Toward A Modern Exegesis of the Qur’an
Toward a Modern Exegesis of the Qur’an
By Sa’eed Nasheed, Published by Dar al-Tanweer, Beirut, Lebanon
Reviewed by Khaled Ghazal
With Analysis & Comments by Jacob Thomas
The Moroccan author, Sa’eed Nasheed has written a small book dealing with “Modernity & the Qur’an.” In this work, he embarks on a difficult task of dealing with the several ambiguities in the Qur’an, a topic that has caused many disputes, sometimes peaceful, while others quite violent. This may be a good reason to discuss this problem; as most of the conflicts occurring in the Arab and Islamic world, are due to the claims by some, that they are defending the faith against the attacks of the secularists. The Salafists’ claims require a response to the way they use the Qur’anic text, as a tool in their fight against the reformists.
What Sa’eed Nasheed offers is to consider the Qur’an as a foundation for a strictly religious life, whose ultimate goal is to bring about comfort and peace to a believer’s soul! To accept his thesis would shield the sacred text from being employed as a political and ideological tool, that quite often, has led to hatred, oppression, and serious conflicts among Muslims.
Nasheed begins with a fundamental question about the Qur’an. Is the Qur’an the text of a Book dictated by Heaven and delivered by Gabriel to Muhammad? While Nasheed doesn’t deny that God is the author of the “Wahy” (revelation), however, he posits that the text of the Qur’an was formulated and redacted by the Prophet, and accomplished within the context of his culture, language, personality, and time. Thus the Qur’an is, in a sense, a human text par excellence!
Nasheed explains the historical process by which the Qur’an was regarded as the very word of Allah, for time and eternity! As Islam’s Futuhat (Conquests) spread and brought into the Umma peoples from various cultures, a rational view of the Qur’an changed to such an extent that the Prophet became like a “Second Person” next to the Divine Being, sometimes even superseding Him. The (Arabic) version of the Qur’an chosen by ‘Uthman, the third Caliph (644-656,) became for the various Islamic communions the Authorized Version, while all other copies were forcefully destroyed.
Dealing with the Qur’anic text and interpreting its Suras and Ayas has occasioned several religious, cultural, and political problems that continue to this day. To conceive of the Qur’an, as well as the previous revealed Books as sacred, and as the unique guide for mankind in matters of faith and life, means that any interpretation other than a strictly literal one, is regarded as heretical! In other words, the Qur’anic text remains as it has been since the seventh century; its exposition must not take into account the time of its first appearance, or the cultural context of contemporaneous Arabia. There can be no new interpretation of the sacred text. The evidence is not hard to find, as we witness nowadays the rise of Salafist and Fundamentalist movements that call for a return to the views and actions of past centuries. The interpretation of the Qur’an adopted by these movements turns Islam into a religion that legitimizes Irhab (terrorism) and violence. Their exegesis of the text fails to take into account that those Ayas “descended” during the days when Muslims were involved in the spread of their faith; but have no relevance in the 21st century. The Salafists ignore that the essence of Islam consists in the call for “Tawhid” (Strict unity of Allah) and the spread of an ethic of love and tolerance.
The closing of the Muslim mind led to a terrible admixture between the ethical and humanitarian essence of the faith, with those Qur’anic narratives that are mostly mythological. Having ascribed a divine nature to the Qur’an, and refusing to exegete it according to the evolution of Muslim societies, led, as Nasheed wrote, that “The text changed from an instruction in the worship of Allah, into a long list of commands that must be observed; leading eventually to the paralysis of the human will, and standing against any attempt at modernization.”
It is important to remember that in the early years of his mission, Muhammad confronted several regulations and customs that belonged to the pre-Islamic era. His response was to endorse some of them, and change others. In other words, those regulations reflected the specific circumstances that Muslims faced in their dealing with one another, as well as with non-Muslims who were living among them. They could not have remained valid beyond the formative period of Islam.
One of the important matters that face the Muslims today are the Qur’anic Ayas related to Jihad. The Islamic Da’wa (Mission) confronted in its early years several forces that endeavored to stop its spread. That led to several wars that were mostly led by the Prophet. It was during that era that those Ayas “descended” specifically to deal with Muhammad’s opponents. This explains the presence of texts that encourage killing the Kuffar (non-believers.)
Now it is true that several Muslim Fuqaha (Jurists) claim that Islam is against violence, that it is a religion of love and mercy. However, they are not willing to declare that those Qur’anic Ayas are no longer normative for the present age. Thus the actions and activities of the Islamist movements have branded Islam as advocating Irhab (Terrorism) and as a religion of violence and murder. Referring to this subject, Nasheed writes: “When the Qur’an encouraged killing, no matter what its motives may have been, it cannot be equated with Allah’s will; rather it reflected the Prophet’s own interpretation of the divine revelation. Such rules were in harmony with the Prophet’s milieu, and did not possess a timeless divine legislation.”
Regarding the linguistic superiority of the Qur’an, Muslims claim that its language is the highest and most elegant form of Classical Arabic, and the final authority in matters of grammar and syntax. There are volumes that have extolled the “I’jaz” (linguistic uniqueness and superiority) of the Arabic text, and the impossibility of human beings capable of composing anything that might approximate it! On the other hand, scholars who have examined the Arabic text of the Qur’an, admitted the existence of several grammatical mistakes.
Muslim jurists insist that the Qur’an is the source for the Sharia’s Hudud (criminal laws) which sanction flogging, stoning, cutting off of limbs, and burning! These are punishments that are followed in our days by the Salafists who assert boldly that Allah had promulgated these punishments; therefore, they ought to be observed!
The greatest contradiction between the logic of the Qur’an and Modernity lies in the area of human rights. As Nasheed puts it: “In the world of Modernity, the individual does not regard his life as pre-ordained; he need not follow the “Sirat” (the Right Path) given by Allah as guidance. An individual’s relation with the community must be based on association and participation, not on blind obedience. The history of modernity is a history of freedom.”
The most important contribution of modernity is the right of every person to embrace the religion of his choice, or not embrace any. Modern societies have accomplished this state of affairs after going through years of religious wars that had caused the death of thousands of human beings. The Qur’an insists on regarding “Islam as the only acceptable religion with Allah,” and that “Muslims belong to the best nation among men” . Such notions are the very antithesis of Modernity which regards religious freedom as sacred, and as a basic aspect of the individual’s freedom. Not one Islamic state recognizes a Muslim’s right of conversion to another faith. In fact, the Law of Apostasy remains in force; the only choice for a Muslim convert is to flee to a country where freedom of religion is acknowledged.
In these days as Arab and Islamic lands are beset by religious and factional wars, as we witness the use of Islam as a tool in political and confessional disputes, Sa’eed Nasheed’s book, “Al-Hadatha wa’l-Qur’an” (Modernity & the Qur’an) occupies a central place in the heart of battle. It’s a book calling for religious reformation, a much-needed event in Arab and Islamic societies! http://www.arab-rationalists.net/forums/showthread.php?t=10283
This ends my translation from the Arabic text of Khaled Ghazal’s review of Sa’eed Nasheed’s book “Modernity and the Qur’an”. Mr. Ghazal is a Lebanese author, graduate of the Lebanese University in Beirut (1969). He is well-known for his book reviews that appear in several newspapers in the Arab world. His reviews on Al-Awan’s website deal mostly with the reform of Islam and the Arab civilization. I was intrigued by this review because I had become acquainted with Sa’eed Nasheed’s thought about the Qur’an in 2010 after reading his essay: What is the Qur’an? Now reading Mr. Ghazal’s current review of this latest offering of Mr. Nasheed, leads me to the conclusion that he is still reflecting on this subject, amplifying and refining the conclusions he had reached in his previous essay. Khaled Ghazal is to be commended for so faithfully conveying Nasheed’s thoughts.
Sa’eed Nasheed sets forth two important theses: First, while he accepts the Qur’an as divine revelation, he rejects the commonly accepted view that the Arabic text must be equated with Allah’s very words. Rather, the divine revelation was “filtered” through Muhammad’s personality.
Second, the author offers a narrow and limited concept of Islam, namely that it consists “in the call for “Taw’hid” (Strict unity of Allah) and the adoption of an ethic of love and tolerance.” Nasheed denies that the role of revelation is to promulgate laws; rather it should function as a guide “in the worship of Allah.”
What exactly is the nature of the Qur’an one might ask? One theory surfaced very early in the history of Islamic thought. During the 9th century AD, the Mu’tazilites in Baghdad, advocated the “Createdness of the Qur’an.” Their view received the blessing and support of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, but was bitterly opposed by Imam Hanbal, (a leader of one of the Four Schools for the Interpretation of Shariah) who advocated the doctrine of the “Uncreatedness” of the Qur’an. As professor W. Montgomery Watt, of Edinburgh University put it:
“[The Mu’tazilites’] outstanding service to Islamic thought was the assimilation of a large number of Greek ideas and methods of arguments … The Greek ideas thus introduced by the Mu’tazilites came to dominate one great wing of Islamic theology, namely, rational or philosophical theology. Since the Mu’tazilites were regarded as heretics, however, by the Sunnites, their ideas and doctrines could not simply be taken over, but exercised an influence indirectly.” The Formative Period of Islamic Thought: Edinburgh University Press, 1973, pp. 249, 250)
Early in the past century, Taha Hussein, a graduate of al-Azhar University in Cairo, and the Sorbonne in Paris, wrote a critical work on pre-Islamic Arabic literature, which brought him into conflict with the religious authorities in Egypt. They regarded his work as a threat to the integrity and uniqueness of the Qur’an, as the very word of Allah. In his book, Hussein had pointed to similarities in the vocabulary and style, between the Qur’an and the rich poetic Arabic literature of the days of “Al-Jahiliyya,” a term reserved by Muslim historiographers for pre-Islamic times, a term that means “The Days of Ignorance.” Orthodox Muslim teaching insists that the Qur’an is unique, not only in its divine origin, but in the very words of the text. For anyone to draw attention to similarities between the Arabic poetry of the “Days of Ignorance” and the vocabulary of the Qur’an, is offensive and is seen as a threat to orthodoxy.
Following World War II, some young Muslims, who had gone abroad for their higher education, were heavily influenced by Marxist and secularist ideologies. For example, Jalal Sadeq al-Adhm, a member of a prominent Damascus Sunni family, published in 1969 “Naqd al Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought). Unlike the reformers of the 19th century who sought the modernization of Islam, he attacked the sacred texts of all theistic religions. This marked the beginning of a new genre of writings by Muslim intellectuals who called for radical reappraisal of their religious and cultural heritage. Al-Adhm got the attention of governmental authorities in Beirut, Lebanon with his Marxist ideology and criticism of theistic religions, particularly Islam. They sought to forbid the publication of his book. Al-Adhm, who at that time was teaching at the American University of Beirut. He succeeded to clear himself of the charges that were brought against him. His book was eventually published in Lebanon. At present, Al-Adhm resides in the United States, and is one of the founders of Al-Awan’s website!
With the advent of the Internet, several Arabic-language websites now facilitate the publication of critical articles that escape the shackles of governmental censorship. Articles and essays are posted on such subjects as the “Need for a New Hermeneutics” of the Qur’an. So it was that in 2010, Nasheed took up the challenge and published “What Is the Qur’an?”
It is rather surprising, to say the least, that a Publishing House in Beirut, Lebanon, managed to published, “Modernity and the Qur’an!” The very the name of the publishers, Dar al-Tanweer (House of Enlightenment) indicates its avant-garde outlook. Despite the turbulent political environment in Lebanon, it is good to see Dar al-Tanweer publishing a book on such a sensitive topic!
By juxtaposing the “Qur’an with Modernity,” the author set forth a very important thesis: “Unless a revised view of the nature of Revelation is adopted by Muslims, they would remain unable to adapt to Modernity.” Such a revised view requires nothing less than jettisoning the notion that every word in the original Arabic text of the Qur’an, is literally, a divine speech. On the other hand, if the belief in the “Uncreatedness of the Qur’an” is maintained, there can be no choice but to accept the historical view of Orthodox Islam that the text is eternal, and can be neither revised, nor re-interpreted.
Unlike Al-Adhm whose adherence to Marxist ideology remains unchanged with its total rejection of theism, Mr. Nasheed, like many previous reformers, is pleading with his contemporaries to realize that to maintain the traditional view of the Qur’an, would hold Muslims captive to an irrational and obscurantist worldview. By allowing the human factor to play a role in Revelation, and limiting its scope, Nasheed would like his contemporaries to reflect on his modest proposal. His concern is very real, since the number of young Muslims leaving Islam, and adopting unbelief is growing rapidly.
My reflections on this subject are based on my faith in the final authority of the Bible which I believe is a necessary belief for any Christian. Sa’eed Nasheed’s book offers a radical concept of “Wahy,” (Revelation.) Other than stating that Muhammad’s original mission was to announce and defend the Oneness of Allah, he hardly dealt with the doctrine of Allah. While one would not expect him to write an entire book on Theology, yet the importance of the doctrine cannot be overstated.
The view of the “Un-Createdness of the Qur’an” prevailed eventually; Imam Hanbal was released from incarceration, and the whole affair known as “Mihnat al-Qur’an” (The Ordeal of the Qur’an) was settled. The only way Muslim theologians could maintain that the doctrine did not contradict the Oneness of Allah was to resort to a concept known as “Bila Shabah,” (No Similarity). The term means that Allah is the “Wholly Other.” His attributes are incommunicable. Thus, the Biblical doctrine of Man being created in the “image of God and after his likeness ” becomes unthinkable to Muslims. On the other hand, it meant that a Muslim can never know Allah; he or she, can know Allah’s will as revealed in the Qur’an. The relation between Allah and a believer is that of a Master to a slave (‘abd), which explains the multiplicity of names among Muslims where the term ‘abd forms the prefix of a man’s name followed by “Allah” “Ilah” or one taken from the list of the “Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah,” such as ‘Abdul-Allah, ‘Abdul-Ilah; ‘Abdul-Karim, etc.
The lack of the possibility of a closer fellowship with Allah, led some serious Muslim intellectuals to unbelief (Ilhad). This was the case of the Saudi scholar, Abdallah al-Quseimi! He began his intellectual career as a defender of the faith, but died an unbeliever! One Arab writer offered this startling comment: “Islam possesses a unique impulse that makes it the most likely religion to cause unbelief. For several other religions contain the promise of an eschatological salvation at the end of time, as in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. However, in Islam, there is no place or room for a Savior.”
Sa’eed Nasheed’s “Modernity and the Qur’an” has offered a solution to the very serious problem that besets Islam, namely its inability to cope with Modernity. The Caliphate Movement’s (Da’esh) and its successes in occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq, the civil wars raging in Syria, Libya and Yemen, are concrete examples of this serious malaise in Daru’l Islam. Unfortunately, there is little hope that Sa’eed’s proposal would find acceptance. The past, with all its unresolved doctrinal issues and schisms, still weighs heavy on a civilization that seems to be unable to break its shackles, and chart a new course that will insure peace and prosperity for its peoples, as well as for the rest of the world.