''We Are Calling for a New Interpretation of the Koran''

A new research centre in Qatar seeks to focus more attention on the ethical dimension of Islam. The founders of the centre and its director, Tariq Ramadan, are calling for a new interpretation of the Koran in order to advance a contemporary Islamic understanding of matters such as environmental ethics and gender issues. Christoph Dreyer spoke to the centre's deputy director, Jasser Auda

By Christoph Dreyer

Early this year, the Research Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, of which you are deputy director, started its work within the Qatar Foundation's Faculty of Islamic Studies. Why is there a need for such a centre?

Jasser Auda: The idea behind the centre is renewal. Islamic law and Islamic ethics require renewal from both sides: from the side of Islamic law, the ethical dimension is not stressed enough. And the ethical philosophy in Islam is too abstract and not applied enough to be a law, because the word "law" in Islam means more a code of ethics than a legal system in the modern sense.

When you emphasize the ethical dimension of Islam so pointedly, what is it you are distancing yourselves from?

Auda: We differentiate between looking at Islamic law in terms of the letter and in terms of the purposes, or maqasid in Arabic. We think that once we look at the purposes versus the letter of Islamic law, we give Islamic law the necessary dynamism to cope with current changes and to meet the expectations of Muslims and non-Muslims in today's world.

What role does the concept of ijtihad play in this idea of renewal?

Jasser Auda explains that the founders of the centre think that focusing on the intentions behind Islamic law instead of the letter of the law gives Islamic law the dynamism it needs to cope with the modern-day challenges

​​Auda: This is exactly what we are trying to do. Contemporary ijtihad cannot be an ijtihad based on scriptures alone, it has to be based on the scriptures and the reality of the people – based on the text and the context. We bring the dimension of context to ijtihad so that it is not only about the text and the linguistic interpretation, but also about more, in light of the realities that the different sciences – social sciences, natural sciences – are revealing to us. This is not something new, but we are redefining it in the contemporary sense.

What might your approach look like in practice?

Auda: For example, the way many Islamists approach politics today is taking the letter, whether the letter of scriptural sources or sometimes the letter of history. They think in terms of making a khilafa (caliphate) in the way it was made after the time of the Prophet Mohammed. But if we look at the meaning of khilafa, it is – as the ancient scholars also said – a state that is based on justice.

So if we look at the purpose of the "Islamic state", which is justice, then it could take the form of a modern state where institutions each play their role and where powers are separated etc. But if we take things literally and try to build a state that is very similar to the Islamic states that existed 1,000 years ago, then we will miss out on justice and freedoms and we will miss out on issues that are themselves core issues in Islam.

The same applies to other issues, like women or human rights. If we focus on the Koranic message of mercy and love and so forth, then we are able to deal with contemporary issues in a better way. That is true especially in the area of politics and women in Islam or the general area of rights, and these are the two areas we think are crucial in the current renewal debate.

Why these two areas in particular?

Auda: The area of politics and the area of women in Islam are full of historical constructs that are not necessarily congruent with Islamic ethics. For example, the Koran describes the marriage between men and women as something that is based on love and mercy. This is not exactly what you find in fatwas from the old times that describe marriage as a contract – and there are all sorts of conditions that are put in that contract, some fair and some unfair. If you take the essence of the Koranic message, you can renew these contracts and these social norms to make them more equitable, and to give women a greater role in the family and to take care of children's welfare.

Of course we are not saying the Koran is unfair, but the Koran was interpreted in an unfair way, and we are calling for a new interpretation, or for a renewal of interpretation, in order to build today's Islamic discourse on ethics. We think that this is the core of Islam.

The well-known professor and Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan is director of the recently founded Research Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Qatar. Says his deputy, Jasser Auda: "we are not saying the Koran is unfair, but the Koran was interpreted in an unfair way, and we are calling for a new interpretation"


One of your centre's first seminars was on environmental ethics. What does Islamic ethics have to say about that?

Auda: If you read Islam in terms of the letter, you will find little evidence in scriptural sources that will help solve environmental problems. But there is a difference if you read Islam in terms of its values and ethics – the values of equity, cleanness, purity, the stress on the purity of water sources and the encouragement in the Islamic tradition of greenery and health. If we take these values and activate them, I believe we can make some pretty good policy recommendations.

You recently published a book on Sharia and politics in the post-revolutionary Arab states. What's your message with regard to their situation?

Auda: The question of the application of the Sharia comes to the fore in countries like Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. The first question at this stage is: what do we mean by the Sharia? Do we mean the history of Islamic law or do we mean the values and purposes of the Sharia? If we mean the values and purposes and philosophy of the Sharia, then we are talking about justice and freedom and what we call in the Sharia language the preservation of soul and mind, intellect, offspring and wealth and all these values that are about the welfare of society. So if we are defining the Sharia in this way, then we are able to approach the new legislation and the new constitutions that people are drafting for their countries in a way that is Islamic in that sense.

Other questions relate to the standing of non-Muslim minorities in this part of the world. I don't want to see the application of the Sharia compromise their rights, but religions differ, especially in the field of family law. Therefore I draw a number of circles: a public circle, in which everybody has to be equal and nobody should be discriminated or differentiated against because of their religious background, and a private circle, in which people sometimes opt to be treated differently because of their religion.

Many in the West and in the Arab world itself are unsure what to expect from the Islamic parties that have been elected to parliament since the Arab Spring. Says Auda: "When people elected Islamists, they elected them with an understanding that they will bring social justice. If they don't bring that, I'm sure they will fail in the next elections."

​​ How far would you take this kind of argument? For example, would you say that the president, in a state like Egypt, has to be a Muslim?

Auda: From the Islamic law point of view, I don't see any problem in allowing anybody – including a non-Muslim man or woman – to run for president. Most of the opinions in the Islamic heritage did not allow that. However, these opinions were not referring to the president of a republic, they were talking about a khaleefa (caliph). But the president of Libya or Syria or Egypt is not a khaleefa, and he would never claim to be one.

We have a nation state, and the nation state has a president based on the foundation of this nation state, which is the equality of all citizens. As long as the state is defined, the president will not change the nature of the state. Realistically speaking, will the Egyptians elect a Coptic president? It's impossible. It's as impossible as the Germans electing a Muslim chancellor or the Americans electing a Muslim or Buddhist president.

But then the Islamists come along with their own definition an Islamic state. So who is to decide whether or not a certain polity can be called an "Islamic state"?

Auda: I think it is important to have an Islamic state in the sense of justice and freedom and equality for all. You want to call this Islamic, or democratic, or modern – the names are not important; it is the values that are important. In this part of the world, the values of equity and justice are viewed through the understanding of Islam; you might as well call it "Islamic state".

That's why this research is important: because the Islamists are calling for an Islamic state anyway. So if we define it for them in a way that is compatible with human rights, civil rights and all of that, then everybody wins. Actually, the revolutions did not happen for Islamic reasons. The revolutions were meant to bring social justice etc. When people elected Islamists, they elected them with an understanding that they will bring social justice. If they don't bring that, I'm sure they will fail in the next elections.

Interview conducted by Christoph Dreyer

© Qantara.de 2012

Jasser Auda is deputy director of the Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics at the Qatar Foundation in Doha. He is a founding member and member of the executive board of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and has lectured on Islamic law, especially its maqasid (intentions), at dozens of academic institutes around the world. He has authored and published numerous articles and several books in Arabic and English, most recently Between Sharia and Politics: Questions in the Post-Revolutions Era.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de