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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated February 26, 1996

heresy or hermeneutics

the case of nasr hamid abu zayd

Charles Hirschkind

This paper focuses on the debate that followed Cairo University's decision to refuse tenure to a professor of Arabic Language and Literature, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, in light of an unfavorable report by the tenure committee entrusted to review his scholarly work. Supporters of Abu Zayd quickly brought the case to national attention via the Egyptian press, thereby precipitating a storm of often shrill writings from all sides of the political spectrum, in both journalistic and academic media. Subsequently, as an Islamist lawyer tried to have Abu Zayd forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that his writings revealed him to be an apostate, the foreign media also picked up the story and transformed the case into an international event.[1]

In what follows, I will focus on one corner of this debate concerning contrastive notions of reason and history, issues which, I wish to argue, are deeply implicated in the forms of political contestation and mobilization occurring in Islamic countries today. Such topics seldom appear in discussions that take Islamic movements, or Islamic revival, as their object, an omission perhaps attributable to the conceptual frames informing these discussions. The idea of a social movement presupposes a self-constituting subject, independent from both state and tradition; a unilinear progressive teleology; and a pragmatics of proximate goals: namely, the spatiotemporal plane of universal Reason and progressive History, territory of the modern man. Such an actor must fulfill the Kantian demand that reason be exercised autonomously and embodied in the sovereign subject. In such a framework, Islam never satisfies these modern demands and thus must always remain somewhat outside the movement of history as a lesser form of reasoning. In contrast, one may argue that the protagonist of a tradition of inquiry founded on the divine text is necessarily a collective subject, one who seeks to preserve and enhance his/her own exemplary past. Indeed, the assumption of a fundamental opposition between reason and religion, one central to the historical development of both of these modern concepts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has entailed that investigations into the rationalities of religious traditions have rarely been viewed as essential to the description or explanation of those religions.[2] Consequently, to pose a question in regard to Islam generally means that one must either be asking about politics (the not- really-Islam of "Islamism," or "political Islam") or about belief, symbols, ritual, and so on, but not about styles of reasoning.

Within political economy discussions of oppositional movements in the Middle East, for example, Islam is generally viewed as little more than the culturally preferred idiom through which opposition, be it class or otherwise, may be expressed.[3] Unquestionably, the best of these studies have told us much about the kinds of material conditions--the specific intersections of capital and power--that have enabled or undermined arguments, movements, and forms of practice, including, among others, Islamic ones.[4] Founded upon the same set of Enlightenment assumptions mentioned above, these writings have provided convincing accounts of the kinds of modern forces transforming the contemporary political structures of the Middle East, but are ill-equipped when it comes to analyzing those dimensions of social and political life rooted in non-Western traditions.

One way to approach this latter, as Asad has argued, is to understand Islam as a discursive tradition: i.e., as an historically evolving set of discourses embodied in the practices and institutions of Islamic societies and hence deeply imbricated in the material life of those inhabiting them.[5] Such a perspective requires that statements and/or arguments integral to the material organization of Islamic social forms, and grounded in slow-changing historical structures, be distinguished from those rhetorical performances which lack this longitudinal embeddedness.[6] The approach being suggested here should by no means be confused with what is commonly referred to as a culturalist argument. Such arguments generally foreground the category of identity, stressing the authenticity of certain cultural practices and symbols for those subjected to the destructive and destabilizing forces of modernization. In contrast, to discuss a discursive tradition implies attention to specific articulations of material processes, structures, and practices, including practices of reasoning and speech, embedded in the society under study.

The fact that traditions of Islamic argumentation and reasoning stand in an oblique relation to much of the current use of Islam by people seeking to legitimize their activities or sell their products underscores the importance of making this type of distinction.[7] When a business enterprise calls itself Islamic, in what sense does it intersect with the long-standing discourses of Islam? Admittedly, usages of this type by banks, airlines, political candidates, or government ministries may have a direct impact on current definitions and interpretations of Islamic practice and, as such, might be of considerable interest to someone investigating the role of Islamic rhetoric in Egyptian political and popular culture. Study of a discursive tradition, however, directs our attention to the coherence and continuity of a set of discourses, so as to map the transformations which they undergo, including those brought about under the pressure of more powerful traditions. Thus, the last few hundred years have seen an ongoing attempt to adapt the conceptual resources of Islam in order to accommodate, understand, and achieve practical mastery over a reality increasingly organized by discourses whose historical locus and most formidable bases of power lie in the West.

In short, the type of movements appearing in Middle Eastern countries requires an analysis of the contending traditions, both liberal and Islamic, which inform modes of political thought and action in the area. Abu Zayd's work gains particular value in this regard: as a modernist attempt to overcome the divisions separating these traditions, his writings reveal some of the conceptual problematics which such a project entails. In this respect, there are numerous parallels between Abu Zayd and earlier reformers such as Qasim Amin or Taha Hussayn, Muslim writers whose advocacy of Western social and political models went beyond what many of their contemporaries considered acceptable and reasonable within the Islamic framework. At the core of this project, as I shall explore in this paper, lies an ongoing argument concerning the bases and proper scope of reason on the one hand, and the historical status of divine texts on the other.

modernizing islam

Abu Zayd's writings address a number of issues central to Islamic thought, including methods of Quranic interpretation, the authority of religious scholars, and the appropriate role of religion in contemporary life. Given the recent turmoil, violence, and challenges to political authority in Egypt, it is not surprising that once his work drew mass media attention, it became a rallying point for a number of political currents. Roughly speaking, liberal commentators tended to frame the issue as one of "intellectual freedom": Abu Zayd, in their view, was being punished for having subjected to critical scrutiny the sacred tenets of institutionalized Islamic authority. Comparisons to Salman Rushdie were frequently drawn, while those Cairo University professors who had opposed Abu Zayd's tenure were repeatedly charged with "intellectual terrorism." Moreover, Abu Zayd's assertion that differences between the Mubarak government and the Islamic opposition were only of degree, and not of kind, inasmuch as both were founded upon the same authoritarian, anti-humanist conceptual foundations, drew considerable praise from many on the Egyptian left. Uncomfortable in either government or Islamist camps, and with the grounds for a politically viable Marxist critique long since eroded, many left-leaning intellectuals were encouraged by this elaboration of a liberal alternative.

According to Islamic writers, on the other hand, Cairo University had been correct in its decision, as Abu Zayd's work was indeed an affront to a long tradition of respected Islamic scholarship, as well as a grave injustice to its primary text, the Quran. Many saw in Abu Zayd another example of a Marxist, secularist campaign to expunge Islam from the universities, as well as from society in general.

Much of the calmer discussion focused on two intertwined arguments central to Abu Zayd's work, one concerning the historical status of the Quran, and the other addressing the relation of reason [`aql] to religion [din]. A review of this discussion reveals some of the conceptual fault lines that cut across Egyptian society and structure political praxis.

A key point of departure for Abu Zayd's argument[8] is the idea that, once the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, it entered history and became subject to historical and sociological laws or regularities [qawanin]. Irreversibly rent from its divine origins, the text became humanized [muta'annas], embodying the particular cultural, political, and ideological elements of seventh-century Arabian society:

The Quran--the pivotal point of our discussion so far--is a fixed religious text, from the standpoint of the literal wording, but once it has been subjected to human reason [al-`aql al-insani] it becomes a "concept" [mafhum], which loses its fixedness as it moves and its meanings proliferate....It is imperative here that we affirm that the state of the original sacred text is a metaphysical one about which we can know nothing except that which the text itself mentions and which always comes to us via a historically changing humanity.[9]

From the moment of its enunciation, the divine text was shaped, and continues to be reshaped, through the operation of human reason, such that the distance now separating it from the divine is so vast as to render the text all but human.[10]

In other words, the abrupt break with the divine occurring at the moment of revelation results in the total secularization of the text, which henceforth becomes a book like any other: "Religious texts, in the final analysis, are nothing but linguistic texts, belonging to a specific cultural structure and produced in accord with the rules of that culture."[11]

The historical reality of which the Quran partakes in Abu Zayd's narrative is that defined by a realist sociology, a space of ideological contestation wherein autonomous subjects of interest (individuals, groups, classes) compete with each other for short-term political and economic goals. The logics of such a space imply, for example, that a correct understanding of the Quran must begin by situating it in the context of Qurayshi domination and hence as part of the ideological apparatus undergirding that particular class of merchants; this follows from the simple (if erroneous) observation that, "[the principle of] divine sovereignty simply results in the sovereignty of religious men--in the end, nothing but human beings with their own biases and ideological inclinations."[12] Indeed, throughout Abu Zayd's argument, the downgrading of truth claims to the status of ideology, a function of culture and class interest, grounds a reinterpretation of religion emphasizing hidden motives and personal ambitions. Such a perspective requires us to conclude, for instance, that the claims to correct, true knowledge made by religious specialists must in reality be a ruse by which this group (and now the state interests which they serve) secures its power and authority.[13] Moreover, such an argument renders the idea of Islam as a coherent historical object untenable by emphasizing the considerable variation in Islamic practices and interpretations over time and geographical area. As Abu Zayd states, to posit such unity is to "contradict the actual history of Islam, one which has witnessed a plurality in trends, currents, and camps which emerged for social, economic, and political reasons."[14]

The objects, actors, forms of knowledge, and action which constitute history in this account completely evacuate the divine from (humanly knowable) religion. Not surprisingly, it is the liberal subject who largely fills the resultant void, a substitution effected historically, from this perspective, by the process of progressive enlightenment, the gradual journey from superstition and error to progress, science, justice, and freedom; a movement which, moreover, humanizes inasmuch as man abandons those traditions that made him subordinate to texts and their interpreters and increasingly asserts himself as master of his own destiny.[15] Notably, for this modern promethean subject, it is literature, not revelation, which opens out onto the unknown and transcendent. Consider, for example, the following contrast drawn between literary and religious texts:

It is obvious that religious texts don't pose the same problematic in regard to "intention" as do literary texts; or rather, they pose it at a different epistemological level, one constituted by the objective condition--social, economic, and political--which circumscribed the production of these texts and defined their field of application, and hence, their original and fundamental signs and meanings.[16]

That is to say, whereas a notion of the transcendent is no longer germane to the task of explaining and understanding religious texts (which only require socio-historical analysis), it finds continued application in that ineffable inner world of individual writers and readers, an indeterminate space defined by the modern idea of literary intention. Clearly, it is a short step from these observations to the claim that "secularism [al- `almaniyya], in its essence, is nothing but the true interpretation and scientific understanding of religion."[17] Indeed, once one has learned to differentiate the metaphysical text from the real historical one, and exclude the former as a suitable object of knowledge, the possibility is opened up to analyze the Quran as one would any other "sign system," be it poetry, behavior patterns, or even "fashion trends," as Abu Zayd provocatively suggests.[18]

Abu Zayd identifies his own work as an attempt to establish an "objective" [maudu`i], "scientific" [`ilmi] framework for the analysis and interpretation [tafsir] of religious texts, a goal which evaded the Islamic thinkers who preceded him, as they failed to address adequately the historical dimension of their project. The hermeneutic approach he advocates consists of two moments, each to be placed in dialectical relation to the other.[19] One entails the recovery of the original meaning [dallatuhu al-asaliyya] of the text-cum-cultural-artifact, by placing it within the socio-historical context of its appearance.[20] The other aims to clarify the contemporary socio-cultural frames and practical goals which motivate and guide interpretations, so that one may distinguish the ideological content of those interpretations from the original historical meaning. A "productive" reading results when these two steps are placed in relation to each other in an ongoing dialectic, "a pendular movement between the dimensions of ‘origin' [asl] and ‘goal' [ghaya], or between ‘sign' [dallala] and ‘significance' [maghza]."[21]

Yet, despite the supposedly dialectical structure of this interpretive method, we find that it never really strays outside the horizon of modernity. For, as Abu Zayd asserts in his introduction, "religion, when correctly understood, is that which in accord with a scientific analysis and interpretation denies the false and mythical, while preserving whatever promotes progress [taqaddum], justice [`adl], and freedom [hurriyya]."[22] Foregrounded throughout his work and central to the argument, these modernist goals set the criteria for what is to be considered an acceptable interpretation and in so doing close off all other historical horizons. Furthermore, the idea of a hermeneutic open to meanings embedded in a distant past makes little sense in light of Abu Zayd's negative judgment on the utility of past history. He writes:

[the tendency of religious discourse] to obliterate the historical dimension is obvious in its assumption of a congruence between the problems of the present and those of the past, and the application of past solutions to present conditions. Moreover, recourse to the work of earlier scholars, and the attribution of a sacred status to their texts, further effaces this historical aspect and leads to the deepening of human alienation and the covering over of practical problems rooted in reality.[23]

If, as Abu Zayd suggests, the past is that which pulls people away from their real selves as reason-guided individuals acting in a present of pragmatic, short-term goals, then his call for Muslims to continue to interrogate the Quran may best be understood as a tactical response to the social context of his writing, and thus as accessorial to the argument itself

conceptual origins

The idea that past examples cannot guide us in confronting our present problems emerged in Europe during the eighteenth century and was made possible, in part, by a gradual shift in the concepts organizing historical experience.[24] While there is not space here to review the complex series of events involved in this transformation, I shall mention a few key displacements that paved the way for the modern concept of history. Prior to the eighteenth century, history had referred to an account, an edifying example drawn from events that had already taken place. Over the course of this century, the semantic field of the term extended to include not only the idea of an account, but also that of the event itself, the incident in its occurrence as opposed to any oral or written rendition of it. This intertwining of representation with event meant that accounts were now expected not simply to report of things past, but to capture "history itself," as a coherent, all-embracing reality, a meaningful whole. To do justice to this fuller reality, historians had to draw upon the representational resources of other scholarly fields, such as poetics, ethics, and rhetoric, as well as developing new rules of evidence and methods for organizing historical data. As Kosselleck notes: "Without the ability to read past events and texts at several levels, that is to separate them from their original context and progressively reorder them, an advanced interpretation of confusing historical reality would not have been possible."[25] Thus, theories, hypotheses, and interpretive frameworks--such as the economic and the sociological, as we see in Abu Zayd's work-- became essential tools for the historian's task, one which contrasted significantly with earlier forms of historical representation that did not face the same demands for a fuller meaning and coherence. As History began to eclipse God as the omnipotent force in the universe, the older accounts became inadequate to represent the intensified, and increasingly secularized, historical reality. Rather than the divine text illuminating the vicissitudes of history, now history itself became necessary to explain the text, which henceforth was increasingly subjected to mundane criticism. Importantly, this new omnipotence and compulsion attributed to history, as scholars of post-coloniality have emphasized, was not simply a matter of semantics: the discourses of history became one of the key political technologies of the nation-state and its various institutions (e.g., educational, juridical, administrative) and central to the construction of those practices by which citizen-subjects came to recognize themselves and act as such.[26]

Lastly, once the philosophy of progress equipped history with a temporality not grounded in natural cycles (such as the movement of planets or the life-spans of rulers), it largely stripped past examples of their capacity to instruct. As the past stopped shining a light onto an ever-accelerating future,[27] reason alone remained adequate to the task of illuminating this latter. To meet this challenge, however, reason had to be freed first from the shackles of tradition and religion so as to acquire the sort of mobility or capacity for improvisation adequate for organizing a future of probabilities, unforeseen opportunities, and unpredictable outcomes.

In the opinion of Abu Zayd, one he shares with many orientalist scholars, the "backwardness" of Muslim societies owes precisely to a failure to engage directly (i.e., without reliance on texts) with this mundane space of pragmatic interventions, rational calculation, and short-term planning.[28] Thus, he writes, "when social and political conflicts are transferred from the field of reality to that of texts, human reason becomes subordinate to the text";[29] or similarly, "the principle of textual arbitration [tahkim] led to the demise of independent reasoning, transforming it into an appendage of the text itself."[30] These judgments emerge directly from the logic of the precepts of the modern idea of history, one conceding no space for the divine or for those practices which presuppose its existence.

It is worthwhile here to compare the positions taken by Abu Zayd and certain arguments on the issue of toleration put forward by John Locke. Writing in the seventeenth century, a period marked by the great sectarian conflicts, Locke was one of those who articulated a theoretical perspective from which incommensurable understandings of religious practice could be rendered neutral with regard to politics.[31] Adopting a quite literal understanding of the mind/body distinction, he argued that inasmuch as divine worship was essentially a matter of the inner disposition of the believer toward God and actions of the body were therefore without consequence in regard to salvation, religious practices could be ascribed the same legal status as all other social practices and thus be legitimately regulated by civil authority. As McClure notes:

In the face of conscientious considerations that order alternative religious practices hierarchically, Locke's defense of toleration forwards a cognitive secular ground for leveling such differences, specifically by deploying the categories of empiricist epistemology as the source of a new distinctive "difference" that privileges a factual civil discourse over its scripturally framed theological other. To put the point another way, Locke's Letter advances a way of converting sectarian "differences" in religious matters into "diversity," by constituting a realm of civil facticity to dissolve those hierarchical and intrinsically relational conscientious "differences" of religious practice into equivalent and independent, that is to say, separate, equal, and diverse, alternative religious communities.[32]

McClure insightfully observes Locke's ability to render religious claims mere speculation and to privilege the domain of earthly "reality" about which a true positive knowledge may be produced. This domain of specifiable objects and social behaviors may then be regulated according to the idea of social utility, that is, in keeping with the bourgeois subject's interests of life, liberty, and property. Religion, in its material embodiment as a set of practices and texts, loses all epistemological privilege, joining other mundane objects subject to this regulation. Religion, once ascribed the status of a "sign system" as in Abu Zayd's work, may then be taken up by the historian as an entirely suitable object of historical analysis and determination. As Chakrabarty has described, this construction of historical objects requires that:

we be able to deny them their contemporaniety by assigning them to a specified period in a calendrical past, an act by which we split the present into the "modern" and the "traditional" or the "historical," and thereby declare ourselves to be modern....History is therefore a practice of "monumentalising" objects--from documents to sculptures--of simultaneously acknowledging and denying their existence in our "own" time.[33]

To render the Quran as "monument" means to redefine its relationship to the present, to accord it new areas of relevance and irrelevance so as to circumscribe the claims that may be made in its name to the private sphere of individual conscience.

While Abu Zayd is obviously writing upon the same empiricist conceptual terrain established by Locke and his successors, certain differences stand out. Specifically, whereas in Locke we find the believer's encounter with the divine restricted to the "inner worship of the heart," in the case of Abu Zayd, the divine never enters human experience at all. Unable to survive the passage into socio-cultural embodiment, God remains outside knowledge,[34] history, and the real. Religion, consequently, to the extent that it speculates on the unknowable and remains moored to a tradition of such speculation, can only distract us from the practical affairs which constitute reality, its reason always remaining counter to the logics governing this domain.

My object in this paper so far has been to demonstrate the degree to which the deployment of certain sociological assumptions transforms and reconfigures the object "religion," or "Islam," along specific lines. Studies of such modernist reworkings of non- modern traditions have begun to shed an important light upon one aspect of the process by which Western modernity has transformed the world.[35] I will now turn to some of the critical responses to Abu Zayd's work, published during the height of the controversy, which may help elucidate a different conception of history, the divine, and religious argument in contrast to the one discussed so far.

some dissenting views

Abu Zayd's scholarly Writings were subject to a wide variety of criticisms, including charges of gross historical error, of being political manifestos rather than serious, scientific analyses, and of addressing subjects outside the author's field of expertise. More relevant to the present discussion, however, are those criticisms concerning the bases of rational argument within the Islamic tradition, an issue foregrounded by many authors, including `Abd al-Sabur Shahin, the Cairo University professor whose report on Abu Zayd's work was the most influential. In his report, Shahin accuses Abu Zayd not only of failing to understand certain principles of Islamic theology but, more inexcusably, of rejecting them outright in a manner incompatible with a commitment to Islam and, hence, unacceptable for a Muslim scholar.[36] The idea that a certain kind of critical inquiry depends upon one's commitment to a religious community, as Shahin suggested in the report, stands in sharp contrast to the emphasis on detachment and neutrality characteristic of the tradition of empirical science. In the eyes of his liberal defenders, comments that questioned Abu Zayd's moral commitment were entirely irrelevant to the scholarly assessment of Abu Zayd's works and simply represented unscrupulous attempts to discredit him personally. However, the attribution of unscholarly intentions to Abu Zayd should not distract us from taking the argument itself seriously: namely, that the practice of reason occurs within a social context and, thus, presupposes and requires commitment to the principles which sustain that context.[37] As one writer responding to Abu Zayd argues,

for any critical engagement [ijtihad] with the religious texts to be acceptable and legitimate, it must begin with a commitment to the text....Every critical activity which seeks to undermine and destroy the shari`a texts, is not protected under the notion of intellectual freedom, but rather falls within the range of that which society must prohibit and prevent, especially where the constitution identifies Islam as the religion of state and the shari`a as the primary source of law.[38]

For many authors, Abu Zayd's denial of the divinity of the Quran constituted proof of his lack of commitment to Islam. Faith in the sacred status of the Quran, they argued, stands as the central and ineluctable tenet of Islam, the foundation stone upon which Islamic society and civilization rest. Thus, while Abu Zayd's suggestions concerning hermeneutic method, the importance of clarifying historical contexts, or the need to weed out superstition and error were seen by many to fall within the realm of reasonable argument, his rejection of the Quran's divinity necessarily placed him well outside that realm. Moreover, the polemical and often disparaging tone with which Abu Zayd addresses the work of earlier, respected scholars, as well as his contemporaries, was seen as unfitting for one supposedly working within the same tradition of moral inquiry.

Additionally, whereas for the writer cited above Islam is essential for defining the social-political space in which practices of reason acquire their coherence, Abu Zayd locates the limits to rational critique in the imperatives of the secular nation-state:

They [the Islamists] want to link religious apostasy with the crime of betraying the nation; and so, they ignore an essential distinction: the freedom of human beings to choose their religion--a freedom upheld by the Quran--and "treason" aimed at harming the modern nation for the benefit of its enemies.[39]

In other words, Abu Zayd juxtaposes a desacralized and non-binding religion to the naturalized, inviolable nation and its interests. So even though his challengers share with Abu Zayd a commitment to the modern nation-state as a legitimate framework of political practice and identity, their commitment is refracted through Islamic principles and injunctions in a way that is absent from the writings of Abu Zayd.

Central to Abu Zayd's argument is an assertion about the incommensurability of reason and religion, one contested by many of his critics. Thus, an article published during the height of the controversy, for example, begins with the question: are there conditions under which practical interest [maslaha], as determined by human independent reasoning [`aql], justifies and requires the temporary suspension of textual authority? Or, framing the issue in its most conventional form: "by what measure do we define our interests [masalihana]? Is it reason [`aql] or the religious text?"[40] To work through this question, the author draws on a well-known historical example--the temporary suspension of the prescribed punishment for thievery by the second caliph, `Umar Ibn al-Khattab, during a period of acute famine--reproducing the arguments of a number of classical scholars who studied the case. The consensus of these scholars is that, given the conditions of intense need produced by the famine, `Umar's decision was consonant with the intentions of the text and did not constitute any sort of abrogation. This argument devolves upon a discussion of the different categories of interest [maslaha], particularly the distinction between those interests explicitly defined within the text [al-masalih al-mu`atabira], and those left unmentioned but in accord with its intentions [al-masalih al-mursala]. They argue that the presence of great need, as the shari`a makes clear, changed the nature of the act to where it could no longer be judged under the explicit rule pertaining to thievery, but, instead, had to be assessed by reference to broader, more general principles implied in the texts. Hence, contrary to the opinions of some contemporary scholars, such cases do not demonstrate, nor authorize, any sort of deviation from or rescindance of shari`a law.

From this example the author concludes: "In truth, interests derived from human reason, which contradict those embedded in the shari`a, are not but illusory interests whose apparent rationality soon disappears when illuminated by the light of the shari`a."[41] In other words, real human interests cannot be uncovered by empirical observation alone, but must also be consonant with divine intention. The split which Abu Zayd posits between practical reality and sacred texts is replaced here by a vision in which the two domains are thoroughly interwoven, a result which requires the ongoing activity of interpretation by the members of the believing community.

The exemplary function of history depends upon a continuity of experience whereby expectations and conditions remain relatively stable over long periods of time. In the case of Islam, as the above discussion suggests, the possibility of such continuity is underwritten by the divine status of the foundational text. Contrary to what is frequently asserted, this historical perspective does not imply that each generation is an exact replica of its predecessors, only that they resemble each other in those aspects deemed essential by reason-guided interpreters of the textual tradition. More importantly, we can now see that it is imperative for a religious thinker working within such a tradition to pose the possibility of God or the divine--even as a necessary act of faith--in order to set the horizon within which reasoning may occur. It is the impossibility of taking this step within the space defined by the modern concept of history which animated much of the debate discussed above.


The fact that many Egyptian intellectuals find modernist renderings of Islam convincing bears witness to the now long-standing project aimed at reorganizing the conceptual and material structures which organize the daily practice and experience of non-Western peoples. Such reorganization allows Muslims to consider the Quran inessential to the task of ordering their social and political life, even as they continue to regard themselves as religiously devout. This form of thinking, I would argue, is consistent with modernist discourse that has privatized religious belief and rendered divinity inconsequential to the organization of social life. Moreover, it is not surprising that Islamic institutions are not forwarding a radical alternative to this current world order. Given the kinds of forces brought to bear on countries, like Egypt, that occupy dependent positions within the structures of world capital, there are few possibilities for organizing society along lines other than those consonant with these forces.

My aim in this paper has not been as much to discuss Islamic social movements, as to examine some of the conceptual dimensions used to analyze these movements. Specifically, I have suggested that we need to pay closer attention to the kinds of assumptions that accompany the frameworks and concepts we use; and secondly, that we need to distinguish between Islam as a long-standing tradition and the various expedient uses to which the term is being put, be it by scholars, politicians, militants, or ordinary men and women. This does not attribute an unchanging essence to Islam; rather it points to the need to disentangle, in Wittgensteinian fashion, the disparate ideas and historical forms which have come to be awkwardly subsumed under the term Islam.

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This research was assisted by a grant from the Joint Committee on Near and Middle East of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the U.S. Information Agency's Near and Middle East Research and Training Act. In addition, the paper benefited greatly from the critical responses of Marlene Hidalgo, as well as the editors of this volume, Saba Mahmood and Nancy Reynolds. They bear none of the responsibility for its shortcomings.

1. Since the writing of this article, the Egyptian Appellate Court has ruled in favor of the Islamist lawyer who brought a suit against Abu Zayd. This suit required that Abu Zayd be forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that he is an apostate. Abu Zayd's lawyers are now appealing the case.

2. Of course, there have been exceptions to this general pattern, notably among anthropologists interested in the idea of rationalities. Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski are two early and well-known examples.

3. Needless to say, the instrumentalist view of language such an argument presupposes weds this literature to a positivism few researchers would explicitly endorse.

4. See, for example, Roger Owen, State Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, Suny Series in the Social and Economic History of the Middle East (New York: Routledge, 1994); Zachary Lockman, ed. Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East (New York: SUNY P, 1994).

5. Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Papers (Washington D.C.: Ctr. for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown, 1986). See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1981).

6. Admittedly, this distinction cannot be made in any absolute sense. Nonetheless, I am simply suggesting that it is theoretically and methodologically necessary for the analysis of discursive traditions to be distinguished from the utilitarian and pragmatic uses to which they are put.

7. Those authors who point to the manipulative use of Islamic vocabulary to clothe, what are in their view, non-Islamic arguments are clearly addressing usages of this kind. The concept of a discursive tradition directs us toward language use of a different sort, one elaborated by Foucault with the concept of "discourse." See The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Harper, 1972).

8. Most of the following discussion is based on Abu Zayd's most recently published book, which figured most significantly in the tenure committee's report: Naqd al-Khitab al- Dini [The Critique of Religious Discourse] (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 1992). This work summarizes most of the central themes of Abu Zayd's earlier writings. All translations from Arabic are mine.

9. Zayd 93 (italics added).

10. Zayd 96.

11. Zayd 193.

12. Zayd 56. Political regimes of various types have often acknowledged the ultimate sovereignty of God without finding it necessary to grant religious specialists authority over all affairs of state.

13. Zayd 30, 64-69.

14. Zayd 30.

15. Zayd 9, 102.

16. Zayd 110.

17. Zayd 9.

18. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, "Mat al-Rajul wa Bada'at Muhakamatuhu," Adab wa Naqd, Cairo 101 (January) 1994: 67.

19. Zayd, Naqd 110-118.

20. Zayd, Naqd 114-116. There are a number of Islamic knowledges--most importantly, asbab al-nusul and nasikh wa mansukh--which attempt to clarify the context surrounding revelation in order to guide the interpretation of the text. Abu Zayd, applying the yardstick of modernist historiography, finds these knowledges to be inadequate to the modern interpreter's task.

21. It should be noted that these two steps are grounded upon incompatible assumptions regarding the nature of social reality--the first, objectivist; the second, phenomenological.

22. Zayd, Naqd 9.

23. Zayd, Naqd 53.

24. For a number of interesting analyses of the historical developments underlying our modern concept of history, see Reinhart Kosselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge: MIT P, 1985).

25. Kosselleck 214.

26. On this point, see Nicholas B. Dirks, "History as a Sign of the Modern," Public Culture 2.2 (Spring 1990): 25-33; Dipesh Chakrabarty, "The Death of History? Historical Consciousness and the Culture of Late Capitalism," Public Culture 4.2 (Spring 1992): 47-65.

27. This expression comes from Toqueville who observed in Democracy in America: "As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity." Quoted in Kosselleck, 27.

28. Not surprisingly, one of the most common rebuffs given to those calling for the creation of an Islamic state is precisely that they lack a real plan or program.

29. Zayd, Naqd 61. Note that texts may reflect reality, but are not an integral part of it.

30. Zayd, Naqd.

31. See Kristie McClure, "Difference, Diversity, and the Limits of Toleration" Political Theory 18.3 (August 1990): 361-392, for an excellent discussion of these issues and their relevance to contemporary strategies of political activism.

32. McClure 376.

33. Chakrabarty 63.

34. Admittedly, many Muslims would concur with Abu Zayd on the ultimate unknowability of God; most, however, would identify this as one of the epistemological conditions defining the task of interpreting God's message and not as a justification for the abandonment of that project.

35. See, for example, Nicholas B. Dirks, Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992); Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988); Asad, Genealogies.

36. This report was reprinted in Al-Mujtam`a Al-Madani 18 (May 1993): 9- 13.

37. Hence, an article by four Cairo University professors, entitled "Scientific Report on the Views of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd," is prefaced by the following statement: "We undertake this report on the views of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd on the basis of our identity as Muslims, believing in God and his Messenger (SAAS), commanded by God to promote that which is allowed and prevent that which is forbidden; we offer advice [nasiha] of God, of his messenger, and of his book to Muslims each and all, as God demands of us that we pursue every legitimate course to correct what is in error." In Abd al- Sabur Shahin, Qissa Abu Zayd wa Inhisar al-`Almaniyya fi Jami`at al-Qahira [The Abu Zayd Affair and Removal of Secularism at Cairo University] (Cairo: Dar Al-I'tisam, 1994) 112.

38. Fahmi Howaydi, "Hadhar min al-La`ab bil Nar," Al- Ahram (20 April, 1993).

39. Zayd, Adab wa Naqd 65.

40. Muhammad Ibrahim Mabruk, "Al-Nas...Am al-Maslaha," Minbar al-Sharq, Cairo 8 (July 1993): 64.

41. Mabruk 75.