Monday, 20 May 2013

Muhammad Shahrur: From Engineer to Exegete

Syria has been predominantly in the news for the, so far, bodged attempts to unseat the more than forty-year old Asad Regime as part of a wave of revolts shaking the Arab world in recent years. While regime change may still be quite far off, and the idea of an Islamist take-over is a disconcerting prospect for many Syrians and outside observers alike, for decades individual Syrian Muslim intellectuals have proposed alternative readings of Islam as a civilizational heritage rather than blueprint for an alternative political order.

Muhammad Shahrur
One of these is Muhammad Shahrur (b. 1938), an engineer and university lecturer turned Qur'an commentator. As a faculty member at the University of Damascus from 1972 until 1998, he was a contemporary of scholars from various other disciplines, including Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Tayyib Tizini, Yasin al-Hafiz, and Adonis. But his breakthrough as one of the heritage thinkers or turathiyyin of the last twenty or thirty years came with the publication of his The Book and the Qur'an, which caused as much of a stir as Mohammed Arkoun's Lectures du Coran and the writings of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. It earned him the ire of Syria's most influential Islamic scholar and regime loyalist, Shaykh Ramadan al-Buti (1929-2013), who was recently assassinated under very suspicious circumstances.

According to a recent article on the Qantara Website:

Shahrur also regards himself as part of an avant-garde of Islamic "revivers." For him, the key recognition is that there is only one God, but many paths to reach him. And since the very beginning of his reformist work almost 20 years ago, he has clearly and vehemently pleaded for Muslims to turn to the revealed text themselves as the true criteria of divine truth instead of being "subservient to the authority of Islamic law.

Educated in Moscow and Dublin, Shahrur's intellectual profile matches the cultural hybridity and intellectual cosmopolitanism that characterizes the new Muslim intellectuals emerging in the final decades of the twentieth century. Influenced by Marxism and the philosophical Positivism that can be traced from Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead to Kant, Fichte and Hegel, Shahrur is adamant that Islam's teachings can be reconciled with modern rational experiences of reality.

While since the publication of his first book, he has released a stream of publications on Islam's Sacred Scripture, he remains an engaged intellectual whose views echo very similar insights as other Syrian thinkers whose initial Marxist leanings are now complemented by a more sophisticated understanding of the importance of the Islamic heritage for achieving a secularization that can find root in Muslim societies:
Islam is for all intents and purposes the sole dominating normative force in the Arab world. "The religious heritage must be critically read and interpreted anew. Cultural and religious reforms are more important than political ones, as they are the preconditions for any secular reforms."
In view of the central importance of the Qur'an to the Muslim worldview, Shahrur has continued to invest his intellectual energies in engaging with the sacred text. He has fine-tuned his research methodology by combining his interest in Positivism and the mathematical proclivities which can be traced to his science and engineering background, with new advances in linguistics.

In line with the liminality that is another characteristic of these heritage thinkers, his reinterpretation of Islamic concepts such as hudud, is an exponent of how this intellectual Muslim avant-garde operates in the margins of traditionally  'accepted'  scholarly approaches.  Originally referring to corporeal punishments prescribed by the Qur'an for certain transgressions, Shahrur returns to the word's etymology and reformulates it as a 'theory of limits' -- a divinely set boundary or moral imperative, which opens up a myriad of hermeneutic possibilities towards a depoliticization of narrow-minded understandings of Islam. With this he sees himself as stepping into the footsteps of the last major medieval Muslim thinker, Ibn Rushd, who has been a beacon for so many of Shahrur's peers (cf. my post on the Moroccan Averroist, the late Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri).

To read the full article on Shahrur click here.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Critical Muslim Perspectives on the Qur'an: Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im

Abdullahi an-Na'im
University of Notre Dame is now posting videos of its Qur'an Seminar online. The initiative is coordinated by Gabriel Reynolds, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies & Theology, and  provides a forum for contemporary Muslim academics and other intellectuals to share their views on the Islamic scripture. It has hosted high-profile scholars such as the Sudanese jurist and human rights specialist Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im.

Click on the widget below for further readings into the work of Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im:

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm: Muslim Secularist talks about the Syrian Uprising

Last week, the Syrian website Al-Jumhuriyah, run by a conglomerate of Syrian writers and researchers supporting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, published a lengthy interview conducted in January 2013, with one of Syria's foremost thinkers, the philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who has It focused  on his views about recent developments in his country and the role of intellectuals in bringing about change.

Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm
Sadiq al-Azm's thinking is very much shaped by Marxism and  he has written on a wide variety of subjects, including Arab political affairs after the defeat of June 1967,  freedom of thought, platonic love, secularism, democracy, and globalization. However, he has also written very perceptive studies on religion, including critical assessments of Islamic thinking and Muslim responses to Orientalism

When asked how the author of A Critique of Religious Reason and other skeptical works about Islam could join a revolution that had started in the mosque, he responded that for too long intellectuals had closed their eyes to Syrian reality just in order to preserve their own mental and physical survival. Now:
the revolution is a Syrian settling of old accounts and an overdue payment of bills that were the result of Syrian silence and cowardice in moments such as the siege of the city of Hama in 1982, and its destruction and killing of its people
Moreover, it is not the first time that he sided with a revolt towards regime that was led by religious people, including clerics; Muslim and non-Muslim:
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with the revolution of the Iranian people against the rule, corruption, and tyranny of the Shah, and against his famous intelligence apparatus known for its ferocity (the SAVAK). He stood with it despite the fact that that the leadership role of the clergy and ayatollahs was evident from the outset, and as I recall, the left in those days was almost entirely in favor of the Iranian people’s revolution despite the fact that demonstrations emerged from mosques, cemeteries, and funerals
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with Liberation Theologists in Latin America and other places, because Liberation Theology supported people’s liberation movements in those countries against base tyrants such as Samoza in Nicaragua, criminal coup-makers like Pinochet in Chile, and the rule of the bloody generals in Argentina. After all this, is it possible for the author of the mentioned book to fail or let-down in the issue of standing with the revolution of the Syrian people against the rule that has surpassed Samoza, Pinochet, the Argentine generals, and the Shah of Iran combined in its tyranny, murder, and destruction?
What tilted the balance of inaction towards action in the case of his home country was set in motion in 2000; when a republican government was changed into a hereditary dynasty and the indignities the Syrian people had to suffer simply became too much. Still, there is a chill and sinister side to al-Azm's words
Syria swallowed the humiliation quietly and sedately, which was an unenviable position these days, and blood is being spilled today to erase its effects. The moment that the “Damascus Spring” tried to light a candle at the end of the tunnel, it was eliminated with a visible ferocity, and once again, Syria was silent and it accepted the suppression of the Damascus Spring with shocking normalcy. I will say again, in its revolution today, Syria spills this much blood in order to atone for all its past sins and erase its shame, and for this reason, I am with it.

In response to a question why, as a  leading representative of the intellectual left he had decided to throw his weight behind the uprising, whereas many of its other exponents have remained at best equivocal in their support, or even refused to back it altogether, Sadiq al-Azm explained that this would first need an explanation of a development within the Syrian left:
 ... it is known that the left brings together committed activists and advocates from different religious, confessional, doctrinal, regional, ethnic, and tribal backgrounds for the sake of a future civil state which surpasses these primordial affiliations and loyalties. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the left and its dispersal everywhere (especially the numerous and differentiated communist parties), many of these leftists reverted back to their primordial and more primitive loyalties, especially the religious, confessional and doctrinal ones
[...] the left split into a large block that adopted what might be called “the Civil Society program”. It is a program which emphasizes certain issues, such as: Respect of human rights (even if only in word, or in the minimum possible manner), priority for the idea of citizenship and its practice in addition to civil rights and public freedoms, equality before the law, separation of powers, a secular state, an independent judiciary, democracy, decentralization of power and effective governance rather than passing power around between family members, as is happening in Syria today. In other words, the largest bloc of the left retreated to the second line of defense in the form of a “civil society program,” and its defense in the face of military-security-familial tyranny on the one hand, and medieval religious obscurantism on the other hand. I think that this bloc of the left in general sympathizes with the revolution in Syria
Al-Azm stresses that he has not given up his leftist convictions and that he still considers Marxist analyses of social and political situations convincing. However, he adds the caveat that he is not referring to classical Marxist analyses, but the approach advocated by Frantz Fanon, which he considers more relevant to  developments in a country like Syria: is useful to return to it today for any attempt at diagnosing the Syrian revolution and understanding its nature, especially given that Fanon was a real pioneer in describing the mechanisms and the stages of transformation of political powers, parties, and organizations that start as parties and national liberation movements in oppressed third world societies but change into a clique of rulers completely separated from their beginnings, their popular foundations, and their liberal programs that they had adopted which formed the purpose for their coming to power, only for them to oppress and step on the neck of the wretched of their population
Returning to the issue of joining a revolutionary cause that was initiated by religious activists, he also takes a swipe at another leading intellectual, the poet Adonis (see also the blog post of 30 October 2011).
The contradiction here is not in my position, but in the position of those who once stood in support of the revolution of the Iranian people or the Liberation Theologists and their churches or for movements of national liberation almost everywhere, yet refuse to support the revolution of the Syrian people under the pretext that its demonstrations and protests spring from the mosque and not from the opera house or the national theatre, as Adonis justifies.
 Adonis preferred denial, evasion and justification in his dealing with the changing reality of the Arab Spring, and especially the popular revolution in Syria. Adonis had raised the slogan “positions for change, freedom and creativity” in his famous magazine Mawaqif (Positions); however, when the serious change began to occur in Syria and freedom was near, Adonis retreated more than two steps backwards instead of absorbing seriously and critically the development of the changing Arab reality, and instead of critically reviewing the axioms of his cultural and epistemological apparatus in light of the mobile and new Arab Syrian reality. His slogans imply that such an intellectual would be at the forefront of people leaning towards change and freedom in Syria and defending them, but he preferred to distance himself from all of this and he discarded his slogan in the dustbin of history.
Al-Azm also cautions against having exaggerated expectations of what a revolution can achieve in terms of structurally changing a culture that has become very much set in its ways: 'cultural change is socially cumulative and historically slow'. For convincing argumentations making that case, he refers to the writings of fellow progressive thinkers from the Maghrib, among others: Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, Abdallah Laroui, and Egyptians like Fouad Zakariyya and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. As for Syria, he believes inspiration can be drawn from such thinkers as Jamil Saliba, Anton Makdisi, Adib Allajmi, Adil Al-Awwa, Yasin al-Hafiz, Tayyib Tayzini

Returning to the ideological dimensions of realizing drastic changes in a culture and society, al-Azm believes that the key to genuine change is secularization and the creation of a civil society which can enact such social transformations. This is also the reason why he helped establish the 'Committee for the Revival of Civil Society' (al-Mowaten) and became an active participant in the 'Damascus Spring' forums:
what is most important in secularism and democracy is their energetic capacity, particularly in diverse and pluralistic societies… In addition to this capacity to provide a good, positive atmosphere to restore civil peace, and not to oppress and use bare force, and to provide well tested mechanism (in many countries and people and societies and cultures today) for peaceful transfer of power as widely as possible in society. Among the characteristics of secularism and democracy is that they provide a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs that are exclusionary by nature, allowing them to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape based on common denominators and voluntary, free consensus that makes it impossible for any of these doctrines and dogmas to survive in a vacuum
 He rejects the notion that some religions or cultures are per definition incapable of secularizing and therefore unsuitable for democratic systems of governance:
democracy is usually acquired, and the secular state is also acquired and is not that easy to launch. There has always been a great many obstacles, internally and externally, for all. I also do not think that the enlightened secular elites’ goal was originally only to prepare their communities to become eligible to accept democracy. Their goal, ambition, as well as their demand was a comprehensive renaissance of the vocabulary of democracy and secularism.
In analyzing why the secularization and democratization of Arab societies and political systems is such an uphill battle, the influence on al-Azm of Third-Worldist discourses as articulated by Frantz Fanon is clearly detectable: 
This not only happened to us, but to all civilizations, cultures, and peoplesIn the search for our enlightenment and renaissance, we always come back to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo, but a bit of scrutiny will show that there was something like al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo [Abduh, ck] and what they represent in Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Africa. So I think that the issue of enlightenment is much larger than groups of educated and secular elites that are trying to make the people eligible to accept democracy through public awareness of the need of secularism and secularization to overcome the failures and existing deficit. And I do not think that the current Arab Spring revolutions are able to set aside the idea of a broader enlightenment in ahistorical sense, if they had wanted to, because they also speak the language of reform, democracy, renewal, freedom, dignity, renaissance, and constitutionalism.
As for the role of intellectuals in recasting Syria's future in terms of securing a democratization process in the wake of the anticipated regime change, al-Azm notes the following points:
one of the most important things that intellectuals can do in the beginning is get rid of what is called the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information, then form their own cultural bodies, literary forums, intellectual circles, and independent autonomous unions, and manage them all without abidance to anyone or the dominance of one over the other.
 Then, it is up to the intellectuals to be generous with the best that they have to offer to the people, so that the intellectual in the New Syria is active and engaged. 
Read the full interview here.