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"Only by contextualising the Qur’an, can we arrive at its essential core

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    "Only by contextualising the Qur’an, can we arrive at its essential core

    HARDtalk: "Only by contextualising the Quran, can we arrive at its essential core..."

    Professor Nasr Abu Zaid, Egyptian Islamic scholar forced to leave the country

    We need to revisit fundamental theological concepts, which the Sunni ulama, by and large, have ignored
    Muslim societies cannot be reformed without theological reforms

    Nasr Abu Zaid, a renowned Egyptian scholar and former teacher at the Cairo University, is presently based in the Netherlands and is working at The International Institute of the Study of Islam in the Modern Muslim World (ISIM). He was forced to leave Egypt in 1995, after he was accused of apostasy for some of his writings, a charge he vehemently denied. The case made headlines in Egypt between 1993 and the time Zaid had to leave the country. The court of Cessation decreed in 1996 that Professor Zaid be separated from his wife, Professor Ibtihal Yunis because of the formers apostasy. Yoginder Sikand, a post-doctoral fellow at ISIM, interviewed him for Daily Times on issues related to Islam and human rights. Below are the excerpts:

    Daily Times: You have been writing on the question of human rights in Islam for a long time now. What are you presently working on?

    NAZ: I am presently working on a project called Rights at Home. The major concern of the project is to explore and develop the notion of the rights of women and children in Islam. The aim is to promote knowledge of the traditional sources of Islam, such as the Quran, the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet [PBUH] and fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], within Muslim communities so as to help promote general awareness of these rights. Alongside this, the project also seeks to critically look at aspects of tradition that might appear to militate against these rights. The project goes beyond mere research and seeks to actually engage and work with social activists working in different Muslim communities to promote womens and childrens rights within an Islamic paradigm. The work includes organising training programmes and developing printed, audio and visual material.

    DT: In the course of your work how do you relate to those aspects of the historical Islamic tradition that you think might be opposed to the notion of such rights?

    NAZ: Every tradition has both negative and positive aspects. The positive aspects are to be further developed, while the negative aspects need to be discussed closely, to see if they are indeed essential elements of the faith, or are simply human creations.

    DT: How does this work relate to what you have been previously engaged in?

    NAZ: I see it as part of my long interest in Islamic hermeneutics, the methodology of understanding the Quran, the Sunnah and other components of the Islamic tradition. Of particular concern for me are certain assumptions in popular Islamic discourse that have not been fully examined, and have generally been ignored or avoided. Thus, for instance, Muslim scholars have not seriously reflected on the question of what is actually meant when we say that the Quran is the revealed Word of God. What exactly does the term Word of God mean? What does revelation mean? We have the definitions of the Word and revelation given by the traditional ulama, but other definitions are also possible. When we speak of the Word of God are we speaking of a divine or a human code of communication? Is language a neutral channel of communication? Was the responsibility of the Prophet [PBUH] simply that of delivering the message, or did he have a role to play in the forming of that message? What relation does the Quran have with the particular social context in which it was revealed? We need to ask what it means for the faith Muslims have in the Quran if one brings in the issue of the human dimension involved in revelation.

    DT: Are you suggesting that the Quran cannot be understood without taking into account the particular social context of seventh century Arabia?

    NAZ: What I am suggesting is that in our reading of the Quran we cannot undermine the role of the Prophet [PBUH] and the historical and cultural premises of the times and the context of the Quranic revelation. When we say that through the Quran God spoke in history we cannot neglect the historical dimension, the historical context of seventh century Arabia. Otherwise you cannot answer the question of why God first spoke Hebrew through his revelations to the prophets of Israel, then Aramaic, through Jesus, and then Arabic, in the form of the Quran.

    In a historical understanding of the Quran one would also have to look at the verses in the text that refer specifically to the Prophet [PBUH] and the society in which he lived. Some people might feel that looking at the Quran in this way is a crime against Islam, but I feel that this sort of reaction is a sign of a weak and vulnerable faith. And this is why a number of writers who have departed from tradition and have pressed for a way of relating to the Quran that takes the historical context of the revelation seriously have been persecuted in many countries. I think there is a pressing need to bring the historical dimension of the revelation into discussion, for this is indispensable for countering authoritarianism, both religious and political, and for promoting human rights.

    DT: Could you give an example of how a historically grounded reading of the Quran could help promote human rights?

    NAZ: Take, for instance, the question of chopping off the hands of thieves, which traditionalists would insist be imposed as an Islamic punishment today. A historically nuanced understanding of the Islamic tradition would see this form of punishment as a borrowing from pre-Islamic Arabian society, and as rooted in a particular social and historical context. Hence, doing away with this form of punishment today would not, one could argue, be tantamount to doing away with Islam itself. By thus contextualising the Quran, one could arrive at its essential core, which could be seen as being normative for all times, shifting it from what could be regarded as having been relevant to a historical period and context that no longer exists.

    DT: If one were to take history seriously, how would a contextual, historically grounded understanding of the Quran reflect on Islamic theology as it has come to be developed?

    NAZ: As I see it, Sunni Muslim theology has remained largely frozen in its ninth century mould, as developed by the conservative Asharites. We need to revisit fundamental theological concepts today, which the Sunni ulama, by and large, have ignored, for there can be no reform possible in Muslim societies without reform in theology. Till now, however, most reform movements in the Sunni world have operated from within the broad framework of traditional theology, which is why they have not been able to go very far.

    DT: How would this new understanding of theology that you propose reflect on the issue of inter-faith relations?

    NAZ: When I suggest that we need to reconsider what exactly is meant by saying that the Quran is the Word of God, I mean Muslims must also remember that the Quran itself insists that the Word of God cannot be limited to the Quran alone. A verse in the Quran says that if all the trees in the world were pens and all the water in the seas were ink, still they could not, put together, adequately exhaust the Word of God. The Quran, therefore, represents only one manifestation of the absolute Word of God. Other Scriptures represent other manifestations as well. Then again, many Sufis saw the whole universe as a manifestation of the Word of God. But, today, few Muslim scholars are taking the need for inter-faith dialogue with the seriousness that it deserves. Most Muslim writers are yet to free themselves from a rigid, imprisoning chauvinism.

    DT: How does this way of reading the Quran deal with the multiple ways in which the text can be understood and interpreted?

    NAZ: The Quran, like any other text, can be read in different ways, and there has always been a plurality of interpretations. The text does not stand alone. Rather, it has to be interpreted, in order to arrive at its meaning, and interpretation is a human exercise and no interpreter is infallible. As Imam Ali says, the Quran does not speak by itself, but, rather, through human beings. True, Muslims from all over the world, do share certain rituals and beliefs in common, but their understanding of what Islam and the Quran are all about differ considerably. It is for us to help develop new ways of understanding Islam that can promote human rights, while at the same time being firmly rooted in the faith.

    How can a man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the Temple of his Gods?

    zaak when koran says "disbleiver"
    does it mean the local idolators in mecca
    or any body prying to idols inthis solar
    and the other unkonown solar systems?




      You have been on this forum long enough, and I'm sure you know exactly what type of 'Idolator' is refered to in the above discourse.

      It's about time you started to ask constructive questions, rather than fatal attraction fetish related parrot ramblings!

      Sorry for the honesty, but someones got to tell you.

      See ya!


        Originally posted by Zakk:

        DT: Could you give an example of how a historically grounded reading of the Quran could help promote human rights?

        NAZ: Take, for instance, the question of chopping off the hands of thieves, which traditionalists would insist be imposed as an Islamic punishment today. A historically nuanced understanding of the Islamic tradition would see this form of punishment as a borrowing from pre-Islamic Arabian society, and as rooted in a particular social and historical context.
        Is "chopping off hand" a punishment prescribed in Quran?

        May Allah SWT guide us all towards right and help us follow the right


          Originally posted by Changez_like:
          Is "chopping off hand" a punishment prescribed in Quran?

          I think the following verse is what is being referred to, but I am not a scholar. I do not know arabic. To me the instructions appear clear and direct. I think Human rights and stuff is really waffling. If we believe then the instructions appear quite direct and clear. If direct instructions like these can be changed by setting them in historical context then I am not sure if there is any instruction left that cannot be changed.

          YUSUFALI: As to the thief, Male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power.
          PICKTHAL: As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.
          SHAKIR: And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands as a punishment for what they have earned, an exemplary punishment from Allah; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.

          YUSUFALI: But if the thief repents after his crime, and amends his conduct, Allah turneth to him in forgiveness; for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
          PICKTHAL: But whoso repenteth after his wrongdoing and amendeth, lo! Allah will relent toward him. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
          SHAKIR: But whoever repents after his iniquity and reforms (himself), then surely Allah will turn to him (mercifully); surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

          [This message has been edited by OldLahori (edited August 05, 2002).]