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Abu Zayd, Nasir Hamid

By:
William E. Shepard
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Abu Zayd, Nasir Hamid

Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd (b. 1943) is an Egyptianscholar whose views on the Qurʿān provoked controversy in the 1990s. He was born in a village near Tanta and during his youth, sympathized with the Muslim Brothers. He graduated from Cairo University in 1972 and began to teach there, receiving his M.A. in 1977 and his Ph.D. in 1980. From 1978 to 1980, he resided in the United States, where he read widely in hermeneutics, and from 1985 to 1989, he taught in Japan.

In 1992, Abu Zayd's application for promotion to full professor at the University of Cairo was rejected. His key opponent was a professor at Dar al-ʿUlūm and a mosque preacher, who compared his work to “cultural AIDS” and declared him apostate. The next year, under the sharīʿah principle of hisbah (“bringing to account” for the sake of public morality), an Islamist lawyer sued to have Abu Zayd's marriage annulled on the grounds that an apostate cannot be married to a Muslim. This suit was denied by the first court, but upheld on appeal in 1996. Meanwhile, the university had granted his promotion. Soon afterward, the government revised the rules concerning ḥisbah, but the revision came too late to impact Abu Zayd's case.

All of this controversy was accompanied by a fierce public debate between Islamists and secular intellectuals in Egypt and considerable interest abroad. The violent actions of Islamists during this period, including attacks on other intellectuals, further increased the pressure on Abu Zayd. In July of 1995, Abu Zayd left Egypt and obtained the position of Visiting Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Leiden University. Since then, he has continued his research, writing, and teaching, and is now a Professor at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht.

The most important issues in the debate stem from Abu Zayd's emphasis on the human nature of the Qurʿān. According to him, the text of the Qurʿān is a human manifestation of the Word of God and, being man-made, is historically and culturally conditioned and subject to the same hermeneutics as other documents. Thus, Qurʿānic injunctions relating to justice reflect the society of its time, but justice must be manifested differently today. Islamic law, even more, is a human product subject to change. Abu Zayd sees himself as an heir to the Muʿtazilah, particularly their idea of the created Qurʿān and their tendency toward metaphorical interpretation. A concern for social justice and freedom are also evident in his writing and lecturing. He apparently considers himself a Nasserist in relation to social justice, though not in relation to freedom.

The controversy over Abu Zayd is one of the more dramatic instances of the ongoing debate between Islamist and secular thinkers over the course of the last century. Comparable controversies occurred over Tāhā Husayn in the 1920s and Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallāh in the 1940s, but the fact that Abu Zayd suffered more concretely than the others illustrates the gains made by Islamists in recent decades.

Abu Zayd has authored at least fourteen books in Arabic, including works on the Muʿtazilah, Ibn ʿArabi, al-Shāfiʿī, and Qurʿānic criticism, as well as books in English and articles in both languages. See also EGYPT, MUʿTAZILAH, QURʿāN IN MUSLIM THOUGHT AND PRACTICE.

Bibliography

  • Abu Zayd, Nasr, and Esther R. Nelson. Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004.
  • Abu Zayd, Nasr. Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
  • Sfeir, George N.“Basic Freedoms in a Fractured Legal Culture: Egypt and the Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.”Middle East Journal52 (Summer 1998): 402–414.
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