Who Will Protect the Koran from Itself?: Reformist Islam after Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

Analysis, posted 07.09.2011, from Germany, in:
Who Will Protect the Koran from Itself?: Reformist Islam after Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (Photo: picture alliance)

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.

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Angela Schader, Translated by Charlotte Collins

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