Last Saturday, Dr. Muhammad Shahrour participated in a Dubai symposium where we all had the opportunity to have a deep conversation on Syria’s future. This conversation was in response to recent debates on respecting Islamic values, and the demands of fundamentalist movements on governance and the application of Sharia law.
We could hardly believe that a Syrian could present a different way of thinking, and defend a unique position against the norm. A few years ago, such meetings and discussions were prohibited in Syria—Shahrour himself was accused by the religious body in Syria of apostasy, and was considered a heretic who diverged from the Muslim community. The late Sheikh, Saed Ramadan al-Bouti, published a series of articles in which he attempted to show that al-Shahrour’s ideas were Masonic in origin and formulated in the West. Al-Bouti even claimed that Shahrour’s book was composed by international and Western intelligence agencies, and that his name was a mere cover.
Dr. Shahrour and I agree on many ideas about developing the religious discourse, although I completely disagree with his position on the Prophetic Sunna and its role as a source of Sharia law. I also disagree with him being skeptical of historical Islamic jurisprudence and its relevance. I strongly call on him to respect and appreciate the efforts of religious scholars throughout history. However, I do agree with him that we are in critical need of a revolution against religious traditionalism, as well as a realistic Islamic discourse couched in independent reasoning. These points we share, and due to that common ground, we have in many occasions been placed under the same umbrella. I know that Sharia law students, for example, used to jokingly say: Beware of the three birds; Shahrour, Habash, and Hassoun [The surnames of these three scholars mean: Blackbird, Turkey, and Goldfinch]
I would like here to provide readers with a part of the speech I gave at the symposium after our meeting:
Dr. Sharour was able to build a Qur’anic hermeneutical theory that avoids synonymy, fillers, lies and exaggeration—one that precisely differentiates between prophet and messenger. While the prophet is understood as a temporal ruler who uses reason to manage government, politics, and society, and following his reasoning is not obligatory. A messenger, on the other hand, conveys God’s message, and therefore following it is not optional, and the words of the Qur’an are a basis for law, regardless of how the messenger himself behaves.
In his latest interview, Dr. Shahrour always referred to the Islamic messenger as the messenger of God, which shows his love and respect for him.
I said in my commentary on Dr. Shahrour’s speech that reproducing Qur’anic exegesis in a manner that deviates from normative understandings, even if it is supported by solid linguistic proof, will not lead to a dynamic debate, but will rather reproduce a new traditionalism.
Islamic scholars and jurists throughout history followed the exact language of the Qur’an when issuing a ruling or a punishment. For example, they ruled that theft must be punished by amputating a hand, following the following Islamic verse, “[As for] the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah.” Dr. Shahrour provided a deep linguistic study in which he proved that severing the hands of thieves should not be taken literally, and it rather means to cut the thief off from theft. Another example is that Islamic scholars, throughout history, saw women’s veils as a religious requirement, but Shahrour proposes that Qur’an actually calls for ending the phenomenon of veil. Islamic scholars throughout history saw fasting as one of the pillars of Islam, and rendered it as a required practice, while Shahrour argues that fasting is a spiritual and physical practice, and that those who do not fast can simply pay religious donations.
My opposition to his proposals is not a response to the boldness of his ideas, because I believe that Ijtihad [reasoning] must be free and brave. However, we should acknowledge that if we agree with his methodologies, we face a serious and unavoidable question; where do we situate the billions of people who read the Qur’anic text in a particular way for centuries? And how do we deal with the very different way in which they interpreted Qur’an for centuries, before Dr. Shahrour came up with a theory that is built on tandem alignments in language?
This reading of the Qur’an necessarily concludes that the Qur’anic text is not clear and straightforward, and that it has been read and interpreted in contradiction to what God meant for centuries. This by itself is offensive to the Qur’an and its sacredness and sanctity.
If the textual format of a law is ambiguous, and therefore people misunderstand and misinterpret it, this only means that the author of the text is not competent and that he was not able to produce an intelligible text. He furthermore left people scrambling to understand, and did not do anything about it.
When the issue is related to God, then one wonders about those who misinterpreted the text for centuries. What do we do with all the hands that were severed, the millions who fast during Ramadan, and those who wear hijaab, seeking obedience to God. Shahrour’s interpretation proposes that a close reading of the Qur’an proves that the traditional interpretation was incorrect, and was actually against the Creator’s purpose.
I do agree with Dr, Shahrour that there should be correctional sanctions instead of physical ones such as flogging, stoning, amputation, and crucifixion. However, I do not claim that this is what the Qur’an stated. I agree with him that the women’s veil is not one of the pillars of religion, but I completely disagree with the method he uses in order to reach this conclusion, and I cannot follow his linguistic inventions, regardless of whether or not I agree with their results.
Hermeneutically speaking, there are three schools of interpretation: linguistic meaning as the speaker understands it, linguistic meaning as the recipient understands it, and linguistic meaning according to its strict grammatical meaning. It seems to me that Dr. Shahrour has chosen the third school, but I do not believe that this is the right choice, because this particular speech is not an anonymous heritage, but rather it is a legislative text that has, with a particular exegesis, has ruled many countries for many centuries. Moreover, it is the core of what movements of political Islam around the world are calling for. In other words, we cannot separate this text from how the masses have understood it simply because they are the subjects of this speech. If one claims that the masses do not understand the text; that they spent centuries understanding it contrary to the purpose of its Creator, it is akin to accusing the text’s Creator of producing an ambiguous work.
Additionally, when we say that our reading is the correct one, we create endless doubts for Muslims, who for a long time had interpreted the sacred text contrary to its original meaning, despite the fact that Muslims themselves are the intended recipients of this text.
Although Dr. Shahrour has been very careful in the way he treats his predecessors, many of those who follow his interpretation have ridiculed Muslims’ thinking throughout history. These days, we read many unfair, critical, vengeful statements that accuse famous scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, such as al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Shafi’ai, and Ibn Hanbal of conspiring against Islam. I hope that Dr. Shahrour writes something that does justice to these great scholars who so carefully and diligently preserved and transmitted Islamic knowledge. These scholars gained people’s respect without forcing people to follow their juridical positions.
I prefer to understand the text exactly the people have understood it, and I prefer to follow the discursive process of development that took place during Islamic history. A few weeks ago, I finished research on 80 religious rulings that developed over Islamic history, and are still evolving despite the fact that the indications of the Qur’anic text are very clear. In many places, the research shows that the religious scholars’ rulings contradicted the text itself. This is because they understood that the significance of the text changes with time and place. These developments followed the famous legal opinion, “Religious rulings change with the times.”
I believe that our dilemma is rooted in an absence of reasoning, and an extreme emphasis on the text. This tension between reasoning and literalism has existed since the very beginning of Islam. The Muslim scholar Abu Hanifa led a school that supported analogical reasoning as another source Islamic law in addition to complete surrender to the text. He believed in juristic preference and used it to author dozens of rulings that did not align with the text. His principles were clear: God’s law is whatever is in the best interest of the Muslim community—“you know best about the issues you face every day.” [Hadith] These are all legitimate views that are respected by the majority of Muslim scholars.
I believe that reinterpreting the text is not a useful tool, because the text is how the majority understands it. However, whenever reason contradicts surrender to the text, we should follow reason as researched and authored by Islamic scholars.
The messenger himself abrogated many Qur’anic verses when the circumstances changed, and many Islamic scholars followed in his footsteps and changed rulings in accordance with the changing times and circumstances.
We have to open up the horizon to reason, and stop assuming that the text itself has magical and miraculous powers capable of changing the world. The Qur’an is God’s message to people. It is a book of wisdom. It is a light that instructs, but does not restrict.
These observations are an introduction to answer some of Syria’s questions about its future, especially those that sit at the intersection of constitution, religion, and society.