Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (d. 2010) was an Egyptian scholar of Islamic Studies and a prominent Arab intellectual. Abū Zayd pursued his higher education at the University of Cairo’s Arabic Studies department where he received a Master’s degree, with a thesis on the rationalist Qur’ānic interpretations of the Muʿtazilī school of theology, and a Doctorate degree, with a thesis on the “mystical” Qur’ānic interpretations of the Ṣūfī Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). Abū Zayd later became a professor of Islamic Studies at the same University of Cairo. But, during the process of his promotion to full professorship, the evaluation of his work became at the center of a major controversy. One member of the evaluation committee claimed that Abū Zayd’s scholarship contained heretical and blasphemous writings. Not only was Abū Zayd denied the promotion, he was also dragged into a battle outside the walls of academia. In 1993, he was declared an apostate. Given that it was legally impermissible for a Muslim woman to be married to a non-Muslim man, a group of Islamists sought to also separate Abū Zayd from his wife. Their marriage was invalidated by the courts against the couple’s wishes. They therefore had to escape to Europe in order to save their union and be safe from the multiple death threats that they had received. Abū Zayd would pursue a productive academic career in the Netherlands for the following two decades.
I provide below and in the next blog post a translation of a short essay by Abū Zayd, entitled “Qirā’a jadīda lil-maqāṣid al-kulliyya lil-sharīʿa” (A New Interpretation of the Universal Purposes of al-Sharīʿa). It was published within a collection called al-Khiṭāb wal-ta’wīl or Discourse and Interpretation (Published by al-Markaz al-thaqāfī al-ʿarabī, 2008 edition, pp. 201-8). The translated essay briefly proposes a new reading of the “Universal Purposes of al-Sharīʿa,” an interpretative framework that had been developed by some important pre-modern Muslim uṣūl al-fiqh scholars. Uṣūl al-fiqh (Principles of Jurisprudence) is a complex field of study. At a basic level, it deals with the sources of legal rulings in Islamic Law, the central four among which are the Qur’ān, the Sunna (normative practice of Muhammad), Ijmāʿ (consensus), and Qiyās (“analogical” reasoning). In a deeper sense, it could be understood as Islamic legal theory. Uṣūl al-fiqh developed from a rudimentary frame in the 9th century CE to a multifaceted and sophisticated field in later centuries. Starting in the 11th century, some Muslim jurists started to systematically develop the idea that al-Sharīʿa of God was first and foremost established to benefit the people. This is the basis of the framework of al-maqāṣid al-kulliyya lil-sharīʿa (the Universal Purposes of al-Sharīʿa). In this piece, Abū Zayd attempts to briefly rethink this framework for use in our contemporary context.
In order to situate this piece and to understand the troubles that Abū Zayd faced, we need to highlight that his work focused on the various ways in which Muslims had historically interpreted the Qur’ān. Building on that, he considered new avenues to interpret the Muslim sacred text. He favored a literary method and argued that religious texts, like all texts, must be approached using the latest tools provided by the fields of literary theory and linguistics, but with a commitment to a multi-disciplinary approach that involves a variety of modern fields of scientific inquiry. The following quote from one of Abū Zayd’s books catches the spirit of his work and highlights why traditionalist jurists might find it highly objectionable:
A scientifically-based historical awareness of religious texts must go beyond the perspectives of religious thought in the past and present. It must be based on the accomplishments of the fields of [modern] linguistics and literary studies. And whereas religious thought makes God the focus of its interest and the point of departure of its inquiry, we must make man (keeping in mind his socio-historical context) the starting point and the goal of our inquiry. The problem with religious thought is that it starts from sectarian theological assumptions about the nature of God and man and the nature of the relation between the two, thus coloring the religious texts with these assumptions. In other words, we find that a specific meaning is imposed on the religious texts from the outside. This meaning is necessarily human and historical but religious thought cloaks it in a metaphysical garb so that it becomes sacred and eternal. (Naqd al-Khiṭāb al-Dīnī, published by Maktabat Madbūlī, 2003 edition, p 200)
Here is the first part of the translation of Abū Zayd’s piece:
A New Interpretation of Maqāṣid al-Sharī`a
by Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd
One of the most important achievements of Muslim scholars within the field of the interpretation of religious texts is the accomplishment of the scholars of uṣūl al-fiqh in defining the universal purposes of the divine law [al-maqāṣid al-kulliyya lil-sharīʿa]. These are the aims that al-Shāṭibī (d.1388) had formulated in five universal principles which are the protection of life, honor, religion, reason, and property.
These universal aims were reached through a careful, detailed, and profound interpretation of religious texts that have legal significance. The scholars considered the structural relations between these texts as well as their relations to theological and ethical texts. By structural relations between legal texts are meant the relations between ambiguity [ijmāl] and clarification [bayān], generality [ʿumūm] and specificity [khuṣūṣ], and abrogation [naskh], etc… They are relations that concern the production of legal meaning. For instance, what is ambiguous in one text might be clarified and detailed in others, and what is general in one text might be specified in a different text. In addition, there is the phenomenon of abrogating some legislations and replacing them with others for reasons of relaxation or progression, in order to take in consideration shifting situations and changing circumstances.
A careful, detailed, and profound reading of textual sources leads to a good understanding of practical legal rulings; and from the latter, Muslim scholars were able to derive the universal aims that guide the rulings. But, as I explained above, the reading does not end with the derivation of the universals from the particulars, i.e. using an ascending method from the particular to the universal. Rather, it is completed through another reading that utilizes a descending method, applying the universals to the particulars in an attempt to understand those particulars anew, and to possibly modify them, based on the universals that were initially derived from them. It seems that the scholars of uṣūl specifically, and Muslim scholars generally, realized that the relation between the universal and the particular was dialectical and more complex than a simple relation of accumulation or addition in the mathematical sense.
The Method of the Scholars of Uṣūl
This very important and daring achievement establishes the foundation of a ready-to-use method for the interpretation of texts. It is not only ready-to-use in the field of religious texts, for that has already occurred, it is also ready to harness for the interpretation of all kinds of legal, philosophical, and literary texts. Like any other method, the one established by the scholars of uṣūl is an open one that is amenable to addition, as human consciousness renews itself and as modes of knowledge acquisition and tools of research evolve. This is perhaps the driving force behind my current attempt to propose a novel interpretative project of the universal aims of Sharīʿa. This novel interpretation uses as its guide the method of the scholars of uṣūl, but within the frame of our contemporary concerns, so as to tackle the problems that represent a hurdle facing the realization of a new Muslim consciousness.
As is the case with any new interpretation, it is the prerogative of this proposed interpretative project to add to the previous methodologies of interpretation what modern methodologies engendered in terms of preoccupation with levels of signification that transcend the limits of linguistic meaning. The previous interpretation was essentially interested in investigating linguistic meaning; as a result, its concern was focused on discovering the mechanisms of that meaning within the limits of traditional linguistic and rhetorical studies. Its preoccupation was essentially fixated on universals that are derived from particulars, without paying attention to universal meanings that stem from the nature of the epistemological configuration of Islamic texts as a whole. By these universal meanings is meant the Islamic text’s epistemological relation to texts that were established, influential, and active within the historical context of revelation. These meanings represent the epicenter of the movement that caused the conflict with and resistance to the Islamic text in the twenty years of its revelation. It even continued afterwards, during what came to be known as the Wars of Apostasy [ḥurūb al-ridda], alongside the spreading phenomenon of “false prophets” that preceded these wars and was intertwined with them in an attempt to contest the divine legitimacy of the Islamic text.
The Universality of the Islamic Text
It is therefore natural that the new interpretation attempts to bypass the universal/particular dichotomy without completely disregarding it, in order to seek the universal meaning or meanings that do not separate the legal and theological from the meanings derived from the Qur’ānic narratives and the eschatological descriptions of the Garden and the Hellfire [al-janna wal-nār]. In addition, this interpretation includes within its focus the universal meanings of the Islamic text in the context of the latter’s particular and universal interactions with the social and historical reality. In other words, using modern methodologies, the new interpretation attempts to approach the Islamic text as a whole, in contrast to the divisions that the religious sciences of the Islamic heritage imposed on that text, with the result that the field of uṣūl concentrated on rulings and legislations, the field of kalām on the creed, the field of taṣawwuf on morals, and every other field on some specific aspect.
The primary proposal for a project of a new interpretation depends on reaching three principles that I see as central and essential, in the sense that it is possible to state that they represent the universals, encompassing the particulars in addition to the five “universal purposes” that our ancestors had derived through their deep and comprehensive interpretation, but according to the episteme [al-iṭār al-maʿrifī] available to them. The first universal principle pertains to the concept of rationality [`aqlāniyya] as a characteristic that opposes “jāhiliyya”. Contrary to what has become recently widespread within a certain literature in terms of positing “sovereignty of God” [ḥākimiyya] as the opposite of jāhiliyya, one can identify the opposite of jāhiliyya by examining the oppositional use of the terms reason [ʿaql] and jahl, firstly in the Arabic language and secondly in the Qur’ān. I mention the Arabic language first because it is the referential frame through which are established the lexical meanings of Qur’ānic terms, before we investigate the development and change that the Qur’ān itself introduced to these meanings.
The linguistic context of the circulation of the term jahl and its derivatives makes it the opposite of “wise patience” [ḥilm] which connotes the use of reason. The term jahl and its derivatives mean “strong tribal loyalty” [ʿaṣabiyya] to which is connected a type of aggressive, hostile and unreasonable behavior. The pre-Islamic poet ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm (d.584) says in his famous hanging ode:
Towards us one better not display jahl
[alā lā yajhalna aḥadun ʿalayna]
For in our display of jahl we would exceed all
[fa-najhala fawqa jahli al-jāhilīna]
It would be absurd for the poet to be proud of his jahl as “the opposite of knowledge.” Instead, he is proud of his tribalism and praises the strength of his tribe and its ability to counter aggression with aggression. It is as the opposite, at all levels and in all domains, of this jāhiliyya that Islam presented itself in order to establish rationality in behavior, understanding, and human relations. From this we can understand the Qur’ānic focus on the notions of reason, intellect, thought, and mind and we can grasp why the Qur’ān constantly addresses its message to “those who reason and reflect.” And because jāhiliyya stems from loyalty to lineage, blood, and tribal affiliation, the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) responded to it angrily. He told those praising their tribal loyalties, “stay away from it [i.e. ʿaṣabiyya] for it makes one stink” and he also said, “there is no preference for an Arab over a non-Arab except by virtue of one’s piety.”
It is mere confusion to conclude from these texts, as some ignorant people had done, that Islam opposes the notions of nation or nationalism. Islam instead opposes intolerance, sectarianism, and ethnocentrism. It stresses the humanist concept of invitation [daʿwa], which is based on equality, merit, and competitiveness beyond all differences in ethnicity, lineage, and religion. Indeed, what makes human beings equal is “reason” which the Muʿtazila had called, “the thing that is most justly distributed among human beings.” Based on this, it is possible to say that Islam employs the essential universal principle of reason as the opposite of jahl and thus condemns all the practices of jāhiliyya in thought and behavior, calling instead for “wise patience,” the use of reason and the employment of the intellect and the mind.