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Toward a Tanweeri Enlightened Hermeneutics of the Quran

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany Muslims have been grappling with the problem of tahdith (modernization) and tajdid (renewal) for around two centuries. Several attempts have been made to reform Islam, beginning with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897). Some reformers have called for a reinterpretation of the Quran so that its harsh parts, such as Ayaat al-Sayf (the Sword Verses) are no longer considered normative for the present. During the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Dar al-Shurook Publishing House (Beirut & Cairo) published four books by the Egyptian reformist scholar, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud that dealt with the modernization of the Arab-Islamic Culture: Tajdid al-Fikr al-Arabi (The Renewal of the Arab Mind), Fi Tahdith al-Thaqafa al-Arabiyya (The Modernization of Arab Culture), Al-Maqool wa-Lamaqool fi Tirathina al-Fikri (The Rational and the Irrational in our Cultural Heritage), and Ruya Islamiyya (An Islamic Vision). Dr. Mahmoud suggested a hermeneutical principle in line with the 9th century Mutazilites of Baghdad who championed a rational approach in the formulation of Islamic doctrines. As I wrote in my book, The Bible and Islam (Part II, Chapter 7): Dr. Mahmoud summarizes his research by stressing the importance of rejecting the irrational aspect of the heritage. Only the rational outlook must be retained. But often, in his rejection of irrationalism, one gets the strong impression that our author is rejecting supernaturalism! To work for the renewal of a theistic religion by emphasizing only the horizontal relevance of the faith is to bring about a deistic faith that is something altogether different from Islamic theism. (P. 78, source) Thanks to the growing use of the Internet among Arab intellectuals, a number of Arabiclanguage websites are now dedicated to the reformation of Islam, such as www.kwtanweer.com On 31 May, 2009 they posted an article with this intriguing title: So That Islam Might Not Die Hatta la Yamutul Islam. The writer showed a great concern about the lack of development in the Islamic world, attributing it to the Muslims inability to break from their traditional interpretation of the Quran. So, in order to cope with the challenges of modernity, he called on Muslims to adopt an enlightened hermeneutics of the Quran, a prescription that is actually quite revolutionary. Still, he did not hesitate to propose it, for unless such a step is taken, Islam will not survive! It was this strong conviction that made him choose the shocking title for his essay! Here are excerpts translated from our authors essay [emphasis in bold font is mine]:

This is my concluding article in a series that dealt with the subject of development. To achieve this goal requires an open mind and liberation from those fixed and fanciful positions that offered ready-made solutions to all types of human problems. We must acknowledge that traditional Islam, with its totalitarian worldview is standing in the way of progress and development. The Muslim world is in dire need for the rise and development of a progressive and non-totalitarian Islam. A genuine and serious reformation can only happen by adopting a complete separation between Allah and Muhammad; Allah is an absolute and unchanging Being, while the Prophet is not. Doubtless, Muhammad was the primary founder of the Umma, but as a human being, he acted within the cultural and political contexts of his days. Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Quran, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate. As I have mentioned in my previous articles, the problem does not reside in a belief in the existence of God. A person may be a believer and free at the same time. The real problem is that belief in a person or a group of people who act as representatives of the Divine. This type of faith must be rejected before any true reform can take place. For example, Protestant Christianity confesses the divinity of Christ and at the same time does not acknowledge any person that acts as his representative on earth. This has enabled Protestants to worship Christ according to their convictions, while at the same time leaving earthly matters to be dealt with in a secular fashion. We conclude that a separation of Religion from Politics is the basic condition, or the sine qua non, for the rise of a progressive and non-totalitarian religion. To sum up my thesis; it would be difficult and unthinkable for Muslims to reject or abandon their religion in order to achieve progress and development. The best solution for their predicament is to strip Islam of all its totalitarian impulses. (Source) It is refreshing to read articles by Muslim intellectuals who are very eager to see Islam delivered from the shackles of its slavish attachment to those rigid and irrational elements of their religious heritage. The only way for Arab nations to meet the challenges of the twentyfirst century is to break loose from their traditional Quranic hermeneutics. But what struck me the most about our authors essay was his view of the Quran itself. As he put it, Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Quran, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate. For anyone who is familiar with Arabic, and the history of Islamic theology, these words sound extremely radical, even revolutionary. Notice how he formulated his view of the Quran, not as a book that descended upon Muhammad, but as a book that the Prophet brought, and which is on par with his other sacred texts of Islam the Hadiths! The writer has gone beyond the views of the Mutazilites who denied the eternal nature of the Quran, and stressed its historical nature. But what he suggested is a hermeneutic that would allow for a higher criticism of the Quran, and the development of a kinder and more compassionate Islam! At this point I realize that a Westerner reading my translation of this article may not be struck by its full impact. But to read it in Arabic is nothing less than feeling the full impact of a mega-ton bomb that shatters a foundational tenet of Islam, namely that Muhammad was the

recipient of the very words of Allah. For an orthodox Muslim, whether Sunni or Shiite, the prescription of our author is unthinkable and amounts to kufr, i.e. utter blasphemy. In the final analysis, the dilemma for Islam can only be solved by Muslims. Non-Muslims can study and reflect on the history and challenges that have faced Islam across the last fourteen centuries. We cannot but sympathize with the author and appreciate his modest proposal for Islams survival in our globalized world. He is absolutely convinced that unless Muslims adopt a new and open-minded hermeneutics, their future remains in doubt. Continue with the next part.

Note The following is a transliteration of the authors words about his view of the nature of the Quran. Innal bidaya li-ay Islah Islami jad, hua al-fasl al-tam baynal Allah wal-Nabi. FalAllah mutlaq, baynama al-Nabi laysa kathalika. Innahu wala shak muassess al-Umma al-awwal, walikinnahu bashar, kana yamalu dimnal itari al-thaqafi wal-siyassi lizamanihi, wa-bittali fa-inna kaffat al-nusoos allati jaa biha al-Nabi, bima feeha al-Quran, hiya nusoos tarikhiyya bahtat, wa-laysat nusoos sahihat bishaklen mutlaq . .

An Example of the New Enlightened Hermeneutics of the Quran


By Rev. Bassam M. Madany In my previous article dealing with the reform of Islam, Toward a Tanweeri (Enlightened) Hermeneutics of the Quran, I referred to an essay by a Muslim reformist scholar who advocated a complete break with the hermeneutical principles of orthodox Islam. On 31 May, 2009 he posted an article with this intriguing title: So That Islam Might Not Die Hatta la Yamutul Islam (*). The writer is very concerned about the lack of development in the Islamic world, attributing it to the Muslims inability to break from their traditional interpretation of the Quran. In order to cope with the challenges of modernity, he called on Muslims to adopt an enlightened hermeneutics of the Quran, a prescription that is actually quite a revolutionary one. Still, he did not hesitate to propose it, and expressed the urgency of the matter in these words: For unless such a step was taken, Islam will not survive! It was this strong conviction that made him choose the shocking title for his essay! Here are excerpts translated from that essay:

This is my concluding article in a series that dealt with the subject of development. To achieve this goal requires an open mind and liberation from those fixed and fanciful positions that offered ready-made solutions to all types of human problems. We must acknowledge that traditional Islam, with its totalitarian worldview is standing in the way of progress and development. The Muslim world is in dire need for the rise and development of a progressive and non-totalitarian Islam. A genuine and serious reformation can only happen by adopting a complete separation between Allah and Muhammad; Allah is an absolute and unchanging Being, while the Prophet is not. Doubtless, Muhammad was the primary founder of the Umma, but as a human being, he acted within the cultural and political contexts of his days. Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Quran, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate. In a follow-up article dated 10 June, 2009, our author offered examples of his reformist hermeneutics, and gave it a title, Clearer Guidance, based on a Quranic Ayat that has been translated as: A Scripture with Clearer Guidance, Quran 28:49 Surat Al-Qasas (Stories) 94 ( ) First a word of explanation is necessary about Surat Al-Qasas, which relates the story of Moses that corresponds, up to a point, to the Biblical narrative in Exodus 2. I consulted a standard Arabic commentary on the Quran, Tafsir al-Quran: al-Jalalain, published in Cairo, Egypt, in 1906. The following is a summary of the comments on Ayat 49; with the highlighted parts being quotations from the Quran: This chapter in the Quran gives us an account of the negative response of Muhammads contemporaries to the message he brought them from Allah. They complained saying, Why is he not given the like of what was given unto Moses? After all, Moses had performed several miracles, but Muhammad had done none. In response to their challenge and unbelief, Allah told the Prophet: Say unto them, O Muhammad: Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance So Muhammad in his turn challenged them to bring forth a better revelation than the Torah and the Quran, and he would be willing to follow it. Taking his point of departure from Quran 28:49, our essayist offers his readers a revolutionary hermeneutics. He claims that in our days, there exists a better and clearer guidance to cope with contemporary moral and legal issues than what is provided by the time-bound and Arab milieu of the Quranic revelation. This is how he develops his argument: This Quranic Ayat being normative, no one may dispute its relevance to our subject. Furthermore, it is reasonable to suggest that at that time and in that place, (i.e. in 7 th century Arabia,) no one could have brought forth a better revelation than in either the Torah, or in the Quran. But thats not the case today. Here is a list of Quranic laws and regulations. Are they still to be considered valid and applicable in the 21st century!?

1. Cutting the hand of a thief versus the punishment for murder In Islam, the punishment for stealing is much more severe than the punishment for murder! For example, should the next in kin of the murdered person be willing to forgive the murderer, his punishment would simply be a monetary payment as prescribed by the Shariah. On the other hand, the punishment for stealing requires the amputation of the hand of the thief! 2. Flogging the adulterer When a rich man commits adultery, he is protected by the code that requires four witnesses who have witnessed the act. If and when proven guilty, he is flogged for his action! Whereas a woman caught in adultery, is punished by stoning! 3. Multiplicity of wives, up to four in number. 4. Multiplicity of concubines. 5. Legality of sexual relations with female slaves. 6. Killing of prisoners of war or their enslavement. 7. The testimony of a woman is worth half of the testimony of a man. 8. A womans inheritance is only half of a mans inheritance. 9. The alternate amputation of limbs (a right hands amputation with a left foots amputation.) 10. Inequality with respect to the value of human life: a Muslim may not receive capital punishment if he has murdered an unbeliever or a slave. Also, a Muslim man does not receive capital punishment for the murder of a Muslim woman Quran 2:178 Now can we consider these Quranic rules as the best revelation or guidance for human beings? It is probable that the above mentioned regulations were valid for those ancient times; but for the present, no one may or should consider them as the best possible guidance for human beings. Of course, there are some people who do believe that such laws are valid; however they need to reflect seriously about the fairness of such rules of conduct and punishment. At the beginning of my article, I quoted the following Quranic Ayat: 94 ( ) Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance than these two (that) I may follow it, if ye are truthful. Quran 28:49 [Marmaduke Pickthall's translation]

Doesnt this Ayat allow me to adopt the best of all revelations or regulations? Are we not allowed to revise the laws that we have followed for the last hundreds of years in order to bring them in line with modern concepts of justice and equity? (Source) Analysis The author of the essay regarding the urgent need for the adoption of an enlightened hermeneutics for the interpretation of the Quran is fully aware that, in our globalized world, Islam should no longer practise its harsh criminal laws. So, in order to provide humane principles for Islamic jurisprudence, it is necessary no longer to regard the Quran as the eternal and uncreated word of Allah, but as he put it in his first article on this subject, Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Quran, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate. Comments Our brave essayists modest proposal for saving Islam, offers a hermeneutical principle that has far-reaching consequences. In the ten examples he mentioned where the Shariah dictates the rules governing crimes and punishments, he pointed out its several inhumane sanctions and provisions. The issue that was left unanswered remains: when the orthodox sources for Islamic jurisprudence are set aside, what alternative sources should be adopted, and where are they to be found? The author kept silence about this important matter. But if his prescription for a higher criticism of the Quran, the Hadith, and the Life of the Prophet, be adopted, would the entire edifice of Islam be able to withstand the radical reconstruction that would inevitably ensue? In other words, what kind of a reformed or enlightened Islam would replace the fourteen-century tradition of Sunni Islam? I look forward with eagerness to the publication of his next step in the development of an Enlightened (Tanweeri) Islamic Hermeneutics.

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