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Human History as Divine Revelation: A Dialogue

Mazrui Ali A.
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Human History as Divine Revelation: A Dialogue

Mazrui Ali A.


Born in Kenya, he studied at Manchester University in England (B.A.) and Columbia University in New York (M.A.), and he earned his doctorate at Oxford University. An expert on Africa and Islam in Africa, he has authored more than twenty books and hundreds of articles. Mazrui is Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, State University of New York at Binghamton; Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus, Cornell University; and Chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya. His many publications include The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Governance and Leadership: Debating the African Condition, and Cultural Forces in World Politics.

In this dialogue from 2003, Mazrui champions the interpretation of Islamic scripture on the basis of changing circumstances. His premise is that God’s revelation occurred adseriatim across many prophetic missions. Indeed, though Islam holds Muhammad to have been the last prophet (nabi), Mazrui suggests that historical time may be considered a “cosmic” messenger (rasul). If so, then history may be considered “a continuing revelation of God.” In a nuanced discussion, Mazrui points out that God engaged the early Muslims on the grounds of their limited knowledge. They knew of the sun and moon, and God did not expand the references to these heavenly bodies to encompass those in deep space. The same principle may be applied to the exemplary punishments (hudud), to which the Qurān refers. Those punishments were consonant with what the early Muslims could understand regarding the violation of law. Our knowledge of crime today, however, is more profound, as to causes and as to “the limits of culpability and guilt.” Mazrui reasons that today we know that even chemical imbalances in the body can cause an individual to commit a serious crime. Should the perpetrator of a felony who has this debility be stoned to death? Mazrui thus holds that some verses, such as those pertaining to hudud punishments, were intended to apply specifically to the early period of Islam, when Muslims had only a very elementary knowledge of the world, whereas other verses are eternal and universal.

A Muslim in Search of new answers

Let me elaborate a little on my e-mail to Rafii of July 23, 2003. I was explaining to Rafii what were the grounds for reinterpreting Islam in the light of changing circumstances and expanding human knowledge.

The reason why Islam recognizes so many prophets (nabiyyun) and so many messengers or apostles (rusul) is because Allah reveals himself in installments across time and across space. The Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet (nabii), but was he the last messenger (rasul)? Let us accept that he was also the last rasul in the form of a human person. But could Time be a continuing cosmic rasul or at least risala? Is history a continuing revelation of God?

If God reveals Himself incrementally, and if history is a continuing revelation of God, should we not re-examine the message of Muhammad in the light of new installments of Divine Revelation? The early Muslims of the first century of Hijra would not have understood much about distant galaxies. So Allah talked to them in simple terms about our own moon (as if it was the only moon) and about the sun in the Milky Way (as if it was the only sun). Fourteen centuries ago the Arabs were overwhelmed by the Almighty as the creator of our own universe. Today we know that what God created was a billion times greater than that. Should we not reinterpret the verses about the sun and the moon in the Qur'an in the light of our new understanding of astronomy?

If we need to reinterpret Qur'anic verses about astronomy, why can we not reinterpret Islamic verses about ancient punishments (hudud)? The expansion of human knowledge is not only about the stars. It is also about human beings themselves and their behaviour. If we now know more about the causes of crime, we also know more about the limits of culpability and guilt. We know that poverty, bad parenting, a sense of injustice, racial discrimination, chemical imbalance in the human body, a bad neighbourhood and bad social environment can all be contributing factors towards turning a human being towards crime. In recent times God has been telling us that Satan is not the only source of evil. Societies often create their own Satans.

From these conclusions I proceed to the belief that some verses of the Qur'an were about events during the Prophet's own time and other verses were eternal in purpose. I illustrated with the verses about Abu Lahab (“father of the flame”). I believe the Prophet's contemporaries knew that the verses were about the Prophet's uncle Abd al-Uzza bin Abdul Muttalib. In the Prophet's own time it was understood that the verses were about a specific individual enemy of Islam.

I like your efforts to reinterpret “Abu Lahab” in a more timeless fashion. You are doing precisely what I am recommending—reinterpreting Qur'anic verses in ways which would give them a timeless relevance.

The Sudanese theologian Mahmood Muhammad Taha had argued about the two messages of Islam—the time-specific message and the eternal. The Nimeiry Government executed the old man in 1985 in the name of Islamic hudud. Please read Taha's book, The Second Message of Islam (Northwestern University Press—originally written in Arabic).

If God has been teaching human beings in installments about crime and punishment, and if there were no police, prisons, forensic science, or knowledge about DNA fourteen centuries ago, the type of punishments needed had to be truly severe enough to be a deterrent. Hence the hudud. Since then God has taught us more about crime, its causes, the methods of its investigation, the limits of guilt, and the much wider range of possible punishments.

Did the Prophet Muhammad say, “My people will never agree on error”? If so you can take it for granted that Muslims of the future will never agree that the amputation of the hand is a suitable punishment for a thief under any circumstances. I have predicted that. Please tell your grandchildren that I predicted that. Tell them long after I am dead and gone. I have not the slightest doubt that the Islam of your grandchildren will never include penal amputation of the hands of thieves.

I know you think highly of the Sahaba. We revere them as the first converts to Islam and as supporters of our prophet (pbuh). But we must not forget that the Sahaba were not themselves prophets; most of them were not even saints. As ordinary human beings they were the usual mixture of vices and virtues. That is why three of the first of Islam's four Caliphs were assassinated. That is also why there was an Arab civil war within little more than a decade after the Prophet's death—with the Prophet's widow Aisha fighting the Prophet's cousin Ali! This was not saintly behavior! Have we been idealizing the Sahaba too much?

On Punishment and Piety

If you have not yet read my annual letter 27 (early 2003), please turn to the section about the death penalty. It should be obvious from that section why I do not think that a verdict of “guilty” in a death penalty case is enough to justify execution. The experience of Illinois demonstrates how wide the margin of error can be. Hence the relevance of forensic evidence like finger-printing and now DNA. And even now we still make mistakes on whether the accused is guilty even if the accused confesses.

If a serial killer is really proven guilty, I do not think that we should kill him in order to save the tax payer's money. I do not believe in killing human beings as an economy measure. Executions as a budgetary device are not to be recommended.

Supposing you were an Islamic judge dealing with cases of adultery, have you considered how many of your closest relatives you would be forced to execute if they were found guilty of adultery? To my knowledge I shudder to think how many of my loved ones in Mombasa qualify for execution under the hudud if these are not reinterpreted. I would rather leave their punishment to God rather than to the state.

You keep on asking what our expanding knowledge of the galaxies has to do with the death penalty. You completely misunderstood my e-mail to Rafii of July 23. The summarized five points were not about the hudud alone. I was explaining to Rafii why it was necessary to reinterpret Islam generally—not just its ancient punishments. I was explaining to Rafii where I was coming from paradigmatically.

Rafii now wants me to write a book about theology; you, on the one hand, feel that I am not qualified. You are both right. The history of knowledge reveals two basic methods of argument. One is by reference to authority (Abu Hureira or At-Tabari); the other is from reason and logic. I may be strong on reason and logic, but I am still weak on traditional Islamic authority. You are right. The march of Islamic knowledge requires both shoulders of authority and the gift of independent reasoning. Your maternal grandfather combined both forms of analysis, may he rest in peace.

You say Islam is pro-science. Muslims have not been pro-science for hundreds of years. That is why we are left behind. How many Muslims have won the Nobel Prize for medicine, chemistry, physics or economics? Please check from any major encyclopedia—like the Britannica. Contrast that with how many Jews have won the different categories of the Nobel Prize. There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, and less than twenty million Jews.

You may feel that the Nobel Prize is not a good measurement of scientific excellence. Well, which inventions of the modern world come from Muslim scientists? The conquest of the small pox? The battle against malaria? The control of hypertension? The invention of the steam engine? The first automobile? The ability to fly? The space craft and landing on the moon? The new field of bio-technology? The computer? If Islam has been irrelevant in all these steps, should not Muslims be concerned?

If Pakistan captured Hindus in one of their wars, do you really think that Pakistanis are justified in regarding their captives as slaves unless they convert to Islam?

If Turkey captured Greeks in Cyprus or in one of their other conflicts, do you really think that would constitute legitimate grounds for enslavement? What if India reciprocated in kind with Pakistani prisoners and Greece with Turkish prisoners? What about Iraqi prisoners in Iranian prison camps? Are they fair for bondage and enslavement?

If you say “Yes” to most of the above questions, let me ask you one additional question. Are you convinced that the rest of the modern world would accept such a system of values? I am using this as a test of how far you are in touch with contemporary realities and opinion even in the Muslim world alone.

With regard to whether I am entitled to have an opinion about Islam independently of medieval jurists or of your own preferred recent theo-logians, who says a well educated Muslim believer does not have the right to address his or her mind to the troubling contradictions of Islam? Any fatwa about who is qualified to interpret Islam is itself subject to challenge. It is a fatwa about what constitutes an authoritative fatwa.

I regard my humble mind as Allah's gift to me. I refuse to accept the proposition that anyone in Riyadh (Saudia) or Riyadha (Lamu) who is learned about medieval Islamic jurists is necessarily better qualified to interpret Islam than the modest but trained intellect which Allah has given me. I believe it would be a betrayal of God's gift to me if I followed theological authority blindly.

On the issue of amputation of the hands of thieves, are you sure it is my beliefs that have to take a back seat? Apart from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Sudan, that kind of punishment has de facto been rejected by one billion Muslims in the world. If, as the Prophet argued, the ummah would never agree on an error, you may take it for granted that the ummah will never (now and in the future) agree with punishing thieves with ampu-tation of the hand. Take it from me and from your grandchildren. Large-scale amputation of hands for thieves will never be restored as a legitimate penalty in the modern world.

You mention the relatively low crime rate during the days of the prophet. There was also low crime rate in China, India, Persia and Africa. There are also differences in levels of population. If there was one murder in Medina fourteen centuries ago, that was the equivalent proportionally to 800 murders in New York City in the year 2003.

When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) died, the population of the whole of Arabia was still to be counted in thousands rather than millions. There is a huge difference between the size of the population of the world today and what it was fourteen centuries ago. During my own lifetime of seventy years the population of Kenya has grown roughly six hundred percent (i.e., from less than five million to about thirty million). Population growth affects issues of stability and law and order in complex ways. The huge expansion of the size of the human race is additional evidence that God reveals Himself in installments.

On Science and Retardation

Allah has blessed the Muslim world with plenty of petroleum. But how many large Muslim oil companies do you know which are capable of independently drilling for oil, processing it, refining it and marketing it world wide? Where are the Muslim technological and organizational skills?

In the last three centuries how many scientific inventions or discoveries are we able to attribute to Muslims? Islamic science flourished when Muslims were prepared to learn from others—such as learning mathematics from Indians, philosophy from the Greeks, architecture from the pre-Islamic Persian empire. The Muslim world began to decline when it allowed itself to be imprisoned within the walls of medieval legalism, and took refuge in nostalgia for a bygone age.

It is humiliating that a Jewish state of about six million people can reduce to military impotence an Arab population which is fifty times Israel's size and a Muslim population nearly two hundred times the size of the Jewish state. The Jews have left us far behind in science, technology, organization, economic skill and power. Their religion is much older than ours, but they have not resisted creative change in spite of centuries of discrimination—or perhaps because of it.

Muslims are being victimized militarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and potentially in Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, etc. Our slowness in learning and our resistance to reform have made us soft targets and vulnerable to the might of others. Is there a way out of this predicament?


I was intrigued by your suggestion that there were regular prisons and police in Arabia fourteen centuries ago. I am not being sarcastic when I say I would like to be corrected with evidence. I had assumed that most Islamic punishments fell into the following categories:

(a) Executions

(b) Amputations

(c) Freeing a slave or paying another fine

(d) Compensation to crime victims

(e) Flogging (whipping)

(f) Stoning

(g) Exile

Some of the above are Mosaic, some Qur'anic, while others found their way into the Shari’a Code from other sources. But you now tell me that there were prisons. Was I wrong in my assumption that the Qur'an did not prescribe prison terms (e.g., six years for first offender in robbery; seven years for zakat-evasion; ten years in prison for not fasting during Ramadhan). I am not being sarcastic. I am just illustrating possible sentences.

If the prison option was available in “seventh century Arabia,” I am more puzzled than ever as to why such severe physical punishments on the body (hudud) were necessary. But of course God knows best.

Finally, I would appreciate your comments on the distinction between nabii (prophet) and rasul (messenger). Am I wrong in my assumption that the Islamic emphasis is that Muhammad was Khatami nabiyyun (the last of the prophets) and not Khatami rusul (the last of the messengers)? I sincerely seek your theological help (with authoritative sources) on this distinction.

My struggle to find new meanings in Islam has nothing to do with a desire to be “controversial.” There are millions of Muslims like me who are disturbed by the hudud. I am repeatedly accosted by fellow Muslims who are embarrassed by Northern Nigeria's experimentation with the hudud. Much as I love Nigeria, what Northern Nigerians are attempting in the name of the Shariah is infinitely more “controversial” than my own humble views on the matter.

Your fellow Muslims who criticize the hudud in Nigeria or Sudan are struggling with their souls. They see in Sierra Leone people with hands chopped off because of drunken rebels. They see in Sudan people with chopped hands because of the Shariah. Muslims like me are struggling to reconcile our faith with our conscience. This is not a gimmick in “controversy.” It is the anguish of the soul.

Bibliography references:

From a dialogue between Ali A. Mazrui in the U.S.A., Muhammad Yusuf Tamim in Canada, and Rafii Abdalla Salim Shikely in Kenya, July–August 2003.

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