A Koran for the 21st century

With the first in a series of 17 planned commentaries on the Koran, editor Mouhanad Khorchide from the University of Munster builds a bridge between traditional readings of the Koran and modern scholarly interpretation. Musa Bagrac read the book

By Musa Bagrac

Together with a team of academics, Mouhanad Khorchide explores fundamental issues surrounding a historical-critical commentary of the Koran. The professor of Islamic Religious Education and head of the Munster-based Centre for Islamic Theology links methods of historical criticism with his own spiritual reading of the theology of mercy within the context of modern thinking.

Khorchide hopes to use this to enable Muslims to experience a heartfelt and close encounter with God in the here and now, one which compels them towards love, just as the first recipients on the Arabian peninsula once experienced transcendence in the Koran.

Of course, this understanding differs completely from the distant and cold God of speculative theologies. It would appear that Khorchideʹs achievement lies precisely within this interweaving and process of repositioning. To prepare the reader for this, he opens by asking what the Koran means to its scholars. Traditional interpretations establish it firmly as a religious instruction manual.

Theologians of the modern Ankara School on the other hand prefer to see it as a code of ethics. The Egyptian Koranic researcher Abu Zaid of the Cairo School, who died in 2010, viewed it above all as a book of communication. All interpretations are concerned with to what extent the Koran can be understood via the historical-critical method, or whether it is a trans-historical book which applies to all ages and places. Can one use historical-critical analysis to understand the Koran as a text for our time?

A paradigm shift in understanding the Koran

Khorchide begins his commentary by explaining that he views the Koran as a reflection of God, in which He communicates himself to humanity. This interpretation of the Koran establishes a direct link to the reality of life, so that people do not feel alienated by God, which is often the case with abstract articles of faith.

Cover of Mouhanad Khorchideʹs "Gottes Offenbarung in Menschenwort: Der Koran im Licht der Barmherzigkeit" – Godʹs Revelation in the Word of Men: the Koran in the Light of Mercy –  (Volume I; published in German by Herder)
Traditionell und doch modern: Aus der Verbindung der traditionellen islamischen Koranwissenschaft mit Methoden europäischer Geschichtswissenschaften entwirft Mouhanad Khorchide einen neuen Zugang zum Koran. Obwohl der Koran als geoffenbartes Gotteswort gilt, wird er zugleich als historisch gewordener Text verstanden.

Khorchideʹs interpretation takes a people-oriented look at the Koran and the articles of faith, considering their desires, motives, needs and feelings. Only when these are taken into account can an individual’s faith in revelation and self-determination combine.

This point is crucial to Khorchide, who aims to reconcile the understanding of the Koran with Western freedom history. The theologian distinguishes between two fundamentally different ways of interpreting the Koran. He speaks of a monologically closed and a dialogically open interpretation.

The monological-closed approach to the Koran views it as a book of instructions for humanity. In this first approach, Khorchide includes modern researchers belonging to the Ankara School, the work of Egyptian Koranic scholar Abu Zaid, as well as traditional readings of the Koran.

By contrast, the second dialogically open approach interprets revelation as Godʹs ongoing dialogue with humanity. Khorchide draws on the second approach, taking it as a basis for his concept of Godʹs mercy as a hermeneutical key.

Godʹs mercy as a hermeneutical key

Unlike the classical and modern exegetes, Khorchide no longer makes assumptions such as "the Koran says this…" (tafsir) or "Here, the Koran means…" (taʹwil), committing himself instead to a more open, dialogical and, in his view, humbler interpretation. Khorchide is aware that his own contemporary understanding of the Koran is relative. Thus he prefers formulations such as: "I understand that the Koran wants to tell me… tomorrow, I will understand that the Koran is trying to tell me something else …".

Khorchide furthermore postulates that only a person who is conscious and in possession of his freedom can relate to a God of self-revelation. This freedom holds within it the potential for a respectful and conducive relationship between God and humanity, in which a person opens up from a place of conviction and is able to become a better version of themselves.

In contrast, the model of revelation based on the instruction theory compels the human spirit to a standstill, lowering it to the status of passive recipient or overpowered object. This, Khorchide writes, fails to recognise humankind in its freedom and humanity. Yet it is precisely this freedom that defines the relationship between God and Man. Because God gave man free will as an expression of his absolute mercy – and enabled him to be free as his subject.The issues mentioned above were obvious to the first recipients of the Koran in the seventh century. The Koran belonged at the centre of their lives, where they experienced the presence of God. As an expression of his loving and merciful nature, God engaged with humanity. It is therefore up to modern-day Muslims to decide whether they choose to understand the Koran as an instruction manual or as Godʹs self-communication.

If the Koran is to be understood as a set of instructions, Muslims have only the task of transferring the text with its message from the 7th century to today. For example, Nasr Abu Zaid and the theologians of the Ankara School understand their task as Koran exegesis.

But if the Koran is read as an encounter with the presence of God, as was the interpretation among the early community surrounding Muhammad, one can perceive the call for freedom which compels one towards "emotional transformation" in order to achieve absolute proximity to God.

In mercy, Khorchide sees a hermeneutical key through which Koranic revelation can be experienced. The encounter with God is to be understood as "the guiding principle of living reality" and a Muslim life as "witness to this loving mercy". Only in this way can Godʹs mercy be perpetuated in the lives of believers as a living expression of the Koran.

To counter any accusation of arbitrariness, Khorchide, much like the Cairo-based Koranic scholar Halafallah (1916-1991), suggests that the Koran must be classified in the correct historical context along the chronology of revelation in order to reveal its "original level of meaning".

The next step is to transfer this original code to the contemporary horizon of understanding. This is to be achieved without, however, reducing the Koran to a single interpretation, such as, for example, a sole ethical dimension.

A single interpretation would, after all, not do justice to the inexhaustible omnipotence of God. The omnipotence of God consists precisely in the fact that he has destined humankind for freedom. This is the best way for people to develop intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Individuals need to draw strength from this transcendental encounter, realising this loving mercy as a creative act in their own lives.

In the first volume of Herderʹs Theological Commentary on the Koran, Mouhanad Khorchide employs a religiously and scientifically coherent method to prove that German-language Islamic Studies research can provide a significant contribution to Koranic study worldwide.

It seems likely that each subsequent volume of this planned commentary will kindle a controversial and productive discussion among Muslims and other religious groups alike.

Musa Bagrac

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu