This is also how the Berlin-based Arabist Angelika Neuwirth sees it. She regards the new edition not only as a pioneering academic achievement, but as a real test of courage: "The Salafists donʹt want to know that the Koran has an earthly history." The verses on violence, for example, did not come from heaven; they have a specific historical context. Itʹs only when you understand this, she argues, that you can truly understand the Koran. Neuwirth says: "The Koran isnʹt a book, itʹs an event. It contains traces of the debates that Muhammad conducted with his community." The Tunisian edition makes it possible to read the Koran as "an echo chamber of its time."

Charfi, who in person is the embodiment of modesty and restraint, has set out to do nothing less than redefine the status of the Koran within Islam. According to Charfi and his school of critical, historical Koran exegesis, the Koran is at once the product of divine inspiration and a text passed down in human language, influenced by the Prophetʹs personality and the circumstances in which he lived, his culture and community.

Anyone who denies this today, says Charfi, is separating religion from life. He believes that Islam only has a future if the Koran is re-read in harmony with the values of the modern world, with respect for universal human rights.

Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, Tunisia (photo: picture-alliance/Bildagentur Huber)
"Al-Mushaf wa Qiraʹatuh": this latest groundbreaking project reflects deep-rooted intellectual traditions stretching back over centuries. Tunisʹ ancient University of Al-Zaytuna was an international centre of moderate Islam – and a bulwark against Wahhabism – until it was shut down by Bourguiba. Yet, since the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, Tunisia has been undergoing a gradual process of political and religious awakening, making steady progress in the areas of human rights and democratisation

Bulwark against Wahhabism

There is a tradition of critical Koran readings in Tunisia. The University of Al-Zaytuna, founded in 737 in the heart of Tunisʹs Old Town, was an international centre of moderate Islam, a bulwark against Wahhabism, until it was shut down by Bourguiba, the founder of the Tunisian Republic. Today, there is no such site of academic discussion within Islam. At the same time, Tunisia is the only country in the region where researchers have spent decades engaging with the Koran in humanities faculties; elsewhere, Koran studies have been monopolised by dogmatic religious institutions. 

The Tunisian approach doesnʹt always meet with goodwill from the countryʹs Arab neighbours. Recently, the guardians of the faith at Cairoʹs Al-Azhar mosque have threatened to strike Tunisia off the list of Islamic countries if it carries on with its programme of democratic modernisation "at the cost of Islam".

Last summer, President Essebi called Charfi into the newly-founded political commission on "Individual Freedoms and Equality". The issue to be addressed was Tunisiaʹs inheritance laws, which disadvantaged women and for years had been a bone of contention for civil society and human rights campaigners. But even liberal members of parliament had not wanted to touch them, because the rules of inheritance are laid out word for word in the Koran, making them Godʹs will.

What if Charfi could pull the rug out from under this judgement? In an already tense social atmosphere, the explosive political potential of the idea for the ruling coalition of secular and Islamist parties is so great that the commission decided only to publish its report after the local elections at the start of May, the first in the countryʹs history.

© NZZ/Qantara.de 2018                

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

"Al-Mushaf wa Qira’atuh", Rabat 2016. 2330 Seiten, 5 volumes (published by Mominoun Without Borders for Publishing & Distribution/Beirut)

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