Politicization of the Qur’an

Political concern was present in the exegesis of both Abduh and Ahmad Khan. It would thus be inappropriate to suggest that ‘politically oriented’ exegesis started with Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), the Pakistani author, journalist, interpreter of the Quran, ideologue and political activist. However, it was indeed al- Mawdudi who gave the movements of political Islam the Quranic grounding that would be copied by Sayyid Qutb. He, more than anyone else, shaped and influenced the further development of ‘orthodox fundamentalism’, also known as ‘Islamism’ (Ahmad 1967: 208-36; Tibi 2000: 42; Ramadan 1998; Slomp 2003: 239). The leaders of the Shiite revolution in Iran in 1979 cited the publications of their Egyptian Sunni ‘Brethren’ Hasan al-Banna and Sayyd Qutb, together with the Pakistani Mawdudi, as their main sources of inspiration for shaping an Islamic state.

Self evidently, it was in the Indian context, under British occupation, that the relationship between Muslims and Hindus started to deteriorate. Mawdudi started his comprehensive study of the doctrine of jihad in the mid-1920s, in response to Hindu accusations that Islam was spread by the sword, following the assassination of a non-Muslim leader by a Muslim. This work, which was first serialized and then published under the title al-jihad fi l-Islam, presented the basic elements of Mawdudi’s later thought. It was in 1932 that he began to formulate the ideology of political Islam, in the monthly journal Tarjuman al-Quran, the main vehicle for his ideas for the rest of his life. He set forth the objectives of his intellectual mission as follows:

“The plan of action I had in mind was that I should first break the hold which Western culture and ideas had come to acquire over the Muslim intelligentsia, and to instill into them the fact that Islam has a code of life of its own, its own culture, its own political and economic systems and a philosophy and an educational system which are all superior to anything that Western civilization could offer. I wanted to rid them of the wrong notion that they needed to borrow from others in the matter of culture and civilization” (Robinson n.d.: 872ff).

According to this ideology, where the West and Islam stand in dichotomy, complex human societies take on one of only two kinds: they are either ‘Islamic’ or ‘Jahili’. In Mawdudi’s Islamic view, as long as the universe is an ‘organized state’ and a ‘totalitarian system,’ in which all powers are vested in Allah, the only ruler, the state of Islam or the Islamic State should represent the earthly manifestation of the cosmos.

If both Abduh and Ahmad Khan tried, in different ways, to contextualize the Quran to open up its meaning by way of allegory and metaphor, Mawdudi also extended the literal meaning of the Quran to address the modern world. For example, the verses of chapter 5:42-50, now well known as the verses of hakimiyya (the absolute sovereignty of God), which addressed the people who rejected Islam during the time of the Prophet, were taken by Mawdudi to be addressing modern Muslims. Their meaning was not only to apply the rules prescribed by God but to establish a theocratic state.

In a detailed study of Mawdudi’s book on jihad, Slomp rightly observes that his hermeneutics turns specific decisions taken in certain historical moments into eternal divine law. Given its importance, I shall quote it in full:

“On the basis of Mawdudi’s own arguments and examples the reader concludes, that all statements on jihad in the Quran, Hadith and early Islamic history were established in actual situations, and that they were formulated on the basis of decisions concerning, for example, slaves, spoils of war, prisoners, the hypocrites, traitors, treatment of enemies, and minorities as part of a historical process. To declare the result of this process sacrosanct, as Mawdudi does, reveals that the Achilles heel of this Islamism is its way of dealing with history. For all the events in the life of the Prophet and his Companions are given the same authority as revelation. Added to this, Mawdudi’s interpretation of this ‘revelation cumhistory’ is presented as authoritative for Islam in all eras” (Slomp 2003: 255).


Ali Abd al-Raziq’s book addressed the political theory of Islam and concluded that in the absence of such a theory, Muslims have the possibility of choice. Taha Husayn (1889-1973), the shaykh who promptly left al-Azhar and joined the newly established National University, had another task to fulfill along the same lines as Abduh’s thinking. The idea emphasized in Abduh’s exegesis was that the Quran basically reflects the mentality of the pagan, 7th century Arabs. This notion was subsequently developed by Taha Husayn, Amin al-Khuli and Ahmad Khalafalla (all of whom were affiliated with the National University), until it reached a fundamental break with the traditional and long established concept of the nature of the Quran as the word of God, on one hand, and as a text on the other. It may be significant here to mention the hesitation by Abduh in his theological treatise Risalat al-Tawhid in adopting the rational Mutazili concept of the Quran as created. Abduh’s choice was unclear; the first edition of his book (1897) adopted the Mutazi’s doctrine, but in the second edition, published in al-Manar, he had switched to the Asharit’s distinction between the ‘Eternal’ aspect of God’s word and its created manifestation in our human act of ‘recitation’. It is unclear whether this alteration reveals that Abduh changed his mind or whether the changes were made by Rashid Rida (Abduh 1977: 13 and 52). 53 the twentieth

Taha Husayn emphasized the peculiar and unique aesthetic dimension of the Quranic style, namely its ijaz (inimitability), by pointing to the literary nature that makes the Quran an independent literary genre in itself (Husayn 1995:20-6). Being an historian and critic of literature par excellence, he claimed that the Quran is neither poetry nor prose; it is, quite simply, the Quran. Secondly, Husayn considered the Quranic story of the arrival in Mecca of Abraham, his wife Hagar, and his son Ishmael, to be an oral narrative dating from long before the revelation of the Quran. This story, he said, was designed to ease tension between the pagan Arabs, the original inhabitants of Yathrib, and the Arab Jewish tribes who had settled in the city. Not only did the Quran use this story to locate Islam in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also to establish its priority as monotheistic religion. Husayn’s point was to emphasize that this story should not be taken to convey any historical reality which dictated that assumptions on the linguistic situation in the Arabian Peninsula (Husayn 1995: 33-5). Needless to say, this advancing of Abduh’s thesis was significantly influenced by Husayn’s involvement in the orientalists’ discourse on the narrative of the Quran and its relation to the Biblical narrative (Paret n.d.: 980-1). Although this was only one point in his line of argument on the authenticity of the entire body of pre-Islamic poetry, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Husayn’s book sparked a heated controversy, despite the fact that he considered the Quran as the most reliable and authentic source for understanding pre-Islamic social and religious life. The dispute eventually reached Egypt’s parliament, together with allegations that it insulted Islam. Prior to being sent for trial, Husayn was questioned by the Public Prosecutor, who declared him innocent of any criminal intention against Islam. Even so, he had to endure the removal of the specific passage for the second, enlarged edition of the book, which appeared under a new title Fi l-Adab al-Jahili.

It needs to be borne in mind here that the writings of Taha Husayn were part of an overall innovative intellectual movement associated with the newly established National University. The writings of Ahmad Amin (1886-1954) on the history of Islamic civilization, in his massive tome Yawm l-Islam, is a further example of this new trend of scholarship (Amin 1928). Reviewing the history of Islam and the life of the Prophet (sirah) from a critical perspective was among the essential concerns of this new movement, which was clearly influenced by the 19th century’s fascination for history. It also influenced the Christian biographical approach to the Prophet. According to some Muslims, the biographies of the Prophet written by Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888-1956) and Taha Husayn were “one of the reasons behind the tremendous changes in the level of discussion about the Prophet’s life” (Amin 1937; Amin 1953). In this view, the discussion “shifted significantly from confrontation to dialogue” (Buaben 1996: 317). This shift is evident from a comparison between the hostile 18th- and 19th-century orientalist discourse about Muhammad and his life, and its less biased 20th-century versions. Taha Husayn’s extensive written oeuvre on the early history of Islam included books such as Ala Hamish Sirah (1943), al-Fitnah l-Kubra (1974) and later al-Shaykhan.

The excommunication of Ali Abd al-Raziq as an alim by al-Azahr’s inquisition committee, and the trial of Taha Husayn, illustrate the inflammatory political and social conflicts in Egypt. These occurred in almost every Muslim country, reflecting the tension between modernity and adherence to traditional Islamic values.

The winds of tajdid (renaissance) were permeating Egyptian life when Amin al- Khuli (1895-1966) started his career as professor at the Cairo University’s faculty of letters. He applied the method of tajdid to the study of language (nahw), rhetoric (balaghah), Quranic interpretation (tafsir) and literature (al-adab) (al-Khuli 1961). Determining which of these four fields of scholarship presents the ideal model of al-Khuli’s methodology of tajdid is no simple task. However, he took the view – backed by history – that innovation in arts and literature is the start of a renaissance (al-Khuli 1961: 219). Such innovation is vital in developing the intellectual and aesthetic awareness of the people of Egypt towards achieving a real and comprehensive national renaissance (al-Khuli 1961: 185; 195; 265). New and inspiring literature needs new literary methodology to elucidate its structure and explain its functioning. This entails a fresh study of language and rhetoric and hence the necessity of tajdid in both disciplines. As long as a renaissance and tajdid imply moving and awakening, the starting point should be a thorough and intensive study of the old tradition, in every field of knowledge.

Al-Khuli’s motto was: “the first step for any real innovation is to fully analyze tradition” (awwalu tajdid qatlu l-qadimi bahthan) (al-Khuli 1961: 82; 128; 180). Otherwise, the result will be loss rather than reconstruction (tabdid la tajdid) (al-Khuli 1961: 143). If in the past the study of literature, language and rhetoric served religious purposes, this should now change (al-Khuli 1961: 188). Al-Khuli did not see the literary study of the Quran as a matter of choice. He made the point that acceptance of the Quran, and hence of Islam by the Arabs was based on recognizing its absolute supremacy to any human text. In other words, the Arabs accepted Islam on the basis of evaluating the Quran as a literary text (al-Khuli 1961: 97-8; 124-5). This means that the literary method should supersede any other approach, be it religio-theological, philosophical, ethical, mystical or judicial (Jansen 1974: 65-7). At this point, it is important to recall that ‘romanticism’, or more accurately its Arabic version, dominated literary theory at that time (al-Bahrawi 1993).6 Working along this theory, al-Khuli developed the connection between the study of language, rhetoric and literature on one hand, and tafsir al-Quran on the other. If the classical theory of ijaz was based on the classical notion of balaghah, this notion should be replaced by the modern theory of balaghah which establishes a linkage with literary criticism. This link demands another connection to psychology, a relationship parallel to that between literary criticism and aesthetics (al-Khuli 1961: 144, 175, 182 and 189). The study of balaghah should then focus on the study of the literary style and its emotional impact on the recipient/reader (al-Khuli 1961: 185). Its objective should be to develop the aesthetic awareness of both the author and the reader; it should be renamed as fann al-qawl (the art of discourse). Only the literary approach to the Quran, through the modern theory of literature, could uncover  its ijaz, which is basically expressive and emotionally provocative (ijaz nafsi) (al-Khuli 1961: 203-4).

Ahmad Khalafallah (1916-1998) and Shukri Ayyad (1921-1999), two disciples from his group of students, as well as his wife Aisha Abd al-Rahman (known as Bint al-Shati) (1913-1998), would apply Khuli’s literary method in Quranic studies and become famous. And Sayyid Qutb, the celebrated ideologist of recent Islamic fundamentalism, began his writings about the Quran by applying a similar, though rather more impressionistic literary method. This is clear from his al-Taswir al-Fanni fi l-Quran and Mashahid l-Qiyamah fi l-Quran, and the Fi Zilal l-Quran commentary. Khalafallah’s masters thesis, Jadal al-Quran or the ‘Polemics of the Quran’, which was supervised by al-Khuli, automatically applied the principles of the literary method suggested in al-Khuli’s commentary on the tafsir article in the Arabic translation of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. To some extent, Khalafalla’s Ph.D. thesis al-Fann al-Qasasi fi l-Quran al-Karim (The Art of Narrative in the Quran) further developed the method proposed by al-Khuli, although it followed the methodological steps suggested by his professor. The first step was to collect the Quranic stories, the second to rearrange these stories in chronological order (tartib al-nuzul). This should enable analysis according to their original context, i.e., the social environment, the emotional state of the Prophet, and the development of the Islamic message (Khalafallah 1972: 14). Such contextualization, Khalafallah affirms, would help uncover the original semantic level of the Quranic narration, the level also understood by the Arabs at the time of revelation (Khalafallah 1972: 15). It is worth noting here that Khalafallah does not apply the thematic study by compiling the fragments of the stories mentioned in various suras. Indeed, he considers every piece of narrative to be an independent story in itself. For example, the story of Moses is not one single story. Each of the stories where Moses is mentioned represents a narrative unit to be studied in its own right. A thematic analysis would violate the contextual dimension emphasized by Khalafallah.

It seems that Khalafallah was very preoccupied with what might happen to him personally, as a result of his approach. He stressed how difficult it was to accomplish his thesis, and how he put himself in jeopardy. However, he insisted that academic and scientific knowledge required him to take such risks (Khalafallah 1972: 17). He also referred to the difficulties experienced by commentators on the Quran, particularly the theologians (al-mutakalimun). These problems resulted either from imposing pre-established ideology on the Quran or from seeking to prove the historical authenticity of its narration. In both cases the textual meaning of the Quran is ignored (Khalafallah 1972: 2-5). On the other hand, the Orientalists’ discourse on the Quran questions its historical authenticity on the grounds that its stories contradict, or at least fail to comply with historical facts (Khalafallah 1972: 6). Studying the Quranic stories as literary narrative – as suggested by the literary approach – makes historical authenticity either irrelevant or rather the wrong question to ask. Quoting some remarks from classical sources including al-Qadu Abd al-Jabbar, al-Zamakhshari and al-Razi, as well as modern sources such as Abduh, Khalafallah emphasized that the stories of the Quran are allegories, amthal, not intended to convey historical fact. As amthal they belong to the category of mutashabihat or the ambiguous. The fact that classical commentators seek to explain their ambiguity overloads their books with data borrowed from previous Judeo-Christian traditions, israiliyyat in Arabic. In contrast, the literary approach requires no such data, since it differentiates between narrative structure, jism al-qissah, and the meaning of the story. This differentiation is based on both classical and modern explanations. The classical explanation deals with the stories as amthal, and in the structure of amthal it differentiates between the meaning, al-mana, and its implication, luzum, which are not necessarily identical (Khalafallah 1972: 56). The modern explanation is taken from the literary narrative dealing with certain historical characters or historical incidents; an example is the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, who appears in the narratives of Shakespeare, Shaw, Ahmad Shawqi and Sir Walter Scott (Khalafallah 1972: 57). The body of such stories may appear historical, but their meaning or message does not necessarily reflect history. Unlike the historian, the writer is entitled to poetic license in using history for literary composition.

In addition to the theoretical evidence set out above, we also have Quranic evidence proving the need to apply the literary approach. First, the Quran deliberately does not mention either the time or location of historical incidents in its stories, and it also omits some characters. Second, in dealing with several historical stories the Quran selects some events and leaves out others. Third, it changes the chronological order of events. Fourth, the Quran occasionally switches the characters performing given actions. Fifth, when the story is repeated in another chapter of the Quran, a character’s dialogue may be different from that spoken in a previous context. Sixth, the Quran occasionally chronologically adds later incidents to the narrative. All this clearly indicates that the Quran exercises the same freedom as do literary stories when dealing with history (Khalafallah 1972: 60-3).

Apparently the major dilemma confronting Khalafallah and his professor was the state of schizophrenia into which the Muslim state of mind became entrapped when dealing with the modernization of Muslim societies’ sociopolitical structures. This dilemma is not limited to historical authenticity; it also refers to the future of Islamic thought. It is remarkable that Khalafallah invariably used the phrase Islamic reason, al-aql al-Islami, in dealing with problems concerning the comprehension of the Quran. For example, he explains how alaql al-Islami, being so concerned with the historical authenticity, is unable to recognize the ethical and spiritual dimensions of the Quranic stories. Al-aql al-Islami is also unable to explain why the story is repeated, or why the details differ when it is repeated (Khalafallah 1972: 37-40). More problematic are the apparent contradictions of historical and scientific knowledge in the Quranic stories (Khalafallah 1972: 40-1). Al-Khuli, in his introduction to the second edition of al-Fann al-Qasasi (Cairo 1957), mentions the case of Taha Husayn. He states very clearly that the literary approach to the Quran is the only possible way of saving Muslim intellectuals from schizophrenia. Muslims can truly believe in Islam and the holy Quran without necessarily believing that the stories mentioned in the Quran are historically authentic (al-Khuli 1957). In such references, al-Khuli alludes to other cases reflecting a similar state of mind. As we have seen, there were also noted attacks against the writings of Qasim Amin, Ali Abd al-Raziq and Taha Husayn.

The literary approach is generally supposed to offer a solution. It frees the Muslim mentality from a position of stagnation. “The Quran is neither a book of science, nor of history, nor of political theory”, is what the discourse of tajdid seeks to establish. The Quran is a spiritual and ethical book of guidance, in which the stories are used to fulfill this purpose. In other words, the Quranic stories are literary narratives employed to serve ethical, spiritual and religious purposes. It is, therefore, a fatal methodological error to deal with the narrative of the Quran as purely historical facts (al-Khuli 1957).

On 13 October 1947, after more than seven months of dispute in both press and parliament, the university decided not to accept Khalafallah’s dissertation, and he was transferred to another job outside teaching. It also decided that his supervisor, al-Khuli, should no longer be allowed to teach or supervise Quranic Studies. This decision was based on the fact that al-Khuli had held the chair of Egyptian Literature since his appointment on 6 October 1946. Hence, he was not supposed to deal with Quranic studies (Safan 1994: 38). All of al-Khuli’s students of Quranic Studies were transferred to other supervisors. He himself continued as a university professor but was confined to teaching Arabic grammar, rhetoric and literature. A few years later, in 1954, al-Khuli would be among a group of about 40 university professors who were transferred to jobs outside teaching. Ironically enough, this decision was made by the new military regime of the Free Officers Movement (Harakat Dubbat al-Ahrar), supposedly to cleanse the university of corruption.

It took some 30 years before Ayyad, Al-Khuli’s other student, decided to publish his masters dissertation Yawm Din wa l-Hisab fi l-Quran (the Day of Judgment in the Quran), a work he had accomplished under al-Khuli’s supervision around the same period as Khalafalla’s thesis. In its introduction he explained his reluctance to publish the dissertation earlier, citing academic difficulties due to misunderstandings by the public and narrow-minded reactions to the literary approach to the Quran during the 1940s. He argued that, at the time, only very few readers were able to cope with the method of employing linguistics and literary criticism enriched with a knowledge of both sociology and psychology. While these difficulties had discouraged him from publicizing his thesis, the encouragement of colleagues and friends later convinced him that the time was right to publish it as a book (Ayyad 1980: 5). What Ayyad did not mention is that after he had finished his masters degree, he had to face the consequences of the heated debate around Khalafallah’s thesis. He could either choose to go ahead with Quranic studies under the supervision of another professor, or continue studying with Amin al-Khuli, which would take him outside the discipline of Quranic studies. Like most of al-Khuli’s students, Ayyad was so attached to his professor that he preferred the second option. With all these difficulties and threats of persecution, Quranic Studies based on the principles of the literary approach continued to flourish outside academia. Possibly the most important result of this would be the continuation of the principle of re-contextualization.

Source: Nasr Abu Zayd, Reformation of Islamic Thought, pp. 52-29.

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