Mouhanad Khorchideʹs "Godʹs Revelation in the Word of Men"

A Koran for the 21st century

With the first in a series of 17 planned commentaries on the Koran, editor Mouhanad Khorchide from the University of Munster builds a bridge between traditional readings of the Koran and modern scholarly interpretation. Musa Bagrac read the book

Together with a team of academics, Mouhanad Khorchide explores fundamental issues surrounding a historical-critical commentary of the Koran. The professor of Islamic Religious Education and head of the Munster-based Centre for Islamic Theology links methods of historical criticism with his own spiritual reading of the theology of mercy within the context of modern thinking.

Khorchide hopes to use this to enable Muslims to experience a heartfelt and close encounter with God in the here and now, one which compels them towards love, just as the first recipients on the Arabian peninsula once experienced transcendence in the Koran.

Of course, this understanding differs completely from the distant and cold God of speculative theologies. It would appear that Khorchideʹs achievement lies precisely within this interweaving and process of repositioning. To prepare the reader for this, he opens by asking what the Koran means to its scholars. Traditional interpretations establish it firmly as a religious instruction manual.

Theologians of the modern Ankara School on the other hand prefer to see it as a code of ethics. The Egyptian Koranic researcher Abu Zaid of the Cairo School, who died in 2010, viewed it above all as a book of communication. All interpretations are concerned with to what extent the Koran can be understood via the historical-critical method, or whether it is a trans-historical book which applies to all ages and places. Can one use historical-critical analysis to understand the Koran as a text for our time?

A paradigm shift in understanding the Koran

Khorchide begins his commentary by explaining that he views the Koran as a reflection of God, in which He communicates himself to humanity. This interpretation of the Koran establishes a direct link to the reality of life, so that people do not feel alienated by God, which is often the case with abstract articles of faith.

Cover of Mouhanad Khorchideʹs "Gottes Offenbarung in Menschenwort: Der Koran im Licht der Barmherzigkeit" – Godʹs Revelation in the Word of Men: the Koran in the Light of Mercy –  (Volume I; published in German by Herder)
Traditional, yet modern: Mouhanad Khorchide has developed a new approach to the Koran, combining traditional Islamic Koranic studies with methods developed by European historians. While the Koran is regarded as the revealed word of God, it is also understood within its historical context

Khorchideʹs interpretation takes a people-oriented look at the Koran and the articles of faith, considering their desires, motives, needs and feelings. Only when these are taken into account can an individual’s faith in revelation and self-determination combine.

This point is crucial to Khorchide, who aims to reconcile the understanding of the Koran with Western freedom history. The theologian distinguishes between two fundamentally different ways of interpreting the Koran. He speaks of a monologically closed and a dialogically open interpretation.

The monological-closed approach to the Koran views it as a book of instructions for humanity. In this first approach, Khorchide includes modern researchers belonging to the Ankara School, the work of Egyptian Koranic scholar Abu Zaid, as well as traditional readings of the Koran.

By contrast, the second dialogically open approach interprets revelation as Godʹs ongoing dialogue with humanity. Khorchide draws on the second approach, taking it as a basis for his concept of Godʹs mercy as a hermeneutical key.

Godʹs mercy as a hermeneutical key

Unlike the classical and modern exegetes, Khorchide no longer makes assumptions such as "the Koran says this…" (tafsir) or "Here, the Koran means…" (taʹwil), committing himself instead to a more open, dialogical and, in his view, humbler interpretation. Khorchide is aware that his own contemporary understanding of the Koran is relative. Thus he prefers formulations such as: "I understand that the Koran wants to tell me… tomorrow, I will understand that the Koran is trying to tell me something else …".

Khorchide furthermore postulates that only a person who is conscious and in possession of his freedom can relate to a God of self-revelation. This freedom holds within it the potential for a respectful and conducive relationship between God and humanity, in which a person opens up from a place of conviction and is able to become a better version of themselves.

In contrast, the model of revelation based on the instruction theory compels the human spirit to a standstill, lowering it to the status of passive recipient or overpowered object. This, Khorchide writes, fails to recognise humankind in its freedom and humanity. Yet it is precisely this freedom that defines the relationship between God and Man. Because God gave man free will as an expression of his absolute mercy – and enabled him to be free as his subject.

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