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Book of the month

The Qur’an, Morality and Critical Reason: The Essential Muhammad Shahrur

The Qur'an, Morality and Critical Reason: The Essential Muhammad Shahrur


Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Andreas Christmann

Reviewed by Clifford Chanin
Clifford Chanin edits a monthly column, Islam and the World, for Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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Readers of The Qur’an, Morality and Critical Reason: The Essential Muhammad Shahrur will immediately discern Muhammad Shahrur’s elaborate and intriguing effort to recast Qur’anic interpretation in the light of modern critical reasoning. They will also encounter an English translation of writings that have gained renown across the Middle East because Muhammad Shahrur—trained as an engineer, rather than as an Islamic scholar (‘alim)—dares to provide a textually-argued rationale for a full engagement with modernity.

Shahrur’s renown is no small element of the book’s appeal, since an Islam rooted in a modern interpretive structure—with excuses for stretching the term— has been the “Holy Grail” of Islamic reformist modernizers for more than 150 years. While these alternative worldviews have not established themselves as authoritative, together they embody a continuously-expressed desire for an understanding of Islam that does not automatically revert to methods of reasoning that have been largely fixed for a millennium.

The fact that tens of thousands of copies of Shahrur’s writings have circulated throughout the Arabic-speaking world, often clandestinely in places where the book has been banned, speaks to the contemporary hope of many Muslims that this indeed may be the Grail, and that it will prove Holy in both conventional and contemporary terms.

This hope is especially striking at a time when Islamic radicalism dominates much of the public sphere in the Muslim world—and casts a long shadow over relations with non-Muslims. Undoubtedly, radicalism is now having its moment, a moment whose duration is not easy to predict. But the task that Muhammad Shahrur has taken on, and its resonance with an unmeasured but still significant part of the Arab-Muslim community, reflects a deep thirst for an alternative to the rigidities of a world defined as Us vs. Them.

For Shahrur, traditional Islam must necessarily be unbending because its interpretation is monopolized by a class of religious exegetes whose authority is based on their assertion that nothing must change. He blames the ‘ulama for their unwillingness to assimilate any form of modern knowledge or reasoning into their interpretation of Islam. Shahrur’s view is that a concentration on Islam as it was in earlier times and earlier circumstances confounds the point of revelation.

Since traditional clerical interpretations of Islam reflect a fixed notion of God’s revelation, Shahrur argues that they do not account for one of God’s most important endowments to mankind: the gift of reasoning. How is it that reason has been applied to all domains of knowledge with marvelous effect, yet when it comes to an engagement with God’s revelation, reason has been frozen in time? How can the mundane circumstances of life in seventh century Arabia supersede centuries of subsequent human achievement in the understanding of God’s wisdom?

The answer lies in a distinction that is unique to Shahrur’s view of the revelation. The eternal element of God’s revelation is what Shahrur refers to as al-Islam. His use of this term, however, defies common usage, since Shahrur does not mean to denote what we would today call the religion of Islam as it is practiced by people who call themselves Muslims. In his reading, al-Islam is the eternal ethical code that God provided through his revelation to the Prophet Mohammad. This code, which had earlier revelations in other scriptures, is the inheritance of all believers, whether or not we would today identify them as Muslim.

Because it is eternal, this truth, Shahrur argues, must have existed before the Prophet Mohammad received his revelation from God. How else to account for the disciples of earlier prophets, like Moses and Jesus? Either they were mistaken, a view that is contradicted by the accounts of the Qur’an, or they had already identified this eternal truth, and must then be considered among God’s faithful, though they preceded the Prophet Mohammad.

In Shahrur’s view, traditional religious authorities have obscured an important distinction that would make this difference plain: between what Shahrur calls Muslim-Assenters (al-muslimun) and Muslim-Believers (al-mu’minun). The first category, by far the larger of the two, encompasses all those who subscribe to the eternal ethical code that is at the heart of al-Islam.

The second category refers to the people who would today be called Muslims. They are Muslims not because God’s revelation applies only to them, but because they follow the traditional practices that have come to be identified with the Muslim faith. Shahrur refers to these practices and theological traditions as al-iman (as opposed to al-Islam), which is to say the particular rituals and beliefs of those people who identify themselves as Muslims.

For Shahrur, the responsibility for this confusion falls on the ‘ulama, and reflects “a fundamental flaw in traditional scholarship” (Page 21). The Muslim clergy has drained God’s revelation of its ethical core, preferring to arbitrate the purity of a rigid set of rituals. Anti-clericalism is central to Shahrur’s project, since he believes that the clergy has not been simply mistaken in its views, but self-interested in placing ritual before ethics. In this manner, the clerics have “sacralized” an interpretive hierarchy that preserves their position at the top.

Shahrur is not modest about his ambitions. The purpose of his efforts, he writes, is “to reconnect ethics to religion and to present an interpretation of al-Islam in which the moral teachings of the Qur’an are rediscovered for the benefit of an Arab civil society, which gets its priorities right and places enlightened civility before stupefying ritualism and mindless doctrinism” (Page 22).

It does not take an especially close understanding of Shahrur—or of his Arab readers—to recognize that an appeal for the empowerment of civil society and against “mindless doctrinism” covers much more than religious dogma. It is a critique of the broader dilemma of Arab societies, and their inability to surmount the hurdles of the modern world. Such views are not unique to Shahrur: Arab development reports, despairing critics, and political movements have been hammering away at this idea for decades.

Shahrur, however, takes this critique back to its source: the clerically-enforced separation of Muslims from non-Muslims into distinct categories of believers. In his view, this separation may have assumed a primacy for Muslims, but it has had the perverse effect of depriving them of access to the bounty of centuries of human reason.

Shahrur’s view is not simply bold. It is deeply humane. It bespeaks a vision of Islam that retains a universal ambition, yet willingly disposes of all notions of hierarchy among the world’s religious communities in their adherence to the truth of God’s revelation. Moreover, there is a public in the Arab world that will seek out a writer who explores the central issues of our time—democracy, gender equality, freedom of conscience—from a perspective that finds no necessary contradiction between modern reason and the scriptures.

Gauging the impact of Shahrur’s writings is not easy. While his clerical critics have attempted to dismiss him for his lack of religious credentials, they appear to recognize that a back-handed swipe will not make him disappear. Instead, they have published lengthy tomes in rebuttal. However, the kind of public debate that would follow from an open engagement with Shahrur’s views is not possible in many Arab countries, though it is in these very countries that much of his readership resides. Shahrur remains based in Damascus where, by all accounts, his work proceeds at its own pace. More than a decade ago, I was involved in organizing Shahrur’s first appearance in the United States—a talk before a small group at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. By then, his first major work, The Book and the Qur’an, had already been in circulation in Arabic for several years and the Shahrur phenomenon was beginning to build in the Arab world. For an American audience versed in neither Qur’anic history nor interpretation, the subtleties of his case were not especially accessible. Instead, what resonated was an argument that used the Qur’an as the basis for finding common ground with non-Muslims. Much of the discussion focused on Shahrur’s insistence that he preferred to identify Christians and Jews as Muslim-Christians and Muslim-Jews, starting from the Qur’anically-grounded perspective on the People of the Book. This was his way of certifying their affinity—and their equality—with what we conventionally understood as Muslims.

His audience grasped the radicalism of the argument, acknowledged the depth of reading on which it was based, and wondered where it might lead. That question is still not answered, though Shahrur has continued to empower his audience to think of themselves as members of a human community whose boundaries are not defined by narrow ritualism or cultural predestination. Remarkably, this impulse has not weakened, in spite of lengthy conflicts, enormous losses and adherents on both sides of an unending “clash of civilizations.”

Now that his argument has been made, Shahrur faces a challenge that others before him have faced, and have been unable to resolve: how to sustain over time an independent-minded inquiry into the very basis of the faith? The answer to this challenge must inevitably return to institutions of religious and scholarly inquiry that, for the most part, Shahrur has had to work around. Without a base in universities, think tanks, and even religious schools, the quest for a critical dialogue about faith will be frail and hesitant. In this sense, the challenge that Shahrur raises for the Arab world is both intellectual and institutional.

We must be grateful for the efforts made by Andreas Christmann, whose collaboration with Muhammad Shahrur resulted in this magnificent volume. His translations reflect an admirable command of theology, philosophy and the Arabic language. Christmann’s introduction to Shahrur’s life and thought—a model of clarity—is an essential complement to the translation. The framing for the volume is provided by Dale F. Eickelman, the Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations at Dartmouth College. His lengthy 1996 interview with Shahrur masterfully combines the personal and the intellectual and provides the foundation for the book’s foreword.


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