated); no objective law can ever be abrogated.

The uniqueness and originality of Shahrour’s approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an lies in its conspicuous break with any agreement or contract – textually, linguistically, methodologically – pertaining to the tafsir genre. His proposal to virtually separate the Qur’an into two completely different texts (nubuwwa / risala) is in itself a radical revocation of the dominant consensus. Moreover, his assignment of the two parts of the text, firstly to two separate sources of origin (lawh mahfuz / ‘ilm Allah), secondly to two different modes of linguistic structure and code (tashabuh / ghayr tashabuh), and thirdly to two different forms of reception and interpretation (ta’wil / ijtihad), is by and large only to be found in marginal and minority positions within the history of tafsir. Shahrour also maintains that religion and politics should remain separate since a fusion of the two would be detrimental to the process of interpreting the Qur’an, given that all humans, regardless of creed, participate in the process of interpretation.9 

Modern intellectuals, Islam, and the Qur’an: the example of Sadiq Nayhum

(Suha Taji-Farouki)

Sadiq Nayhum (1937-1994) was born in Benghazi, Libya. He attended the local mosque Qur’an school, and Arabic primary and secondary schools in Benghazi. He graduated from school in 1957, majoring in Arabic at the Department of Arabic Language in the Faculty of Arts and Education at the Libyan University. He was among one of the first few small classes to graduate from the university in 1961 with honors, remaining with the Department as a teaching assistant. In 1965 he took up a scholarship he was awarded and left for Cairo University, spending some time on higher studies but eventually leaving without a degree. A widespread story maintains that the university refused to examine his doctoral work in comparative religion because it was hostile to Islam and possibly heretical. The same narrative has it that he enrolled in the University of Munich, where he was eventually awarded a Ph.D. in comparative religion, proceeding on to further research in Arizona, a teaching post in comparative religion at the University of Helsinki, and finally at the University of Geneva. Reliable sources claim, however, that Nayhum never obtained a doctorate from any university and claims of an academic career must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Nayhum’s concern with Islam specifically is to uphold the rights of the oppressed. He feels that religion, unlike politics, addresses the people themselves, rather than (state) institutions. According to Nayhum, Islam upholds a definition of the oppressed that encompasses the entire human family. The advent of Islam saw the institution of an administrative system founded on a challenge to the logic of force: it aimed to ‘liberate the people’s paradise from the law of the jungle.’ The duty of jihad (defined in this context as the fight to defend the oppressed) was made applicable to humanity as a whole, obligating every individual to defend the collective law. Nayhum argues that democracy can be guaranteed only if the people possess a constitutional voice, such that they oversee both the legislative and administrative process. Islam brought a distinctive paradigm for collective administration. Its system reflects two fundamental principles: the illegitimacy of mediation (wisata), and the notion that Islam embraces, and undertakes to coexist positively with other faiths.

The arch-villain in Nayhum’s reading of Islamic history is Mu’awiya. He transformed Islam into an Islamic fiqh without an administrative apparatus: the institutionalization of the professional army and the installation of a caliph as deputized representative of all Muslims marked its final demise. The Muslims became divided into political factions disguised as fiqh schools, destroying the integrity of the community and its collective authority. Losing the quality that sets religion apart from politics, Islam was stripped of its capacity to preserve the rights of the oppressed. As Nayhum puts it:

The Muslim world was turned upside down from Mu’awiya’s time. It remains inverted today, although Muslims remain unaware of this. Hence the jami (community) is absent, and the age of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs has ended. The administration has been taken out of the community’s hands, and the majority has lost the right to decision-making. The principle of personal responsibility has been suspended. The state has taken control of bayt mal al-Muslimin (the Muslim treasury), the mujahid (one who struggles) has lost his weapons, and the citizen no longer has a right to justice.

From the time of Mu’awiya until the 20th century, Nayhum maintains that the fuqaha have written about human rights, while administrations the Muslim world over remained ignorant of them, and neglected in particular the rights of the vulnerable. Having repudiated the Islamic system of collective rule, Nayhum posits that the Umayyad rulers had transferred their administrative systems from Byzantium. Since the Qur’an called for Byzantium’s overthrow, and it was too dangerous to impound the Qur’an, the Umayyad Caliph set about the discovery of an alternative ‘Qur’an.’ The hadith served this purpose: as a source of legislation, it provided the Caliph with ‘a fiqhi way out.’ Nayhum rejects the hadith as a source of legislation. He argues that it was used to confer the status of successor to God’s Messenger, and hence legitimate rights in administrative and judicial affairs on an ‘Umayyad Caliph who had not been elected by the majority.’ The real purpose of the science of hadith was indeed to grant the fuqaha authority to legislate on behalf of the majority. Nayhum faults al-Shafi’i for excluding the people’s authority from the sources of legislation, arguing that Muslims only discovered this ‘fateful error’ after the rise of democracies in the West. The result was that the Islamic fiqh turned its back on the only legitimate authority, and sought its solutions in the Companions’ sayings. This led to the rise of countless schools of fiqh as the voice of the majority disappeared behind that of the fuqaha and Islam became thoroughly fragmented.

The appeal of Nayhum’s thesis lies in its literary style, accessibility, and the simple yet persuasive eloquence of its exposition. Its relevance is exemplified in its plea to the people to shake off the yoke of contemporary feudalists in the Arab-Muslim world, against a backdrop of unjust regimes and oppressive states. Nayhum had no part in established Islamic communities of meaning. His projection of the original message of Islam and his critical reading of Islamic history entail a wholesale dismissal of all post-Qur’anic Islamic authorities, including the hadith, fiqh, and tafsir. His views concerning the hadith and fiqh are that they are a ‘satanic alliance’ with feudal power aimed at silencing the voice of the people. As far as tafsir goes, he attacked what he described as its claim to constitute ‘a sacred knowledge that is beyond criticism.’ Arguing that the Qur’an is not a ‘coded’ book and does not require a ‘science’ for its interpretation, Nayhum insists that it is simply a call to establish the collective law, with the mission of destroying the feudal system. He argues that Islam came with the aim of liberating people from state oppression, and effectively projects the Qur’anic text as a manifesto for universal liberty and freedom.10 

Works Cited

1.       Taji-Farouki, Suha. “Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an” (Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, Great Britain, 2010). p. 37-66

2.       Ibid. p. 67-96

3.       Ibid. p. 97-123

4.       Ibid. p. 125-167

5.       Ibid. p. 169-192

6.       Ibid. p. 193-224

7.       Ibid. p. 225-239

8.       Ibid. p. 241-262

9.       Ibid. p. 263-295

10.     Ibid. p. 297-332

Posted August 2, 2013