Middle East Resources

Modernity & the Qur’an

الحداثة والقرآن

“Religious Freedom: A Foundation for Individual Freedom”

By Sa’eed Nasheed, Published by Dar al-Tanweer, Beirut, Lebanon

Reviewed by Khaled Ghazal

With Analysis & Comments by Bassam Michael Madany

The Moroccan author, Sa’eed Nasheed has written a small book dealing with “Modernity & the Qur’an.”[i] In this work, he embarks on a difficult task of how to deal with the Qur’an’s many ambiguities, a topic that has caused many disputes, sometimes peaceful, while others quite violent. This may be a good reason to discuss this problem; as most of the conflicts that are occurring in the Arab and Islamic world, are due to the claims by some, that they are the ones who are defending the faith against the attacks of the secularists. The Salafists’ claim requires a response to their manner of using the Qur’anic text as a tool in their fights against the reformists. This is what our author plans to accomplish in his book that regards the Qur’an as a basis for a strictly religious life, whose ultimate goal is to bring about comfort and peace to the believer’s soul! If and when this thesis be accepted and applied, it would shield the sacred text from being employed as a political and ideological tool, that quite often, has led to hatred, oppression, and radicalism among Muslims. 

Nasheed begins his book by asking about the nature of the Qur’an, and whether it is in fact Allah’s words, the text of which was dictated by Heaven! His answer doesn’t deny that God is the author of the “Wahy”[ii] (revelation), but it was formulated or redacted by the Prophet. This was accomplished by Muhammad within the context of his culture, language, personality, and his time; thus it is, in a sense, a human text par excellence! On the other hand, as Islam spread, a rational view of the Qur’an changed to such an extent that the Prophet became like a “Second Person” next to the Divine Being, sometimes even superseding Him. The (Arabic) text of the Qur’an became a closed text based solely on ‘Uthman’s Qur’an, the Third Caliph (644-656) regarded by the various Islamic communions as the Authorized Version, while all other copies were forcefully destroyed.[iii]

Dealing with the Qur’anic text and interpreting its Suras and Ayas has occasioned several religious, cultural, and political problems that continue to this day. To conceive of the Qur’an, as well as the previous revealed Books as sacred, and as the unique guide for mankind in matters of faith and life, means that any interpretation other than a strictly literal one is regarded as heretical!

In other words, the Qur’anic text remains as it has been since the seventh century; its exposition must not take into account the time of its first appearance, or the cultural context of contemporaneous Arabia. There can be no new interpretation of the sacred text. The evidence is not hard to find as we witness nowadays the rise of Salafist and Fundamentalist movements that call for a return to the views and actions of past centuries. The interpretation of the Qur’an adopted by these movements turns Islam into a religion that legitimizes Irhab (terrorism) and violence. Their exegesis of the text fails to take into account that those Ayas “descended” during the days when Muslims at the dawn of their faith, were involved in the spread of their faith, and have no relevance in the 21st century. The Salafists ignore that the essence of Islam consists in the call for “Tawhid” (Strict unity of Allah) and the spread of an ethic of love and tolerance.  

The closing of the Muslim mind led to a terrible admixture between the ethical and humanitarian essence of the faith with those Qur’anic narratives that are mostly mythological. Having ascribed a divine nature to the Qur’an, and refusing to exegete it according to the evolution of Muslim societies led to the result, as Nasheed wrote, that “The text changed from an instruction in the worship of Allah, into a long list of commands that must be observed; leading eventually to the paralysis of the human will, and standing against any attempt at modernization.”

It is important to remember that in the early years of his mission Muhammad confronted several regulations and customs that belonged to the pre-Islamic era. His response was to endorse some of them, and change others. In other words, those regulations reflected the specific circumstances that Muslims faced in their dealing with one another, as well as with non-Muslims who were living among them. They could not have been valid beyond the formative period of Islam.

One of the important matters that face the Muslims today are the Qur’anic Ayas related to Jihad. The Islamic Da’wa (Mission) confronted in its early years several forces that endeavored to stop its spread. That led to several wars that were mostly led by the Prophet. It was during that era that those Ayas “descended” specifically to deal with Muhammad’s opponents. This explains the presence of texts that encourage killing the Kuffar (non-believers.)

Now it is true that several Muslim Fuqaha (Jurists) claim that Islam is against violence, that it is a religion of love and mercy. However, they are not willing to declare that those Qur’anic Ayas are no longer normative for the present age. Thus the actions and activities of the Islamist movements have branded Islam as advocating Irhab (Terrorism) and as a religion of violence and murder. Referring to this subject, Nasheed writes: “When the Qur’an encouraged killing, no matter what its motives may have been, it cannot be equated with Allah’s will; rather it reflected the Prophet’s own interpretation of the divine revelation. Such rules were in harmony with the Prophet’s milieu, and not a lasting divine legislation.”

Regarding the linguistic superiority of the Qur’an, Muslims claim that its language is the highest and most elegant form of Classical Arabic, and the final authority in matters of grammar and syntax. There are volumes that have extolled the “I ‘Jaz” (linguistic uniqueness and superiority) of the Arabic text, and the impossibility of human beings being able to compose anything that might approximate it! On the other hand, several scholars who have examined the Arabic text of the Qur’an could not but admit that it has several grammatical mistakes.[iv]

Muslim jurists insist on considering the Qur’an as the source for the Shariah with its Hudud (criminal laws) that sanction flogging, stoning, cutting off of limbs, and burning! These are punishments that are being followed in our days by the Salafists asserting boldly that Allah had promulgated these punishments, and thus, they ought to be observed!

The greatest contradiction between the logic of the Qur’an and Modernity is in the area of human rights. As Nasheed puts it: “In the world of Modernity, the individual does not regard his life as pre-ordained, he need not follow the “Sirat”[v] (the Right Path) given by Allah as guidance. An individual’s relation with the community must be based on association and participation, not on blind obedience. The history of modernity is a history of freedom.”

The most important contribution of modernity is the right of every person to embrace the religion of his choice, or not embrace any. Modern societies have accomplished this state of affairs after going through many years of religious wars that caused the death of thousands of human beings. The Qur’an insists on regarding “Islam as the only acceptable religion with Allah,[vi] and that “Muslims belong to the best nation among men”[vii]. Such notions are the very antithesis of Modernity which regards religious freedom as sacred, and as a basic aspect of the individual’s freedom. None of the Islamic states recognize a Muslim’s right of conversion to another faith. In fact the Law of Apostasy remains in force, and the only way for a Muslim convert is to flee to a country where freedom of religion is acknowledged.

In these days as Arab and Islamic lands are beset by religious and factional wars, as we witness the use of Islam as a tool in political and confessional disputes, Sa’eed Nasheed’s book, “Al-Hadatha wa’l-Qur’an” (Modernity & the Qur’an) occupies a central place in the heart of battle. It’s a book that calls for religious reformation, a much-needed event by our Arab and Islamic societies! http://www.alawan.org/article14053.html

This ends my translation from the Arabic text of Khaled Ghazal’s review of Sa’eed Nasheed’s book “Modernity and the Qur’an”.  Mr. Ghazal is a Lebanese author, graduate of the Lebanese University in Beirut (1969). He is well-known for his book reviews that appear in several newspapers in the Arab world. His reviews on Al-Awan’s website deal mostly with the reform of Islam and the Arab civilization.

I was intrigued with this review because I had become acquainted with Sa’eed Nasheed’s thought about the Qur’an in 2010 after reading his essay: What is the Qur’an?  I wrote a review of that essay at the time; and reading Mr. Ghazal’s current review of this latest offering by Mr. Nasheed, lead me to the conclusion that he is still thinking about his subject and amplifying and refining the conclusions he had reached in his former essay.  Khaled Ghazal is to be commended for so faithfully conveying Nasheed’s thoughts.

Analysis

Mr. Nasheed sets forth two important theses: First, while he accepts the Qur’an as divine revelation, he rejects the commonly accepted view that the sacred Arabic text is to be equated with Allah’s very words. Rather, the divine revelation was “filtered” through Muhammad’s personality.

Second, the author offers a narrow and limited concept of Islam, namely that it consists “in the call for “Tawhid” (Strict unity of Allah) and the adoption of an ethic of love and tolerance.” Nasheed denies that the role of revelation is to legislate laws; rather it functions as a guide “in the worship of Allah.” 

Comments

What exactly is the nature of the Qur’an one might ask?  One theory surfaced very early in the history of Islamic theology. In the 9th century A. D., the Mu’tazilites in Baghdad, advocated the “Createdness of the Qur’an.” Their view received the blessing and support of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, but was bitterly opposed by Imam Hanbal, (a leader of one of the Four Schools for the Interpretation of Shariah) who advocated the doctrine of the “Uncreatedness” of the Qur’an. As professor W. Montgomery Watt, of Edinburgh University put it:

“[The Mu’tazilites’] outstanding service to Islamic thought was the assimilation of a large number of Greek ideas and methods of arguments … The Greek ideas thus introduced by the Mu’tazilites came to dominate one great wing of Islamic theology, namely, rational or philosophical theology. Since the Mu’tazilites were regarded as heretics, however, by the Sunnites, their ideas and doctrines could not simply be taken over, but exercised an influence indirectly.” The Formative Period of Islamic Thought: Edinburgh University Press, 1973, pp. 249, 250)

Early in the past century, Taha Hussein, a graduate of al-Azhar University in Cairo, and the Sorbonne in Paris, wrote a critical work on pre-Islamic Arabic literature, which brought him into conflict with the religious authorities in Egypt.  They regarded his work as a threat to the integrity and uniqueness of the Qur’an as the very word of Allah. In his book, Hussein had pointed to similarities in the vocabulary and style between the Qur’an, and the rich poetic Arabic literature of the days of “Al-Jahiliyya,” a term reserved by Muslim historiographers for pre-Islamic times, which literally means “The Days of Ignorance.” Orthodox Muslim teaching insists that the Qur’an is unique, not only in its divine origin, but equally in the very words of the text. For anyone to connect in any way Arabic poetry from the “Days of Ignorance”, written by mere mortals, to their holy book, was offensive and seen as a threat to orthodoxy.

Following World War II, some young Muslims, who went abroad for their higher education, were heavily influenced by Marxist and secularist ideologies. Jalal Sadeq al-Adhm, a member of a prominent Damascus Sunni family, published in 1969 “Naqd al Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought). Unlike the reformers of the 19th century who sought the modernization of Islam, he attacked the sacred texts of all theistic religions. This marked the beginning of a new genre of writings by Muslim intellectuals who called for radical reappraisal of their religious and cultural heritage. Al-Adhm got the attention of governmental authorities in Beirut, Lebanon with his Marxist ideology and criticism of theistic religions, particularly Islam. They sought to forbid the publication of his book. Al-Adhm, who at that time was teaching at the American University of Beirut, succeeded to clear himself of the charges that were brought against him. His book was eventually published in Lebanon.

With the advent of the Internet, several Arabic-language websites now facilitate the publication of critical articles that escape the shackles of governmental censorship. Articles and essays are posted on such subjects as the “Need for a New Hermeneutics” of the Qur’an.  So it was that in 2010 Nasheed was able to publish his essay “What Is the Qur’an?”

It is rather surprising, to say the least, that a publishing House in Beirut, Lebanon, has now published, “Modernity and the Qur’an.” Even the name of the publishers, Dar al-Tanweer (House of Enlightenment) indicates its avant-garde outlook. Despite the turbulent political environment in Lebanon, it is good to see Dar al-Tanweer publishing a book on such a sensitive theme!

By juxtaposing the “Qur’an with Modernity,” the author set forth a very important thesis: “Unless a revised view of the nature of Revelation is adopted by Muslims, they would never be able to adapt to Modernity.” Such a revised view requires nothing less than jettisoning the notion that every word in the original Arabic text of the Qur’an, is literally, a divine speech. On the other hand, if the belief in the “Uncreatedness of the Qur’an” is maintained, there can be no choice but to accept the historical view of Orthodox Islam that the text is eternal and cannot be revised, or re-interpreted.

Unlike Al-Adhm whose adherence to Marxist ideology remains much alive with its total rejection of theism, Mr. Nasheed, like many previous reformers, is pleading with his contemporaries to realize that maintaining the traditional view of the Qur’an will hold Muslims captive to an irrational and obscurantist worldview. By allowing the human factor to play a role in Revelation, and limiting its scope, he would like his contemporaries to reflect on his modest proposal. His concern is very real, since the number of young Muslims leaving Islam, and adopting unbelief is growing rapidly.

My reflections on this subject are based on my faith in the final authority of the Bible which I believe is a necessary belief for any Christian. Sa’eed Nasheed’s book offers a radical concept of “Wahy,” (Revelation.) Other than stating that Muhammad’s original mission was to announce and defend the Oneness of Allah, he hardly dealt with the doctrine of Allah. While one would not expect him to write an entire book on Theology, yet the importance of the doctrine cannot be overstated.

As I pointed out earlier, the view of the “Un-Createdness of the Qur’an” prevailed eventually; Imam Hanbal was released from incarceration, and the whole affair known as “Mihnat al-Qur’an” (The Ordeal of the Qur’an) was settled. The only way Muslim theologians could maintain that the doctrine did not contradict the Oneness of Allah was to resort to a concept known as “Bila Shabah,” (No Similarity). The term means that Allah is the “Wholly Other.” His attributes are incommunicable. Thus, the Biblical doctrine of Man being created in the image of God and after his likeness[viii] becomes unthinkable to Muslims. On the other hand, it meant that a Muslim can never know Allah; he or she, can know Allah’s will as revealed in the Qur’an. The relation between Allah and a believer is that of a Master to a slave (‘abd) which explains the multiplicity of names in which the term ‘abd forms the first part of a man’s name such as ‘Abdul-Allah, ‘Abdul-Ilah; ‘Abdul-Karim, etc.

The lack of the possibility of a closer fellowship with Allah, led some serious Muslim intellectuals to unbelief (Ilhad). This was the case of the Saudi scholar, Abdallah al-Quseimi!  He began his intellectual career as a defender of the faith, but died an unbeliever! One Arab writer offered this startling comment: “Islam possesses a unique impulse that makes it the most likely religion to cause unbelief. For several other religions contain the promise of an eschatological salvation at the end of time, as in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. However, in Islam, there is no place or room for a Savior.” http://www.unashamedofthegospel.org/faith-to-unbelief.cfm

Sa’eed Nasheed’s “Modernity and the Qur’an” has offered a solution to the very serious problem that besets Islam, namely its inability to cope with Modernity. The Caliphate Movement’s (Da’esh) success in occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq, the civil wars raging in Libya and Yemen, are just two concrete examples of this serious malaise in Daru’l Islam. Unfortunately, there is little hope that his proposal will find acceptance. The past, with all its unresolved doctrinal issues and schisms, still weighs heavy on a civilization that seems to be unable to break its shackles, and chart a new course that will insure peace and prosperity for its peoples, as well as for the rest of the world.  

 

[i] On 12 September 2010 www.alawan.org posted an essay entitled “What Is the Qur’an?”  ما هو القرآن؟  written by Sa’eed Nasheed, a Moroccan intellectual which dealt with the nature and authority of the Qur’an for our times. http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/madany/what_is_quran.html

Five years later, Mr. Nasheed dealt with the same subject in the book under consideration

[ii] The Islamic doctrine of wahy is quite different from the Biblical view of revelation. In Islam, the prophet is totally passive as he receives the divine message in the form of a Kitab (Book) that “descends” on him.  His unique role is to deliver message.

[iii] According to Islamic historiographers, it was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan the third Caliph, who ordered that only one copy of the Qur’an be preserved and the rest be destroyed.  This explains why the Arabic text is usually known as ‘Uthman’s Qur’an.

[iv] The author of the Review enumerated 17 grammatical mistakes that have been discovered in the Qur’an. Since the Arabic language is constructed quite differently from Indo-European languages, it’s impossible for me to translate those grammatical errors as there is nothing in English, or French (languages I’m familiar with) that is comparable with Arabic grammar and syntax. For example, all Arabic words are traced back to a tri-literal verb in the past tense, which when conjugated according to a standard scale, yield words with different meanings.

[v] Al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem is an important term that denotes the Right Path leading to eternal bliss in Paradise promised to all believers in Allah and his Apostle (Muhammad). It appears in the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatiha (The Exordium) in the form of a petition addressed to Allah for his indispensable guidance.

[vi] Qur’an 3:19 “The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His Will)” Translation of Yusuf Ali                            “The true religion with God is Islam.” Translation of A. J. Arberry  It is interesting that Muslim interpreters of the Qur’an (most are non-Arabs) endeavor to soften the meaning of the Ayah by rendering “Islam” as “Submission” I’m thankful that Arberry gives the text exactly what it means to anyone with an “Arab ear,” I translate the text as: “The only acceptable religion with Allah is Islam”

[vii] You are the best nation ever brought forth to men” 3:105

[viii] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)