Here is a small object lesson in why there are plenty of disingenuous Islamic supremacists masquerading as modernists and reformers (cf. Reza Aslan), but so few actual reformers. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd tried to develop a “humanistic hermeneutics” of Islam, and for his pains was hounded, exiled, barred from countries, charged with insulting Islam, and of course threatened with death. The Islamic supremacists even got his marriage annulled on the grounds that he was an apostate and could not be married to a Muslim woman.
Islamic Tolerance Alert: “The thinker that strove to a kinder, gentler Islam,” by Israel Schrenzel for Haaretz, October 29
In July, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, one of the greatest liberal Muslim philosophers of our time, died in Egypt, just short of his 67th birthday. He was known mainly for developing what is called a “humanistic hermeneutics” of Islam. There would be no reason to mention the fact that he died in his homeland had he not been forced into exile during the mid-1990s, after a major public scandal there.
In 1992, when he was a candidate for promotion to full professor in Cairo University, one of the members of the confirmation committee claimed that his writings constituted a clear insult to Islam. An activist in a fundamentalist Islamic organization exploited this view (which was a minority opinion even within the committee itself, which confirmed Abu Zayd’s appointment in the end) and submitted a request to sharia court to annul the scholar’s marriage, arguing that his views made him an apostate, and that because of this, his Muslim wife (a professor of French literature at Cairo University ) was not permitted to be married to him.
At first the request was rejected, but it was later approved in an appeals court, in the spirit of the extremism that prevailed at the time – and is still in evidence – with respect to intellectuals and artists suspected of liberal and secular views.
The higher court’s ruling aroused a profound public debate and was for the most part perceived as deviating from accepted procedure. At the same time, fundamentalist organizations exploited the ruling and threatened Abu Zayd’s life. He and his wife moved to Holland, where he taught at Leiden University, an important center of Middle Eastern studies. There he continued with intensive academic activity, which included writing many books and articles in Arabic and other languages, and he also won a number of prizes and honors from Western organizations, which were happy to be identified with such a “positive” Muslim personality, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001.
In his autobiographical “Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam” (Praeger Publishers, 2004 ), Abu Zayd describes his acute homesickness for Egypt, and his dream of being able to return and to teach there once again. He did in fact visit his homeland several times during his exile, keeping a very low profile, but he didn’t stay. His description of his first visit is very moving: “As soon as the plane landed, it seemed as though I had left Egypt only the day before …. A customs official asked me, ‘Do you have anything to declare?’ I simply answered no. He then produced a hint of a smile before saying, ‘Welcome back, Professor.’ I liked the sound of it” (translation by Esther R. Nelson ).
On the other hand, conservative circles managed to prevent his entry into Kuwait in 2009. After he fell ill during a visit to Indonesia this past summer, he was treated in Egypt, where he died on July 5 at the age of 66. He was buried in his village.
Anyone perusing Abu Zayd’s writings will not find a passionate heretic, as his opponents attempted to portray him, and yet it is quite clear why his philosophy was anathema to the religious establishment and to fundamentalist organizations in Egypt and elsewhere. His main activity was the study and interpretation of the Koran. In his youth he learned the sacred book by heart, and for a short period was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. As his academic career proceeded, though, he developed independent views. He initially focused on relating to the Koran as a text, arguing that the most modern methodology of textual research and exegesis should be applied to it, in the spirit of the disciplines of linguistics, hermeneutics and semiotics.
He later took a more dramatic step (under the influence of Russian-Jewish semioticist Yuri Lotman ), and suggested that the Koran first and foremost constituted a form of oral discourse and communication between a divine source – whose existence he never denied – and its “recipient,” the prophet Mohammed. The language of the Koran originated, Abu Zayd believed, in the form of an oral message, and only after the prophet’s death did it become a text per se. In other words, it is a shared entity created as a result of a “horizontal” relationship between God and the prophet (and not as a “vertical” imposition from above ).
To his mind, then, the Koran’s text has a distinct human dimension, since Mohammed had to adapt the divine message to his particular audience in the seventh century. For that reason, its words do not fully or exclusively represent that message, Abu Zayd maintained, and as a human creation its sacred text is open to the interpretation of each and every generation in accordance with its historical circumstances, general cultural perceptions and other considerations. In other words, after the basic “contextualization” of the Koran to suit people living centuries ago, modern-day Muslims are obligated to carry out a “re-contextualization” that will suit this era.
Divine, absolute, perpetual truth
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd thus sharply opposed the orthodox views that prevailed in effect since the early days of Islam, according to which the text of the Koran represents divine, absolute and perpetual truth, which is valid for all Muslim communities regardless of time and place, and therefore only clerics are permitted to adapt it to the changing circumstances. Due to such opinions, he said, the Koran had become a sacred and frozen object that was not to be touched after being sealed in the seventh century.
Clerics turned the Koran into a primary source of sharia, Muslim law, and as such their interpretations achieved a divine status – which is something Abu Zayd rejected: If the Koran is a human creation, he proposed, then sharia is even more so. He showed in his works, among other things, how the traditional religious approach attributed importance only to a very small number of verses in the book, which deal directly with laws and regulations, and ignored important components outside the legal dimension – in other words, the spirit and principles that inspired the rest of the text.
Furthermore, Abu Zayd claimed that even those parts of the Koran that seem to deal with religious law were not formulated as enduring legal principles, but rather reflected a response to the concrete needs of the prophet’s “audience” in his lifetime, a response that also took Jewish, Roman and pre-Islamic Arab views into consideration. Even Mohammed himself, and certainly God, Abu Zayd said, did not intend to perpetuate these views, and the orthodox scholars are therefore mistaken in attributing divine significance to a historical product of human thought. In his words: “If everything mentioned in the Koran must be obeyed literally as divine law, then slavery must be reinstituted … In our times the amputation of limbs cannot be considered a religious punishment that has divine approval.”
From certain verses of the Koran and from what he saw as the overall spirit embodied in the sacred book, Abu Zayd also sought to find an interpretation that would support democracy, equality and human rights in general – particularly, the rights of minorities and women. In so doing he was following in the footsteps of such Islamic modernists of previous generations as Egyptian philosopher Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905 ), who was one of the first to maintain that the Koran was not a historical or scientific work, and to offer his own contemporary, liberal interpretation of it….
It’s very interesting that Abu Zayd’s contextualized reading of the Qur’an is not infrequently presented by Islamic spokesmen in the West as if it were axiomatic among Muslims, but when Abu Zayd presented it in the Islamic world, he was hounded, ostracized, and threatened.