The Qur’an, Islam and Muhammad
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd* 4 August 2012

1. Introduction:

The Qur’an is the first and most important source for those who wish to understand Islam, both for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the revelation of God, a message sent from God through the mediation of his angel Gabriel to his chosen messenger Muhammad to convert the then inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula from polytheism to a belief in one God. For Muslims, Muhammad is not only prophet, but he is the last prophet in a long line of prophets beginning with Adam and continuing through Moses to Jesus.

Each of these prophets had received the same basic message from God, which was the call to belief in one God and to act in accordance with a specific set of ethical principle and so on.

Certainly, the Qur’an is not an easy text to comprehend without the help and aid of the knowledge of the historical context of Arabia in general and of the northern area in particular. The main reason for this difficulty. Firstly, the Qur’an is a historical text emerged in a time which was, in many ways, different from our own. The Qur’an, though a given fact from the perspective of faith, exhibits a response to the factual reality of its time. It obviously responded to events and behaviour patterns of this time, often explicitly but also at times implicitly. When one does not know how to understand the relevant Qur’anic passage in the proper historical context, but transfers them literally into our era, this can lead to incalculable misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

In order to understand the Qur’an, we must recognise that, even though it is the speech of God, it has historical text; it was spoken, proclaimed, and written down in a specific historical situation, in the intellectual milieu and the language of the 7th century. Only an understanding of the basis of this comprehensive historical knowledge enables us to interpret the Qur’anic texts correctly. This allows us to grasp the core of the message which transcends its historical context and to decide what it means for us, the believers of today.

2. The Qur’an and Islam:

Nevertheless, Islam, as a religion, is not simply the rendering of what is found in the Qur’an. An unsophisticated understanding of religion would suggest that one need only uncover the “correct” interpretation of the Qur’an and one will know what “Islam” means. As in every other religion, Islam is the result of the interpretation and experiences of real people, it has grown historically. Contemporary Muslims are not the first who are to grapple with their holy writings and look to apply it to situations that are not explicitly addressed therein. Believers from earlier times and from many different countries have done this before us with varying results; unfortunately, the dominant discussion about “Islam” blurs the historicity and the diversity of its development.

As the Arabs started immediately after the death of Muhammad in 632 began to build their empire, they could not do this in a vacuum. They built on what they found in the lands they conquered, not only that which had to do with the economy and administration but also with differing forms of belief. Besides acknowledging so many religions in the Qur’an, such as Judaism, Christianity, Sebianism as well as Magianizm, it was in the conquered lands that Muslims came across different communities of Christians, Jews, Hindus and Zoroastrians. One only has to look at how many different denominations or sects were found, firstly in Arabia and later in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt as well as India.

When the Arabs started to build their empire, they behaved less as missionary Muslims and far more as Arab conquerors. They adopted the cultural achievements and religious ideas and developed them into the variety of Islamic cultural traditions that we know today. From that time until the present we have had innumerable local forms of Islam.

These great differences in the forms of Islam are due in a large part to the pre-Islamic history of every territory. The local cultures allowed Islam in various regions to develop into what we find today. We cannot imagine Islam without the cultural legacy of India, Iran, Indonesia, as well as of Hellenism. It did not simply spring from its roots in the Arabian Peninsula like a shoot to spread over these other lands. This is what fundamentalists suggest; they argue that everything about the spirit and culture of Islam can be found in those early years and in the foundational scripture. In reality Islam has had a relationship of mutual exchange with other world cultures and we see this vividly today when we look at the concrete forms of the practiced daily-life Islam throughout the world. Here we can see its variety and also its actual dynamic.

In this historical phenomenon of the exchange of cultural influences we have to make distinction between the Qur’an, as a given fact, and Islam. With such distinction, we can see that Islam is human’s creation like every religion. This may sound like a paradox particularly as it has become the conventional normative understanding to differentiate between “Islam”, the “pure religion” as it were, and “the Muslim”. However, a religion is what people make out of it. That religion is made by man does not mean that we undermine the metaphysical and transcendental dimensions. There is no reason to deny the divine source of scriptures.

The idea of prophecy means that God speaks to a human agent; God speaks to humanity through chosen individuals and reveals himself in human language. Humans attempt to unravel the message, to preserve and apply it in their temporal life as well as they can. Different theological schools emphasise different aspects and display them in their own way. This makes us understand that the history of Islam of which we speak so readily today was not at one time a specific, true understanding which was later corrupted. When one looks at the Islam of previous centuries, one recognises how dynamic it was. It has continued to change and develop various interpretations, establish theological traditions, and observe different rites and practices. In the history of Islam that developed through the era between the 7th and the 14th century all the knowledge of the world was integrated and accommodated into the body of Islamic culture.

History is the area in which the religions should be studied; it is not only the scriptures which determine the direction of the development of any given religion. A text can be interpreted in many ways to answer the questions which the real life of the community brings about. One can explain a text and read this and that into the text, and that is what is so special about the language of scriptures; it is loaded with possibilities of meanings.

I am trying to say that one cannot find the meaning of a religion in the text but in the interaction between the text and the historical process, in the interaction between the believer(s)/the communities with their holy texts. Of course that does not mean that one cannot speak of religion in a normative sense. But this normative sense is historically determined, and is, thus, changeable. It is normative according to the specific milieu paradigm; any paradigm-change leads to norms-change.

3. Qur’an and History/open hermeneutics:

I have developed a particular historical method of understanding Islam and interpreting the Qur’an, a historical method that enables to recognise the core of Islam, something that is inherent in Islam, in certain convictions and principles. However I should emphasise that it is my understanding of Islam, an understanding formed in a particular time, under particular circumstances and it is not for ever. It is open to further interpretation and re-interpretation; it must be opened again and again. It is not closed and not absolute; otherwise I would simply create a further dogma.

It is my conviction that we need a historically informed reading of the Qur’an. A reading that does not only understand the Islamic religion as a historical phenomenon but also understands the Qur’an itself as embedded in its historical context. This does not mean that some verses of the Qur’an have a self-explanatory everlasting language and others are bound in a particular time. No, the entire Qur’an has a historical dimension that is important for our comprehension.

Without an understanding of the entire Qur’an as a historical phenomenon, one cannot make a sensible distinction between the parts of the Qur’an that still have the same literal meaning today, those that have acquired metaphoric and allegoric interpretation in the developing cultural context, and those that are limited to a particular historical situation. This is not only a pre-condition for the appropriate understanding of the Qur’an but for the understanding of any writing. A historical understanding helps us to go from the wording of the historical text to the core of the message which is still relevant today. That is the shared task of philological critical interpretation and theological discussion. Still, we have to begin with the indisputable empirical facts.

It was in the year 610 that Muhammad declared for the first time that the divine had communicated with him while he was contemplating at the mount Hira’ outside Mecca, that he had received a message from God and that he had been commissioned to spread this message throughout his community. If we do not clarify the historical background, it must seem extremely puzzling as to why a prophet has to appear among the Arabs at that time. Certainly there are theological explanations. It is often said that earlier revelations were corrupted and Muhammad was sent with a new, untainted message. Theologians would answer in this way but it is not a historically satisfactory explanation. Completely independent of what one believes the details to be, the historical background explains why Islam was founded at this time in this region. It provided an answer to the pressing questions that the Arabs had concerning economic, political, social and religious issues. I would like to suggest that at that time these areas were not perceived as being separate from each other. The social, political and economic on the one hand were inseparable from the religious on the other. Only religious vocabularies provided understanding and explanation of almost everything.

4. Muhammad (the human partner) and the Christian Priest:

What was Muhammad doing on Mount Hira’ when he first received the divine communication? What type of contemplation in which he was involved? Did he belong to some sort of religious community? Most Muslims reject the idea that he belonged to a particular religious community. They simply assume that Muhammad was not connected to any type of religious practice. As well, Muhammad’s biographers try to emphasise Muhammad’s prophetic mission, often portraying him as having isolated himself from his community, but this is not quite believable. If he was known and acknowledged in his community as an able and talented person, we cannot imagine such a person being outside all social activities. We know that the businesswoman, the widow Khadija who later became his first wife, employed him as a caravan leader because of his honesty, talent and experience.

Under her employment he travelled most likely to Syria. His marriage to a rich businesswoman shows that he demonstrated certain qualities as a man and as a business partner. We should understand Muhammad as an active member of his community before he told of his revelations.

However that may be, to go to a mountain in order to practise contemplative exercises is a religious practice, a practice that comes from a certain tradition. We know from all sorts of monks that they search out remote places. Monasteries were not built in the centre of cities or villages but alongside routes or on the tops of mountains. And so Muhammad followed a practice that was known in Arabia and around, a practice that was spread by certain religious traditions. I do not want to claim that Muhammad was a Christian or a Jew; however, he should have had a certain religious predisposition, an orientation, and certain knowledge of a tradition that led him to practice particular religious forms, like contemplation on a mountain.

Nevertheless, it seems that he was not prepared for what happened to him. That day he saw the angel of God in the sky and he was terrified. As the angel began to communicate with him he did not know what was happening. He feared that the devil might have overwhelmingly possessed him. When he returned home to Khadija he was shaking with fear and she tried to calm him. In order to relieve the tension she took him, so it has been handed down, to the Christian priest Waraqa ibn Nawfal, who was her cousin, and Muhammad told him about his experience. And the man said, “My Son, this is the Holy Spirit; I hope I will be alive to support you when your tribe drives you out of Mecca.” And Muhammad asked, “Will they do such a thing?” Ibn Nawfal answered, “No messenger spared suffering”. This is what `Aisha, Muhammad beloved wife, reported.

The spirit or the angel who frightened Muhammad, his discussions with Khadija and her cousin, all this together is the beginning of Muhammad’s appearance as a prophet. In that beginning, one cannot but realize a process of interaction to continue between the divine message and the human reception of this message.

When we think of Muhammad, the first human recipient of this message, we see that he did not receive the message in a calm and composed way. He was in no way ready to see that what had happened to him had something to do with a divine message. He was filled with fear and doubt. He sought advice and confirmation from others, and therefore he needed people to affirm him and say: “My boy, everything is fine. Prophets before you have experienced these things. Have no fear – even though you will be persecuted.” The divine is not the only one who speaks here, the message must be confirmed by humans – already at this first instance.

In my experience this is something that many Muslims do not wish to hear. They are upset and fear that the authenticity of the prophet and of the Qur’an will be put in question, but these are the historical facts of which the Islamic sources tell us – not the Roman sources or any other sources.

The fact that Muhammad sought confirmation from other people – a Christian Arab priest, does not reduce his authenticity or the authenticity of his revelation, exactly the opposite. In these stories of Muhammad’s fear and of his wife taking him to her cousin, I see that we are dealing with a very earnest and conscientious person, who does not take anything for granted but always questions, tries to go deeper and look deeper. He does not avoid the question of how this can be. By the way, this is could indicate an example of Muhammad’s critical mentality.

5. The Divine-Human communication:

This process in which the divine communication with the first recipient, Muhammad, acquired certain human confirmation marked the entire period of the Qur’an’s revelation (612-632); intercommunication is the process that created the Qur’an. Obviously, the Qur’an was not given to Muhammad in the form of a complete book but the revelation came out of a complicated dialogue in a discursive and argumentative way. The word argumentative may sound surprisingly in this context, however this aspect can be found in the Islamic sources and in the Qur’an.

Muhammad’s first encounter was not with the Lord; it was with the angel. In this encounter, the divine is presented in an intimate personal manner as Muhammad’s lord. It is in the first five verses of chapter 96 that this very close intimate relation is established between Muhammad and the Lord via the angel. Then the Lord is presented as the creator, who created humans from blood clot. He taught humans what they know not. This first passage of revelation has nothing to do with Muhammad as a messenger; there is no message here to be carried and conveyed to others. Muhammad here is addressed by his Lord as a special close person.

In the second encounter Muhammad is commissioned with a message to warn people from the wrath of the coming life and to invite them to the True path. “Get up, proclaim!” This commission is found in the first ten verses of chapter 74. These verses contain a warning of the Day of Judgement; it is time to repent. That is the central message. Here, the argumentative character of the Qur’an is present: the very closed and intimate person is chosen to warn his own people to rely on the Lord of the universe, to worship the One. Though it is not explicit, the warning mission implies the community that is in need for reformation.

And one can go from the first to the second and onwards to the next revelation. This process of revelation lasted 23 years until Muhammad’s death. The Qur’an was not sent in one piece or in a few sittings, but it was sent mostly in short, sometimes longer, messages. It was a continuous process of communication that proceeded as follows: Muhammad reacted to the first communication in specific manner which is addressed in the second communication as was explained above. When after the second communication Muhammad proclaimed his mission to the people of Mecca there were different responses the third communication addresses and so on and so forth. This communicative process contains all the possible elements of communication: argument, discussion, persuasion, challenge and dialogue – a dialogue that was mostly exclusively centred on a small audience, at times a larger one.

The particular aspect of the communication that comes to the foreground depends on the audience, the reaction to the earlier revelations and to the situation of Muhammad and his community. This process of revelatory communication is obviously mirrored in the Qur’an. Therefore one should speak of a process of dialogue or a very complex form of communication between the divine and humans.

After the death of Muhammad, the early Muslim community felt the need to collect these passages together in one book; i.e. to write down the oral communication in order to preserve. They arranged these passages and ordered them in chapters without realizing the original chronological order. The present mushaf order present a structure of chapters arranged by length, the longer are put forward and the shorter are put backward, though it is generally known that the shorter chapter are chronologically earlier than the longer chapters. Most of the short chapters can be identified as being revealed in Mecca and the longer in Medina. The only exception of this rule is the short opening chapter which is placed at the beginning of the mushaf in conformity with its name.

In the present printed mushaf known as the ‘Cairo mushaf’, there are notes indicating whether the chapter is from Medina or Mecca and what passages in the Medina chapters belong to Mecca and which in the Mecca belong to medina. But one has to be careful with those notes; passages that are said to be from Mecca have proved to be from Medina and vice versa.

Mecca chapters are now sorted in three periodical categories as ‘early, middle and late’, thanks to the efforts made by western scholars who have worked out the philological distinctions and they have compared the sources and other such evidence. For the majority of Muslim academics, the main interest is in the differences between the Mecca and the Medina passages which can be differentiated easily in some cases, not so in others. This is the issue that was tackled in classical exegetical sources as well as in the prophet biography and the prophetic traditions. The reconstruction of the exact chronological order for all the chapter is, however, quite impossible.

The distinction between Mecca and Medina Qur’an is so important for, most of all, to reach the final enjoinment of the Qur’an concerning legal issues as it is believed that some of the earlier legal rules of Mecca are replaced by later rules in medina; this is according to the doctrine of abrogation. It is even more important to know even within the Mecca and the Medina revelation which came first and which came later. This whole process of compilation and ordering led to the result that the Qur’an as we have it today in the Mushaf does not reflect the dynamic process by which it came into being through various forms of communication.

6. Muhammad: the first recipient:

The year of Muhammad’s birth is thought to be the year 570 CE; however, it could have been a few years later. His father died before his birth and he lost his mother when he was six years old. From then on he lived with his grandfather and later with his uncle Abu-Talib. His family belonged to the Quraysh, the most influential and affluent confederation in Hijaz at that time. There were rich clans/families and less well off clans/families in the Quraysh and it seems that even though Muhammad’s grandfather was a leader in the Quraysh, Muhammad belonged to a poor family. We see that time and again the Qur’an speaks about orphans and their problems. Muhammad’s own plight as an orphan and a child of a needy family is referred to in chapter 93.

We know from the tradition that the person, who would later become the prophet, was very respectable, very sociable and very accessible – these qualities are necessary in a prophet. A prophet who wants to reach his contemporaries must have good relations with them. He must have the ability to communicate and have the power of persuasion. He was known by his contemporaries by the eponym “the honest, al-amin” which indicates his sociability and communicative talent. How could he have earned the trust, and more the affection and love, of Khadija, without his personal qualification? At the age of 25, he married the rich and considerably older businesswoman Khadija, for whom he had been working as a caravan leader. This marriage gave him extra support, in a financial way as well.

Perhaps it was this relative freedom from material worries that enabled Muhammad to take the time to devote himself to quiet contemplation. He did not need to worry anymore about what he had to deal with the next day. In addition Khadija gave him her personal support by encouraging him to take the opportunity to immerse himself in the spiritual world.

When Muhammad’s contemporaries tell of his gentle character and his benevolent manner towards others, many people today find it incompatible with the fact that Muhammad was a political leader and, in many cases, a military leader. Even if someone has a gentle character and tries to lead a decent life, he must still have to make judgements and sometimes make them against other people. In an attempt to understand Muhammad’s personality we must consider his development. At the time of the early revelation in Mecca, Muhammad’s life was determined by spiritual searching and contemplation. Later as leader of the community in Medina, he had practical responsibilities to execute, so many that he did not have time to put together all the revealed texts.

We should not portray Muhammad as an unchangeable character. There is no such person as one who has the same personality and never develops, not least when his life-circumstances and his mission change so drastically. However one must not exaggerate these supposedly contradictory characteristics. In his role as a businessman he was already a practical thinking and a successful member of the community in Mecca. Conversely, he did not give up his contemplative nature later on. In addition to the revelations themselves, we have accounts from contemporaries who witnessed this in all stages of his life.

Muhammad’s deeply felt religious sense and his great social and political skills are evident in the events surrounding the hijrah, the migration of the Muslim community from Mecca to the oasis city of Medina 300 miles north. During his time in Mecca Muhammad did not understand his mission to be propagating a new religion. In many passages of the Qur’an, we find that Muhammad was to present to the Arabs the same message that had already been presented to the Christians and the Jews. In chapter 10, the Qur’an lessens Muhammad’s doubt about his mission by recommending that he ask the Jews and Christians:

94 If you are in doubt concerning what we have We revealed to you, ask those who have read the book before you. Truth has come to you from your Lord, so do not be among those who doubt.

Muhammad’s task in those years in Mecca was to be a Warner. It is known that the message was not well received by the polytheists of Mecca. The Muslim community was subject to hostility and persecution and their continued survival was at risk.

Muhammad, at first, suggested Abyssinia as a safer place for his follower.

Some Muslims fled to the Christian Abyssinia, returning later to Medina or Mecca when the threat was over. Muhammad entered into discussions with other tribes who came to Mecca for trade during the pilgrimage season on behalf of the others and his own family. He was finally successful with the Medina delegation, who interestingly enough, did not invite Muhammad primarily on religious grounds but as a mediator between the conflicting tribal competitions over who to dominate the city, a conflict that divided the city’s inhabitants in a horrific way. The fact that Muhammad had come to Medina in 622 to take up this task shows that at that time in Mecca he already had a reputation as a leader and mediator.

Thus, Muhammad’s role as a political leader continued to grow. He hoped that the Jewish community in Medina would support him as both communities had a common basis in monotheism; however this support was not forthcoming. We find events in the Qur’an which indicate a separation of Muhammad’s community from the Jewish tribes. But, all this happened two years after the hijrah.

To take a concept of how a prophet should behave from a Christian theological point of view and apply it to Muhammad is unfair. Firstly, Muhammad’s situation could be compared to Moses but in reality all such comparisons are evidence of an ahistorical approach. Every figure had to cope with the specific tasks in his life and in his circumstances. Muhammad did not lose his human qualities in fulfilling his tasks, nor was he corrupted. It is so very important to stress this point, as the person of Muhammad in the West has become the cause of an extremely critical and often hateful discourse – always measured against a Christian theological standard. Muhammad was not only an important spiritual figure; he also showed political capability as well as military competence in his leadership. These aspects belong to an overall view of his whole personality. When one uses the modern standard, in particular a Christian picture of what a prophet should be, in judging Muhammad one is doing injustice. When one criticises the fact that he had worldly passions, that he followed material interests and he fought for the survival of his community, we misjudge the historical context of this particular prophet. From all that we know of Muhammad, he was earnest and conscientious in all that he did. Naturally, one can always question the correctness of some decisions in retrospect.

At this point I would like to advocate that we look at religious figures against their historical background, against the needs of their time, judging them according to the norms of their time and not that of today. This is not only for Muhammad’s political dealings but also for his private role as husband and father. He is often reproached for marrying several wives after Khadija died and that one of them, `Aisha, was only nine years old at the time of the wedding. To our modern conscious this sounds appalling, however, at that time no one thought anything of it. One must see what later became of this young woman. She was one of the most important figures in early Islam, counted as one of the authorities in the young community after Muhammad’s death. One has to pay attention to her knowledge, not only in religious but also in political matters. One does not have the feeling that `Aisha’s marriage to Muhammad stopped her development – exactly the opposite. The aim here is not to defend Muhammad but to understand him. Everything else is not historical. It is too easy to judge against one’s own standard. Whoever wants to know what kind of person Muhammad was must look at what happened at that time.

7. Muhammad in the Qur’an:

This demand of historical contextualization is directed not only at non-Muslims who already have prejudices, but it is also directed at Muslims who appear to have forgotten everything. Muhammad is a human! The Qur’an itself emphasises this over again and again; it does show that Muhammad made mistakes. In a few places in the Qur’an, serious critical comments are made concerning some of Muhammad’s behaviour. For example, when a blind man came to him seeking advice, Muhammad was very busy devoting his attention to the tribal leaders whom he was trying to get their support; he did not pay attention to the blind man. The Qur’an is very critical and explicitly blames Muhammad for his negligence of the man in chapter 80, where Muhammad is addressed by the third person. This is a form of disregard as to show Muhammad how it is to be ignored. When one speaks to a person directly one looks at him in the face and addresses him in the second person. Here the Qur’an chooses to use the third person addressing Muhammad, whose human fallibility is repeatedly addressed in the Qur’an. Muhammad was not without faults. When we read the Qur’an with this knowledge, it is not to justify Muhammad behaviour but to understand him. Every person is entitled to do so. Muslims must realise that the greatness of Muhammad does not depend on the fact that he was infallible. When someone is completely without fault in his character, it is not possible for him to be good on his own merit. Only one who is fallible can be truly good.

Naturally, the Qur’an acknowledges Muhammad’s human nature and sometimes blames him for being embarrassed from it and encourages him to act humanly. For example, when he felt affection toward Zaynab, the wife of Zayd, Muhammad’s adopted son, the Qur’an encouraged him to express his feeling; he was even encouraged to marry her after she became divorced from Zayd. Zaynab was a close relative of Muhammad, who asked for her hand for his adopted son Zayd, who was a freed slave. She and her family were not really happy as they had hoped that Muhammad would marry her himself. The marriage did not work out and Zayd asked for a divorce. The traditional law of Arabia until that time did not allow the person to marry his own divorced daughter-in-law. In this context, verse 37 in chapter 33 announces such marriage to be allowed, thus allowing Muhammad to marry Zaynab.

This example shows how the Qur’an communicates and, therefore, we today do not find it easy to read passages of the Qur’an about Muhammad and his community, or about Jews or Christians from that time. In the case of the marriage rules regarding adopted sons and daughters-in-law we do not see immediately what the message is supposed to be without reference to the events and situations at that time.

8. The Community of Believers and the Need for Legal regulations:

The hijrah marks the beginning of the Muslim era and the year 622 is the first year of the Muslim calendar. In Medina Muhammad’s function changed from that of a spiritual leader to being one of a leader of a political community. In order to understand these two tasks as they are reflected in the Qur’an, we must call to mind again the political situation in Arabia at the beginning of the 7th century. Many readers of the Qur’an wonder why there are passages that deal with practical and legal matters. They feel that this does not fit in a Holy Scripture.

This confusion comes from a Christian influenced context. Some compare the life of Muhammad with that of Jesus from whom no similar types of legal regulations were handed down. One must not forget that the historical contexts of both figures are completely different. Jesus lived in a world which was completely dominated by the Roman Empire. There was a legal system already in place and there was a military power which secured the empire and upheld the law. The Jews lived under Roman occupation but with a certain independence and legal security.

In Arabia in the early 7th century, there was no state or legal system but a tribal ethics. This tribal ethics demanded absolute obedience to the tribe and whoever was not obedient was thrown out and lost the right to be protected by the community. These blood relationships were the decisive factor. It was not about whether the tribe was right or wrong. Where only blood ties counted, there was no society in any real sense. Only with the initiation of Muhammad’s missionary work does society develop in Arabia. Islam developed a new type of communal living, in which blood ties did not play the central role but there was a higher form of morality about the basis of specific communal values. This development can also be read in the Medina covenant known as the Sahīfa, in which there are three identified communities: the Jewish, the Arabs and the Believers or Muslims. It also figures out in the Qur’an, especially at the beginning of Chapter 2, where these three communities are presented in religious terms as the Hypocrites, the Infidels and the Believers.

The new community of believers seems to form a new type of a tribe. From the beginning, the new members of the community come from many different tribes. They are not the relatives of the Prophet but people who share his convictions. In order to establish this new form of community, certain legal regulations were needed for marriage and divorce, taxes and business. These are found in the many relevant legal and practical instructions in the Qur’an. This contributed a great deal to the transition from the tribal world to a system of legal security. Naturally, these individual regulations must be understood in the context of the 7th century. It is absurd to think that they could or should be transferred into today’s world in their exact form.

These regulations found in the Qur’an belong to the post Mecca revelation whether in Medina or in Mecca after it was conquered by Muslims. In the second years in Medina, there were military conflicts with the people of Mecca, the battle at Badr first, when Muslims gained their first triumph against the Meccan, and the second battle at Uhud where Muslims were defeated. Here we encounter Muhammad in his third function, that of a military leader. This is what is most confusing to contemporary Christians and Muslims living in Christian influenced societies. As the Qur’an refers to these military conflicts quite often, we can say that, during these years, Muhammad had more and more commitments concerning the welfare of the community.

One cannot expect that a leader, who has taken over the political responsibility for a certain community, would not stand behind the community and support it – even when this means he must decide against other communities. Similarly, the Divine voice, peaking through the Qur’an, is the God of this community. He has a biased voice and supports His community against the others. We know this phenomenon from the Old Testament, where the Lord of the Hebrew people, the people of Israel’s House, sides always with them even when they are condemned; condemnation is meant for their benefit. The Allah of the Qur’an does the same, supporting the community of believers even when punishing them for going wrong deviated from his commands. This is also perplexing for today’s reader who views it from a great distance from the events.

9. Conclusion:

How Muhammad’s message was reconstructed after his death as the political community continued to develop? It is clear that Muhammad was seen as a prophet and messenger of god as well as a political leader. The community needed the political leader; Muhammad is the last prophet and messenger of God.

The development of the political community must be analysed in more details to understand the process of the transformation from a tribal society to an empire. This is an important task in order to deepen our knowledge of Islam; it is much more important than yet another theological essay about this or the other aspect.

Now, the urgent question is how we can spread this knowledge to the wider public. This problem is the same for Muslims living in Muslim countries as for Muslims living in the West. We must consider how we should transmit this information to children and adults. The majority of Muslims are not aware of the historical background and the temptation is to quote texts and explain them literally, thus, understand them out of their historical context and interpret them as being universal rulings of God for believers in every time. That is a simplistic way of reading the Qur’an, but not a historically correct one. It comes from ignoring the fact that the Qur’an is a message and a revelation.


The final/definitive version of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 36 nos 3-4 March and May 2010, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 281-294, Special Issue: “Postsecularism and multicultural Jusirdictions”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2008-2009, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue


*Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010), a member of Reset-DoC’s Scientific Committee, served as Professor of Literature and Linguistics at Leiden University and held the Ibn Rushd Chair of Islam and Humanism at the University of Humanistic, Utrecht. He is an internationally recognized expert on modern Islamic thought, critically approaching classical and contemporary Islamic discourses. Nasr Abu Zayd got political asylum in the Netherlands in 1995, after several years of severe religious prosecution and finally a formal court decision that led to his apostasy in Egypt. He is the author of Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis and Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics.

Read more about Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd on our website:

Dossier: Remembering Abu Zayd

Dossier: The Man Who Took the Qur’an Away From the Extremists

Essay: Opening The Doors of Ijtihad, by Fred Dallmayr

Video: Abu Zayd – My life fighting intolerance

Video: Abu Zayd – The other as a mirror of selfunderstanding



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)