In the first part of this section I identify the relevant Qur’an and hadith texts employed and the most commonly applied hermeneutical tools and methods by progressive Muslims with regards to their view on the normative principals and the decorum adopted when dealing with the religious Other.
Here and in the next section I primarily discuss the work of Esack and Shahrur which , are the most relevant works which directly link the issue of Qur’anic hermeneutics with that of the religious status of the religious Other.
Esack based on his “contextual hermeneutic of religious diversity for libration” outlines a number of ‘general attitudes’ evident in the Qur’an which are to be considered when attempting to understand the Qur’an’s relationship with the religious Other. Firstly, by taking recourse to the importance of ‘overall historical context’ Esack considers that the Qur’an embraces religious inclusivism by” presents a universal, inclusivist perspective of a divine being who responds to the sincerity and commitment of all of His servants.”[i]In this context he develops a hermeneutically important idea of a gradual and contextual development of the qur’anic position towards the religious Other to argue that there is no final or universal qur’anic position on the issue. Secondly, Esack emphasizes the importance of the qur’anic constant wedding of issues of dogma with that of social justice to argue that the Qur’an develops a very intimate and strong connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Thirdly, he considers that the Qur’an only denounces the religious exclusivism characterized by the Jewish and Christian communities encountered by Prophet Muhammad in Hijaz. Fourthly , basing himself on a thematic approach to the Qur’an quoting a large number of relevant verses that shall be presented in the next section of this paper below, Esack asserts that the Qur’an is explicit in its acceptance of religious pluralism and the de jure legitimacy of all revealed religion by “taking into account the religious life of separate communities coexisting with Muslims, respecting their laws, social norms and religious practices and it accepts that the faithful adherents of these religions will also attain salvation.”[ii] Fifthly, Esack forms the view that the qur’anic portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and the religious Other is based on “the socio-religious requirements” of the Muslim community such as security and community building and not on faith convictions or lack thereof. Sixthly, quoting Qur’an 22:40[iii], he asserts that, on the basis of this verse alone, the Qur’an’s acceptance of Other’s spirituality and salvation through Otherness is revealed.
Furthermore, Esack’s view of what he terms “Prophetic responsibility” to the religious Other stemming from the religiously inclusionary stance of the Qur’an is postulated on two levels:
i.)as a challenge to existing communities with scriptures about their commitment and faithful adherence to their own tradition and ,
ii.) more generally to humanity, to present the Qur’an’s own guidance for consideration and acceptance.[iv] In this context he asserts:
Muhammad’s basic responsibility in inviting was to call to God. For some components of the other, the response to this call was best fulfilled by a commitment to [reified] Islam. Thus they were also invited to become Muslims. For others, the call was limited to [non-reified] islam.[v]
In line with its method of understanding the nature, objectives, and the context-content dynamic behind the unfolding of Qur’an-Sunna teachings, progressive Muslims consider Qur’anic verses and hadith discussed in the context of NTS interpretation of the concept of a ‘Believer’ in the fifth chapter (and similar others) as being contextually contingent—and, hence, specific to the time of the Revelation and to the communities at the time of the Revelation encountered by the prophet Muhammad. In other words by making a hermeneutical distinction between universalist and historically contingent aspects of the scripture there Qur’an and hadith texts are not considered as being universal in their scope. [vi] Progressive Muslims rely not only on the comprehensively contexualist approach to their interpretation to them, but maintain that, with respect to the religiously hostile hadith vis-à-vis the religious Other presented in the fifth chapter, they contradict the concept of Sunna as based on the overall Qur’anic attitude (thematic and corroborative/holistic approach) toward the religious Other as well as on the Prophet’s praxis, which is an embodiment of that attitude. These religiously antagonistic ahadith, in turn, are considered to be reflective of the community attitudes among some of the members of (the early) Muslim community.[vii] Furthermore, progressive Muslim’s conceptual, methodological, and epistemological divorcing of the Sunna from the hadith body of knowledge is also used as a hermeneutical tool to argue against the normative character of the reactionary ahadith presented in the fifth chapter. Moreover the hermeneutical recourse to “authorial enterprise”, “proportionality of correlation” and “conscientious pause”, (all discussed in the previous chapter), to argue against the normative nature of these ahadith can also be taken.
In addition to the above, by adopting a thematic/holistic approach to the Qur’anic verses cited below, progressive Muslims develop an inclusionary concept of a ‘Believer’ that legitimizes the religious claims of the religious Other.[viii] As such, progressive Muslims consider “the ethic of pluralism”, including the religious, to be intrinsic to Qur’an and its worldview.[ix]
In reference to what the normative Muslim attitude towards the religious Other should be progressive Muslims consider a number of verses to be more reflective of the spirit and ethos of the overall Qur’an–Sunna teachings such as the following:
Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance. (16:125)
And dispute ye not with the People of the Book except with means better (than mere disputation) unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say "We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam). (29:46)
Allah forbids you not with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just. (60:8)
According to the progressive Muslim thought these verses lay down the general and universal principles underlying the decorum to be observed in dealing with, and the attitude to be taken toward, the religious Other whether in conditions of peace or in a situation of conflict.[x] As such, these verses are considered by the theoreticians of progressive Muslim manhaj as higher-order hermeneutical principles superseding the exclusionary and antagonistic Qur’an-hadith body of texts .[xi]
I will now consider how the progressive Muslim approach to interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna demarcates the boundaries of belief in order to construct their understanding of the concept of a religiously ideal ‘Believer.’
Based on a comprehensively contextualist and thematico- holistic aspects of the progressive Muslim manhaj, Esack considers that there exists an urgent need to re-examine and rethink the Qur’anic terms islam,’iman, kufr, din, ahl-kitab ,mushrik and wilayah which are crucial in understanding the Qur’anic position on the religious Other in the light of the broader principles and objectives underlying his ‘hermeneutic of religious pluralism for liberation’. One of these principals Esack asserts is that these terms are ‘dynamic’ , meaning that they ought to be considered as being “embodied in certain qualities of individuals in different stages of their lives,”[xii] multi-dimensional , i.e. having a number of meanings and connotations ranging from an intensely personal/spiritual to doctrinal, ideological and socio-political but all of which are inextricably intertwined ; that they have a number of meanings that have changed over a period of time; that they are inherently linked to issues of righteous deeds and conduct i.e. to orthopraxis ; and that they can exist at abstract and reified levels. [xiii]
In arguing this Esack wishes to “redefine, rediscover and re-appropriate the subsumed meanings of these terms including those which appear to encourage religious exlusivism”. He considers that there exists “a frayed relationship” between majority pre-modern and contemporary understandings of the relationship between the Qur’an and the religious Others and how they are employed in the Qur’an.[xiv]
Taking recourse to a thematic and comprehensively contextualist interpretive method in relation to the dynamic between islam-iman- kurf, Esack notes that one important aspect of the “process of rigidification of Islamic theology” occurred by the means of reification of these concepts and their association with a particular socio-religious and historical community. Additionally, Esack forms the view that this narrowing of the boundaries of belief in Islamic theology emerged as a later developed theological trend of substituting, in their reified forms, the particularly meta-confessional concept of iman/mu’min with that of islam/muslim as a key term for self-identification. In this context, by basing himself on a thematic approach to the Qur’anic text analysis, Esack asserts that this process took hold despite the fact that the term iman is much more central to Qur’an and its worldview than is islam which is quite marginal. These occurrences ,as noted above in the context of work by Donner in chapter five, resulted in a narrowing of confessional identity denied a status of a ‘Believer’ to those outside the prophet Muhammad’s socio-religious and historic community. Furthermore, by adopting a thematic and comprehensively contextualist approach to the Qur’an, Esack considers concepts of iman, din and islam in their non-reified form as meta-historical universalist concepts to be primarily understood within the framework of a “deep inner and personal conviction” that cannot be linked to institutionalized religion.[xv] For example, in relation to the concept of islam[xvi] he offers three nuanced meanings two of which are non-reified, namely the Qur’anic islam of pre-Muhammadan prophets, islam as personal submission to the Will of God and a reified Islam ‘in individuals and communities who share common space ,geography or time with the adherents of reified Islam[xvii] (i.e. those known today as Muslims). Iman is also seen as essentially a non-reified concept. In the words of Esack as “a personal recognition of, and an active response to, the presence of God in the universe and in history” characterized by dynamism and fluctuation and existing at various levels (such as ‘perfect’ and ‘diluted’ iman) . Esack also conceives of the concept of iman as multidimensional in nature incorporating the spiritual, the religious and socio-economic dimensions all of which form a symbiotic whole. [xviii]
Consistent with his analysis of other Qur’anic terms already discussed above, the Qur’anic concepts of kufr/shirk are re-thought by Esack in a similar manner and are linked to issues of the Qur’anically intimate relationship between doctrine and ideology, i.e. orthodoxy and orthopraxy;[xix] its socio-historical boundedness and a prior recognition of yet willful rejection of the acknowledgment of God’s unity and Muhammad’s prophethood. He considers that the pre-modern Muslim exegetes have failed in making a distinction between kufr “as an active attitude of individuals (or a collection of individuals) and the socio-religious (and often) ethnic identity of a group.” Esack does not deny its doctrinal dimension but calls for a “contemporary application of the term kufr and not the mere transference of labels.”[xx]
Another hermeneutical tool Esack uses to (re)-define the Qur’anic view of the religious Other and construct it in an inclusionary manner is to bring to the fore the Qur’nic concept of the symbiotic relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Forming the view that the Qur’an’s primary concern is for the latter and not the former, Esack considers that the basis of Qur’anic pluralism is in what he terms ‘liberative praxis’. Based upon a comprehensively contextualist and holistic manhaj in this context he interprets the Qur’nic texts dealing with the concept of ‘wilayah’[xxi] ( e.g. 5:51) not as doctrinal issue but an ideological-political one and argues that “when understood in their historical contexts, [they] offer a radically different perspective to that which a casual and decontextualized reading render” adding that “ “[F[ar from preventing Muslims from entering into relationship of solidarity with the religious Other, they actually facilitate and inspire the progressive Islamists’ pursuit of a hermeneutic that accommodates the religious Other and liberative praxis.”[xxii]
Esack also questions the contemporary definitions and understandings of the Qur’anic term ahl-kitab as referring to distinct contemporary religious groups. Contextualizing comprehensively, he firstly notes the situation boundedness of all of the Qur’anic categories in relation to the terms dealing with the religious Other, the gradual shift in understanding in it as to who constitutes such a group and the importance of the ideological dimension in it. Secondly, he discusses the lack of consensus among classical exegetes in relation to the definition of ahl-kitab. In the context of saying the former he asserts the following:
The Qur’an naturally dealt only with the behaviour and the beliefs of those of the people of the Book with whom the early Muslim community were in actual social contact. To employ the qur’anic category of the people of the Book in a generalized manner of simplistic identification of all Jews and Christians in contemporary society is to avoid the historical realities of Medinian society, as well as the theological diversity among both the earlier and contemporary Christian and Jews. To avoid such an unjust generalization, therefore, requires a clear idea from their sources of their beliefs, as well as many nuances, that characterized the various communities encountered by the early Muslims.[xxiii]
In this regard, we may also note the view of Abu Zayd, who maintains that one major characteristic of Qur’anic discourse that of negotiation, an inclusionary mode of discourse, applies to the ahl al-kitab. In fact, he argues that Qur’anic discourse does not repudiate the scriptures of Jews and Christians, only the Jews’ and Christians’ understanding and explanation of them. The exclusivist mode of Qur’anic discourse, Abu Zayd maintains further, only applies to the mushrikun, i.e. the Arab polytheists.[xxiv]
Shahrur’s distinction between al-islam and al-iman follows closely to that of the work of Esack. However it has a number of novel aspects on which I will focus here. Shahrur, based on his linguistic principle of non-synonymy of words in the Al-Kitab , which itself is derived though a thematico-holistic approach it , and the philosophical principle of evolution of religious thought considers that the only two prerequisites of belonging to a group of people the Al-Kitab refers to as ‘muslims’, (i.e. those who possess the quality of al-islam) and thus attain religious salvation, are the belief in God and the Last Day and doing what is righteous ( al ‘amal al-salih) . On the other hand ‘mu’mins’ or those who have al-iman, are those who have a specific religious belief as well as particularistic ethics based on this belief which is traced back to Prophet Muhammad. He terms the former Muslim-Assenters and the former Muslim Believers. Furthermore, Shahrur, on the basis of a thamatico-holistic approach to Revelation, considers al-islam to be a manifestation of the universalist ur-religion of din al-hanif, or the universalist religion and ethics that coincides with the natural predisposition of not only the humanity but the entire universe. The relationship between al-islam and al-iman is summaried by Shahrur as having the following characteristics: al-islam always takes precedents over al-iman; they mean two different types of faith; divine reward is given to both types of believers, i.e. muslims as well as mu’mins ; the term al-iman is always linked to a relationship with a specific messenger; and al-iman is a specific type of piety. He goes on to assert that what traditionally have been understood to be the pillars of al-islam such as the testimony of faith , paying of zakat, performance of hajj and daily prayers in addition to the Qur’anic principles of consultation and fighting in the way of God , are in actual fact the pillars of al-iman.
Importantly, Shahrur also makes a distinction between two types of kufr. One type of kufr exists in the sphere of al-iman and the other in the realm of al-islam. Whereas the latter negates the minimal prerequisites of al-islam the former rejects the belief in the Prophethood of Muhammad and in Al-Kitab being of Divine origin. He then goes on to state that for someone to be branded a kafir his/her disbelief must be expressed :
in deliberate, fully articulate and publicly stated views by which disbelievers antipathetically oppose either kind of faith.
Based on the above Shahrur concludes that some but no all muslims can indeed be mu’mins and importantly that religious salvation is not restricted to the socio-historical community of Prophet Muhammad.[xxv]
We will now consider some examples which the progressive Muslim employ, based upon its interpretational model, to regard religious pluralism as the normative paradigm of the Qur’an-Sunna teachings:[xxvi]
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the trust worthiest handhold that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. (2:256)
If their spurning is hard on thy mind yet if thou wert able to seek a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the skies and bring them a Sign (what good?). If it were Allah's will He could gather them together unto true guidance: so be not thou amongst those who are swayed by ignorance (and impatience)! (6:35)
To thee We sent the Scripture in truth confirming the scripture that came before it and guarding it in safety; so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed and follow not their vain desires diverging from the truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an
Open Way. If Allah had so willed He would have made you a single people but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute. (5:48)
If it had been the Lord's Will they would all have believed all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe! (10:99)
(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance have right (for no cause) except that they say "Our Lord is Allah." Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another there would surely have been pulled down monasteries churches synagogues and mosques in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure? Allah will certainly aid those who aid His (cause); for verily Allah is Full of Strength Exalted in Might (Able to enforce His Will). (49:13)
Those who believe (in the Qur'an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. (2:62)
Those who believe (in the Qur'an) those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Sabians and the Christians any who believe in Allah and the Last Day and work righteousness on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. (5:69
Those who believe (in the Qur'an) those who follow the Jewish (scriptures) and the Sabians Christians Magians and Polytheists Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things. (22:17)
‘By God, I am the messenger of God and I do not know what God will do with me.
‘Previous prophets and I are like a man who built a house, set it right and made it comely except for one brick, so that people said when passing by the house, “How lovely this house would be if it were not for that brick.” I [i.e. Muhammad] am that brick and the
seal of the prophets.
For example, a contemporary Syrian scholar Al-Habash , basing himself on a thematic-holistic approach to the above given Qur’anic and hadith evidence[xxvii] argues that the Islamic revelation came to confirm and not abrogate previous prophecy and that non-Muslims can attain salvation though their own religions.[xxviii]
Based on the hermeneutical principles outlined in the previous chapter, the above given Qur’anic verses are viewed as being hermeneutically superior to any other Qur’an-Sunna/hadith evidence, and as forming the foundation of the Islamic perspective on the issue of faith. They are also invoked to argue that the “necessity of diversity” is intended by God and is a sign of His wisdom and will. Furthermore, progressive Muslims subscribe to the view that, as Qur’an 22:17 suggests, the ultimate arbiter in matters of belief /unbelief is God, not human beings. In this context El-Fadl writes:
Moderates[xxix] argue that not only does the Qur’an endorse principle of diversity, but it also presents human beings with a formidable challenge, and that is to know each-other [Qur’an 49:13] In the Qur’anic framework, diversity is not an ailment or evil. Diversity is part of the purpose of creation, and it reaffirms the richness of divine. The stated Divine goal of getting to know one another places an obligation upon Muslims to cooperate and work towards specified goals with Muslims and non Muslims alike…In addition to the obligation of tolerance, the Qur’an obliges people to work together in pursuit of goodness.[xxx]
Concluding his discussion on the Qur’an’s approach to the religious Other Esack similarly asserts that the Qur’an, proceeding from the premise that the notion of inclusiveness is superior to that of exclusiveness, the religious Other is recognized on the basis of certain principals such as struggle for justice, righteous conduct and competing in goodness and not their acceptance of a reified Islam and Muhammad’s prophethood.[xxxi]
As such, Progressive Muslims are of the view that religious pluralism is divinely willed and is central to the Qur’an’s vision of society giving salvational significance to all human communities.[xxxii] Thus, progressive Muslims construct a concept of a “Believer’ which encompasses the belief of those who are not part of the socio-religious and historic community of the followers of Prophet Muhammad.
Taken from chapter 7 of this book ( free pdf).
[i] Esack, Qur’an,Liberation and Pluralism, p.146.
[iii] Those who have been expelled from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And had there not been Allah's repelling some people by others, certainly there would have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered; and surely Allah will help him who helps His cause; most surely Allah is Strong, Mighty.
[v] Ibid,p.174.On the difference between reified and non-reified Islam see chapter one of this study p ?
[vi] Ibid, 158.
[vii] Ibid,, 15.
[viii] This is shown in relation to the work of Esack in detail in the following section of the chapter.
[ix] See for example, R. Shah-Kazemin, The Other in the Light of the One: The Universality of the Qur’an and Interfaith Dialogue, The Islamic Texts Society,2006,.A.S.Asani,”On Pluralism, Intolerance ,and the Qur’an,”The American Scholar,72,1,Winter, 2002.
[x]T.Ramadan, The Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.
Press, 2004., 203-204; El-Fadl, Great Theft, 203-219. Oxford University
[xi] Cf. Saeed, Interpreting the Qur’an,149-154.
[xii] Esack, Qur’an,Liberation and Pluralism,p.115;
[xiii]Ibid. 114-179,chapters four and five.
[xvi] Esack uses a capital ‘I’ in ‘Islam’ to indicate the reified concept form and non-capital ‘islam’ for a non-reified form. Hence it is replicated here.
[xix] In this context Esack points out the Qur’an it self, at times, describes reprehensible acts committed by those who belong the Muslim or the believing community at the time of the Prophet with kufr or shirk . He given an example of surah Az-Zumar, 39:7 which states: If you are ungrateful (takfuru), then surely Allah is Self-sufficient above all need of you; and He does not like ungratefulness(el-kufr) in His servants.
[xx] Ibid,p.134; p.139
[xxi] Usually translated as friendship or guardianship.
[xxiii] Ibid, p.152.
[xxiv] Abu Zayd, Re-thinking the Qur’an,op.cit.
[xxv] Shahrur, The Qur’an, Morality and Critical Reason , p.21-71.
[xxvi]Cf. Miraly, The Ethic of Pluralism, op.cit.
[xxvii] M. Al-Habash, Ihtikar al-khalas, Tishrın al-Usbu’i no. 97, 31 January 2000; and in Nahwa ta’sıl ıdiyulujı¯ li al-hiwar bayn al-adyan, Tishrı¯n, 27 May 2001.
[xxviii] Introduction written by al-Habash to the Arabic translation of W. W. Baker, More in Common than
You Think (Al-mushtarak akthar mimma¯ ta_taqid, trans. M. Abu¯ al-Sharaf,
, 2002), pp. 7–34. Damascus
[xxix]In our terminology progressive Muslims. For a definition of moderates, see EL Fadl, Great Theft, 16-25.
[xxx] As per Qur’an 5:48-see above, also 5:2 “Help ye one another in righteousness and piety but help ye not one another in sin and rancor: fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment’- Y.Ali., El-Fadl, The Great Theft, pp.207-208.
[xxxi] Esack, Qur’an,Liberation and Pluralism, p.174
[xxxii] Cf.Miraly,The Ethic of Pluralism,p.37.