By Hassan Radwan, New Age Islam
05 July 2017
The question “Is Islamic reform possible?”
pre-supposes that reform is necessary. Many Muslims would say it is not.
Even many liberal and progressive Muslims
insist Islam is perfect and it is only Muslims themselves that need to be
reformed. It is Muslims who are misguided and hold erroneous interpretations -
the Qur’an is the perfect word of God. It can never be wrong.
They argue extremists like al-Qaeda and
ISIS are not “true” Muslims and are only using Islam for their own power &
political ends. They dismiss countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan
as not following Islam correctly & they go to great lengths to come up with
all sorts of apologetics to distance Islam from real-life practices of Muslim
countries and groups around the world.
Yet it has to be asked if Islam is perfect
and has absolutely nothing to do with the actions of extremists like ISIS or
regimes like Saudi Arabia - then why is it that these Muslims have so grossly
misunderstood their religion? When one points out actions such as execution of
apostates and gays they tell us this is completely against Islam and Islam is
very clear about it. But then why don’t these groups and regimes realise they are
going completely against Islam. Don’t they realise the terrible mistake they
are making when it is all so clear and obvious? The truth is that it is not as
clear and obvious as they claim.
If it is true that they have completely
misunderstood Islam - what does that say about Islam & the Qur’an - the
clear book Kitabun Mubeen - the final and complete revelation to man? If
the message has been so badly misunderstood by so many Muslims what does that
say about the message?
My view is that the Qur’an is not perfect
and I believe it’s time we Muslims admitted that the Quran and Sunna can indeed
lend itself to very harsh and violent - yet perfectly valid interpretations.
The solution is not to try and twist the texts to come up with a
counter-interpretation but to simply accept the fact that the Quran is not
perfect. It is not infallible. It can be wrong.
Muslim reformers, such as there have been
throughout Islamic History have never challenged this idea that the Qur’an is
perfect. In fact the usual word for reformer in the context of Islam does not
actually mean reform - the word used is Mujaddid which means “renewer”.
Reform in the Islamic context means calls to return to “true, pure and
unadulterated” Islam of the Qur'an & Sunna. Their “reforms” have been about
halting change rather than bringing about change. Many puritanical groups have
arisen throughout Islamic History such as the al-Muwahideen, Almurabiteen,
and the Khawarij - all with the same aim of bringing Islam back to its
pure unadulterated roots. As such the Wahhabis and Salafis of today can be seen
in this tradition of Tajdeed - renewing Islam and ridding it of
corruptions and innovations. Most if not all Muslim reformers have been
restricted within this paradigm.
Even Liberal and Progressive Muslims of
today who seek to bring about a more peaceful and inclusive form of Islam never
claim they are reforming Islam. Instead they claim they are bringing Islam back
to it’s true message. They accept the same starting point of a perfect divine
Qur’an and so instead of simply rejecting problematic verses they are forced
into absurd linguistic gymnastics in order to claim that God’s perfect word
never actually said what it appears to have said - and what 1400 years of
scholarship believed it said. Liberal & progressive arguments depend on
tenuous nuanced readings of the Qur’an and forcing new meanings out of ancient
words. They scrape the barrel of the ancient texts to find something that will
support a more progressive view.
But by playing this game within the rules
of a perfect divine Qur’an they only hand victory to the traditionalists and
fundamentalists because it is the traditionalists who have by far the greater
evidence to support their views. Any theological workarounds a liberal can come
up with can be easily countered by traditionalists with a vast array of Qur’an
and Hadith at their disposal.
Now I’m not saying the traditionalist and
fundamentalists represent the true Islam, because in my view there is no such
thing as “True Islam”. Islam is not and never has been a single homogenous
entity. Of course many Muslims argue that there is a True Islam, but that is
because they believe the Qur’an is perfect and is the carefully planned work of
an Omniscient and Omnipotent God. They are compelled to defend it's integrity
and consistency against all reason.
Ironically many far-right anti-Muslim
bigots also insist there is only one “True Islam” and they say it is the Islam
of ISIS and the extremists. They want to convince everyone - including Muslims
themselves - that moderate forms of Islam are wrong and that real Islam is the
terrorists' version. Muslims who deny this are practicing Taqiyya or are
ignorant. They do this because they want to justify their hatred & violence
But those of us who take the view that the
Qur’an is the rather less carefully planned work of a human mind, should not
make the mistake of expecting a perfectly consistent and non-contradictory
message over 23 years from a 7th century human being reacting to events as they
happened. There are certainly interpretations that can be argued to be closer
to what Muhammad brought in 7th century Arabia. But one cannot claim they all
constitute a single consistent view. When liberal and progressive Muslims
accuse the Salafis of being selective in how they interpret Islam, choosing to
overlook the more peaceful and tolerant verses, they are right. But what they
forget to mention is that they are just as selective when they choose to
overlook the more harsh and rigid verses.
What Muhammad did and said varied at
different points over the 23 years of his Prophethood. His message changed
shape and direction as events did and with the need to please and attract
differing tribes and individuals. From the early days in Mecca to the position
of power he found himself in Madina. The Qur’an contains contradictions,
ambiguity and vagueness leaving the door open to a multitude of
Some argue that the principle of abrogation
means that the more peaceful and conciliatory verses are no-longer valid. This
is a favourite argument of the far-right anti-Muslim bigots who again want to
insist that more liberal versions of Islam are wrong and “true Islam” is the
violent forms. However the doctrine of abrogation is largely a creation of
later scholars who were compelled to reconcile the contradictions in the Qur'an
- which of course cannot exist since it is the perfect word of God. They took
their cue from 2 similar but rather ambiguous verses in the Qur’an. For example
verse 106 of al-Baqara says:
“Any revelation We cause to be abrogated or
forgotten, We replace with something better or similar.”
They used this to argue that any verses
that contradicted each other could be explained by the later one abrogating the
earlier one which usually meant Medinan verses abrogating Meccan ones. However
they didn’t agree on which verses abrogate which since there is not always
agreement on when verses were revealed or even the reasons they were revealed (Asbab
Nuzul). Some scholars even went as far to argue that a verse that was revealed
in Mecca was then revealed again in Medina in order to make it fit their view.
Many modern Muslims reject the whole idea
of abrogation which of course gives them a little more scope to argue that
early peaceful and conciliatory verses are in fact more valid than later
violent ones since the violent ones are tied to the specific context of
Muhammad’s struggle with the Meccan while the earlier ones are of a universal
and general in nature. This was the argument of the Sudanese scholar Mahmoud
Taha and his student Abdullahi Al-Naeem.
Mahmoud TaHa was executed for apostasy in
Sudan which shows how dangerous and difficult it is for liberal &
Progressive Muslims to challenge the status quo.
Even when they are listened to they cannot
decisively defeat the fundamentalists using scriptural arguments as long as
they concede the Qur’an perfect. Because the harsh literalist interpretations
of the fundamentalists will always have the greater weight of classical
scholarship on their side. Their hands will never be free to simply pick and
choose using reason, since God’s divine words trumps flawed human reason every
The belief that the Qur’an is the perfect
word of God shuts down all argument and sidelines human reason &
conscience. There can be no stronger motivation than "God said it".
One can’t argue with God. Few Muslims have the courage to challenge the idea
that the Qur’an is God’s word. Those that do are immediately labelled apostates
and they are either executed or forced to leave Islam thereby silencing all
dissent from within Islam.
However contrary to popular belief all the
Arabs at the time of Muhammad did not swoon at the words of the Qur’an
believing it to be of divine origin. The Qur’an itself testifies that many
Arabs rejected the Qur’an’s claim to being the word of God. Muhammad was
accused of being a soothsayer and a poet. He was accused of recounting nothing
but myths and fairytales and it took a long and violent struggle to win over
Arabia - not an intellectual one.
Even after Islam there were Muslims who
rejected the Qur’an’s claim to be inimitable. For example Al-Jaʿd ibn Dirham, tutor to the Umayyad
Caliph Marwan, said "The Qur'an's eloquence is not
a miracle and people can do the like of it and better." The Mu'tazilite
scholar Abu Musa said "People are able to produce the like of the Qurʾān as regards eloquence, and
composition and rhetorical beauty." The Sunni scholar Abu al-Qushairy
said: "We do not claim that everything in the Qurʾān is in the highest rank of
eloquence." Ibn al-Rawandi a Mu'tazilite scholar - who was accused of
being a Zindiq (heretic) - said "Indeed the Qurʾān is not the speech of a wise god.
In it are contradictions and mistakes and passages that
are in the realms of the absurd."
During the Islamic Golden Age this movement
of dissent grew and was labelled al-Zanadiqa (The Heretics) by its opponents.
But it nevertheless boasted some great scholars & poets in its ranks
including the Muslim physician al-Razi, the poets Omar al-Khayyam & Abu
Ala’ al Ma’arri (whose statue was destroyed by ISIS fighters when they took his
home town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’maan near Aleppo in Syria). All these scholars and
poets openly questioned the view that the Qur’an was of divine origin and it’s
ironic that for a period at least during the Islamic Golden Age such bold
expression was tolerated to a greater extent than it is today.
Al-Razi was particularly scathing about the
“You claim that the evidentiary miracle is
present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: 'Whoever denies it, let him
produce a similar one.' Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the
works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more
appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the
meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter. … By God what you say
astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and
which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful
information or explanation. Then you say: 'Produce something like it'‽”
However with the rise of Europe during the
Renaissance came the decline & stagnation in the Islamic world and what
little free-thought had existed during the Islamic Golden Age came to an end.
The doors of Ijtihad were closed and scholars no longer braved new frontiers.
Instead they concentrated on preserving and imitating the past.
Today however there are signs that there is
a new awakening of free-thought despite the rise & alarming spread of
Islamic neo-conservatism - in fact it may be in part a reaction to such
regressive movements that are in such stark contrast to reason and reality in
the 21st century and are a never ending source of cognitive dissonance for many
rational and educated Muslims.
For example the modern Iranian scholar
Abdul Karim Soroush writes:
“According to the traditional account, the
Prophet was only an instrument; he merely conveyed a message passed to him by
Jibril. In my view, however, the Prophet played a pivotal role in the
production of the Koran… Like a poet, the Prophet feels that he is captured by
an external force. But in fact the Prophet himself is the creator and the
producer. The question whether the inspiration comes from outside or from inside
is really not relevant, because at the level of revelation there is no
difference between outside and inside. The inspiration comes from the Self of
In Iraq the scholar Ahmad Al-Qabbanji
states quite openly in his lectures that the Qur’an is not perfect nor flawless
and has compared it to human texts which he highlights passages that are
superior to passages of the Qur’an. (For this who speak Arabic you can find
plenty of his lectures on YouTube.)
The Moroccan scholar Saeed Nasheed
published a book in Arabic last year titled: Modernity & the Qur’an - in it
“The Qur’an is not the speech of God, just
as the loaf of bread is not the work of the farmer. God produced the raw
material, which was inspiration, just as the farmer produces the raw material,
which is wheat. But it is the baker who turns the wheat or flour into bread
according to his own unique way, artistic expertise and creative ability. Thus
it is the Prophet who was responsible for interpreting the inspiration and
turning it into actual phrases and words according to his own unique view.”
My own view is perhaps even more radical. I
am both Agnostic & Muslim. I don’t know if God exists or not - though I do
believe in “something” - something I cannot define nor quantify but I call it
God. I enjoy many aspects of the Islamic traditions that I have been brought up
in and practiced for over 50 years of my life. However when I went through a
period of doubts and became convinced that the Qur'an was not the perfect word
of God but very much the product of a human being from the 7th century - I left
Islam for a while. I thought I had no choice. I had always been led to believe
that if you don’t believe in the divinity and perfection of the Qur’an you
can’t be a Muslim. But I never felt entirely comfortable identifying as an
Ex-Muslim and still found myself attending prayers and Islamic events with my
family and friends.
All the things that I had loved and drew
comfort from during my 50 years as a practicing Muslim were still there. I still
enjoyed prayer and connecting with that something beyond this material
existence I call God and I was surprised to find that having doubts as to
whether there was anyone actually listening didn’t take away the comfort, hope
and relief I gained from sharing my thoughts and feelings. I still enjoyed the
verses and Hadith I had always loved and treasured. Seeing the Qur'an as
fallible didn't change all that. So why should I be forced to leave Islam?
Particularly when Islam so badly needs voices of dissent and change from
within. And when Muslims - including loved ones - are being bullied and
oppressed by religious authorities who rely on our silent compliance.
So yes I am a Muslim who believes the
Qur'an is not the word of God. Plain and simple. Like all human books it
contains good and bad. It is inextricably tied to its context and environment.
I openly and unashamedly pick and choose the good parts and reject the bad
parts based on my conscience, human reason and our 21st century context.
I see no reason to abide by the definition
of the very fundamentalist authorities I oppose and who are the cause of our
problems and I propose a new definition for a Muslim. One who is freely able to
place reason above revelation. Who does not have to apologise for picking and
choosing - for “cherry picking” as our detractors like to scoff at. Selecting
the good and leaving the bad according to human reason is the eminently
rational and reasonable thing to do. It is the “All or Nothing” approach that
is irrational and leads to the suppression of one’s humanity.
Why being honest & admitting what
should is patently obvious mean you can’t be a Muslim? Why should we have to
keep on defending (or dishonestly wriggle out of) passages that are simply
wrong. Let’s reject them and move on. It really is as simple as that.
Though of course the journey getting to
that point is not simple. Embracing doubt while retaining faith is not an easy
process but it is possible and enlightening. Doubt can accommodate faith, but
crucially it eliminates extremism. Fanaticism cannot occupy the same space as
doubt and reason. As Voltaire said: “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but
certainty is a absurd one.”
Perhaps the irony is that most Muslims
already pick and choose - the only difference is that I’m simply proposing they
do this openly and unashamedly without the ridiculously tenuous and
disingenuous apologetics that are ultimately self-defeating.
I will give you an example from verse 34 of
Sura al Nisa which in microcosm reflects the dilemma Muslims face and how
belief in a perfect Qur’an prevents us from reform. The verse says:
“As for those
women from whom you fear rebellion (first) admonish them (next), refuse to
share their beds, (and last) hit them.” (4:34)
This has been the cause of endless problems
& cognitive dissonance for rational and liberal Muslims in this day and age
where humanity has evolved beyond such a barbaric mentality and where the
relationships and roles of men and women have changed drastically from 7th
However the insistence on a perfect divine
Qur’an has meant that Muslims must earthier defend wife beating against their
very conscience and rational mind - or they are forced to invent dishonest and
ridiculous apologetics to try to make the verse mean something completely
different. Apologetics which fool none but a tiny minority of Muslims who have
retreated to an ivory tower of the absurd - a make-believe land where up means
down and left means right and anything can be as you wish it to be.
Muslims are as yet unable to simply say
“The Qur’an wrong.” - They can’t say this because of the insistence that the
Qur’an is perfect and infallible.
Reform can only come once we get over this
hurdle of an infallible Qur’an. It is not infallible. It is not perfect and it is
not the word of God. That doesn’t mean it is all bad. There are many beautiful
and mystical verses such as Ayat u Nur, Ayat ul Kursi, verses about giving
charity, helping others, seeking comfort and strength from prayer, helping the
poor, good behaviour and character, honesty, personal responsibility, kindness,
humbleness and so on…
But there are also verses about eternal
torture in Hell, chopping hands off thieves, flogging fornicators, and keeping
slaves. As for Hadith I won’t even go there as they have already begun to be
seriously doubted and jettisoned by many Muslims, due some of cruel, barbaric
as well as absurd and comical nature of their content.
It’s time we Muslims realise that
recognising the human origins of the Qur’an do not mean we have to lose comfort
and solace Islam gives us. It means we will have the dual benefit of
eradicating extremism while preserving that which is worthwhile.
To those who say that is impossible to
combine faith with doubt & scepticism I would say firstly I myself have
reached that point. Secondly why should such a pragmatic realism be harder than
the massive efforts most believers put into struggling with cognitive
And as someone who was born & brought
up in the UK I am surrounded by plenty of examples of secular Christians, Jews,
Hindus and others who pray in church or temple, christen their children, have
religious weddings, attend festivals & services. Who draw comfort and
identity from their faith - yet can still embrace doubt and maintain a healthy scepticism.
Muslims are not a different species. They are human beings like everyone else
and have the same capacities and possibilities as everyone else and I consider
it racist to think otherwise.
As for those who say we are better off
without religion - perhaps that right - but regardless of what one thinks about
religion the fact is it has and continues to provide a great many people with
meaning, comfort and motivation in a world that is often confusing, cruel and
full of conflict. The fact that all these religions are man-made does not
negate their effectiveness as a vehicle to ease the anxiety of life & to
reach out to the unknown.
Recognising the Qur'an's human nature does
not have to mean the end of Islam, but it will mean the end of unreasonable defence
of tenets that belong to an earlier stage of human evolution. It will mean
freeing human reason and conscience and allow Islam to evolve as humans evolve.
It will mean the end of religion poking its nose into every facet of our lives
by self-appointed moral busybodies. It will free us to make our own decisions
and life choices and leave judgment to God not man. Religion is between you and
God. Believe as you wish but do not impose it on others.
Muslims must take the bold & essential
step of challenging the belief that Qur’an is infallible. It is an essential
step, because once you stop protecting ideas on the basis that “God said it”,
you create a level playing field where good ideas can battle it out with bad
ideas on an equal footing - without some being protected on the false basis
that “God said it.” It allows reason to be the deciding factor for whether
something is accepted or rejected, rather than: “Because it’s written!” No more
searching for tenuous interpretations or changing the meaning of words into
something else, just so we can avoid the problematic and uncomfortable
As long as we refuse to appreciate that the
Qur’an is human-authored, we will be forced to continue playing the game within
the traditional paradigm that the fundamentalists are best at. We will disarm
ourselves of the only weapon that can defeat them – reason. Only when we
recognise that the Qur’an and Sunna are fallible can we free Islam from the
prison of dogma we placed it in.
Islam is far more than the Qur’an and Sunna.
Like any major religion, it is the amassed wisdom, practice, cultures and
beliefs of millions of believers in different parts of the world over many
centuries. Religion at its most fundamental a way of seeking comfort, solace,
strength and meaning in a harsh world where man finds himself alone and
vulnerable - an aid to help us get by - a way to reach out to the heavens. But
it must never be allowed to replace reason and humanity.
It is the fundamentalists who are
destroying Islam by stripping it of the very things that has made religion
relevant to human beings. They want to reduce Islam to a blind following of
ancient texts and strip away any semblance of progress, human reason and
humanity. They want to take us back 1,400 years to a harsh and barbaric context
and place that has no place in the 21st century.
Accepting that the Qur’an is fallible will
not destroy Islam. It will destroy the fundamentalists. For the rest of us it
will free us and free our reason so we can take what is useful and reject what
I want to finish with some quotes from an
Egyptian author who goes by the pen name of Abbas Abdu-Noor. He wrote a book
called “My Ordeal with the Qur’an” which I have translated from Arabic to
English. It is a unique book in that he comes from a very devout Islamic
background and was a preacher and Islamic teacher and yet in later life came to
believe the Qur’an is not the word of God but human and flawed. He says:
“We must storm this lion’s lair that guards
the text of the Qur’ān. We must tear away the layer of sanctity and holiness
that surrounds this text. Without doing so, it will be impossible to properly
study the text. We must disrobe the text, see it naked, and question its
sanctity. We must apply the methodology of reason. It is only through this
process that new horizons will open themselves up to us…
We must reconsider the distinction we have
created between the sacred and the profane… for there is nothing sacred but
(Belief in the divinity of the Qur’an) has
confiscated our reason, isolating it from reality and from the life of man.
Because of this confiscation of reason and the knowledge that reason produces,
(Muslim) culture appears as though it has nothing to do with life, except that
which concerns the next life and all it contains of Heaven & Hell, Houris,
and fruit from that which they desire. The time has come for us to climb over
the walls built around us as a result of the confiscation of reason. There is
no other way to do this other than by starting a revolution of understanding, a
revolution in our perceptions and most basic assumptions of the texts and
readings. It must be a revolution that will come from seeing the texts in a new
way, and treating them as we would treat any object that is subject to analysis
We must not remain imprisoned in this dark,
cramped room while the world around us marches on, growing and evolving without
us. We must throw open the curtains and go out into the light. We must
rediscover the spirit of dynamism and enterprise that we had before retreating
to this time capsule and locking the door behind us.
The tyranny of the text has prevailed over
every attempt at a renaissance—even the dream of a renaissance—so that all
efforts to produce one came to nothing, and all of our hopes of achieving a
plan for a renaissance are dashed. Instead, we have seen that the Salafis, the
fundamentalists, the bloodthirsty and the regressive have all conspired to
throttle the tentative breaths of any renaissance, and disabled all initiatives
that might lead to one.
It is a pity that the march of history
never sleeps or stands still, except in our countries. And what can I say? Even
in many Third World countries, we see the march of progress and movement.
Almost the whole world is moving forward like a surging river, even if, at
times, with choppy waters. The exceptions are our countries, where there is a
still lake, stagnant and unmoving. I have no other objective or motive in this
book other than to throw a stone into this lake so that, perhaps, it might make
it stir, disrupting its calmness and composure.
Radwan graduated with 1st class honours in Classical Arabic from SOAS
University of London in 1984, his specialist subjects being Quranic commentary
and Pre-Islamic poetry. For 3 years he served as president of SOAS Students
Islamic Society. He spent 15 years as a teacher at Islamia Primary School in
London and has written four books for Muslim children as well as leading an
Islamic circle. After going through a period of questioning & doubting his
faith he first identified as an ex Muslim but eventually came to identify as an
Agnostic Muslim and campaigns for radical reform within Islam – in particular
the need to recognise the Quran’s human origin. He recently translated the book
“My Ordeal with the Quran” from Arabic to English and founded the Agnostic
Muslims and Friends Facebook group. He also runs the Agnostic Muslim Khutbahs
blog. Hassan is also an active member of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative in
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