Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd: A Theologian Confronting Hijackers of the Quran
Mohammed Hashas 10 September 2015

Abu Zayd adopts a literary-critical reading of the Islamic sacred text in light of modern discourse analysis tools (semiology, hermeneutics, linguistics, stylistics and science of narration).[1] Initially, he reads the Quran as “text” – before he considers it later a “discourse” about the “meaning of life.” The Quran becomes like any produced text and the available devices of analysis can be projected on it. Like Arkoun, he differentiates between the divinity of the Quranic moment of revelation, and the Quran as compiled in the Musḥaf [i.e. compiled in a book format, after it had been memorized orally and preserved in the hearts of believers].[2] Because of its oral originality, the Quranic discourse is then polyphonic, and not monophonic; and this makes of it open to various interpretations. More, Abu Zayd speaks of (six) axioms that impact the production and dissemination of knowledge. The idea of the axioms is that knowledge, through the production of texts, cannot be isolated from its linguistic and socio-political contours that form them. Subsequently, he differentiates between two main texts, the Quranic text, which is “primary,” and the Sunna text, “which is secondary.” The latter explains the former. But since the latter (Sunna) is itself explained and expounded upon by scholarly jurists and commentators that came after the Prophet, then by implication this impacts the first text as well, i.e. the Quranic text.[3]

Abu Zayd grounds his approach in the idea that there is no innocent text. In Reformation of Islamic Thought (2006), he says, “Studying the history and methodology of classical exegesis, I became aware of the fact that there is neither an objective, nor an innocent interpretation.”[4] This made him realize that “the Qur’an became a battlefield for the adversaries to situate their political, social and theological positions.”[5] This means that the hermeneutical devices used by various early Islamic scholars move from being a mere “textual authority” that the “text” establishes epistemologically to a socio-political authority that controls and influences. It moves from being a mere process of knowledge production, an epistemic basis for thought, to a political force of power.

After having considered the Quran a text to be analyzed as a literary “text,” he, around 2002-2004, moves to considering it a “discourse” that has horizontal, and not only vertical, dimensions in society; i.e. it moves from being a text from God-individual relations (vertical relation) to involve more agents and intermediaries in society, and becomes horizontal, a relation like God-society-individual. This he explains in Thinking in the Time of Excommunication:

“Because of this, we differentiate between “the texts” [and its epistemic authority] and authority, which is enforced by the human mind, not emanated from the text itself. And because of this, the call for “freedom for the authority of the texts” is in reality a call for freedom from absolute authority and overall reference of thought, which exerts coercion, hegemony and control when it imposes on texts meanings and connotations outside of time, space, circumstances and context.”[6]

Such advances on the Quran, especially when first considered as a text, forced Abu Zayd to leave his country, Egypt, to the Netherlands, in 1995, where he exiled himself and researched till he left this life. Some scholars opposed his views, accused him of apostasy, and appealed to divorce him from his wife, Dr Ibtihal Younis, because an apostate or unbeliever cannot be married to a Muslim woman! His reading of the sacred text was considered a case of apostasy; his faith was doubted, forcefully interfered into, though his scholarly endeavour was an examination of interpretations, and not faith per se that he himself defended as enriching to human beings.

If textual analysis bases itself on demarcating the canonization processes of the Quranic and Sunna texts, discourse analysis of the Quran goes further than that. It has direct impacts on society, instead of remaining a more abstract/ textual analysis. Quran as discourse targets “open, democratic, humanistic hermeneutics,” says Abu Zayd, because the Quran is about the “meaning of life.” To understand this meaning, its horizontal dimensions as lived and expressed in daily life have to be examined.[7] It happened in its early period and it has to be revived, “remembered”; the Quran is not only a text, but a discourse that engages in debate, argues, accepts, and refuses. It can cope with modernity and face its challenges. This Muslims have to do, to “rethink the Quran,” “without relinquishing their spiritual power.”[8]

Having approached the tradition from textual analysis lenses, Abu Zayd says that he does not aim at de-sacralizing the divine. Rather, since the tradition was developed by human interpretation, following rigorous hermeneutical devices that served the purpose in the past, he now calls for doing the same in light of the new socio-political changes and scientific and analytical human advancements. “Such a call for freedom doesn’t stand upon discarding religion or its texts, but it stands upon understanding religious texts a scientific understanding.”[9]

In his approach, late Abu Zayd[10], like Mohammed Arkoun, is considered to be radical in his epistemological stand towards the tradition. There is no doubt that a clear epistemological break transpires with the tradition in his humanistic and hermeneutical approach. This epistemological break does not go so far as to break ties with the divine – at least not directly. It just gives much space to a human responsible manoeuvre for the empowerment of reason over mimicry, liberty over oppression, social justice over injustice. He agrees in his interpretation with the Mu´tazila: “I believe that in order to make sense of the Qur’an, we need to understand the text metaphorically rather than literally. I also believe that it is essential to interpret the text by taking into account the social-cultural context in which it was received.”[11] This said, Abu Zayd never doubted his belief in Islam. His criticism of the tradition is not degrading or condescending. It is for renewed confidence in this faith. In an interview he says:

“I am sure that I am a Muslim. My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I am not. I am not a new Salman Rushdie, and don’t want to be welcomed and treated as such. I am a researcher, critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Qur’an as a nass (text) given by God to the Prophet Muhammad.”[12]

Re-reading the fundamental divine text of the Quran through new hermeneutical devices has been opened as a scholarly stage among contemporary Islamic scholars, unlike the early Arab Renaissance (Nahda) scholars who were busy with more political contestations and liberation movements during the colonial era. The divinity of the message (i.e. Revelation) is not questioned, but their wording is (i.e. Scripture). This contributes to a radical epistemological shift in Islamic thought, and may open very creative pathways for the coming generations that seek change from within their own tradition.

Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome


[1]Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, annaṣ, assulta, al-ḥaqîqa [Text, Authority, and Truth] 2nd ed. (Beirut and Casablanca, 1997) 8.

[2]Abu Zayd, Rethinking the Quran: towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics (Utrecht: Humanistics UP, 2004) 12-14

[3]Regarding the six axioms, see his attafkīr fi zamani attafkīr [Thinking in the Time of Excommunication] 3rd ed. (Cairo: Madbouli, 1995) 133-135.

[4]Abu Zayd, Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006) 93

[5] Ibid.

[6]Abu Zayd, Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, 138.

[7]Abu Zayd, Rethinking the Quran, 9-12.

[8]Ibid., 62-63.

[9]Abu Zayd Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, 146.

[10]I say “late Abu Zayd” to mean especially the phase since 2002-2004, when he moves from reading the Quran as a literary “text” to a “discourse” that has horizontal impact.

[11]Abu Zayd, and Ester R. Nelson, Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam (Westport, CT: Praeger Publ., 2004) 3-4.

[12] Fred Dallmayr,Opening the Doors of Ijtihad,” Monday, 13 June 2011.