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Islamic Culture in Danger

Shahrur Muhammad
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Islamic Culture in Danger

Shahrur Muhammad


Born in Damascus, Shahrur studied in Damascus and Moscow, and he earned a doctorate at University College in Dublin, Ireland. A civil engineer, he joined the faculty at the University of Damascus in 1972. In 1990, Shahrur published The Book and the Qur'an, an 800-page treatise, which became a best-seller in the Arab world, calling upon Muslims to reinterpret Islam through a fresh reading of the Quran that is not shackled by medieval interpretations and jurisprudence. Thus, his basic approach is to reread Islam in the context of historical developments. Labeled by some an Islamic Martin Luther, he has also provoked much criticism.

In this interview from 2001, Shahrur talks of a “sick” Islamic culture, by which he means a culture of violence justified in Islamic terms. He calls for a thorough critique by an “official Islamic organization” of the thought of violence-prone Islamic groups like al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban. He believes that this has not been done because it would require the ulema (clergy) to reconsider the foundations of Muslim jurisprudence. In short, he calls for an immanent critique of Islamic thought. Only in this way could the harmful tendency be defeated whereby broadly compassionate and timeless verses in the Qurān—such as 2:256, “there is no compulsion in matters of religion”—are overridden by narrow appeal to verses revealed in emergency situations and clearly bound to a specific historical period—such as 9:5, “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.”

Q: After the events of September 11 the world discovered a discourse, alleging affiliation with Islam, calling for killing and hatred among religions and peoples. What are the ideological and cultural impulses (muntalaqat) driving this current which Ben Laden, al-Qa’ida and the Taliban have come to represent today, and what is its relation to Islam?

A: Terrorism is the misplaced use of violence. Certainly there are political reasons for violence including the policy of the USA in our region. But there are also causes connected with the problematics present in Islamic culture. We are bearers of a sick culture which produces violence. . . . When I say that our Islamic culture is sick, I do not mean Islam as a religion; I mean the culture which is circulating today and which is represented in people's minds with Islamic religion. One of the causes of our backwardness is this sick culture, hence the necessity of treating it.

When I hear Ben Laden I get fed up not from him personally, but because he is the spokesman for this sick culture. What happened on September 11 is an indication that Islam today is in crisis. Taliban thought is present in every country, and the books which the Taliban studied and derived their principles from are studied in all the Shari’a colleges in the Islamic world. The difference is that the Taliban applied them; the others have not yet done so, but the foundations of the thought are one and the same, and I as a Muslim feel ashamed that Islam should end up as Taliban. Until now no official Islamic institute has dared to delve seriously into the impulses behind all those who practice violence. Because in such a case it would have to reconsider the bases of Islamic jurisprudence and the way of interacting with the Book of God and this is something for which they are absolutely not prepared.

The Muslim ulama in the official religious institution have never exposed to criticism or rebuttal the theoretical impulses and the cognitive structure of the Islamic jihadi movements. Indeed this official Islamic institution is incapable of entering into ideological confrontation with the theorists of the Qa’ida organization because the latter would defeat them since they both come out of the same ideological school. He who exercises violence and he who does not both come out of the same principles and impulses (muntalaqat) which comprise the principle of abrogation (nasikh and mansukh) and the reasons for revelation (asbab al-nuzul) and the principle of analogy (mabda’a al-qiyas). The present Arab intellect is an analogical intellect and an analogical intellect does not create or produce any knowledge. It is based on the authentic model of the seventh century. This model is treated analogically in a repetitious fashion. Arab thought is repetitious; it repeats itself through analogy which is the only domain for exercising the intellect.

The Islam we have today with its concept of what is necessarily fixed in religion and the concept of free-will (qadariyya) and fatalism (jabariyya) and the definition of fate and divine decree and the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence and the Sunna, this Islam drew up its general concepts in the Umayyad era and was framed and written down and took its final form in the Abbasid era.

We need a cultural reformation from within. We have to reconsider the concept of sunna and the concept of consensus and the concept of analogy and abrogation (nasikh and mansukh) and liberty and authority and the people who bind and loose and other concepts of a human stamp. There is no other solution. Islamic culture is in crisis; it is in peril.

Q: Can I understand from your words that Ben Laden is more consistent with himself, more representative and sincere concerning these principles of jurisprudence (fiqh) than the representatives of official Islam?

A: Certainly. As an example let's take the principle of abrogation. Well, [look at] all the verses from the Book of God which speak of wisdom and exhortation to good like:

Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. (2.256)

And say: “The truth is from your Lord.” Let him who will believe, and let him who will reject it. (18.29)

All these verses are abrogated (mansukh). They are read only and not observed. The abrogation of these verses did not come from Ben Laden or from the Organization of al-Qa’ida, or from the Muslim Brothers. The abrogation is prior to them. These verses were abrogated by a verse called the verse of the Sword from the Surat al-Tawba

Then when the Sacred Months have passed, then kill the Mushrikûn wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform Prayer and pay Zakât, then leave their way free. Verily, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (9.5)

If we wish to fight terror and fight violence we must reconsider the principle of abrogation in the Book of God; otherwise things will continue as they are and the production of blind violence will continue in the same form. . . .

Q: If we leave aside the concept of abrogation for now and treat the subject of murder for apostasy, what possibility of revising this subject do you see at present?

A: Here we must distinguish between political apostasy and creedal apostasy, since creedal apostasy in the sense of changing religion has no connection with society, and its divine punishment is in the Book of God. The basis for life is permissibility and the basis for death (blood) is prohibition except what God permits. God does not permit killing the apostate. God it is who gives life and takes it away.

Concerning political apostasy we must return to the central state in the prophetic era and discuss the appeal (da’wa) from the purely political angle. Before the coming of the Messenger the Arabs had no central state. The Apostle came and called to Unicity (tawhid) and to a new religion. He ended his appeal by founding a central state with its capital at Madina. There all those who supported the Apostle and entered into his appeal and became his followers were called believers (mu’minun).

O Prophet! God is Sufficient for you and for the believers who follow you. (8.64)

And when the believers saw the Confederate forces, they said: “This is what God and His Messenger had promised us. (33.22)

Islam as a concept is much broader than faith. From the political point of view there was a party called the believers which formed and founded the state. Accordingly, in the political consciousness of the people at that time, anyone who wanted to form a state had to become a prophet. al-Aswad al-‘Anzi before the death of the Messenger is the most famous who claimed prophecy in Yemen because he wished to separate from the central state, thus the Prophet's order to kill him. In the separatist political apostasy there is fighting and killing. Likewise after the death of the Messenger several attempts at separation took place and those responsible had to claim prophecy; given the political mentality it meant that they wished to found a new party. . . .

In this case it is natural for the central state to defend its existence. In the wars of apostasy, the apostasy was political so Abu Bakr fought them according to the logic of political apostasy in which there is fighting and killing. When the sole income into the state was the wealth of the alms-tax (zakat), any resistance to paying it meant separation. . . .

Q: For centuries on end, the People of the Book were forced to pay the head tax (jizya) which is mentioned in the Qur'an. Where are we today in regard to this?

A: There is one verse in the Qur'an which speaks of the head tax, in Surat al-Tawba:

Fight against those who believe not in God, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by God and His Messenger and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9.29)

The concept of head tax is a purely political concept and the Commander of the Faithful was so-called in the past because the believers, followers of the Messenger, were those who founded the state and political power was in their hands. The treasury was called the treasury of the Muslims because the State whose Commander of the Faithful was Umar ibn al-Khattab contained Christians and Jews and as an equivalent for the money which was taken from Muslims in the name of sadaqat and zakat, there was money taken for the treasury of the state from Jews and Christians in the name of head tax. This money was spent on all.

Now believers and non-believers have become citizens and the state does not have need of the sadaqat or the jizya because it has its special budget and numerous taxes, so the concept of jizya and dhimmis (protected people) has been completely abrogated for the good of the concept of citizen. All pay taxes to the state; taxes are the common denominator for all individuals of the society. Every man pays his sadaqat according to his religious convictions without interference from the state. The concept of head tax is completely historical; no one is calling for its return today.

Q: This leads us to what some Islamic currents are doing today, namely calling People of the Book infidels. What is your opinion on this?

A: In the Qur'an we have People of the Book and those of the People of the Book who have become infidels. These are two completely different things. Those of the People of the Book who became infidels are those who attacked and fought against the Prophet. In the Qur'an the phrase always comes as “Those among the People of the Book who became infidels,” not all the People of the Book. . . .

The concept of kufr is not clear in Islamic literature (adabiyat). There is confusion between faith and infidelity (kufr). A country in which there are no believers should not be called an infidel country but a country of non-believers; otherwise all the world becomes your enemy. If you say that non-Muslim believers are infidels, this is exactly like the saying of Bush today that he who is not with us is against us. It is not correct for any man who is a believer to fight people because they are not believers. It is possible to fight people because of land or for interests or because of political differences, but it is not right for you to fight them because they are not believers and are not followers of the Muhammadan message. . . .

The question today is how can we interact with the People of the Book in the best way, regarding them with a human regard. If for instance we continue in the exegesis of Surat “al-Fatiha,” which we recite with every rak’a in our prayers in accord with the old principles of fiqh, which explains that “those who earn Thy anger” (maghdub ‘alayhim) are the Jews and “those who go astray” (dallin) are the Christians whereas the maghdub and the dallin are those who deviated from the straight path. The one who kills a person is among the maghdub and the polytheists are the dallin. The maghdub and the dallin could be among the followers of Muhammad or among those who do not follow Muhammad. This exegesis was laid down when there was a strong state which regarded its subjects of the People of the Book with a regard of domination and haughtiness and pity, not the regard of equality.

Today the state of citizens and the state in which there is no constraint in religion is the just form, more lofty than the state of believers and the dhimmis, which was the first form of the state. In the state of citizens there is no difference between a believing Muslim and a Christian as long as they both pay their taxes. But there is a difference in faith. The pillars of faith for a believer are fasting and prayer; these are separate from the state but not from the society. . . .

Q: We come now to the question of jihad in Islam and its relation to the use of violence and fighting in the way of God. What is your reading of this thorny problem in Islam?

A: Before I answer this question I would like to explain the difference between the two words ‘ibad and ‘abid. The word of God Most High previously to the people of the earth is that all people are ‘ibad of God and not ‘abid:

Mankind were but one community then they differed (later), and had not it been for a Word that went forth before from your Lord, their difference would have been settled between them. (10.19)

So people obey God by fulfilling his will and they disobey him by free choice. For this he created them. The believers are ‘ibad allah, the rebellious are ‘ibad allah and the atheists are ‘ibad allah, all people are ‘ibad allah, he created them and left them in several verses the freedom to choose obedience or disobedience, faith or infidelity; then he promised them an encounter to reward the good choices and punish the bad.

The word ‘abada in the Arabic language is of the verbs with opposite meanings; it bears the meaning of obedience or disobedience, and here there is a big difference between ‘ibad and ‘abid.

And I created the jinns and humans that they may serve Me. (51.56)

That is, he created them to be free ‘ibad, not ‘abid and not as some say for prayer and fasting.

Now for jihad, there are two types; this is in the saying of the Almighty:

God does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who fought not against you on account of religion and did not drive you out of your homes. God loves those who deal with equity. (60.8)

There is jihad in the way of God. It is jihad to lift off constraint from people, that is, that the word of God Most High is in the way of freedom of choice for all people, not just for believers. So fighting in the way of God is fighting in the way of non-constraint generally and non-constraint in religion in particular. A country where people are constrained to pray or where women are forced to wear the veil, the word of God is at a low level, and the country where people are prevented from praying or where women are prohibited from wearing the veil, the word of God is at a low level. Jihad in the way of God is against tyranny and for the freedom of people one and all and to lift constraint from them. This came as an obligation for the followers of Muhammad only; it is not right to oblige others to it unless they so wish. This jihad has several forms and the use of force may be a stage of jihad or one of its forms, but there is also jihad with wealth and word and speaking the truth. However, for the use of force and violence there are objective conditions stipulated as to international relations, the balance of political and military forces, etc.

As for the second type of jihad and fighting, it is in the way of not being evinced from their abode (diyar). Here the people of the abode fight, Muslim believers and Christians and others, not just the followers of Muhammad. This is not fighting in the way of God but in the way of land and abode.

Q: Are you convinced that there are conditions regulating the use of violence in jihad? Is every type of violence allowed when the situation is like the state of occupied Palestinian lands today?

A: There are three conditions for that which come in the following verses of Surat al-Baqara:

The sacred month is for the sacred month, and for the prohibited things, there is the Law of Equality. Then whoever transgresses the prohibition against you, you transgress likewise against him. And fear God, and know that God is with the pious. (2. 194)

Here we remark that we should not be the ones who begin the enmity and that we fear God in our enemies if we are the stronger; if we are the weaker, then we should practice all forms of jihad and know how to use violence so that we don’t put ourselves in jeopardy. For example, if we fight America today with force we will lose. But we can spend our wealth as do the Zionist lobbies in the United States.

In what pertains to the Palestinian people, their struggle against Israel is just. But their being in the right does not mean that they are always correct in the way they conduct the struggle against Israel. Any military action or operation of martyrdom unaccompanied by a mature political idea is vain and a loss of blood and wealth.

When the operation of martyrdom becomes an institution, this is an error. This institution can be turned over to secondary goals which may be criminal as in the case of Ben Laden. The desire for martyrdom is not transformed into an institution; the decision of martyrdom is an individual decison. God is the giver of life and no one other than God has the right to take it. According to their logic, it has not been confirmed that the Messenger sent anyone to his death; rather he would say to them: he who fights with dedication and is killed, paradise is his. For instance the Syrian pilot who flew his Mig into an Israeli plane, his command did not order him to do it; he took the decision himself. I esteem that decision highly and his command honored him afterwards.

Q: But are we always forced to go back to religion? Why today in all our political struggles is Islam dragged into the battle by the Muslims themselves?

A: No. Islam is not susceptible to politicization and if it is politicized, the State that does it will die. The Book of God sufficed for setting up a human society; it does not suffice for setting up a state with historical and geographical limits. It inspires with universals and general laws and it needs additions and not explanations, as they say. And these additions the Messenger set up to build his state and his society in the Arab peninsula in the seventh century. At present these additions are civil law and parliaments.

Q: But most of the Islamic political currents call for setting up a state today on the same bases on which it stood in the era of the Messenger and the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

A: The problem here is in the analogy of the seen for the unseen (qiyas al-shahid ‘ala al-gha’ib). For example, all the political measures which the Messenger undertook and the Rightly Guided Caliphs took are not Islamic law and cannot be used for analogy. All the measures in building the state and organizing the society and the wars and the military decisions were worldly political measures and cannot be used for analogy. . . .

Here today we don’t direct our blame to this purely political decision nor do we use it for analogy. The Prophet Muhammad in his time took the military and political decisions connected with conditions in his era. We have no connection with those decisions. The problem here is that the Prophetic sunna requires redefinition.

The great problem for Muslims is that the Arab bedouin culture which prevailed in the seventh century in the Arab peninsula was transformed entirely into religion, from clothes and manners to social customs, food, even music. For instance, the tambourine which was the only musical instrument prevalent is transformed in our day to Islamic music. Even eating dates has become Islamic and the one who played a methodological role in transforming this culture into religion is al-Shafi’i.

When Islamic ideological thought speaks of Islamic music and Islamic architecture and Islamic art of the story and Islamic poetry, this denomination and this thought resemble Communist ideological thought. The only difference between them is that the first is believing, the second atheist. Ben Laden in 1998 formed an international ideology; the Islamic International spread to many countries.

When one-dimensional culture is imposed as the axis and effort is expended to ideologize all aspects of society, the result will be a totalitarian terrorist rule.

Q: Dr. Shahrur, you have a special theory with regard to the sovereignty (hakimiyya) of God and those who speak of it. Can you give us a summary?

A: The hakimiyya of God in its absolute pure form exists only with God. All the attempts to apply it are purely human activities with no relation to God or his hakimiyya because they are authoritarian operations with historical and geographical limits. Everyone who claims that he represents the hakimiyya of God is misled and corrupt; they claim this to cover over oppression and expropriate liberties.

In what concerns the hakimiyya of God, there are five points I would like to expose:

1. God does not share his rule with anyone, and everyone who does not share with anyone in his rule is inimical to God in his hakimiyya.

2. God, as the verse says, . . . “cannot be questioned as to what He does, while they will be questioned” (21.23).

Everyone who puts himself beyond all questioning is inimical to God in his hakimiyya.

3. God, according to the verse, . . . “is doer of what He will” (11.107 also 85.16).

Every man who places himself in a position to do as he wishes is inimical to God in his hakimiyya.

4. God is Lord of the heavens and the earth, and every man who supposes that the country and the ‘ibad are his personal property is inimical to God in his Lordship.

5. God almighty is God of the worlds, and every man who demands absolute obedience from others is inimical to God in his divinity.

Every ruling system should be devoid of these five matters, that is, a pluralist system, the system of parties and opposition, opinion and contrary opinions, a system of interrogation. Consequently the State is a contract between the power and citizens by way of a constitution which should guarantee not falling into these five matters.

Today there are three solutions: let the umma fall into oblivion, or abandon Islam, or work to reform it. Otherwise I can only wish the regimes and rulers of the Arabs from the Ocean to the Gulf a pleasant sojourn and long security, as long as the problem of liberty remains incurable in the heads of the people as in the structure of the regimes. In our history the concept of tyranny is deep rooted and the concept of liberty is merely the contrary of slavery. This concept today has need of creativity, but the creativity has not yet come.

Bibliography references:

Interview conducted by Muhammad Ali al-Attasi. Translated from the Arabic by John J. Donohue. In his books and studies Dr. Muhammad Shahrur tries to present contemporary readings of the Qur'an and pose searching questions concerning the crisis of Islamic culture and the ways to revivify and reform it.

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