Books Review

MODERN MUSLIM INTELLECTUALS AND THE QUR’AN

Edited by: Suha Taji-Farouki , Oxford University Press, 2004, 342 Pages, £ 45.oo, (Hardbound), ISBN 0-19-720002-8.Reviewed by: Asghar Ali Engineer

There has been differences between the ‘ulama and the modern Islamic scholars and intellectuals in interpreting and understanding the Qur’an. Often these differences tend to be basic and hence modern intellectuals and Islamic scholars are persecuted in some Islamic countries. In these countries to differ from ‘official ‘ulama’ means to be heretic and to be punished. This intolerance is more human than Islamic. The ‘ulama fear that if what the modern intellectuals say is accepted than their dogmas may not be accepted and their line of thinking will stand isolated. In fact it is only a fear. The general intellectual level in most of the Islamic countries is not high enough to render the traditional ulama irrelevant.

It is quite interesting to note that despite such differences and persecution one finds modern intellectuals and Islamic scholars in Muslim countries who challenge the traditional thinking and even invite persecution for themselves. Recently Ms. Suha Taji-Arouki has edited an interesting book on this subject. She has included articles by various authors on such modern intellectuals from various countries from Indonesia to Algeria. This has been published by Oxford University Press, London, on behalf of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. The book makes very interesting reading and articles on noted intellectuals and scholars who have written on the Qur’an have been discussed in the book. The book is an important contribution by the Institute of Ismaili Studies. One wishes that more such Institutes with such open approach to the Qur’an come into existence.

The very first chapter in the book is on Prof. Fazlur Rahman of Pakistan who was forced to migrate from Pakistan because of his views about Qur’an and Qur’anic revelation. Fazlur Rahman, himself son of an ‘alim and had studied in USA and was brought to Pakistan at the instance of the then President of Pakistan Ayub Khan. But he was forced to leave Pakistan on account of opposition from the traditional ‘ulama.

The chapter on Rahman has been contributed by Abdullah Saeed. “Rahman”, according to Saeed, “saw that the primary reason for the decline of Muslim societies was rooted in the intellectual legacy of Islam.” But this decline, as often claimed by many modern reformers did not begin with the western encroachment on Muslim societies from eighteenth century onwards. According to Saeed, “For him it was the intellectual ossification and replacement and replacement of scholarship based on original thought by one based on commentaries and super-commentaries, the closing of the gate of ijtihad, and basing of Islamic method solely on taqlid (blind imitation) which led to the decline.”

Thus Fazlur Rahman writes in his book Islam and Modernity “A historical critique of theological developments in Islam is the first step toward a reconstruction of Islamic theology. This critique…should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the world view of the Qur’an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way toward a new theology.”  This is very important suggestion, which should have been considered very seriously and it would have benefited Islamic world immensely.

The Mu’tazila theology had made significant contribution in this direction in early Islamic history but it is sad though natural that their theology did not survive in view of orthodoxy. Many later modern Islamic thinkers were influenced by their theology. Muhammad Abduh of Egypt or Sir Syed Ahmad of India did accept rational elements of Mu’tazila theology. Sir Syed’s tafsir in particular clearly shows influence of Mu’tazila theology and that is why the orthodox ‘ulama of his times vehemently opposed him and forced him to stop writing commentary on the Qur’an.

Fazlur Rahman too was influenced by Mu’tazila as Abdullah Saeed also points out. He says, “Raman also had firm affinities with the Mu’tazili ideas on the ‘createdness’ of the Qur’an. This did not prevent Rahman, however, from being critical of the Mu’tazila’s more extreme rationalist positions.” No original thinker in fact fully endorses all positions of their predecessors though they may accept elements of their thinking or certain general ideas.

One cannot but agree with Saeed that “His (Fazlur Rahman’s) goal was to reassess the Islamic intellectual tradition and provide a way forward for Muslims.  In his view, a re-examination of Islamic methodology in the light of the Qur’an itself was a pre-requisite for any reform in Islamic thought.”  Also Fazlur Rahman greatly stressed the ethical aspect of the Qur’an. The traditional theology concerned itself more with ritualistic aspects than ethical, though did not entirely neglect it.

Prof. Rahman says: “Muslim scholars have never attempted an ethics of the Qur’an, systematically or otherwise. Yet no one who has done any careful study of the Qur’an can fail to be impressed by its ethical fervour. Its ethics, indeed, is its essence, and is also the necessary link between theology and law. It is true that the Qur’an tends to concretise the ethical, to cloth the general in a particular paradigm, and to translate the ethical into legal or quasi-legal commands. But it is precisely the sign of its moral fervor that is not content only with generalizable ethical propositions but is keen on translating them into actual paradigms. However, the Qur’an always explicates the objectives or principles that are the essence of its laws.”

Thus Rahman’s is very seminal contribution in developing Islamic thought in modern era and developing it in a rational and systematic way. The Islamic world, however, is still not ready to respond to Prof. Rahman’s ideas.

Asma Barlas has contributed a chapter on Amina Wadud’s hermeneutics from women’s perspective. Her chapter is aptly titled “Amina Wadud’s hermeneutics of the Qur’an: women reading sacred texts.” Needless to say the Islamic world is far from emerging from patriarchal values and the traditional ‘ulama are immersed neck-deep into these values. Any deviation from them is denounced as unpardonable heresy. Unfortunately there have been very few attempts to commit this ‘heresy’. The Islamic world has hardly produced women reading the holy text from their own viewpoint.

Amina Wadud is one among those women who are struggling to assert women’s reading of the only text. She is not from any Muslim country but from USA. She is an African American Muslim though she has taught at the Islamic University of Malaysia for few years. But controversies dogged her there too. A definite methodology is needed to read the Qur’an from women’s perspective. And Amina Wadud does develop her own methodology of reading and understanding the Qur’an.

Asma points out that “Wadud believes that reading the Qur’an piecemeal and in a decontextualised way not only ignores its internal coherence, or nazm but it also fails to recover the broad principles that underlies its teachings, as Fazlur Rahman also argues. As a result, most exegetes end up generalising specific Quranic injunctions, a practice Wadud believes is particularly oppressive to women in that some of the most harmful restrictions against them result ‘from interpreting Qur’anic solutions for particular problems as if they were universal problems’”. She gives the example of how traditional exegetes have interpreted the Qur’anic provisions on dressing.

Amina Wadud clarifies, “..the Qur’an establishes a universal notion regarding matters of Dress and asserts that ‘the dress of piety is 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) is deemed an appropriate demonstration of modesty.”

Wadud thus points out that universalising the veil, thus also universalises the ‘culturally and economically determined demonstrations of modesty’ in seventh century Arab society, thereby imparting a cultural specificity to the Qur’an’s teachings. To her, this actually limits the application of these teachings inasmuch as cultures do not necessarily have identical ideas about modesty. Wadud thus argues that what the Qur’an teaches is the ‘principle of modesty …not the veiling and seclusion which were manifestations particular to [the Arab] context.

However, in the Islamic world today veiling in the Arab way is considered a the universal principle of Islam and most of the non-Arab Muslim countries feel it obligatory to imitate this veiling and consider this kind of veils as the only way to protect ones modesty. What is more, it has also become for women as the visible symbol of Islamic identity, especially in the alien western culture. Amina rightly thinks that it is challenge for every new generation of Muslims ‘to understand the principles intended by the particulars [since the] principles are eternal and can be applied in various social contexts.’

One also has to understand that the Qur’an was revealed in history and in particular social, cultural and historical conditions and it was response to these circumstances in addition to being a universal guide for entire humanity. Thus one will have to separate the particular from the universal and as pointed out by Amina Wadud and also by several other Islamic thinkers, every new generation has to discharge this responsibility in a creative way.

As Amina says, ‘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).’

Amina also feels that ‘gendered language’ is used for God. God is referred to as ‘He’, a masculine gender though language cannot express ’what cannot be uttered in language and even though the Qur’an expressly forbids using similitude’s for God. So she says the Muslims should realise that language about God ‘cannot be interpreted empirically and literally.’ Of course all along for centuries masculine gender has been used for God in all major world religions. Now some feminists are raising this question whether one can use masculine gender or gendered language at all for God. Some feminists even use ‘She’ for God. But Amina wants to go beyond gendered language for God. To transcend gendered language in case of God is an important point.

Wadud comes out with another novel argument for equality of sexes. She maintains that the purpose of “human creation was revealed when God said, ‘Verily, I am going to create a khalifah (caretaker, vice-regent, or trustee) on the earth’ [Q. 2:38] Khilafah (trusteeship) on the planet is the responsibility of each human. In the Qur’anic worldview, fulfillment of this trust constitutes the raison d’etre of human existence. [Hence, to] deny full personhood to women is to deny them the full capacity of their fulfilling the basic responsibility decreed by God for all of humankind.”

Thus Amina reads the Qur’an so as to develop arguments in favour of women and their equality with men. It is only a woman reading the Qur’an can advance such arguments because she reads it from her perspective and for centuries so far it is men who have read and commented on the Qur’anic text. Thus it is necessary that the Qur’an be read from different perspectives so as to understand its full import for different sections of society.

The sixth chapter of the book is on noted Egypt scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd who also had to flee Egypt as his views on the Quranic text were not acceptable to the Islamic orthodoxy. This chapter has been contributed by Navid Kermani.  Navid says “In Abu Zayd’s view the outstanding civilising role of the Qur’an makes Arab culture ‘a culture of the text’ (hadarat alnass). Indeed, he goes so far as to describe it as the culture of the text par excellence . 

According to Nasr Arab culture, was spawned by ‘man’s confrontation (jadal) with reality, and his dialogue (hiwar) with the text. Nasr also maintains significantly that to define Arab-Islamic civilisation as a culture of the text implies that it is also a culture of interpretation (hadrat al-ta’wil). Nasr, like other Muslim intellectuals we are discussing here also maintains that the language of the Qur’an – like any other text – is not self explanatory and its meaning depends on the intellectual and cultural horizon of the reader (intaj dalalatihi). Hence the message of the text can only be revealed by its interpreters.

There have been different interpretations of the Quran and main sects of Islam are also based on these differing interpretations. If there could be so many interpretations in early Islam, how can one avoid newer interpretations today as socio-cultural and political conditions have changed drastically ever since? Abu Zayd goes even further and makes an interesting point:

The [Qur’anic] text changed from the very first ment – 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 (l-annahu tahawwala min al-tanzil ila a-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.

Thus Abu Zayd lays great emphasis on understanding or interpretation of the text. Even personal background very much influences this understanding. If the same text is read before a group of people of the same spacio-temporal background it is likely to be understood in different ways by the individual members of the group if their intellectual development differs. Its transformation from divine revelation to human understanding plays vital role in acting according to the text.

Abu Zayd makes another point about Prophet’s understanding of the Qur’anic text. According to him we cannot absolutise Prophet’s understanding of the text. “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.”

Of course this is too radical a position to be accepted by the Muslims in general. The hadith literature plays very important role in tafsir or interpretation of the Qur’an in the Islamic world. The Prophet’s understanding of the Qur’anic text is indeed considered sacred and absolute by the Muslims. More important is to challenge the understanding of the text by Prophet’s companions. But irony is that even understanding of the Qur’an by Prophet’s companions is considered almost as absolute as that of the Prophet’s. The Prophet’s companions had radically different backgrounds from plain and illiterate Bedouins to those who had highly developed and sophisticated intellectual background.

Also, one must make distinction between ‘ibadat and mu’amalat in tafsir of the Qur’an. ‘Ibadat should be left untouched and they can be treated as constant while the Qur’anic verses dealing with interpersonal issues (mu’amalat) could be subjected to different interpretations. Issues pertaining to women’s rights have assumed much greater importance today and the Qur’anic injunctions in this and other respects of this nature could be opened to re-reading and re-interpretation.

Even this is a difficult struggle but worth waging for realising the universal potential of Islam.  The Muslims today almost worship not only the companions of the prophet but also companions of the companions (tab’a tabi’in and tab’a tab’a tabiin) and their understanding of the Qur’an is absolutised. The Muslims have to come out of that at least in matters of mu’amalat. If that happens it will be a great achievement for the Islamic world.

Another important chapter is on Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari from post-revolutionary Iran contributed by Farzin Vahdat.  According to him the “Post-revolutionary Islamic thought in Iran is characterised by a hermeneutic approach. However, the hermeneutics involved in this thought is of a different nature from that of its predecessors, that is, the Islamic revolutionary discourses of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to Shabestari faith is the blind imitation. It is a serious act of choice and commitment. Those who blindly imitate cannot be serious about their faith. It is, at best, a mechanical act without passionate commitment. Freedom of choice and freedom of conscience is an important part of living faith. Thus Shabestari writes:

“Faith is an act of choosing, a fateful act. The question is when a human being is facing a dilemma and chooses the type of life style he wants to live by, what path should he take?…The ideal society for faith [to flourish] and the faithful is one in which [conditions for making] this choice is most widely available….The truth of faith is a free act of conscious choice. All our mystics (‘rafa’) have urged the forsaking of imitated faith and adoption of conscious faith.”

For Shabestari freedom of thought is absolutely necessary for faith.  The Mu’tazalites responsible action is important and this depends on innate human reasoning and this implies freedom of thought. The philosophers emphasise ma’rifah (knowledge) and this isn’t possible without going beyond dogmas and liberating thought from it through freedom of thought. Whichever way one looks at it freedom is necessary and faith (iman) thus has direct relation with freedom of thought. Faith and responsible action (iman and ‘amal salih) are not possible without freedom of thought.

Shabestari also talks of ‘discontent of modernity’ and goes on to elaborate it. The centuries before modern centuries were centuries of ‘certitude’. People believed in certain dogmas and were certain of them. They never felt it necessary to evaluate them or have critical attitude towards them. The modern person, on the other hand, lacks such certitude as he/she does not believe in such dogmas. In fact they have critical evaluation of their beliefs again and again. Thus they suffer from attitude of uncertainty and lack of permanence and Shabestari feels modern theologians have to address this problem. While freedom of thought is important, lack of feeling of permanence has also to be addressed.

The book has chapters on Mohammad Arkoun, Nurcholis Majid, Mohammad Talbi, Huseyin Atay and Sadiq Nayhum. Thus the book discusses many modern intellectuals from different countries and their approach to the Qur’an. For lack of space it is not possible to discuss all of them here in this paper. This book undoubtedly is an important contribution by Saha Taji-Farouki of Institute of Ismaili Studies. The Institute has been making important contributions to modern Islamic literature.

This book also refutes the view some western scholars take that there is homogeneity of thinking on theological issues in Islamic world. It is far from so. There are contending ideas and orthodox approach is under challenge though orthodoxy may prevail. But then it is a different story.

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