Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 November 2007
Issue No. 871
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of hermeneutics and reform

In New York, Hala Halim attends a talk by Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid

Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid

Despite the talk being an hour late starting, the audience, largely Middle Eastern, patiently remained in the small auditorium of Alwan for the Arts, an Arab cultural centre founded in New York in 1998. The stature of the lecturer, Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, as one of the most innovative and theoretical Islamic thinkers, in addition, sadly, to the aura of exile that surrounds him, warranted the wait that evening of 8 November when Ahmed Issawi, an Egyptian who co-founded Alwan, announced that the speaker had been delayed at the airport.

There is no need to rehearse in great detail the circumstances of Abu Zeid's exile -- the case that had preoccupied the public since 1993, when his application for promotion to the post of professor in the Arabic Department at Cairo University was rejected on account of the perceived affront his publications presented to Islam, a decision later reversed in 1995, as well as the lawsuit brought against him by Islamist lawyers, accusing him of apostasy and demanding that he be divorced from his wife, Ibtihal Younis, a professor of French literature, which was upheld by the Court of Cassation in 1996, with the couple having meanwhile moved to the Netherlands.

The furore that surrounded the affair and the many sympathetic voices, both at home and abroad, that condemned the proceedings did not have any impact on the course of events, although the hisba law in question was to be subsequently changed in response to the case. The "Abu Zeid affair" had taken place at a time of apathy in Egyptian civil society: compare the mid-1990s to 2005, with the activism and civil rights campaigning that came to the fore in the buildup to the presidential elections that year, and that continue apace. The most relevant example here is the 9 March Group with branches at different Egyptian state universities campaigning for the end of all forms of state security interventions and defending freedom of opinion in the academy -- although whether this and other groups could have had an impact on the course of events in the Abu Zeid case is, of course, a matter of speculation.

I had first heard Abu Zeid speak at a conference on "Discrimination and Tolerance in the Middle East" organised by Orient-Institut Beirut and the Lebanese American University in May, in which we were both participating. While the Beirut talk was more academic and philological, the New York one addressed to a broader constituency, in both cases Abu Zeid spoke without recourse to his written notes, with the eloquent extemporisation that comes with authority. The New York talk was mainly culled from the project that has preoccupied Abu Zeid these past years, published in 2006 in book form under the title Reformation of Islamic Thought (the text can be downloaded at: www.alwanforthearts.org).

Situating the project of that book as a riposte to the current representation of Islam in the West as "monolithic," having "no compatibility with modern values," and amenable to terrorism, Abu Zeid cited three aims that motivated him. First, he sought to demonstrate that there is no single Islam, and that Muslim societies are very diverse, the religion having adapted to the heterogeneous environments in the lands that the Arabs conquered, with Muslims sharing certain core ethics and tenets but little else. Second, the project aimed to bring out the process of reform that had swept the Muslim world in the nineteenth century and was still ongoing. Finally, he had wanted to assess what had been accomplished by reformist thought.

Whereas in the early centuries of Islam, Abu Zeid posited, there were many dimensions to the religion, Sharia being only one, the version of the religion that survived since the twelfth century was the legalistic, Sharia-oriented one. The speaker then went on to trace the historical shifts in the status accorded the four core foundational sources for Muslim jurists -- the Quran, the sunna (the prophetic Tradition), ijma' (consensus) and ijtihad, initially in this hierarchical order -- eliciting the process whereby later generations of jurists canonised sunna as divine.

In the early modern period, "Europe was the mirror that showed that something had gone wrong"; hence the trope that echoed in Islamic reformist thought, to the effect that "we who have been the masters of the world" have now become "weak and vulnerable to colonialism". The 19th-century reformists, such as Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, "denied Islam's responsibility" and placed the blame on "our misunderstanding of it." Their approach to rethinking Islam, Abu Zeid continued, was a return to the ancestors in Islamic thought, and though he expressed reservations about this generation of reformists, he conceded that they had achieved the rejection of ijma' and had undermined the authority invested in the sunna, though the Quran continued to be seen as the "verbatim utterance of God." A later generation, he added, moved away from the claim that Islam had been misunderstood, to suggest that the problem was that "we are not Muslims any more."

Taking a swipe at the "utopian" dream of returning to a "pure" society of Islam -- one unsullied by history, this seen as "a domain of corruption" -- "that actually did not exist," Abu Zeid suggested that, in contrast, the thrust of his own work is to demonstrate that the Quran is a "process of communication between the divine and the human." The Quran, he continued, had taken some 23 years "until it was accumulated," and constitutes a dialogue between the divine and the human, one where debate and conflict resound among "so many voices." Hence his undertaking a new study of the Quran which would reveal its richness and the many options it holds that "have been reduced in the history of theology to one simple option" in the construal of God. In what can serve as a coda to much of his work, Abu Zeid claimed that "if you choose one dimension of God, you ignore the rest," and that this selectiveness leads to a situation where you are open to counter-arguments and where "only the powerful will win."

There were, he elaborated, verses about equality, just as there were ones about inequality. To demonstrate, he cited the debate centering on the verse about beating wives (see Quran 4:34) and the "good intentions among [certain] feminists." Abu Zeid was clearly referring to Islamic feminists, specifically Amina Wadud (see the section entitled "Riffat Hassan and Others: Feminist Hermeneutics" in Reformation of Islamic Thought ). In her Qur'an and Woman (1999), one should mention, Wadud had addressed the verse concerning wives' disobedience and commented on the third option given there, which uses the verb daraba ("to beat"). She argued that there are other collocations of the verb where it does not carry this denotation and that in view of the "excessive violence towards women indicated in the biographies of the Companions and by practices condemned in the Qur'an (like female infanticide), this verse should be taken as prohibiting unchecked violence against females. Thus, this is not permission, but a severe restriction of existing practices." Abu Zeid's comments on Islamic feminism also reminded me of Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American woman who, in her translation published earlier this year, The Sublime Quran, renders the verb as "go away from them," a decision she made when, perusing Edward Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, she came across that option among the list of definitions, as she explained in an interview published in The New York Times on 25 March 2007.

For Abu Zeid, whereas the denotation of the verb daraba shifted in various other usages and collocations, in this context it was unambiguous. At the Beirut conference where he also referred to this controversy, he had argued that every text "has its boundaries of readability," and that while there is room for manipulation, that should not be without reason. Last Thursday, he offered that "on the level of the relationship between the divine and the human," that is the "vertical level," there is "equality," but on the horizontal, "social level there is inequality." Hence the context was all-important, and if it was about divorce, then one needed to take into account "the social institutions of the Quran." What was now needed was "a revolution in theology, to reopen these questions that have been frozen." This was happening in Iran and other non-Arab Muslim countries, he suggested, but "not among the Arabs" who were now "minority Muslims"; and while Arabic theological texts are still being translated into other languages used in Muslim countries, no translations have been made from Turkish or Farsi into Arabic.

Among several questions asked in the discussion that followed, one cited Islamic movements and their political and ideological cohesiveness, enquiring where, in the picture of diversity that he had painted, Abu Zeid would factor in the ongoing phenomenon of unification. The scholar responded that "any ideology can be globalised," that terrorism, not just the Al-Qaida brand, exists everywhere, and that around the same time, "two religious states, Israel and Pakistan, were created with the help of secular Europe." The remedy, he contended, was to empower civil society organisations and groups.

Another member of the audience, citing the work of Edward Said and his followers, posited that the reformers may have "internalised Orientalism" in subscribing to the notion that Islam is backward. The lecturer conceded that the reformers had accepted the backwardness thesis, but whereas the Orientalists had identified Islam as the disease, the reformers construed Muslims as the disease and went on to create an "Islam that is idealised." Making reference to the "Islamisation of knowledge" whereby religious roots are adduced for modern Western science in the process of its appropriation, he observed that Muslims in the modern world have been recipients not producers of knowledge.

Citing an article by Abu Zeid on the reformist movement published in Al-Hilal monthly magazine in the early 1990s, one attendee enquired what had changed in the scholar's project in the intervening 15 years. Abu Zeid answered that while he had, earlier, invited scholars to read the Quran as text, using the most advanced procedures of textual analysis available beyond the confines of theological knowledge, in the past 10 years he had changed tack. He had rejected "'text' since text means 'author,' one in full authority of the text." But one would have thought that "text," in its poststructuralist and deconstructive formulations, enables the task of undermining notions of authorship. Then again, the reception of poststructuralism remains vexed in the Arab world, the more extreme reactions to the books that bear Abu Zeid's name and to their "author" being themselves symptomatic in this respect. In place of "text," Abu Zeid was now using "discourse": "I am planning to devote the rest of my life working on how to do discourse analysis of the Quran." It was a task, he noted, that required "a whole team" to carry out, but that he was undertaking single-handedly. He was, he concluded, hoping he would live long enough to accomplish that task.

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