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Heresy and Hermeneutics: Nasr Abu Zayid

The modernization of law in the Arab World, which began in the nineteenth century, has created a dichotomy between the European-based laws in the constitutional, commercial and criminal law fields and the Islamic and other religious laws which continue to apply to matters of personal status and domestic relations [1].

Certain individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by constitutions have been subverted by limitations on the freedom of belief, impediments to marriage, and lack of gender equality, in the religious laws.

The determinatal effects of these fundamental contradictions in the legal system are vividly represented and illustrated by the case of Egyptian Professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who was accused of heresy and ordered to separate from his wife on the grounds that Islamic rules of domestic relations do not permit a Muslim woman to be married to an apostate from Islam.

The intellectual scene in Egypt during the 1990s represented the epitome of fierce conflict between seculars and religious leaders in Egypt. During this decade, Farag Fouda, an Egyptian Writer who Criticized Islamic Extremism, was Assassinated — and Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel prize winning novelist who brought Arabic fiction to the western world, survived a brutal assassination attempt after expressing his support for Salman Rushdie in the 1988 Satanic Verses affair.

It was 1993 when a Cairo-based group of lawyers brought an action in a Gaza court. This action demanded the dissolution of the marriage between Nasir Abu Zayd and Ibtihal Yunis.

At the time, Abu Zayd was a professor and provocateur at Cairo University. Abu Zayd was drawn into a vicious controversy and aggression with the religious establishment and Islamists for his modernist ideas, in particular his application of the methods of textual analysis to religious texts [2].

The plaintiffs in this case argued that the writings of Abu Zayd were heretical and that he was automatically an apostate. Subsequently, a Islamist lawyer tried to have Abu Zayd forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that his writings revealed him to be an apostate.

Abu Zayd's writings address a number of issues central to Islamic thought, from methods of Qur'anic interpretation to the authority of religious scholars and the appropriate role of religion in contemporary life.

Many compare Abu Zayd's approach to scholarship as similar to Salman Rushdie's. By contrast, his Islamist critics claimed that his approach to theology, philosophy and politics was blasphemous and intellectual terrorism [3].

In Abu Zayd's view, the differences between the Mubarak government and the Islamic oppositions of his time were only of degree and not of kind. From this perspective, both of these movements were founded on the same authoritarian and anti humanist foundations.

The conceptual foundations of both of these ideologies are at odds with a healthy liberal and democratic society, according to Abu Zayd.

Abu Zayd's works were only praised by a small subset Egyptian society, politcal liberals. Zayd's provocations agitated not only the country's Islamists, but also the religious authorities at Al Azhar that operated in concert with the Mubarak regime.

These religious authorities have enormous influence on religious matters in this primary conservative Muslim country. It was no surprise that many in the country at the time saw Abu Zayd's work as indeed an affront to a long tradition of Islamic scholarship as well as a grave injustice to its primary text: the Qur'an. Many saw Abu Zayed as a member of the Marxist secularist campaign to expunge Islam from the universities as well as from society in general.

Turning to the Quran, Abu Zayd points out that if the information conveyed by the text varies according to the reader's personal as well as their cultural and social horizons, then the essence of the message conveyed by the Quran to a twentieth century reader must vary from the information conveyed to a Muslim in the seventh, eighth or eleventh century [4].

Abu Zayd strongly condemns belief in one single, precise and valid interpretation of the Quran handed down by the prophet for all times — therefore, Zayd is tailoring Islam so that it is compatible with a modern democratic society that emphasizes the rights of the individual independent of religious dogmas. This is a vital distinction that is crucial for the Islamic World's flourishing in terms of the arts and sciences.

Abu Zayd's discourse emphasizing the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Quran has proven to be quite prescient. Indeed, Zayd's discourse on reforming Islamic thought is not a new one. Historically, 18th and 19th centuries western colonial powers in the Middle East failed at enhancing their visions of secularism, freedom, equality and justice; and the same could be said about the failed U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003 [5].

Zayd's approach to free thinking and his subsequent cancelation from Islamic society perfectly encapsulates the tense relationship between traditional and modernist interpretations of Islam. This is a conflict that is all to present in the modern history of Islamic thought.


[1] Sfeir, George N. "Basic freedoms in a fractured legal culture: Egypt and the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd."The Middle East Journal(1998): 402-414.

[2] Bälz, Kilian. "Submitting Faith to Judicial Scrutiny through the Family Trial: The" Abu Zayd Case"."Die Welt des Islams 37, no. 2 (1997): 135-155.

[3] Hirschkind, Charles. "Heresy or hermeneutics: the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd."American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences12, no. 4 (1995): 463-477.

[4] Taji-Farouki, Suha, and Suha Taji-Faruki, eds. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[5] Zayd, Nasr Abu, and Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbele.Reformation of Islamic thought: a critical historical analysis. Amsterdam University Press, 2006.


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