"We Urgently Need Religious Reform"

The moderate Islamic thinker Muhammad Shahrur's contemporary interpretation of the Koran has attracted a lot of attention. In this interview with Ahmad Hissou, he calls for a religious reform of Islam, which he considers even more important than political reforms

The moderate Islamic thinker Muhammad Shahrur's contemporary interpretation of the Koran has attracted a lot of attention. In an interview with Ahmad Hissou, he calls for a religious reform of Islam, which he considers even more important than political reforms

Muhammad Shahrur, how has the Arab Islamic world changed in the three years since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001?

Muhammad Sahrur: I have often written that religious-cultural reforms must come before political reforms. The Islamic legal theory that applies today dates from an era when Islam was a great power and the Islamic state was the strongest state in the world. The cultural reform that we so urgently need today must be a fundamental religious reform. It must include all those ideas on which the people who perpetrated the 11 September attacks based their interpretations of sources.

I think that the average Muslim knows that suicide is forbidden by Islam. But there are still people who kill either themselves or an entire group of people. These people have to have a watertight argument based on Islamic law for carrying out these acts. To date, the legally watertight arguments used by these people have not been discussed or declared to be wrong.

Moreover, no moderate legal scholar or anybody who advocates taking a middle course and doesn't believe in these acts of violence has yet gone on television and publicly opposed people like Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, declared their ideas and actions to be wrong, and openly stated that such acts and ideas are forbidden by Islam.

I don't think that this has happened as yet. And I don't think that these people are even in a position to do so, because the sources that are taught at Al-Azhar and in Saudi Arabia are the same as those used by Bin Laden and Aiman al-Zawahiri. But one person picks, another chooses, and yet another selects from these sources the things that suit them. We cannot go on without a radical religious reform in the Arab world, like the one initiated by Martin Luther. We have reached a dead end; we are stuck in a dark tunnel.

We must completely rethink the fundamental principles. It is said that the independent interpretation of sources is allowed, and I agree with that. However, we simply have to rethink the fundamental principles. It is also said that the fixed values of religion cannot be rethought. But I say that it is exactly these values that we must study and rethink.

We must draw new religious comparisons. If we don't, there is no hope for us, because we will continue living in the past and referring to the ideas of al-Ghazali, al-Schafi'i, and other legal scholars who died between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago. This is why I would like to stress once again that I don't believe political reform is possible without religious reform.

Do you think that the 11 September attacks and their consequences - e.g. the situation in Afghanistan and elsewhere - has strengthened the fanatical movement or the Islamist terrorist movements at the expense of the moderates, who are practically non-existent?

Sahrur: They have strengthened them in so far as they now get greater media coverage. However, there is a movement in the Arab world that is guided by reason. The 11 September showed many people that a movement such as this and the revision of Islamic law have become an urgent necessity.

It also showed that freedom and life are values that are not very marked in the Arab Islamic world. People now know that what the religious fanatics are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq is just leading to a dead end, because it is impossible to liberate a country with ideas like that.

But where is this moderate movement that you mention? People are being kidnapped and murdered in the name of Islam.

Sahrur:Yes, you are right. But that confirms the necessity of the existence of a movement that is guided by reason. There are many people who want a movement like this. But to date, the legal foundations of our religion - the foundations on which this terrorism is based - have not been discussed.

The United States and the Western world have presented the Arab Islamic world with reform plans, e.g. the alteration of the school curricula. As a reformer, what do you think of plans like this?

Sahrur: Given that the moderate legal scholars at Al-Azhar and in Saudi Arabia are incapable of dealing with Aiman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, how are they supposed to change the curricula? That would require a re-examination of the entire Islamic religion.

Let me give you an example: almost every week we hear people say that we are inferior because God has made us weak. This weakness is the love of life and the hatred of death. In other words, anyone who loves life and hates death should feel guilty. I love life, so I am guilty. This has become a culture that is taught not only by Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but also by absolutely every legal scholar. And we hear it every week on television, as if it were the most self-evident thing in the world.

Do you think that Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are the problem, or is it the retrogressive Salafijin movement that is swelling the ranks of these extremist groups?

Sahrur: On what is the retrogressive movement based? On fundamental principles and religious thoughts that have not been declared wrong by official religious institutions. That is a problem, because it allows extremists to recruit large numbers of supporters.

I would like to emphasise yet again that the average Muslim knows that suicide is forbidden by Islam. The average Muslim only kills when he has - at least what he considers to be - a legitimate justification for doing so. There is a justification in Islamic law that says: "A believer will not be sentenced to death for killing a non-believer" - that is an Islamic law. We have to re-examine such laws.

You are in the reformist vanguard. But what are you and other reformers doing? Your voice is barely being heard.

Sahrur: We don't have a satellite channel behind us. The moderate satellite channels like Iqraa or Al-Madschd are like a spiritual preparation or training for these extremists because they teach the same fundamental principles as the fundamentalists. The only difference is in the selection.

Where are Arab-Islamic societies going?

Sahrur: They are going nowhere. They are totally lost. There are people that support terrorism and extremism. Others are in favour of taking a middle course. Others are calling for a "ruler of the faithful". Then there are those who call for democracy and freedom. All these opinions can be heard on the streets of the Arab and Islamic world. But to date, all we have seen is extremism and state repression.

Interview conducted by Ahmad Hissou

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Muhammad Shahrur is a moderate Islamic reformer who made a name for himself with his new interpretation of the Koran. In his book The Book and the Qur'an: A Contemporary Interpretation, he calls, among other things, for a new legal examination of the issue of women in Islam. He has been the subject of numerous attacks in the Arab media. Some have even called for him to be brought to justice on several charges including his disparagement of the prophet Mohammed and Islamic legal rulings in the Koran.