Muslims not reacting more forcefully against those terrorist organizations that
act in the name of an Islam they do not subscribe to? Mahmoud Hussein answers
the question by analysing the premise of Quranic imprescriptibility.
majority of Muslims are horrified by the barbaric regression that the Islamic
State (ISIS) represents, as well as by its claim to speak in the name of Islam
– an Islam most Muslims do not identify with. But while condemning ISIS on both
a moral and human level, they have difficulty confronting it on a theological
level. They tend to reject the organization as existing outside of Islam,
asserting that the ISIS discourse is not Muslim, and thus they wash their hands
truth, things are much less clear-cut, because ISIS does claim its origin in
Islam, and refers explicitly to the Koran and the Hadith. To refute the group's
argument, one has to begin by accepting an obvious fact – that Islam does not
manifest itself in one single form. In the past, as now under our very eyes, it
assumes many different, divergent guises, some of them opposed and even hostile
to each other. In this way, we can see how ISIS promotes one particular vision,
intended not to win people over but to provoke terror, not to convert souls but
to arouse our most primitive and murderous instincts. The group offers a
distorted vision of the Koran and the Hadith.
be condemned on two levels. On the one
hand, for the manner in which it picks and chooses fragments of the original
texts, and then rearranges them to conform to an anti-humanist agenda. On the
other hand, for the way it translates sections of these texts (whose scope is
relevant in the context of 7th-century Arabia) into commandments it claims are
absolute and eternal. It is by this means that ISIS can sanctify woman's
submission to man and justify the practice of slavery. It is how it can forever
stigmatize all Jews and all Christians, based on judgments imposed on certain
Jews and certain Christians under conditions of conflict and at a time that no
longer bears any relation to our own.
Why do so
many secular Muslims, who share this negative opinion of ISIS, not make their
objections heard loud and clear? Because they would have to admit to a radical
proposition. They would have to accept explicitly the fact that the Revelation
contains both timeless teachings and circumstantial prescriptions. In other
words, they would have to question the dogma of Koranic imprescriptibility.
is based on what seems at first to be irrefutable logic: the Koran being the
Word of God, and God being infallible, all the verses of the Koran must necessarily
have eternal and universal scope. Hence the crisis of conscience that confronts
so many Muslims today when they come up against verses that are understandable
in the context of 7th-century Arabia, but obviously out of sync with today's
this crisis is unfounded. The dogma can be repudiated without betraying the
Koran's core truth. Better yet, the way to reach the Koran's essential truth is
to repudiate the dogma — because the dogma does not derive from the Koran
itself, but rather from an ideological premise tacked onto the Koran since the
9th century — namely that the Word of God is consubstantial with God Himself,
part of His divine nature, and eternal as He is.
But in fact
this premise contradicts the Koran entirely. In the Koran, God and His Word do
not enjoy the same status. God transcends time, yet His Word is implicated in
time. The Word intertwines the absolute and the relative, the universal and the
particular, the spiritual and the temporal. This is why the Koran cannot be
read as a body of commandments to be adhered to literally, everywhere and
could such a dogma come to be accepted in the Muslim world for such a long
time, when it so clearly runs counter to Quranic evidence? It prevailed only at
the end of a long struggle, which dates back to the 9th century, in the Baghdad
of the Abbasids.
was characterized by various exceptionally bold currents of thought. The
Mutazilite theologians argued that human free will was not incompatible with
absolute divine power. God endowed humans with the capacity for rational
judgment and with creative strength, called Qudra, thanks to which they can act
freely. The Falasifas (philosophers) constituted another school of rationalism,
which set itself up outside theological perimeters; their aim was to encompass
all fields of knowledge, in keeping with the Greek philosophical tradition.
Mutazilites and Falasifas would be confronted with a growing and ever more
powerful conformist tide. As the guardians of tradition, jurists and
theologians became determined, in their respective disciplines, to destroy any
notion of free will by asserting that it challenged God's omnipotence. The
decisive stand-off between the two currents finally hinged on how each faction
viewed the nature of the Quranic text.
Mutazilites, the Koran was ’created’ by God, meaning it is distinct from God
and came into being at a particular moment of His creation. A temporal
dimension is therefore implied, which leaves humans some latitude for
interpretation. For their adversaries,
however, the Koran is ’uncreated’. In other words, it is consubstantial with
God and it shares in His eternity. From that
point, it becomes less important to understand the Koran than to be permeated
by it, to let oneself absorb its divine nature by means of a literal reading,
repeated indefinitely. And thus the text
acquired the status of absolute, intangible truth from which sprang the notion
of Koranic imprescriptibility.
of the imprescriptibility argument were to emerge victorious from this
confrontation. Thus, for many centuries, the idea of free will lost out on
Islamic soil, not to appear again until the end of the 19th century.
pre-eminent Muslim intellectuals, reformist thinking sought to undermine the
doctrine of imprescriptibility, deriving inspiration from the spirit of the
Enlightenment and relying on the modern disciplines of history, anthropology
and linguistics. Without questioning the
divine origin of the Revelation, the movement set out to examine the
historicity of its earthly manifestation.
result, it ran up against the doctrinal guardians who discredited the new
thinking by branding as illegitimate its methodological tool – critical
reasoning – that prevailed in the humanities and social sciences. According to
the guardians of the dogma, asserting that the Revelation of the Koran
corresponds to anything other than the eternal will of God – and imagining that
it could be linked in any way to some particular historic context – is an
aberration invented by non-believers. It looks at the divine from an external
viewpoint. The proof, the aberrant idea is based on arguments drawn from
profane disciplines alien to Islam.
Light Of 9th- Century Chronicles
question for us now becomes: can we get around this objection? Can we show the
necessary link between text and context — without having recourse to the
secular sciences, but relying entirely on the religious texts — deemed
indisputable by the most punctilious guardians of the dogma?
is yes. There are indeed religious texts that permit this interpretation, and
they have long existed. They arose out of a pressing need already recognized in
the Quranic schools in the first century of Islam. Scholars needed to fathom
numerous verses that were difficult, if not impossible, to interpret without
examining the circumstances surrounding their Revelation.
about meeting this challenge, returning to the source of all available
information concerning the time of the Revelation – the testimonials left by
the Prophet's companions. Most of these followers did not always grasp the
meaning of the verses the Prophet recited to them. They would go alone, or in
groups, to ask him about them. And the Prophet would answer by explaining,
commenting on, and illustrating the different verses.
death, the task of transmitting what they had learned from the Prophet's mouth
to the growing ranks of new believers fell to his companions – their words now
enriched by their own memories of when and where the verses had been revealed
death of the Prophet’s last companions, people started to collect these
testimonials and write them down. At the turn of the ninth century, a first
compilation appeared entitled The Life of the Prophet Muhammad (Al-Sîra
al-nabawîyya) and signed Muhammad Ibn Is'haq. That first compilation was
followed by several others, notably those of four great chroniclers who worked
during the Abbasid dynasty: al-Wâqidî, the author of Kitâb al-Maghâzî (The Book
of History and Campaigns), Muhammad Ibn Sa‘d, who wrote Kitâb al-Tabaqât
al-Kabîr(The Book of Major Classes, also known as The Book of Companions,
Helpers and Followers; al-Tabarî (839-923), author of Kitâb al-Rusul wal-Mulûk
(History of the Prophets and Kings); and al-Balâdhurî, who wrote Kitâb Ansâb
al-Ashrâf (Genealogies of the Nobles).
interest of these chronicles is that they tell us the story of the Prophet's
life, with the principal events following a rough timeline.
them, we possess an approximate mapping of the successive moments of the
Revelation, which allows us to situate hundreds of verses chronologically, each
one relative to the other, and also to place each one in its proper context.
text of the Koran in light of these chronicles, we are struck by an obvious
fact: nowhere in the Koran is it
permitted to conflate God and His Word. At no time is it permitted to
extrapolate the eternity of His Word from the eternity of God Himself. A
reading that puts the text back into context leads us to draw three fundamental
conclusions. The first: in the Koran,
the Word of God adopts a language, a culture, and a way of thought that reflect
the concerns of Arabia in the 7th century. The second: in the Koran, the Word
of God is not presented as a monologue, but rather as an interchange between
Heaven and Earth. God is conversing in real time with the community of the
first Muslims, through the intermediary of the Prophet. The third: God does not
always give His Words equal weight. The Koran enunciates different orders of
truth, some absolute and others relative, some eternal and some
So true is
this that God sometimes replaces certain truths with others, decreeing the
abrogation of certain verses through subsequently revealed verses.
the principle of abrogation, formulated in the following verse: “We do not
abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that we bring forth [one]
better than it or similar to it.” (Verse II, 106 (link is external)).
that point, the concept of time in the Koran becomes unavoidable.
only the concept of time can restore the fullness of God's power. It is
precisely because God intervenes temporally that He can deliver relative
truths, linked to different circumstances. And as situations change, relative
truths change with them. So if God happens to say two contradictory things,
that is because the truth has changed in the meantime. God is always right at
the moment He speaks. To understand His relative truths, we just need to link
each of them to the circumstances in which they were spoken.
can be ’better’ than any other, if we remain in the realm of the absolute. In
the absolute, everything is equal and no comparison is possible. For one verse
to be ‘better’ than the other, they must both exist in an ambit of relativity.
And they cannot both be true unless they relate to different circumstances or,
in other words, to changing times.
are successive moments in the Koran, times that are ‘before’ and ‘after’, and
even moments that erase others – hence a truly temporal dimension. The
conclusion is self-evident: the Word of God cannot be confounded with God
Himself. The Word cannot be assimilated into God's divine essence. We cannot –
we must not – read the Koran as if each one of the verses embodies God's
divinity, as if the slightest detachment represents a betrayal of Him.
Word of God is separate from God, and once the Word is involved in human
temporality, the postulation of Quranic imprescriptibility can no longer be
defended. It not only fails to reflect the truth of the Koran, it even
contradicts it. Believers are thus called upon by the Koran itself to make use
of their reason and to exercise their free will, to decide for themselves which
verses are binding, and which no longer concern them.
then ceases to appear to the believer like a set of commandments and
interdictions, to be followed everywhere and forever. It becomes once again
what it was during twenty-two years for the Prophet and his companions — an
open discourse about remaking the world; a call to think and to act in full
responsibility; an opportunity offered to everyone to find God’s way in
Mahmoud Hussein, The shared pseudonym of
French-Egyptian writers Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, Mahmoud Hussein has
authored a series of reference books, including Al-Sîra (2005), Penser le Coran
(Thinking about the Koran, 2009), Ce que le Coran ne dit pas (What the Koran
does not say, 2013), Les musulmans au défi de Daech (Muslims challenged by
ISIS, 2016), and Les révoltés du Nil: Une autre histoire de l'Egypte moderne
(The Nile Rebellions: Another history of
modern Egypt, 2018). Elnadi and Rifaat edited the UNESCO Courier from 1988 to
Source: The UNESCO Courier