Tlili opened the discussion to the audience. An Arabic and Islamic Studies professor from The New School (a university in New York City) observed that a common theme running through the presentations was frustration at how the weight of tradition defines Muslim learning and practice. She asked whether there is evidence of pre–modern interventions in the hegemony of exegetical literature and suggested that such an avenue of inquiry might be more fruitful if it looked to non–Arabic language heritages.
Charfi answered, explaining that scholarly work has focused on the circumstances of the revelation because that’s where the greatest amount of historical material is available for study. In scholarship, he said, it used to be believed that one must understand the circumstances surrounding the revelation in order to understand the Qur’anic text. Now, on the basis of many studies, it is clear that the narratives describing those circumstances were developed by exegetes decades and centuries after the fact. Referring back to Wild’s comments, Charfi stated that he agreed with Arkoun that non–Muslim scholars should participate in these inquiries, for their research and perspective can offer a more balanced understanding than research by Muslims alone.
An audience member asked the panelists to discuss the extent to which new Qur’anic interpretations had made an impact on the larger Muslim world, or what impact they might potentially have on social and political outcomes in Muslim societies.
The question drew responses from each panelist, beginning with Christmann, who said it was a very difficult question but one often asked about academic work. He contended that it is not possible to measure the effect of words in practical and social terms. The only notable measure of Shahrur’s influence, according to Christmann, is in the number of his followers, which Christmann said was not large enough to constitute a social movement in the Middle East. Though interest is growing, Shahrur’s readership, he explained, is largely limited to intellectuals and university graduates, in particular natural scientists and engineers. In sum, in Christmann’s view, it is not possible to see the implications of scholarship on policies.
Wild spoke up to say he was not as pessimistic as Christmann. He pointed out that the strong censorship in many Arabic countries is an indication that thinkers like Abu Zayd and Shahrur are taken seriously. Wild mentioned seeing Abu Zayd’s book in a Jedda bookstore, anecdotal proof that there is an audience for such ideas. He cautioned that theological faculties in the Arabic world are not a good indicator of new trends in thought. Explaining that such institutions do not even recognize 19th Century reformists, Wild opined that change is more likely to come from academic centers outside the Arab world.
Lee had earlier described Arkoun as being pessimistic about his own influence. Lee qualified that description by saying he believed Arkoun had underestimated himself. Lee added that if Arkoun’s followers in the Muslim world were small in number, it could be attributed to the fact that he wrote in French and his texts were so dense, so his ideas were not accessible to the general public. Lee suggested that Charfi and others would be more likely to have an effect on mainstream thought.
Charfi cautioned that we must distinguish between the effects of scholarly efforts in different Muslim countries. He offered Tunisia as an example where reformist approaches are taught in universities and people are receptive to modern approaches and theories; in Yemen, on the other hand, they are less developed. The greatest impediment to reform comes from Wahhabism, a movement centered in Saudi Arabia, whose adherents, according to Charfi, use their resources to spread hostility to modernist ideas. Their influence is especially significant at the popular level, he said.
The next questioner wondered if the lively debate about the historicity of the Old and New Testaments, seen in Christian and Jewish circles since the 19th Century, had any parallel in Muslim discourse.
Lee answered, referencing Charfi’s book Islam Between Message and History, which he described as an argument for differentiating Islam from the message of the religion, a position similar to Arkoun’s. However, Lee conceded, such an approach is not widely embraced in the Muslim world.
The audience member spoke again to clarify his original question. He described how, in recent Jewish and Christian discourses, even people of faith acknowledge evolution and eclecticism in the gospels. There is evidence of the same processes at work in the suras, but have Muslims been similarly attuned to this historicity of the Qur’anic text?
Christmann answered that such work is being done in Europe, particularly in Berlin (including Corpus Coranicum , a research project of the Berlin–Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities under the directorship of Angelika Neuwirth), precisely because it is not yet embraced in the Muslim world. There are Muslim scholars who approach the Qur’an using historical criticism, such as Sayyid Muhammad Al Qimni, and others. However, they do not use such methods to the same extent as applied to the Bible by Western thinkers in the 19th Century. The main difference, according to Christmann, is that the Muslim thinkers still approach the reading of the text as, in Charfi’s words, a “reading of faith.” A truly historical critical reading would see the Qur’an as an expression of human tradition rather than divine intervention, but among Muslim believers, God’s power is not separated from that of the historical/human.
Wild suggested that the Wahhabi influence is partly responsible for the suppression of historical criticism. Although exegesis from the 1st through 3rd Centuries incorporated historicity, as in their treatment of abrogated verses, the tradition was not developed further. Today, Wild said, “petro–Islam” controls much of the intellectual production of Muslim theological centers, not only in Saudi Arabia but in places like Bosnia and the former Soviet Union.
Charfi had a more positive outlook on the issue of historicity, pointing out that many studies have already been made on the issue. Yet he cautioned against applying the Biblical approach of historical criticism to the Qur’an without accounting for the different nature of the Islamic text.
A City University of New York (CUNY) professor in the audience turned the conversation toward literary analysis, asking whether the Qur’an’s treatment as a literary text was considered a threat to its status as a sacred religious text.
Lee responded by referencing Arkoun. Arkoun, he said, believed that the Qur’an should be treated as a literary text. The literary approach is not denigrating because it preserves the sanctity of the oral revelation as distinct from its written iteration. In this view, the text is an avenue by which to better understand the original prophetic moment. However, there are many who disagree; they see the Qur’anic text as sanctified, and therefore object to it being treated like the Bible or other literary texts.
Charfi agreed, describing the Qur’an as a text of human language that must be approached through human language. He again referenced historical exegesis, explaining that Muslims throughout history have analyzed the grammatical, linguistic, and poetic aspects of the Qur’an. Moreover, Charfi said, not only would it would be impossible not to approach it as a literary text, but reading it through that lens has not prevented Muslims from appreciating other aspects of the text. The literary aspect is only one level of analysis and does not preclude existential, moral, ethical, anthropological and theological dimensions. As a point of entrance into the text, linguistic analysis is less contentious than deeper levels of analysis, where exegetes are more likely to disagree and project their own ambitions, concerns, and traditions onto the text.
The next question was posed to Christmann concerning Shahrur’s dismissal of the sunna (the sixth thesis in Christmann’s summary); how did Shahrur reconcile the fact that God sent a book and a messenger? If the Prophet’s practices were his interpretation of how to live God’s message, how do we not entangle the sunna in our own interpretations of the Qur’an?
Christmann explained that Shahrur’s treatment of the Qur’anic text divides it into two categories: one universally applicable, absolute and, eternal (prophethood), and the other temporal, historical, and relative (messengerhood). In his dissection of Islamic concepts, Shahrur categorizes each word as belonging to one of the two categories, then distinguishes the eternally divine from the historically contingent. For example, Christmann explained, Shahrur cannot reconcile the idea of Mohammed being human and divine, for if divine, he would be a god (which constitutes shirk ). Therefore, Shahrur concludes that as a human, Mohammed and everything related to him is contingent, historical, and temporal. Shahrur then addresses each verse in turn, showing what is eternally divine and what is historically contingent, and concludes that obedience to God is different from obedience to the Prophet.
A woman in the audience asked if thinkers like Shahrur and Abu Zayd could be convinced to appeal to a larger, less elite audience in order to instigate grassroots movements for reform. She argued that such an effort would defend against claims that the reform movement is driven by the West.
She also commented that, as a secular Muslim, she objected to Shahrur’s claim that Islam has only three Pillars of the Faith rather than five. Such arguments, she opined, were a manipulation of language and can be blamed for alienating mainstream Muslims and marginalizing reformist ideas. She asked for Christmann’s opinion on this problem.
Responding to the first comment, Christmann replied that Shahrur is aware of such critiques and has been asked by his own friends and followers to clarify his arguments by simplifying them and using illustrative examples. However, he added, Shahrur already believes that his language is broadly accessible, for as a natural scientist he does not speak in the language of philosophers and the ulama. As for the accusation that Shahrur manipulates language, Christmann said it was such a frequent charge that it constituted a cliché.
In response to the issue of the Pillars of Islam, Christmann said Shahrur would ask for a Qur’anic verse that specifically mentions five. The woman retorted, “believers are those who believe xyz,” referring indirectly to the doctrinal rational for the Five Pillars — profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms–giving, and pilgrimage.
Christmann explained that those are rather tenets of aqida, while the explicit mentioning of Islam as based on Five Pillars is only to be found in the hadith (Jibril), not in the Qur’an. He said that the Qur’anic verses do refer to only three “items” of Islam, which Shahrur sees as the Pillars; he considers the sum of five to be an imposed number not intrinsic to the text but attributed to it by the ulama (through the hadith). Christmann described the accusation of textual manipulation as a “killer argument,” meaning it can be used against any interpreter of the Qur’an who subjectively chooses between several opinions on a given verse. Christmann asserted that the accusation of Shahrur’s linguistic manipulation is weak and without merit.
Christmann then returned to the topic of literary exegesis, reiterating Charfi’s point that it has a long history in Islam and a designated technical term in Arabic (al–tafsir al–adabi). Ironically, the first person who revitalized this classical tradition in the 20th Century was the Islamist Sayyid Qutb, in the 1930s and ’40s. After Qutb began using a purely literary perspective, other schools followed.
An audience member interjected asking how Shahrur can be considered an authentic Muslim voice if the Qur’an itself comes from God in its entirety? How can aspects of the text be distinguished as historical or literary versus divine?
Christmann responded that the question encompassed two issues: origin and interpretation. Within the Muslim world, the Qur’an is always considered the divine word of God, Christmann agreed, even if the text also contains things that are historically contingent and not universally applicable. But this belief does not preclude applying various interpretive methodologies to the text; divinity is irrelevant to the literary approach.
Charfi illustrated the discussion about linguistic analysis with an example. Observing that many suras narrate the speech of human personages, he contended that those sentences should not be read literally as the divine word of God, since they are being reported from a non–divine source.
Charfi also addressed the earlier comment about applying Western methodologies to the Qur’an. He urged that we must stop defining modern civilization as exclusively Western. While many modern ideas may have Western origins, what is more important is the universality of values such as freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. Charfi criticized the fear of Western influences, defending the universality and applicability of modern criteria to all languages and texts. He tempered his position by agreeing that Muslims should take a critical position vis–à–vis Western elements, though not because of apparent Western hypocrisy in implementing their own values.
Most importantly, Charfi said, it is necessary to be wary of the anti–intellectualism found in much Islamic thinking, which adheres to tradition, consensus, and what is considered invariable in Islam. It is the right and obligation of each believer to examine ideas that are considered self–evident, and to free himself or herself from the intellectual constraints of traditional thought.
Charfi concluded his comments, and the first panel, by reiterating the connection between the mutually reinforcing spheres of traditional Islam and non–democratic Muslim regimes, which repress critical approaches that threaten their claims to religious legitimacy.Back to the top.