|Rethinking the meaning of the Qur'an|
|Published by tislam|
|Friday, 23 September 2011 09:36|
Nasr Abu Zayd
The orientation of modern exegesis of the Quran can be divided into three basic trends, each of which essentially addresses the main challenges of modernity, i.e. science, reason, and politics. While the challenges of both science and reason were dealt with in the 19th century’s new exegesis of the Quran in India and Egypt, the challenge of politics would unfold in the 20th century, notably with the ending of the abolition of the Caliphate and the founding of Pakistan. Absolute confidence in science was most apparent in India, and this explains al- Afghani’s keenness to refute ‘naturalism’ in the only book he wrote.
Islam and science
We have already encountered Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the Indian who examined the issue of science in his exegesis of the Quran. As we have seen, his
criticism of the hadith and the consideration of the position of the Sunna were both meant to free the Quranic exegesis from the heavy impact of tradition, thereby facilitating the introduction of a somewhat more modern understanding of God’s message. In criticizing classical Quranic commentaries in terms of sources and subjects of interest, he accepted only those parts of the commentaries dealing with literary aspects of the Quran. His major interest was to bring the meaning of the Quran into harmony with the modern discoveries of the natural sciences. Natural scientific discoveries, he asserted, need to be taken into account while explaining the meanings of relevant parts of the Quran, since they do not contain anything that clashes with the ‘law of nature’. Modern scientific discoveries are the manifestations of God’s promises in reality, while the Quran presents God’s promises in words. Based on this argument, Ahmad Khan suggested that the Scripture has to come to terms with the law of nature, including scientific discoveries. He therefore rejected miracles, as well as many Quranic descriptions which he considered ‘supernatural’ in their literal sense. These he described as metaphors and indirect expressions of reality (Khan 1995: 1-20).
In Ahmad Khan’s view, Quranic words and expressions should not be understood exclusively in their direct literal meanings; the Holy Scripture often uses metaphors, allegories, and other indirect expressions. To give this claim authentic traditional support, he explained how the classical ulama did not always accept literal meanings of many Quranic words – where such meanings contradict common sense or human intellect. They recognized miracles, and, therefore, accepted supernatural Quranic descriptions in their literal sense merely because the natural sciences were not sufficiently developed in those periods. However, since very little was known about pre-Islamic Arabic literature, he concluded that it was possible for words and phrases to have meanings other than those explained by lexicologists. Hence, it is imperative also to apply other sources and to accept meanings of the Quran which are based on such sources, even if these are absent from the dictionaries (Khan 1995: 15).
Evidently, Sayyid Ahmad Khan uncritically accepted the explicit concept of the Quran as a Text, which had been a well-established concept since its canonization. This explains his admiration for sections of the classical exegesis which stresses the literary aspect. Although skeptical about the quantity of knowledge
available around pre-Islamic Culture, he methodologically emphasized its importance. He concluded that the Quran should, first and foremost, be understood, explained and interpreted by the Quran itself, namely by understanding its own internal structure. Such a principle derived from the Holy Book (Khan 1995: 2 and
13-15). Secondly, understanding the pre-Islamic Arabic literature is a pre-requisite to understanding the Quran.
Methodologically speaking there is nothing new in Sayyd Ahmad Khan’s presupposition.
However, the difference between his interpretation and the classical commentaries lies in the domain of meaning – the modern meaning – which considers science, especially natural science, to be the new religion of secularism.
Fascinated by the new world of science and discovery, he had to find a way to integrate it into his holy scripture. I propose here that Sayyd Ahmad Khan’s effort to open the meaning of the Quran to accept scientific findings is the embryo of what would later develop into seemingly opposing directions, namely an emphasis on the scientific supremacy of the Quran (al-Iskandrani 1880; 1883; 1897; al- Jawahiri 1971; al-Sharafi 1990: 69-76), and an emphasis on the ‘islamization’ ofknowledge and science.4 The first direction shows that all scientific theories are implicitly alluded to in the Quran. Accordingly, the miracle of the Quran extends beyond the classical theory of stylistic supremacy and takes in scientific supremacy. The second, the islamization of knowledge, seeks the Islamic roots for modern knowledge. We will return to both tendencies later.
Islam and rationalism
Although Muhammad Abduh was neither a theologian nor a philosopher, he admired the philosophical and mystical knowledge of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. However, while al-Afghani was more of an activist and provocative teacher (Amarah 1968: 29), Abduh gave up politics and concentrated on the arena of thought, particularly after being exiled for involvement in the Urabi affair which ended with the British occupying Egypt in 1882. Heavily influenced by Afghani who had brought the idea of a new, modern interpretation of Islam to Egypt, Abduh adopted a synthesis of classical rationalism and modern socio-political awareness. This enabled him to re-examine the basic sources of Islamic knowledge, the Quran and the Sunna, as well as the structure of Islamic theology. This prepared the ground for what would be known as the islah (reformation) movement.
After being appointed religious councilor (mufti) of Egypt in 1899 (Abduh 1972: 105f), Abduh addressed many practical social and cultural issues from an Islamic rational perspective. He established a program for the reform of Muslim higher education and of the administration of Muslim law. He also sought to implement these practical changes in 1892 with proposed reforms of education in general and of al-Azhar in particular. In addition, he proposed a whole plethora of plans to reform the legal system. His efforts to reform aspects of al-Azhar were partly successful. However, given the stiff resistance from the traditional ulama, he began concentrating more on intellectual reforms. All these activities demonstrated his confidence both in ‘reason’, and ‘religion’ as the best foundation against reason going astray. The issues of Islam and modern knowledge that were so fundamental to his writings made him re-examine the Islamic heritage. It prompted him to open the ‘door of ijtihad’ even wider, and in all fields of social and intellectual life. Since he saw religion as an essential part of human existence, the only route from which to launch real reform was a reform of Islamic thought.
In his Tafsir al-Manar he elaborated the concept of the Quran as a ‘text’, first by implicitly emphasizing its literary structure, and then by bringing the style of its 7th-century message into line with the intellectual level of the Arab mentality. Hence, whatever seemed irrational or contradictory to logic and science in the Quran, must be understood as reflecting the Arab vision of the world at that time.
All verses referring to superstitions like witchcraft and the evil eye were to be explained as expressions of Arab beliefs. Moreover, literary figures of speech (like ‘metaphor’ and ‘allegory’) appear in Tafsir al-Manar as the basis of a rational explanation for all miraculous events and deeds mentioned in the Quran. Hence, Abduh explained the verses in which angels are sent down from heaven to fight the kuffar (infidels) as an expression of encouragement; they were meant to comfort the believers and to help towards victory (Abduh 1972: 506-11). This was precisely the first explicit effort towards the re-contextualization of the Quran against the 7th-century cultural background, a method that was developed by both later Egyptian, Arab and Muslim intellectuals. This process of re-contextualization led Abduh to de-mythologize the Quranic narrative. He also came close to de-mystifying the Holy text.
While Sayyid Ahmad Khan was trying to harmonize the Quran with science by equating both – the equation between Divine ‘promise in action’ and ‘promise in words’ – it was quite enough for Abduh to place the Quran in the 7th-century context, thus excluding any attempt of comparison between the Quran and science. His most important contribution in this area was his insistence that the Quran is not meant to be a book of history nor a book of science; it is a book of guidance. Consequently, any search for a proof of a scientific theory is invalid.
Quranic narratives, on the other hand, should not be taken as historical documents either. Indeed, historical incidents mentioned in the Quranic narratives are presented in a literary and narrative style to convey lessons of admonition and exhortation (Abduh 1972: 30ff). Abduh was very clear about the difference between ‘historiography’ and the Quranic stories. Historiography is a scientific field of knowledge based on inquiry and critical investigation of available data (reports, testimonies, memories, and geographical or material evidences, for example). In contrast, the Quranic stories are intended to serve ethical, spiritual and religious purposes. They might be based on some historical incidents, but their purpose is not to provide knowledge about history. This explains why the names of persons, places and dates are not mentioned in these stories. Even if the story is about a prophet or about one of the enemies of a prophet (like the
Pharaoh), many details are omitted. Thus, Abduh was clearly against the method of the classical exegetes who tried to clarify these mubhamat (unmentioned elements.) He insisted that the importance of the story does not depend on such knowledge. Rather, it depends on the lesson of ‘admonition’ that can be deduced from it.5
It is important to emphasize here that Abduh’s intellectual liberal discourse presents the intellectual side of the modernizing project initiated by Muhammad Ali (1760-1849) to establish a modern state in Egypt. This project was carried out by Ali’s grandson Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), who explicitly wanted Egypt to be like any European state. Abduh’s ideas were very influential in the 20th century, right across the entire Muslim World, thanks to the journal of al-Manar (1898- 1936) established by Rashiid Rida (1865-1935), Abduh’s pupil and colleague. As we shall see, although the journal was the channel for propagating Abduh’s ideas,
Rida modified these into a more conservative direction by unfolding their traditional rather than liberal dimensions. Like Abduh, Ahmad Khan’s efforts to free the field of Quranic exegesis from tradition meant that he substituted the principles of ‘reason’ and ‘nature’ for the classical heavy dependence on quotations from tradition. He suggested that the Quran stands on its own, requiring only application of a dedicated and enlightened mind for its understanding. The principles of interpretation should not depend on hadith, since that would endanger the Quran’s eternal and universal quality. Thus, for Khan, the great miracle of the Quran is its universality, which enables every generation to discover relevant meaning in it, irrespective of the constant increase in human knowledge. Hadith-based interpretation tends to limit the meaning of the Quran to a particular historical situation, thus obscuring its universality (Brown 1996: 44).
In his exegesis, in particular, Muhammad Abduh took great pains to declare Islam innocent of maintaining the backwardness of the Muslim World. In distinguishing between ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’, he laid the responsibility on human actors who had misunderstood and misinterpreted the pure message of Islam. Following on from this distinction, Islam and Islamic tradition were considered the only frames of reference that stimulated progress. Hence, in Muslim eyes progress and regress were no longer viewed as the outcome of the socio-political and cultural environment in a given community. The socio-political decadence resulted from a failure to comprehend religious tradition. The only solution was to turn back to the pure, accurate understanding, which in the past had enabled Muslims to gain mastery of the world. Any solutions presented by the other side – the West – would provoke a reaction based on the identity bestowed by the invader, i.e., identity reduced to the single aspect of religion.
The rationalism of Khan and Abduh reflected their admiration for the principles of the French Revolution, which attracted many Turkish and Arab Muslim intellectuals. Abduh’s apologetic criticism of Christianity and the Church was motivated both by an inferiority complex towards Europe and its Christian cultural background, and by the influence of Europe’s rationalism. According to his celebrated, much-quoted and highly suggestive statement on the subject of Islam, Christianity and Europe, Europe’s powerful and aggressive move forward was the result of abandoning Christianity. Indeed, Europe had no other option, Christianity being a religion of submission, obedience and leaving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Islam, on the other hand, demanded that Muslims acquire power and sovereignty. Seeing a world where Europe occupied and dominated Muslim lands, it was logical for Abduh to conclude that ‘real’ Islam was to be found in Europe, where people were not Muslims. He therefore urged Muslims to acquire all of Europe’s technological benefits while adhering to their own heritage for moral, ethical and spiritual guidance. This mix of looking to Europe as an example of materialistic progress, and to the ‘past’ for guidance, reflected a pragmatic political strategy; fighting the enemy by borrowing advanced Western military technology. Indeed, there was no danger in taking on board science and technology. As for borrowing rationality and modern European enlightenment, this could be justified by classical Islamic theology and philosophy, especially of the Mutazilites and Averroës.
Sayyd Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Abduh have prepared the ground for Muslim intellectuals throughout the 20th century to open up the meaning of the Quran, and hence the meaning of Islam, thus allowing them to cope with modernity in different ways. As illustrated, Sayyid Ahmad was basically occupied with the challenge of modern science while Abduh was concerned with the issue of rationality in general. If Khan’s approach is to be considered both the embryo of the later al-ijaz al-ilmi, the belief that the Quran anticipated modern scientific theories, and also of the trend of ‘islamizing’ science and knowledge, Abduh’s approach tended to what has come to be known as the ‘literary approach’. Even so, the 20th century was to witness the politicization of Islam and Islam’s struggle against Western hegemony, a movement that would start in India and end with the creation of Pakistan as the state of Muslim Indians. In this context, Mawdudi’s ideas and concepts became the real source of future political and ideological interpretations of the Quran.