A Voice of Islamic Rationalist Reason

Below I have copied a dispatch from MEMRI, an important and highly credible research organization that I have referenced on numerous occasions in this blog.  MEMRI’s work is a very useful research tool to gauge leading edge thinking, both left wing and right wing, in the various Islamic countries and centers of intellectual thought.

This interview with Dr. Bassam Tahhan is an example of Ijtihad.  This is a very important sign of progressive thinking in Islam– and there are other progressive Islamic voices, though they are hard to hear in the shrill wind of dogmatic literalism that comes from conservative clerics.  My hope is that constructive voices questioning orthodoxy of all kinds will continue to find their way onto the web and eventually into the mainstream.  These voices need to be enouraged across all faiths.

When I read interviews like this one, I am remind of Tom Friedman’s comment that Islam 1.0 is in search of Islam 2.0.  We may not be much further than version 1.1, but as long as we keep seeing new revisions, the Islamic OS will continue to make its way forward into modernity.  One of the most important statements made in this interview is the assertion that there are multiple versions of the Koran– not just one– which immediately opens the door to to the possibilities for different interpretations of the Koran.  This is a big deal.

Muslim Intellectual Calls for "Protestant Islam"

To view this Special Dispatch in HTML, visit: http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD119806 .

Dr. Bassam Tahhan, a Syrian-born French professor of Arabic literature, teaches at the prestigious Henri IV secondary school in Paris and is an expert on the Koran. In his numerous lectures and interviews, he advocates "Protestant Islam," which he defines as Islam that allows freedom of thought and permits questioning the Sunna, abrogating hadiths not grounded in the Koran, and reinterpreting the Koran in light of modern values. Tahhan recently attended a UNESCO conference on human rights in Morocco, where he gave the following interview to the independent French-language Moroccan daily Telquel:(1)

"To Be a Rationalist is to Acknowledge That the Orthodox Approach is Fundamentally Wrong"

Telquel: "You characterize yourself as one who interprets the Koran rationally. What do you mean by that?"

Tahhan: "To read the Koran rationally is to accept that the Koran is open [to interpretation] and has many meanings. The tradition regards the Koran as one-dimensional and fixed. This approach is not rationalist. To be a rationalist is to accept that each era, with its [particular] methods and discoveries, presents its own reading of the Koran, and this is the way it will be until the end of days. To be a rationalist is to acknowledge that the orthodox approach is fundamentally wrong since it does not accept the multiplicity of readings."

Telquel: "You are one of a handful of experts around the world on the different versions of the Koran. How did you come to have a passion for this topic?"

Tahhan: "Let me remind you of a historical fact that is accepted by all. In the year 901 – an unfortunate year for Muslims – a Muslim qadi named Ibn Mujahid canonized [one version of] the Koran. Before that, there were many different versions of the Koran, and this did not upset the good Muslims!"

Examining the Different Versions of the Koran Reveals "Its Wide Range of Possible Meanings"

Tahhan: "Today, Muslim thought evolves within a very rigid framework, namely the framework of the Shari’a. I, on the other hand, refer to the sacred scriptures. Specifically, I allow myself to draw upon the various [versions of the] ‘sacred scriptures,’ since there are many of them. This is a fact. In order to see this, one must merely read the chapter Kutub Al-Masahif (‘The Books of the Koran’) in Ibn Nadim’s book Al-Fihrist. Ibn Nadim enumerates several versions of the Koran which were not recognized by the Caliphs. He explicitly refers to mushaf al-rasul (the Prophet’s Koran)! Remember that, ever since the Koran was canonized, we have been referring to Mushaf ‘Uthman ['Uthman's version of the Koran].

"The German orientalist Theodor Noeldeke wrote several volumes on the history of the various Korans. Today the Arabic translation of his book is being circulated in secret. Jews and Christians readily accept the different versions of their sacred scriptures. Why shouldn’t we? When you examine the different versions from different perspectives – sociological, philosophical, juridical and linguistic – you reveal the Koran’s wide range of possible meanings. This breathes new life into [the Koran], instead of petrifying it for all time!"

"Why Can’t the Word of God Be Multifaceted? Why Can’t the Koran Be True in Its Different Versions?"

Telquel: "You do understand, though, that it is difficult for believing [Muslims] to accept your arguments, [since they] believe that there is only one truth, which stems from a divine revelation and is recorded in one single book, namely the Koran."

Tahhan: "I allow myself to search for the historical truth. I believe that it is my right and duty to check the sources. Who decreed that the Koran is monolithic because the word of God is one? Why can’t the word of God be multifaceted? Why can’t the Koran be true in its different versions? God never deprived man of his freedom of thought. God created history, and allows it to unfold. But he never deprived human beings of the right to manage their own affairs in the course of history. Arab and Muslim history – the history which bores our children in school – is a history of palaces; it is not a social history. When our elite [finally] examines the social history of Islam, no one will find it strange that researchers are excited about examining the various versions of the Koran!"

"As a Protestant Muslim, I… Challenge the Over-Application of the Shari’a"

Telquel: "You find it unfortunate that Islam is limited to the Shari’a. Must we become ‘Protestant Muslims’ in order to set the Shari’a aside?"

Tahhan: "As a Protestant Muslim, I do not merely challenge the over-application of the Shari’a. I believe that basing Islam [only] on the Five Pillars is a narrow approach. I say that Islam has many dimensions: the judicial dimension which deals with ethics, the theological dimension that has to do with philosophy, and the mystical dimension which has to do with socio-psychology and spirituality. I wish that the training of theologians in Muslim countries would consider all these various dimensions. When you limit religious teaching to the Shari’a, you impoverish it. That is why I completely support the pioneering reforms of  [Moroccan] Minister Ahmad Tawfiq, including the modern reforms implemented by [the Moroccan institute of] Dar Al-Hadith Al-Hassania…"

"We Should Found a New Community… of Protestant Muslims"

Telquel: "For many, ‘Islam’ and ‘Protestant’ [are concepts that] do not go together. How do you reconcile them?"

Tahhan: "We should found a new community: the community of Protestant Muslims. Its roots already exist in [Muslim] history. This community would promote a return to the word of God, since the overwhelming majority of prophetic hadiths are subject to serious questioning and suspicion. A Protestant Muslim has only one goal: to track down the truth to its very source. He has only one guiding principle: never to let himself be content with the so-called revealed truth. Freedom of thought is a God-given gift that should be honored by Muslims."

Why Should One Religious School Be Better Than Another?

Telquel: "You often object to the dictates of the religious schools regarding religious practices. Why is that a problem?"

Tahhan: "Why should one [religious] school be better than another? For example: Abu Hanifa accepts the testimony of a Muslim woman, whereas the other schools reject it along with the testimonies of Jews and Christians – and thus treat the Muslim woman as an apostate! Why should [we believe that] Malik is right and not Abu Hanifa? Why should I be considered a less devout Muslim if I follow the directives of Al-Tabari (a brilliant exegete who was murdered by obscurantists) rather than those of [Ibn] Hanbal? God granted me freedom of thought and I intend to make use of it!"

"Al-Shafi’i is Dangerous Because" He Gives the Same Status to the Sunna and to the Koran

Telquel: "You say that [Imam] Al-Shafi’i is dangerous because he replaced the Koran with the Sunna. What do you mean by that?"

Tahhan: "There was always a tendency to supplement the Koran with the Sunna. This tendency is questionable since the Koran is defined as the Sunna of God and his Prophet! Various historical factors gradually led the Sunna to become an indispensable
supplement to the Koran, to the point that it superseded the Koran. Remember that the Koran never mentions [the practice of] stoning, but [only] whipping. Likewise, the Koran does not explicitly [mandate] the death penalty for apostates (la ikraha fi din). The Koran doesn’t totally prohibit [the drinking of] wine… Al-Shafi’i is dangerous because, in his book ‘Rissala,’ he explains that the Koran and the Sunna can be given the same status. Al-Shafi’i is dangerous because he created a certain ambiguity: he turned the fundamental text [of Islam] into a twofold text [consisting of the Koran and the Sunna], to the point where the Sunna came to impinge on the word of God. Unfortunately, [even] in the 21st century, the orthodox world still fails to challenge his unjustified status.

"We should also have the right to [apply] a diversified reading of the Koran in religious ruling. The [status of the] Sunna must be redefined. Why should those who believe only in the Koran be expelled from the Sunni community?"

Telquel: "You say that Islam did not abolish slavery. This is not what we were taught in school…"

Tahhan: "Many suras deal with slaves, for example with abid [slaves] and ma malakat aymanukum ['those whom you own'], which clearly refers to women captured in war. Islam is against slavery, but no sura explicitly forbids it. This shows that it is necessary to come up with a new historical and sociological reading of the scriptures. And since you offer me the opportunity to do so, let me call upon the [religious] authorities. Our orthodox religious scholars take the liberty of abrogating the sacred text, so why don’t they go all the way and abrogate everything that infringes on the universal rights of Muslim women? The problem is that the religious scholars have only one guiding principle – the domination of women by men, to the extent that they made laws that undermine the [one] positive [right] granted to Muslim women, namely financial independence… The [notion that] women are naqisat ‘aql wa din ['deficient in both intellect and faith'] is an outdated theological fabrication which is mentioned nowhere in the Koran. However, it is so frequently evoked in sermons that the Muslim in the street believes that this absurdity is mentioned in the scriptures, when [in actuality] it is [nothing more than] a ‘weak tradition’ [i.e. a tradition whose authenticity is in doubt]…"

Telquel: "Aren’t you being over-optimistic when you say that Morocco holds the seeds of Islamic renewal, including a reform in the status of women?"

Tahhan: "I honestly believe that it is no coincidence that Mohammad VI was the one who ratified the new mudawana [the new Moroccan family code that grants more rights to women]. He is a descendent of [the Prophet Muhammad's daughter] Fatima, who was dispossessed by the followers of Abbas. They are the ones who decreed that women cannot inherit, and thus deprived her descendants of the right to the caliphate… And it was Fatima’s descendant…  who restored the Muslim women’s rights. In this I see the seeds of Protestant Islam – which are potent enough to shake the dust off [Islam] after 13 centuries of stagnation!"
(1) Telquel (Morocco), Issue 229, June, 2006.

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