Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Toward a Tanweeri (Enlightened) Hermeneutics of the Qur’an

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

Muslims have been grappling with the problem of tahdith (modernization) and tajdid (renewal) for around two centuries. Several attempts have been made to reform Islam, beginning with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897). Some reformers have called for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an so that its harsh parts, such as Ayaat al-Sayf (the Sword Verses) are no longer considered normative for the present.

During the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Dar al-Shurook Publishing House (Beirut & Cairo) published four books by the Egyptian reformist scholar, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud that dealt with the modernization of the Arab-Islamic Culture: “Tajdid al-Fikr al-‘Arabi” (The Renewal of the Arab Mind), “Fi Tahdith al-Thaqafa al-‘Arabiyya” (The Modernization of Arab Culture), “Al-Ma’qool wa-Lama’qool fi Tirathina al-Fikri” (The Rational and the Irrational in our Cultural Heritage), and “Ru’ya Islamiyya” (An Islamic Vision).

Dr. Mahmoud suggested a hermeneutical principle in line with the 9th century Mu’tazilites of Baghdad who championed a rational approach in the formulation of Islamic doctrines. As I wrote in my book, The Bible and Islam (Part II, Chapter 7):

“Dr. Mahmoud summarizes his research by stressing the importance of rejecting the irrational aspect of the heritage. Only the rational outlook must be retained. But often, in his rejection of irrationalism, one gets the strong impression that our author is rejecting supernaturalism! To work for the renewal of a theistic religion by emphasizing only the horizontal relevance of the faith is to bring about a deistic faith that is something altogether different from Islamic theism.” (P. 78, source)

Thanks to the growing use of the Internet among Arab intellectuals, a number of Arabic-language websites are now dedicated to the reformation of Islam, such as  On 31 May, 2009 they posted an article with this intriguing title: “So That Islam Might Not Die”  حتى لا يموت الإسلام  Hatta la Yamutu’l Islam.

The writer showed a great concern about the lack of development in the Islamic world, attributing it to the Muslims’ inability to break from their traditional interpretation of the Qur’an. So, in order to cope with the challenges of modernity, he called on Muslims to adopt an enlightened hermeneutics of the Qur’an, a prescription that is actually quite revolutionary. Still, he did not hesitate to propose it, for unless such a step is taken, Islam will not survive! It was this strong conviction that made him choose the shocking title for his essay!

Here are excerpts translated from our author’s essay [emphasis in bold font is mine]:

“This is my concluding article in a series that dealt with the subject of development. To achieve this goal requires an open mind and liberation from those fixed and fanciful positions that offered ready-made solutions to all types of human problems. We must acknowledge that traditional Islam, with its totalitarian worldview is standing in the way of progress and development. The Muslim world is in dire need for the rise and development of a progressive and non-totalitarian Islam.  A genuine and serious reformation can only happen by adopting a complete separation between Allah and Muhammad; Allah is an absolute and unchanging Being, while the Prophet is not. Doubtless, Muhammad was the primary founder of the Umma, but as a human being, he acted within the cultural and political contexts of his days. Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Qur’an, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate.

“As I have mentioned in my previous articles, the problem does not reside in a belief in the existence of God. A person may be a believer and free at the same time. The real problem is that belief in a person or a group of people who act as representatives of the Divine. This type of faith must be rejected before any true reform can take place. For example, Protestant Christianity confesses the divinity of Christ and at the same time does not acknowledge any person that acts as his representative on earth. This has enabled Protestants to worship Christ according to their convictions, while at the same time leaving earthly matters to be dealt with in a secular fashion. We conclude that a separation of Religion from Politics is the basic condition, or the sine qua non, for the rise of a progressive and non-totalitarian religion.

“To sum up my thesis; it would be difficult and unthinkable for Muslims to reject or abandon their religion in order to achieve progress and development. The best solution for their predicament is to strip Islam of all its totalitarian impulses.” (Source)

It is refreshing to read articles by Muslim intellectuals who are very eager to see Islam delivered from the shackles of its slavish attachment to those rigid and irrational elements of their religious heritage. The only way for Arab nations to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century is to break loose from their traditional Qur’anic hermeneutics.

But what struck me the most about our author’s essay was his view of the Qur’an itself. As he put it, “Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Qur’an, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate.”

For anyone who is familiar with Arabic, and the history of Islamic theology, these words sound extremely radical, even revolutionary. Notice how he formulated his view of the Qur’an, not as a book that descended upon Muhammad, but as a book that the Prophet brought, and which is on par with his other sacred texts of Islam the Hadiths! The writer has gone beyond the views of the Mu’tazilites who denied the eternal nature of the Qur’an, and stressed its historical nature. But what he suggested is a hermeneutic that would allow for a “higher criticism” of the Qur’an, and the development of a kinder and more compassionate Islam!

At this point I realize that a Westerner reading my translation of this article may not be struck by its full impact. But to read it in Arabic is nothing less than feeling the full impact of a mega-ton bomb that shatters a foundational tenet of Islam, namely that Muhammad was the recipient of the very words of Allah. For an orthodox Muslim, whether Sunni or Shi’ite, the prescription of our author is unthinkable and amounts to kufr, i.e. utter blasphemy.

In the final analysis, the dilemma for Islam can only be solved by Muslims. Non-Muslims can study and reflect on the history and challenges that have faced Islam across the last fourteen centuries. We cannot but sympathize with the author and appreciate his “modest proposal” for Islam’s survival in our globalized world. He is absolutely convinced that unless Muslims adopt a new and open-minded hermeneutics, their future remains in doubt.

Continue with the next part.


The following is a transliteration of the author’s words about his view of the nature of the Qur’an.

Inna’l bidaya li-ay Islah Islami jad, hua al-fasl al-tam bayna’l Allah wa’l-Nabi. Fal’Allah mutlaq, baynama al-Nabi laysa kathalika. Innahu wala shak mu’assess al-Umma al-awwal, walikinnahu bashar, kana ya’malu dimna’l itari al-thaqafi wal-siyassi lizamanihi, wa-bittali fa-inna kaffat al-nusoos allati ja’a biha al-Nabi, bima feeha al-Qur’an, hiya nusoos tarikhiyya bahtat, wa-laysat nusoos sahihat bishaklen mutlaq

إن البداية لأي إصلاح إسلامي جاد هو الفصل التام بين الله والنبي، فالله مطلق بينما النبي ليس كذلك. انه ولا شك مؤسس الأمة الأول ولكنه بشر كان يعمل ضمن الإطار الثقافي والسياسي لزمانه وبالتالي فان كافة النصوص التي جاء بها النبي بما فيها القرآن هي نصوص تاريخية بحتة وليست نصوص صحيحة بشكل مطلق.