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Abu Zayd: the hermeneutic approach to the Koran
   
 
 
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Abu Zayd: the hermeneutic approach to the Koran

 
Monday, 25 June 2012 12:01
 
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by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Insights

 

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Egyptian thinker and Professor of Arabic Studies, died two years ago in a Cairo hospital at the age of 66, shortly before Hosni Mubarak, his most strenuous enemy, was toppled from power by the Egyptians. After the Arab Spring and the breakdown of the autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the great pioneer of the hermeneutic approach to the Koran could have been useful to religious parties now in power in these countries to rebuild a democratic secular State. He would have been happy to promote and support democracy in Arab countries, but death prevented him from seeing his dream realized.

In 1992 Nasr Abu Zayd, then assistant professor at Cairo University’s Department of Arabic Language and Literature, was denied promotion to professor due to his research on Islam in which he argued that the Koran is a literary as well as religious text or what is known as “humanistic Koranic hermeneutics”. In 1993 he was accused of apostasy by Islamist scholars and his marriage to Ibtihal Yunis, professor of French at Cairo University, was officially annulled by an Egyptian Family Court on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot stay married to a heretic. Two years after the verdict, Abu Zayd took Yunis and left for the Netherlands where he lived till he fell ill.

Nasr Abu Zayd was not an anti-muslim philosopher and a heretic intellectual, but he was a fervant believer in the message of the Koran and a follower of Islam. According to his point of view, the problem  does not lie in Islam or in the Koran, but rather in the stubbornness that characterises extremists in interpreting the Holy Book in a rigid and literal manner, without allowing for any kind of critical debate. Applying hermeneutics to the Koran would instead facilitates its understanding and a more current interpretation, opening the way to a modernisation of the text without corrupting its sacredness. In an interview realized in 2010 by Nina zu Fürstenberg, Chair of “Reset DoC Foundation” and author of “Testo Sacro e Libertà: per una lettura critica del Corano”, an important book that collects the teachings of Nasr Abu Zayd, the Muslim liberal reformist explained his idea about Islam, the Koran and the hermeneutic approach to the Holy Book.

«Hermeneutics teaches us that, firstly, there is no objective or innocent interpretation of any text. It secondly shows the complexity of the process of interpretation where there are two horizons, the horizon of the Text and the horizon of the Interpreter». «The horizon of the Text comprises so many dimensions such as its layers history, its structure, the tradition accumulated around it creating so many layer of meaning leading to dogmatisation and orthodoxy, and lastly they way it has been received, modified and canonized. The horizon of the Interpreter, on the other hand, comprises so many aspects as well, first and most of all, his personal outlook based on his social and intellectual background. Secondly, the interpreter is an individual with certain belonging or affiliation, and the question, therefore, is whether or not he is aware of his belonging and, accordingly, able or unable to watch his bias and to control it». «The process of interpretation – added Abu Zayd - means that these two horizons, that of the Text and that of the Interpreter, are fused, thus the meaning produced is not entirely textual, neither entirely personal». So, applying hermeneutics to the Koran means fighting against the monopoly of meaning authorized by the politicians or by the clerics, and implies that the meaning produced in certain historical era or for certain generation is not absolute or final; each era and each generation has the right to redress the text and to reproduce its meaning according to the changing circumstances.

Nasr Abu Zayd was first influenced by the Sufis' theory of interpretation which emphasized the multiple possibilities of meaning based on the degree of the spiritual experience of the interpreter. For the professor, «the meaning of the Koran is not solely residing in the text waiting to be uncovered; it is rather to be discovered and rediscovered by the continuous efforts of engagement and reengagement of the individual with the text». «Engagement, – concluded Abu Zayd -  rather than philological investigation, was the Sufi basic principle of hermeneutics». According to Abu Zayd, contrary to widespread belief, within the Muslim world there are many reformists and organisations that spread the principles of liberalism, equality, democracy and human rights. The20th century witnessed the development of this Islamic rationalism on a wide scale, like for example in Indonesia. The discussion about the meaning of the Koran, the validity of tradition, Islam and the state as well as democracy, human rights and women’s rights, is extending beyond the boundaries of traditional religious institution to be present in most of the new civil society organizations all over the Muslim World.

Nowadays, Nasr Abu Zays is a referential author for that Islamic reformism which is trying to change the political face of the Arab countries. After the Arab Spring the teachings of this important Egyptian thinker are more relevant and current than ever, and his liberal reformism could keep  political manipulation under restraint and could serve as a guide in a season of freedom and real democracy. His ideas never die: they have their own wings to freely fly!

Last modified on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 22:09
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