Nasr Abu Zayd: A different perspective on Quranic interpretation

– Ab Aeterno –

Before jumping in to the meat and bones of this post i thought that it might be a good idea to give a brief overview of the man in question. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943 – 2010) was an Egyptian born intellectual who was known for his humanistic approach to the study and understanding of the Quran and theology which had caused quite a stir amongst the more traditional Islamic scholars. The controversy surrounding him was based on his ideas of the Divine and the way in which it communicated with Man as well as the fact that he proposed that the Quran should be read and understood in the context of the language and culture of 7th C Arabia and had more than one way of being understood. Not only that, the understanding and interpretation of the Quran, he argued, was not solely the domain of the ‘ulama’ (scholars). Abu Zayd was also critical of Egypt’s use of religion to impose political power on its citizens. As a result, Abu Zayd was effectively exiled and fled from Egypt with his wife after he was declared an apostate from the religion in 1995 when he was sued by an Egyptian citizen on the basis of ‘hisba’ which allows for a person to charge another on behalf of the rest of society. Subsequently he was forcibly divorced from his wife, since, according to shariah law in Egypt, a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non Muslim man. Abu Zayd managed to settle in the Netherlands with his wife where he taught Islamic Philosophy for the remainder of his academic career. Near the time of his death he returned to Egypt where he spent his last days until he passed away in 2010.

Abu Zayd’s ideas and critique of contemporary Islamic scholarship was not the product of Western European enlightenment nor of secular thought but stemmed from Muslim thought and history from periods such as the ‘golden age’ of Islam from around the 8th to the 14th century where scholarship was not so restricted by modern religious fundamentalists.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was, to his dying day, a Muslim, and the Egyptian religious ruling on him being declared an apostate should have been recognised as illegal and despicably shameful as it was not within their right or anyone else’s domain to make such a judgment or pronouncement on anyone. Abu Zayd says of himself “I’m sure that I’m a Muslim,”… “My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I’m not. I’m not a new Salman Rushdie and don’t want to be welcomed and treated as such. I’m a researcher.”

Whilst i may not agree with all of his ideas (many of which i most certainly do), Abu Zayd is, to me at least, the kind of person who could see past all the smudges, grit and grime of what is presented today as ‘real Islam’. He was a real seeker of truth, a man with great intellect who dared to ask questions that others were either too afraid of or simply did/do not have the capacity to think of themselves.

(Image: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd)

As mentioned, the focus of this post is on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and his contextualist approach which will examine his thoughts via his essays and frequently refering to his book ‘Rethinking the Quran’. The developments of Quranic interpretation in his works have lent scripture a human quality in the sense that it is not only perceived as text, but rather as a living discourse (not a living text with ‘quasi human personality’); a dialectic that evolves with time due to its progressive nature. If the Quran is a dialectic, then its interpretation is open, not defined by textual parameters as its variables can be interpreted in a modern context as oppose to being ‘locked’ in the past. What I hope to clarify is a) why Abu Zayd believes the Quran to be created and not eternal b) Why he prefers discourse over text c) conclude with his view that the Quran was revealed to embody and address the spirit of the period that produced it. The Quran is an independent existence regardless of exegesis and interpretation and has its place in history therein having its own historicity.

We must bear in mind that the Quran was an oral tradition; dialectical, not written. There are many instances of the use of the term “say…” (as in “say oh Muhammad”) whether in regards to questions from the prophet’s companions or in response to the ‘unbelievers’. This lends credence to discourse over textual literature since the use of the term is responsive.

Muslim exegetes all agree on the miraculous nature of the Quran, however to the Western scholar this may present some issues when studying the text with such preconceived ideas; this approach ‘must proceed in many instances in a different direction from that of the historical-critical analysis of the Quranic text’.

It is true that when Muslim exegetes approach the Quran there will no doubt be biases in the way it is studied, this doesn’t mean that said scholars cannot approach the matter with some form of objectivity; all studies will be bias to some degree, regardless of objectivity or scholar. The question is if one can explain the Quran from a progressive standpoint as oppose to a reactionary one. Islam should not have to defend itself, but rather articulate itself so that it can be understood as a legitimate paradigm that fits in to the fabric of the natural world and not as an adversarial ‘other’.

In ‘rethinking the Quran’, Abu Zayd posits an approach that does not prefer the Quran as a Text (mushaf), which Mohammad Arkoun labels as ‘the closed corpus’ but as a discourse between God, recipient then community. Abu Zayd points out that while scholars have returned to the pre text understanding occasionally, they were never really able to ‘recapture the living phenomenon, the Quran as a discourse’ since the community that it was directed to and was produced in has long since passed. The approach then is one of contextualisation in regards to history and language and their deconstruction in order to understand its original purpose; historically-contextually-theologically. If the progressive approach is adopted, a dialectical one, then critique is to be expected and perhaps even embraced. Today we have similar world problems that have existed for millennia, war famine, oppression etc. however the world functions in a very different way than it did in 7th C Arabia. As a result, we must seek ‘modern answers to modern problems’; problems with solutions that are very different to those of the past. Censorship in Islam has also led to deterioration and misunderstanding. Those who call for a return to the ‘glorious’ past and demonize those who question or critique such things have created ‘safe doctrinal havens’ e.g. ‘Neo Salafis’ or Wahabi adherents. These havens, protected from critique, are bulwarks in the road to progression; clinging to the past in a vicissitudinal world is ‘preposterous’.

Abu Zayd also marks out some of the differences in the way Muslims are perceived and reasons as to why. In societies where everyone is trying to be accepted, in particular on a socio-political level, it is ‘the insertion of Islam instead of the Muslim world’ that causes contention as it always theologises ‘the spheres of life’ which is exactly what the fundamentalist wants to achieve. It is this discourse he explains that some politicians and intellectuals in the Western world take to be the true representation of Islam opening the doors of anti Islam/Muslim sentiment as well as radical Islam; a reactionary standpoint. When Muslims can begin to separate religious discourse from religious preaching, common ground may be achievable since ‘discourse’ is a process of intellectual thought, and ‘preaching’ a rhetorical expression.

Another avenue of discourse is the apologetic/polemic which seeks to present the religion as ‘a well-defined idealistic ethical and spiritual non-historical utopia’. The reason this method is also ineffective is because it is the other extreme of the spectrum to fundamentalists.

The avenue that Abu Zayd proposes is that of context. By locating the Quran in the historical context of 7th C Arabia we gain better insight as to how it developed from within the Arabian Peninsula and gained momentum. Not only is this an effective approach, it also allows for a better understanding of scriptural content. By examining the Quran with critical historicity it is ‘necessary to determine the spheres and limitations of meanings it provides’. This approach would analyse the way in which the Quran was ‘transmitted, propagated, and codified till it was finally canonized’ and these are the ‘necessary steps before extracting the meaning and examining its relevance to our modern milieu’.

The Quran is accepted by Muslims to be the very word of God. Accordingly, Muslims, and the Quran, relate that the scripture was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel who taught him divine words. For the purpose of this post I would stress that the understanding of Abu Zayds works will be with the underlying principle that the message was revealed to ‘man’, heavy emphasis on ‘man’ which the Quran states many times; and in this spirit, if revelation comes to man via the divine, then it must surely have been revealed within material/natural parameters since God is beyond the natural capacity of understanding (Quran 35:15, 26:9, 39:7, 42:11). An allegory of this is given by the poet Rumi who describes the prophet as a vase and the divine ‘word’ as an ocean. When the waters of the ocean are poured in to the jar it takes on material shape, yet what is inside of the jar is still divine.

Abu Zayd defines the idea of a message as being a ‘communicative link between the speaker and the recipient through a code or a linguistic system’ and that ‘Without such a code, the message will not reach the recipient’. Thus, the idea that the divine language, Gods language, has been codified so that the prophet and his followers could understand it is quite important; if there is a divine lingo, a transcendent language; it stands to reason it will not be understood by the human ear. When God spoke to Moses, it would have been with Moses’ vocabulary/vernacular for understanding to take place; the same should be said about every messenger in scriptural narrative who experienced divine communication. Not only is it the messenger that must be able to understand the revelation but most importantly his community – “We never sent a messenger but with the language of his people, that he might make it clear for them” (14:4). Fazlur Rahman also maintains that the character of the Quran is both divine as well as human since it must be understood on a natural/temporal level.

This brings us to a point where we can define three aspects that Abu Zayd makes: 1) The content of the scripture which ‘is strongly correlated with the linguistic structure, which is culturally and historically determined’ 2) The language; since the Quran is but one expression of God’s word to man (other examples being God speaking to other messengers in their own languages) 3) the very structure; since the Quran was revealed verse by verse (munajjam) it would suggest that each revelation was brought about by the community needs as and when it was needed. With the frequent use of the phrase ‘And when they ask you/they ask you’ we have an indicator of a ‘dialectical relationship between God’s word and human interest

The key then is the way in which we understand revelation. Do we approach it as a canonized text or for what it was upon the occasion of revelation, a discourse, a communication between speaker and recipient?

Taking the latter view, we must ask ourselves; during revelation, who was the Quran addressing? The answer is generally everyone and for all time. However in context, the addressees would be the Arabs of 7th C Arabia to whom revelation of the Arabic scripture was sent.

It is in this sense we must place Islam in the 7th C; ‘In other words, scholars can only start their analysis of the Qur’anic message through the contextual reality and the 7th century culture’. The people, socio-politics and culture need to be examined when approaching the Quran since ‘Culture…is the world of conceptions, which are embodied in the language, the same language in which the Qur’an is embodied’.

In other words, the Quran, having come from Arabia, with an Arabic language, addressing the Arabs of the time, speaking of Arab culture and practises (condemning or otherwise) makes it a product of its environment. He (Abu Zayd) also states that this is only one aspect of its many facets; it may have emerged from this backdrop, however, in and of itself it produced a new culture that was different to the one it was addressing.

There is however a problem on this road that Abu Zayd and his approach will invariably encounter; the possibility that the Quran, regardless of its divine nature, is a product of its society and ‘culturally constructed’ is rejected by the ‘orthodox’ as it implies a temporal nature to God’s word; anyone advocating this would very likely be labelled an apostate or persona non grata, like Abu Zayd himself was.

The crux of the argument: If the Quran is not uncreated and eternal, it stands to reason that God’s divine message and language was codified to conform to a natural human state and its message must be understood according to the context in which it was revealed. If this is the case, then it leaves room for interpretation since the message is no longer bound by the literal word but rather by the spirit in which it was revealed, and as Abu Zayd points out, the result of this would mean that the ‘public authorities and\or societies are entitled to primacy in the interpretation and application of the message’ effectively removing ‘primacy’ away from any type of ‘church’ or clerical establishment. The orthodox argument lies in the eternal nature of the Quran, its uncreatedness. If this idea is what holds true then the dilemma of reinterpretation goes almost completely out the window since the word and the spirit will always be the same, unchanging and locked because the word is eternal with almost no room for reinterpretation to a modern progressive world. Its integrity would need to always be maintained by a church or clergy that would have complete authority over the understanding of scripture while the public/adherents would have no choice but to blindly ‘follow the leader’.

That the Quran is all encompassing in the everyday life of a Muslim may also be addressed here as it is perhaps one of the major components of the struggles in some Muslim countries today. While secularists are advocating a separation of state and religion, Muslims (conservative or radical) on the other hand would see this as contrary to their beliefs, since it is religion that governs their every step. Therefore, if the ‘created’ view is dominant, it would be much easier to accept a separation of state and religion since the revelation could be reinterpreted for the times; after all, each revelation was revealed piecemeal to address certain situations of an already existing way of life. If so, God’s revelation is a call to a spiritual, moral and ethical path of evolution, not a locked and predetermined one prone to political manipulation. In other words, the separation of religion and state does not mean that religion is pushed to the periphery; in fact, what we learn from the Quran according to Abu Zayd is that a literal interpretation will only keep it firmly in place of its historical conception i.e. 7th C Arabia, whereas this cannot be fully conducive to the world that we currently live in; after all, the prophet and his companions were not scholars or theologians, they also lived in a society where everyday secular things were the norm such as work, making money, trade etc and they themselves were proponents of change.

A major issue of contestation is the use of reason as a method of understanding as oppose to simply submitting to a volantarist ideal. This mode of thought can be seen sprinkled throughout Classical Muslim works including the founders of the madhahib (schools of thought) in which faith must take precedence over everything else; essentially, faith makes a Muslim. Abu Hanifa however seemed to still be within the realm of the Mu’tazilah mind set since many of his followers were Mu’tazilah. It was not until the branching off of the Ash’ari school that the uncreatedness of the Quran became an issue. The question, however, that separates the Mu’tazalite from the traditionalist is ‘can God have an eternal existence beside him’ if the Quran is in fact eternal/uncreated?

The generally accepted view (Ash’ari) resents what is seen as an attempt to ‘make God conform to human judgement’ since ‘reason is weak; surety is only in the Quran and the sunnah’ as Ibn Hanbal suggests. This avenue does not leave much room for independent reasoning based on the observable world around us. Like the volantarist, we are here to obey, not to understand Gods Will; the created argument won’t work here i.e. within human parameters; and if within human spheres, subject to mistake. This is not necessarily true; whatever is revealed to nature will naturally be subject to natural laws; in the case of the Quran it comes with a divine pledge that revelation will be protected from error ‘indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be its guardian’ and ‘This is an honourable Quran, a protected book’. This then begs the question; can faith only be found by abandoning reason, logic and science?

Conclusion

Muslim scholars have always viewed the Quran as a textual miracle from its canonization to the present. Abu Zayd proposes it is better understood as a dialectic product of an older period. He also stresses that using modern hermeneutics to justify modern interpretation for a modern audience is also insufficient since it only really produces polemic or apologetics. The closest Abu Zayd comes to advocating understanding the Quran is through Sufi hermeneutics, in particular that of Ibn Arabi who planted humanistic seeds, and that of Ibn Rushd who posits that the Quran has three modes of semantic expression 1) Khatabi – the poetic form addressing the masses 2) Jadali – addressing theologians 3) Burhani – addressing philosophers. Holding to this, there is no room for any one group to claim primacy in ‘understanding’ since the addressees are not a specific group, but all groups according to various intellectual levels. For Abu Zayd, the purpose of revelation was to initiate a change in the very fabric of human life, in order for that to happen, revelation needed to embody the reality of the time, thus revelation would need to adapt itself to that particular period. Like the former grand mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, it seems that Abu Zayd would intend to reform Islam from its tradition rather than by its doctrine. And like Abduh he would encourage a historical critical study of the early Muslim world which would help place the Quran and its message in to perspective for a modern audience.

The Eccentric Seeker

Bibliography:

The Quran: a new translation, M.A.S Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics, 2010

The Quran and its exegesis, Helmut Gatje, Translated and edited by Alford T. Welch, Oneworld: Oxford, 2004

The Others: Who are they, and what to do with them?, Prof. Nasr Abu Zayd, www.thedeenresearchcentre.com

Rethinking the Quran: Towards a humanistic Hermeneutics, Prof. Nasr Abu Zayd, Humanistics University Press, 2004

The Qur’an: God and Man in Communication, Prof. Nasr Abu Zayd, www.thedeenresearchcentre.com

The word of Islam, John Alden Williams, Thames and Hudson, 1994

The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin, 2006, Blackwell Publishing (articles by Kate Zebiri, Binyamin Abrahamov)

The Quran: A User’s guide, Farid Esack, Oneworld: Oxford, 2005

Reading the Quran in the twenty-first century: a contextualist approach, Abdullah Saeed, Routledge, 2014

Islam, Fazlur Rahman, Chicago University Press, 1966

The Word of Muhammad, Abdolkarim Soroush Interviewed by Michel Hoebink, Dec 1st 2007, www.drsoroush.com/en/the-word-of-muhammad/

Heaven Which Way?, Nasr Abu Zayd, Al-Ahram weekly online, published in Cairo by Al-Ahram, established in 1875. 12-18 September 2002, issue no. 603

Islamic fundamentalism and the intellectuals: The case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Fauzi M. Najjar, British journal of Middle Eastern studies, Taylor Francis, LTD, Vol. 27, No. 2, Nov 2000, pp. 177-200

Silencing is at the heart of my case, Ayman Bakr, Elliot Colla and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Middle East report, no. 185, despots and democrats political change in Arabia, Nov – Dec 1993, Middle East research and information project. JSTOR.

New Mu’tazilite theology in the contemporary age: The relationship between reason, history and tradition, Marco Demichelis, Oriente Moderno, Nuova serie, Anno 90, Nr. 2, 2010. Published by Istituto per l’oriente C. A. Nallino. JSTOR

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