Micah Vriezelaar – “Modernist Approaches to the Qur’an Between Rationalism and Action”

Modernist approaches to the Qur’an flourished in the 20th century, during times of tense political reform and differentiated social change. For the purposes of this paper, I will be comparing Sayyid Qutb, often referred to as “the father of modern fundamentalism,” with Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, a contemporary Shi’a cleric and political activist positing the coexistence of democracy and Islam.

Qutb represents a level of augmented traditionalism, where his first line of theoretical defense is constituted by Qur’an, specifically citing the Qur’anic retelling of Moses and the Exodus in surah 20, which represents both a literary and a religious basis for political change,i and his second is based upon reason and rationalism to actively critique his political surroundings and contribute to change. Having spent two years abroad in the U.S., Qutb returned to his home country of Egypt in 1951 to embrace the society of Muslim Brothers, which would later come under much persecution by Gamal Abdel Nasser.ii Mainly, Qutb’s political motivations were anti-Western in scope, and perceiving a change in his home country to the allures of the West, Qutb spoke against it at length, basing his tafsir and philosophy entirely from what could be gleaned by the recontextualization of shari’a in Egyptian and Middle Eastern life; a society based upon the Christian ideals of trinity, original sin, and redemption are against the Islamic conceptions of right, reason, and conscience and should be considered heresy.iii

In Qutb’s tafsir, Moses forms the prime Muslim in surahs 20 and 26, where his faith in under question in a hostile society, and at times, he is seen to only have the support of the family and the Almighty, forming the primacy of Moses’ deeds and his religious message. At their core, men are only human,iv and Moses’ resistance to Pharaoh, as well as his repeated assertions to oust Pharaoh from power represent both the Islamic obligation to face and repeal tyranny as well as how to approach polytheism and its inimical status toward Islam. Qutb explains that Moses has no obligations to convert Pharaoh by reason or by force, given that to win the hearts and minds of men is the purview of God,v but instead his duty is to oppose tyranny. God supports Moses through his stage of fugitivism, where his guidance allows Moses to surmount the struggles “of tyranny, of regret, of confusion, and the need to ask forgiveness, experience of fear, of banishment and terror, of exile and loneliness and hunger,”vi all of which are aspects of life that Qutb identified with and felt a parallel to in his own life. Furthermore, Moses’ time in exile further helped to rethink his own life and the lived experiences of the other Hebrews, and as “a messenger sent to rebuild his people, not a new community,”vii Qutb argues that reclamation of a true Islamic society from the current jahili one was the task Moses underwent. In this way, revolution is not the construction of a new community; it itself is a reclamation, which Qutb wholeheartedly believed was necessary to revisit old authority. Politically, any direction away from the Western ideals that Qutb viewed in Egyptian society was productive, and compounding upon that was the need that jihad would contribute to a shift away from the current tenets of Western cultural and political hegemony.

Mohammad Shabestari, however, takes a more sidelong stance to the connection of religion and politics, stating that Islam has the ability to provide “political impetus,” but shari’a is fundamentally flawed in its application to everyday life.viii A graduate of the Qom Seminary, he is a foremost critic against the Iranian political system, arguing from within a theological basis that the notion of theocracy is un-Qur’anic,ix unless the system is free from any and all ambiguity, linked directly to the source of revelation. Islam, as a religion, cannot be a political agenda (according to Shabestari) for the sake of its reliance upon interpretation, and singular interpretation cannot be taken as universal;x the Abbasid era helped associate Islam with a set of formalized rules that would come to both exemplify the religion and the political status as one to further legitimize their reign, a process which Shabestari identifies as happening today.xi In some sense, the aspects of this conservatism has created a kind of distortion, which alienates youth and women for the purposes of propagating a semi-theocratic state. Religion has departed from being the kind of spiritual organism that it evolved as to begin with, and should be treated with reason when reason is needed to decipher, and accepted when an interpretation is in accord with an individual’s idea of God and Sunnah, and in Shabestari’s own words, “my hermeneutics are secular hermeneutics.”xii If anything, I would agree for the ways in which Shabestari reconciles his faith with regards to politics; faith presses one onward to political action, as Qutb elucidates, but it cannot be the source of your political restructuring. It must be your rational, chosen belief.

Both Shabestari and Qutb argue for separate, developed points that join religion and politics in the theoretical sphere; where Qutb argues for an intrinsic intermingling that must be strengthened, Shabestari argues for the reclassification and separation of the personality of faith with the institutional implementation of political action.

iJohns, 149.

iiIbid, 146.

iiiLecture notes, 4/21/2016.

ivJohns, 153.

vIbid, 150.

viIbid, 163.

viiIbid, 165.

viiiInterview with Shabestari, “Islam is a Religion, Not a Political Agenda,” Qantara, 2008.

ixLecture notes, 4/26/2016.


xiShabestari, “Islam is a Religion.”

xiiInterview with Shabestari, “Muslims Can Have Democracy Without Having To Leave Islam,” Qantara, 2008.