Andreas Christmann, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, University of Manchester, U.K. (Germany)
Thanking Lee for an illuminating presentation, Tlili introduced Muhammad Shahrur as a thinker in the same spirit as Arkoun. Shahrur is the author of The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading, one of the most widely disseminated—and controversial—contemporary books on interpreting the Qur’an. Though the Syrian thinker’s work represents a different school, Shahrur, like Arkoun, applies the tools of critical thought to the Qur’an and the tradition of interpretation. Tlili explained that Shahrur was unable to participate in the symposium because of health reasons, and invited Andreas Christmann, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Manchester, to present Shahrur’s ideas in his place. A scholar of Islamic civilization and thought, Christmann published an English translation of Shahrur’s writings in 20095.
Christmann opened his presentation with a brief overview of Muhammad Shahrur’s biography and professional background. Shahrur was not trained in traditional Islamic studies or in the modern study of Islam, but is a retired professor of soil engineering. His “layman’s” Qur’anic interpretations, which Christmann characterized as modern, scientific, liberal, and progressive, are therefore from a quite different perspective than the usual scholar’s.
Christmann contextualized Shahrur’s work in contemporary Islamic discourse by explaining that it responds to both radical Islamists, who politicize Islam for right–wing ideological aims, and to Leftists and secular–nationalists, who seek to eliminate religion from public life. Shahrur’s interpretations of the Qur’an offer a third alternative: an Islam that is progressive and liberal and which he believes should be the source of universal moral values and the foundation for political leadership.
Christmann proceeded to summarize Shahrur’s work by distilling it into ten theses, drawing a comparison to the Ninety–Five Theses of Martin Luther and suggesting that Shahrur’s work has the potential to similarly reform institutionalized Islam. Christmann noted that many of Shahrur’s readings of the Qur’an entail redefining Islamic terms as universal ethical principals.
Christmann articulated a first thesis that he determined to be the most prioritized of Shahrur’s ideas: the necessity of separating state and ’religion,’ while reinvesting public life with ’Religion.’ Christmann used lowercase ’religion’ to denote Shahrur’s concept of historical and institutional Islam, as distinguished from ’Religion,’ capitalized, which refers to Shahrur’s ideal of a universal civic religion. The separation of state and ’religion,’ Christmann clarified, means that state authorities must not manipulate religion for their political agendas, nor should institutional religion co–opt state power in pursuit of theocracy. Shahrur is concerned that combining state and religion (din wa–dawla) obstructs religious freedom by privileging one religious faction over others. Yet he is equally concerned by the prospect of state without religion (dawla bidun din), which he believes leads to authoritarianism. Instead, the moral values of ’Religion,’ writ large, should reconnect state and society.
The second thesis Christmann enumerated was Shahrur’s observation that Historical Islam (’religion’) has been politicized and de–moralized by the ulama. To achieve Universal Islam (’Religion’), Shahrur contends, it must be de–politicized and re–moralized. According to Shahrur, the religious classes have interpreted Islamic beliefs and practices in ways that impose the least resistance to political tyranny and despotism. Christmann described Shahrur’s third thesis as his proposed solution: civil society and civil ’Religion.’ Objecting to Islamist calls for achieving the Islamization of Muslim society by collapsing public and private spheres, Shahrur emphasizes the importance of a sphere of civil society that can operate alongside private religion and public politics. This sphere will provide an ethical model that overshadows both state politics and private religion while allowing dissent and freedom of thought, speech and religion.
According to the fourth thesis Christmann described, in order to achieve this solution, religious reform must precede political reform. Because Shahrur believes that both politics without religion and politics with the current form of Islam lead to authoritarianism, religious reform must come first. Shahrur envisions religious reform as the reshaping of Islam into a ’civil religion,’ in which freedom of thought, human rights, democracy and social justice are valued as religious imperatives.
In his fifth thesis, Christmann clarifies that Shahrur does not view this religious reform as a new interpretation of Islam, but as the recuperation of essential Qur’anic principles that have been obscured by traditional Islam. Shahrur draws a distinction between the Islam passed down by religious scholars and the Islam found in the text of the Qur’an. This Universal Islam of the Qur’an, according to thesis six, does not include the sunna of the Prophet—stories of the Prophet’s life, apart from the prophecies that became the Qur’an. Shahrur sees Islam as a natural religion for all humankind, while the sunna are bound to a particular time and place that cannot be accepted as normative. Abandoning the sunna and relying only on the Qur’an, Shahrur concludes that Islam has only three, not five, pillars: belief in God, belief in the Last Day, and doing good work.
Christmann’s seventh thesis discussed the distinction Shahrur makes between general ’Religion,’ which is global, human and universal, and particular ’religion,’ which refers to specific culture– and context–bound institutional religions. According to Shahrur, the latter is against human instinct and therefore unsuitable for being the religion of public life. It is the former, therefore, that should be politicized and publicized.
Moving from the general to the specific, Christmann illustrated how Shahrur’s views on religion are reflected in his views on religious law, religious duties and jihad. His eighth thesis addressed Shahrur’s treatment of shari’a — Islamic law — which Christmann described as being at the heart of Shahrur’s reform project. Observing that shari’a law and hudud penalties are not fixed, Shahrur concludes that shari’a law only refers to the upper and lower limits of human legislation. Therefore, shari’a can and should — to Shahrur’s mind — be implemented everywhere, but should be limited to the requirement that human societies legislate laws to uphold justice, equality and morality. Specific laws, such as criminal, family and commercial law, should remain the provenance of parliamentary legislation.
In his ninth thesis, Christmann described Shahrur’s reinterpretation of the slogan, Al–’Amr bi al–Ma’ruf wa al–Nahy ’an al–Munkar, which is frequently used by Islamists to justify religious policing and their literal implementation of shari’a rules.6 By contrast, Shahrur does not see the phrase as pertaining to individual conduct in matters regarding dress, but as a general imperative to care about the democratic norms and liberal values of civil religion in society; in short, as an obligation of good civil citizenship. He therefore places NGOs and human rights groups under this rubric.
Lastly, Christmann’s tenth thesis articulated Shahrur’s interpretation of jihad as a non–violent fight against political tyranny, injustice and the oppression of human rights, as well as the duty to do charitable work for one’s family, neighborhood and society at large. Christmann summed it up as ’human rights jihad:’ the religious obligation of good civil citizenship. He further explained that Shahrur arrived at this view by reinterpreting not as martyrdom but as the process of giving witness. Jihad fi sabil Allah thus becomes a struggle “for the sake of God’s covenant with humankind,” rather than a military fight against kufr —disbelief.Back to the top.