Opening the Doors of Ijtihad
Fred Dallmayr, University of Notre Dame 13 June 2011

Interpretation is sometimes greatly under-rated or under-valued; frequently it is seen as a mere method or subordinate tool of research. This view is seriously mistaken – as I shall try to show here mainly with regard to religious faith. As we know, the so-called “Abrahamic religions” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are based in large measure on divine revelation, that is, on a message reaching human beings from “another sore.” In the case of Islam, the Qur’an is even considered by most pious Muslims as the direct and unmediated “word” of God. Nor is this assumption restricted to the three cited world religions. In the case of Hinduism, the Vedic scriptures are called “shruti,” that is, a message transmitted to, and “heard” by, ancient sages and seers. Probably, a similar assumption also prevails in many other traditions of religious belief.

For agnostics or radical secularists, the notion of divine revelation or inspiration is devoid of sense, because for them all meaning is humanly constructed or fabricated. I do not share this agnostic view (most famously articulated by Ludwig Feuerbach), but rather take seriously the possibility of a divine message or revelation. The point I want to raise here, however, is that divine revelation – no matter how elevated or “transcendent” – cannot operate without, and in effect would misfire in the absence of, interpretation. Put differently: confronted with a divine message, human beings have to be able to see themselves as genuine addressees and hence to make sense of the message in their lives. Otherwise the message simply goes astray. This means that, in order to make sense, human beings have to be able to relate the divine message to their “framework of significance” (Charles Taylor), their “pre-understandings” (Gadamer), or their ongoing “language game” (Wittgenstein). In order to live, human beings have to understand – at least dimly what is happening, and this understanding is provided by their concrete life-context and customary vocabulary.

This does not mean, of course, that vocabularies and language games cannot be expanded, that frames of significance cannot be broadened or deepened. The very idea of “learning” depends on such expansion. However, where the frame of significance is stretched to the breaking point, beyond any form of intelligibility, the presumed message becomes gibberish and, in fact, a mode of external imposition or violence. In its genuine sense, divine revelation never moves to this breaking point, or beyond the frame of possible human meaning. This point is powerfully illustrated by the words of Moses when he promulgated the divine commandments (Deuteronomy 30:11): “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor is it far off. It is not up in heaven, that you might say: ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us so that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you might say: ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us so that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it.” The same point is also illustrated by the name “Israel” which Jacob received after wrestling with the angel of God (Genesis 32:28); for he could not have wrestled with God if God was utterly “transcendent” or unreachable. Being named Israel means that Jacob’s life had been transformed through the human-divine encounter.

Now, it is important to note that in the divine-human encounter not only human beings are transformed (their understanding deepened and enlarged), but that also the meaning of the divine is transformed: from a magical idol or shibboleth into a personally experienced God (or divine presence). This means that the divine has been powerfully re-interpreted and re-thought. As a result, the interpreter is no longer a target of external (possibly clerical) control or manipulation, but he/she becomes a partner or participant in the transmission of the divine message. In the language of the Christian/Protestant Reformation, interpretation undercuts the exclusive privilege of a priestly elite, making room instead for the “universal priesthood” of believers. Differently put: religious faith is humanized and democratized. Hence the strong opposition of both religious and political elites to the freedom of interpretation.

Seen against this background, interpretation is clearly not merely a subordinate tool. As shown in the development of Western (Latin) Christianity, interpretation – together with the translation of Scripture into vernacular idioms – has functioned as a powerful agency of religious, social and political reform. As we also know, such reform has been stubbornly resisted by conservative or orthodox religious authorities. Nowhere is resistance more unyielding than in the case of Islam where – according to many observers – the “doors of “ijtihad” have officially been closed for some 700 years. As it happens, the contemporary period – for a number of reasons – has witnessed and is witnessing determined efforts to prey open again these doors of ijtihad and thus to re-establish a more fruitful human-divine encounter. At this point, I want to draw attention chiefly to two leading Muslim protagonists who sadly have passed away this year (2010): Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Muhammed Abed al-Jabri. In a way, my comments are meant as a memorial tribute to these thinkers.

1. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with both thinkers. In the case of Abu Zayd, our last meeting occurred in May of this year in Italy, about two months before his death (on July 5, 2010). What struck me then again was his genuine friendliness and open-hearted disposition. During a leisurely stroll in Pisa, near the famous “leaning tower,” he told me some episodes of his difficult life journey (with which I was only partially familiar). In a way, his life resembled the Pisa tower, by being rooted or anchored in one place (his native Egypt), but leaning in a different direction (northern Europe). Yet, despite dislocations and disruptions, his personal disposition reflected a sense of equilibrium, balance and serenity which I found touching and admirable. Abu Zayd was born in July of 1943 in a small town not too far from Cairo. As a teenager he was once arrested and imprisoned for allegedly sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood; but this seems to have been just a youthful escapade (moreover, it was the time of secular nationalism). In secondary school he received some technical training which enabled him, after graduation, to work briefly for the National Communications Organization in Cairo. In 1968 he entered Cairo University where he obtained his B.A. degree in Arabic Studies (1972) and his MA in Islamic Studies (1977). His Master’s thesis dealt with the role of exegesis in Islam (ta’wil). Following the completion of this thesis he went to America for a year (1978-1979) in order to learn more about exegesis or interpretation.

This moment in Abu Zayd’s life is important because it marks a crucial intellectual encounter. Its significance is vividly captured in an interview published in (a link designed for Islamic journalists). In the exchange, the interviewers remind Abu Zayd that, at that time, he was looking for an English equivalent for the term “ta’wil” and that Hassan Hanafi in Cairo had proposed to him the term “hermeneutics.” They ask him: “Did you then know about hermeneutics and about Hans-Georg Gadamer [the chief philosopher of hermeneutics]?” Abu Zayd: “Not at all; even the word ‘hermeneutics’ was unfamiliar to me.”[i] Once in America, Abu Zayd launched into an intensive study of hermeneutics and, at this point, eagerly read Gadamer’s Truth and Method; he also studied works of Paul Ricoeur, Martin Heidegger – as well as Ibn Arabi. His inquires led him to the strong conviction of the interrelatedness of religious, philosophical and cultural traditions – a conviction, of course, fully shared by Gadamer and Ricoeur. As he eloquently states in that interview: “Arabic-Islamic philosophy cannot be understood in isolation of Greek, Indian and Persian philosophy. It is impossible to separate them and to speak of a purely Islamic philosophy, insulated from external influences.” Perhaps the central point Abu Zayd derived from his study of hermeneutics was the inevitable connection between the meaning of a text and the position or understanding capacity of the interpreter. Here is his crucial formulation:

«Is it possible to grasp the ‘objective’ historical meaning of a text? Or is the process of textual understanding intrinsically connected with the role of the interpreter? This is the core question of hermeneutics. And it is precisely this question which – in different formulations – permeates the Arabic-Islamic tradition, ever since the beginning of Qur’anic interpretation and of ta’wil. Thus, the guiding question of the Mu’tazilites was: Is it possible to understand the divine meaning of the Qur’an without having a pre-understanding of justice or the unity of God? If we approach the Qur’anic text starting from the presumption of its divine nature but without having an intelligible pre-understanding of divine truth, how can we know that this text is not a lie or falsehood??»

According to Abu Zayd, this question agitated not only the Mu’tazilites, but also Ibn Rushd and – in a different way – Ibn Arabi. For the guiding question of Ibn Arabi was the question of God’s “being” or existence. Thus, he asked: “Does God have an objective being which exists independently of us? Or is being the fruit of the interaction between the so-called divine and the human intelligence?” This question, Abu Zayd adds, is obviously a philosophical one and “brings us back to Heidegger and his understanding of ‘being’.” Does the latter have independent, “objective” status outside the range of human understanding? This is also the question of Ibn Arabi who asks about the relation between text and world, or text and being. For Ibn Arabi, “the Qur’an is the word of God written down in a book; but ‘being’ or existence is God’s word more broadly, or His existential word.” Hence, the theory of (textual) knowledge becomes for Ibn Arabi the theory of the understanding of being. “Is there not,” Abu Zayd asks, “an affinity – not an identity but an affinity – between the question of Ibn Arabi and the question of being and its understanding in Heidegger’s work, and also in that of Gadamer??”

In the same context, Abu Zayd also raises the issue of cultural-religious “tradition” and its continuing significance today. Together with Gadamer, Abu Zayd treats tradition not as the “dead-hand” of the past smothering all creative thought, but rather precisely as a recessed and never fully exhausted resource – a mode of our pre-understandings – whose significance needs to be constantly interpreted and re-interpreted in every generation anew. As he observes, a genuine tradition is that dimension of our inheritance which “reaches into the present and the future.” This view collides with a mindless “traditionalism” as well as with a Jacobin constructivism which claims to invent the present and future ex nihilo or ab ovo. Traditionalism claims that all the answers – objective and perennial answers – can be found in the past without further reflection, while constructivism pretends to be able to proceed without traditions and any pre-understandings. This conflict has played itself out in modern Western history (in the form of steadily intensifying “culture wars”); but it is not limited to the West. In Abu Zayd’s words: “I believe that this conflict still pervades contemporary Islamic thought. Here, a closer study of Gadamer’s work can perhaps help to define the intellectual problems more adequately, and thereby to contribute to their resolution (or at least mitigation).”

The discussed issues lead inevitably to the core question which I placed at the head of these pages: the relation between revelation and interpretation. Abu Zayd does not reject the notion of revelation, but he rejects its construal as a happening outside time and human understanding. “I do not believe,” he says firmly, “in the existence of texts outside of time – and I do it for religious reasons.” Some Muslims and ulema consider the Qur’an as a transtemporal text, a text which exists in God’s absolute and transcendent reason. Maybe so, but how can we have any access to this? In any case, lodged purely in God’s transcendence, we cannot yet speak of “revelation” which means an un-veiling and a communication. Now, it so happens that God chose to “reveal” his word “historically in the 7th century and in a specific language, namely, the Arabic, which had a prior history.” Thus, the Qur’an was revealed in history, in a culture and language. «Ever since He sent us prophets and His word, – Abu Zayd states – God Almighty decided to be historical. This was God’s decision, not mine. But if God decides to reveal Himself in history, how can I still claim that His revelation is not historical? Thus in the case of the Qur’an, I am dealing with a historical text, and ta’wil or the understanding of this ext is also historically conditioned. . . . Now, if God has wanted to be or (or reveal Himself) in history, how can I – a finite historical being – attempt to expel God from time??»

As one needs to add, as a historically contingent process, human interpretation can never be absolute or claim absolute correctness. Every text – including the Qur’an – is a fabric of multiple meanings, multiple discourses; hence interpretation is always multiple (as Gadamer has taught), without being arbitrary or relativistic (because it remains oriented toward the genuine meaning or meanings of a text or a textual revelation).

Le me return to the life story with which I began. Following his stay in America, Abu Zayd returned to Cairo University where he received his doctorate in 1981 with a thesis on Ibn Arabi. One year later he joined the faculty of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature where he first served as an assistant professor and, after 1987, as associate professor. From this time forward, Abu Zayd’s life entered its limping or “leaning tower” phase. In 1992, he started proceedings which, under normal circumstances, would have led to his promotion to full professor. By that time, he had already published 13 books, in Arabic and other languages, including Imam Shafi’i and the Founding of Medieval Ideology and The Critique of Religious Discourse. The Standing University Committee for Promotion was divided; but ultimately the voice of one prominent member prevailed: the voice which accused his work as containing “clear affronts to Islamic faith.” In March of 1993, the University Council confirmed the negative decision. But this was only the beginning of Abu Zayd’s troubles. A year later, legal action was brought against him for heresy or apostasy and still a year later, the Cairo Court of Appeals rendered a formal judgment against him. Being declared an apostate (murtadd), however, meant that he could no longer be legally married to a Muslim woman (in his case, the Professor of French Literature Dr. Ibtihal Younis); hence he was declared legally divorced. Although the Cairo University Council belatedly decided to reverse its earlier negative decision, for Abu Zayd this was too little and too late (especially since an Islamic Jihad organization threatened to kill him and his wife). In July 1995 the couple flew to Madrid and then proceeded from Spain to the Netherlands where he was welcomed as a visiting professor at the University of Leiden.

The bad turn of events in Abu Zayd’s life is shocking, but not unintelligible. First of all, it occurred during a period of intense clerical and political repression in Egypt: a period when Dr. Ahmed Mansour was dismissed from Al-Azhar University and when Naguib Mahfuz was stabbed in the neck by a radical Islamist. In Abu Zayd’s case, the reason was evident: his affirmation of taw’il and creative Qur’anic interpretation was a clear threat to religious and political autocracy. This could not be tolerated. Here it is important to remember that Abu Zayd did not issue this threat as an agnostic or a radical secular opponent of religious faith. He never considered himself an apostate or heretic. As he explained tellingly and eloquently in another interview:

«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.»[ii]

It is crucial here to note the difference. Abu Zayd’s aim was not to debunk or destroy Islam but rather to understand and re-interpret it – which is a much more difficult endeavor.

Abu Zayd’s life in exile was difficult – given his intense fondness of Egypt – but it was not without rewards in terms of public honors and scholarly acclaim. The decade he spent in Leiden (from 1995 to 2004) was marked by stellar academic achievements. During this time he published some of his most important books, such as Text, Authority, and Truth, Discourse and Hermeneutics, and Thus Spoke Ibn Arabi (all in Arabic). This was also the time when some of his texts began to appear in English, such as Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam (2004), and Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics (2004). Among public honors, one should mention the Jordanian Writers Association Award for Democracy and Freedom (1998) and the Roosevelt Institute Medal for Freedom of Worship (2002). (Prior to this he had already received the Tunisian Order of Merit in 1993.) In 2004 he accepted the appointment to the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University of Utrecht. A year later he received the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in Berlin. Around this time he also participated in a research project on “Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique” at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. At the time of his death (due to a viral infection), Abu Zayd was involved as co-editor of a 6-volume Encyclopedia of the Qur’an and in a comprehensive project of Qur’anic interpretation (in both English and Arabic).

This is not the place to review in detail Abu Zayd’s numerous writings. I limit myself to a few texts available in English. His most well-known book – one might call it his “signature text” – is Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics. The book repeatedly and extensively pays tribute to insights culled from Gadamer’s work. The emphasis in the title on a “humanistic hermeneutics” has to do with his treatment of the Qur’an not as a distant, “perennial” essence enclosed in divine transcendence, but as a message addressed to human beings in their concrete life-worlds. Far from being a remote mantra, the Qur’an emerges here as a living phenomenon, as an address or discourse available to human understanding; in fact, it can be seen as a mode of “communication, dialogue, and debate” provoking argument, acceptance or rejection. As a message or discourse, the Qur’an also issues a concrete social plea or exhortation: the plea for the pursuit of justice. Abu Zayd mentions an instance when even the Prophet Muhammad seemed to fall short of his own plea. This was the time when Muhammad was busy preaching to the rich people of Quraish admonishing them to pay heed to justice. At this point, a poor blind man named Ibn Umm Maktum came to him asking for advice; but taken up by his own discourse, the Prophet pushed him aside – and the Qur’an itself strongly reprimands Muhammad for his negligence (Sura 80:1-10).[iii]

Roughly contemporaneous with Rethinking the Qur’an is Abu Zayd’s most autobiographical book: Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam. More than any other writing, the book introduces the readers into the lived experience and agonies of the Egyptian thinker. I can only lift up some salient passages. Repeatedly, Abu Zayd reflects on his central concern: the status of the Qur’an as divine and human, or as divine message addressed to human beings. “Orthodox Islam,” he observes at one point, “has always insisted that the Qur’an is God’s eternal, uncreated speech,” and “because it always existed, it was never created.” The Mu’tazilites, however, looked at this issue differently. As they insisted, “there is a difference between God’s essence – something eternal and beyond human understanding – and God’s word which is created and accessible to reason.” Here again, Abu Zayd favors the Mu’tazilites, saying: “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.”[iv]

Perhaps the most revealing and forthright passage is found somewhere toward the middle of the book – a passage deserving to be quoted in full:

«My basic argument about the Qur’an is that in order to make Islamic thought relevant, the human dimension of the Qur’an needs to e reconsidered. Placing the Qur’an firmly within history does not imply that the origins of the Qur’an are [purely] human. I believe the Qur’an to be a divine text revealed from God to the Prophet Muhammad through the mediation of the archangel Gabriel. That revelation, however, took place through the use of language – a language (Arabic) rooted in a historical context. The Qur’an addressed the Arabs living in the 7th century, taking into account the social reality of those particular people living on the Arabian Peninsula at that time. How else could they have understood the revelation??»

As Abu Zayd adds forcefully: “I believe that one of the reasons we currently experience such stagnation in Islamic thought is that we overemphasize the divine dimension of the Qur’an at the expense of acknowledging its human characteristics.”[v]

Reflecting his own lived experience, Voice of an Exile eloquently stresses again the Qur’an’s plea for social justice and the removal of corruption and social oppression. In a chapter titled “The Nexus of Theory and Practice,” we find these lines which clearly demarcate the linkage of interpretation and action: “No matter what subject the Qur’an talks about . . . justice is at its core . . . Qur’anic values are built on the concepts of freedom and justice – freedom of thought in order to bring about a just society.” Unfortunately this plea for justice and freedom is too often silenced or ignored by religious and political authorities. In lieu of liberating practice we find “the stultifying practice of blindly following tradition, copying the past. . . . The tribal mentality is alive. The code is obedience.” In view of this stultification, Abu Zayd sees the need to revive and deepen the legacy of the 19th century Islamic reformers al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. “We have this legacy,” he says. “I place myself within this legacy. My research in the field of Islamic Studies is all about trying to find a way of incorporating modernity and progress into Islamic thought.” Taking up the legacy of Abduh, for Abu Zayd, means a duty to denounce injustice everywhere, including the injustice inflicted by autocratic rulers, but also the injustice suffered by Palestinians and people in Gaza. Basically struggling for justice involves the need to reform society as well as to reform religious thought: “Today we must not let ourselves be defined by a phony identity that manifests itself in terms of backwardness and resistance to progress, under the guise of defending Islam and our identity. Our aborted Renaissance looked to the future as it attempted to break free from outdated structures of thinking. . . . To carry on, we need an orderly way to talk about religion – a discourse.”[vi]

The task charted so eloquently in Voice of an Exile was carried forward in Abu Zayd’s subsequent Reformation of Islamic Thought (2006). One paragraph must suffice here, taken from the last chapter of the book:

«Without rethinking the Qur’an and without re-invoking its living status as a “discourse” . . . democratic and open hermeneutics cannot be achieved. But why should hermeneutics be democratic and open? Because it is about the meaning of life. If we are serious about freeing religious thought from power manipulation, whether political, social, or religious, and want to empower the community of believers to formulate “meaning,” we need to construct an open democratic hermeneutics.»[vii]

2. Mohammed Abed al-Jabri

In his commitment to a progressive and democratic reading of the Qur’an, Abu Zayd during his life-time was ably seconded by the Moroccon philosopher Mohammed al-Jabri (who passed away on May 3, 2010). Here again I had the pleasure of a personal acquaintance. I met him the first time in 2000 during a visit to the University of Rabat where I had been invited to present a lecture. Having announced my visit beforehand, al-Jabri received me warmly and invited me for a meal. I found him to be a very stimulating and engaging thinker and, despite his spreading fame, a modest and unassuming human being. We talked mainly about his Introduction à la critique de la raison Arabe whose English translation had appeared a few years before. I saw him again in 2006 on the occasion of the World Philosophy Day organized by UNESCO in Rabat. At that time, as I recall, he was awarded by UNESCO the Ibn Sina Prize of Philosophy. Little did I know that I would be back four years later to commemorate him.

The life story of al-Jabri was less dramatic and less painful than that of Abu Zayd. With a few interruptions he was able to spend his entire life in his native Morocco (thus being spared the “leaning tower” trauma of the Egyptian). He was born in December of 1935 in a small town near Oujda in South Eastern Morocco. He began his college studies in 1958, spending one year at Damascus University in Syria, and then continuing at the University of Rabat. After graduating in 1962, he served as a high school philosophy teacher and later as school principal. In 1967 he began his graduate studies in philosophy and Islamic thought at the University of Mohammad V in Rabat where he obtained his doctorate in 1970 with a dissertation on Ibn Khaldun. From this time forward until his retirement in 2002, he held the position of professor of philosophy and Islamic thought in the same university. During his life-time, he was showered with a great number of honors and awards, some of which he rejected. Thus, he turned down a huge monetary award from the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and another large sum from the Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi. Among the prizes he accepted was a UNESCO Prize for Arab Culture in 1988, a Maghreb Award for Culture given by Tunisia in 1999, the Ibn Sina Medal from UNESCO at the World Philosophy Day of 2006, and the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded in Berlin in 2008.

There are many similarities, but also many dissimilarities between Abu Zayd and al-Jabri. By comparison, al-Jabri was more actively and more directly engaged in political movements in his country and in the Arab world. During the 1960’s, he was an active member of the “Union Nationale des Forces Populaires” (UNFP) which was a leftist wing of the nationalist Istiqlal Party. In July 1963 he was briefly jailed for his activities. Later, after the UNFP was banned, he served from 1975 to 1988 as a leading member of the “Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires.” In the course of his political activities, however, he became increasingly dissatisfied with prevailing ideological formulas – including socialism, Marxism, and liberalism. His dissatisfaction prompted him to turn with growing intensity to classical Islamic thought in the hope of finding his bearings and resources for political and intellectual renewal in our time.

Another aspect of dissimilarity has to do with philosophical orientation and genealogy. As indicated before, Abu Zayd placed himself deliberately into a dual lineage or tradition: the lineage of classical Islamic philosophy (from the Mu’tazilites to Ibn Rushd) and the lineage of Sufism (with a focus on Ibn Arabi). This broad range of lineages was less, or not at all, congenial to al-Jabri. Honoring Ibn Rushd as his foremost philosophical teacher and mentor, al-Jabri tended to uphold the rational lucidity of “Western Islam” (Maghreb) as over against the mystical-illuminationist tendencies of “Eastern Islam” (Mashreq). Generally speaking, his work privileges “burhan” (deductive reasoning) and “bayan” (linguistic analysis) over “irfan” (mystical reading). Thus, it would be difficult to find in his writings references to Ibn Arabi or Rumi – and this despite the fact that he was a warm-hearted person and (as I discovered in conversation) quite able to cite Rumi or other Muslim poets without difficulty or hesitation.[viii]

But I want to turn here to the commonality, and not the dissimilarity, between the two thinkers. The central feature linking the two, in my view, was the effort to steer a course between or beyond religious obscurantism or fundamentalism, on the one hand, and secularist/laïcist dismissal of religious thought, on the other. As al-Jabri repeatedly observed, his aim was to overcome “the current polarization of Arab [or Islamic] thought”: namely, between “an imported modernism” that entirely disregards Islamic traditions and (on the other side) an “Arab traditionalism or fundamentalism” that assures Arabs or Muslims of a spurious identity through nostalgic retrievals of the past.[ix] Like Abu Zayd, al-Jabri held that religious revelation is addressed to human beings in their concrete historical situation and hence can be validly understood only by taking historical and social context into account. This does not mean that historical and social context is immune from critique or transformation; however, such transformation can only occur immanently, in full awareness of prevailing conditions. Together with Abu Zayd, al-Jabri affirmed that, given its contextuality, interpretation is always multiple and can never achieve absolute certainty or univocity. In addition to the role of context, this multiplicity is also due to the internal complexity and diversity of traditions, including religious traditions. Perhaps more than Abu Zayd, the Moroccan also ascribed the “conflict of interpretations” to the individual autonomy and freedom of individual interpreters (even when freedom is responsibly exercised). In the pursuit of his critical initiative, al-Jabri – again like Abu Zayd – placed himself in the company not only of early Arab philosophy (especially the Mu’tazilites and Ibn Rushd) but also in that of prominent Muslim reformers of the 19th century whose work, in his view, urgently needs to be resumed and deepened today.

Al-Jabri’s writings are sprawling and concentrate on a number of topics, such as culture, education, and politics; but his core concern was always the relation between Islam and the modern world. Among his early writings are: La Pensée de Ibn Khaldun: la Assabia et l’Etat (1971); Pour une vision progressiste de nos difficultés intellectuelles et éducatives (1977); and Nous et notre passé (1980). However, his central endeavor was the critical rethinking and renovation of Arab or Muslim intellectual life. This concern led him to his major project: Critique de la raison Arabe which appeared in 3 volumes in Beirut starting in 1982 (and whose title clearly reflects Kantian affinities). The project was carried forward in three specific inquiries: “The Genesis of Arab Thought” (1984); “The Structure of the Arab Mind” (1986); and “The Arab Political Mind” (1990). As mentioned before, a part of his project appeared in 1999 in English as Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique. More recently, two new books appeared in English: Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought (2008), and The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World (2010).

It is impossible again to review the entire oeuvre. Let me just lift up some passages from Arab-Islamic Philosophy (the English translation of his Introduction to the Critique of Arab Reason). The very title of the opening Introduction discloses the basic aim of the study: “To Seek Our Modernity by Rethinking Our Tradition.” The title immediately puts into question the customary disjunction between tradition and modernity. Moreover, by emphasizing “our modernity,” the phrase challenges the Western Enlightenment pretence of representing the modernity, or the only possible kind of modernity. In al-Jabri’s words (anticipating Taylor’s notion of “multiple modernities”): “There is not one single absolute, universal and planetary modernity; rather, there are numerous modernities that differ from era to era and from place to place.” What Europe or the West celebrates as “modernity” was a distinct historical stage born of the European Enlightenment, which cannot be replicated in other times and places. For people living outside Europe or the West, “European modernity” impinges from the outside “pushing its adversary into withdrawal or confinement.” This is why “our” aspiration toward modernity must necessarily “base itself on those components of the critical [or creative] mind present in Arab culture itself in order to trigger an internal dynamics of change.” Thus, in the context of Arab-Islamic culture, modernity cannot mean “to refute tradition or break entirely with the past, but rather [an effort] to upgrade the manner in which we assume our relationship to tradition at the level of what we call ‘contemporaneity’, which for us means catching up with the great strides that are being made worldwide.”[x]

As in the case of Abu Zayd, the recognition of cultural-historical contexts does not mean a simple lapse into relativism which would ignore the liberating demands of modern life. Nor does it warrant a glorification of the past in a fundamentalist vein. For al-Jabri, such glorification is a “medievalist” reaction with all its (anti-democratic) consequences: namely, “the persistence of the relation of ruler and ruled where the latter, reduced to the condition of a herd, lead their mental and social lives under the shepherd’s tutelage.” Unfortunately, such a reaction is all too widespread in the contemporary Arab-Islamic world where we often find “a retreat to backward positions that would serve as ramparts and as defense mechanisms” of a stagnant and illusory identity. Against this retreat one needs to marshall a forward-looking approach which, without neglecting tradition, transforms the latter in the spirit of “rationality and democracy.” Such an approach is able to rekindle the legacy of classical philosophy from al-Farabi to Ibn Rushd. For, al-Jabri comments:

«Al-Farabi (like Ibn Rushd) was not an isolated man who was cut off from the world, . . . but a man who was concerned about the problems of the society in which he lived. He assumed the preoccupations of his contemporaries. . . . He was an optimist who believed in progress and in solving problems through reason, and it was this faith that motivated his dream of the ‘virtuous city’, a city of reason, of harmony, of fraternity and of justice in which he invested all the sciences of his era.»[xi]

3. Some Comparisons

In their endeavor to interpret and critically rethink Islamic tradition(s), the Moroccan and Egyptian thinkers mentioned so far have not been alone. I have chosen them mainly for two reasons: my personal acquaintance with them, and their instructive similarities and differences. A number of other prominent thinkers toiling in the same vineyard should at least briefly be mentioned. I limit myself here to two: the expatriate Algerian Muhammad Arkoun and the expatriate Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush. As it happens, the former also passed away this year (on September 4, 2010). I was not so fortunate as to know Professor Arkoun personally; so I only know him “second-hand,” through reading his texts. He was born in 1928 in a Berber village in Algeria and later pursued his studies of philosophy and literature at the University of Algiers and the Sorbonne in Paris. Subsequently he taught at Lyon University (1969-1972) and the Sorbornne (1972-1992). Like Abu Zayd and al-Jabri he received many honors. In 1996 he was decorated as an Officer of the French Legion d’honneur, and in 2001 he was asked to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinborough. He published numerous books, in Arabic, French and English – some of which directly address the issue of the present essay. This is obviously true of his book The Concept of Revelation: From the People of the Book to the Societies of the Book (1988). Very close to the inquiries of the Egyptian and Moroccan thinkers are his texts Pour une critique de la raison Islamique (1984), Arab Thought (1988), and Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers Today (1994). Some of his Arabic texts deal explicitly with the problem of interpretation: Al-Islam: Naqd wa ijtihad (1990) and Mina-l-ijtihad ila naqd al-’aql al-islami (1991).

In the present context I only want to quote one passage from his book The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (2002), reissued under the title Islam: To Reform or to Subvert (2006):

«The dialectic tension between the [sacred] Book and the [human] book is clearly manifest in the present tension between religion and politics, spiritual authority and political power, divine law and secular law, mythical truth and historical knowledge. . . . These concepts are often used to point out the contradictions, the polemical oppositions developed by their respective defenders. The opposition has reached the level of mutual exclusion through violence between fundamentalist defenders of the rule of God and the modern secular defenders of the rule of law, democratic values and human rights, presented respectively as the values of the “West” versus “Islam.” What I have tried to suggest is the necessity to excavate new fields of research and critical thinking on these stakes not yet perceived, not considered because they are hiding in-between the many concepts currently employed for ideological polarization.»[xii]

The second Islamic voice I want to lift up here is that of Aldolkarim Soroush, the well-known Iranian philosopher with whom I have been fortunate to maintain friendly relations over two decades. Soroush was born in 1945 in Tehran and grew up there. He first studied pharmacology at the University of Tehran; then, in the mid-1970’s he went to the London School of Economics where he studied analytical chemistry and philosophy of science (the latter with Karl Popper). Shortly after the 1979 Revolution he returned to Tehran where he quickly emerged as a leading public intellectual. He first taught Islamic culture at Tehran’s Teacher’s College and then moved on to the Academy of Philosophy and the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences in Tehran. He became an increasingly influential and controversial figure, mainly because he tested the insights of the philosophy of science (mainly Popper’s stress on fallibility) against the reigning religious dogmatism. Some of his writings first became available in English through the publication of his Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (2000). Shortly afterwards he was fired from his academic post and barred from any teaching and lecturing in Iran. Since that time he has served as a visiting professor at many places: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and the Free University in Amsterdam. In 2004 he was awarded the international Erasmus Prize in Rotterdam.

During the past decade, Soroush has devoted himself chiefly to the critical interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an. The core of his endeavor centers around the notion of the “expansion and contraction” of religious knowledge in history, an idea developed in a massive tome published in Farsi under the title Bast-e Tajrubeh-e Nabavi (The Expansion of Prophetic Experience). An abridged version has appeared in English under the title The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays on Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion (2009). A basic tenet of this text is the distinction between the sacred “essence” and the historical-cultural “accidentals” of religion. I quote here a brief passage:

«The accidentals [of religion] are those that could have been other than they are, unlike the essentials. . . . The goals of the Prophet are religious essentials. [But] in order to express and attain these intentions and to have them understood, the Prophet seeks the assistance of [14 accidentals, including] a particular language, particular concepts, and particular methods. All of this occurs in a particular time and place and for a particular people with particular physical and mental capacities. The purveyor of religion is faced with specific reactions and questions, and in response to them gives specific answers. . . . [Thus] these corpulent accidentals hide within them the precious essence of religiosity. In order to uncover this gem, we have no choice but to peel away those superficies.»[xiii]

By way of conclusion I want to return to the broader political implications of interpretation. As mentioned repeatedly, every interpretation raises up the issue of the relation between text and context, and in the case of religious faith, that between revelation and human understanding. It is in the interstices of this relation that human freedom emerges: the freedom of thought and of the free expression of thought. This opening or gap of human freedom inevitably contains within itself the promise of emancipation and democracy. The gap can only be covered over, or attempted to be closed, through autocracy and resort to forceful repression. At least two of the thinkers lifted up in these pages – the Egyptian and the Iranian – have suffered from the iron fist of repression. But the prospect of such repression was forecast by the leading European philosopher of interpretation: Gadamer. As he observed in his Truth and Method, interpretation cannot flourish in a society or regime dominated by autocratic power or a Hobbesian sovereign; as an exercise of free judgment, hermeneutics rather presupposes a dialogical give-and-take occurring in a transformative rethinking of tradition: “Where this is not the case – for instance, in an absolutist state where the will of the autocratic ruler is above the law [and above judgment] – interpretation cannot flourish, since the ruler(s) can abrogate the premises of interpretive judgment.”[xiv] Hence, far from being just an innocuous method or tool, interpretation is the opening wedge for democracy seen as a regime of responsible freedom.



[i] Ahmad Hissou and Stefan Weidner, “Interview mit Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” The interviewers relied strongly on Abu Zayd’s book Ein Leben mit dem Islam, trans. Sharifa Magdi (Freiburg: Herder, 1999). The above and subsequent passages from the interview have been translated by me from the German.

[ii] See, p. 4.

[iii] Abu Zayd, Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics (Utrecht: Humanistic University Press, 2004), pp. 27-28.

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

[v] Ibid., p. 57. At this point, he offers a genealogy of his position (pp. 57-58): “I see my scholarship as a continuation of the rational school of thought started by the Mu’tazilites and further developed by Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).” At the same time, greatly attracted to Ibn Arabi’s The Meccan Revelation, “I proposed to study the hermeneutics of the Qur’an from a mystical (Sufi) perspective.”

[vi] Ibid., pp. 169-170, 185, 199.

[vii] Abu Zayd, Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), pp. 98-99.

[viii] I do not wish to minimize the intellectual differences between the two thinkers. Al-Jabri was more a classical rationalist and seemed to be unfamiliar with hermeneutics. His comments on “Eastern” Islamic thought were sometimes harsh (and would hardly have been endorsed by Abu Zayd in this form). See, for example, the statement in his Arab-Islamic Philosophy: “With his Eastern philosophy, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) consecrated a spiritualist and gnostic trend whose impact was instrumental in the regression of Arab thinking from an open rationalism, spearheaded by the Mu’tazilites, then by al-Kindi, and culminating with al-Farabi, to a pernicious irrationalism which inaugurated the ‘gloom thinking’ that scholars like al-Ghazali, Suhrawardi of Aleppo and others simply spread and popularized in various circles. Such is my judgment against Avicenna.” See Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique, trans. Aziz Abbassi (Austin, TX: University of Texas Center of Middle Eastern Studies, 1999), p. 58. Broadly speaking, in the idiom of German philosophy, one might say that al-Jabri was closer to Kant, while Abu Zayd was close to Heidegger and Gadamer. However, the distance is not absolute. With the notion of a “critique of Arab reason,” al-Jabri introduced into critical reason an element of religion and culture that Kant would hardly have endorsed. Moreover, the political implications of their respective writings seem to be quite compatible.

[ix] See, p. 1.

[x] Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, pp. 1-3.

[xi] Arab-Islamic Philosophy, pp. 6-7, 9, 57.

[xii] Muhammad Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 125. Compare also his comment (p. 20): “The unthinkable and the unthought are inherent in the linear structure of any discursive statement; and also in the fact that any proposition is an act of power whether followed by a result or not.”

[xiii] Abdolkarim Soroush, The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays on Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion, trans. Nilou Mobasser, ed. with Introduction by Forough Jahanbakhsh (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 61, 90-91. In his writings, Soroush occupies a position somewhere between Abu Zayd and al-Jabri. Like the latter, he places himself in the tradition of critical and scientific reason (Jahanbaksh calls his position “neo-rationalist”). However, like Abu Zayd, Soroush is able to invoke both the rationalist legacy and the legacy of Sufism (especially Rumi). Unlike Abu Zayd, howeer, he does not seem to be influenced by hermeneutics (as is evident in his sharp distinction between essence and accidentals). On the whole, by comparison with both Abu Zayd and al-Jabri, Soroush’s work seems to exude more the aura of Neoplatonic Shiism.

[xiv] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd. rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), p. 329.

Article published on Reset-DoC in June 2011



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