Ezra Andres-Tysch: Modernist Quranic Interpretation

Religion like any social structure must constantly adapt itself to the time and place which it finds itself. This allows religion to remain pertinent in an ever shifting world since in order for religions to last, they must address the needs of their followers. As a religion develops and differences of opinion and tradition become more distinct, religions begin to form ideological movements. These movements can vary from extreme reformism to ultra orthodoxy or can fall anywhere in between the two poles. This splintering of religious sects can often be seen as a negative occurrence which can lead to ideological polarization, conflict, as well as extremism. Rather than viewing religious sectarianism as a source of conflict, one can also find immense beauty and awe in all of the fragmentations of faith. Religious disagreement can of course be the cause of tension, but respectful debate between groups can lead to a more nuanced understanding of both your own belief system and other belief systems. Sectarianism can lead to division, bloodshed and strife, but can also lead to pluralistic societies more tolerant and open than they were before. Differing levels and methods of observance can lead to dismissal of other forms of religious practice or can allow for a more healthy theological biodiversity. Had Islam not been able to evolve to the political, economic, spiritual, regional, cultural, and technological circumstances of its time, while still retaining its core teachings, it would have been impossible for it to survive and spread the way it has. To better understand Islam this paper will examine the viewpoints of several modernist positions on social reform from the perspective of Mahmoud Mohammad Taha  a utopian reformist, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari Shabestari, Muhammad Shahrur, a progressive centrist, and Sayyid Qutb, a contemporary fundamentalist.

Marmoud Mohammad Taha born in either 1909 or 1911, was a politician, revolutionary, intellectual and activist.  Known as the “moderate martyr” to some, he exemplifies the progressive and end of the spectrum in modern Qur’anic interpretation.  He founded Sudan’s Republican Brothers, an anti-monarchical political party which advocated for gender equality, non-violence and religious pluralism and separation between church and state. For his centrist views he was executed in 1985 by Jaafar al-Nimeiri, former President of Sudan for his reformist ideology. I will be discussing the ideas he lays out in his paper, “The Second Message of Islam” the founding document of his political party.

Taha begins by explaining the difference between sunna and sharia.  Sunna being the actions and standards that Mohammed obeyed and are described in the Quran. Sharia being the Islamic law set forth before everyday Muslims. It is as Taha puts it, “The difference between the standard of the generality of Muslims…and the standard of the Prophet.” Liberal Islam A sourcebook Pg. 271 He explains that in the time of the Prophet, Mohammed made two attempts at creating both religious and ethical frameworks for his followers to practice. The first message of Islam was shared in Mecca to his followers and provided them not with a strict rule book but instead an ultimate goal. This manifestation of law provided every individual with their own form of spiritual direction however when it became apparent that humans were incapable of guiding themselves, Mohammed introduced the second message of Islam. A more detailed and instructive set of rules which were created to guide followers in a way that better fit in with the reality of the time. Mohammed acts according to sunna but he descended from his level of holy understanding of morality in order to meet the people at a skill level that they could understand, this is shari’a. Taha believes that the rules of Islam and humanity need to be reworked and outdated aspects trimmed. In order for Islam to spread, it had to be molded to the society it was introduced to.  All this, Taha concludes, reveals that, “many aspects of the present Islamic shari’a are not the original principles or objectives of Islam. They merely reflect a dissent in accordance with the circumstances of the time and the limitations of human ability.” page 276

From this statement we can gather an understanding of why Taha believes in constant reformation of Shari’a. Because Shari’a  was created in order to comply with its surroundings it follows that holding onto traditional practices in Islam goes against the idea of the Quran being applicable to those who follow it. As opposed to more conservative Quranic scholars, Taha encourages the breaking with tradition in favor of more progressive interpretations of text instead.

Taha also disagrees with more fundamentalist thinkers with regard to Jihad. He believes that the original intent of Islam was to allow for individual freedom until doing so goes against the needs of the community. His view on this is similar to a social contract. He emphasizes the importance of this social contract when he writes, “This [the joining of personal freedom and communal justice] was Islam’s original and fundamental principal” pg 274 He argues that freedom should be taken away from those who abuse it. And because humanity isn’t capable of being fully free, the sharia laws needed to be put into place because they weren’t responsible enough to guide themselves.  

While traditional scholars look back at the period of time in which Islam was forming as an ideal spiritual moment. Taha instead believes that the best of times is yet to come. Traditional scholars interpret sura 9 verse 118, “Today I have perfected your religion for you.” to mean that Islam at the time of Mohammed was perfect, Taha disagrees completely. He writes, “” Explanation of the Quran has only been in terms of [expedient] legislation…appropriate for the time…and in accordance with the capacity of the audience and the abilities of the people.” 277 He argues there was never perfect time in the beginning when Islam was perfect but instead in the future there will be such a time. He believes that following the qur’an will instead lead to paradise. He writes, “Since the Qur’an is that guidance, then it has its beginning with God, and its end with us. If we proceed properly through its levels, we shall recover the paradise we lost through the sin of Adam.” 278

In order to get to this utopia Taha asserts the need for “ultimate Islam” pg 280. In order for this to be achieved the world must switch from following a communal Sharia and instead develop individualized sharia. At that point the conflict between individual freedom and communal norms and protections will cease to exist entirely because the individual will freely desire to do what is right and obey the rules of society of their own volition. The prophet is reported to have said, “Islam started as a stranger, and it shall return as a stranger in the same way it started. Blessed are the strangers!” When asked who are the strangers, he replied, “those who revive my sunna (practice of the Prophet) after it had been abandoned. “  pages 270-271. This prophesied that the utopia will be achieved when individuals return to the key concepts of Islam rather than the sharia.

Since true Islam has never been achieved by any nation, but might come in the future, and Taha sees society as becoming more and more flawed, he proposes a solution to lead us towards salvation. That the solution is the establishment of a new civilization in which the original teachings of the first message of Islam are mixed with the contemporary ideas of socialism and democracy as that’s the only way to solve the issue between the individual and community. He commends Democracy and socialism as according to him, they promote optimal equality and freedom. In addition, socialism (economic equality), democracy (political democracy), he also calls for social equality, this manifests on complete non-discrimination based on power or identity. Instead, he imagines a society where individuals are judged based on their mental and moral stature. He imagines his good society as tolerant “permitting different life-styles and manners, as long as they are beneficial to society.” pg 281

The next thinker we will examine is Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. Shabestari, a Shia cleric from the country of Iran is also on the liberal end of the spectrum, like Taha. But while Taha imagines a utopian Muslim democracy, Shabestari throws the idea out entirely. Shabestari is a secularist when it comes to politics. The title of his interview says it all, “Islam is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda”.  He cites his experience with the iranian revolution as evidence of the dangers of theocracy. He also rejects theocracy because it means that a religious group has been “made dominant by force.” Muslims can Have Democracy without Having to Leave Islam pg 3.  He brings up the issue of how does one legitimize a single interpretation as authoritatively correct? Since we are merely humans how can we assume to understand which interpretation God wants us to obey? (class Notes)

He unlike more conservative scholars also promotes the fusing of islam and modernism together. “We must bring those…things together: living with modernity and preserving spirituality” Islam is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda”.   page 2

He is in favor of modern interpretation of the Qur’an.  “A new interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah using an academic approach would not do any harm, it would…strengthen these fundamental beliefs.” Islam is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda”.   page 2


He breaks from the norm by rejecting the holy texts as the basis for Islamic thought ”according to my interpretation the Koran and Sunnah are not the sources of faith for a Muslim”  Islam is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda”.   page 2

Another moderate with an interesting perspective is Muhammad Shahrur, a Syrian scholar known for his unique position named inclusive reformism. Inclusive reformism is almost a rebellion against previous interpretations. Shahrur is interested in casting off the interpretations of others in order to find a religious philosophy which fits his understanding of the world. He tries to “de-familiarize” the text in order to gain new insight into the Qur’anic verse. In doing so he is able to separate the divine, immortal aspects of the qur’an from the mutating human interpretations of the Qur’an. “He moves between the permanence of the textual form…and the movement of it’s contents.” Pg 267 The Form is Permanent, but the Content Moves. In doing this he is able to interpret the Qur’an from the perspective of philosophy, linguistics, and sociology as well as many other perspectives. Reason (god’s great gift) is the prime source of interpretation rather than an authority. He rejects the concept of a verse being understandable on it’s own but rather views it as if it were a piece of a larger puzzle that is the entire Qur’an.  He is also an ardent critic of abrogation. Abrogation is the repeal or abolition of a quranic law when two verses of text contradict each other. Instead of determining which of the two conflicting verses takes precedent Shahrur seems not to find a reason to view conflicting verse as a problem. He is also unique for his “crossing over among many genres, disciplines styles and ideologies.” pg 286 Shahrur’s ideology also is interesting in that it is a proponent of a sort of cultural relativism in which a society determines morality rather than a set morality. One example of Shahur’s philosophy at work is his perspective on usury. Usury according to Medinan law is not allowed but Shahrur disagrees with this law. In the case that a person is in need and requires a loan to help their family Shahrur argues that to exact interest from that person would be committing illegal usury. However if an individual who is well off desires a loan in order to increase their wealth Shahrur’s ethical system will permit legal usury.

On the other extreme of the spectrum is Sayyid Qutb, the father of islamic fundamentalism.  He believes that islamic philosophy has shifted too much from its original ideals and believes that muslims should regress back to a more traditional version of islam.  He believes in the strict abidance to the literal text in the Quran. Rather than conforming the Qur’an to make sense for daily modern life, Qutb believes we should conform our lives around the Qur’an. Qutb was an intense critic and enemy of the west and western culture. He developed this malice while studying abroad in the United States where he found the level of capitalist greed, christian ideology, individualism and mixing of sexes abhorrent. This convinced him that it was necessary for Islam to spread throughout the world in order to cleanse it of the western culture he found so appalling. He believes that the moral foundation of the Qur’an must Must be preserved entirely because it is essential to upholding morality. He also believes that the Qur’anic body of law must be observed exactly as it is in order for it to suffice. The implementation of morality also must mirror the implementation of the prophet. He believes we should actively work to revert society back to how it was in the 7th century. He believes that since the 7th century humanity has been on a downward spiral away from morality. Despite this he believes that the future has promise through a return to tradition. Qutb Interpreted the story of Moses in order to advance the ideas of his political agenda in order to call for a modern ideological revolution. He views the “slavery” of  Western culture is not far from society ruled by Pharaoh.

By examining these four distinct ideological stances, all created by modern Islamic scholars, one can truly appreciate how vastly diverse Quranic interpretation has become in modern times. Using the same core piece of text, the variety of outcomes and ways of practicing Islam represents how truly intricate and beautiful the Quran is. Because of the Quran’s intricate and often beautiful verses, it has sustained rigourous debate for nearly a thousand years. This shows a testament to not only the ever evolving need for spiritual guidance but also for the continuous relevance of the Quran’s teaching even half way around the world hundred’s of years after its creation. Perhaps the reason why the Quran has lasted this long and has remained so relevant is that it forces its followers to constantly rethink and reinterpret and because of its ever changing nature and the inevitable disagreements that it creates brings people together both in agreement but also sparks vigorous debate and forces opposing viewpoints and worldviews to continuously interact. In a world with increasing polarization in which the news one hears is often completely different from those who disagree with you, the concept of starting from the same original text becomes increasingly important. I believe religion is a tool used to bring people together and encourage us to be better than we are by opening oneself up to criticism and engaging with those we may disagree with perhaps we do just that. In the last several years the Quran in American culture has become a symbol for many things. For some, it signifies community, love, freedom of religion and acceptance.  For others, it has become a symbol of fear, xenophobia, otherness, terrorism and evil.  Perhaps, if more people read and discussed the Quran the way the scholars mentioned in this paper do, we might also be able to understand and engage with one another in a better and more productive and accepting manner. The point is not for all of to believe the same way at the end of the day.  Difference of opinion is not a curse or a problem.  It is a reality that we can either ignore or embrace.  While I don’t believe in all the viewpoints I discussed in the paper, I do believe that all of their contributions are worth listening to and engaging with on a deep and serious level. A theme throughout the entire semester has been the concept of friendship. I firmly stand behind the idea that listening to others is the first step towards creating new, long-lasting and strong friendships. Before taking this class, I had never had the chance to read the Quran and now that i have I feel lucky to be able to join in this thousand year old tradition that has taken place in every corner of the globe. I am truly grateful that I was able to expand my worldview.  It has allowed me to understand the viewpoint from which a follower of Islam sees the world and has illuminated for myself a deeper understanding of my faith which truly proves that even those who may not adhere to the teachings of Islam can still find lessons and meaning from an incredible text that speaks to Muslims and all humanity.