09/08/2006, 00.00
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Islam needs renewal from within, not withdrawal into itself, to overcome its crisis

by Samir Khalil Samir sj
The absence of a recognised authority and the ignorance in which Islam's religious world has fallen are among the main reasons for Islam's increasingly tragic situation. A re-interpretation of the Koran is needed but no one dares talk about. Here is the fifth and final article in a series about Islam in crisis by Fr Samir Khalil Samir.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The first point to put into effect towards new approaches in training is the reinterpretation of the Koran.  The sacred text of Islam, like all texts, needs to be interpreted, in the search for its overall meaning and striving to contextualize what is read.  Until the beginning of the 20th century, there had been great reformers who had pushed in this direction: they were from India, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, etc.  Then came the religious deterioration of imam training and this desire for reform, which had lasted for centuries, was extinguished.

Reinterpretation is necessary also because the Koran is full of internal contradictions which have always been evident, due to the varying circumstances of the "revelations".  It is for this very reason that Muslim theology developed the science of the "revelation circumstances" (asbāb al-tanzīl) which is by now often forgotten or neglected.  To resolve the contradictions, ancient Muslim tradition developed the theory of "the abrogating and the abrogated": i.e., there are verses that abrogate, cancel, override other verses.  This theory comes from the Koran itself, where at a certain point God says to His prophet: "Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?" (Koran 2, 106).

The problem then becomes: which are the verses that cancel and which are cancelled?  And who determines which is one and which is the other?  This matter is very ambiguous as there has never been any kind of consensus.  Thus the interpretation depends on pre-understanding of the individual.  Those who take a violent, political, radical line will say for example that the verse known as "of the sword" (āyat al-sayf) overrides all the preceding verses that speak of tolerance and welcoming.  This verse is found in two very similar parts of the Koran (2,193 and 8,39): "And fight with them until there is no sedition (fitnah), and religion should be only for Allah"1.

An even more ambiguous point is that concerning the veiling of women.  There are three verses in the Koran which speak about the veil, but they are not clear.  The interpretation varies depending on the meaning given to the words.  Even the historical information on the way in which the veil was applied varies considerably.  In Egypt, for example, from the 1920s onwards, very few women wore headscarves, and those who did, wore them discretely.  They were reintroduced in the second half of the 1970s under the influence of the Saudis and their financial support.  In other regions, the practice of wearing headscarves has existed for a long time.  The interpretation of the Koran is decisive because there are women who suffer verbal or physical offence if they do not veil themselves, or who are simply forced to do so...

Interpretation becomes even more a key question in the important question of apostasy: there is no verse in the Koran that says that the apostate must be killed.  Yet the sharia, Islamic law, requires that a convert from Islam be killed.2

There are many intellectuals in the Islamic world who ask that exegesis, interpretation, be applied to the Koran.  But often they risk being condemned, excluded, exiled by their community.  A typical example is that of Egyptian-national Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid who, having suggested that exegesis be applied to the Koran, was deemed an apostate.  Thus, in a short time, he lost his university teaching post, his wife was pressured to divorce from him (but she refused), and to save his life, he was forced to emigrate to Holland.  Through God's grace, his wife was eventually able to join him in Europe where they live as exiles.

The fear of being condemned holds many scholars back.  Years ago in Tunisia, I participated in a conference on the exegesis of holy texts, along with 6 other Christian theologians and 7 Muslim.  The sessions had been decided upon by the Muslim faculty of theology and were to be on the very question of the interpretation of sacred texts.  Well, everyone spoke in general about exegesis, but no one dared to apply its principles to the Koranic text.  A vertible impasse exists on this question.  This depends on the fact that for Muslims, the Koran is a revealed text which descended upon Mohammad, and not a text simply inspired by God.  In this latter case, interpretation is possible; in the former case, everything remains at a standstill.  Speaking at a seminar on Islam held at Castel Gandolfo (location of the Pope's summer residence, near Rome) in September 2005, Pope Benedict XVI stressed quite correctly that this Islamic conception of the Koran is one of the main difficulties in dialogue with Muslims.

Sharia and human rights

Another problem which stands in the way of the development of Islam is the interpretation of sharia.  To be noted: the (bad) interpretation of sharia also depends on the (limited) training of imams.

Sharia is the concretization in daily life of Islam at the juridical level.  It has, in this sense, a great influence because it generates binding laws.  The sharia too is based on the Koran, on the sayings of Mohammad and on the circumstances of Mohammad's life.  The sayings and circumstances are called Sunna. The Koran is the main source for sharia.  Another source is analogy, which relies on sayings (the authenticity of which no one wants to investigate).  And here lies the problem: there are hundreds of thousands of sayings, which often contradict each other; the authenticity of the sayings are not certain, and yet imams and Koranic scholars strive to apply the experiences and criteria of centuries ago to present day situations.

Many Muslim jurists today are proposing the suspension of the part of the sharia called hudud, which foresees precise punishments: death, hand cutting, stoning, flogging.  Traditionalists say that these punishments have a basis in the Koran. But, at least a part of the community, mainly intellectuals, affirm that this style of punishment is contrary to human rights. Thus, various jurists maintain the principle that it is necessary to reinterpret the Koran and sharia from the basis of internationally recognized human rights.

Women's rights

And this brings us to the question of women's rights.  Many Islamic apologists maintain that Islam, unlike other religions, gives value to all women's rights.  Actually, if taken literally, Islam does not give any equality with men.  And this at the juridical level, not only that of customs or mentality.

Here are few examples.  A man can repudiate his wife with practically no limitations; a woman cannot repudiate her husband: at the most, she can ask him the favour of repudiating her.  Men have total authority over their wives, in accordance to the Koran (4,34: "Men have authority over women, due to the preference that God concedes to the former over to the latter and because they spend their property [for them]") and a wife is obliged to obey her husband even if he forbids her to go to the mosque (hadith).  A husband has the right to have sexual relations with his wife whenever he wants, and she does not have the right to refuse him (Koran 2, 223: Your wives are a tilth (harth) for you, so go into your tilth (harth) when you like).  In court, the testimony of a male is worth twice that of a female: it takes 2 women to counterbalance a man's testimony.  Sons inherit twice as much as daughters.  There is a radical difference also in matters of prayer and acts of worship: being impure during menstruation or when she gives birth, a woman's prayer or fasting or any other religious act is not accepted by God.  She must strive to "recuperate" the days lost.  It was decided, a few years ago in Egypt, that a woman could not be a judge, because a well-known prophetic hadith says "a woman is imperfect in terms of worship and intelligence" (al-mar'ah nāqisah dīnan wa-'aqlan); as for worship, because she is impure during menstruation and would therefore contaminate the entire assembly, and as for intelligence, being too emotional, she would not be able to judge equitably.  (This whole question was the subject of a television programme!)  Furthermore, in the case of adultery, current practice is unfortunately to condemn the woman to stoning, while the man is not condemned, even though the Koran condemns both to flogging and never to stoning (24,2: "(As for) the fornicatress and the fornicator, flog each of them, (giving) a hundred stripes, and let not pity for them detain you.")

This is why some countries are striving to reformulate family law.  As already mentioned, new laws have been enacted in Morocco.  In Algeria, a country that was once progressive, where women had given an enormous contribution to the fight for independence, no progress has been made.  On the contrary, family law reforms tend to restrict the rights and legal equality of women.

Reform in Tunisia dates back to the 1950s thanks to the strength of political leader, Bourghiba, who was backed by an eminent Muslim jurist, Tahar Haddad (1899-1936).  Often, Bourghiba established laws and asked muftis to justify them according to tradition.  For example, Tunisian legislation recognizes monogamy only.  But the Koran speaks explicitly of polygamy, allowing up to four wives plus all the servants that your right hands have (4,3).  How then can the prohibition of polygamy be justified?  The verse in question goes on to say: " but if you fear that you will not be equitable (ta'dilū), then (marry) only one ".  Now, verse 129 of the same chapter explicitly says: "And you have it not in your power to be equitable between wives, even though you may wish (it)".  Thus, the Koran authorizes up to four wives, adding however that if a man fears not being fair, he must limit himself to one.  And further ahead it states that a man cannot be fair.  Bourghiba concluded: "In fact, the Koran wished to guarantee monogamy.  But keeping in mind the weakness of Arabs and the customs of the time, it temporarily authorized polygamy, subordinating it to a practically unattainable condition."

As can be seen, free interpretation can allow for much adaptation.  It should be said in all truth that the meaning of the verse on treating wives "fairly", is not in the sense of "equal justice" – as is the interpretation of many Muslims – but in the sense of affection and sexuality: polygamy foresaw equal shares of sexual enjoyment, the same number of nights.  Though many deny this, there are many examples from the life of Mohammad himself that support this.

The question of divorce also needs interpretation.  According to a saying of Mohammad, "divorce is the most hated of the things permitted by God" (al-talāq abghad al-halāl).  But then, in the life of Mohammad and in other sayings, the opposite can be found.  What then is the proper Islamic position?

The current tendency among certain Muslim jurists is that of preferring human rights to sharia.  The reformist, Libyan scholar, Mohamed Abdelmottaleb al-Houn, for example, says, "If we must choose between human rights and sharia, then we must prefer human rights."  But he is giving the reading of the enlightened, or let's say, of the liberal.

Another reformer that I admire very much, a Lebanese named Ridwan As-Sayyed, is very explicit.  He says: "Laws must...conform to human rights, seeking in private matters, where there is the possibility of choice, to tend towards sharia.  But it is not a principle; it is not a necessary rule."

Others instead relativize sharia, especially for Muslims living in the West.  A typical example is what has been said by Tariq Ramadan, a famous Swiss Muslim thinker (grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), who has many times said: Sharia cannot be applied word for word, due to the fact that we are not in a Muslim country."  Ramadan is speaking of Europe, of Egypt... but what country can truly call itself Muslim?  Even Saudi Arabia and Iran can be criticized!  Actually, Ramadan's reasoning is a small legal trick to justify that sharia not be applied.  Some go even further, such as Elham Manea of Yemen, lecturer at the University of Zurich, who simply says that all the contents of the Koran that do not correspond to the mentality and principles of contemporary man must be left out as belonging to the mentality of 7th century Arabia.


In conclusion, no one is denying the reality of a profound crisis in Islam.  It is rendered even more serious by international conflicts, which risk resolving the crisis through a short circuit of holy war.  But there are increasing numbers of figures who are pointing to problems within the Muslim community.

The first problem is the lack of a recognized authority.  Attempts are made to get around the problem by recognizing the Organization of Islamic States (which has no legal authority); or else, the European association of muftis is relied on, but it too is without authority.

The second problem is the ignorance in which the Islamic religious world has fallen.  How can all this be reformed?  We have seen various attempts: better training for imams; reopening the door of interpretation; suspension of Koranic law, at least "temporarily": in order to reduce the negative impact on the most fanatical elements of the population; recognition of human rights or at least the attempt to integrate them into Islamic principles...

In concrete terms this means problems pertaining to democratization at the political level; social justice problems at the socio-economic level; family law and women's rights at the basic level.  At this point, everyone recognizes that the Islamic system that covered all these fields is out-dated, is no longer managed, nor is it manageable.

Being challenged by other cultures, Islam needs a renewal of its thinking from within, in order to regain strength.  Instead, for the very reason that it feels weak, it protects itself by closing in on itself, thinking that it can save itself by going back to a "golden age" of the first caliphs.  Muslim history teaches us the opposite: Islam was strongest and able to conquer when, in the 10th century, it opened itself to other cultures, in particular Greek culture, assimilating it and surpassing it.  It thus offered the world its contribution in almost all sectors of knowledge, from philosophy to medicine, from technology to astronomy, etc.

To get out of the crisis in which we find ourselves, we all, Arabs and Muslims, must above all accept teaching from those who have surpassed us in the sciences and the arts.  Once this entire heritage has been assimilated, we can begin to criticize it and to discern between what can be kept and what is to be rejected.  Above all, we must accept the risk of abandoning acquired balances, passing through the rejection of many things, to find a new balance.  But we are gripped by fear and this makes us lack courage.  At the time of my youth, there were those who would say "workers of the world unite to fight the capitalists."  I would say today, "Thinkers of the Arab and Islamic world unite to fight obscurantism and the fear of what is different!"


1. In Hamza Piccardo's Italian translation, the word fitnah, essential to the Koran, is always translated in an interpretative way.  Here, it is rendered once as "persecution" and another time as "politeism" to make more acceptable to Western readers the fact that God orders battle. Fitnah means neither one nor the other!

2. For further details on this point, see my study "Apostasy in the Koran and the inter-Muslim debate" in: Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid, I cristiani venuti dall'Islam ("Christians who come from Islam: Stories of converts from Islam"), preface by Samir Khalil Samir (Milan: Piemme Publishing, 2005), p. 9-27.
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