July 5th was the first anniversary of the death of the progressive Koranic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. A summit meeting in his memory took place recently in Germany, where a select group of reformist thinkers discussed the innovation of Islam and the problems associated with it. By Angela Schader
The illustrious guests required no second invitation. They were only too willing to gather in Essen, Germany, in honour of their late colleague, says Katajun Amirpur, who together with Navid Kermani organised the 'Islamic Newthinking' event, jointly financed by the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen and the University of Zurich. Nonetheless, the opportunity to see such a large number of leading reformist thinkers gathered together at one table is certainly a rare one.
Personalities well-known in the German-speaking world, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari, Sadiq al-Azm and Aziz al-Azmeh, debated with guests from South Africa and the United States, Pakistan and Turkey, all of whom enriched the discussion with fresh food for thought and well-informed questions. It was, without doubt, a great moment.
But the fact that this conference with its star-studded guest list took place in Essen and not in Cairo, Tehran or Lahore is an indication of the lack of acceptance with which innovative approaches are met within the Islamic world. It is also a reminder of the fact that Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was declared divorced from his wife against his will in 1995 as a result of his very cautious attempts to stimulate reform in Egypt. He died in Egypt, after which he lived in exile until his death.
The imprisoned God
The occasion was explicitly planned not as an information event for a local audience, but rather to provide the intellectuals with a forum in which to exchange of ideas at a high level. However, the aim of providing the discussion with a degree of structure through keynote lectures was only partially successful. Conversations often branched off in different directions as a result of the participants' differing priorities and approaches.
Occasionally the desire to allow as many delegates as possible to speak necessitated the premature curtailment of an exciting exchange of views. Nonetheless, in the course of the discussions certain themes were developed that gave some insight into the breadth of the current debate within Islam.
Alongside questions about the ability of Islam to undergo reform – questions that are constantly being asked and addressed in Europe, too – linguistic reflectionrovided an emphasis that repeatedly cast things in a new and surprising light.
The fundamental question of whether the Koran was indeed the pure, unmediated word of God, or Prophetic – and thus human – speech, was addressed right at the start in Shabestari's opening address. In it the Iranian theologian lamented the fact that neither Islamic tradition nor modern linguistic philosophy had produced an instrument that would enable the rational and scientific analysis of a text like the Koran which is simultaneously anchored in both metaphysical and physical reality. Shabestari called for a hermeneutics equal to such a task, but without giving a clearer outline of his ideas in this regard.
The Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, who teaches in the United States, also formulated the dilemma that the Koran, like every sacred scripture, has to conceive its message in human language. Her insight culminated in the delicate question of whether the revelation of the divine thus also has to tailor itself according to the limited capacity of human comprehension.
From here it was only a small step to formulating the idea that God had to a certain extent been "imprisoned" in the holy scripture. This idea took shape in an unexpected way during examination of the transcription of the Koran.
The Koran was first compiled and declared authoritative in a standardized edition after the death of Mohammed, at the instigation of the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan. The Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm raised the question of whether, as a result of this measure, its original message may also in part have been eliminated, alongside the oral and written variations of the religious text that had previously been in circulation.
Osman Tastan, Professor of Islamic Law in Ankara, pointed out that the compilation of a canonized version of the Koran not only served the growing claim to power by the swiftly expanding young religion, but also initiated the gradual rigidification of Islamic law.
The Islamic legal scholar Shafi'i, founder of one of the great Sunni schools of law (d. 820 C.E.), consolidated the traditional approach according to which judgements and judicial common sense could only operate within the framework of what could be derived by analogous conclusion with reference to the holy scriptures, i.e. the Koran and the sayings and actions of the Prophet as handed down in the Sunna.
From reform to restoration
So is it necessary, as Amina Wadud formulated it, to protect the Koran from itself – and, moreover, to protect God from the Koran? Or do the barriers to progress lie not so much with the source texts as with those who interpret them? This is the contention of Asma Barlas, a Pakistani cultural and political scientist who teaches in America. Here Sadiq al-Azm interjected his devastating criticism of the "total sterility" of the great Islamic teaching institutes, as well as of the development of reformist thinking in the 20th century.
Instead of initiating a modernization of Islam, as envisaged for example by Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), al-Azm complained that there had been a retreat into an increasingly fundamentalist comprehension of the faith, intent on restoring the old order, a comprehension that – through thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb – had finally led to the terror of al Qaida. Abdolkarim Soroush seconded this criticism of the dominant ideology of the last century, citing the inherent affinity between Islam and the Marxist ideas of the time that were adopted by many Arab intellectuals.
This too was, Soroush said, in the final analysis a quasi-religious doctrine of salvation with an authoritarian structure which emphasized the duties rather than the rights of the individual, and in comparison with which the status of liberal values in the Muslim world was much more precarious.
So could the historically-informed, humanistically-orientated interpretation propagated by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd be the solution for the restrictions and increasingly entrenched positions in Muslim belief and everyday life? An interpretation, that is, which places the statements and regulations formulated in the Koran within their historical context and tries, as it were, to filter out from this earthbound material those ethical and moral principles which transcend time?
The historian Aziz al-Azmeh was highly critical of such an "apologist" interpretation of the Koran and was swift to refute it. He commented that the Koran may have – for example – allowed women more rights than was usual at that time, but it was equally clear in asserting the superiority of the man.
The South African Farid Esack also pinpointed verses in which the Koran discriminates against and ostracizes people: Jews, those of other faiths, non-Arabs; Esack even referred in this context to the proscription of certain animals as unclean. It was futile, he said, to try to construct an ethically acceptable Koran by means of historical interpretation; one had to accept the claims to power made in the text for what they were, and address them critically.
What about the uprisings?
The uprisings in the Arab countries did not figure as prominently in the discussions as they currently do in the public consciousness, but this was because they were not directly relevant to the subject of the convention. The resistance movement, to begin with at least, has in no way defined itself on a religious basis.
Katajun Amirpur suggested that perhaps we could also draw hope from this that the people of the Arab world had overcome the authoritarian structures of the religion that were highlighted from many different angles by the conference delegates.
However, if on the other hand one considers the political presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 'new' Egypt and that of the previously forbidden Islamist Nahda party in Tunisia, or the religious components of the liberation struggle in Syria, it is clear that history will not overtake the demand for an "Islamic new thinking" quite so fast.
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de