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An Example of the New “Enlightened”

Hermeneutics of the Qur’an

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany


In my previous article dealing with the reform of Islam, “Toward a Tanweeri
(Enlightened) Hermeneutics of the Qur’an,” I referred to an essay by a Muslim
reformist scholar who advocated a complete break with the hermeneutical principles of
orthodox Islam. On 31 May, 2009 he posted an article with this intriguing title: “So That
Islam Might Not Die” ‫ حتى ل يموت السلم‬Hatta la Yamutu’l Islam.
http://www.kwtanweer.com/articles/articleforprint.php?articleID=2242

The writer is very concerned 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. 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 a
revolutionary one. Still, he did not hesitate to propose it, and expressed the urgency of the
matter in these words: “For unless such a step was 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 that essay:

“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.”

In a follow-up article dated 10 June, 2009, our author offered examples of his reformist
hermeneutics, and gave it a title, “Clearer Guidance,” based on a Qur’anic Ayat that has
been translated as: “A Scripture with Clearer Guidance,” Qur’an 28:49 Surat Al-Qasas
(Stories) ‫القصص‬
49 ‫(قل فأتوا بكتاب من عند ال هو أهدى منهما أتبعه إن كنتم صادقين) القصص‬
http://www.kwtanweer.com/articles/readarticle.php?articleID=2254
First a word of explanation is necessary about Surat Al-Qasas, which relates the story of
Moses that corresponds, up to a point, to the Biblical narrative in Exodus 2. I consulted a
standard Arabic commentary on the Qur’an, Tafsir al-Qur’an: al-Jelalain, published in
Cairo, Egypt, in 1906. The following is a summary of the comments on Ayat 49; with the
highlighted parts being quotations from the Qur’an:

“This chapter in the Qur’an gives us an account of the negative response of Muhammad’s
contemporaries to the message he brought them from Allah. They complained saying,
“Why is he not given the like of what was given unto Moses?” After all, Moses had
performed several miracles, but Muhammad had done none. In response to their
challenge and unbelief, Allah told the Prophet: “Say unto them, O Muhammad: Then
bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance” So
Muhammad in his turn challenged them to bring forth a “better revelation” than the
Torah and the Qur’an, and he would be willing to follow it.”

Taking his point of departure from Qur’an 28:49, our essayist offers his readers a
revolutionary hermeneutics. He claims that in our days, there exists a “better and clearer
guidance” to cope with contemporary moral and legal issues than what is provided by the
time-bound and Arab milieu of the Qur’anic revelation. This is how he develops his
argument:

“This Qur’anic Ayat being normative, no one may dispute its relevance to our subject.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to suggest that at that time and in that place, (i.e. in 7th
century Arabia,) no one could have brought forth a better revelation than in either the
Torah, or in the Qur’an. But that’s not the case today.

“Here is a list of Qur’anic laws and regulations. Are they still to be considered valid and
applicable in the 21st century!?

1. Cutting the hand of a thief versus the punishment for murder

“In Islam, the punishment for stealing is much more severe than the punishment for
murder! For example, should the next in kin of the murdered person be willing to forgive
the murderer, his punishment would simply be a monetary payment as prescribed by the
Shari’ah. On the other hand, the punishment for stealing requires the amputation of the
hand of the thief!”

2. Flogging the adulterer

“When a rich man commits adultery, he is protected by the code that requires four
witnesses who have witnessed the act. If and when proven guilty, he is flogged for his
action! Whereas a woman caught in adultery, is punished by stoning!”

3. Multiplicity of wives, up to four in number.

4. Multiplicity of concubines.

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5. Legality of sexual relations with female slaves.

6. Killing of prisoners of war or their enslavement.

7. The testimony of a woman is worth half of the testimony of a man.

8. A woman’s inheritance is only half of a man’s inheritance.

9. The alternate amputation of limbs (a right hand’s amputation with a left foot’s
amputation.)

10. Inequality with respect to the value of human life: a Muslim may not receive
capital punishment if he has murdered an unbeliever or a slave. Also, a Muslim man
does not receive capital punishment for the murder of a Muslim woman Qur’an 2:
178

“Now can we consider these Qur’anic rules as ‘the best revelation or guidance’ for
human beings? It is probable that the above mentioned regulations were valid for those
ancient times; but for the present, no one may or should consider them as the best
possible guidance for human beings. Of course, there are some people who do believe
that such laws are valid; however they need to reflect seriously about the fairness of such
rules of conduct and punishment.

“At the beginning of my article, I quoted the following Qur’anic Ayat:


49 ‫(قل فأتوا بكتاب من عند ال هو أهدى منهما أتبعه إن كنتم صادقين) القصص‬
‘Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah
that giveth clearer guidance than these two (that) I may follow it, if ye are truthful.’
Qur’an 28:49, in the translation of Marmaduke Pickthal

“Doesn’t this Ayat allow me to adopt the best of all revelations or regulations? Are we not
allowed to revise the laws that we have followed for the last hundreds of years in order to
bring them in line with modern concepts of justice and equity?”

Analysis

The author of the essay regarding the urgent need for the adoption of an enlightened
hermeneutics for the interpretation of the Qur’an is fully aware that, in our globalized
world, Islam should no longer practise its harsh criminal laws. So, in order to provide
humane principles for Islamic jurisprudence, it is necessary no longer to regard the
Qur’an as the eternal and uncreated word of Allah, but as he put it in his first article on
this subject, “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.”

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Comments

Our brave essayist’s “modest proposal” for saving Islam, offers a hermeneutical principle
that has far-reaching consequences. In the ten examples he mentioned where the Shari’ah
dictates the rules governing “crimes and punishments,” he pointed out its several
inhumane sanctions and provisions.

The issue that was left unanswered remains: when the orthodox sources for Islamic
jurisprudence are set aside, what alternative sources should be adopted, and where are
they to be found? The author kept silence about this important matter. But if his
prescription for a higher criticism of the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Life of the
Prophet, be adopted, would the entire edifice of Islam be able to withstand the radical
reconstruction that would inevitably ensue? In other words, what kind of a “reformed” or
“enlightened” Islam would replace the fourteen-century tradition of Sunni Islam? I look
forward with eagerness to the publication of his next step in the development of an
“Enlightened (Tanweeri) Islamic Hermeneutics.”