Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

An Example of the New “Enlightened” Hermeneutics of the Qur’an

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

In my previous article dealing with the reform of Islam, “Toward a Tanweeri (Enlightened) Hermeneutics of the Qur’an,” I referred to an essay by a Muslim reformist scholar who advocated a complete break with the hermeneutical principles of orthodox Islam. On 31 May, 2009 he posted an article with this intriguing title: “So That Islam Might Not Die”  حتى لا يموت الإسلام  Hatta la Yamutu’l Islam (*).

The writer is very concerned about the lack of development in the Islamic world, attributing it to the Muslims’ inability to break from their traditional interpretation of the Qur’an. In order to cope with the challenges of modernity, he called on Muslims to adopt an enlightened hermeneutics of the Qur’an, a prescription that is actually quite a revolutionary one. Still, he did not hesitate to propose it, and expressed the urgency of the matter in these words: “For unless such a step was taken, Islam will not survive!” It was this strong conviction that made him choose the shocking title for his essay!

Here are excerpts translated from that essay:

“This is my concluding article in a series that dealt with the subject of development. To achieve this goal requires an open mind and liberation from those fixed and fanciful positions that offered ready-made solutions to all types of human problems. We must acknowledge that traditional Islam, with its totalitarian worldview is standing in the way of progress and development. The Muslim world is in dire need for the rise and development of a progressive and non-totalitarian Islam.  A genuine and serious reformation can only happen by adopting a complete separation between Allah and Muhammad; Allah is an absolute and unchanging Being, while the Prophet is not. Doubtless, Muhammad was the primary founder of the Umma, but as a human being, he acted within the cultural and political contexts of his days. Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Qur’an, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate.”

In a follow-up article dated 10 June, 2009, our author offered examples of his reformist hermeneutics, and gave it a title, “Clearer Guidance,” based on a Qur’anic Ayat that has been translated as: “A Scripture with Clearer Guidance,” Qur’an 28:49 Surat Al-Qasas (Stories) القصص

(قل فأتوا بكتاب من عند الله هو أهدى منهما أتبعه إن كنتم صادقين) القصص 49

First a word of explanation is necessary about Surat Al-Qasas, which relates the story of Moses that corresponds, up to a point, to the Biblical narrative in Exodus 2. I consulted a standard Arabic commentary on the Qur’an, Tafsir al-Qur’an: al-Jalalain, published in Cairo, Egypt, in 1906. The following is a summary of the comments on Ayat 49; with the highlighted parts being quotations from the Qur’an:

“This chapter in the Qur’an gives us an account of the negative response of Muhammad’s contemporaries to the message he brought them from Allah. They complained saying, “Why is he not given the like of what was given unto Moses?” After all, Moses had performed several miracles, but Muhammad had done none. In response to their challenge and unbelief, Allah told the Prophet: “Say unto them, O Muhammad: Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance” So Muhammad in his turn challenged them to bring forth a “better revelation” than the Torah and the Qur’an, and he would be willing to follow it.”

Taking his point of departure from Qur’an 28:49, our essayist offers his readers a revolutionary hermeneutics. He claims that in our days, there exists a “better and clearer guidance” to cope with contemporary moral and legal issues than what is provided by the time-bound and Arab milieu of the Qur’anic revelation. This is how he develops his argument:

“This Qur’anic Ayat being normative, no one may dispute its relevance to our subject. Furthermore, it is reasonable to suggest that at that time and in that place, (i.e. in 7th century Arabia,) no one could have brought forth a better revelation than in either the Torah, or in the Qur’an. But that’s not the case today.

“Here is a list of Qur’anic laws and regulations. Are they still to be considered valid and applicable in the 21st century!?

1. Cutting the hand of a thief versus the punishment for murder

“In Islam, the punishment for stealing is much more severe than the punishment for murder! For example, should the next in kin of the murdered person be willing to forgive the murderer, his punishment would simply be a monetary payment as prescribed by the Shari’ah. On the other hand, the punishment for stealing requires the amputation of the hand of the thief!”

2. Flogging the adulterer

“When a rich man commits adultery, he is protected by the code that requires four witnesses who have witnessed the act. If and when proven guilty, he is flogged for his action! Whereas a woman caught in adultery, is punished by stoning!”

3. Multiplicity of wives, up to four in number.

4. Multiplicity of concubines.

5. Legality of sexual relations with female slaves.

6. Killing of prisoners of war or their enslavement.

7. The testimony of a woman is worth half of the testimony of a man.

8. A woman’s inheritance is only half of a man’s inheritance.

9. The alternate amputation of limbs (a right hand’s amputation with a left foot’s amputation.)

10. Inequality with respect to the value of human life:  a Muslim may not receive capital punishment if he has murdered an unbeliever or a slave. Also, a Muslim man does not receive capital punishment for the murder of a Muslim woman Qur’an 2:178

“Now can we consider these Qur’anic rules as ‘the best revelation or guidance’ for human beings? It is probable that the above mentioned regulations were valid for those ancient times; but for the present, no one may or should consider them as the best possible guidance for human beings. Of course, there are some people who do believe that such laws are valid; however they need to reflect seriously about the fairness of such rules of conduct and punishment.

“At the beginning of my article, I quoted the following Qur’anic Ayat:

(قل فأتوا بكتاب من عند الله هو أهدى منهما أتبعه إن كنتم صادقين) القصص 49

‘Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance than these two (that) I may follow it, if ye are truthful.’   Qur’an 28:49 [Marmaduke Pickthall's translation]

“Doesn’t this Ayat allow me to adopt the best of all revelations or regulations? Are we not allowed to revise the laws that we have followed for the last hundreds of years in order to bring them in line with modern concepts of justice and equity?” (Source)


The author of the essay regarding the urgent need for the adoption of an enlightened hermeneutics for the interpretation of the Qur’an is fully aware that, in our globalized world, Islam should no longer practise its harsh criminal laws. So, in order to provide humane principles for Islamic jurisprudence, it is necessary no longer to regard the Qur’an as the eternal and uncreated word of Allah, but as he put it in his first article on this subject, “Therefore, all the texts which the Prophet brought, including the Qur’an, are purely historical texts, and as such, cannot be considered absolutely authentic or accurate.


Our brave essayist’s “modest proposal” for saving Islam, offers a hermeneutical principle that has far-reaching consequences. In the ten examples he mentioned where the Shari’ah dictates the rules governing “crimes and punishments,” he pointed out its several inhumane sanctions and provisions.

The issue that was left unanswered remains: when the orthodox sources for Islamic jurisprudence are set aside, what alternative sources should be adopted, and where are they to be found? The author kept silence about this important matter. But if his prescription for a higher criticism of the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Life of the Prophet, be adopted, would the entire edifice of Islam be able to withstand the radical reconstruction that would inevitably ensue? In other words, what kind of a “reformed” or “enlightened” Islam would replace the fourteen-century tradition of Sunni Islam? I look forward with eagerness to the publication of his next step in the development of an “Enlightened (Tanweeri) Islamic Hermeneutics.”