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Christian W. Troll SJ

ABU ZAID, Nasr Hami

Book Review


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2009, P. 430-432
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    ABU ZAID, Nasr Hamid: Gottes Menschenwort. Für ein humanistisches Verständnis des Koran. [God's Human Word. For a Humanistic Understanding of the Koran.] Selected, translated and introduced by Thomas Hildebrandt. Freiburg: Herder 2008. 235 S. (Georges Anawati Stiftung. 3.) Br. 15,-.
    ABU ZAID, Nasr Hamid - SEZGIN, Hilal: Mohammed und die Zeichen Gottes. Der Koran und die Zukunft des Islam. [Mohammed and the Signs of God. The Koran and the Future of Islam] Freiburg: Herder 2008. 222 S. Gb. 19,95.


The literary scholar and Koran researcher Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid who was born in 1943 in Cairo and has been living in the Netherlands since the late 90s is, especially in German-speaking countries, well known to many people who occupy themselves with questions of the contemporary interpretation of the Koran and with the renewal of the Islamic religious thought in general. Navid Kermani's narrative book "Ein Leben mit dem Islam" [Living with Islam] (Freiburg, 1999), which resulted from his conversations with Abu Zaid, has certainly helped a lot to make known Abu Zaid and his equally courageous and intelligent effort to communicate a new view of the Koran - and thus to some extent also of Islam. The two available volumes extend the picture each in a significant, different way.

In "God's Human Word" the young Bamberg scholar of Islam Thomas Hildebrandt presents five wisely selected essays of Abu Zaid in a precise and very readable translation. In addition he offers an introductory essay that wins people over by its expertise and clarity. The selection of texts and their arrangement communicate a complete picture of Abu Zaid's work. Discreetly assisted by Hildebrandt the reader is thus introduced by Abu Zaid to "the historical and contemporary forms and possibilities of the Muslim understanding of the Koran".



At the same time an overview "of the development of Abu Zaid's work" is opened to him: "from the examination of classical-Islamic, now rationalist and now mystical interpretations of the Koran over the key work 'The concept of the text' of 1990 up to the recent present, in which the author, as regards the Koran, increasingly clearly turns away from the aforementioned term in order now to focus on the concept of "discourse" (12). Extensive references to further reading and an index of quoted Koranic passages close this extremely helpful, in an exemplary way edited volume. The support of the GeorgesAnawati Foundation enables a price that is remarkably affordable for a scientific work.

The second available book of Abu Zaid is very different, since it was created on the basis of a series of interviews with the author in the summer of 2007 held in English by the publicist Hilal Sezgin. In the epilogue it says that on that occasion the German text - written by Sezgin, as it were, on behalf of Abu Zaid - was specifically for this purpose translated once again back into English, and so he had the opportunity to review it. The result is a book of 14 chapter that considers nothing less but the "Koran and the Future of Islam". In this work there is neither an introduction nor footnotes and indices. Above all an index of the Koranic passages interpreted by Abu Zaid would be of interest just for this book, because the selection of the Quranic passages related to the various topics and their not infrequently very original interpretation by the author is probably the most valuable thing of this book. Abu Zaid's statements, which deliberately aim at a wider audience, want to help to "understand rather than (to) defend" as the title of the first chapter programmatically formulates. As long as Abu Zaid restricts himself to matters of Koranic interpretation he time and again convinces and shows that even difficult facts can, without slipping down into commonplaces, be presented in a way comprehensible for lay people who are educated in theology and religious studies.

However, towards the end of the book, especially in the last two chapters about the development of the doctrine and fundamentalism, statements are piling up that make you wonder. They are characterized by a degree of generalization and woolliness that, even if one takes the genre of the book into account, is hardly likely to be of help to the matter at stake for Abu Zaid. It says for example, "With regard to faith we are concerned with a relational truth. Dogmas are true - for the believer. Mecca is for Muslims a place of paramount importance - to non-Muslims Mecca means nothing" (191). Would the author have formulated a sentence like that in a book directly written by him - without any further differentiations? What exactly has he said in English in the interview? In the way in which this statement appears in the book available - and a whole series of other, similarly colloquial statements could be cited - it undermines the author's scientific authority and power of persuasion, both among believers and agnostics. And the question had to be asked why the author time and again uses instead of "God" the concept of "the Divine" (see e.g. 65; 90). About the topic 'monotheism and globalization' we read the following curious statement and ask ourselves to what extent it has to be attributed to Abu Zaid, "Everybody talks about globalization. And what is it - is it monotheism?



Globalization makes the market the One God that governs the entire world, to be precise, according to the guidelines of power alone, not of mercy. The monotheism of the market knows no pity, no feeling and no compassion, and people demonstrate just against that. Religious monotheism is much better because it knows both: It knows mercy and power. For from where does the ideal of compassion, of sympathy come? - From religion" (103).

These examples let it appear useful and advisable that Muslim and Christian theologians have clarifying and deepening discussions with Abu Zaid about topics such as "religious truth and pluralism of religious views and statements", "faith in God and conceptions of God", "history and revelation".


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