Progressive Thinking in Contemporary Islam

Conference of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung,
the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
and the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung
(This translation form the German original into English has been
checked by the author.)

Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll
Honorary Professor at St. Georgen,
Graduate School of Theology and Philosophy, Frankfurt/Main
– Check against delivery –
Thursday, September 22 – Saturday, 24 September 2005
at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

Table of Contents
1. Introductory background: Islamic renewal
2. Aim and delimitation of the topic. Clarification of terms
3. The more recent historical context of progressive thinking
4. Selected ideas and arguments of the new thinking
4.1. What is Islam? – A civilizational tradition in progress
4.2. Critical Islam – beyond mere apologetics
4.3. Resisting the authoritarian in the quest for the moral
4.4. The need for a drastic reform of Islamic law regarding the right to
free self-determination in religious matters while fully respecting
the rights of others
5. The fundamental challenge: a hermeneutic reading of the Qur’an
6. Some concluding remarks
6.1. Historico-critical method and religious belief
6.2. The new critical methodology and its significance for genuine
6.3. “Who speaks in God’s name?” The question of consenus and doctrinal
7. Selected bibliography

1. Introductory background: Islamic renewal

It seems sensible to start by shedding light on the background context and
then to define the broader framework within which the “progressive thinking”
in contemporary Islam which we want to discuss is embedded. The
movements and trends which are shaping the contemporary Islamic world
can be analyzed and assessed in the light of two conflicting forces, namely
the notions of authenticity on the one hand and modernity on the other.
Such an approach perceives contemporary Islam as being torn between the
authenticity in matters of life and doctrine which it derives from its past and
the modernity which refers it to a present (and a future) in which Muslims no
longer hold the reins of power and are therefore no longer able to control the
development of thought.

Islam is centred on a scripture which it holds in faith to be the revelation of
God. This scripture, the Qur’an, is believed to be eternal and immutable in
form and content and thus to be valid for every place and time, to contain a
truth which obtains for ever. Modernity, by contrast, is characterized by the
relativity and the progressive nature of all truth. For the modernists there is
nothing, spoken or written, which cannot be construed and questioned,
which cannot and indeed should not be further refined by the human mind.
Islam thus sees itself positioned between the authenticity of a truth – that of
the Qur’an as a – so to speak – naked, irrefutable fact – and a modernity
whose knowledge in all fields is constantly being reconstructed. Is the
solution to be found in modernizing Islam or in Islamizing modernity? It is
the task of the Muslims to answer this question.

However appealing this approach may be, it has the disadvantage of not
delving below the surface. It contrasts an authenticity which is Muslim with a
modernity which is impacting on Islam exclusively from outside. In addition,
this approach via the question of an identity under threat from outside is an
invitation to either pull up the drawbridges or even – so to speak – go into
“exile”. Both alternatives are rejected by a large majority of Muslims. If there
is to be a debate between the various tendencies, then it should and must be
nourished from elements which are rooted within Islam. It must arise from
Islam itself and its inherent tensions. When looking for an appropriate
approach, it therefore seems sensible to include the twin notions of the letter
and the spirit. The merit here is that the analysis comes from and remains
located within Islam itself.

Three main trends seem to be alive and well in the Islamic world. Against the
backdrop of a cultural Islam there exists an Islamist Islam, i.e. an Islam of
the letter. In addition there is an Islam in the process of re-interpretation: an
Islam based on the spirit of the letter.

Cultural Islam (one could also say traditional Islam; by contrast, I consider
the term “Volksislam”, i.e. “popular Islam” to be highly inappropriate) is
understood to be Islam as it is believed, experienced and practised in a given
society. It represents a kind of  humus which nourishes the entire
community, a potential bestowed on all Muslims. A Turkish Muslim, for
example, sees himself as Sunni in terms of his understanding of the Qur’an
but Hanafi in his interpretation of the law. This does not, however, mean that
there do not exist countless tendencies and groupings in Turkish Islam that
are little “orthoprax” (i.e. abiding by mainstream formulation of Islamic law):
popular Sufi orders, veneration of saints and magic practises on the part of
uneducated khojas and persons under their influence, practices which not
uncommonly draw on elements of pre-Islamic and extra-Islamic, local and
neighbouring cultures and are peddled as being Islamic. All these elements,
taken together, we refer to as cultural Islam. This Islam is in close contact
with the civilization and milieu to which it belongs. It makes these a Muslim
community. In all certainty it contributes to the sense of balance, order and
harmony of each individual Muslim. For the individual Muslim it is a reference
system, a language, a way of thinking, a code of values and conduct – in a
word, the culture of a genuinely extant Muslim society.

Against the backdrop of this cultural Islam, an Islam has emerged which is a
strict observant of the letter. This Islam is often referred to today as
“Islamism”. Present in admittedly various forms, it dates back a long time.
Throughout its history it has repeatedly produced tangible regimes and
movements whenever a society felt the need to react – usually in order to
fend off non-Islamic forces. Not uncommonly it therefore has an inherent
tendency towards the radical.

The circumstances which explain the current revival of Islamism are legion.
Deep down there is undoubtedly the predominance of the so-called “west”,
but at the same time there is the decline of the political power of the Islamic
world and the concomitant humiliation of the umma. Immediately apparent
is a crisis which is simultaneously economic, cultural and political – in other
words a development crisis. This crisis is driving a number of groups to
mobilize in search of a comprehensive improvement of their situation.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that eradicating the causes of
this frustration would automatically lead to the demise of Islamism and
ultimately to its integration into “cultural Islam”. After all, anyone who
makes the transition from cultural Islam to Islamist Islam is following a
certain and systematic dynamic. The doctrines and commandments believed
to be Allâh ‘s revelation are interpreted by the Islamist litterally, and the
Islamist commits himself to implementing them effectively in the public
realm tels quels, as they stand, if necessary through political militancy and
exceptionally even through terrorism.

Can this Islamic logic of radical loyalty to the letter be explained with more
precision? Allâh is the master and the lord. Subordination is his unconditional
due. He handed down his Scripture, to which obedience is owed. The Qur’an
and the sunna – the exemplary actions and words of Muhammad as recorded
in the “healthy” (i.e. reliable) hadiths – are the basic texts and the founding
texts. They are to be interpreted literally without excuse or spurious
compromise. Religion sets out a code of conduct which has to be followed
strictly. The Islamic community is instructed to “enjoin what is right and
forbid the wrong” (e.g. Q. 3:104). By virtue of this commandment, Muslims
are obliged, in all areas of life, to be active defenders of the good and
warriors against evil, with good and evil being defined by the sharia, itself
based on the Qur’an and the sunna and rationally deduced from this basis.

Thus a connection between Islamism and Islam does actually exist. Although
they are not identical and should be clearly distinguished from each other, in
the eyes of some (and here and there even many) Muslims, Islamism is not
an incorrect or misleading Islam but more a complete, perfect Islam. For its
adherents, Islamism is not only that which Islam stands for but the truth of
Islam to which all must convert.

At the same time, today we see the emergence, more than ever from
“cultural Islam” but also, antithetically, from the conscious experience of
contemporary Islamism, of an Islam of re-interpretation or an Islam in the
process of being re-interpreted. We call it thus because it undertakes to re-
open “the gates of the idschtihād” (i.e. the personal striving for fresh
interpretations based on the basic and founding scriptures), gates which
have been believed to be more or less locked since the middle of the 10th
century. The originality of the idschtihād is to be found in the courage to
reconsider and reformulate earlier juridical rulings and theological doctrine,
prescriptions which seemed to be unambiguously and definitively true for
almost a millennium.

What applies to Islamism applies here too: the various tendencies and
movements are so numerous that a full classification would only confuse the
issue. The defining feature of all these new approaches is that they address
themselves to the meaning of the founding scriptures of Islam and try, in
cognizance of the risks and hazards inevitably incurred by such an
undertaking, to identify the spirit behind the letter.

This “Islam according to the spirit” is today not at the front of the socio-
political and socio-religious stage, or at least not in the way that the
movements of an Islamist persuasion are. But its efforts are clearly visible
and not uncommonly in line with the aims and views of the broader
population. Undoubtedly this “Islam according to the spirit” still leaves far
too much unsaid and some things even deliberately vague, partly out of fear
of aggressive accusations from Islamists and also from the undemocratic
potentates who use cultural Islam to preserve the status quo. But this “Islam
according to the spirit” could ultimately hold the key to the future because it
responds flexibly to the challenges of modernity without denying continuity
with at least some of the historical understandings of Islam.

Muslims everywhere are today engaged in an internal Islamic debate on
Islam. Torn between the traditional practices and ideas of cultural Islam on
the one hand and the influence and attraction of Islamist Islam or the Islam
of re-interpretation on the other, the devout and educated Muslim has no
alternative to asking himself what kind of Islam he wants for his children.
Moreover, more and more Muslims find themselves in a transition to a
“critical” religion, i.e. a religion which is determined ever less by social milieu
and instead is marked increasingly by the independent choice of the

2. Aim and delimitation of the topic. Clarification of terms

Undisputedly therefore the phenomenon just alluded to does exist: a new
Islamic thinking. But what else does this newness entail? It is a
contemporary Muslim thinking which sees all manifestations of what we refer
to as Islam and Islamic as being subject to change, as changing and
developing realities. It is therefore not – to emphasize this point – not a
thinking which subscribes to the ideology of progress. Indeed, this thinking
certainly also embraces the possibility of regression, provisionality and
possible errors, in particular with regard to one’s own thinking. As a result it
accepts the need for permanent self-criticism and indeed calls for such self-
criticism. The new thinking furthermore aims for a deconstruction (nota
bene: not destruction or demolition) geared to the goal of enabling every
Muslim and every honest person “to come closer, free from any form of
ideological manipulation, to the truth of the Word of Islam in order then to
better appropriate this truth informed by a sound knowledge of the reasoning
and background.” (BENZINE. 2004, p. 13)

The progressive thinkers do however conceive of “modernity” in ways
significantly different from the approaches of early reformers (of the late
19th and first decades of the 20th century). They are not satisfied with using
reason simply as a universal and self-evident criterion but instead see reason
as a socially constructed ability and thus as an ability which exists within a
variety of practices and different discourses on theory.

They believe: “At the heart of modernity one finds the idea of the individual
free to act, free to discover, whose experiments can penetrate the secrets of
nature and whose strivings, together with those of others, can contribute to
the shaping of a new and better world.” (BENZINE. 2004, p. 17) In other
words: the new progressive thinkers see modernity critically and in the style
of a distinctive, individual consciousness of freedom.

Nasr Hamid ABU ZAYD wrote in Al-Ahram in 2002:
“We need an untrammelled exploration of our religious heritage. This is the
first prerequisite for a religious renewal. We must lift the embargo on
freedom of thought. The area of the renewal should be unlimited. There is no
room for safe doctrinal havens in Islamic teaching, sacrosanct and closed to
critical research. Such safe doctrinal havens constrain the process of
renewal. They represent censorship, and this has no place in the history of
Islamic thinking.”
(ABU ZAYD. 2002. See: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002).

Such an appeal incorporates the demand for freedom in general and for a
social order which allows for such free thinking and does not violently
suppress it. It also implies the hardly veiled reproach that those in power
repeatedly instrumentalize religion for their own political purposes and are in
this respect indeed comparable with Islamic fundamentalists.

Open, scholarly criticism of the “religious phenomenon” and the “religious
discourse” is new to Muslim societies. Advocates of the new thinking are
therefore repeatedly branded as “apostates”. They and their views are
unpalatable for the establishment because they concern not only specifically
theological issues but also contemporary problems such as relations between
the Islamic religion and the state, the interaction between the sharia and the
positive law of modern states (particularly human rights and the
emancipation of women), and then of course also very tangible local issues
such as the Islamic view of the relation between belief and social justice or
the question whether an Islam-specific, firmly defined social system or
political system is a component of Islam.

It would however be a major mistake to concur with the reproach repeatedly
uttered by the opponents of this new thinking to the effect that the latter is
uncritically bound to western criteria and has blindly become addicted to the
west and its value system. For this new thinking, modernity does not mean
“western modernity”. On the contrary, it defines modernity as – so to speak
– the critical light that modern knowledge has generated. The protagonists of
progressive thinking thus advocate that when studying Islam and
interpreting its scriptures, there is a need for unrestricted and critical
account to be taken of the modern social sciences (linguistics, semiotics,
comparative religion and not least sociology).

The advocates of progressive thinking do not form a school, nor do they all
study the same issues. None the less we can concur with Rachid Benzine:
“They are brought together by the fact that in their search for independent
insight they want to study the Qur’an, Islamic tradition and Islam in general,
always respecting the requirements of university scholarship and making use
of the exact methodologies of scientific study.” (BENZINE. 2004., p.18).

Of the many advocates of such thinking, the following are mentioned by way
of example: Mohamed Arkoun (Algeria / France); Abdul Karim Soroush
(Iran); Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (Egypt / Netherlands); Abdou Filali-Ansary
(Morocco); Abdelmajid Charfi (Tunisia); Farid Esack (South Africa / USA);
Ebrahim Moosa (USA); Asghar Ali Engineer (India); Abdullahi an-Naim
(Sudan / USA); Amina Wadud (USA); Fatima Mernissi (Morocco); Leila Babès
(France); Khaled Abou El Fadl (USA); Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia); Farish
Noor (Malaysia); Ömer Özsoy (Turkey) …

3. The more recent historical context of progressive thinking

Tajdīd (renewal) and nahda (cultural awakening, renaissance) of Islamic
thinking developed from the end of the 18th century on during a time when
Muslim populations were subject to political and colonial dependence on the
west. Political liberation has occurred since then, and Muslims have also had
experience of dictatorship and corruption in their own Islamic-dominated
societies. Admittedly the dependence of these societies on the west has not
been removed entirely but exists today in new forms. In addition, an
increasing percentage of Muslims live as minority communities in states with
non-Muslim majorities.

Like the Islamists, the advocates of progressive thinking are also to a certain
extent the product of democratization and more accessible university
education. A few professional theologians may be among them, but their
number is small. It is certainly true that the progressive thinkers include
relatively more people with a humanities background than the Islamists,
whose ranks are known to include a majority of persons with a scientific or
technological background. The progressive thinkers are convinced that it is
not sufficient to modernize Muslim societies in the fields of science and
technology without at the same time probing the corpus of traditional
religious interpretations.

Fazlur Rahman, to whom the new thinking under review here owes many
decisive ideas, wrote in the epilogue to the second, expanded edition of his
book Islam, published in 1979: “At the moment Islamic intellectualism is
virtually dead, and the Muslim world offers the uninviting spectacle of an
enormous intellectual desert with wild troughs within which no thought stirs
and a deathly silence prevails, though there is on occasion something which
seems to resemble the twitch of a wing. This is the community for whose
young generation Muhammad Iqbal beseechingly prayed some four decads
ago [beginning of the 1930s]:
“May Allâh guide your intellect into a [new] storm,
for there is hardly a ripple in the waters of your seas!””

Rahman continued:
“Why has the half-century since Iqbal’s death been so sterile? One answer
may be this: the Muslim world has been totally occupied over the past 50
years with liberation struggles against western colonialism and thereafter
with reconstruction programmes. Though it is also true to say that when
people are under enormous pressure and faced with new challenges their
creativity attains unusual heights. What kind of reconstruction would result if
intellectual reconstruction and spiritual regeneration had no or only a minor
role to play in it?” (RAHMAN. 1979, pp. 263-264)

The enormous pressure from new challenges, combined with the recent
acceleration of the secularization process in Muslim milieus, societies and
states, has become so strong that it has inspired progressive thinkers
everywhere. For some, personal experience also played a role: experience of
Islamist regimes (such as those of the Mullahs in Iran and the Taliban in
Afghanistan) and of the fight by Islamist movements against dictatorial
regimes and the latter’s defence of the status quo.

Virtually all progressive thinkers are committed to considering the place of
religion in a world which, despite all appearances to the contrary, is
becoming increasingly secular. The process of secularization came upon the
Islamic world fairly suddenly – overnight, so to speak – without its having
undergone an inner maturing process which would have prepared it for the
impact. This process confronts Muslim thinkers with the question: how
should religion, i.e. a reality deemed to be immutable, be reconciled with

Abdolkarim Soroush (born in 1945) has examined this question for
considerable time and with radical scholarship. His answer is this: all the
sciences and all fields of knowledge are in a state of ongoing transformation.
Changes in one field of science necessarily lead to modifications in other
fields, including in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Step by step Soroush has
developed a “Theory of the extension and contraction of religious
knowledge”. Proceeding from this theory he has arrived at the conviction
that the boundaries for the development of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have
to be constantly expanded, and that the development process itself also has
to take account of developments which have taken place in other religious
spheres. (See: SOROUSH. 2002)

In the view of the progressive thinkers, an unprejudiced, fresh reading of the
basic scriptures of Islam is the only way of reconciling the core values of
Islam with the demands of modernity in all their many variations. Only such
a re-interpretation will pave the way for movement in jurisprudence; only
thus will it be possible to ensure an adhesion of Islam’s political thinking to
democracy and human rights in a spiritually and intellectually coherent
manner, and only thus will it ultimately be possible to bring about gender
equality – all this with a clear conscience regarding the Qur’an and the sunna
and in critical discourse with the critical thinking of modernity.

4. Selected ideas and arguments of the new thinking

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to discuss individually the modern
Muslim intellectuals cited above or to track the most important intellectual
milestones in this new thinking in a manner which does justice to all. Instead
I will present a selection – undoubtedly a somewhat random selection merely
for the purpose of illustration – of arguments concerning just a few of the
basic questions which seem relevant to our discussion. I emphasize that my
selection of authors should not be understood as a kind of pecking order for
progressive Muslim thinking as a whole.

4.1. What is Islam? – A civilizational tradition in progress

Ahmet Karamustafa, a lecturer on religion at the University of Washington,
examines a fundamental question repeatedly raised by the progressive
thinkers, namely: what is the definition of Islam? His portentous answer can
be summarized as follows. The term “religion” cannot be applied universally
to Islam because of its vagueness and ambiguity. It misleadingly suggests
that Islam is an unambiguous and clearly delimited reality. Moreover, Islam
cannot be identified with any of the various human cultures, and the diverse
cultures which identify themselves as Islamic are all Islamic and cannot be
ranked hierarchically on the basis of the amount of Islam they are judged to
incorporate. This leaves us with the widely used definition of Islam which
proceeds from the prescribed practices known as the “five pillars”. But this
definition is likewise unsatisfactory because the only element of these “five
pillars” which, on close and critical inspection, is seen to inform the identity
of all Muslims is the schahāda (i.e. the brief avowal of faith: “There is no
deity except Allâh”). Anyone who rejects this is indeed not a Muslim, though
it should be said that interpreting the schahāda is a matter left to the
individual. This definition of Islam based on the schahāda has merit only if
and to the extent that it is embedded in a civilizational framework. In other
words – and this takes us on to the positive formulation of Karamustafa’s
thesis: Islam does indeed have as its core certain key ideas and practices,
but what is important is to grasp the dynamic spirit in which these core ideas
and practices are constantly negotiated by Muslims in concrete historical
contexts. One should not, therefore, reify them in a rigid formula which is
both unhistorical and idealistic. In still other words: “Islam is a civilisational
project in progress; it is a developing civilisational tradition which constantly
releases from its melting pot innumerable alternative societal and cultural
blueprints for human life on earth.” (KARAMUSTAFA. 2003, p. 109)

From this perspective of Islam, Karamustafa draws the following conclusions.
If Islam is thus perceived as a civilisational project, it presents itself as a
dynamic, developing phenomenon which cannot be reified or defined in any
way. This insight and reality should be celebrated instead of denied, in
unrealistic and utopian fashion, with the Islamist call for the building of “the
true Islam” and for the “politico-ideological unification of all Muslims”.

Seen from this angle, it is easier to identify and promote Islam as a truly
global tradition, as a tradition which does not need to distance itself from any
specific race, language or culture. In other words: by emphasizing the global
character of Islam, we are able to value Islam’s transcultural, transethnic
and transnational – i.e. humanistic – dimensions.

Moreover: thus seen, Islam is an interactive and inclusive tradition. This
tradition takes root in the cultures with which it comes into contact. It
reshapes these cultures and reforms them from within in a manner which
means that numerous Islamic cultures exist on the globe, all equally Islamic
and all equal partners in building and renewing the Islamic civilizational

4.2. Critical Islam – beyond mere apologetics

One of the most prominent advocates of progressive Islamic thinking now
teaching in the United States, Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University in Durham,
North Carolina, identifies some characteristic features of progressive thinking
by differentially comparing it with the thinking of the Islamic modernists of
the 19th and 20th centuries. The latter perceived modernity as their ally and,
importantly, they attached high priority to rationality. Reason as a criterion
seemed to them to be their best weapon in their dispute with the west. They
also deployed this weapon in their fight against all forms of superstition and
degraded popular belief. Moreover, they believed that reason as a criterion
would make them independent of all external religious authorities, be they in
Sufism, theology or jurisprudence. Finally, they believed that by using
rational methods they would be able directly to discover for themselves the
original Word of the Qur’an.

These thinkers, however, took only scant note of the critical light of modern
knowledge which had been developed in the modern humanities. Their ranks
included only few intellectuals who were able and willing to apply the insights
of critical scholarship in history, literature, sociology and psychology to
interpreting the Qur’an and the hadiths, to history, social structures and the
understanding of theology and jurisprudence. They were informed by the
understandable fear that total acceptance of modernity as a philosophical
tradition would dissolve Islam as a belief. At the same time they still held the
conviction that pre-modern epistemology with its roots in classical dialectic
theology (‛ilm al-kalām) and jurisprudence (fiqh) could withstand erosion by
modernity or was even compatible with the best of modern epistemology.
Their intentions here were undoubtedly sound, but there was also naiveness
at play insofar as most reformers viewed modernity and its philosophical
heritage as a mere tool to explain and promote the pre-modern tradition and
the pre-modern understanding of religion. This shows that they either failed
to recognize or completely misread the full implications of modernity.

Ebrahim Moosa cautions that the quest for a new and credible analysis which
ventures beyond the positions set out above should avoid making two errors
in particular which are characteristic of the modernist literature. The first is
reification. This entails reducing and transforming living, subjective
experiences and practices to make them fit into a series of concepts, ideas
and things. For example, in relation to the earliest phase in the history of the
Muslims it is not uncommon for reference to be made to the “spirit of Islam”
as if this corresponds as equal to justice, equality and humanism as
individual or combined qualities; as if these represent the very nature, the
essence of Islam on the basis of which everything else and all that was to
come later can be understood. Nothing, however, is presented to show
exactly how, whether and, if so, to what degree these ideals were actually
manifested in the practices and behaviour of the early Muslims.

Secondly, there is a need to abandon the apologetic attitude which still
prevails today. This attitude produces arguments which gloss over or
airbrush out certain elements of patriarchal structures, lifestyles and
convictions which are sanctioned in the Qur’an and the hadiths. Acting on a
false inferiority complex vis-à-vis the present, when confronted with history
and its critical understanding, the response of the apologists is to flee.
Muslims of this leaning gave little credence to the legitimacy of their own
experience of the present and refused to act on this experience as a trigger
and justification for innovation, change and adaptation. This reportedly has
to do with a pathological belief in the superiority of the past and with the
inability of a majority of Muslims to see the present, with its formative roots
in the Enlightenment and the modern humanities, as an opportunity for

4.3. Resisting the authoritarian in the quest for the moral

In his book Speaking in the Name of God (ABU EL FADL, 2003), Khaled Abou
El-Fadl, a lawyer lecturing at the UCLA School of Law, presents a critical
investigation of the ethical foundations of the Islamic legal system wherever
this, largely as he suggests, has degenerated into an authoritarian
interpretation of the Qur’an and the hadiths – with fatal consequences for
sections of Muslim society, in particular women. Abou El-Fadl fears that this
authoritarian character bestowed on Islamic jurisprudence by Salafi and
Wahhabi theory and practice not only robs Islamic jurisprudence of all
integrity and respectability but is also an almost insurmountable hurdle to
implementing and developing Islamic law in the modern world. Abou El-Fadl
argues that in the light of the apologetic stance of the activists and the
paralyzing dogmatism of today’s legal experts, only very little remains of the
rich and complex heritage of Islamic jurisprudence. If this jurisprudence now
mainly represents a methodology for a consciously religious lifestyle in
search of the divine and a process of weighing up and juggling the core
values of the sharia in search of a morality to guide one’s life, then one must
accept, Abou El-Fadl says, that this jurisprudence has decayed – even to the
point of extinction – over the past three centuries, in a process which was
particularly rapid in the second half of the 20th century.

On the impact of Islamic prescriptions on women, Abou El-Fadl draws a
particularly devastating conclusion. He directs his criticisms at, inter alia, the
rulings of the Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions
(C.R.L.O.), the official institution in Saudi Arabia mandated with drawing up
Islamic legal expertises and a body with powerful global influence in
promoting “Salafabism”, as Abou El-Fadl calls this leaning which combines
Salafism with Wahhabism. At issue are rulings such as those which ban a
woman from visiting her husband’s grave, from praying aloud, from driving a
car, from travelling without a male companion – all based on the argument
that such conduct would automatically be an unacceptable temptation to
men. These rulings, in Abou El Fadls’ view, are –to put it mildly – morally
problematic. If men are so weak and impressionable, why should women
have to pay the price for their failings?

Because no legal system operates in a moral vacuum, Abou El-Fadl suggests
that Muslims must give serious thought to the ethical concepts which should
inform contemporary Islamic law. What is invoked or produced by its legal
provisions? If, as is claimed, these provisions have nothing to do with
religion but are instead the product of the respective totally patriarchal socio-
cultural environment, Abou El-Fadl is totally in agreement, but he thereby
assumes a different meaning and arrives at a probably unexpected
conclusion: “It would be dishonest to claim that these provisions are not
backed up by the Islamic sources because, as set out in this book, they are
backed up by a number of traditions and precedents. One could, however,
justifiably argue that these provisions are not compliant with Islamic ethics …
“(ABOU EL-FADL. 2003, p. 270)

If Islam is a universal Word, Abou El-Fadl argues, then its discourse on
issues of ethics and justice should be intelligible and reasonable beyond the
narrow limits of any specific legal culture within a particular cultural
environment. He does not defend the idea of introducing a general, universal
law, nor is he in favour of abolishing cultural specificity. But to serve Allâh
surely means to serve justice, and serving justice necessarily means to stand
up for the just, the moral and the humane.

4.4. The need for a drastic reform of Islamic law regarding the right
to free self-determination in religious matters while fully respecting
the rights of others

A. A. An-Na‛im, a scholar originally from Sudan but now living in the United
States, considers that he, particularly because he is a Muslim, is not able to
accept the law of apostasy as part of Islamic law. If the predominant
understanding of apostasy remains valid, a Muslim could be punished if he
expresses opinions in a given Islamic country in which those opinions are
considered to amount to the offence of apostasy. For example, from certain
Sunni perspectives, the opinions of many Shi’ites amount to apostasy, as
indeed do the opinions of many Sunni from certain Shi’ite perspectives. If the
sharia law of apostasy were to be applied today, it is indeed possible that
Shi’ite Muslims would be condemned to death in a country with a Sunni
majority and vice versa. That this is not exaggeration becomes clear from a
dispassionate review of history right up to very recent times.

But An-Na‛im goes further: as long as the public law of the sharia is seen as
the only form of law which is really valid in the Islamic sense for Islam, it is
virtually impossible for the majority of Muslims to contest any of the
principles or resist execution of that law, however repulsive and
inappropriate they might consider it to be. The sharia was “constructed” by
Muslim legal scholars in the first three centuries, i.e. although the sharia is
derived from the fundamental, divine sources of Islam, Qur’an and Sunna, in
itself it is not divine for it is the product of human interpretation of those
sources. Moreover, this process of constructing the sharia via human
interpretation took place within a specific historical context which was
drastically different from the context which prevails today. It should
therefore be possible for contemporary Muslims living in today’s historical
context to embark on a comparable process of interpreting the Qur’an and
the Sunna and thereby develop an alternative public law for Islam which is
appropriate for application in our times.
“It is my conviction as a Muslim”, An-Na‛im writes, “that the public law of the
sharia does not represent the law of Islam which contemporary Muslims are
mandated to implement in fulfilment of their religious duty.” (AN-NA‛IM.
1996, p. 187) He proposes a reform of the methodology which reflects the
“evolutionary principle” and other fundamental ideas of his mentor,
Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. But, An-Na‛im cautions, “irrespective of whether
this particular methodology is accepted or rejected by contemporary
Muslims, there can be no doubt that a drastic reform of the public law of the
sharia is necessary.” (Op. cit., p. 186)

5. The fundamental challenge: a hermeneutic reading of the Qur’an

The progressive – or “new” – thinkers of contemporary Islam remind us time
and again that the Qur’an is a scripture for all people, Muslims and non-
Muslims alike. The Qur’an speaks to all people, and reading this scripture and
hearing it read aloud is intended to be a challenging experience and an
invitation to believe. Moreover, as M. Arkoun emphasizes, insofar as the
Qur’an, especially today, is “invoked by millions of believers to legitimize
their behaviour, to support their struggles, to justify their aspirations, to
nourish their hopes, to strengthen them in their beliefs, to endorse collective
identities in the face of the uniforming forces of the industrial civilization”
(ARKOUN.1982, p. 1), understanding much of our world presupposes an
adequate understanding of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is and remains one of the
scriptures which inform the memory and the imagination of humanity.

The progressive thinkers are now consciously addressing the issues which
arise for the Qur’an from contemporary insights and the academic discourse.
How, some of them are asking, can one really gain access to, and grasp, a
scripture which is so complex, a scripture which bears witness to a portrayal
of the world and a sensitivity which in some respects is so radically different
from ours? Their response to this challenge is to apply the historico-critical
method, which aims to bridge the time gap between the reader and listener
of today and a scripture dating back to the 7th century. The historico-critical
method tries to place the text into the context within which it was written. It
sees the Qur’an as a part of history. It is the Word of Allâh, but the Word has
a historical dimension, the historical dimension of its “incarnation” in text
form (the nature and structure of the text), as R. Bezine describes it. This
existence in text form allowed the discourse to develop a network (maillage)
structure (composed of words, statements, oracles, which came, so to speak,
into the heart and from the tongue of the Prophet), and then to take the
form of a script which subsequently became a scripture. (See: BENZINE.
2004, p. 278)

Seen in this light, therefore, Allâh introduced his Word into a human
language and culture. People then collected “the Word” and reproduced it in
a bound volume of pages, the mushaf, which is known to have been the
product of a collective endeavour. According to this new view, the Qur’an
therefore does indeed speak of eternal truths, but it conveys them in the
forms of a particular and non-universalizable culture, namely that of the
Arabs of the Hejaz of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Others strive to understand how the scripture functions, how it “speaks”,
given that this divine discourse in “human language” presents itself as a
corpus of texts. A corpus of words and sentences which rhetoric interweaves
and binds together. The Qur’an is thus simultaneously a literary masterpiece,
an ethical and symbolic discourse, and a chronicle, but it is also very much a
discourse of parables and fables, and sometimes, though in relatively little
detail, it is a legal code. Various literary styles can therefore be found in the
Qur’an, each depending on the message which it seeks to convey.

Today, a proper reading and understanding of the Qur’an also calls for the
application of the principles of scholarship in linguistics and literature. A
number of new thinkers have focused on this aspect, particularly the
Egyptian literature scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (born in 1943), who
currently lectures at Leiden in the Netherlands. Of all the methodologies
available to literary scholarship, the rhetorical and narrative analyses in
particular allow the believer to take the text of the Qur’an in its definitive
version and apply the necessary updating. The literary forms of the Qur’an
are important, for they provide information on how the text as it stands was
“used” within the context of its appearances, its “coming down” as the
Qur’an itself terms it, and what functions it fulfilled. Sometimes a teaching
function predominates, sometimes a function of cult and ritual, elsewhere it
is “only” the “exquisite” word of Allâh which is audible. Literary style is the
key to discovering which particular momentary concern any given passage
sought to address.

However, whether in the case of the Qur’an or of any other text,
understanding the Qur’an requires more than an understanding of the
backdrop for the text (the anthroplogy, archaeology, epigraphology, political,
social and cultural history of the environment in which the text is
embedded), and more than an understanding of its literary structure (its
vocabulary, grammar, styles, and its links with the languages which
preceded and surround the text). Reading and understanding a text must
likewise not be reduced to knowledge of the history of the formation of the
text. The meaning of the text is to be discovered primarily via a combination
of all the above, of all that we find around the text, within the text and in the
reading – and thus in the reader of the text. Because if it is true that a text
which remains unread exists in just the same way as a text which is read, it
is indeed the reading or the hearing of the written word which breathes life
into that text.

The hermeneutic studies thus reveal the polysemous character of the Qur’an,
because the act of reading is itself – so to speak – the producer of the
knowledge and the meaning. Reading or hearing read aloud is indeed first
and foremost the activity of the reader or the listener. There can be no
reading/hearing without a reader/listener. The meaning of a text is to be
found primarily in the reader/listener. To deconstruct a text in order to see
how it “works” is fascinating and interesting. But such a “mechanical”
approach is not adequate to grasp the meaning of that text. A text is
enlightening for the reader or listener only when it, or at least a part or an
aspect of it, coincides with what the reader or listener has himself
experienced. The reader/listener is the person who, little by little, identifies
the threads through the fabric of the text which give him a taste of it.

From the above it follows that no approach to the Qur’an – or any other
comparable text – exists, or only through the prism of a particular culture,
the culture of the reader/listener. Any understanding, even the most
profound, always remains shackled to the imperfect character of the reading,
the prejudice (or bias) which every reader has. Any reading is a re-reading, a
re-lecture, i.e. a reading within a situation, a contextual reading. Seen from
this perspective, there are no methods which might enable one to draw the
only, the “objective” meaning of any given text. The Qur’an cannot be
reduced to a single perspective, that via which it is read. There is no reading
which is the only accurate one and valid in perpetuity.

6. Some concluding remarks

6.1. Historico-critical method and religious belief

For progressive Muslim thinking, academic scholarship and literary analysis
are not in conflict with a devout, religious approach to the Qur’an. Indeed –
as the thinkers themselves say – academic analysis perfects and enriches the
latter and provides them with an intellectually reliable basis. Academically
researched information on the texts does not in itself provide an adequate
religious understanding of the revealed Word. It seeks to and indeed can,
however, help to ensure that the meaning and thus the true religious
significance of the text for today is understood and given the appropriate
weight within the revealed Word as a whole.

By highlighting the symbolic and mythical dimension in the discourse on the
Qur’an, the progressive thinkers are emphasizing just how much the Qur’an
represents an eternal truth. There is no religious culture without myths.
Mythical history symbolizes what we are today and where we are going. The
Qur’an is of enduring significance because it tells stories which tell the
believer his own stories. Not every event reported in the Qur’an has in itself
a significance which extends beyond the time when it occurred. But these
events as narrated in the Qur’an can be related time and again to life today
and tomorrow, both individual and collective.

6.2. The new critical methodology and its significance for genuine

When we speak here of an adequate, new methodology for interpreting the
Qur’an, this not only has significance for the epistemological and thus
intellectual aspect but we are also touching on the rank of belief and
devoutness in Islamic theology and Muslim religious thinking. Indeed, there
exists a kind of attitude and, corresponding to it, an exegetic method which
subordinates understanding the text of the Qur’an as such not only to the
hadiths but practically even to the deductions of the legal and doctrinal
codifications and which thus causes the believer to confine himself in his
appreciation of the text to that which is strictly useful. When this occurs, his
appreciation does not extend beyond applying the text to the legal and
doctrinal issues which currently stand as being in need of resolution. The
greatest danger here is that this type of appreciation engenders an attitude
to the Qur’an which is geared in a certain way only to its usefulness. This
mentality leads to a “narrow” belief. Muslims of this mentality become aware
in the Qur’an only of the utilitarian and superficial aspects..

The particular feature of a belief which is formed within the matrix of this
mentality and methodology is that it is inspired by a sense of unassailability
and repetition, in other words that it remains untouched by the internal
vacillations of the believer, by the believer’s questions and doubts and also
by his desire for a personal spiritual path. Here, the dynamics of the faith
come to a halt at the primary and superficial necessities. Everything beyond
these will be perceived as temptations which should best be repressed. With
such a perspective, the faith concentrates on that which is certain and on the
calmness bestowed by repetition of that which has been prescribed in the
past. In the event of a crisis this leads to two consequences: indifference or
violence. Indifference in those whose weakness of conviction has made them
incapable of responsibly making any genuine effort; violence in those who
believe that the zenith of devoutness is to display a stubborn determination
to defend the literal meaning of the prescriptions as well as the shape of
established systemic relations – whatever form the actual manifestation of
this endeavour to preserve and defend these may take.

The exegetic method, which is the choice of the other viewpoint, proceeds
critically and historically and can thus restore to the revealed Word the
vitality of its language, its symbols and, by extension, its spiritual and
intellectual power. This probably creates space for a different style of belief,
one which is founded on a sense of assuredness allowing the belief to remain
open-minded to questions and contestations, one which is proud of the
breadth of the mission of the Qur’an, and one which is confident that this
breadth can inspire in the believer an enhanced sense of humility and
openness to others, whoever these may be and however they may define

This exegetical view and method has emerged in modern times because of a
gradual evolution which has taken place in Islamic thinking. It is informed by
the human and social sciences, by the questions which these raise and by
the changes which these have to address. It suggests creative forces which a
contemporary Moroccan Sufi sums up in the following brief statement: “As
far as the text is concerned, the ongoing revelation of the Qur’an (tanjīm)
has indeed attained its goal. This is not the case, however, with regard to its
meaning.” (Cited in: ENNAIFER. 1998, p. 105)

6.3. “Who speaks in God’s name?” The question of consensus and
doctrinal authority

Some three years ago, at a discussion event bringing together Muslim and
Christian thinkers to explore the subject of “Building bridges”, which was
organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury and held at Lambeth Palace in
London, Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan publicly expressed the following
view: if in the next few years Sunni Islam fails to find the ways and means of
speaking with one voice on important issues of faith and the practice thereof
(i.e. including the sharia), then it has virtually no chance of long-term
survival as a religion in the modern world.

Whether or not this is the case, two questions – explicit or implicit – are the
constant companions of progressive thinkers in contemporary Islam. The first
is: “How does God speak?” and the second is: “Who speaks on God’s
behalf?” All those who by a process of random selection have expressed their
views in this paper –with the exception of Abou El-Fadl – have addressed
themselves primarily to aspects of the first question. The views presented
here of progressive Islamic thinking, however, today inescapably invoke the
second question more than ever before: “Who speaks on God’s behalf?” For
as soon as the relatively unambiguous basis of the Qur’an in its literal
interpretation or in the interpretation given to it in the first two centuries is
no longer seen as sacrosanct and definitive and departs in the direction of a
personal interpretation of the spirit of its letter – whatever this direction may
be and irrespective of how it is justified – , instantaneously the question
arises as to the legitimation of such a new and continuously new
interpretation. At the same time it would be difficult not to hear another
question, that of the yardstick and criteria to be applied for a true
understanding of the Qur’an and, by extension, the revealed Word of Allâh in
our times.

Moreover, seeing Islam as a societal and political phenomenon raises the
perennially new question of consensus (ijmā‛). Does the Islamic community
have a theologically substantiated doctrine, a theological “ummatology”, so
to speak, and what role is it expected to play – and how in practical terms –
in the matter of determining the will of Allâh in questions of faith and ethics
as they apply to today and to defend these determinations with authority?
After all, is it not the case that those who defend the classical ideas on the
authority of the Prophet and the Word of Allâh which he revealed on the one
hand and those who radically call that authority into question on the other
are, in the final analysis, arguing for the right to claim for themselves the
authority of the Prophet and the scriptures through which the Word of Allâh
is revealed? Or have I, as a mere observer of the internal Islamic debate, in
raising these questions missed the point?

Selected bibliography

ABDERRAZIK, Ali. 1994. L’islam et les fondements du pouvoir. Nouvelle
traduction et introduction de Abdou Filali-Ansary. Paris: La Découverte.
ABOU EL FADL, Khaled. 2003. Speaking in God’s Name. Islamic Law,
Authority and Women. Oxford: Oneworld.
ABU ZAYD, Nasr Hamid. 1996. Islam und Politik. Kritik des Religiösen
Diskurses. Frankfurt: dipa-Verlag.
ABU ZAYD, Nasr Hamid. 2002. “Heaven which way?” in: Al-Ahram Weekly.
See: HTUhttp://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002UTH
ABU ZAYD, Nasr Hamid. 2004. “Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a
Humanistic Hermeneutics”, Islamochristiana (Rome) 30, p. 25-45.
AL-ASHMAWY, Muhammad Saïd. 1989. L’islamisme contre l’islam. Paris: Ed.
La Découverte/ Le Caire: Editions al-Fikr.
ARKOUN, Mohamed. 1982. Lectures du Coran. Paris : Maisonneuve et
BABÈS, Leïla. 2004. Le voile démystifié. Paris : Bayard.
BENZINE, Rachid. 2004. Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam. Paris: Albin
BROWN, Daniel W. 1996. Rethinking tradition in modern Islamic thought.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
CHARFI, Abdelmajid. 2004. L’islam entre le message et l’histoire. Paris: Albin
CHEBEL, Malek. 2004. Manifeste pour un islam des Lumières. Paris:
CRAGG, Kenneth. 1965. Counsels in Contemporary Islam. Edinburgh:
University Press.
ENNAIFER, H’mida. 1998. Les Commentaires Coraniques Contemporains.
Analyse de leur methodologie. Roma: P.I.S.A.I.
ESACK, Farid. 1997. Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism. An Islamic Perspective
of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression. Oxford: Oneworld.
FILALI-ANSARY, Abdou. 1994. See : ABDERRAZIUK. 1994.
FILALI-ANSARY, Abdou. 2003. Réformer l’islam. Une introduction aux débats
contemporains. Paris : La Découverte.
FYZEE, Asaf A. A. 1981. A Modern Approach to Islam. Delhi: OUP.
IQBAL, Allama Muhammad. 1986. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in
Islam. Ed. M. Saeed Sheikh. Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture.
KARAMUSTAFA, Ahmet. 2003. «Islam: A civilizational project in progress » in
: SAFI. 2003, pp. 98-110.
KÖRNER, Felix. 2005. Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics in Contemporary
Turkish University Theology. Würzburg: Ergon.
KURZMAN, Charles (ed.).1998. Liberal Islam. A Sourcebook. New
York/Oxford: OUP.
MOOSA, Ebrahim. 2003. “The debts and burdens of critical Islam” in: SAFI,
Omar. 2003, pp. 111-127.
AN-NA‛IM, Abdullahi Ahmed. 1996. Toward an Islamic Reformation. Civil
Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. Syracuse, New York:
Syracuse University Press.
NOOR, Farish. 2002. New Voices of Islam. Leiden: ISIM.
PÄPSTLICHE BIBELKOMMISSION, 1993. Die Interpretation der Bibel in der
Kirche. Bonn: Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz.
RAHMAN, Fazlur. 1979. Islam. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago
RAHMAN, Fazlur. 1982. Islam & Modernity. Transformation of an Intellectual
Tradition. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
SAFI, Omid (ed.). 2003. Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and
Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld.
SOROUSH, Abdolkarim. 2000. Reason, Freedom & Democracy in Islam. Ed.
M. Sadri and A. Sadri. Oxford: OUP.
SOROUSH, Abdolklarim. 2002. “The Resposibilities of the Muslim Intellectual
in the 21st Century”. Interview in: In: NOOR, 2002, p. 15-21.
TAJI-FARUKI, Suha. 2004. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an.
Oxford: OUP.
TROLL, Christian W. 2004. Als Christ dem Islam Begegnen. Würzburg:
TROLL, Christian W. 1978. Sayyid Ahmad Khan. A Reinterpretation of Muslim
Theology. New Delhi: Vikas.
———— END ————

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