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On 5 July 2010, Nasr Hamed Abu-Zaid passed away. The renowned thinker and reformer had left behind a complex body of work critiquing Islamic heritage and discourse. His writings are even more relevant today, as Arab societies embark on political reform without having undergone religious reform. These societies find themselves in a situation where they have to deal with an overwhelming presence of Islamist forces whose stance towards democracy, human and women’s rights and cultural diversity remains ambiguous. These Islamists depart from what is considered to be religious orthodoxy, according to which the Holy Text extends to cover all aspects of life, be they political, economic or social. In this new context, human reason is reduced to an instrumental role, solely preoccupied with the interpretation of the Quran or the Sunnah to reach a certain verdict exactly in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence.
Yet, Abu-Zaid’s project engages with Islam, attempting to clear a legitimate space for critical and free human reason apart from the Quran. All of his writings reflect the old reformist preoccupation, dating back to the era of scholars Jamal-ad-Din al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For these reformers, broad socio-political reform in the Muslim world was only deemed possible through religious reform that would render Islam compatible with modernity. Although Abu-Zaid did not end up with the same conclusions, he tackled the same questions, reflecting his preoccupation with enlightenment. In his quest to establish compatibility between Islam and modernity, Abu-Zaid delved into Islamic schools of thought that developed during medieval times. However, he was overshadowed and eventually marginalized by what came to be today’s Islamic orthodoxy. On top of the alternative paths that Abu-Zaid engaged with were the Sufi and Mutazilite traditions, as well as Islamic philosophy.
While exploring these schools of thought, Abu-Zaid deconstructed the very theological and jurisprudential basis of Islamic orthodoxy. In doing so, Abu-Zaid dug deeply into the formative writings of Ashaari theology and Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence, regarded as the most powerful shapers of Islamic orthodoxy. He contended that those schools of thought subjugated human reason to the Quran and thus produced canonical formulae such as “Islam comprises all aspects of life” or “Islam is the solution,” as well as the claim that Islam has a clear uncontested vision of a social, political and economic order. That legacy proved to be quite problematic upon the encounter with modernity in the 19th century, as all human innovations were held as adversarial to the sacred text. According to Abu-Zaid, this stance has generated a great many controversies for Muslim societies, including the incompatibility between Islam and democracy and over human and women’s rights. Over and above, it coated the Islamist project with a regressive character, implying that the revival of the old socio-political relations prevalent upon the Prophet’s life in seventh century Arabia would be the only way to reestablish the true Islamic order.
Such views made Abu-Zaid the subject of harsh criticism from Islamists, some of whom resorted to questioning his faith and accusing him of apostasy. Furthermore, his detractors did not only belong to the Islamist bloc. Secularists also voiced reservations over his works, criticizing him for overemphasizing the textual element in his critique of the religious discourse. He was perceived as sharing the same obsession with his own Islamist rivals and criticized writing like an elitist. He also met criticism for being a modernist in an age of post-modernism, taking human reason and European enlightenment at face value and thus running the risk of developing some kind of secular authoritarianism instead of a religious one.
Indeed, Abu-Zaid’s work remains locked in the quite technical language of history and philology, which curbs its outreach and limits its potential political influence. However, this shortcoming did not spare any of the great religious reformers of modern times. The writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 15th and 16th centuries were strictly theological in language in a time when literacy was quite limited in Europe. Yet, their impact on the development of social and political life in Europe is undeniable. The solution to this puzzle is identifying the socio-political context within which these writings are received, which determines the chances of pushing these writings into the realm of political action. Abu-Zaid passed away without witnessing that moment, exactly as did Mohammed Abdu, Abdel Rahman al-Kawakbi and other reformers. However, their work remains as a powder keg ready to explode at the first spark.
As Egypt and other Arab countries are set to embark on democratization, the debate over the compatibility between Islam and the prospective political order has been reignited. On the one hand, Islamist forces are striving to impose their own orthodox understanding of how politics relate to religion in the emerging order. On the other hand, secularists and liberals are trying hard to stand up to this challenge. In this setting, the establishment of a stable and viable democracy in the future remains contingent on genuine religious reformation, and thus reintroducing the old project of Abdu’s last disciple, Abu-Zaid.