Historicism, Reform and Revelation

Salam Professor Moosa, I would be grateful if you can answer some of my questions. As a freelance columnist I write on issues of human rights, democracy, secularism and liberalism. Many a times however even though I share the same conclusions that reformists and modernists have reached on these crucial issues,  yet I am still uneasy whether my conclusions can be sustained and justified.

I feel uneasy about accepting these conclusions because some of the underlying tensions about epistemology, hermeneutics, Revelation and jurisprudence remain. I feel uneasy because the reformists and modernists advocate a type of ijtihad, it is not the ijtihad of ”first principles.” AbdolKarim Soroush strongly believes in this type of ijtihad on ”first principles.” He argues: ”Religious intellectualism believes in ijtihad on first principles; i.e., ijtihad on theology and morality, and renewing our understanding of the Prophethood, revelation, the afterlife, God and so on.”

It is in this spirit I ask the following questions:

1. Can the ”historicist” project of interpretation put forward by Soroush and many others before him sqaure up with the Ash`arite conception of Revelation?

2. Indeed can the historico-critical method advocated by the likes of El Fadl, Zayd and Arkoun be compatible with any philosophical model of Revelation?

3. Will Qur’anic hermeneutics veer inexorably towards the same sort of direction taken in liberal Biblical hermeneutics or can there be an alternative?

4. Do we need a new understanding of the phenomena of Revelation?

5. What parts of Revelation are contextual and what parts are universal and how can we come up with a hermeneutical framework which can effectively distinguish between the two?

6. Can the Mutazilite conception of Revelation be revived or is too controversial? The examples of the late Nasr Abu Zayd, Mohammad Arkoun and recently with Soroush’s ”Expansion of the Prophetic Experience” does not fill one with confidence. (in terms of the violent reception they have received especially in the case of Abu Zayd and Soroush).

7. Furthermore, although historically speaking the Islamic tradition is diverse and pluralistic how do we philosophically reconcile this with the universal narrative of faith?

8. Is not the recognition of pluralistic interpretations grounded in some form of relativism? The Kantian scheme Soroush applies in his ”Theory of Contraction and Expansion” does go some way to solve this dilemma. But even then I am left with the question: are we not leaving religious teaching and reasoning at the mercy of contemporaneous ”extra religous” data? Are we not undermining the epistemological sovereignty of religious reasoning?

9. Do we implicitly acknowledge that human reason is sovereign over Revelation, since every interpreter enters their encounter of the text with their own set of assumptions and sense of justice, rationality etc.?

10. Are our preferences of one type of religious interpretation over another simply based on utilitarian concerns? Do we loose the ethical and moral imperative, when reformists and modernists cite ”modernity, and changing circumstances” as a ”necessity” (darurat) to change religious interpretation?

I know these are many questions Professor, but I would be very happy if you could go some way to try and answer at least some of these questions. I would be grateful for your invaluable input.


Ahmad Ali Khalid

My Reply:

Dear Ahmad Ali

What seems to trouble you is what also bothers a great many people in our time. It is not a Muslim problem.  Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair converted to Catholicism, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek finds at least ontological inspiration in the transcendence of Christianity.  People are looking for that which is solid.  I am inclined to think that it is a condition of modernity with its rapid rate of change and transformation that unleashes certain anxieties. What most people are looking for in religion is transcendence: that singular reference point or perspective that freezes living and seeks to capture the vital difference.  Transcendence is the ‘beyond’ which for most religious people is God.

For Muslims knowledge of this transcendent God was mediated via prophecy in the person of the Prophet Muhammad.  Revelation in the mainstream Muslim view is the ‘very word of God.’  Given the ancient theological disputes among Muslims about whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated, the status of the Qur’an as the ‘very word of God’ (kalam Allah) vouchsafed to the Prophet Muhammad, underwent something of a discursive transformation.  In the aftermath of the Qur’an controversy theologians started to talk about the ‘verbal speech’ of the Qur’an as being created whereas the ‘inner speech’ of the Qur’an being eternal.  Theologically things became less straightforward.

But another shift took place, which was fairly normal and part of a historical process.  Where the Qur’an was once intimately identified with the status and integrity of a living Prophet, after his death the charismatic authority of the Prophet rubbed slid on to the Qur’an. This was an epistemological shift.  With the construction of the Qur’an as an independent source of teaching by al-Shafi`i and later jurists, over time the Qur’an grows its own independent authority even though it is read along with the hadith. In fact the word of the Prophet in the form of hadith reports also flourish after his death.

If, for the early Muslims, God was the only transcendent and the Prophet served as the chosen informant of God to humanity, then over time things have changed.  Modern Muslims put a great deal more emphasis on the Qur’an for moral instruction whereas early Muslims followed the moral instructions issued by specialized moral authorities who thought and reflected on the good life.  I do not think early Muslims faced the crisis of authenticity and chased after Qur’anic transcendence the way modern Muslims do since their transcendence was anchored in their faith in God.

Somehow, I believe modern Muslims only seek transcendence via the Qur’an.  Modern Muslims have lost the literacy of faith that early Muslims had. Modern Muslims have added more things into the basket of transcendent things: not only God is transcendent but the Qur’an is also transcendent. So I am not surprised to hear serious and thinking Muslims worry when they are told that passages of the Qur’an are subject to interpretation and that they should take note of the context. Whereas early Muslims located their faith in an unseen God and they were informed by a Prophet who told them that this is part of the Qur’an and when he tells them the next day that those passages for whatever reason is no longer part of the Qur’an, they accept his word and hardly anyone revolts and asks him: how can you do that? Is not the word of God unchanging?

For the modern Muslim who is looking to the Qur’an as the anchor and rock makes all things firm and stable, the kind of engagement with the Qur’an as portrayed in the events of the Satanic Verses is purely unthinkable.  But if the point of transcendence is an unseen God, then their imagination of the revelation is much more dynamic and their engagement with it much more empowering.

If the Qur’an becomes a fixed philosophical construct and freezes time and history to a particular sanctified moment then there is little possibility for movement in thought. All history becomes a sacred drama and all contingency is basically sucked out of life for it is all foreordained. And the specificities of the Qur’an such as the rules and regulations become a permanent ordinance from which there is little escape and one is compelled to follow life forms that are extinct such as slavery.

But if you imagine the Qur’an as revelation, where the divine voice continuously inspires humanity, then the Qur’an becomes a poetic space where creativity, imagination, beauty and the inner and outer meanings play out on the human soul and its countless meanings are disclosed to its readers.  Then contingency in history, historicism, does not become a problem.  Then, life is no longer a game, the rules of which had already been fixed in advance but rather it is open ended and allows for creativity.  Then the question of reason, and the obsession to find purposes of the Sharia that are only connected to scriptural audiences and the need to read sacred texts in authorized ways to control the power of interpretation fall away in my opinion.

But this is but one installment to your questions Ahmed Ali. I will get back and write more.

About ebrahimmoosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
This entry was posted in Ethics, Islam & Democracy, Islamic Law/Ethics, Muslim Ethics, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Historicism, Reform and Revelation

  1. Ahmad Ali says:

    Thanks Professor.

    Your comments on ontological transcendance are well noted. It is interesting to hear that modern Muslims put more emphasis on the Text so to speak and early Muslims put more emphasis on ”enlightened readers” of the Text. It is as if the notion that the Word of God being mediated through processes of reasoning and deliberation, has become repungant to the modern Muslim who wishes to grapple with the Divine alone, in an effort to capture the ”purity” of his Word without the complexity. In a way it is reminiscent of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura held by many Reformation theologians in Christianity.

    On another point does this stem from reducing God to Scripture alone, ignoring other possible avenues where we can learn from and of the Divine? Has our notion of God become so small as to burden Scripture with notions of transcendance?

    However, on the point of legal ordinances, is there a Scriptural basis to convince Muslims today of their essentially time bound nature? After all, many scholars working within the traditionalist framework, even the late reformist Ayatollah Montazeri would argue that there can be no ijtihad against a clear-cut text (qati), which includes certain legal ordinances within the Quran. Others such as Tariq Ramadan get caught in an uncomfortable position (particularly in relation to the reaction of the Muslim communities across the world to his call for a moratorium) in this matter aswell, particularly in his work in regards to the Hudud punishments.

    Although I agree with you on your points, I wonder that the pursuit of a Quranic transcendance is also linked with religious and spiritual experience. Is not the recitation and reception of the Quranic Text to Muslims an act which inspires feeling of transcendant wonder? Should we essentially treat the Quran polysemic in nature?

    Do we burden Scripture with undue expectations which instead should be laid at the door of human reason? Iqbal in his Reconstruction writes:

    ”The Qur’an, however, is not a legal code. Its main purpose, as I have said before, is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and the universe.”


  2. Ali Mian says:

    This was very instructive for me. Thank you for educating me, here and elsewhere.


  3. Riz says:

    Great article. Thanks for the post. JazakAllah Khair


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