Arab modernists, usually depicted as "thinkers", "philosophers" or even self-styled ulama, adopt and advocate western views on how to deal with the Quran, mimicking the underlying justifications that paved the way for the reformation of Christianity and Judaism.
In the last two decades, these "thinkers" started deploying western philosophies or methodologies of language to circumvent well-established rulings that have been provided for in the Quran or have been properly derived from it in accordance with the special discipline of usul-al-fiqh, the foundation of shari'ah.
This circumvention is a prerequisite to RAND's attempt to reengineer and reconstruct Islam. In the following paragraphs we will examine but a few aspects of the approach adopted by Arab modernists for interpreting the Quran, with a view to highlighting some of the weaknesses of the approach and the irrationality of applying it - instead of the rules of usul - to the Quran.
An Old Story
A distinct trend to undermine the divine basis of the Quran can be detected in modern history. From William Gladstone (1809-98), the British Primer Minister who once stated in the House of Commons that "as long as the Qur'an remains in the world, there would be no peace in the world", to Pope Benedict VIX, who attempted to link Islam with violence, it would be possible to compile a long list of statements reiterating the same falsehood.
In addition, the deception that the Quran conflicts with scientific facts was vainly peddled, at least in the Arab world, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is similar to our main theme of utilising post-modernist language philosophies to attack the Quran because both approaches meretriciously pose as academic, scientific discourses and aim to isolate Muslims from their belief in the Quran as wahy, the revealed word of Allah.
Opportunistically trying to benefit from the fascination of scientific discoveries in the early twentieth century, a suspicious call arose that the Quran apparently contained verses that were inconsistent with recent scientific discoveries. In light of this call, writers started adopting a new method to interpret the Quran, and for that matter the ahadith and sirah, in accordance with the scientific theories of the time, even if this entailed twisting verses of the Quran.
Thus, Mohammad Abduh, an Egyptian sheikh trained partly in France, adopted such an approach in his writings. In his interpretation of the Quran, for instance, Abduh argued that the miracles mentioned in the Quran should be interpreted in a scientific manner. Thus, Abduh took the view that the tayrun ababeel (the birds described in Surah Al-Fil) which were sent with stones to turn back an army attacking the Ka'bah are a metaphoric reference to a disease that spread amongst that army.
In this interpretation, Abduh turned a blind eye to the apparent and ordinary meaning of words and to the simple rules of interpretation which tell us that apparent and explicit meaning should not be departed from without a good reason derived from the text or context. Abduh gave no reasons other than referring to his preferred approach, overlooking that the context in Surah Al-Fil is to show the power of Almighty Allah. Abduh also ignored the historical narrations of birds dropping stones literally, and ignored even pre-Islamic poetry that recorded the event. He further argued that even jinn could be interpreted as bacteria or the like. Since jinn belong to the unseen world, they ought to be understood in such a way as a scientific mind would accept it, according to Abduh.
Another example of this approach comes from a book on sirah entitled "The Life of Muhammad" and written by another Egyptian writer, Haykal. The author declared frankly in his book that he would not restrict himself to the narrations of sirah, even sahih narrations, so long as they conflicted with science (in the mind of the author). Thus, narrations of material miracles in the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were all metaphoric since they contradicted scientific rules.
Scholars have responded and rejected this approach by refuting the purported contradiction between the Quran and science - exposing the methodological error in an approach which attempted to extend the scientific method beyond the boundaries of science - and by emphasizing the settled objective rules of interpretation. Sheikh Mustafa Sabri, the grand mufti or sheikh-ul-Islam in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, was one of those who answered this deception that was aiming to swindle Muslims out of their belief in wahy. He even pointed out that the works of Abduh and the like were aimed at introducing into Islam a movement like those of Calvin and Martin Luther in Christianity.
Indeed, in addition to the efforts of the scholars, time and science in and of themselves have derided the call of Abduh and his ilk. As science advanced over the years, more and more scientific facts proved to match the text of the Quran directly or indirectly. French physician Maurice Bucaille explored the amazing conformity between the words of the Quran and the known scientific facts about the universe. One may refer to the works of the Egyptian Professor Zaghloul Al-Najjar for a voluminous scientific account on this topic.
The New Scenario: The Attack on Language
As the scientific spin died away, the old story has continued with a new scenario, all the while maintaining the same plot of isolating Muslims from the Quran. This time language itself is being attacked so that the meanings of the Quran can be undermined. Arab modernists have become self-declared interpreters of the Quran who deploy "hermeneutics", "humanism", "structuralism" or "deconstructionism" as a basis for their interpretation methods. While these approaches are not identical, all of them are manifestations of a materialist worldview that treats everything, including language and the human being as such, as an intrinsic part of matter.
Arab modernists deny the possibility of there being definite meanings to words. They free themselves from any objective means of interpretation, and therefore conveniently dispense with any objective standards, perceived truth, or maxims derived from a text. To them, language is very individualistic with no literal or conventional meanings. Applying such methods to the interpretation of the Quran, they discard the fatawa of ulama and use their own techniques to reach their own personal preferences. With their approach, modernists effectively subvert the meanings of words.
For example, new standards of modesty, far from hijab, are advocated on the basis of a so-called "contemporary reading" of religious texts. This is justified by deriving a particular meaning for a key word in the abstract, and then imposing it on the text regardless of the context of the relevant verse of the Quran, the ordinary meaning of the word, the hadith which explains the verse, etc.
Thus, women have been ordered to extend their "jalabib" to cover their chests, described in the Quran as "juyub". On the basis of one abstract meaning of the word "jayb" (the singular form of juyub), some modernists have argued that the word means "a natural fissure or cleft", hence what must be covered is anything akin to a natural cleft in the body like a woman's chest and genitals. Their argument leads to the conclusion that any style of clothing from a jilbab or 'abayah (a long garment) to something that is little more than a bikini does conform with shari'ah. According to them, the Quran does not require Muslim women or men to dress in a particular way, and has left it for existing customs to dictate subject only to covering the "juyub" as interpreted by modernists.
That is but one example of the modernists' fraud. Any sensible person would realize immediately the obvious fallacies inherent in the modernists' approach. They purport to make the Quran subordinate to the customs and existing realities in a society at a given time. Therefore, they generally argue that the Quran contains no detailed shari'ah but only sets minimums and maximums within which a spectrum of varying solutions is open to people to work out according to their specific time and place. This is totally ignoring the divine characteristics of the Quran. The Quran guides Muslims to a particular Islamic way of life deemed best for the individual and the society. No particular Islamic way of life could ever be imagined, let alone practiced, where Islamic rules and standards are subject to facts that change with time and differ from one society to another.
Modernists argue that even the ulama throughout Islamic history have been influenced by the peculiar realities of their time when passing their fatawa, realities which are irrelevant to our contemporary time. Or, more arrogantly, modernists argue that ulama over hundreds of years have failed to adopt the correct methodology of interpreting the Quran according to the features of language as discovered by the modernists!
Rejecting any definite understanding of the Quran, modernists make the interpretation of the Quran a product of ever-changing social and economic facts. One may not be surprised with this approach if it is realised that some of its advocates are veteran Marxists, who have all of a sudden become concerned with how to understand and apply the shari'ah. This also explains some modernists' concurrence with Darwinism and their vain attempts to accommodate it within verses of the Quran "by hook or by crook". The fact that their approach would not prevent them from maintaining their materialist worldview or way of life reveals the deception in their claims to have changed their ideological position.
The idiocy in the modernists' approach may be further exposed when one follows their "Islamic standards and rules" to their inevitable conclusion - that every society and legal system existing in the world can be described as Islamic. While all nations and legal systems claim to seek justice, benefit, modesty and freedom, they differ on their paths and solutions. Hence, for instance, the distinct world legal systems. Therefore, while Islam also aims at realizing these values, there are distinct Islamic standards and solutions that are prescribed to define and realize them. By such specific rules and standards, shari'ah manifests itself as a distinct way of life.
Furthermore, the modernists' materialist approach denies any objective rule of interpretation. This undermines any permanent or common understanding of any text. Consequently, any standards derived from any text would be relative, subjective and ever-changing. This is utterly at odds with the nature and purpose of divine revelation. The Quran aims at providing guidance to the truth, and to achieving justice and protection for the dignity of humans. Because the modernists' approach rests on a materialist, pragmatic basis of extreme relativity, it leaves no room for recognizing a truth and it is therefore repugnant to the interpretation of divine revelation.
It is noteworthy that modernists do not rely on ahadith in their approach. In fact, most of them question the reliability of ahadith altogether. At best, they are selective and arbitrary in accepting a hadith and rejecting another. This is most convenient for their subjective approach which replaces the objective rules of interpretation used by the recognized ulama throughout history with their personal preferences. Indeed, their subjectivity is self-evident. They do not hide that their objective is to bring Islam in line with the contemporary age. "Contemporary age" is the deciphered code for western values and way of life.
Thus, the modernists' conclusions are known and pre-determined even before embarking on any interpretation process, or even before knowing the relevant verses of the Quran. It is in this subjective way that the so-called "hadith project" has been started in Turkey. The director of the project has from the outset declared that those ahadith that appear to impose restrictions on women and those which do not have current value would be discarded. Thus, their methodology is not the examination of the chain of narrators, but assessing whether a particular hadith is consistent with western values and way of life. Again, it is subjectivity in its ugliest manifestation that dwarfs the mind and thwarts sound methodology of research so as to reach pre-determined conclusions.
Ulama have answered the modernist approaches. This is not because modernists have an arguable case or attraction for Muslims, but because modernists have put forward their ideas in a provocative way, showing explicit resentment towards shari'ah and ulama. They have openly questioned not only clear issues of fiqh but also essential tenets of Islam. And it seems to be unprecedented for thinkers speaking or writing in their capacity as Muslims take such a dangerous path.
To link this discussion with the old story of questioning the consistency between the Quran and scientific facts, several similarities exist between that story and the new modernist methodology for the interpretation of the Quran.
Proponents of both approaches borrow methods that have been followed in a western context with respect to Christian and Jewish scriptures and they hurtle towards the same destination - albeit through different techniques - that of bringing Islam in line with the western way of life. It is noteworthy, for instance, that Abduh who called for a scientific interpretation of the Quran one century ago collaborated with Qasim Amin who was known for his call to "liberate" women in Egypt (as if to suggest the they were enslaved by Islam) so much so that it has been suggested by some commentators that it is Abduh who authored the first book on this issue published under the name of Qasim Amin. This endorses the view that current Arab modernists are but a new chapter in the same old narrative.
Both strands of modernists - the old and the new - also claim that their approach ensures that Islam is acceptable and understandable to non-Muslims, and that shari'ah is valid and relevant at all times. To these modernists I say that when Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, started his da'wah, Islam was at odds with the community in Makkah. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) rejected all compromises that could have been viewed by modernists as "making Islam acceptable". Carrying the message of Islam (tableegh) requires presenting Islam as it has been revealed with the firm belief that it is acceptable to those sincerely seeking the truth. And it has always been so.
As for the validity and relevance of shari'ah, it is remarkable that shari'ah had caused Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula to develop dramatically in civilizational terms in less than 20 years. This is despite the fact that, prior to Islam, Arabs did not have any sophisticated legal rules or philosophies, unlike the Romans, the Greeks or the Persians.
Historically, any man-made advancements in systems of law amongst the ancient civilizations came with the culmination of long experience and creative thinking. In contrast to this, shari'ah was the initial source of development for the Muslim community and its creative legal thinking, which came to be the madhahib. This is because shari'ah derives from the revealed word of God, and it was not initiated by humans. The madhahib have been developed on the basis of the Quran and the legitimate sources of fiqh indicated to by the Quran, by applying objective rules of interpretation which form the major part of 'usul al-fiqh. The modernists fail to demonstrate any reasonable basis for their alleged concerns that shari'ah may not be capable of application other than by their approach.
Contrary to such concerns, ulama have constantly continued to work on the basis of 'usul to reach solutions for new occurrences. While the ulama have offered coherent shari'ah rulings relating to stock exchanges, banking, medical transplants, cloning, etc., modernists fail to demonstrate their intellect in such matters apart from their "ready-to-use-solution": adopt man-made regulations because they are Islamic in the final analysis of benefit (maslahah), which is also defined according to a materialist view. After all, as a matter of fact, there is no one example in modern times where shari'ah has been implemented as a whole and failed. The modernists' conviction that shari'ah as understood throughout history is incapable of application is therefore fictitious.
'Usul al-fiqh ensures the relevance of shari'ah and its capacity not only to find rulings on contemporary issues, but also to maintain the distinct identity of Islam and Muslim society. The modernists' approach does nothing but dispense with the existing shari'ah rulings while providing no new Islamic solutions, leaving it all for man-made laws based on benefit (maslahah) as defined by the materialist mind.
Since the modernists present their methodologies as a substitution for 'usul al-fiqh, it is necessary to highlight the fallacy of their approach. 'Usul al-fiqh is a unique Islamic discipline for working out rulings by ijtihad. It is largely based on objective rules of interpretation that are applied to the Quran and ahadith. These rules of interpretation are in turn derived from the canons of the Arabic language as practiced and understood by Arabs in the epoch of reliable linguistic citation, which goes back to the pre-Islam era. Thus, while the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) did not define or articulate 'usul, it was embedded in the way they understood the Quran and the ahadith just as nahw (Arabic grammar) was embedded in their speech and only later penned as a discipline.
Those scholars who penned and explained nahw did not bring about new grammars. Likewise, al-Imam al-Shafi'i, who was the first to write on 'usul al-fiqh, did not manufacture something that did not exist; he revealed that which was effectively applied by the companions of the Prophet (PBUH). Sheikh Muhammad Said al-Buti describes the work of al-Shafi'i as discovering rather than inventing 'usul al-fiqh.
According to al-Buti, while Muslims had notable controversies due to the concern that rulings of ijtihad were being made out of ra'y (opinion or personal judgment), history bears witness that such controversies were obviated considerably by the work of al-Shafi'i, since it explained the methodology and objective grounds lying behind the apparent ra'y. The rules of interpretation are substantially the same in all madhahib. While they differ on some secondary aspects or applications of the rules, they use the same methodology, i.e. referring to Arabic as used and understood by Arabs at early ages, to support their views.
By contrast, the methodologies utilized by the modernists have been invented by modern western philosophers. Arab modernists simply copy them. (In many cases, Arab modernists, while echoing western thinkers, do not cite them.) An invented method has to be proven and cannot be accepted in the same way as 'usul was universally accepted. While the ulama and Arabs in general were able to realize that the rules of 'usul had been there all the time, no sensible person will be prepared to accept the modernists' imported methodologies, which are based on subjective and abstract arguments.
A central difference between 'usul and the modernists' approaches is that 'usul assumes that language is a means of communication that can be understood in accordance with objective rules. Modernists question the assumption that language is a means of communication. As such, a text becomes susceptible to as many different meanings as readers who apply their minds and subjective perspectives to it. Jacque Derrida argued that one cannot be certain that he means what he says. Arab modernists apply such a wrongful assumption even to the revealed word of Allah, The All Knowing.
The modernists' approach brings to mind Humpty-Dumpty, who had this exchange with Alice:
"... there's glory for you!"
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'", Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously, "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'", Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make a word mean so many different things."
"The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." (Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass, Ch 6.)
If one replaces the word "use" in Humpty-Dumpty's third statement above with the word "read", it sums up the modernists' approach. They are the new Humpty-Dumpty-like readers who claim to be the "masters’ of the revealed word of Allah.
Academics in Cambridge who objected in 1992 to offering Jacque Derrida an award were not concerned with modernists borrowing Derrida's approach to interpret the Quran. They were professors of literature and philosophy who were outraged by Jacque Derrida's approach to language, which undermines the role of criticism. This exposes the fact that modernists' approaches amount to an attack on language per se, and is viewed by many western academics as repugnant to man-made texts, let alone the attempted application of such approaches to Arabic and the revealed word of Allah.
Yet, the need for a new approach, as perceived by western lawyers, to the interpretation of legislative texts does accentuate the beauty, intelligence and importance of 'usul. While they may accept that language arguably has an open texture that makes general terms fuzzy around the edges, the interpretation techniques envisaged by them rest on objective grounds.
From a legal point of view, it is important for there to be objective rules and criteria for interpretations which apparently dispense from the literal or apparent meaning of statutes. This is because parliament is sovereign, hence the duty of judges to apply statutes as enacted by parliament. Such objective grounds include figuring out the underlying reason for a rule contained in a statutory provision and restricting (or broadening) the apparent meaning of the word accordingly. This indicates that western legal method is still in the process of working out, and justifying, interpretation rules of a kind similar to the rules on interpretation contained in 'usul.
Amazingly, 'usul has dealt with and resolved such questions early on in Islamic history. Thus, 'usul contains principles relating to identifying the underlying reason for (or the effective cause of) a ruling ('illah) and working out rulings through qiyas (analogy) according to it. 'Usul also identifies the objectives of shari'ah (maqasid) which are indicated by the Quran and ahadith (not on a subjective or materialist basis), the contexts or circumstances which restrict a general rule or term (khusous vs. umoum) or qualify an absolute term (muqayyad vs. mutlaq), and contains many more rules of interpretation that derive from the characteristics and practice of (classical) Arabic.
As regards the deconstructionist approach which does not allow for such objective criteria, a lecturer on jurisprudence at Oxford University said in one of his lectures, after considering the need for rules of interpretation as explained above, "Now we have the additional instruction of post-modernism generally and the notion of reading a text such that the reader is as important as the author in constructing or perhaps reconstructing... the text. Attractive as that postmodern perspective may be in the reading statutes, I have never quite convinced myself that when I read Hamlet, I am as important as Shakespeare!"
Modernists need to learn to be sensible and humble when reading the revealed word of Allah.
While the modernists' approach represents sheer disconnect with Arabic and the essence of language per se, it involves many connections with the West. With the early appearance of modernism amongst Arab thinkers, and in addition to the intellectual and shari'ah answers to them, some pointed out that there were connections between modernists (even the likes of Abduh) and western political circles and freemasons. Many modernists, both the early and the most recent, have been trained in western countries (France, England, US). Certainly, many would dismiss this view as baseless conspiracy theory. However, as far as recent Arab modernists are concerned, one needs only to point out a few notorious facts.
The RAND report of 2003 clearly emphasized the significance of supporting modernists by financing them on the ground as well as in cyberspace, and focusing on them so as to elevate them to the post of representing Muslims and talking in the name of Islam.
France, too, has started to openly channel cooperation with modernists. Last May, the French Embassy in Amman held a conference in association with the French Institute for the Near East on legal philosophies and practices in the Middle East. French speakers focused on "post-modernist Islam" and shari'ah rules relating to family law. They cited Arab modernists calling for revising the shari'ah on family law, hudud, and the theological foundations of 'usul altogether. It all derives from French intellectual influence on modernists, but the French presented it as a purely internal debate within Islam. The organizers of the conference announced that it is intended to be annual, and is set to be held in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria in the future.
This western support for Arab modernists links with the American strategy towards Islam at both the global and regional levels. At a global level, modernists must realize that their approach serves the Neocons' plot to "rebuild Islam" as such. At a regional level, the modernists' approach takes a step towards a new or greater Middle East, where the identity of the region being perceived as Arab or Muslim would be submerged into a new regional regime that involves Israel, not only as a component of the region but as the leading regional power.
Arab modernists must realize that their works incinerate the Muslim identity and pave the way, consciously or unwittingly, to achieving this western - rather American - new regional regime, one without there being a distinct Arab or Muslim identity that would warrant the question as to what historical, social or cultural elements should draw Israel and the rest of the region together.