On Non-Violent Islamic Extremism (2/3)

The nature of Quran -- the path of reformation for a humanistic Islam 1

Quran has been treated as synonyms to God. It is as if we dared to question the nature of Quran, we are questioning our faith in God, and at the same time we declare our rejection of Islam itself. Quran in this sense is the Church of Islam. It is the Quran that we have to deal with, to liberate ourselves from, if we are to succeed in separating religion from state.

I said the above-mentioned paragraph in my book published in 2009 in German Ich will nicht mehr schweigen: Islam, der Westen und Menschenrechte, (Breaking the Wall of Silence: Islam, the West and Human Rights); and I repeated it in Arabic, both in writing and interviews.

I am still convinced of the validity of this statement. Quran is the Church of Islam and we have to deal with it, if we are to succeed in separating religion from state.

This step is necessary in order to bring back religion to the private sphere, regulate our lives with modern laws, and separate citizenship from the religious identity of its holder. In both Saudi Arabia and Iran citizenship is regulated around being a Muslim -- in Saudi Arabia a citizen is a male Sunni of the Wahhabi school and in Iran a citizen is a male Shia of the Twelver Ja'fari school. The concept of citizen, equal before the law, is not only absent, it is fought by all means by these two theocratic states. And they do that using verses of Quran to legitimize their medieval conception of citizenship. Of course, the two countries are using religion to legitimatize their rule -- or as one wise student in my seminar Political Islam put it: 'religion becomes the tool box used in the pursuit of power'.

But it is the fact that Islam is yet to undergo its reformation process that made it possible for such states and Islamist movements to exploit religion.

This is important. The absence of real reformation has paved the ground for the re-Islamisation process and the rise of political Islam, and from its womb ISIS.

The question though is how to start this reformation? My position is clear: by acknowledging the human nature of Quran -- written and formulated by humans.

If you remember, in my article 'Time to face the ISIS inside of us', I said that religion is what you make of it. Just as this religion is being interpreted in a way that is void of love and rationality, one could find another interpretation to it that brings the best out of it -- i.e. rationality, love, and inclusiveness.

This, I emphasize, is only half of the equation. I choose to look at these positive sides of Islam and the Quran knowing rather well that there are other negative sides of this very religion that says exactly the opposite of what I just pronounced. There are verses in the Quran that also calls for the killing of the infidels 'wherever you find them'.

I choose the side I look at when dealing with this religion. This approach may be sufficient for me on an individual basis. It is not enough for a reformation process though. This is very important, if we are to proceed with such a process. To confine us with the positive sides of a religion and ignore its problematic side could be misleading. If I choose to ignore it, someone else will choose to embrace it and use it for his or her political purposes. Islamists, of violent and non-violent strands, are doing just that.

A serious reformation of Islam should re-evaluate and re-examine the very structure we use to approach this religion and the forbidden areas of thinking we set for ourselves. It will address religion with respect but it will not shy away from asking difficult questions; it will pose these questions and seek their answers; recognizing in the process that much of the religion we inherited has been touched and transformed by human beings.

One such difficult question concerns the nature of Quran, I mean the human nature of Quran. How the Quranic verses were gathered and the role played by the Prophet and his companions in this process is one forbidden area of thinking. To say that this human role only managed to protect the Quran as "God's literal word', is how to discuss this issue within a safe boundary of thought. But if you dare to discuss the human nature of Quran, you will be treading outside of that boundary, stepping inside a dangerous area of thinking -- one that could lead to your death.

The existence of these areas, boundaries, and accepted ways of thinking and the fears that accompany the process of thinking, has been symptomatic of Muslims' inability to set the basis of an enlightenment movement. How can we possibly dare to think, if we are constantly threatened with death as a punishment for thinking?

A humanistic Islam, while conscious of the fears embedded in the process of stepping inside the forbidden areas of thought, does not accept limits on thinking. It insists that everything including the holy texts is subject to criticism and scrutiny.

Which brings me to the question: What is the nature of Quran?

I am afraid there is no light way of articulating the answer: I think that the nature of Quran is a human one. I think that the Prophet Mohammad composed the verses of the Quran, and that humans gathered these verses after his death; and it was these humans who wrote down these verses. As a result, the social, historical and political context of the seventh century has been accurately mirrored in many Quranic versus.

The Quran as such cannot be separated from its historical context. By saying that I am challenging the Orthodox assumption reiterated repeatedly in Islamic and Arabic school and university curriculums, in the media and in any public discourse which insists that the verses of Quran were said by God -- literally. So engrained is this belief in our conscience that it became a requirement to say 'God Says' -- 'Qaal Allahu Ta'ala' before reciting a verse of Quran. We have to say that! If you ask the question 'when was the first time we started to use this phrase?' Stares of astonishment are the response. But seriously, when did we start to say that?

Asking this question is imperative because it highlights the dilemma of the discourse on Quran and Islamic reformation: The moment one says that sentence "God said," he or she puts whatever comes afterwards automatically in a holy context. He or she cannot argue with it anymore: 'If God said that, who are you to argue with what he/she said?'

And arguing with the verses of the Quran, studying its content and posing critical questions is exactly what we need to do, if we are to start a real reformation of religion.

How can we explain the fact that the Quran never condemned the practice of 'slavery'?

Yes, some Quranic verses did encourage Muslims to free slaves; but the practice itself was never put to question! Here we see and detect the social and economic realities of Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet lived in the seventh century -- a context where slavery and its trade were vital economic revenues for Arab tribes. The Prophet was already attacking one source of economic revenue of Mecca with his propagation of monotheism. He was undermining its status as the site of annual pilgrimages and host of Kabaa, where the Gods' statues of Arab tribes were gathered. Targeting slavery as well would have been too much of a message. It would have united the Arab tribes against his new religion and alienated those whom he needed most.

Looking at this issue within this context, one can explain that absence; but explaining it does not entail accepting it. I can rationally explain that Islam did not condemn slavery as a practice for survival reasons, but I do not accept its failure to do so. It is here that I see the limits of religion. It is here that I see how imperfect it can be.

Therefore, when I read these verses I do not see a relevant universal message, nor do I find spiritual solace. Frankly speaking, they disturb me. I treat them as religious texts, written in the seventh century, mirroring its social and economic order. A Humanistic Islam does not ignore the human nature of Quran. As a matter of fact, this very nature only reinforces the basic assumptions underlying the humanistic reading of religion: the purpose of religions, any religion, is to provide a vision of how to approach God/higher being/energy in a certain historical moment. This understanding of religion insists that religions are moulded by the humans who propagated and embraced their teachings, and as such, reflect these humans' beliefs, traditions, Weltbild, and most importantly, reflect the historical and social settings of the societies they sprang from. Islam is certainly not the exception.

Why was it necessary to break this taboo and how would it benefit society? I think the answer is straightforward; failing to approach the human nature of Islamic holy texts will render any reformation of Islam futile. Is it not incredible that Arab and Muslim scholars are still posing the same questions regarding secularism, the status of women, the relevance of Sharia, status of non Muslims, Islamic family laws, and corporal punishments? The same questions that were posed a century and a half ago! A century and a half ago! Does that not ring a bill? The same questions are being repeated, discussed, and the answers are 'keeping the status quo'. And the status quo perpetuates a pre modern concept of state: one that shies away from separating religion from state; one that does not treat its citizens as equal before the law regardless of religion, sect, thought, gender and lack of faith; one that does not accept the concept of civil marriage, and one that does not accept basic human rights of freedom of thought, expression, and religion.

The inability to resolve these issues is connected to the lack of serious reformation of Islamic religion.

Quran has been treated as synonyms to God. It is as if we dared to question the nature of Quran, we are questioning our faith in God, and at the same time we declare our rejection of Islam itself. Quran in this sense is the Church of Islam. It is the Quran that we have to deal with, if we are to succeed in separating religion from state.

There will never be a good time to break taboos. It will always be painful. It is time to take charge of our destiny. This process is the responsibility of Muslims themselves. No one can do it for us/you. It cannot be imposed; it has to come from within.

_______________ This article in its three parts was written by author for Middle East Transparent and published here http://www.metransparent.com/spip.php?page=article&id_article=29473&lang=en

[1] Most of the following part is derived from Elham Manea, Ich will nicht mehr Schweigen: Der Islam, der Westen und die Menschenrechte, Herder Verlag, Freiburg, 2009.