The Reformist Islamic Thinker Muhammad Shahrur

In the Footsteps of Averroes

Muhammad Shahrur's work is a comprehensive attempt to reconcile the religion of Islam with modern philosophy as well as the rational worldview of the natural sciences. According to Shahrur, jurisprudence in the name of God is a farce benefiting only those wanting to maintain political power. Loay Mudhoon introduces this contentious reformist thinker

The Koran (photo: dpa)
Muhammad Shahrur: "The religious inheritance of Islam must be critically read and interpreted anew."

​​ Although many Muslims would reject out of hand the notion of reform with respect to Islam, as they regard the faith to be fundamentally perfect as it stands and not capable of being improved, let alone reformed, Muhammad Shahrur, the Syrian engineer and interpreter of the Koran, sees himself first and foremost as a reformist thinker.

Shahrur also regards himself as part of an avant-garde of Islamic "revivers." For him, the key recognition is that there is only one God, but many paths to reach him. And since the very beginning of his reformist work almost 20 years ago, he has clearly and vehemently pleaded for Muslims to turn to the revealed text themselves as the true criteria of divine truth instead of being "subservient to the authority of Islamic law."

"Religious reforms are necessary"

Within the macropolitical context, Shahrur goes a step further and calls for a fundamental critique of Islamic culture and religion on the basis of a diagnosis of contemporary circumstances. According to Shahrur, there can be no real political reform in Islamic countries without first far-reaching religious reforms.

After all, he notes, Islam is for all intents and purposes the sole dominating normative force in the Arab world. "The religious heritage must be critically read and interpreted anew. Cultural and religious reforms are more important than political ones, as they are the preconditions for any secular reforms."

Shock to the Arab collective consciousness serves as catalyst

Muhammad Shahrur was born on 11 April 1938 in Damascus. After graduating from high school, he began studies in civil engineering in Moscow in 1958, which he successfully completed in 1964.

The Six Day War in June 1967, which has structurally influenced the Middle East to the present day, resulted in Shahrur being unable to pursue doctoral studies as intended in London, but rather in Dublin, as the war led to a break in diplomatic relations between Syria and Britain.

The shock to the collective consciousness of the Arab world after its devastating loss in the Six Day War was the decisive catalyst leading him to reflect upon the state of Arab culture and to search for a way out of the region's suddenly apparent economic and, above all, moral and intellectual crisis.

Central problems of traditional Islamic discourse

In the introduction to his 1990 published standard work, "The Book and the Qur'an: A Contemporary Interpretation," which, according to Shahrur, took him more than 20 years to complete, he specifically names the central problems of traditional Islamic discourse – from the lack of a scientific approach to the divine text and the fixation of legal scholars on apologetic reflexes to the inability to justify or expand upon an Islamic epistemological system.

Woman reading the Koran in the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta (photo: dpa)
Shahrur's work is a comprehensive attempt to reconcile the religion of Islam with modern philosophy as well as the rational worldview of the natural sciences

​​ In any case, it was clear to him early on that the prevalent interpretation of Islam stands in blatant contradiction to the true spirit of the divine revelation.

Although Shahrur has explicitly stressed that his reform work is primarily a "contemporary reading of the revealed text" with the declared goal of "formulating an Islamic theory of divinity that is at once both human and universal," the orthodox Islamic community has reacted to his reformist approach with massive campaign of defamation.

And, as expected, more than a few commentators in the Arab mass media have called for him to be taken to court for disparaging the person of the Prophet. At least 19 books have since been published as refutations of Shahrur's provocative views, not to mention countless articles and media reports.

Realization often grows on the fringes

Shahrur's ability to think mathematically and in terms of the natural sciences proved a great support in his plan to read the holy text in a contemporary context. In addition, he has made use of the latest methods in linguistic research.

Of particular value has been the linguistic discovery that synonymous words do not exist at a certain level of language, and that every expression refers to a very particular field of meaning.

​​ Shahrur began to apply this rule to the Koran suras and arrived at the findings that a fundamental rethinking of Islamic law is, at least in part, justified.

With his methodology, Shahrur succeeded in revealing a specific meaning for central concepts in Islam, such as al-kitab (the text) and al-quran (the Koran), which in the context of revelation have been regarded until now as synonymous.

These findings and the premise that the Koran is all embracing led Shahrur to a fundamental decision for his contemporary reading of the Koran. A distinction is to be drawn between "prophecy" (nubuwa) and the "message" (risala).

Prophecy refers to the divine and therefore an objective and absolutely valid law of nature, while the message contains normative regulations, which thus have only subjective validity and can be freely followed or not.

A further decisive insight from Shahrur's research into the Koran lies in the fact that this modern approach has led to a new understanding of one of Islam's fundamental concepts – that of being a Muslim. Shahrur gathers from the Koran that a Muslim is someone who believes in God and the final judgement as well as performs good deeds.

Being and becoming

Shahrur has developed a philosophy on the basis of the wording in the Koran. He recognizes two fundamental categories – "being" (kaynuna) and "becoming" (sayrura). The first is divine and absolute, while the second is human and relative.

Being is represented by the word of God, which was revealed to Mohammed and set in writing in the Koran. The word of God constitutes "being in itself," while everything else is "becoming."

photo: dpa
According to Shahrur, one must differentiate between precepts and law in the verses of the Koran. Saudi Arabian men weave verses of the Koran on to a cloth

​​The understanding of the divine text is therefore also a constant becoming. Shahrur speaks "of the fixed nature of the text and the flexibility of the content" in describing the dialectic between text and content. Shahrur regards the text of the Koran as self-contained and sufficient unto itself.

In addition, he holds that everything said or written about the text of the Koran, including comments by the Prophet Mohammed, as being historically limited.

The text of the Koran, however, is not historical. A difference, however, must be recognized between precepts and law in the verses of the Koran. And in all cases where the Koran text contains precepts and not law, then it is appropriate to talk of the historicity of the text.

Only the word of God is absolute

Shahrur's description of the function of the Koran does not differ from the prevalent views of Islamic scholars. Accordingly, the Koran is the "seal of books" and comprises the last and final word of the three revealed religions.

The Koran contains God's absolute truth. Mankind can only have a relative understand this truth. As such, any interpretation of the Koran can only be valid for a specific period in time and for this time only.

Corresponding to his historically dependent interpretation of the Koran, Shahrur does not regard the Sunna of the Prophet as a sacred source of Islamic moral law. Mohammed did indeed enjoy an especially close relationship to God, but was nonetheless a normal human being, who was shaped by the Arabic culture of the seventh century and its level of knowledge. Apart from that, Mohammed ordered the text of the Koran, but not that of the Sunna, says Shahrur.

This approach has inevitably led Shahrur into fierce conflict with Islamic legal scholars, who view the Sunna of the Prophet and the Hadiths as the second authoritative sources of Islamic law.

According to Shahrur's theory, this is where the borders between "being" and "becoming" get entangled, as the founders of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) made the Hadiths, which transmit the Sunna of the Prophet and are dated from the period of Abbaside Dynasty in the seventh century, the basis of Islamic law.

Instead of questioning the Hadiths, they idealized the time of the Prophet and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, thereby recognizing the work as a sacred source of Islamic moral law. This unfortunately resulted in the end of free decision-making, as every question as to how one should act could now be answered through a process of analogical reasoning (qiyas) based on the life of Mohammed.

Theory of limits

Sharia law also comes under fire from Shahrur's critique in terms of what he perceives as the primary source of jurisprudence, namely, the Koran.

Here, he steadfastly maintains the thesis that all traditionally accepted normative statements in the Koran must be seen as historically conditional. On the basis of this premise, he formulates a "theory of limits" as a universal solution to address divinely prescribed norms of behaviour.

Statue of Averroes in Córdoba, Spain (photo/source: Wikipedia)
Shahrur does not want to re-invent Islam. Instead, he hopes to revive the timeless message of Ibn Rushd

​​Shahrur understands the concept of limit (hudud) not according to the traditional Islamic reading as a "commandment" of God, but instead as divinely set boundary.

According to this position, Islam makes no laws, but rather only sets limits within which man must enjoy the greatest possible degree of freedom. The rigidity of currently accepted Islamic jurisprudence is contrary to the elasticity of the Koran.

As such, God has set an upper and a lower limit to all human actions mentioned in the Koran, with the lower limit representing the minimum and the upper limit the maximum stipulated by divine law in any specific case.

By instituting gradual increments of punishment for crimes, the Sharia would gain much greater flexibility and realistic sentencing could finally be determined according to human needs.

As an example of his "theory of limits," Shahrur introduces the case of punishment for theft. According to his understanding of verse 5:38 in the Koran, chopping off a hand is the most severe, but not the only possible punishment. A judge could also sentence the guilty party to do volunteer work instead.

The depoliticization of Islam

With his "theory of limits," Shahrur frames the Sharia so that it is compatible with the universal understanding of democracy and human rights. Penal legislation that finds itself between the two boundaries lies within the decision-making powers of a democratically elected parliament.

Through his understanding of God's commandments as limits, Shahrur sees "hundreds of millions of possibilities" now open to legislation. In addition, he demands the complete depoliticization of Islam, insofar as he stresses the necessity of the division of state and religion.

The reformist thinker Shahrur therefore finds himself promoting a position diametrically opposed to that of Islamism. His view is that jurisprudence in the name of God is a farce benefiting only those wanting to maintain political power.

Shahrur's work is a comprehensive attempt to reconcile the religion of Islam with modern philosophy as well as the rational worldview of the natural sciences.

What is remarkable about his argumentation, which is merely sketched out here, is the fact that he justifies the necessity of historical relativism in interpreting the legal sources of Islam not out of practical consideration, but rather on the basis of Islamic theology itself.

With his fundamental criticism based on Islam, this contentious interpreter of the religion provides the best proof that the most severe, yet fruitful criticism is almost always to be found inherent in the system.

A revival of Averroes' message

Even if Shahrur's theses and his efforts to provide a new foundation or interpretation of the theoretical coordinates of this world religion may seem overly ambitious and at the moment only reach a limited and intellectual public, they contribute immensely to a revival of internal Islamic discourse on reform, if only because of their striking positions.

When Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the influential global mufti and frequent guest on the authoritative satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera, was asked about Shahrur's work and its significance for the Islamic world, the powerful TV preacher said both succinctly and tellingly, "It's a new religion!"

Although Shahrur strictly rejects any hierarchical structures within Islam, as they are merely human constructions, one shouldn't conclude that he is a thoroughly convinced rationalist of the sort who views every flight from reality to metaphysics as a disaster.

He certainly doesn't want to reinvent Islam, but strives instead to revive the timeless message of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), namely, that revelation and reason are not contradictory, but complementary.

Loay Mudhoon

© Loay Mudhoon / Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Related Topics
Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.