His siblings raised, he enrolled as a student at Cairo University and quickly found the subject he was looking for. His MA thesis was in the ‘Mutazilite’ movement of the 9th century. These had combined political activism with a sophisticated reading of the Qur’an. Centred on what is now Iraq, they condemned the lavish life-styles being flaunted by the lucky few. They believed in the Qur’an as the Word, or ‘speech’ of God, ‘however, the words, the ink, and the paper used to express that speech came to us in time and space, and therefore the actual text we have today, is a created phenomenon.’
It’s important to grasp what Abu Zayd, and the Mutazilites before him, did not mean by this. He did not mean that the Qur’an was a human invention. He was distinguishing ‘the historicity of the Qur’an’ from ‘the Word of God in its absolute form.’ He remained all his life a believer, and a patriotic Egyptian, too, but as a scholar he insisted that the Qur’an must be studied as a product of its time and place. Great religious books, he argued, were ‘manifestations of the Word of God’ which ‘came to us by way of human beings.’
For his PhD he studied Ibn Arabi, a Sufi mystic born in Spain in the 13th century. Arabi argued that the true ‘religion of comprehensive love’ should draw freely on Christian and Jewish as well as Islamic elements. All current knowledge should be brought to bear on the interpretation of the Qur’an. Independent thinking or rational inquiry (ijtihad) was an indispensable tool for any believer. Scholars differ on the current status of ijtihad, some arguing that its use has been forbidden since the 10th century, others citing texts and (particularly Sunni) traditions in which it survived.
Similarly critical thinkers did emerge, many of them in Egypt, during the ‘Islamic Reformation’ of the 19th century. These saw the Qur’an’s central meaning as allegorical or literary. Such was the tradition into which Abu Zayd inscribed himself, at once scriptural and politically engaged. In line with this reading of Islam as a religion of justice, for example, he publicly condemned the ‘Islamic’ banks into which thousands of Egyptians paid their life savings, only to lose it all when the banks collapsed amid scandal in the 1980s.
In 1993 a fundamentalist preacher (closely associated with one of these banks) denounced Abu Zayd as an apostate, allegedly because of his interpretation of the Qur’an. This preacher described his books as ‘cultural AIDS’ and ‘intellectual terrorism’. The books were never banned but since a Muslim woman may not marry an apostate, Abu Zayd’s marriage was declared null and void. He took up a teaching post in Holland, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Unable to find a satisfactory teaching job in Holland, his wife returned to Cairo, where she taught French, visiting her husband during the vacations.
So much for the outward life. Abu Zayd’s nuanced criticism of Western influence in the Middle East is one of the two ways I think he can help with the question of what ‘we’ can ‘do’ about the Arab Spring. It was Europe’s colonisation of North Africa which snuffed out the ‘Islamic Reformation’ of the 19th century, he argued. ‘When the Arab world first encountered the West (Europe) it made a distinction between intellectual Europe with its ideas of progress and development, and imperial Europe with its occupying forces that were resisted.’ The aggressive policies pursued by European powers made it increasingly difficult for Muslim thinkers to persuade people that Europe’s Enlightenment values might be in certain respects benign and worth emulating. The effects of this continue to be felt. ‘Many Muslims are persuaded that freedom of thought and freedom of speech are products of Western culture and European civilisation… In order to avoid being swallowed, controlled and manipulated by powers that once sought to conquer them, many Muslims believe it is not in their interest to adopt values associated with the West.’
Western aggression continues in new forms. Journalists, notoriously, spend a lot of time chasing violence around the planet but especially so in the Middle East. ‘How many times has Islam been portrayed… as an inherently violent religion and antithetical to Western values?’ Think of all the hard-bitten talk we were treated to all through the war in Libya – all those ‘strike sorties’ and ‘paveway bombs’. Ask yourself: what underlying message about Islam are the relentless images of destruction in Libya or Syria contributing to? What is the name of the mental file in which we are storing them?
Uncritical Western support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine is another way in which the old aggression continues, Abu Zayd argued. Defensive disengagement from reasoned debate about religion is the result now, just as it was in the past. ‘As somebody who identifies himself as a member of the oppressed – as fighting against an oppressor – I feel ashamed to live in this world…’ he wrote. ‘This sense of shame leads me to long for death at times. This is no exaggeration. What kind of world am I going to witness in the coming years?’
Had he lived to witness 25th January 2011 – and here’s the second way he can still help – alongside the jubilation in which he would have joined he would surely have had insights to offer about the way forward from here. About how Egypt in particular and Arab countries generally, the same ones whose political culture he fearlessly criticised, might now revive forms of critical thinking which made of early Islam such a vibrant and receptive movement as it encountered Greek, Egyptian and Indian culture.
I was, during my visit to Cairo, continually struck by the welcome I felt, whether I was talking to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or a rock singer, a labour activist or a Communist publisher. This was emphatically not an anti-western moment, but neither was the client-relationship with the US and the EU any longer acceptable. This would have been just the moment for Abu Zayd to speak up for those freedoms he spent a life-time studying, freedoms of interpretation which are the common heritage of thinking adults everywhere and have been a continual presence in Islam’s own traditions. Abu Zayd’s own father admired the reformist theologian Muhammed Abduh (1849-1905) and he himself met his wife at a conference in 1991 celebrating the work of Taha Huseyn (1889-1973), a thinker who sought to distinguish the Qur’an’s spiritual meaning from material which ought by now to be of mainly historical interest.
The ban on usury, he argued, should be read in the context of 7th century Medina, a town where many trading routes met. Enormous fortunes had been made by a small group of people who ruthlessly controlled and exploited the rest of the population by lending at extortionate interest rates. This is why the Qur’an takes such a strong line on usury and unscrupulous business elites are hardly a thing of the past, but it doesn’t follow that all interest charges under all circumstances are immoral.
Much of what is now understood as a ‘Muslim’ attitude towards women, for example, he traced to this reluctance to read the Qur’an as a historical document. During a war with pagan opponents in which many were being killed, Mohammed argued that the survivors could take more than one wife, so that widows would not be left defenceless. There is no suggestion that he was setting up a precedent for all time. In the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century, to say that ‘A male shall inherit twice as much as a female’ can only be understood in the context of the state of affairs preceding Islam, in which females inherited nothing. The intention here was, and should still be understood as, limiting what the male inherits. This was clearly the tendency of early Islam, and in the verses describing the creation of men and women there is no hint of patriarchy.
He contrasted the way the scriptures are too often read in the Muslim world unfavourably with the situation in the West. ‘I have no doubt the reformation of religious thought was one of the reasons Europe and the United States progressed by leaps and bounds over the last three centuries.’ He appears here to be referring to the actual Reformation but it was in Germany in the 1830s that modern textual criticism of the Bible began in earnest. George Eliot’s first published work was a translation of one of its seminal works.
To be sure there had been glimmers of it over many centuries and just as great Sufi mystics were born in Spain, so several of these ‘glimmers’ occurred in North Africa. In 3rd century Alexandria a school of biblical interpretation flourished in which the scriptures were understood not literally but allegorically. In the 4th century, in what is now Algeria, Augustine argued for an interpretation of the creation narrative strikingly compatible with that of modern biology, one which Thomas Aquinas picked up on and reiterated nearly a thousand years later in Paris. Three centuries after that Erasmus identified a verse in John’s Letters as fraudulent and removed it from his edition of the New Testament, amid furious protests. Luther left it out of his translation. ‘Of this we cannot be ignorant,’ wrote the Anglican divine Richard Hooker in 1593, on ecclesiastical law, ‘how sometimes that hath done great good, which afterwards, when time hath changed the ancient course of things, doth grow to be either very hurtful, or not so profitable and necessary.’
One thing we can ‘do’ about the Arab Spring is familiarise ourselves with the struggles ‘our own’ civilisation has gone through over this and how long it took us to reach our present condition of blissful ignorance about the subject. It has been touch and go for us, too, and still is. The ‘democratic countries which have inherited the values of the Enlightenment… need to reclaim those freedoms and apply those eroding values in their own societies.’ The latest New Atheist pot boiler will be much less help here than it claims to be. So let me return, finally, to Abu Zayd’s question in 2004: ‘Is it possible to envisage Muslims embracing freedom within a framework of democracy?’
Here is his answer: ‘Yes, of course. However it is imperative that citizens in what are generally known as democratic nations understand how their countries’ own economic and political interests often subvert the very thing (democracy) they purport to want to establish in Islamic states. It is also important to understand that it is not Islam that prevents Muslims from accepting democracy, but rather a religious and political dogmatic trend of thought, ever prevalent, which claims that Islam and modernity contradict one another.’
What we can ‘do’ is start changing minds about that, one at a time, starting with our own.
Tags: politics of protest