Dossier 17: The Shahrur Phenomenon: A Liberal Islamic Voice from Syria

Publication Author: 
Peter Clark
September 1997
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In the early I990s the Arab world has witnessed an extraordinary publishing phenomenon. An 800 page book on Islam, Al-kitab wa’lqur’an: qira’a mu’asira (The Book and the Qur’an: a contemporary reading), was first published by the Ahali Publishing House Damascus in 1990. The book challenges a millennium of Islamic tradition. It is highly critical of the social, political and intellectual state of contemporary Arab countries. The author has been denounced as ‘an enemy of Islam’ and as ‘a Western and Zionist agent’. To date eleven other books have been written attacking his theses. Yet the book has been repeatedly reprinted and has sold 20 000 copies in Syria alone. And despite bans, tens of thousands of further copies, as well as pirated, faxed and photocopied versions, have circulated in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.

The author, Professor Muhammad Shahrur, is a mild-mannered professor of Civil Engineering who was born in Damascus in I938. After secondary school in Damascus Muhammad went to the Soviet Union to study engineering in Moscow. He was not a Marxist though he was challenged by the Marxist dialectic. He owed far more, he has told me, to Hegel and to Alfred North Whitehead. He returned to Syria in I964 to teach at the university and was due to do research at Imperial College London in I967. The June war with Israel that year and the consequent break in diplomatic relations between Britain and Syria put an end to that. Instead he went to Dublin and completed a Master’s degree, and a PhD for a thesis on soil mechanics and foundation engineering. For the last twenty years he has been teaching at the University of Damascus. He is also a partner in an engineering consultancy.

He has followed up the first book with a sequel, Dirasat islamiyya mu’asira fi l-dawla wa’l-mujtama’ (Contemporary Islamic Studies on State and Society), under 400 pages, published also by Ahali of Damascus in I994, which elaborates and extends some points made in the earlier book. A third volume is promised at the end of I996.

Shahrur is stating the secular liberal case for Islam. He ‘deconstructs’ the Qur’an and is highly critical of the tradition of fiqh (jurisprudence) that has distorted the message of Islam, and had a stifling effect on Arab Islamic society. Throughout the two books he affirms his own faith as an Arab Muslim. He follows references to the Prophet Muhammad with the letters, for the formalistic invocation, salla allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Similarly he refers to Allah with the extolment subhanahu wa ta’ala.

His methodology, the use he makes of that methodology, his historical interpretations and his own positive view of Islam are very different from conventional received traditions of Islam.

I propose to outline Shahrur’s methods and arguments and to assess the impact of his work. I am not an expert in fiqh or tafsir (qur’anic exegesis). Nor is it possible in the space to discuss all Shahrur’s ideas. He may disagree with aspects of my presentation. This is all unavoidable when considering over 1000 pages of closely argued theology.

References henceforth will be to the texts of his two books. KQ refers to the Al-kitab wa’l-qur’an, DIM to the Dirasat islamiya mu’asira. Translations from the Qur’an are from The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, the translation of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, of which there have been many editions.

Shahrur asserts the timelessness of the Qur’an. It is the word of Allah as interpreted by the Prophet Muhammad, his contemporaries and immediate successors (KQ, 36). However there is a direct dialogue between the reader and the text and today’s Muslims must concentrate on that text and by-pass the intermediary of the traditions of tafsir. The Qur’an should be read as if the Prophet Muhammad had only recently died (KQ, 41). Just as the Prophet, his contemporaries and his immediate successors understood the text of the Qur’an in the light of their intellectual capacities and of their perception of the world, so we should read and understand it in the light of ours. A key concept of Shahrur’s is ardiyya ‘ilmiyya or ardiyya ma’rifiyya which might be translated as ‘scientific premises’. (Shahrur himself prefers the rendering ‘scientific background.’) Seventh-century Arabia had a limited concept of the principles determining the natural world, but the history of scientific discovery has been one of continuous expansion of what was known and the diminishing of what was unknown (KQ, 43). These subsequent scientific discoveries and new hypotheses give us a greater understanding of particular passages in the Qur’an. For example, modern theories of the creation of the world and of the existence of hydrogen are anticipated in the first three verses of Surat al-Fajr (KQ 235); Darwinism in Surat al-Zumar (KQ, 280). Thus the Qur’an needs to be read and re-read in the light of developing and changing premises. Qur’an studies are dynamic. The Qur’an itself appeals to those who are rasikhu-n fi al-’ilm (those who are of sound instruction) or ulu al-albab (men of understanding) (Surat al-Imran, 7). The relationship between reader and text is bound to change over the centuries. It will continue to change to the end of time (KQ, 192).

In order to understand the text of the Qur’an each word has to be analysed in the light of what we know, not as has been told us by the traditions of fiqh (KQ, 182).

Shahrur looks hard at the meaning and possible variant meanings of most of the key words of the Qur’an. In this analysis he relies largely on standard classical dictionaries. His analyses enlighten and explain some points anew. I will give a few examples.

The Qur’an was revealed by a process that is described sometimes as inzal, sometimes as tanzil (KQ, 147-151). Translations do not always make a distinction between the two verbal nouns. Shahrur does, looking at all the references to both words in the Qur’an, and comparing the usual nature of the difference between the second and the fourth form. Tanzil has a general sense; inzal is more specific. The fourth form of the word is always used when the Qur’an refers to the revelation being in the Arabic language and directed at a particular group of people -- the Arabs. Shahrur uses the (contemporary) analogy of the recording of a message or a video cassette (tanzil), with the act of switching it on to hear or to watch (inzal). This distinction has only become clear to us, he argues, in the light of recent developments in communications.

Secondly he examines the word, ummi, often interpreted as ‘illiterate’, describing the Prophet Muhammad (KQ, 139-140). Ummi was applied by Jews and Christians before Islam to those who were outside the faith. They were ignorant of the faith. ‘Illiterate’ is a logical but misleading extension of that meaning. With the inherited pre-Islamic meaning, however, the Prophet Muhammad was ummi, insofar as he was outside the faiths of Islam and Christianity. He does not mean that he was unable to read and write.

Thirdly he looks at the word banin in Surat al-Shu’ara, 133, amaddakum bi-an’am wa-banin which Pickthall translates as ‘(Allah) Hath aided you with cattle and sons’. Shahrur (KQ, 644) analyses this verse in the context of a long argument against patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Banin is from the root meaning ‘to build’ and is used here, in contrast to an’am, and means ‘buildings’ or ‘fixed assets’, as opposed to livestock or moveable assets.

A fourth example seemed on a first reading to be taking the methodology to extremes. He analyses (KQ, 206-207) Su-rat al-Qadr, 3: laylat al-qadr khayrun min alf shahr, translated by Pickthall as ‘The Night of Power is better than a thousand months’. The Night of Power was the night in the month of Ramadan when the Prophet Muhammad received his Call and the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to him. Shahrur puts the last two words under his etymological microscope. Alf means ‘a thousand’, yes, but also has the idea of creation, the bringing of things together (as in mu’allif, a writer). And shahr is connected with the root meaning ‘to unsheathe (a sword), to proclaim, to make public or famous’. In other words, the meaning of the verse is that the occasion of the revelation of the Qur’an is of greater value than any other kind of fame that can be devised. On a second reading, I do not find this such a fantastic interpretation. After all a thousand months is only eighty or so years, a lifetime. The message of the Qur’an is eternal and of far greater duration than a lifetime.

Shahrur also deconstructs the concepts of risala and nubuwa, the abstract nouns relating to rasu1 and nabi, which are both translated as ‘prophet’, though the former also has the idea of ‘messenger’. The declaration of faith is that Muhammad is the rasul of Allah, not the nabi. Shahrur states (KQ, 37) that all parts of the Qur’an can be classified as either nubuwa or risala or an explanation. In the nubuwa parts of the Qur’an we find statements that cannot be challenged -- the Oneness of Allah, the firqan (based on the Ten Commandments), the natural laws, the history of previous prophets, though these parts may be reinterpreted in the light of new knowledge. Risala, on the other hand, contains ethics and rules of conduct. Some parts are absolutely fixed, like rules of worship and morals, but others such as prescribed legislation and punishment, can be subject to ijtihad (independent individual judgement). They can even be dropped, as the Khalifa ‘Umar al-Khattab did with Surat al-Anfal, 41 (KQ, 38).

One area to which Shahrur applies his own ijtihad relates to the question of alcohol (KQ, 477). He looks at all the verses in the Qur’an that refer to wine. Attitudes are not consistent and there is even some ambivalence. In Surat al-Nisa’, 43, believers are enjoined not to come to prayer in a state of intoxication, with the implication that it is not impermissible to be intoxicated at other times. In Surat al-Baqara, 219, the sinfulness of strong drink is compared with its usefulness. And in Surat al-Ma’ida, 90-91, believers are told to turn aside from, to avoid strong drink: there is no denunciation of the practice. And in one of the descriptions of Paradise -- in Surat Muhammad, 15, there flow rivers of wine. Condemnation is not absolute. This is in contrast to the injunctions about eating pigflesh where the ban is absolute and unequivocal: hurimat ‘alaykum al-mayyita wa-al-dam wa-lahm al-khanzir (Surat al- Ma’ida, 3). ‘Forbidden unto you (for food) are carrion and blood and swineflesh.’ There are no pigs in Paradise.

In Shahrur’s view Islam is a dynamic revolutionary faith, relevant for all time and all places (KQ, 555). The dynamism started from the revelation of the Qur’an itself. The Prophet Muhammad himself was the first to practise tafsir (KQ, 60). He made a distinction between the authority of the Qur’an and his own commentaries, the hadith. The Prophet Muhammad did not give instructions for his commentaries to be collected, as he did for the Qur’an (KQ, 546). The Prophet Muhammad was a fallible human being. His tafsir was as subject to revision as that of anybody else.

But in the century following the death of the Prophet Muhammad the Islamic Empire became a major power under the Umayyads and a religious class developed that was separate from the wielders of political authority. This class upheld political authority and was uncritical of those possessing it. The people wielding power were content that the religious establishment invoked Allah only for things that did not challenge their power. Fiqh and authority became twins (KQ, 569, 622). The interpretation and development of Islam in the next few centuries became fossilized. Fresh interpretation was not permitted. The ‘Gate of Ijtihad’ was closed. But, says Shahrur, the gate of ijtihad was never closed (DIM, 218). The authority of the religious classes and the fossilization has had a harmful effect on all subsequent Islamic Arab history. The character of fiqh-dominated Islam has been conservative, formalistic, obsessed with rules, out of touch with contemporary thought and concerned with the minutiae of human relations rather than with wider social and political morality (KQ, 579, 586-88; DIM, 24, 41, 160). The faqihs were ignorant. Great medieval Arab Islamic scholars such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were condemned in the Islamic world but were studied and respected in Europe. In contrast those such as al-Shafi’i, revered by the Islamic religious establishment, had no impact whatsoever on the rest of the world (DIM, 228). The faqihs and ‘ulama’ were concerned with what was permissible or not, not what was reasonable or not. They were unaware of their own ignorance (DIM, 225). The progressive can understand the reactionary, but the reactionary cannot understand the progressive, nor does he want to (DIM, 239). Their deleterious influence has prevailed to the present day. Contemporary Islamic philosophy goes round in circles (KQ, 30). Shahrur’s purpose in his writings is to call for a new fiqh, not for a new Islam (DIM, 235).

Shahrur’s strictures, never ad hominem, on practices and beliefs of today’s fundamentalists are equally vigorous. To imagine that the practices of seventh-century Arabia are of relevance today is ahistorical (DIM, 42). The Prophet Muhammad cleaned his teeth with a stick. The lesson to be drawn is that it is meritorious to clean your teeth, not that you use a stick for the purpose (KQ, 580).

He is similarly fierce about the fundamentalists’ attitude to women’s dress. The status of women greatly improved at the birth of Islam. The liberation of women started with the Prophet, but should not end then (KQ, 564, 595). The Qur’an addresses men and women equally. But fiqh has imposed a patriarchal view on society. Women came to be seen as possessions to be cherished as if they were camels or cars (DIM, 326). The Qur’an stressed the voluntary nature of belief (DIM, 143): la ikrah fi al-din (Surat al-Baqara, 256) (‘There is no compulsion in religion’). Fa-’man sha’a fa-liyu’min wa-man sha’a fa-liyakfur (Surat al-Kahf, 29) (‘Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve’).

If such an essential aspect of Islam as belief is voluntary, then what is the basis for thinking that dress is anything but voluntary and optional? (DIM, 329, 351). The custom in Syria today of having a party to celebrate ‘the return to religion’ of a girl who takes to wearing the headscarf is offensive to Islam (DIM, 327). Religion is far more than a piece of cloth. Fundamentalists and the religious establishment do not campaign with the same energy against bribery, fraud, irresponsibility, incompetence or political immorality (DIM, 175).

One concept that Shahrur develops in his second book is that of istibdad (absolutism, Review Article 341 arbitrariness), which he sees as of three kinds, all described in the Qur’an and symbolized respectively by Far’un (Pharaoh), Haman and Qarun (DIM, 241, 246). The first is political absolutism, the second religious, the third economic. Each Arab and Islamic country has had its Pharaoh and its Qarun legitimized by its Haman (DIM, 259). The religious establishment has legitimized political absolutism and economic oppression. The task of contemporary Islam is to liberate people from these absolutisms.

There are positive concepts that Shahrur sees at the centre of Islam, above all shura (taking counsel) and ibaha (freedom and openness) (DIM, 142). Just as fiqh and authority are one pair of twins, so freedom and science are another (DIM, 220, 299). Siru fi al-ard fa-nzur kayfa bada’a alkhalq (Surat al-’Ankabut, 20) (‘Travel in the land and see how he originated creation ...’) Open enquiry and research should be the basis of legislation. There are always alternative points of view and these should not be silenced (DIM, 145). Allied to this scientific approach is the need to promote an educated social conscience (DIM, 173). An Islamic state should be pluralistic. The way to resolve consequent tensions is through consultation (DIM, 193) in a democratic environment. We are beholden to use Allah’s gifts of reflection (fikr) and power of reasoning (‘aql) (DIM, 330). These gifts should be given total freedom to analyse rather than to memorize (DIM, 319).

Shahrur’s Islamic society has more in common with European and American countries than any in the Arab or Islamic world today. He has, not surprisingly, been the subject of criticism.

But the popularity of Shahrur’s work indicates that he is saying something that has hit a chord in contemporary Arab and Islamic thought. Shahrur has not been personally threatened, and in 1995 was an honoured participant in public debates on Islam in Lebanon and Morocco. He receives correspondence from readers all over the world. Muslims are operating in a complex and competitive world. Most Muslims are conscientious believers who, like the rest of us, try to make sense of the world. Shahrur’s work resembles that of other contemporary Arab writers on religion Farah Fuda and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd of Egypt, and Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri of Morocco -- who are articulating an Islamic intellectual system that repudiates that of Sayyid Qutb and his successors.

In many ways Shahrur’s work goes beyond religious debate. He is identifying flaws in contemporary society -- social and intellectual. People are reading his work not purely as religious commentary or an updated tafsir. They are reading a social and political analysis of closed Arab Islamic societies.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a great Arab migration: an expansion of Arabs studying in Europe and America, a recruitment of labour and skills to Arabia and the Gulf and among Arab countries, an emigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese. Arabs have been able to see the strengths and limitations of their own heritage and society and compare them with others. The monopoly of information claimed by individual governments has broken down. The informational technology revolution of the 1990s has accelerated these changes to the intellectual environment. Arab Muslims have the opportunity to think for themselves in a way that was discouraged a generation ago.

Shahrur’s message is a contemporary message, a reassurance to the perplexed, a reassertion of the liberal tradition of Islam and an affirmation of the relevance of the faith to the pluralistic global village of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Hence the importance of his work.

Reprinted with permission from:
Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1996

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