Quran and Reform

Rahman, Arkoun, Abu Zayd

by Katharina Völker (Author)
©2017 Thesis 195 Pages
Series: Theion, Volume 31


The author examines three 20th/21st century Muslims' accounts of reading the Quran. To master contemporary social challenges, Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), Muhammad Arkoun (d. 2010), and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010) call for revisiting the Islamic heritage, plus a fresh look onto the Quranic 'spirit'. The investigation leads through following concepts: the nature of the Quran, revelation and prophecy, the role of Muhammad and Prophethood. Discoursing the philosophers' reform ideas leads to an analysis of their exegetical methods. Do the proposed Quran hermeneutics support their reform projects? This book uncovers pros and cons of these socio-intellectual innovations. It finally concludes: the thinkers' scholarly and philosophical attitude exposes itself as a humanistic endeavour.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Chapter I – Introduction
  • 1. A Common Theme: Rethinking Islam through Rereading the Quran
  • 2. Challenges to Religious Thought
  • 3. Specific Challenges to Islamic Thought
  • 4. Research Question
  • 5. Choice of Thinkers
  • Chapter II – Quran
  • Rahman
  • 1. The Uncorrupted Quranic Essence
  • 2. Guide towards Moral Perfection
  • 3. As complex as Life
  • 4. Ratio Legis and taqwā
  • Arkoun
  • 1. A Product of Selection and Distortion
  • 2. Deliverer of ḥaqq and Being-in-the-World
  • 3. Multi-Level-Transition
  • 4. From Orality to Written Authority
  • Abu Zayd
  • 1. A Human and Literary Text
  • 2. Creative Communication
  • 3. Humanity and Historicity
  • 4. Original Speech and muṣḥaf
  • 5. kalām and dalāla
  • 6. Access through Language and Reason
  • Comparison
  • Chapter III – Prophecy and Revelation
  • Rahman
  • 1. Divine Source & Muhammad’s Mind
  • 2. Emanation
  • 3. Muhammad’s Inner Struggle
  • Arkoun
  • 1. Revelation – An Anthropological Approach
  • 2. Quranic and Prophetic Discourse
  • Abu Zayd
  • 1. Divine Source & Human Word
  • 2. waḥy and shifra
  • 3. Muhammad’s Legacy
  • Comparison
  • Chapter IV – Reform
  • Rahman
  • 1. Education and Islamic Metaphysics
  • 2. Islamic State and Popular Sovereignty
  • 3. shari‘a Law – System of ijtihād, shūrā, ijmā‘
  • Arkoun
  • 1. Source of Inspiration: adab
  • 2. Ethos, Islamic Studies and Philosophy
  • 3. Mediterranean Realm and Project of Enlightenment
  • 4. Society beyond Education
  • Abu Zayd
  • 1. Reconsidering ‘aql
  • 2. Reforming Islamic Thought
  • 3. Rethinking Education
  • 4. Secular Democracy, Pluralism, and Tolerance
  • Comparison
  • Chapter V – Exegesis and Hermeneutics
  • Rahman
  • 1. Methods and Terminology
  • 1.1 Categorizing Verses
  • 1.2 Rethinking Traditional Methods
  • 1.3 Double Movement
  • 2. Exegesis and Hermeneutics
  • 2.1 Determinism
  • 2.2 Equality
  • Arkoun
  • 1. Methods and Terminology
  • 1.1 Analysing the Semiological Environment
  • 2. Exegesis and Hermeneutics
  • 2.1 islām/imān
  • 2.2 Violence/jihad
  • 2.3 Emergence of the Responsible Person
  • Abu Zayd
  • 1. Methods and Terminology
  • 1.1 The Rational Approach
  • 1.2 Categorizing Quranic Verses
  • 1.3 Determine Meaning and Significance
  • 1.4 Practice of ta’wīl and Reassessment of turāth
  • 1.5 Reading in the Spirit (maqsad) and Two Dimensions of the Quran
  • 2. Gadamer and Abu Zayd
  • 3. Exegesis and Hermeneutics
  • 3.1 Justice
  • 3.2 Doing Justice in Accordance with fiṭra
  • 3.3 Gender Equality in Fundamental Verses
  • Comparison
  • Chapter VI – Conclusion
  • Different Expectations towards the Quran
  • Quranic Text in Human Realm
  • Umma and ‘Ulama’
  • Last Remarks
  • Bibliography

← 16 | 17 →

Chapter I – Introduction

1.   A Common Theme: Rethinking Islam through Rereading the Quran

The three Muslim intellectuals discussed in this book dedicated their work and life to change in contemporary Islam. This change Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Arkoun and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd hoped to achieve through a rereading of the Quran. A re-reading constitutes a rethinking of the role of the Quran in Muslim thought and society. This discourse generally goes hand in hand with re-considering the role of religion in the contemporary world. In the course of rereading, the three thinkers reassess their own tradition and at the same time open their horizons for inspiration from outside their belief. Numerous commonalities emerge between the three accounts of Islamic thinking, as they share the longing for progressive developments in theology, politics, society, and scholarship. In addition they rest many of their hopes on their understanding of the Quran and the proposed exegesis. A common theme through out the writings of these scholars is the centrality of the Quran and its reception history within Islamic culture and thought.

Different terminology is used to describe the group of Muslim intellectuals to which Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd belong. Categorising these scholars may not be helpful, as a detailed analysis of their thinking reveals an abundance of perspectives and influences. However for the sake of communicating their ideas, a labelling might be appropriate to a certain degree. Many descriptive terms are used to describe them: progressive, modern, reformed, protestant, rational, and enlightened. Even more specific terms can be found. Rahman is called neo-conservative or neo-traditionalist; Abu Zayd is referred to as neo-Mu`tazilite and Arkoun is labelled deconstructivist, structuralist or postmodern. Still, all these labels must be viewed critically. Plus, it is yet unclear whether these thinkers perceive themselves as a group, or whether they happen to be individuals who express similar ideas. It appears it is more the concern of outward observers to categorise these thinkers for the sake of discussing contemporary Islam. Even though I consider myself an observer – and I make use of certain general labels when conversing about this stream of Islamic thought – it is not the task of this thesis to determine decisive classifications. Nonetheless, when referring to secondary literature on the works of the three thinkers, one might need to come to terms with the applied labels. However, the analysis attempted in this work might provide insights that could promote more detailed classifications that do justice to the complexity of their thought.1 And in practice, I do not avoid using descriptions such as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ as long as I feel they are mainly adequate.

Many ideas expressed by Muslim intellectuals, such as the three under scrutiny, sound liberating and innovative to Western audiences. Hence, this line of thought gained considerable attention in recent years within scholarship of religion and also the public media. For several reasons, the attention given within Western discourse ← 17 | 18 → is not unjustified. The most prevalent reason is the well-meant advocacy of Western observers in pointing out similarities between this kind of ‘Islamic’ thinking and the mentalities of liberty and democracy which are broadly perceived as important dimensions of Western societies. In this regard the reason for the presence of ‘progressive’ Muslims in the media is a good-willed attempt to bring the two sides, the ‘Western’ and the ‘Islamic,’ closer together. These efforts are aimed at presenting Islamic views as welcomed alternatives to the, however often grossly distorted ,picture of Islam in tabloids. Hence, interest in these alternative voices are unfortunately often triggered by crises and events that let Muslim culture appear questionable to Westerners.

By and large I am inclined to oppose generalized images of Islam that promote distorted perceptions non-Muslims develop of Muslims, and their diverse beliefs and cultures. Hence I like to point out the multiplicity of religious thought within Islam, not only to highlight more liberal Muslim voices that formulate alternatives towards fundamental or extremist Muslim stances, but also to highlight the depth and vast facets of Muslim thought in general. What we can say at first glance, is that Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd appear to be progressive, future and development orientated.2

The scholarly and public interest in these new voices is comprehensible when one looks at the titles published by modern Muslim writers in Western languages (here English examples): Towards a humanistic hermeneutics (Abu Zayd, 2006), Reformation of Islamic Thought (Abu Zayd, 2006) Islam and Modernity (Rahman, 1982), Rethinking Islam (Arkoun, 1994), Islam: To Reform or Subvert (Arkoun, 2007), Quran and Liberation (Esack, 1997), Islam and the Secular Mind (Akhtar, 2008), Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Ramadan, 2009), Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy (Hashemi, 2009). These titles include various buzzwords such as humanism, reformation, modernity, liberation, secularism, democracy, which instantly remind a Western audience of intellectual developments that are primarily dedicated to Western societies. Moreover, these words are often regarded as sole fruits of Western intellectual endeavours. Such new connotations of Islam bring the reader of these titles at odds with already established images of Islam. Western Orientalist images of Islam are often as incompatible with those values that are now also being called for by Muslims.

Critical investigation of modern Muslim writings by Western intellectuals can lead to very distinct conclusions. One example is the extensive investigation into Tariq Ramadan’s work by the French author and journalist Caroline Fourest in her book Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (2008). She concludes that the media should be more critical of Ramadan. According to Fourest, Ramadan portrays two different accounts of Islam and a Muslim life in contemporary times. What he says while addressing a Western audience might be very different from what he expresses in front of Muslim listeners. She accuses Ramadan of being two- faced, which renders him untrustworthy. In contrast, studies of other Muslim thinkers such as Ursula Günther’s investigation of Arkoun’s work conclude that the positive impact of the author’s ← 18 | 19 → work might be and should be felt in the future, because of its valuable impulses and prospects for both, the Muslim and non-Muslim audience.

So far we have identified two reasons for interest in contemporary Muslim intellectuals. The first reason is that contemporary Muslim intellectuals offer accounts of Islam as alternatives to extremist and exclusivist interpretations. The second reason is that their work can be interpreted as an attempt to reconcile Islamic values with values that are regarded as precious in the Western world. Of course these two reasons are interconnected on different levels. I also want to point out a third motivation for engaging with this kind of thought from a non-Muslim perspective. What makes some of these Muslim thinkers interesting for a Western audience is that they make use of, or show parallels to critical research, argumentation, and methods which are widely applied in Western academia. They are not shy of directing analytical investigation to their religious and cultural heritage. In doing so, they are perceived by Western scholars, theologians and the media as role models of a future-oriented, well-informed Muslim scholarship. Commentators on their work express the hope that such Muslim thought could lead Islam into a reformation.3 Linked to this development are prospects of establishing peaceful intercultural and interreligious encounters that further constructive coexistence. Non-Muslim supporters, promoters or mere sympathetic commentators of this kind of Muslim thought are often Christian theologians, who critically engage with Muslim thought and are looking for parallels to their own religion’s history, values and beliefs. Time and time again they carry anticipations for an irenic co-operation with such representatives of the Muslim faith in Western spheres. Especially in Western countries with large Muslim minorities these inter-faith attempts are crucial. Examples of such Christian theologians who support and promote the liberal attempts of modern Muslims and speak in favour or at least refer to them as positive models are the Catholic scholars Joachim Valentin, Christian Troll, Felix Körner and Gregory Baum.4

The three incentives for Western scholars to engage with contemporary Muslim thought seem to be valid motivations. In addition, I will attempt to explore the three accounts of Islam by Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd with regard to the ‘centrality of the Quran.’ The notion of the centrality of the Quran lies at the heart of what I consider an authentic (or genuine) account of Islam. In the formulation of such an account one needs to think about the nature of the Quran, how it ought to be dealt with and how it informs Islamic thought and life. The Quran is the founding stone of Islamic religion, namely, it embodies the experience of revelation. Hence, any explanation of Islam needs to attempt to understand the Quran, its revelation and interpretation.

Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd each formulate the centrality of the Quran in similar ways. In addition they develop concrete wishes for social reforms that are intended ← 19 | 20 → to affect how Muslims express and live their religious beliefs. The main challenge is to show how they desire to achieve these concrete reforms and a changed perception of Islam through a re-reading of the Quran. It might be anticipated that a rethinking of the Quran’s nature has already led to new ways of envisaging Islam.

Examples of new views of Islam can be found in Felix Körner’s presentation of core texts of the Ankara school in his book Alter Text – neuer Kontext (Old Text – New Context), 2006. It features the rereading of the Quran and the rethinking Islam as practised by Turkish scholars who hope for a general renewal of Muslim thinking, not just a change of conditions to suit demands of modernities. Ömer Özsoy, one representative of the Ankara School, expresses his hopes for a re-thinking of the Quranic nature in order to gain back its relevance for Muslim life today. To view the Quran as a non-hyper-historical (übergeschichtlichen) text would enable Muslims to find adequate answers to the challenges of modernity.5 Another member of the Ankara School, Mehmet Paçaci, discusses the ‘historicity’ of the Quran,6 and expresses the expectation for the establishment of a new culture by today’s Muslims.7 He also rethinks the character of the Quran as a revelation, not only a fixed text, and wants to avoid ‘going back to the Quran in the course of a quasi-Protestant textualism.’8 These two examples, by Özsoy and Paçaci illustrate how a contemporary rethinking and re-reading of the Quran takes place in connection with reforming Islam and Muslim culture.

Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd pose similar ideas They recognize the centrality of the Quran, and develop methods of interpretation that will lead to what they regard as an account of Islam more suitable for contemporary life. They consider not only the nature of the Quran but also the process of revelation, the role of Muhammad, the need for historical awareness, and for social reform. The fact that the three thinkers engage intensely with theological themes proves that their accounts differ from merely political, philosophical or sociological schemes.9 They are genuinely Islamic, since the common denominator in their overall thinking is the centrality of the Quran. Of course upon closer examination Islamic is not synonymous with Quranic. However, it may be that there exists a connection between Quranic interpretation and society throughout Islamic history. Since the three thinkers suppose such link and hope that a shift within Islamic world views could affect society positively, this research will follow the assumption Expecting a link between the treatment and understanding of the Quran and cultural expressions of Islam, Rahman, Arkoun und Abu Zayd also address the role of religion in contemporary society inclusive of the challenges a religious life might face. For this reason it is helpful to call to mind some of these challenges. ← 20 | 21 →

2.   Challenges to Religious Thought

Religions are challenged by ever changing circumstances in politics, society, and economy. If religion wants to avoid becoming obsolete for society it has to react to changes in a way that it successfully preserves its relevance. Euro-centrically said, the adaption of religion to contemporary challenges is often regarded as an outcome of modernity and associated changes including: enlightenment, progress, and social improvement. Certain factors of the adaption of religion pose special challenges, such as privatization and individualization (Kaufmann, 1989),10 submission under value-universality (Nielsen-Sikora, 2005),11 relativization (Callaway, 2007),12 inner reformation and with it globalization of human rights (Lund, 2006),13 secularization (Willems, 2002),14 loss of welfare function via substitution through social states, and pluralisation. In the context of the ‘World Values Research’ Müller (2009) reflects on some of these effects on religious traditions:

The pluralisation of ‘life worlds’ leads to differing religious worldviews, which make the persistence of one single legitimizing religious worldview impossible to maintain, the “plausibility structure” of religion becomes severely undermined (cf. Berger & Luckmann 1966). A relativization of religious beliefs and decrease of societal importance of religion takes place. With religion’s separation of other parts of the society and the increased demand for scientific and technical knowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to socialize younger cohorts into traditional belief systems. Yet with the loss of its former all embracing functions for society, religion is forced to retreat from the public into the private sphere, losing its influence and significance for other parts of the society. On an individual level, decreasing individual religious beliefs and a disengagement from religious rites follow.15

Challenges for religion based on secularization and modernization theories predict some kind of vanishing of religion. This process of evaporation entails first a disappearing from the public sphere and secondly the loss of significance, also for private individuals. On the other hand, Casanova has shown that the differentiation between religion and public sphere alone might under various criteria continue to privatise religion but does not necessarily do so. He mentions several criteria that can lead to the privatization of religion and concludes that religion on the basis of civil society can still be active in the public sphere and even foster the de-differentiation between religion and public. With this Casanova seems to attribute religions quite a subversive power and hence the ← 21 | 22 → potential to significantly shape society despite a differentiation between religion and public sphere.16 On the other hand Halman and Pettersson (2004) find in their study on European values no “widespread preference for religion to be a potent actor in the political and public realm.”17 These examples show that discussions on the future role of religion in private and public spheres are likely to raise questions about future challenges to religious thought. What is more, religions as part of specific cultures and mentalities have been touched by encounters with other cultures and beliefs. What might be special in the present is the extent to which people are connected by new media and hence have much more and easier access to foreign news and beliefs around the world. In addition, the different ways of living become competitive in the constant strive for economic strength. There seems to be a mutual relation between religions, politics and societies. When one thinks of the role of religion – whether its role seems crucial or peripheral, – religious beliefs seem to either influence, or be influenced by world dynamics. As such they are part of something bigger then themselves.

Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd reflect on the role of religion and try to discover which contribution a rethought Islam could make to the dynamics of a changing world. In this they also reflect critically on the different answers already given by Muslims to challenges of modernity.

3.   Specific Challenges to Islamic Thought

Because the research in this work is about Muslims’ answers to challenges for religions, it might be worth considering those challenges that seem to be specifically faced by Muslim cultures. Most obvious are the existential plights which stem from the underdevelopment of majority Muslim countries.18 Statistics show that the overlap of Muslim majority and underdeveloped countries is significantly higher than such of historically and dominantly Christian countries.19 Much research has tried to find reasons for the phenomenon of this underdevelopment. One line of research suggests that the strong links between religiosity and political leadership might be a factor that hinders development. Tim Müller finds that amongst the Muslim public the acceptance of the idea that religious spokespeople influence politics is high. The Arab world shares ← 22 | 23 → this overlap of high acceptance of ‘religious influence’ and lowest development in the world only with Sub-Saharan countries.20 This result hints at a possible link between the acceptance of religious leadership within politics and underdevelopment. Here secularization theorists hit upon a verification of their view that a differentiation of religion and state fosters development. Others, such as sociologists of religion like Ulrich Oevermann (2006) find that a sociological reading of the Quran reveals an Islam-inherent impediment to development. He claims that this limitation goes back to the lack of the rationalization dynamic.21 One conclusion of this sociological reading is that Islam bears an inherent impossibility of a differentiation of state and religion. If this were true also here the development of democracy-awareness (Demokratiebewusstsein) seems prevented.22 Oevermann asserts that in his sociological (‘objective’) hermeneutics he scrutinizes the literal readings of the Quran, as put forward by what one could call ‘more fundamentalist’ streams of Islamic thought. According to this logic, I speculate that a ‘more humanist’ reading such as proposed by Rahman, Arkoun and Abu Zayd might exempt Islam from these consequences.

Such sociological theories and Müller’s study are echoed in Riaz Hassan’s research Faithlines (2002), which shows how the majority of Muslims interviewed in his study stated that an Islamic society would “have to be based on the Quran and Sharia.”23 Still, other studies display different results. Political scientist Inglehart finds that public support of democracy in Islamic countries is as strongly developed as for example, in the USA. Intriguingly, the widest gap between Western and Islamic civilizations is found in different moral and sexual values.24 This finding suggests that it is not the ← 23 | 24 → lack of supporting democratic systems that divides Islam and the non-Islamic West, but maybe differences in ethics. A discussion based on these indications might reveal further challenges to Muslim countries if a plausible connection between moral values and religious belief could be shown.

History of Islamic cultures shows another detail. It is the enormous time hiatus between the end of the high time – or Golden Age – of the Islamic empires up to approximately the 12th century and the beginning of confrontation with Western civilization. There are different theories about when and why the decline of the Islamic era took place. Some even doubt that a decline took place or negotiate the extent of the decline. The fact that in at present the Muslim world is far from a golden age and consists of mostly underdeveloped countries is, I believe, evidence enough for a decline of some sort. This observation leads to various interpretations of reasons for the stagnation within Islamic cultures also from within the Muslim realm. For example, contemporary scholarship of Islam in Ankara, the aforementioned Ankara School, laments “the burden of Western imperialism, which paralysed the development of Islam since hundreds of years.”25 One characteristic of Islamic revival movements for example – and I would exempt the Ankara School from this class – is the linking of the effects of imperialism to a weak Muslim culture. Some representatives of this group find imperialism to be the cause for the current underdevelopment. Hence liberation from imperialism and its effects is required. Others say the weak Islamic profile of Muslim cultures allowed imperialism to succeed in the first place. They then conclude that the solution must be the re-formulation of a strong Islamic agenda for Muslim culture. Others see in the confrontation with the colonial powers that pressed into the Near- and Middle East an excessive demand on Islamic cultures through material and ideological development of the West. This excessive postulation probably fostered a purposive-rational reason (Zweckrationalität).26 Zweckrationalität functions selectively and is applicable in current situations that need current solutions. It does not attempt to be a holistic account of rationality that spans to humanities or mental endeavours. However, we must see that the challenges address not only economy but also thought. This close link can be found in the history of economic growth in the Western hemisphere. Within Muslim countries the exposure to new economic systems and technologies led to different attitudes within the populace and political leaders. Some welcomed the implementation of technology but rejected the economic system for religious reasons. Some strengthened their identity as Muslim or Arab through rediscovering and intensifying faith. At the same time, the technological achievements of the West were welcomed with the argument that they rooted in the sciences that Islam developed in its golden age and then transferred to the West.27 Others point out the sudden confrontation of Islamic culture with Western colonial powers. The effect of surprise they claim was harder for Muslim societies to process because most of them lacked the gradual development from medieval ages via renaissance towards enlightenment into present times. At least ← 24 | 25 → it is suggested that this development did not take place to a degree comparable to that in the West.28 Within this line of criticism, the Egyptian professor of philosophy Murad Wahba claims that “the lack of renaissance and enlightenment in the Muslim world almost equates the lack of Averroism in this part of the world.”29 Wahba alludes to the anticipation that the marginalization of certain streams of thought was carried out by the dominant Islamic zeitgeist roughly since the 12th century. Now, Wahba refers to the Islamic philosophical-rational thought which in the form of Averroism essentially contributed to Europe’s intellectual development. This shows, according to Wahba, how such trends within Islamic thought need to find fertile soil – as it did find in the West – to carry fruits. Wahba says:


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (January)
Quran hermeneutics Muslim intellectuals Gender equality Contemporary Islam Quran exegesis sharia
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 195 pp.

Biographical notes

Katharina Völker (Author)

Katharina Völker studied the history and philosophy of religion at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, as well as Sufism and philosophy of mind at the University of Leeds. She received her PhD from the University of Otago, where she lectured on Women and Islam.


Title: Quran and Reform
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197 pages