Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid {*}

"Historical Contexts
should get Greater Consideration"

Interview with the Scholar of Islam Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2008, p. 340-344
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The crucial question for Islam's relation to modernity is to what extent you are allowed to interpret the Koran. What are the findings of contemporary Koran hermeneutics? And why are the convictions of moderate Muslims not to a larger extent common knowledge? That's what we talked about with Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid who teaches Islamic Studies in Utrecht. The interview was conducted by Stefan Orth.


HK: Mr. Zaid, recently the Vatican and Shiite theologians published a joint statement. It says, among other things, that for the interpretation of the respective Scriptures the appropriate hermeneutic method was of great importance. In recent decades you have intensively been dealing with that issue. What is your approach to the Koran's interpretation?

Abu Zaid: I try to develop further certain elements of classical as well as of modern Muslim thinking in order better to understand the nature of the Koran. What kind of text is it anyway? We all know that in the Scriptures of the different religions the divine and the human reality meet. In the history of Islamic theology for a long time the divine aspect was overemphasized and thus the human one got into the shadow. In the early days, from the ninth to the twelfth century, there were many discussions about which aspect is more important in considering the Koran. That's why in classical Islamic thought the debate about the relation between revelation and reason was of great importance. But in the following centuries above all the divine dimension of the Koran was in the centre.

HK: But also after the end of that heyday of Islamic thought there were differentiated religio-philosophical considerations...

Abu Zaid: At the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century there were reform attempts in order to return to the balance of the beginning. What mattered then was to again take the historical context, the social circumstances and the linguistic form with the interpretation more into consideration. A distinction was made between revelation itself and the way of its interpretation as well as of its reinterpretation in the course of a varied history. I too am concerned with helping that the importance of the exegete is given due attention.


"The Dynamic Relation Between the Writings and their Interpretation is Decisive"

HK: For that purpose you have relatively early sought the exchange with Western thinkers in order better to understand Islam. What approaches have you found to be particularly fruitful?

Abu Zaid: Of course, I have learnt a lot by modern hermeneutics. The insight into the dynamic relation between the writings and their interpretation is decisive, the character of the conversation between the two. That's why I for my Koranic hermeneutics fall back on Hans Georg Gadamer and his conception of tradition in "Truth and Method". In the seventies I came in contact with hermeneutics and modern linguistics.



I had a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for my doctoral thesis on the hermeneutics of Ibn Arabi, one of the great Sufi thinkers. But I'm ultimately interested in the hermeneutic discussion only insofar as it helps me to interpret the Islamic tradition.

HK: After the linguistic turn in philosophy the modern hermeneutics intensively dealt with the distinction between speech and text. What consequences has that difference for the interpretation of the Koran?

Abu Zaid: Without much thinking about it I at the beginning of my studies followed the until now prevailing Koranic traditions, which simply understood the Koran as a text. Even I myself decidedly advocated that conviction vis-à-vis others. In the seventies I then realized the difference between speech and text, which is of importance just for the revelation of the Koran. Everyone knows that the Koran was not handed over to Mohammed as book, as for instance on Mount Sinai the Ten Commandments written by God's hand to Moses. The Koran was revealed to Mohammed in countless meetings. That was a process which began in 612 and ended more than 20 years later with his death, but we do not know exactly how often it happened. The nature of the speech differs from time to time.


"To Regard the Koran not only as a Text but as a Collection of Speeches"

HK: Does that mean that the Koran too has an understanding of revelation that is something like a dialogue?

Abu Zaid: Yes, you must see it in that way - precisely because the human aspect is very important in the process of revelation. In that very complicated dialogue process there are attempts of persuasion, polemic and protest. In the Koran itself it is quite obvious that all of Muhammad's supporters play a major role in it. There are sentences like: They have asked you, you tell them. So I am now convinced that we must not simply regard the Koran as a text but as a collection of speeches. But in every speech we must look who is just talking there. And who are the listeners? What type of speech is it? What matters is not just to return to the historical text but also to its complicated structure. With such an approach to the Koran we better understand it and what actually happened at that time. Not least the question is then important whether the way of speech wants to reveal something to our time or whether it is simply owed to the historical context of the revelation. That distinction is not an easy task, for it is not at all easy to identify the respective individual speeches.

HK: Why is the critical analysis relating to literature in the case of the Koran so difficult?

Abu Zaid: When the texts of the Koran were canonized by the early Muslims in order to have a book like the Jews and the Christians, the chronological order of the speeches was not preserved. Passages were put together which belonged to different contexts. They were arranged to chapters, and those in turn to a book that is now the Koran. Scientists, with the participation of some of the Western world, were at least able to reconstruct the chronology of the chapters. Today we can distinguish the passages from the Mecca period from those of the Medina period. It is even possible, though not with 100 percent probability, to differentiate between the early, middle and late stage in Mecca. But in order to re-establish also the chronology within the chapters much research is still needed.

HK: What is, when you have once accepted that the Koran is also human word, the divine dimension of the revelation? What can be said about what you called "revelation itself"?

Abu Zaid: That is not an easy question. Of course, it is about the message that Mohammed got. In any case, the Koran is a collection of revelations which was completed in the first century after Muhammad. But to what extent is also Mohammed responsible for the character of the inspired speeches? In that context I have concerned myself a lot with the Arab term "wahy". "Wahy" means mysterious communication. Already in the pre-Arab language of the Koran that concept means the non-verbal communication between two beings that belong to different levels of being. The Arabs believed for instance that supernatural beings, called jinn, were responsible for poetry and inspired the poets.



There was already in pre-Islamic time the idea of a communication between creatures belonging to different levels of being. Based on that idea of a non-verbal communication it can be explained what it means that Mohammed was inspired.


"There are at least four Different Levels of Interpretation in Sufism"

HK: To what other Muslim traditions can you refer in order to advertise your hermeneutic approach of reading the Koran?

Abu Zaid: Central is Sufism the convictions of which open the process of interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. From the beginning Sufism is based on personal spiritual experience. Although there are certain rules, according to the conviction of those mystics each individual has his own way to communicate with the cosmos and the divine reality and to interpret them. The Koran is God's speech, but the Sufi regards it as if it had been issued to him. His specific way of reading is of particular importance. That is why Sufism also emphasizes that always a variety of possible interpretations exists - without attacking the normative meanings of the Koran as the legal scholars and theologians define them.

HK: In what way is here no conflict?

Abu Zaid: Sufis accept the normative meaning, but they do not want to tie down the divine speech to it alone. Beyond the normative one there is rather a variety of possible meanings, depending on the depth of spiritual experience of the individual. In Sufism there are at least four different levels of interpretation. The first is the literal or normative interpretation. In addition, there are deeper levels which come from the contact with the divine reality. Only a few people reach the highest level, when the human spirit unites with the divine.

HK: What are the consequences of the conviction that communication with God is still possible for the understanding of the Muslim tradition?

Abu Zaid: That hermeneutic approach, in which it is about the individual's relationship to God, denies that the communication between man and God has come to an end. The Muslim tradition called Muhammad the Seal of the Prophets. Sufis would say that there are possibly no new messengers of God, but in their opinion the communication with Him has not been broken off. In that way it remains an open process. At that point the Sufis are close to the Shiite tradition, which assumes that people are still able to receive divine instructions. Even if there is no new prophet, man is able to re-interpret the message because he has inherited the spirit of the prophets.

HK: Those Muslim traditions are now also taken up by others. Whom do you count among the most influential thinkers of the Muslim world?

Abu Zaid: Iranian scholars such as Muhammad Adolkarim Sorusch or Schabestari are important. They are working on a Koranic hermeneutics, as I would like to develop it, and thus, albeit in a different way, on the same goal. Of course, there are also modern, reformist Islamic scholars in Indonesia or Africa, but their focus is not on the exegesis of the Koran. The problem of the so-called Ankara School is that it publishes in Turkish and not in English or Arabic and is therefore world-wide less received.


"Violence to Others is no Characteristic of the Koran"

HK: With the concept "idschtihad" the Muslim tradition places its hope in the possibility to include also human reason in solving the problems of daily life. At first glance that seems modern. Why is that approach for you not sufficient in view of the current challenges?

Abu Zaid: The approach of "idschtihad" is an attempt to include human reason in the process of shaping public opinion in order not to have to refer only to the text and to the tradition. But "idschtihad" too has to respect text and tradition. "Idschtihad" presupposes that all solutions of all problems are explicitly or implicitly given with the tradition. But certain problems of our modern life cannot be solved in that way. I think Scripture too has its limits. The Koran is a book for the moral, ethical and spiritual guidance of man. But it does not help me with the solution of the thousands of problems that are met outside the religious sphere. That is why I together with Mohammed Arkoun criticize the concept of "idschtihad". I am in favour of going beyond that approach and placing one's trust even there in reason where - with all due respect - Scripture and tradition no longer offer solutions. It is about that criticism of Muslim reason, not least for the sake of human reason as such, which promotes the dialogue and the coexistence between all people.



HK: Let us put it to the test: Critics criticize with Islam the close connection between religion and violence, which is already given from Muhammad's biography on. How does the problem present itself from the perspective of your approach?

Abu Zaid: Violence against others is no characteristic of the Koran - even when the media suggest that it is a specific problem of the Koran. The problems with violence occur in all Scriptures. That is the result of the fact that in all of them the relation between the divine and human sphere, between the absolute and history can be found. In each Scripture a distinction is made between believers and unbelievers. In that context there is everywhere a discrimination of those who do not follow the truth - the Koran is no exception. With it, however, it is particularly important to take into consideration the respective historical context.

HK: How do you assess that in the case of Islam? Things were quite chaotic just at the time of Muhammad's actions...

Abu Zaid: Islam stresses the pure monotheism and fights polytheism. In those days there were some Jewish and some Christian Arabs in Mecca, but above all followers of polytheism. Muhammad's followers were persecuted and had to flee from Mecca. They came into a new town where they formed a new tribe that was not related by blood because its members came from different tribes. In Medina the new community had to defend itself against the other dominant tribes. From that as a historical fact also violence arose. That is reflected in the early texts, which wanted to cause the new Muslims to defend themselves and to fight for their faith.

HK: Is thus the attempt to divinely authorize violent confrontation not rashly justified? Are thus the social tensions between rival groups not simply put on too high a level?

Abu Zaid: The converts had trouble with being in need to fight their old tribal members, because their tribal traditions demanded of them not to fight against their own people, not during holy times. That is the specific context of the Koran's orders to kill the infidels wherever you find them. What matters here is to overcome fear in order to at all be able to follow the Prophet and his spiritual and ethical message. The fight was necessary in order to defend the new community. The question is, of course, whether that appellative language is valid for all times and for all communities. Or is that particular form of speech limited only to the specific historical context? Just that is, of course, my conviction.

HK: Does not nevertheless a problem remain that those passages had consequences in the history of Islam - beginning with the first centuries?

Abu Zaid: Of course we must also see the impact of those verses in history. But when the Muslims for instance returned to Mecca they killed nobody as long as they were not threatened. In the violent conquests of the Arabs and the establishment of their empire the primary objective was not to spread Islam. That is why they also did not kill the non-believers in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, quite on the contrary. They were only interested in widening the sphere of their own influence. To this end they at first put the administration in the hands of the people on the spot. They referred to the fact that Mohammed in his triumphant return to Mecca had not killed the infidels either. That means, however, that Muslims had already at that time understood that the order to kill has to be read from a particular context. Something similar should today apply to the idea of "jihad" which emerged during the military conflict of the Ummayyads in the second century after Muhammad.


"The other Face of the Divine Reality is its Beauty and Love"

HK: Recently there was a fierce argument in this country whether all monotheistic religions generally rather promote than check violence...

Abu Zaid: You find violence in all Scriptures, what requires a process of contextualization. In almost all religions, perhaps with the exception of Buddhism, in the idea of God two important properties are connected with each other: that of omnipotence and that of mercy. Both are interrelated. That is why religion is based on fear and love, power and beauty. In all religious traditions the feature of God's omnipotence becomes apparent where violence against the infidels is justified. That applies also to Judaism. And in the New Testament Jesus says: I have not come to bring peace but the sword. All that, as for instance the Christian Crusades, has to be understood in its respective context. The other face of the Divine is its beauty and love: that all children of Adam are his children. The spirituality of the Sufi emphasizes that second side. Of course, it goes without saying that here the divine reality is each time presented with human ideas - and that at the end of times will appear in a different light..



HK: What follows from those considerations in view of the difficult relationship of tradition and truth for an appropriate hermeneutic approach?

Abu Zaid: Everywhere there is the tension between the historical context and the meaning of the Scriptures, which is independent of that specific context. In view of that tension it is important to take a middle course. It is no solution to say that today the Koran was no longer concerned with us and that it was just a historical text from the seventh century. On the other hand, you are not allowed to ignore the historical context, as if the meaning of the text was not dependent on it. A hermeneutic approach looks at that tension between the historical and universal reality without taking sides.

HK: Have the arguments within the Islamic community about the right Koran exegesis all in all become easier or rather more difficult by September 11th?

Abu Zaid: The problem is less the event itself but its consequences. The events in New York would have been a good starting point for deeper discussions on those issues. The challenge in question is to dissociate the majority of Muslims from that discourse of violence. Unfortunately, that issue did not get the attention which it had deserved - even when dealing with it would have become very strenuous. The simpler way was the American "War on Terrorism". A large part of Muslims is not for violence, but feels threatened and afraid. That leads young Muslims throughout Europe to join the ideology of violence. I do not justify that but only analyze it.


"Networks of Moderate Muslims Grow above all in the Virtual World"

HK: What would have then been the alternative to that approach?

Abu Zaid: Time and again the conflicts are addressed as theological ones. In that way all topics are, as it were, theologized. In order to de-theologize them again more precisely should be observed what takes place in our societies in Europe and other parts of the world. Muslims in Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, even in Indonesia quite carefully observe what happens in the Middle East. September 11th has made that change of perspective in the debate about Islam more difficult. I have many critics who say that just because I apply Bible-scientific findings to the Koran I was now part of the western world. In that sense, today the world is divided into two halves at enmity.

HK: Are there, in view of that situation, growing networks of moderate Muslims?

Abu Zaid: They grow especially in the virtual world: the Internet, in chat rooms - but not in the social reality. That is a big problem not least in those societies in which access to the Internet is difficult.


"Dialogue Must Also be Led with Radical Groups"

HK: What chances do you give the so-called Euro-Islam, about which in view of the future of the Muslims in Europe is often talked and which is extolled as some kind of way out?

Abu Zaid: I always wonder what the term "Euro-Islam" means. In other cases we never tire of talking about globalization in economic, political and cultural terms. Euro-Islam is pure wishful thinking.

HK: After all it is about an attempt to establish Islam in the context of pluralist democracies...

Abu Zaid: With those questions we are concerned throughout the world. The Koran knows 'discussing', called "shura", which can perfectly be understood as an argument for democracy; nor do I see in Islam any counter-arguments. The Christian churches too for a long time declared themselves against democratic developments. That has changed where a strong civil society existed. That will also in Muslim countries be the case, when the civil societies are stronger than they currently are. Just they, however, have been weakened by the developments after September 11th. That is the vicious circle.

HK: What should be done in order to break out of that?

Abu Zaid: Terrorism should not be fought by security measures but by intellectual means. It would be important to invest more in the deeper exploration of Islamic thought, Islamic history and the interpretation of key texts. After all, also the United States are now to an increased extent ready to place their hopes in dialogue with the so-called moderate Muslims. But the dialogue must also be led with the radical groups. That is the only way.


    {*} The Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (born in 1943) is since 2004 holder of the Ibn Rushd-Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University of Humanities in Utrecht. Study of Arabic (BA 1972) and Islamic Studies (MA 1977; PhD 1981) at the University of Cairo. Then he lectured there since 1982 as assistant professor, from 1987 as associate professor. In 1995 enforced divorce and emigration to the Netherlands. Until 2004 Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Leiden. His most recent publication: Mohammed and the Signs of God, Freiburg 2008.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'