Nasr Hamid Abu
Zayd an Egyptian Islamic scholar
Reformist Voices of Islam—Mediating Islam and Modernity:
‘Reformist Islam’, today
an oft-heard slogan, is notoriously difficult to define, for it can
mean different things to different people. Recent years have
witnessed the sudden burgeoning of volumes on the subject ....Read
'Political Islam and US imperialism need to be opposed strongly'
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd
is a well-known Egyptian Islamic scholar. In 1982, he joined the
faculty of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo
University. In 1995, he was promoted to the rank of full professor,
but controversies about his academic work led to a court decision of
apostasy and the denial of the appointment. A hisbah trial started
against him Islamist groups and he was declared a heretic (Murtadd)
by an Egyptian court. Consequently, he was declared to be divorced
from his wife, Cairo University French Literature professor Dr.
Ibthal Younis. This decision, in effect, forced him out of his
homeland and seek refuge in the Netherlands, where he now works. In
this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he speaks about his work
and reflects on his efforts to promote a humanistic reading of the
Sikand: You have been writing on the question of human rights in
Islam for a long time now. What are you presently working on?
Nasr Abu Zaid: I
am presently working on a project that explores and develops the
notion of the rights of women and children in Islam. The aim of the
project is to promote knowledge of the traditional sources of Islam,
such as the Qur'an, the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet and fiqh
or Islamic jurisprudence, within Muslim communities so as to help
promote general awareness of these rights. Alongside this, the
project also seeks to critically look at aspects of tradition that
might appear to militate against these rights.
In the course of your work how do you relate to those aspects of the
historical Islamic tradition which you think might be opposed to the
notion of women's and children's rights?
Every tradition has
both negative as well as positive aspects. The positive aspects are
to be further developed, while the negative aspects need to be
discussed closely, to see if they are indeed essential elements of
the faith or are actually simply human creations.
How does this work relate to what you have been previously engaged
I see it as part of my
long interest in Islamic hermeneutics, the methodology of
understanding the Qur'an, the Sunnah and other components of the
Islamic tradition. Of particular concern for me are certain
assumptions in popular Islamic discourse that have not been fully
examined, and have generally been ignored or avoided. Thus, for
instance, Muslim scholars have not seriously reflected on the
question of what is actually meant when we say that the Qur'an is
the revealed 'Word of God'.
What exactly does the
term 'Word of God' mean? What does revelation mean? We have the
definitions of the Word and revelation given by the traditional 'ulama,
but other definitions are also possible. When we speak of the 'Word
of God' are we speaking of a divine or a human code of
communication? Is language a neutral channel of communication? Was
the responsibility of the Prophet simply that of delivering the
message, or did he have a role to play in the forming of that
message? What relation does the Qur'an have with the particular
social context in which it was revealed? We need to ask what it
means for the faith Muslims have in the Qur'an if one brings in the
issue of the human dimension involved in revelation.
Are you suggesting that
the Qu'ran cannot be understood without taking into account the
particular social context of seventh century Arabia? In other words,
are there aspects of the Qur'an that were limited in their relevance
and application only to the Prophet's time, and are no longer
applicable or relevant today?
What I am suggesting is
that in our reading of the Qur'an we cannot undermine the role of
the Prophet and the historical and cultural premises of the times
and the context of the Qur'anic revelation. When we say that through
the Qur'an God spoke in history we cannot neglect the historical
dimension, the historical context of seventh century Arabia.
Otherwise you cannot answer the question of why God first 'spoke'
Hebrew through his revelations to the prophets of Israel, then
Aramaic, through Jesus, and then Arabic, in the form of the Qur'an.
In a historical
understanding of the Qur'an one would also have to look at the
verses in the text that refer specifically to the Prophet and the
society in which he lived. Some people might feel that looking at
the Qur'an in this way is a crime against Islam, but I feel that
this sort of reaction is a sign of a weak and vulnerable faith. And
this is why a number of writers who have departed from tradition and
have pressed for a way of relating to the Qur'an that takes the
historical context of the revelation seriously have been persecuted
in many countries. I think there is a pressing need to bring the
historical dimension of the revelation into discussion, for this is
indispensable for countering authoritarianism, both religious and
political, and for promoting human rights.
Could you give an example of how a historically grounded reading of
the Qur'an could help promote human rights?
Take, for instance, the
question of chopping off the hands of thieves, which traditionalists
would insist be imposed as an 'Islamic' punishment today. A
historically nuanced understanding of the Islamic tradition would
see this form of punishment as a borrowing from pre-Islamic Arabian
society, and as rooted in a particular social and historical
context. Hence, doing away with this form of punishment today would
not, one could argue, be tantamount to doing away with Islam itself.
By thus contextualising the Qur'an, one could arrive at its
essential core, which could be seen as being normative for all
times, shifting it from what could be regarded as having been
relevant to a historical period and context that no longer exists.
If one were to take history seriously, how would a contextual,
historically grounded understanding of the Qur'an reflect on Islamic
theology as it has come to be developed?
As I see it, Sunni
Muslim theology has remained largely frozen in its ninth century
mould, as developed by the conservative 'Asharites. We need to
revisit fundamental theological concepts today, which the Sunni 'ulama,
by and large, have ignored, for there can be no reform possible in
Muslim societies without reform in theology. Till now, however, most
reform movements in the Sunni world have operated from within the
broad framework of traditional theology, which is why they have not
been able to go very far.
How would this new understanding of theology that you propose
reflect on the issue of inter-faith relations?
When I suggest that we
need to reconsider what exactly is meant by saying that the Qur'an
is the 'Word of God', I mean Muslims must also remember that the
Qur'an itself insists that the 'Word of God' cannot be limited to
the Qur'an alone. A verse in the Qur'an says that if all the trees
in the world were pens and all the water in the seas were ink, still
they could not, put together, adequately exhausted the Word of God.
The Qur'an, therefore, represents only one manifestation of the
absolute Word of God. Other Scriptures represent other
manifestations as well. Then again, many Sufis saw the whole
universe as a manifestation of the 'Word of God'. But, today, few
Muslim scholars are taking the need for inter-faith dialogue with
the seriousness that it deserves. Most Muslim writers are yet to
free themselves from a rigid, imprisoning chauvinism.
How does this way of reading the Qur'an deal with the multiple ways
in which the text can be understood and interpreted?
The Qur'an, like any
other text, can be read in different ways, and there has always been
a plurality of interpretations. The text does not stand alone.
Rather, it has to be interpreted, in order to arrive at its meaning,
and interpretation is a human exercise and no interpreter is
infallible. As Imam 'Ali says, the Qur'an does not speak by itself,
but, rather, through human beings. True, Muslims from all over the
world, do share certain rituals and beliefs in common, but their
understanding of what Islam and the Qur'an are all about differ
considerably. It is for us to help develop new ways of understanding
Islam that can promote human rights, while at the same time being
firmly rooted in the faith tradition.
Yoginder Sikand works
with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive
Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore. He is recently touring
Egypt and other neighboring countries.