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Christian W. Troll SJ

Progressive Thinking in Contemporary Islam

A Critical View

German Version


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2006/3, p. 176-186
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


At the beginning it seems sensible to present the background and to define the further framework within which "progressive thinking" is to be located in contemporary Islam. The movements and tendencies shaping the contemporary Islamic world can be analyzed and judged by the two conflicting terms authenticity and modernity. Such an approach regards today's Islam on the one hand in the sphere of authenticity, i.e. its traditional life and teachings, and on the other hand in the sphere of modernity that refers it to a present (and future) in which Muslims are no longer at the controls, and can therefore no longer determine the development of thinking.

As inspiring as this approach may be, it has the disadvantage that it remains on the surface, where Muslim authenticity is confronted with foreign modernity. What is more, this approach to the question about an identity threatened from outside invites people either to isolate themselves or to go, as it were, "into exile". Both are rejected by the large majority of Muslims. If there is to be a debate between the different tendencies, then it should and must be carried on with elements rooted in Islamic soil, and lead into a deepened debate that arises out of Islam and its inherent tensions. Therefore it seems commendable - on the search for an appropriate approach - to use the pair of terms 'letter - spirit'. This has the advantage that the analysis comes from inside of Islam and remains located there.

Three main directions seem to be alive in the Islamic world. On the background of a cultural Islam (one could call it with reservations also traditional Islam) exists an Islamist Islam, i.e. an Islam of the letter. Furthermore there is an Islam that is in the process of new interpretation: an Islam according to the spirit of the letter.

This "Islam of the spirit" is not the centre of today's socio-political and social-religious scene, at least not so as the movements of the Islamist direction. But its efforts are obvious, and meet often with the aims and views of the majority of the people. Of course, this 'Islam of the spirit' leaves lots of things still unsaid, and others are even deliberately vaguely formulated,



also from fear of the aggressive accusations on the part of Islamists as well as on the part of undemocratic potentates who are misusing the cultural or traditional Islam to conserve the status quo. But in the long run this 'Islam of the spirit' could nevertheless carry in itself the future. For it handles flexibly the challenges of modern times, without denying its continuity with at least some views of the Islam of the past.

Today Muslims are everywhere in an internal debate of Islam on Islam. Imprisoned between the traditional practices and ideas of the cultural Islam on the one hand, and the influences and temptations of the Islamist Islam or of the 'Islam of new interpretation' on the other hand, faithful and educated Muslims get not around the question which Islam they want for their children. More and more Muslims are also passing over to a critical religion, i.e. to a religion that is less and less determined by the surrounding environment, but is instead personally accepted and answered for.


Goal and Demarcation: Conceptual Specifications

Well, within the 'Islam of new interpretation' the just mentioned phenomenon of a new Islamic thinking is obvious. But wherein does this novelty lie? It is about a contemporary Muslim thinking that regards all the manifestations of the things which are named by us Islam and Islamic as subjected to change, as a reality that is changing and developing. It is not about a thinking that sticks to the ideology of progress. This thinking rather admits also the possibility of regression, of provisional solutions and mistakes - just also as far as your own thinking is concerned. From there it sees the necessity of constant self-criticism and does demand it.

Further the new thinking aims at 'de-construction', i.e. it wants to make it possible for Muslims and all honest humans "to approach the truth of the Islamic message without any ideological manipulation, and to acquire it better by a deepened knowledge about its reasons and its background" (Benzine, 2004, 13).

Certainly, the progressive philosophers look at the "modern age" in a different way as the earlier reformers (of the outgoing 19th and the first decades of the 20th century) and differ thereby from them in a significant way. They are not contented simply to use the intellect as a universal and natural criterion; they regard the intellect rather as an ability that is socially constructed, and thus as an ability that occurs in various practices and different theoretical discourses. To it applies:



"In the heart of modernity lives the idea of the individual. It recognizes and acts freely, its experiments can enter into the secrets of nature, and its efforts - in co-operation with other people - can contribute to the development of a new and better world" (in the same place 17)

To say it differently: The new, progressive philosophers look critically at modernity, and in the attitude of a pronounced individual sense of liberty. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd writes in 2002 in "Al-Ahram":

"We need the free study of our religious inheritance. This is the first condition for a religious renewal. We must end the embargo on free thinking. The range of renewal should be unlimited. There is no area for 'secured (sacrosanct, excluded from critical research) safe places of refuge of the Islamic teachings' (safe doctrinal havens). Such places of refuge limit the process of renewal. They are a censorship, and that has no place in the history of Islamic thinking" (Abu Zayd, 2002).

Such an appeal contains the demand on freedom in general, and on a social order that enables such free thinking, and does not suppress it by force. It implies also the hardly repressed reproach to the rulers that they use religion time and again for their political goals, and are in this regard quite comparable with the Islamic fundamentalists.

The open, scientific criticism of the "religious phenomenon" and the "religious discourse" is new for Muslim societies. Therefore representatives of the new thinking are branded time and again as "apostates". They and their statements are unpleasant for the establishment, because they are concerned - apart from specifically theological questions - always also with the current problems, which have to do with the relations between Islamic religion and state, with the cooperation of the Scharia and the positive law of modern states (particularly with the human rights and the emancipation of women), and then naturally with quite actual social questions, like the Islamic view of the relationship between faith and social justice, or the question whether an own, firmly defined social or political system belongs to Islam.

But it would be a gross misunderstanding to agree to the reproach uttered time and again by the opponents of this thinking, that the new thinking depended uncritically on western criteria, and had blindly and uncritically become addicted to the west and its value system. For this thinking modernity does not mean "western modernity". It rather defines modernity, as it were, as the critical light developed by the modern scientific findings. Thus the protagonists of progressive thinking endorse the unrestricted and at the same time critical consideration of the modern social sciences (linguistics, semiotic, comparative religion sciences and not least sociology) for the study of Islam and the interpretation of its texts.



The representatives of progressive thinking do not form a school, and they work not all at the same questions. But we can say with Rachid Benzine:

"They are united by the fact that they in their search for an independent understanding want to study the Qur'an, the Islamic tradition and Islam generally, whereby they respect the academic standards of university research, and make use of the exact methods of scientific work" (Benzine, 2004, 8).

Out of the many representatives of that thinking are here mentioned for instance: Mohamed Arkoun (Algeria/France), Leila Babès (Algeria/France), Abdul Karim Soroush (Iran), Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (Egypt/Netherlands), Abdou Filali Ansary (Morocco), Abdelmajed Charfi (Tunesien), Farid Esack (South Africa/USA), Ebrahim Moosa (USA), Asghar Ali Engineer (India), Abdullahi on-Naim (Sudan/USA), Amina Wadud (USA), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Khaled Abou El Fadl (USA), Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia), Farish Noor (Malaysia) and Oemer Oezsoy (Turkey).


The More Detailed Historical Surroundings
of Progressive Thinking

"Tajdid" (renewal) and "Nahda" (cultural awaking, Renaissance) of Islamic thinking originate in the end of the 18th century, in a time of political and colonial dependence of the Muslim populations on the west. In the meantime the political liberation came to pass, and the Muslims made also the experience of dictatorship and corruption in societies with Muslim majority. Of course, the dependence of these societies on the west did not dissolve, but adopted new forms. In addition there is a rising percentage of Muslims who live as minorities in states with non-Muslim majorities.

Like the Islamists so also the representatives of progressive thinking are - up to a certain degree - the product of democratization and the spreading of academic education. There may be a few professional theologians among them, but rather few. At any rate, among them are relatively more people who are orientated towards the humanities than among the Islamists, where, as you know, scientifically and technically trained persons prevail. The progressive philosophers are convinced that one cannot content oneself with modernizing Muslim societies in the field of natural sciences and technology, without working together also at the body of the traditional religious interpretations.

Fazlur Rahman, to whom the new thinking analyzed here owes crucial impulses, wrote 1979 in the epilogue to the second, extended edition of his work "Islam":



"At the moment the Islamic intelligentsia is practically dead, and the Muslim world represents the not even inviting spectacle of an enormous intellectual desert, in the wild depths of which no thought moves, the deadly silence of which may resemble however occasionally the twitching of a fluttering wing. This is the community for whose recent generation Muhammad Iqbal prayed about four decades ago (at the beginning of the thirties of the last century) beseechingly: 'God may lead your spirit into a (new) storm, because there is hardly any moving on the water of your sea!'"

Rahman continues then:

"Why has half a century been so sterile since Iqbals death? One answer may be: The Muslim world was in the last 50 years fully occupied by liberation struggles against western colonialism, and afterwards by reconstruction programs. But it is also true: If human beings are under enormous pressure by challenges, then their creativity will achieve unusual heights. What kind of rebuilding would that be where intellectual reconstruction and religious regeneration played only a small or no role at all?" (Rahman, 1979, 263-264).

The enormous pressure by new challenges, together with the recent acceleration of the secularization process in Muslim milieus, societies and states, reached extents that accelerated the progressive thinking everywhere. Thereby for many intellectuals were of importance also their experiences with Islamic regimes - like that of the Mullahs in Iran and of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and with the fight of Islamist movements against dictatorial regimes and their defence of the status quo.

Practically all progressive philosophers are engaged in considering the place of religion in a - in spite of all contrary appearance - further and further secularizing world. For secularization came over the Islamic word more or less suddenly, as it were, over night, and it had not been prepared for it by an internal maturing process. This process confronts Muslim philosophers directly with the question: How is religion, i.e. a reality that is regarded as unchangeable, to be reconciled with this change?

Abdolkarim Soroush (born 1945) faces that question for quite some time, and radically. His answer reads: All sciences and all ranges of knowledge are in a condition of steady transformation. The changes in one field of science lead necessarily to modifications in other domains, including the Islamic jurisprudence ("fiqh"). Gradually Soroush developed a "theory of extension and contraction of religious knowledge". Due to this theory he arrived at the conviction that the framework of development of Islamic jurisprudence must constantly expand, whereby it had at the same time to consider the developments that took place in other spheres of religion (see Soroush, 2002).



the opinion of the progressive philosophers only reading anew, without prejudices the fundamental texts of Islam can reconcile the core values of Islam with the requirements of the modern age in its different variants. Only an in such a way understood new interpretation will permit the opening of jurisprudence, only it will make possible the religiously and intellectually coherent and convinced adherence of Islam's political thinking to democracy and human rights, and will finally bring about equal rights for women and men, and all that with a good conscience toward Qur'an and Sunna, in a critical argument with the critical thinking of the modern age.


The Fundamental Challenge:
a Scientific Interpretation of the Qur'an

The progressive philosophers of contemporary Islam, resp. the "new philosophers" remind time and again of the fact that the Qur'an is an open book for everybody - as well for Muslims as for non-Muslims. The Qur'an addresses everyone, and just the hearing and reading of this book are to provoke man, and to convert it to faith. In addition, since the Qur'an is consulted also today, as Mohamed Arkoun emphasizes, by many "millions of faithful in order to legitimize their behaviour, to support their fights, to justify their aspirations, to nurish their hopes, to strengthen their religious convictions and to say yes to collective identities in view of the powers of standardization within an industrial civilization" (Arkoun, 1982, 1), the understanding of a considerable part of our world depends on an adequate understanding of the Qur'an. The Qur'an remains one of the books that are the basis of mankind's memory and imagination.

The progressive philosophers take up now deliberately those questions that arise from the contemporary insights and scientific discourses for the interpretation of the Qur'an. But how can you, some of them ask, approach such a complex text, a text that expresses a world of conceptions and feelings which differs in certain respects so radically from our world? They answer this challenge by using the historical-critical method, which has as aim to bridge the temporal distance between today's listener/reader and the text from the seventh century. The historical-critical method tries to place the text into the context of its emergence. It sees the Koran as part of history. Of course, it is God's word, but burdened with historicity, with the historicity of - as Rachid Benzine says - its "incarnation" into literature (i.e. the condition and structure of a text). This 'becoming literature' takes then the shape of a netlike connection ("maillage") of the discourse,



(which is made from words, statements, oracles ... which came down, as it were, into the heart and on the tongue of the Prophet), took then the form of writings, and became finally a book (see Benzine, 2004, 278).

Thus seen God gave its word, as it were, into human language and culture. Human beings collected then "the word" and united it in a volume of bound sheets, the "mushaf", which, as you know, represents the result of a collective effort. Hence the Koran speaks - according to this new view - definitely of eternal truths, but it offers them in the forms of a particular culture that cannot be universalized, in the culture of the Arabs of the Hidscha of the seventh and eighth century.

Others want to understand how the text functions, how it "speaks". For this discourse of God in "human language" presents itself like a body of texts: a body of words and sentences which are interwoven and held together by a rhetorical form. Hence the Koran is at the same time a literary masterpiece, an ethical and symbolic discourse, a historical report, but likewise also a discourse of parabolas and fables, and sometimes - although relatively less extensive - a law codex. Therefore different literary forms come into play in the Qur'an, depending on the things which he has to say.

Today also the application of the laws of linguistics and literature science belongs to an adequate reading and understanding of the Koran. Several new philosophers concentrate on that, especially the Egyptian literature scientist Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (born in 1943), who is teaching today in Leiden. Among the literary methods the rhetorical and narrative analyses enable the faithful - relying on the text in its definite version - to give the Koran the necessary actualization in their lives. The literary forms of the Korans are important, because they inform us how the text at hand has been "used" in the context of its appearance, and which functions it had. While here the function of instruction dominates, there the function of cult is apparent. At other places "only" the "delicious" word of God makes itself audible. With the help of the styles one can find out to which special needs of the instant this or that passage in the text wanted to answer.

But, whether the Koran or some other text is concerned now, helpful for the understanding of a text is not only the knowledge of the "occasion", i.e. of the things which we find around the text (anthropology, archaeology, inscriptions, political, social and cultural history of the environment 'surrounding' the text), or the knowledge of its literary structure (its vocabulary, grammar, styles, connection to the languages which preceded respectively surrounded the text). Reading and understanding a text may also not be reduced to the knowledge of the history of its formation.



The sense of the text will rather be revealed by a synopsis of all the mentioned things which we find around the text, in the text and in its reading - and thus in the reader of the text. For even if it is true that a not read text exists exactly the same as a read one, then is it nevertheless the reading or hearing of a text that constitutes the life of the text.

Thus the exegetic studies reveal the poly-semantic character of the Koran, because the act of reading is, as it were, the producer of knowledge and meaning. Reading or hearing is indeed first and above all the activity of the reader or listener. There is no reading or hearing without readers or listeners. The sense of a text is first with the listener/reader. To dismantle a text, in order to see how it functions, is of fascinating interest. Of course, such "mechanics" are not sufficient to find out the sense of the text. A text will become transparent for the listener or reader actually only then, if it meets with at least a part or aspect of the listener's/reader's life and experiences. The listener/reader is the one who will gradually discover in the fabric of the text the ways which let him/her acquire a taste for the text.

There is therefore no approach to the Koran - as to any other comparable text -, except by the eyeglasses of a particular culture: the own culture of the reader/listener. Even the best understanding will always remain bound to the imperfect character of reading: to the prepossession (partiality) which adheres to each reader. Each reading is a "re-lecture", i.e. a reading in a certain situation, a contextual reading. Seen in this way there are no methods that would permit it to draw out of a given text one sense only: the "objective" sense. The Koran cannot be reduced to only one perspective of reading. There is no reading that would be the only true one for all times.


How Does God Speak? - Who Speaks For God?

1. Historical-critical method and religious faith. For the progressive Muslim thinking scientific study and literary analysis are not contrary to a faithful, religious approach to the Koran. Rather - so the Muslims concerned assure - the scientific analysis improves and enriches it, and gives to them an intellectually secured basis. The scientifically investigated information about the texts is in itself not an adequate religious understanding of the revealed word. But it wants and is able to make its contribution, so that the cardinal point can be found out, and thus the true religious meaning of the text for today, which gets so its adequate weight in the whole of the revealed message.

By underlining the symbolic and mythical dimension in the Koran discourse, the progressive philosophers emphasize how much the Koran



represents an eternal truth. There is no religious culture without myth. The mythical story symbolizes our present state, and the aim to which we are on the way. The Koran is of lasting importance, because it tells tales that tell the faithful their own life story. Not all events told in the Koran have, taken in themselves, a meaning that exceeds the time in which they happened. But the events told by the Koran can be referred time and again to the individual and collective life today and tomorrow.

2. The New Critical Methodology and Its Meaning for a Genuine Spirituality. When we speak here about an adequate, new methodology of Koran exegesis, then this is not only of importance for the epistemological and thus for the intellectual aspect, but we touch thereby also upon the value of faith and piety in Islamic divinity, and in Muslim religious thinking. There is indeed a kind of attitude (and an exegetical method resulting from it) that subordinates the understanding of the Koran texts as such not only to the Hadith, but practically also to the deduction of the legal and dogmatic codifications. Hence it induces the faithful to limit their relation to the text to strictly useful things. In this case the relations to the Koran go not beyond the application of the text to juridical and dogmatic necessities that have to be satisfied. The danger of this kind of relation to the Koran is that it creates, so to speak, an attitude toward the Koran which orients itself merely by utility. By this mentality Muslims will be lead to a "narrow" faith. In their relation to the Koran such Muslims will see the utilitarian and superficial aspect only.

The characteristic of a faith formed in the matrix of that mentality and methodology is that it is based on the feeling to be unchallangeable and on repetition; in other words: it remains unaffected by the inner back and forth of the faithful, by their questions and doubts, and also by the demand for a personal, spiritual way. Here the dynamics of faith stops at the primary and superficial necessities, and regards anything else as temptations that should rather be suppressed. In this view faith will concentrate on the things that are secured, and on the 'peace' of people who repeat the already given orders. In a crisis this will lead to two consequences: Either indifference or violence. Indifference with those who have, by the weakness of their convictions, become unable to any genuine and personally answered effort, violence with those who are convinced that the culmination of piety consists in the stubborn determination to defend the literal meaning of orders and the form of established bonds - whatever concrete form this venture of securing and defence may assume.



The exegetic method that results from a different view, proceeds critically and historically, and can so return to the revealed text the vitality of its language and symbols, and so its religious and spiritual strength. Probably then an area for a different faith style will be opened, based on a certainty that remains open to questions and questionings and takes pride in the width of the mission of the Qur'an, and knows that this width will give the faithful an increase in humility and opening towards others - whoever they are and however they define themselves.

This exegetic view and method became apparent in the modern epoch due to the gradual evolutions in Islamic thinking. It is influenced by the human and social sciences, by the questions asked by them, and by the changes initiated by them. It refers to creative forces that a contemporary Moroccan Sufi expressed by the following few words: "In regard to the text the progressive revelation of the Korans (tanjîm) has indeed reached its aim. But this does not apply to the riches of its sense" (Ennaifer, 1998, 105).

3. "Who Speaks For God?" - The Question About Consent And Doctrinal Authority. About three years ago, in an of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Lambeth Palace in London organized discussion of Muslim and Christian philosophers about the topic "Building Bridges", Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan publicly represented the following view: If in the next years the Sunnitic Islam should not find ways and means to speak with one voice about important basic questions of faith and faith practice (Scharia), then it has hardly a chance to survive in the long term as religion in the modern world.

However that may be two questions - expressed or not - will always accompany the progressive thinking in contemporary Islam. The first question reads: "How does God speak?", the second: "Who does speak for God?" The writers, who in this essay - more or less arbitrarily chosen - got a hearing, were, apart from Abou El Fadl, primarily concerned with aspects of the first question. But the represented votes of progressive Islamic thinking raise today, more inevitably than ever before, just also the second question: "Who does speak for God?" For as soon as the still relatively clear basis of the Koran: its literal interpretation resp. that interpretation which it got in the first two centuries, is no longer regarded as something sacral and obligatory, and is replaced by some interpretation which is justified by a personal interpretation by the spirit of its letter, there will inevitably arise the question about the legitimacy of such new, yes, continuously new interpretations. At the same time there will loud and clear arise the question about the yardstick and the criteria for a true understanding of the Koran, hence of God's revelation in our time.

And then - from Islam as social and political phenomenon - the old and always new question arises about the consensus ("idschm„ '"):



Is there a theological founded teaching of the Islamic community, as it were, a theological Umatology, and which role does it play, and in which concrete way is it authorized to play this role, in case God's revealed will in questions of faith and ethics has to be found nowadays, and has possibly to be represented with authority? Finally: Is it not so that those who defend the classical ideas about the authority of the Prophet or of the divine word conveyed by him and those who radically question those ideas, fight in the last analysis over the right to lay claim to the authority of the Prophet and to the revealed texts conveyed by him? Or am I, a mere observer of the contemporary internal-Islamic discussions, missing the point with these questions?



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the same, Rethinking the Qur'an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics, in: Islamochristiana 20 (Rom 2004)25-45;
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the same, Als Christ dem Islam begegnen (Würzburg 2004).


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