by Mohamnicid Shahrour
Plurality may refer to religion, nationality, political views, political jurisdiction, and individual opinion,
all gathered with-in a single society. Hence, speaking about pluralism in Muslim societies is to speak
about freedom and democracy.
In a Muslim context, freedom and democracy should be understood in relation to Arab and
particularly Islamic tradi-tions and heritage, and the ways in which they are related to the events
surrounding the establishment of a state in the 5ev-enth century at Medina. This state was based on
the emer-gence of a new divine message that completed and sealed all previous ones. At that point,
the existing Arab society was cohesive, with its own conventions, morals, and civilization.
In particular, we should understand how people at that time responded to this new state based on
their political and social interests. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s rule,
conflict of interests was not conducted openly. With his death, conflict immediately emerged within
tribes, families, and other groups, each claiming to be the rightful followers of the Prophet, and
claiming as well absolute truth. These conflicts continue to this very day in the Arab-Muslim world,
and are manifested in the existence of different Muslim sects.
From the end of the nineteenth century until now, a popular slogan has been heard: “Islam is the
solution.” This means that Islam is the only guide to salvation, and offers the only way out of different
crises. Islam itself is the only way to build a just and free society-in other words, an Islamic soci-ety.
But I often wonder, which Islam is meant? Is it the Islam of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad,
or the Islam that emerged through many different historical events and circum-stances? What kind of
solution does Islam offer? What problems is it assumed that Islam will solve?
Under such circumstances, the Arab Muslim population has divided into two tendencies. The first
group holds tightly to the literal meaning of the heritage, in order to preserve their national identity and
character intact, or at least as they imagine national identity and character to be. Considering that this
legacy contains absolute truth, they believe that what was fit for the first community of believers in the
Prophet’s time is fit for all believers in all times. This belief has been absolute and exhaustive.
In today’s circumstances, such beliefs are often encouraged by political and economic conditions,
where people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo in many countries leads them to accept the slogan
that “Islam is the solution.” Most of this group considers parliaments and elections to be a part of a
Western heresy, and not the way that an Islamic state should be governed. Rather, they believe that
only Allah provides legitimacy for a state, which means that the state should be controlled either by
professional clergy (such as in the case of Iran) or by ‘ulamma (religious authorities).
The state is based on a legitimacy derived from the original human heritage, and is untouched by
changes in political thought over time. Their political theory is based on the Caliphate and Imamate
(i.e., preeminent Islamic authority) and obedience to decision-makers, and does not have an original
theory of freedom and human rights.
The second group has tended to call for secularism and modernity, refusing the Islamic legacy
altogether, including the Qur’an, as a part of inherited traditions that would only act as a narcotic on
public opinion. For them, ritual is an image of obscurantism. Leading this group have been Marxists,
Communists, and some Arab nationalists. But all these parties have failed to fulfill their promise to
provide modernity to their societies. They have attempted to construct a secular state that
monopolizes truth, blocking any public expression of pluralism. This, however, is a perversion of
secularism, which does not entail any state monopoly on truth.
A Return to Text
Between these two groups, a third tendency has emerged. A few voices, including my own, have
called for a return to al-tanzil, the oritinal text of God’s revelation to the Prophet. In what is commonly
known as the Qur’an are actually two distinct aspects. The first is prophecy, which describes the
difference between reality and illusion. The second concerns law and moral behavior. In this sense, the
first aspect is objective and thus independent of human acceptance. The second aspect is subjective,
depending on human knowledge, as, for example, in the human capacity to know right from wrong.
In my belief, al-tanzil is a divine whole, encompassing both the objective prophecy and the subjective
message. It is a divine text whereas everything else is part of the inherited legacy. All interpretations,
including tafsir (exegesis) or ijuhad (independent reasoning) are; no more than human attempts toward
understanding and acting on this divine text.
The sense of fatalism that afflicts many Arab Muslims comes from the confusion of God’s prophecy
and message about how to live a moral life. Prophecy is limited to a certain number of things above
all, that all men will die and be resurrected. But humans have a free will to determine their own
conduct in relation to God’s message, and its relation to their lives. In the afterlife, they will be judged
by God for the way they exercised their free will. Unfortunately, however, many Muslim Arabs have
confused the inevitability of prophecy with an absence of free will. God may know all of the choices
that I will face in makind decisions tomorrow, but it will be me who chooses one of
these options. This is my free will.
In 1970, when I was a student at the National University of Ireland in Dublin, a flood of questions
started to form in my mind. I decided that the school of modernity, in the Arab Muslim world, had
made several mistakes:
1-They understood religion by over-relying on the views of the clergy and religious establishment;
They rejected the Islamic inherited legacy as a whole, which cut them off from their historical roots
and their national affiliation;
2-They denied all divine messages, thereby disregarding morality itself as a principle for society; and
‘They believed only in materialism as the basis of existence, resulting in a view of human beings as
mere statistical units.
Moreover, I found that classicists, traditionalist fundamentalists, and extreme fundamentalists had also
made several mistakes:
1-They had transformed the universal message of Islam into a narrow, local one, intended only for the
Muslims in their immediate vicinity;
‘They gave the traditional, inherited legacy a sacred aspect, even though it is the product of human
interpretati6n. Thus, it became a dogma that people had to accept and apply literally. Over time, this
approach reinforced itself, so that the original message was covered by human heritage. As a result,
Islamic culture became petrified;
‘They treated different aspects of the divine revelation as if they were the same thing; and
‘They did not differentiate between the distinctive parts of al-tanzil. They concentrated on the beauty
of the lan-guage, but ignored the brilliance of the divine logic. In brief, I found Islam, Muslims, and
Islamic thinkers sinking under the burden of ancestral traditions that pulls them backwards.
Under these circum-stances, the formal religious establishment attempts to keep everything as it has been, so as to defend its privileges. In addition, extremist fundamentalis’s try to reclaim the authority of religion for themselves and prise it away from the state. Muslims also face the burden of misunderstanding by non-Muslims, who identify Islam in the terms set by the religious establishment or the extreme fundamentalists.
Another ten years had to pass before I was able to free my thinking from this burden of man-made
heritage. I have since tried to clarify the definitions of a number of terms and ideas that were confused
or obscured by traditionalist approaches and writings:
I)AI-tanzil is the revealed, divine text that had been given to Muhammad. And, like all Muslims, I am
personally obliged to understand this prophecy and carry out its injunctions, as if Muhammad had
passed away yesterday. This is made clear in the text by hundreds of references, such as ‘O
mankind,” ‘O descendants of Adam.” O my worshipers,” ‘O believers.”
2)AI-tanzil is assigned for all mankind, and not Arabs only, and has the ability to fit in with every
human culture, at all levels of development.
3)With the exception of al-tanzil, all texts and religious literature are but a legacy, which represents
human understanding of the divine revelation within the conditions of the time and place of production. These conditions of time and place depend also on the state and means of scientific knowledge.
4)A1-tanzil need not be understood through the strict rules of interpretation established ten centuries
ago. Obviously, there are rules of common sense that apply, such as an understanding of the Arabic
language, in order to read the Arabic text.
5)Rejecting the traditional legacy, which I do not believe gives a proper understanding of the divine
messages, at least nowadays, does not mean that Muslims need to be ashamed of their history and
identity. Our legacy is our roots, our history is our identity; and our ancestors are our forefathers. I
argue only that we need not borrow others’ glasses to see our own reality’, or to solve our current
In my opinion, Muslims do not need a new interpretation, or a new tafsir; we do not need a new Islam
as some have imagined,. or, God forbid, a heresy. In my own work, I believe I am making a serious,
rational attempt to re-read al-tanzil, freed from all historic additions that were added arbitrarily by
authoritarian or sultanic governors. I try to look at this message with the eyes of the present, a gain, as
if the Prophet Muhammad had passed away yesterday.
Remember that al-tanzil has characteristics that have been hidden by the literal adherence to human
interpretation rather than adherence to the divine message. I see distinct differences between a number
of terms that have been used as synonyms. For example, there is the difference between the term
“Muslim,” which originally referred to all believers in God, the afterlife and the performance of good
deeds, and the term mu ‘minin, which refers specifically to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad.
Everything connected with God is, for me, Islam.
Thus, in my view, all believers in God and the afterlife are Muslims. Those who follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad are Muslim-mu’minin. Those who follow the teachings of Jesus are Muslim-Christians, while those who follow the teachings of Moses are Muslim-Jews.
What distinguishes the Prophet Muhammad from previous prophets is that God’s revelation to him by
itself constitutes a miracle, whereas in Christianity and Judaism there are historical miracles outside the text. In the Prophet Muhammad’s message, the text itself is the miracle, which teaches us that mankind must depend on reason alone and that no further revelation or miracles are needed. We have to make our own miracles, like traveling in outer space.
Nature of the Prophetic Message
There are three noteworthy aspects to the message of the Prophet Muhammad: morality,
legislation, and ritual. Morality, in my view, is the common heritage of all religions, and has been built
over time from Noah to Muhammad, passing through Moses and Jesus. These prophetic messages
constitute the moral pillars of Islam.
The legislative aspect refers to the limits that God sets for dealing with human behavior in different
areas of interaction, as in marriage, business, inheritance, polygamy, and criminality. When Arab
Muslims insist on the death penalty for murderers, they are confusing the maximum penalty with the
required penalty. While murderers must be punished, they could be given a life sentence, rather than
the death penalty. Both fall within the limits of punishment set by God in the Qur’an, but torture of
murderers is beyond these limits.
The idea that murderers must be put to death under all circumstances can be traced back to human interpretation that says there is but one punishment for murder, even though the Qur’an speaks only of “limits” of punishment (hudud). Thus, our heritage confines our ability to make proper legislation.
Yet, at the same time, the theory of God’s limits in legislation allows for different solutions to
problems-hence, different points of view and, in time, pluralism within societies and parliaments. This
means that, in a debate, if all parties respect God’s limits, the accusation of heresy is out of place.
Accusations of heresy become the way in which religious establishments try to control or limit
pluralism. In this context, parliaments should replace clergymen and religious institutions in making
The development of pluralism also depends on our understanding of the distinction between God’s
doctrines as handed down to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet’s actual conduct as a man
living in a certain time and a certain society. Fundamentalists tell us that we must live as the Prophet
lived, and we have to follow his sayings and example from his times. In my view, the Prophet lived an
exemplary life within the limits set by God. But his behavior was only one of many choices he could
have made, all within God’s limits.
Thus, the Prophet is a model to us in the sense that he observed God’s limits, not in the sense that we
must make the same choices that he made. The life of the Prophet is the first historical variant of how
the rules of Islam can be applied to a tribal society of the time. But it is the first variant, not the only
one or the last one.
Fundamentalists today confuse the Prophet’s choices with Muslim rituals as the whole of Islam. In this
way, they would prevent people from making legitimate choices, and they would prevent pluralism in
the name of the Prophet’s choices. Everything is compared to what the Prophet did, not to the way
the Prophet made choices. My interpretation puts the sunna, or the traditions and sayings of the
Prophet, in a new light.
As to ritual, these are specific to Muhammad’s teaching of how to worship God, and Muslims know
them as the five pillars: bearing witness to Muhammad as God’s messenger, praying five times a day,
giving charity, making pilgrimage, and fasting. But this is only the ritualistic side of the universal
message of God. Rituals may differ from one branch of Islam to another, that is, among mu ‘mini??,
Christians, and Jews.
Principles of Pluralism
Through my reading of the text, I have come to conclusions that are relevant to the application of the
Qur’an to contemporary society, particularly with regard to democracy and pluralism.
First, one of the core principles of Muslim belief is shura, which means consultation. This was how the Prophet consulted with his companions on making decisions for his society. In the Qur’an, shura is
mentioned twice, as a fundamental belief ,just like prayer, and as a practice, according to the time in
which one lives. In our times, genuine shura means genuine pluralism of points of view, and
Second, this view of shura changes the concept of Jihad, which we hear so much about from the
fundamentalists. To my mind, jihad is justified in only two cases: to defend the homeland, or to fight
for freedom and justice. But if societies are govemed within the limits set by God, then there is no
need to confront them with jihad. Fundamentalists again confuse limits with requirements, and so
speak of jihad against societies that do not share their view of God’s requirements but do respect
Attacks on others in order to spread Islam is a deformed historical concept of jihad because, as I
have explained, Islam exists among all mankind, insofar as they believe in God, the afferlife, and good
deeds. The Qur’an says clearly that it is not allowed to wage war against anyone else to force them to
believe in Muhammad, or to be Muslim. The Qur’an recognizes that most people of the world will not
be followers of the Prophet Muhammad; today they are 20 percent of the global population.
A Personal Quest
Since 1990, I have become a target of different accusations. My first book AI-Kirab wa ‘1-Qur ‘an:
Qira ‘a Mu ‘as Ira (The Book and The Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading) in which I explained my
thesis, has been censored in more than one Arab or Islamic country. So I had to choose to invest my
personal time either in defending myself or in writing and developing my ideas further. I chose the
second option. I published my second book, Dirasat al-Islamiyya al-Mu ‘as Ira fi ‘1-Dawla wa
‘1-Mujtama’a (Contemporary Islamic Studies on State and Society), and third book, Al- Islam
wa’l-Iman (Islam and Belief), which contained practical suggestions for the state and for individuals
based on my conceptual views.
I was fortunate to be living in Damascus, Syria. If not, I could have faced what thinkers in other
Muslim countries have faced, like Nasr Abu Zeid, who lives in exile from Egypt. Perhaps my fate
would have been even worse. The way I have chosen is very difficult. By training I am a civil engineer,
and I know it is easier to build a sky-scraper or a tunnel under the sea than to teach people how to
read the book of the Lord with their own eyes. They have been used to reading this book with
borrowed eyes for hundreds of years.
Nevertheless, the interest shown in my work by different groups was more than I expected. What
attracted them was my total reliance on the Qur’an itself, not on the sunna or another books, which
are written by men and based on their personal interpretations. My critics also focus on my devotion
to the Qur’an, as if I did not respect the Prophet. But as I have said, I respect the Prophet, in his
human behavior, as the first Muslim who chose his options from within God’s limits. What I do not
respect is the way that heritage has become dogma in our thinking.
As far as I know, thirteen books have been published attacking my first book, based on dogma. Since
my starting point was not sectarian, people of all sects and religions have been interested in my work.
Officially, my first book has circulated throughout the Middle East and North Africa. My second and
third books have been banned in many countries. But I know that thousands of copies have been
published, sold, and circulated under the table in these same places. The book circulates as well on
CD-ROM, though I have not been involved in its production.
I believe that traditionalism and fundamentalism in Islam will not disappear as a phenomena. Nor have
Judaism or Christianity eliminated them. But I hope that fundamentalism can have less influence, while
still taking its place within a peaceful, pluralist society. I do not believe in violence against
fundamentalists because their beliefs are at least partly rooted in the consciousness of many people.
Cultural problems cannot be solved by force; attempts to do so have failed. A state that tries to
enforce a single culture tums that culture into an ideology. I have seen that in the Soviet Union myself.
Modemity is not a new dogma that is replacing an older one. It is instead a rejection of fanaticism and offers pluralism to all members of society