Controlled Democratisation: Democracy and Islam in Jordan
Islam and Democracy
Dr. Adli Hawwari
- د. عدلي الهواري
This chapter focuses on the claims of incompatibility between democracy and Islam. The religious justifications of the claims made by Muslims are examined. It is of particular importance to outline the procedure Muslim fuqaha use (or should use) before they can reach the conclusion that this action or that notion is haram, i.e., forbidden by Islam, or incompatible with it.
Islam is a religion(1) which emanated in the cities of Mecca and Medina in what is currently known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its Prophet, Muhammad, preached a message that there is only one god, Allah, and that he is his messenger. A statement to this effect brings a non-Muslim into Islam. When Muhammad started to preach the new message, he and his followers were persecuted in Mecca. Consequently, he instructed them to emigrate to Medina and he joined them there.
In Medina, the Muslims practised their religion freely, and were able to attract more followers. Their strength increased over the years. They were able to re-enter Mecca and rid it of idols worshipped by its people. Islam branched out of Mecca and Medina, and over the centuries, Muslims conquered vast areas of the world. It is currently followed by a billion people; the majority of whom are non-Arabs.
Prophet Muhammad belonged to the strongest tribe, Quraysh, which had its prominent families and subclans, from which old and modern dynasties take their names—such as the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Hashimite of Jordan.
The history of Islam is full of power struggles and internal conflicts. The first occurred immediately after the death of Muhammad. The dispute was about who was the most deserving to succeed him: someone from the people who emigrated with him from Mecca; someone from the people who welcomed him and his followers in Medina; or someone from his extended family, such as his cousin ‛Ali.
The outcome of this dispute was the selection of Abu Bakr, the friend of Muhammad, and his father-in-law, whose title became the successor (khalifa, caliph). The early disputes produced two branches of Islam: Sunni and Shi‛i. In the former, Prophet Muhammad’s statements and actions (sunna) are given paramount importance, only second to Qur’an. In the latter, Muhammad’s cousin, ‛Ali (the fourth caliph) and members of his family have a special status, and are considered infallible.
The Sunni branch is the larger one. The CIA (2010) estimates that it ‘accounts for over 75% of the world’s Muslim population, while the Shi‛i ‘represents 10-20% of Muslims worldwide’. The Shi‛a are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Shi‛i communities, however, live in many other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Religious practices and interpretations vary from one Muslim country to another. There are variations even within the same country and within the same branch of Islam. In Jordan, 92 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims (CIA 2007, p. 329).
Therefore, whenever Islam is mentioned in the book, it refers to the Sunni branch which is followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide, and by the vast majority of the people in Jordan. It is also the official religion in Jordan.
The Incompatibility Claims
The claims of incompatibility between democracy and Islam fall into two categories. The first is that of Muslims, parties or people, who base their arguments on religious grounds, or more precisely, on their interpretations of the Qur’an and sunna. For instance, such a claim is made by Hizb al-Tahrir (1990), al-Mawdudi (1976), and Qutb ( 1979). The second category is that of scholars, such as Bernard Lewis (1990), Samuel Huntington (1991 and 1997), Francis Fukuyama (1992), Daniel Pipes (1997), and Martin Kramer (1997). Their claim of incompatibility is based on different grounds, which will be outlined below.
Leaving these claims aside for a moment, it is necessary to outline the way according to which something is considered allowed (halal), or forbidden (haram) in Islam, and by extension compatible or not. Arriving at such a conclusion is part of what is known as the fundamentals of jurisprudence (usūl al-fiqh)—a discipline of religious studies which produced the many rules related to inheritance, marriage, and other aspects. I shall focus on the forbidden because it relates to the incompatibility claim.
As Zedan ( 2004, pp. 113-180) explains, when there is a need to establish a rule, a Muslim jurist (faqīh) will resort to four major sources: Qur’an, sunna, ijma‛ (consensus or unanimity), and qiyas (analogy or comparison). Al-‛Awwa (2006, pp. 149-150.) confirms that the evidence found in these sources has hierarchical power, namely, that the evidence found in Qur’an carries more weight than that found in the sunna. In other words, the procedure referred to here is not that of a particular faqīh or scholar. Also, for the sake of added clarity, if the evidence is found in the Qur’an, one does not proceed to find evidence to contradict it in the other sources.
I shall use this procedure to explain how a faqīh can establish what the rule should be vis-a-vis a matter that Muslims want to practise in line with Islam’s teachings.
The Procedure to Identify the Permissible
For something to be declared forbidden in Islam, ideally there has to be a clear instruction in Qur’an explicitly stating that it is prohibited. For the sake of illustrating the point, I shall outline how it can be decided that gambling and drinking alcoholic beverages are forbidden. A faqīh will first consult the Qur’an. He/she will find the following verse (5:90):
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا۟ إِنَّمَا الۡخَمۡرُ وَالۡمَيۡسِرُ وَالأَنصَابُ وَالأَزۡلاَمُ رِجۡسٌ مِّنۡ عَمَلِ الشَّيۡطَانِ فَاجۡتَنِبُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تُفۡلِحُونَ
O believers, wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are an abhorrence, the work of Satan. So keep away [emphasis added], that you may prevail.
On this matter, the Qur’an has something to say, and the instruction is very clear: keep away! A faqīh does not need to go further. If one follows this procedure and applies it to democracy, one needs to search the Qur’an for the term ‘democracy’ to see what it says about it. Democracy is not mentioned in Qur’an. Therefore, one cannot say it is forbidden in Islam by reference to a clear instruction. This leads to the second stage in the search for evidence.
The next step is to search in the sunna; in particular, the authentic statements of Prophet Muhammad(2) or things that he had done. It should be noted that the sunna does not contradict Qur’anic instructions: it may explain them; it may elaborate upon them; and it may introduce something not mentioned in Qur’an. For instance, how Muslims pray is not described in Qur’an, but the Prophet taught people how to do it. Muslims now perform prayers according to how Prophet Muhammad taught his companions, not according to a manner prescribed in the Qur’an.
It has been established that the Qur’an did not take a stand on democracy (using the very term). What about the sunna? If the Prophet forbade democracy in a statement or an action, then Muslims will treat that as a powerful religious instruction to refrain from practising it. Nothing in the collections of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad contains instructions about democracy. Therefore, one finds no guidance on the matter to declare democracy incompatible with Islam. This leads to the third stage in the process of searching for evidence.
When guidance cannot be found in the Qur’an or sunna, a faqīh will look for a consensus of the views of the companions of Prophet Muhammad.(3) According to Zedan (2004, p. 149), the rule that the grandmother was entitled to a share in cases of inheritance was established through the rule of unanimity or consensus. The companions of the Prophet all verified the fact that he, Abu Bakr, and ‛Umar applied this rule and gave the grandmother a share of one-sixth. If one attempts to find a rule concerning democracy, one will not find guidance in unanimity or consensus. Therefore, one has to search for guidance in the next stage: qiyas (analogy or comparison).
The Qur’an instructs Muslims to avoid alcoholic beverages, as outlined above. It does not mention drugs: marijuana, opium, heroin, and similar substances. However, because drugs are similar to alcohol in the effect on the mind, it is not illogical to declare drugs forbidden. Applying the same to democracy, a scholar has to find something comparable to democracy, and declare it to be halal or haram, in line with what it is being compared with. If democracy is comparable to something permitted, then it is compatible with Islam. If it is comparable to something that is forbidden in Islam, then it is incompatible with Islam.
For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that the procedure has other stages which include ijtihād and interests. However, once a faqīh reaches the stage of qiyas, the rule ceases to be based on a source that is considered incapable of interpretations.
By making comparisons, two contradictory conclusions are possible. The first is that there is nothing halal in Islam that is equivalent to democracy in order to declare the latter as such. The other conclusion is that there is something allowed in Islam and equivalent to democracy, and therefore it is possible to declare the latter permissible.
The notion to compare democracy with in this case is shura, which has two meanings: consultation and deliberation. It is mentioned in Qur’an in a context that encourages Muslims to practise it. Both conclusions will be justified by their proponents by contesting what shura means and requires.
Verse 42:38 mentions the traits of Muslims, which include the practice of shura:
وَالَّذِينَ اسْتَجَابُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُورَى بَيْنَهُمْ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنفِقُونَ
Those who answer the call of their Lord and perform the prayers; Those who settle their affairs through common deliberations;(4) [emphasis added] Those who expend from what We provided them.
In another verse (3:159), the Prophet is instructed to consult with the Muslims:
فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِّنَ اللّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظّاً غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لاَنفَضُّواْ مِنْ حَوْلِكَ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الأَمْرِ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ.
It is through God’s mercy that you are gentle towards them. Had you been cruel and hard of heart, they would have dispersed from your presence. So forgive them and ask God’s pardon for them and seek their counsel in all affairs. [emphasis added]. When resolved upon a matter, put your trust in God, for God loves those who put their trust in Him.
However, when and how to consult, and whether the outcome of the consultation process is to be followed or not, is the subject of different views. Al-Būtī (2003), a traditional Muslim preacher,(5) says that Prophet Muhammad engaged in consultation with his companions. The consultation is obligatory when there is no clear instruction in the Qur’an or sunna regarding a certain issue.
Moreover, consultation is also a necessity in cases of war, peace, and treaties. According to al-Būtī, consultation is mandatory in these only two situations. However, he points out that the ruler is not required to follow the advice given to him by the people consulted (p. 237).
Al-Ghazali (1990) rejects the views that are similar to al-Būtī’s, namely that shura is highly limited, highly procedural, and devoid of any usefulness to the people being governed. He agrees that shura is not used to decide what is allowed or forbidden according to Islam. He explains that shura covers worldly and ordinary matters, such as collecting taxes and declaring a war. He further argues that it is ‘suicidal to leave decisions on these matters to rulers who claim they are geniuses’ (pp. 45-47).
Al-Qaradawi (1974) agrees with al-Ghazali’s view on shura. He considers it binding as well (pp. 227-229). Moreover, Gharaybeh (2000), a Muslim scholar who also served in the senior leadership of the IAF, dedicated a chapter to the issue of shura (pp. 295-328). He argues that shura includes the right of the nation to elect the leader, and that it entails acceptance of majority rule.
I shall now return to the claims of incompatibility, having contextualised the procedure of declaring an act or a notion to be permitted or forbidden in Islam.
Incompatibility Claims: Muslims
The claim of incompatibility between Islam and democracy is made by the Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir), which was established in 1953 by the Palestinian, Taqiyyuddin al-Nabhani. According to the leader of Hizb al-Tahrir, ‛Abd al-Qadīm Zallūm, ‘democracy is a man-made system of government,’ and the ‘term itself is an alien one’. Moreover, Zallūm argues that ‘democracy is related to the principle of separation of state and religion’. All these elements, according to Zallūm, make democracy unIslamic (1990, pp. 2-4).
Contrary to the suggestion made by Esposito and Voll (1996, p. 23), al-Mawdudi (1976, p. 159) claims that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Islam, he argues, is ‘the very antithesis of a secular western democracy’.
In arguing the case of incompatibility, al-Mawdudi makes two contradictory arguments. In one he argues that Islam and democracy are incompatible. In another, he talks about the ‘democratic essence’ of Islam and coins a term for it: ‘theo-democracy’ (pp. 148-170).
I suggest that Esposito and Voll (1996) unjustifiably ignored one part of al-Mawdudi’s argument and adopted the other. The part they ignored specifically refers to ‘secular western democracy’.
It is erroneous to consider democracy or modernity European or Western. Al-Ghannouchi (1993) argues that ‘the democratic system as is in the West remains, in the absence of an Islamic one, the best system that resulted from the development of human thought’. He further argues that ‘the defects of the [Western] democratic system’ should not be used as an excuse ‘to reject it’, because it is ‘better than tyranny’ (p. 87).
On what basis does al-Mawdudi declare that Islam and democracy are incompatible? Al-Mawdudi attaches a great deal of importance to the notion of ‘sovereignty of God’, and contrasts it with the sovereignty of people.
‘All prophets,’ argues al-Mawdudi, ‘conveyed to mankind the guidance which was revealed to them and asked to acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of God [emphasis added] and render unalloyed obedience to him’ (p. 149). He further argues that the ‘belief in the unity and sovereignty of Allah is the foundation of the social and moral systems pronounced by the prophets’ (p. 158).
Al-Mawdudi’s argument (1976, p. 158) is based on the notion that democracy is about the sovereignty of people. To him and other like-minded people, there is only one sovereignty, and it belongs to Allah. His evidence is in verse 2:30:
وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَة قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَنْ يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ.
And remember when God said to the angels: ‘I shall appoint a deputy [vicegerent] on earth,’ and they answered: ‘Will you place therein one who sows discord and sheds blood while we chant Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?’ God said: ‘I know what you do not.’ (emphasis added).
The context of the verse is unrelated to democracy, or to how human beings should govern others on earth. However, as Abou El-Fadl (2004) points out: ‘God’s vicegerent does not share God’s perfection of judgment and will’. Therefore, what he calls ‘constitutional democracy’ can constitute ‘a basis for pursuing justice and thus for fulfilling a fundamental responsibility assigned by God to each one of us’ (p. 6).
Furthermore, al-Ghazali (1990, pp. 44-45) indicated that people detected that his view on shura was different from al-Mawdudi’s. He explained that al-Mawdudi was of the view that shura should not undermine the executive branch of government. Al-Ghazali suggested that this was the case in modern systems of government. However, the ruler was not exempt from abiding by shura.
Al-Mawdudi argues against democracy because it relies on the sovereignty of people. He suggests that ‘if the people dislike any law and demand its abrogation, howsoever just and rightful it might be, it has to be expunged forthwith’ (p. 160). This is the wrong characterisation of how a democratic system of government works, whether in relation to how laws are enacted; how people behave in a democracy; and how laws are repealed.
I suggest that when al-Mawdudi formulated his argument concerning the sovereignty of God, he was responding to the arguments of his time. When democracy is presented as the ‘sovereignty of people,’ he will respond that the sovereignty of God is paramount.
I would recall what Huntington (1991, pp. 5-7) said about the debates amongst scholars concerning the meaning of democracy, and that they continued until the 1970s, when the procedural definition became dominant. In other words, al-Mawdudi engaged in a different debate: that of authority and purpose of government. Therefore, al-Mawdudi’s interpretation constitutes no basis for rejecting democracy and declaring it incompatible with Islam.
Qutb ( 1979) argues that Islam and democracy are incompatible. He employs the notion of sovereignty of God, but calls it hākimiyya. He uses a phrase which appears in Qur’an in 6:57, 12:40 and 12:67:
إن الحكم إلا لله
Judgement [Sovereignty] belongs solely to God.
The term ‘hukm’, from which hākimiyya is derived, appears in these verses and others. When one examines the meaning of ‘hukm’ where it appears in Qur’an, it is clear that the meaning is not a state, regime, or government. It is usually in a context which states that the ultimate judgement belongs to Allah and that he is the final arbiter. In Khalidi’s translation of these three verses, he uses ‘judgement’ twice and ‘sovereignty’ once.
There is, however, an artificial point being made when Qutb says that sovereignty belongs to Allah, because a practising Muslim does not dispute that. Even a king or president who offers prayers acknowledges that Allah is superior to him. Therefore, there is no contradiction between the existence of a sovereign state with a ruler (hākim) and the sovereignty that belongs to Allah, because the sovereignty of state and that of Allah are two different notions.
Qutb does what Karl Popper (1963) warns against: to seek ‘confirming evidence’ for a theory and to disregard ‘refutations’ (p. 36). This approach, in Popper’s analysis, leads to some instances of ‘myths’, namely when a theory is not formulated ‘in a testable form’ (p. 38). In explaining his views, Popper refers to Marx’s ‘theory of history’ and how its followers rejected ‘refutations’ by others. Consequently, they ‘could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for [their] interpretation of history’ (p. 35).
Interestingly, another verse in Qur’an (4:59) is used in Saudi Arabia to confer legitimacy on the ruling dynasty and demand obedience of the people. One can only speculate whether Qutb would consider this verse compatible with his argument that hukm belongs to Allah, or it can be delegated in full or in part to those in charge of the affairs of Muslims (أولي الأمر::uli al-amr).
Qutb marshals verses, in whole or in part, in support of an argument, although the apparent context seems unrelated. He goes to an extreme when he defends ‘God’s law’ (شـرع الله ::shar‛a Allah). For instance, he says [p. 96]:
The interest of mankind is embedded in God’s law, as Allah handed it down and as conveyed by his messenger. If one day, it appeared to mankind that their interest is in violating what was enacted to them by God they first would be deluded.
And second, they would be kafir. No one who claims that one’s interest is in what violates the law of Allah remains for a moment of this religion and a member of the people of this religion.
The passage above shows how easy it is to declare that a Muslim is not a Muslim (kafir) by simply accusing him of violating Allah’s law.
However, Qutb’s views did not go unchallenged. The leader of the MB in Egypt, Hassan al-Hudaybi (1977) faulted Qutb for declaring a Muslim a kafir, marshalling counter-evidence from the Qur’an and sunna. He also addressed the points made by both al-Mawdudi and Qutb about the sovereignty of God, arguing that there were many areas in which it is left to man to make laws (pp. 103-113).
Furthermore, Qaradawi (2001), in his memoirs, faults Qutb for declaring Muslims kafirs. Qaradawi wonders why Qutb disregarded verses related to jihad that make the concept broader than characterised by Qutb. He further deplores Qutb for accusing those who oppose his views (a) of stupidity and of lacking knowledge, and (b) of being psychologically weak and influenced by the orientalists.
‛Abdullah al-Nafisi (1999) attributes the appeal of Qutb to the young Muslims who are going through intellectual transformation in their lives to ‘his martyrdom, which added meaning to what he used to preach. It made his ideas and reality identical. This is the honour a mujahid [fighter] wants to be inscribed on his grave’ (p. 37).
Al-Nafisi also attributes Qutb’s appeal to the latter’s simple writing style, which ‘lacks the philosophical abstraction, and intellectual dryness’. His ideas were written in a ‘literary style, and dominated by overflowing emotions of an ideological preacher’ (p. 38).
Qutb went further than arguing that hākimiyya is Allah’s prerogative. He also considered Muslims to be in a state of jāhiliyya that should be changed by following the example of Prophet Muhammad and how he managed to spread Islam. He did not spare ‘even Muslims who pray, observe Ramadan, and perform the Hajj’ (p. 105). He amalgamated all societies, Muslim and otherwise, and considered them to be in a state of jāhiliyya (pp. 88-93).
The logical and pressing question here is what is jāhiliyya? This has become a term that in Arabic refers to the era before Islam. Those who refused to accept Muhammad’s new message were described as jahilūn (singular jāhil). The contemporary meaning of jāhil is an ignorant person, or someone who is not aware of certain things (a child is considered jāhil). In the contemporary meaning, jāhiliyya is the state of ignorance. But was that its meaning 1400 years ago?
Language: Old and New Meanings
How is it possible for al-Mawdudi and Qutb to quote a verse and argue that it stipulates a clear-cut instruction in Qur’an? After exhausting the four stages outlined above, it becomes possible to resort to ijtihād: making a reasoned judgement. To prevent ijtihād from being abused, there is a rule which says ‘no ijtihād with the text’ (لا اجتهاد مع النص). Therefore, one who is in favour of Qutb’s argument may say that with a verse like that used by Qutb (6:57 for instance), there is no room for interpretation that democracy is acceptable in Islam. Is this the case?
Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid (2007, pp. 88-105) tackles this matter and puts it in context. Abu Zaid accepts that there are instances where a rule in the text is clear and it does not allow for an interpretation. One such instance is preventing sons from marrying their mothers (4:23). In such an instance, I expect that anyone will agree that this is a sensible, clear-cut rule that should not allow interpretations which lead to negating it.
Abu Zaid specifically deals with the term jahiliyya, referred to above. As used by Qutb and others,(6) it means a state of ignorance and lack of knowledge (p. 56). Abu Zaid points out that this meaning is not the one from the time of Prophet Muhammad. It meant then a lack of control of emotions. He cites from the same era Arab poetry in which the derivatives of the verb, ja-ha-la, are used to demonstrate the original meaning of jahiliyya. He quotes one of the most famous poems of pre-Islamic time, known as mu‛allaqat (The Seven Odes), which were posted on the walls of Ka‛ba.
One of the Odes belongs to ‛Amr ibn Kulthūm. It contains a verse which clearly shows that the meaning of jahiliyya at that time did not mean a state of ignorance:
ألا لا يجهلن أحد علينا، فنجهل فوق جهل الجاهلينا
So let no man act foolishly against us,
Or we shall exceed the folly of the foolhardiest(7)
Moreover, Abu Zaid argues that apart from some instances of clear-cut instructions, the room to interpret the Qur’an is much wider than Muslims are led to believe. He argues that the interpretation of Qur’an always takes into consideration the reasons why some verses were handed down to the Prophet. The interpretation process also takes into account the meanings of words at the time of the Prophet. He points out that some scholars like al-Mawdudi and Qutb gave words meanings not intended when the verses were handed down. In Qutb’s case, the word ‘hukm’ which, as pointed out earlier, appears in several verses, does not mean the state or the government in today’s usage.
Giving words in Qur’an a contemporary meaning is also cited by El-Affendi (2008) in an article about the phenomenon in which jailed Islamists reconsidered their earlier views.(8) Sayyid Imam was one of those who did so, after he had argued in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the US that terrorism is Islamic because it is mentioned in Qur’an (8:60).
وَأَعِدُّواْ لَهُم مَّا اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن قُوَّةٍ وَمِن رِّبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدْوَّ اللّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ وَآخَرِينَ مِن دُونِهِمْ لاَ تَعْلَمُونَهُمُ اللّهُ يَعْلَمُهُمْ وَمَا تُنفِقُواْ مِن شَيْءٍ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ يُوَفَّ إِلَيْكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لاَ تُظْلَمُونَ
Prepare against them whatever force and war cavalry you can gather to frighten [emphasis added] therewith the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them whom you do not know but God does. Whatever you expend in the cause of God will be returned in full to you, and you shall not be wronged.
As El-Affendi points out, Sayyid Imam declared that those who think that terrorism is not Islamic are kafirs because they are opposed to what this verse says. El-Affendi is right to point to this abuse of the language and Qur’an. His condemnation of such an abuse is well justified.
It is possible to raise an issue regarding the views of Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, given that the book, in which he criticised the Islamic discourse, was the subject of legal proceedings, and the courts ruled against him. The proceedings were initiated against him in Egypt to declare him an apostate (murtad: someone who renounces Islam) and accordingly to annul his marriage to his Muslim wife. Abu Zaid refused to renounce his views and left Egypt. He died in July 2010.
The reason why some overzealous Muslims directed their wrath at Abu Zaid is because he asked whether the rules of interpreting a text can apply to the Qur’an. His answer is in the affirmative, because ‘in the final analysis religious texts are nothing but linguistics texts’ (p. 204). He rejects the notion that the divine and the human are in conflict (p. 206). (Such a conflict is evident in the arguments of Qutb and al-Mawdudi above). He concludes that religious texts are human texts because they belong to language and the cultures of a specific historic period (p. 209). Therefore, the language and its cultural milieu are a point of reference in explaining and interpreting texts which include the Qur’an (p. 209).
To illustrate his point, Abu Zaid refers to verses which he says Muslims of old times did not understand literally. One such verse is 64:17, which talks about giving Allah a loan.(9) No interpretation of Qur’an suggests that the reference to a loan to Allah is literal. Therefore, Abu Zaid is correct in arguing that the references to trade, buying, selling, and loans in Qur’an reflect the language of an era known for trade. This is mentioned in Qur’an in sura 106, about Quraysh and the two trading caravans which travel in the winter and summer.
The Egyptian appeals court which ruled against Abu Zaid decided that his writings deny that the Qur’an is the word of God (al-‛Awwa 2003, p. 107). This conclusion was reached after citing verses that assert literal meanings, such as God having a throne (2:255: His throne encompasses the heavens and earth), and the existence of jinn (15:27: The Jinn We created beforehand, from the fiery wind).
This approach is not different from that of Qutb when he quotes the verses that say ‘hukm’ belongs to Allah.
I suggest that it is possible to reconcile an individual’s belief that Qur’an is the word of God, and, at the same time, interpret the verses in a way that does not accept the literal meaning. Qur’an was presented to the Arabs in their language, namely, in a man-made language.(10) Arabic existed before the Qur’an, and the Arabs followed certain grammatical rules in using it. A man-made language is understood according to the cognitive abilities of humans at a certain point in time.
Whether words, any words, are those of God, a poet, novelist, columnist, or another author, how they are understood hinges on the reader. If a reader understands words in a way not intended by the author, or not as other readers understood them, it does not follow that this reader has denied that the author wrote those words.
Moreover, although cognitive abilities of humans are ever-increasing, the corollary of this is that they are always limited. Consequently, human beings can only understand meanings in line with the cognitive capacity at a particular time. Interpreters of the Qur’an before modern times were not in a position to interpret it in a manner consistent with modern scientific discoveries and advances. Now, one can find many Muslim preachers and jurists explaining these discoveries by referring to verses in the Qur’an.
For example, a verse about how a foetus develops in the womb (23:14) is said to match the scientific description of the process. A different interpretation, therefore, does not mean a change of belief and that the words are not of God.
The argument above, I should point out, will not satisfy people who are atheists or agnostics. It may satisfy only the people who believe in God but differ on how to understand and interpret a holy book: literally or not.
When Abu Zaid criticised the Islamic discourse, he was logical and scientific in his approach and analysis. Significantly also, Abu Zaid did not rubbish Islamic beliefs. He spoke respectfully of Islam throughout the book. In attempting to rationalise the interpretation of the Qur’an, Abu Zaid served Islam in his own way, while those who persecuted him perpetuated ignorance which did not reflect well on Islam and Muslims.
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(1) The information contained in this section is very basic for a Muslim. Many books introduce and explain Islam to non-Muslims. See for instance John Esposito’s Islam: The Straight Path (1994).
(2) The statements attributed to Prophet Muhammad vary in their reliability of authenticity. The authentic ones are included in volumes compiled by Bukhari and Muslim. However, even the authenticity of the statements in these volumes is not accepted by all, but this is a different point.
(3) In my view, the notion of consensus is problematic. However, my concern here is to illustrate the procedure as used by the Muslim scholars of fundamentals (usūliyyūn).
(4) The translator seems to have contradicted himself and did not choose literal rendering.
(5) By traditional I mean someone who wears certain attire, which includes a turban.
(6) The historian Philip Hitti (1948, p. 20) explains it as ‘time of ignorance’ and ‘barbarism.’
(7) Translation by A. J. Arberry (1957, p. 209)
(8) The Egyptian government organised discussions between Muslim jurists and jailed Islamists. The discussions led some to change their views on the use of violence for example.
(9) ‘If you loan God a goodly loan He shall multiply it for you and forgive you. God is All-Thankful, All-Forbearing’ (Khalidi’s translation, p. 466).
(10) I thank Professor ‛Ali Paya for his insight concerning this point.
Adli Hawwari (2020). Controlled Democratisation: Democracy and Islam in Jordan, 1989-2019 : A Critical Reexamination of the Incompatibility Paradigm. London: Ud Al-Nad.
- cover democracy and Isalm