Heresy or Hermeneutics: The Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

The debate I shall discuss here arose following Cairo University's decision to refuse tenure to a professor of Arabic language and literature, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, in light of an unfavorable report by the tenure committee entrusted to review his scholarly work. Supporters of Abu Zayd quickly brought the case to national attention via the Egyptian press, thereby precipitating a storm of often shrill writing from all sides of the political spectrum, in both the journalistic and academic media. Subsequently, as an Islamist lawyer tried to have Abu Zayd forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that his writings revealed him to be an apostate, the foreign media also picked up the story and transformed the case into an international event.

In what follows, I will focus on one comer of this debate concerning contrastive notions of reason and history, issues which, I wish to argue, are implicated deeply in the forms of political contestation and mobilization occurring in Islamic countries today. Such topics seldom appear in discussions that take Islamic movements or Islamic revival as their object, an omission perhaps attributable to the conceptual frames informing these discussions.

As we may note, the idea of a social movement presupposes a self-constituting subject, independent from both state and tradition: a unilinear progressive teleology; and a pragmatics of proximate goals, namely, the spatiotemporal plane of universal reason and progressive history, the territory of modern humanity. Such an actor must fulfill the Kantian demand that reason be exercised autonomously and embodied in a sovereign subject. In contrast, one may argue that the protagonist of a tradition of inquiry founded on a divine text is necessarily a collective subject, one that seeks to preserve and enhance its own exemplary past. As such, Islam never satisfies these modern demands and thus must always remain somewhat outside the movement of history as a lesser form of reasoning. Indeed, the assumption of a fundamental opposition between reason and religion, an assumption that is central to the historical development of both modern concepts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has meant that investigations into the rationalities of religious traditions have rarely been viewed as essential to the description or explanation of those religions. Consequently, to pose a question in regard to Islam generally means that one must either be asking about politics (the not-really-Islam of “Islamism,” or “political Islam”) or about belief, symbols, ritual, and so on, but not about styles of reasoning.

We find, for example, that within political economy discussions of oppositional movements in the Middle East, Islam is viewed generally as little more than the culturally preferred idiom through which opposition, be it class or otherwise, may be expressed. Unquestionably, the best of these studies have told us much about the kinds of material conditions and the specific intersections of capital and power that have enabled, or undermined, arguments, movements, forms of practice, including, among others, Islamic ones. Founded upon the same set of Enlightenment assumptions mentioned above, these writings have provided conflicting accounts of the kinds of modern forces transforming the contemporary political structures of the Middle East but are ill-equipped when it comes to analyzing those dimensions of social and political life rooted in nonwestern traditions.

One way to approach this latter, as Asad has argued, is to understand Islam as a discursive tradition, that is to say, as an historically evolving set of discourses embodied in the practices and institutions of Islamic societies and hence imbricated deeply in the material life of those inhabiting them. Such a perspective requires that we distinguish between those statements, instances of language use integral to the material organization of Islamic social forms and grounded in durable slow-changing historical structures, and those rhetorical performances that lack this longitudinal embeddedness..’ The fact that the traditions of Islamic argumentation and reasoning stand in oblique relation to much of the current use of Islam by social actors seeking to legitimize their activities or sell their products underscores the importance of making this type of distinction: When a business enterprise calls itself Islamic, in what sense does it intersect with the longstanding discourses of Islam? Admittedly, usages of this type by banks, airlines, political candidates, or government ministries may have a direct impact upon current definitions and interpretations of Islamic practice and, as such, might be of considerable interest to someone investigating the role of Islamic rhetorical forms in Egyptian political and popular culture, for example. However, for those interested in Islam as a longstanding and durable tradition, as I am in this paper, such instances may not be particularly informative.

The approach being suggested here should by no means be confused with what is commonly referred to as a culturalist argument. Such arguments generally foreground the category of identity, stressing the authenticity of certain cultural practices and symbols for those subjected to the destructive and destabilizing forces of modernization. In contrast, to discuss a discursive tradition implies that one attend to specific articulations of material processes, structures, and practices, including practices of reasoning and speech, embedded in the society one is studying. While this framework directs our attention to the coherence and continuity of a set of discourses, it also enables us to map the transformations that they undergo, including those brought about under the pressure of more powerful traditions. Thus, the last few hundred years have seen an ongoing attempt to adapt the conceptual resources of Islam in order to accommodate, understand, and achieve practical mastery over a reality that is organized increasingly by discourses whose historical locus and most formidable bases of power lie in the West.

In short, those interested in the type of movements appearing in Middle Eastern countries might do well to take note of the contending traditions; both liberal and Islamic, that inform modes of political thought and action in the area. Abu Zayd’s work gains particular value in this regard: As a modernist attempt to overcome the divisions separating these traditions, his writings reveal some of the conceptual problematics that such a project entails. In this respect, there are numerous parallels between Abu Zayd and such earlier reformers as Qasim Amin or Taha Husayn, Muslim writers whose advocacy of western social and political models went beyond what many of their contemporaries considered acceptable and reasonable. At the core of this project, as I shall explore in this paper, lies an ongoing argument concerning the bases and proper scope of reason and the historical status of divine texts.

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