Double page from a Turkish Koran dating from the year 1855 (photo: photo alliance/Imagestate HIP)
Reformist Islam after Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

Who Will Protect the Koran from Itself?

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

Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari (photo: George Lukas)
Innovative approaches in the current debate about theological reform: Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari during his address at the summit of Muslim reform theologians ("Islamic Newthinking") in Essen, Germany

​​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.

Amina Wadud (photo: George Lukas)
Should the revelation of the divine be determined by human beings' limited capacity to grasp something? The Islamic feminist Amina Wadud during the Islamic Newthinking event in Essen, Germany

​​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.

Farid Esack (photo: George Lukas)
Paths towards a new understanding of Islam: the South African Muslim scholar Farid Esack has devised a "liberation theology" along the lines of the Latin American Christian liberation theology

​​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.

Angela Schader

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/ 2011

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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Comments for this article: Who Will Protect the Koran from Itself?

I have tried to make head or tail of what Angela Schader has written in her rather confusing article. Alone the title of the article is misleading when one reads the whole text of the article and what various speakers in the German conference. I had the pleasure to meet Professor and Koranic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd at a conference in Germany a few years back and had a lovely discussion with him about his idea of a interpreting some statements and regulations formulated in the Koran within their historical context and filter out those ethical and moral principles which are outdated and has no relevance to the present time.

One of the most beautiful remarks he made which did touch me most was that "Most Muslims do not understand Quranic language and finer nuances and thus interpret some verses literally. There is thus a need to interpret the text in a careful ay so that Quran is understood as clearly as possible."

He also talked about looking at the whole issue of Islam, Quran and the west with critical eyes. I do not recall that he liked calling himself an Islam reformer or innovator. These titles were pinned on him by western media who wanted to project him as a reformer. He did not see problems with Islam but with Muslim religious elite and such Islam scholars who declared him divorced from his wife against his will in 1995 as a result of his very cautious attempts to stimulate reform in Egypt.

I am not an Islamic scholar but a student of my religion as every person with an Islamic background should have. I take exception to the fact that Western intellectuals and politicians are hell-bent on treating Islam as an out-of-touch with reality religion and are proposing to change it to fit with western norms.

Islam does not need reformation, instead its followers have to understand it in its true spirit and purpose; to fill the spiritual void among its followers.

Kind regards, Bashy Quraishy

Bashy Quraishi11.07.2011 | 16:58 Uhr