12/23/2019, 16.28
ISLAM
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Muhammad Shahrur, reformer of Islamic thought loathed by extremists, has died

by Kamel Abderrahmani

Kamel Abderrahmani, a young scholar, remembers the renowned reformist expert of Islam Muhammad Shahrur, who proposed new interpretations of the Qurʼān, based on a scientific and very original method of analysis. His works were banned in some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. “His approach was clear: reform Islam in depth, give it legibility and above all restore its humanist coherence.”

Paris (AsiaNews) – “It is with great sorrow and sadness that we announce the death of Doctor Muhammad Shahrur in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this Saturday.”[1] This is how the death of the renowned scholar of Islam was announced on his official Facebook page on 21 December.

Dubbed the Martin Luther of Islam, the extraordinary reformer and one of the main contemporary exegetes of the Qurʼān Muhammad Shahrur has left us. Born in Damascus in 1938, he completed his secondary studies in the same city, before travelling to Moscow where he began graduate studies in civil engineering.

After he returned to his hometown in 1967, he became interested in Qurʼānic exegesis and the study of the foundations of Islam. He thus turned this interest into a passion to the point of dedicating his life to it. He taught at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the University of Damascus for a year before undertaking his PhD, which he obtained in 1972. That same year, he became a full professor at the same faculty.

Muhammad Shahrur was unknown outside of Syria until the 1990s. in 1990 he published his foundational work, The Book and The Qurʼān: A Contemporary Reading, in which he proposed new Qurʼānic interpretations based on a very original method of analysis that included going back to the Arabic language of the 7th century.

The late Malak Chebal[2] described the work as “A synthesis mixing all the topics related to the understanding of the Qurʼānic text and its adaptability in time and space.”

Since then, Shahrur has become the most controversial scholar and thinker of Islam in the Islamic world simply because his thinking has forcefully shaken up the rigoristic edifice built by the advocates of fundamentalism: that of the merchants of religion.

Despite the obstacles encountered such as the ban of his works in certain Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, Muhammad Shahrur remained very active in the field of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), monopolised and held hostage by theologians or other self-proclaimed spokesmen for God. His approach was clear: reform Islam in depth, give it legibility and above all restore its humanist coherence.

His thoughts and interpretations of the Qurʼān touched every religious topic. For example, he analysed jihad in his essay Drying the sources of terrorism (2008), and freedom of conscience, secularism, trade unionism or the concept of justice in Contemporary Islamic Studies on State and Society (1994) and Power and religion (2014). He also proposed new readings of the Qurʼān against the trend of the dominant "official" interpretations.

Shahrur has always argued and explained that freedom of conscience occupies a major place in the Qur'an. It is explicitly included in verses that declare that men are free to believe or not to believe in God.

Regarding his methodology of analysing the Qurʼān, he said, "I am an engineer. I interpret the Qurʼān in the manner of Isaac Newton. They [traditionalists] make poetry. They read it like Shakespeare. I discovered everything by eliminating the synonyms they had artificially created.”

His work is also essentially based on a fundamental notion: The theory of limits. It is a notion that covers the nature of the divine law delivered in the Qurʼānic message.

“According to Shahrur, the divine law is a lex liminalis: a law which sets a certain framework that is clearly circumscribed at the bottom and the top, but which offers an indefinite inner space. Legislation that can be extracted from the message of the Revelation does not therefore consist of a set of given situational articles of law – it is not a question of precise specious reasoning – but of some statements determining a certain legal framework. Legislation is therefore called to be built within this framework revealed by the Qurʼānic message.[3]

His approach is original, reasoned and above all well documented. By restoring the meaning of many Islamic concepts that were the subject of consensus in Muslim religious institutions, Muhammad Shahrur the iconoclastic thinker has sparked many a debate as well as numerous controversies on highly sensitive topics that religious institution like al-Azhar used to monopolise.

However, what provoked anger among traditionalist theologians was the founding principle of his analysis methodology: “Hadiths only have an historical value, not a religious value". In other words, they carry not sacredness. The Qurʼān is the exclusive source of Muslim legal reference. In his view, the Hadiths (words of the Prophet Muhammad) can no longer be rightfully cited, whereas theologians have always considered them as a second legal source, after the Qurʼān, and sometimes as a basis to explain the latter.

As a result of this, he earned multiple and virulent responses and attacks from fundamentalist theologians and the Muslim Brotherhood, above all from some intellectual circles. In any event, Shahrur, on his website (in Arabic), criticised them, citing their own works. On the same website, one can read his complete work, his lectures, as well as the interviews and television programmes in which he participated, free of charge. He did not seek to enrich himself but to make a contribution to help the Muslim world come out of the crisis in which it has been lingering for ages.

Shahrur tried, intelligently, and from within the Qurʼānic text, to explain secularism, individual freedoms, the veil . . . He insisted on the problem of sins which, according to the Qurʼān, are limited to fourteen. All the others that paralyse believers are but contemptuous of the Text.

Lastly, Muhammad Shahrur has left us a fundamental body of work, a legacy that will certainly help generations to come to continue his efforts. If the Muslim world is seemingly ignoring him, or has even excommunicated him, his thought will prevail in the coming years, helping new generations to free themselves from the grip of Sunni fundamentalists and obscurantist terrorists. It will help them as it currently helps thousands of young Muslims to break the chains and free their minds from extremist sects.


[1] Dr Muhammad Shahrur’s official Facebook page (in Arabic) : https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohammad.Shahrour/posts/2687695421347241.

[2] Algerian philosopher and anthropologist of religions. See Fondation Malek Chebel (in French): https://www.fondationmalekchebel.com/malek-chebel#.

[3] “La théorie des limites de Mohammed Shahrour, par Elisa Bezençon,” by RB, in Iqbal, 15 January 2019, https://iqbal.hypotheses.org/5549. Retrieved on 23 December 2019.

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