For centuries, clerics have considered historical study of the sacred Text to be a form of heresy of Western derivation: that has not prevented the development of critical thought

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:54:36

Is it permissible to combine intellectual freedom  ̶  a humanist value arising from the core of the European Enlightenment  ̶  and the study of the Qur’an, a sacred book for Muslims? In other words, is it possible to use the scientific and critical method in the study of the Qur’an with no dogmatic restrictions? Doesn’t this pave the way for doubt, unbelief and sedition (fitna)? If the answer to this last question is yes we must conclude that Muslim societies are required to impose a rigid interpretation of the text (which is supported by dogma), prosecuting whoever disagrees with it. This is precisely the tragic situation we face today.

If we browse Arabic internet sites or search the word “freedom” online, let alone intellectual freedom to study the Qur’an, we find that the majority of opinions, and declarations, come from the clergy. This simple experiment alone shows the malaise of freedom in the Arab-Muslim world. In this world, religious men play a role which greatly surpasses their numbers. Many of them affirm that intellectual freedom leads to freedom of expression and, hence, to freedom of belief. This is true. However, what they really mean is that freedom corrupts doctrine and religion. This is false. Their concern is finding ways to impose doctrine so as to create a society of believers molded after the standards set by their religious dogma. As the data indicates this concern is a tremendous illusion. In many Arab-Muslim societies, in fact, we witness the rise of atheism all while religious fundamentalism and terrorist hotbeds spread as well.[1]Moreover, the Arab-Muslim world is today one of the most active on social networks like Twitter, due to widespread repression and the ensuing lack of intellectual freedom in daily life.[2] By now, many Arab Muslims, especially the youth, have created a digital space, parallel and opposed to repressive societies, in which questions and answers can be freely posed with no need to rely on religious authorities. In this regard, the most important question is probably the status of the Qur’an, and its understanding through a textual and historical criticism, which is only possible through modern Qur’anic studies.



The Principle of Intellectual Freedom in the Qur’an

The context in which the Qur’an came to light, as many of its own verses indicate, features the presence of numerous religious groups, including Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians and other ancient sects (Qur’an 2:62; 5:69; 22:17). Not surprisingly, the text challenges the believers of those preexisting religions, appealing to their intellectual sensibility and inviting them to a new vision of the faith. Faith is established only after meditating on the creation of the heavens and the earth, examining the signs they contain. The Qur’an contains dozens of verses that invite the reader to assess its message, starting from “do they not ponder the Koran?” (4:82), to “Surely in that are signs for a people who reflect” (45:13). It offers the listeners several proofs and counterproofs, never impinging their full-fledged freedom. Despite all this, the Qur’an affirms that “Yet, be thou ever so eager, the most part of men believe not” (12:103). Not even one of the over six-thousand verses in the Qur’an mentions the idea that Qur’anic society was a society of believers. On the contrary, many verses convey the disappointment of the messenger, frustrated by the absence of the very faith which he was preaching. How does the Qur’an respond, by repressing freedom, or imposing the doctrine of Abrahamic monotheism (hanīfiyya)? Not at all, for the opposite is true.


The Qur’an does not lack proofs in favor of intellectual freedom and the plurality of doctrines, of which the only judge is God. The verses are clear in this respect: “Say: ‘The truth is from your Lord; so let whosoever will believe, and let whosoever will disbelieve.’ Surely We have prepared for the evildoers a fire whose pavillon encompasses them” (18:29); “No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error” (2:256); “Mankind were only one nation, then they fell into variance. But for a word that preceded from thy Lord, it had been decided between them already touching their differences” (10:19); “And if there is a party of you who believe in the Message I have been sent with, and a party who believe not, be patient till God shall judge between us” (7:87).


Even the assertion of Islamic as a religion is accompanied by disagreement in the text: “The true religion with God is Islam. Those who were given the Book were not at variance except after the knowledge came to them, being insolent one to another” (3:19). What did the God of the Qur’an order His messenger and the people who belittled Him? The text reads: “We know indeed thy breast is strained by the things they say. Proclaim thy Lord’s praise, and be of those that bow” (15:97-98); “We know very well what they say; thou art not a tyrant over them. Therefore remind by the Koran him who fears My threat” (50:45); “Surely we have sent down upon thee the Book for mankind with the truth. Whosoever is guided, is only guided to his own gain, and whosoever goes astray, it is only to his own loss; thou art not a guardian over them” (39:41); “Then remind them! Thou art; thou are not charged to oversee them. But he who turns his back, and disbelieves, God shall chastise him with greatest chastisement” (88:21-24); “And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?” (10:99).


However, do not the Qur’anic verses, that call for the killing of the unbelievers, contradict intellectual freedom? No. We know from the lessons of history and qur’anic passages that these passages relate to war. Why then do people today confuse the issue at hand, that is freedom, with the ancient expulsion from Mecca (2:191;4:89-92) or the so called pact established between the tribes during the four sacred months (9:1-5) in seventh century Arabia? The problem resides in the continued political polarization today, the waves of regional and global wars, and the recent instability of many Arab-Muslim societies. The perception that Islam is being threatened favors the spread of jihadism, terrorism, military clashes and the murder of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not surprising that these societies live in a condition of fear and withdrawal; that they compare our bitter reality with a sanctified past. I may go as far as to say that our societies have been transformed in to those for whom “enough for [them] is what [they] found [their] fathers doing. What, even if their fathers had knowledge of naught and were not guided?” (5:104). And yet, history proves that science, intellectual pursuits and freedom turn into unbelief where darkness prevails.[3]



The Brain Drain

The repression of freedom has led to the persecution and expulsion from Arab-Muslim societies of many intellectuals, including those who write and work in Qur’anic studies. This was the case of Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd (d. 2010), a renown Egyptian scholar. Following the publication of his scientific study on the Qur’an (which he had published on the occasion of a university promotion), the religious establishment in Cairo forcibly divorced him from his wife on the basis of heresy.


His book on the “concept of the text” is unique in its genre, illustrating brilliantly and very clearly the technical terms of the Qura’nic text, and its semantics.[4] His exile remains a dark chapter in a society which later suffered brutal conflict between the military and terrorist groups. Before him, a professor from al-Azhar University, Ahmad Subhī Mansūr, founder of Ahl al-Qur’ān, or the Qur’anist School  ̶  who do not accept the authority of Islamic traditional books, particularly the hadīth  ̶ had been ostracized. In Iran, the great intellectual ‘Abd al-Karīm Sorūsh was accused of treason for his international talks and studies that suggest a new relationship between philosophy and religious texts.


Those who have not been exiled from their country face perennial clashes with religious and political authorities. It is worth mentioning the case of serious scholars and university professors like Sayyid al-Qimnī, who writes about the role of human culture in the religious experience of the prophet Muhammad and in understanding the Qur’an. He escaped attempts against his life, but he could not escape being beaten up on live TV. Other examples include Egyptian academics like Taha Husayn, Amīn al-Khūlī, and Muhammad Abū Zayd, who have studied the Qur’an as a literary genre, as an object – that is – of critical and scientific inquiry. Regrettably their society has not evolved in the same way. On the contrary, the religious establishment deems critical studies, particularly of Islam and the Qur’an, a sort of Western import and a form of heresy. On this ground, many intellectuals have been sued in tribunals, and attacked by the media or at public engagements.


There are also those who have paid with their life. The great Egyptian thinker Farag Foda was murdered by the Jamā‘a Islāmiyya on account of his critical writings and speeches. He vehemently criticized the inability to recognize the difference between Qur’anic revelation and tradition, citing the example of stoning, a penalty which is not even mentioned in the Qur’an. The writings and the reputation of Nawāl al-Sa‘dāwī  ̶  author, psychiatrist, and an ally of Foda in the promotion of an “enlightened Islam” ̶ , were so strongly slandered that she had to leave Egypt for the West – but that is another story. In Sudan, Muhammad Mahmūd Taha defended the values of freedom and equality found in the Qur’an, reversing the historical chronology of the so-called Medinan and Meccan verses.[5]He inevitably faced accusations of heresy and was condemned to the death penalty on this basis.


Despite the repression of religious freedom and the ensuing “brain drain,” Arab-Muslim societies do not completely lack intellectual figures who make their voices heard in the field of Qur’anic studies. They are however a tiny minority. In 2016, Ali Mabrouk, one of Abū Zayd’s colleagues and friends, died in Egypt. He was known for formulating the hypothesis, based on Islamic tradition itself, that the prophet Muhammad had conceived the Qur’an as a book open to different interpretations. In Tunisia, intellectual discourse has been slightly less restricted. Olfa Youssef has been allowed to voice the plurality of meanings found in Qur’anic semantics. Similarly, the renowned scholar Hichem Djaït has examined the role of historical and human phenomena  ̶  including the influence of the Syriac-Christian tradition  ̶  on the formation of the Qur’an and the prophecy of Muhammad. An insightful critique can also be found in the works of Ibrāhīm al-Buleihi [al-Bulayhī] and Ibtihāl al-Khatīb in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait respectively. The truth is that the majority of those who critically study the Qur’an do not live in the Arab nor Muslim majority countries, but in Western societies, where they can enjoy greater freedom and better economic opportunities.


To conclude, it is also necessary to draw attention to the problem of blasphemy laws, and the crime of “offending religion” in some nations today. This criminal category is itself a product of an intolerant, even takfīr-oriented, mindset. This is precisely the mindset which has devastated some Arab-Muslim societies through wars and revolts. If God truly does not need men, be they believers or unbelievers (39:7), and if His light will endure (9:32), then the only true concern of society should be to pass a law which forbids “offending humanity.”



The Freedom to Study Scripture – Online and on Satellite TV

As previously stated, political repression and the imposition of orthodoxy have not created a society of believers. Rather, they have pushed people to the opposite extremes of fundamentalism and atheism. What is left for the study of the Qur’an and freedom of thought in this situation? Human nature provides the answer: whatever people cannot do publicly, they will do it in secret, or better yet, on the Internet. It is worth mentioning some independent programs which freely examine religious concerns, including the nature of the Qur’an, with little or no interference on the part of the political and religious authorities. In the last ten years, these programs have multiplied and grown in popularity thanks to YouTube and other social networks. Muslims who had previously suffered persecution within Arab-Muslim societies – hence turning to atheism, Christianity, or another religion – have thus found notoriety. An example is a Moroccan, by the name of Brother Rashīd, whom after leaving Islam and converting to Christianity, now leads a popular TV program called “Bold questions” (Su’āl jarī’) on the satellite-channel al-Hayat. Its program is indeed bold considering how far it goes in in criticizing (and even attacking) the Qur’an and the prophet of Islam. The followers of this and other similar programs increased after the formation of the so called “Islamic State” or ISIS, which is in the background of every discussion on this program. Another program is the “Box of Islam” (Sundūq al-Islām), a slightly more academic program led by the Egyptian Hāmid ‘Abd al-Samad, who is now living in Germany, and who eventually left Islam following a very conservative religious education and upbringing. This program broadcasted a series of episodes on the “sources of the Qur’an,” and the links between the sacred texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, theorized by well known modern, Western-based, academic studies.


Not all programs of this kind are born from the initiative of those who live outside of Islam. There are also those who want a “religious reform.” The most significant example is that of the Egyptian intellectual Islam Behery. During the 2017 month of Ramadan, after long battles with al-Azhar, the official religious institution of Muslims in Egypt, and after spending a year in prison (followed by a presidential pardon),[6] he launched a new program entitled “The map” (Al-kharīta). Behery finds inspiration in the teachings of Islamic modernists like Muhammad ‘Abduh and Mahmūd Shaltūt,[7] rejecting many hadīths as offensive and self-contradictory, and offering a biography of the prophet grounded on the Qur’an alone, rather than later Islamic tradition. Behery has been a host of Egyptian television only since the government decided to undertake a religious reform of its own, shaken by the terrorist crisis and the creation ISIS.


In the field of linguistic studies, a popular Saudi amateur called Loay Alshareef has become famous for his YouTube videos, especially his unravelling of the Qur’an’s mysterious “unconnected letters” through Aramaic translation, rather than classical exegetes. His program is also partly a product of modern, critical academic study born in the West. The list of websites and satellite programs are too many to mention here. Suffice to say that the repression of intellectual freedom in some Arab-Muslim societies, particularly during the twentieth-first century, has not prevented intellectual freedom. It has, rather, allowed its dissemination on the Internet and social networks to which we all have access. The downside of this phenomenon is that it is unstructured and somewhat chaotic. It has, for instance, given rise to groups such as the “Saudi liberals;” at other times it has produced ISIS. It is, therefore, necessary for the sake of everyone’s security and stability, to sustain independent academic institutions, like universities, granting intellectual freedom especially to academics and researchers.



The Importance of the Critical Study of the Qur’an

The traditional Islamic approach to the Qur’an (its exegetical works, the “occasions of revelation,” and Qur’anic sciences generally speaking) cannot be considered a proper field of rigorous, critical academic study. To be blunt, there is a huge gap between simply parroting tradition under the pretext of studying the Qur’an on the one hand (meanwhile strengthening the power of clergy and weakening that of the common people), and undertaking academic research rooted in modern critical methods on the other. The latter alone allows for an in-depth examination of the history and content of the Qur’anic text. Why should we look to a new approach to studying the Qur’an? The reason is that the Qur’an, like every other sacred text, has become a common heritage for all those who read it, both in the East and in the West. It is an integral part of world literature and universal history. Such a magnificent work deserves being studied with the most advanced scientific and scholarly tools. This is what is now taking place at the International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA) based in Houston and Atlanta, as well as the Corpus Coranicum project based in Berlin, and in many other cities throughout the world where the critical study of the Qur’an thrives. Modern Qur’anic studies is fundamentally interdisciplinary. It examines the text through the lens of literature, history, manuscripts, social sciences, archeology, numismatics and the humanities, both classical and digital.[8]


In conclusion, despite the methodological gap between them, there is a strong link between the objectives of classical Islamic tradition and modern Qur’anic studies. If we agree that the objective of modern Qur’anic studies is the understanding of the text, with no interest in defending this or that doctrine, this amounts to a renewal of classical independent reasoning (ijtihād) found in traditional Islamic scholarship. According to a famous Islamic saying, whoever sincerely exercises ijtihād will be rewarded, even if he/she is wrong.


Modern Qur’anic studies respects differences of opinion and the inevitable disagreements of scholars. In this respect it revives the traditional Islamic virtues of the “etiquette of disagreement,” and the “mercy” of multiple interpretations, which are so desperately needed today. Last but not least, as the renowned Islamic jurist Abū Hanīfa[9] promoted the idea that nothing prevents people from rectifying errors and renew old interpretations. About the founding generation of Islam he says: “They are men and we are men.” Today, to be precise, we should say “we are men and women.” The problem of intellectual freedom and Qur’anic studies is not an issue of faith or heresy. Rather, it is a matter of appreciating scripture and humankind at one and the same time, “for people who know how to think.”


[I would like to particularly thank my colleague Khadīja Ja‘far, writer and independent scholar of philosophy and Islamic sciences for her revisions]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Gilgamesh Nabeel, “Atheists in Muslim world: Silent, Resentful and Growing in Number,” The Washington Times, August 1 2017,; N.A. Hussein, “How Egypt’s Religious Institutions are Trying to Curb Atheism,” al-Monitor, May 23 2017,

[2] “Twitter…minbar al-sa‘ūdiyyin wa silāhu-hum” [Twitter, the Pulpit and the Weapon of the Saudi], al-Jazeera, September 27 2017.

[3] Mamdūh Dasūqī, “Al-Duktūr Khālid Muntasir al-bāhith wa l-mufakkir al-misrī li-«l-Wafd»: tuhmat izdirā’ al-adyān sayf ‘alā riqāb al-mubdi‘īn” [According to Khālid Muntasir ad “al-Wafd,” an Egyptian scholar and intellectual, the accusation of religious offense is like a sword weighing on the heads of the innovators], Al-Wafd, October 3 2017.

[4] Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd, Mafhūm al-nass: dirāsa fī ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān (al-Markaz al-thaqāfī al-‘arabī, al-Dār al-Baydā’, 2008).

[5] Taha argued that the most authentic and universal message of the Qur’an dated back to the verses of Meccan revelation. In his view, the verses of the Medinan period were intended to apply only within the historical context of seventh century Arabia. He encouraged Muslims to interpret the Qur’an in light of the Meccan verses, while jurists have always supported the priority of the Medinan verses, especially for the development of legal norms [Ed.].

[6] Islam Behery had been sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy, having passed very harsh judgments on the Islamic tradition and al-Azhar.

[7] Two important figures of Islamic Reformism. Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) was Mufti of Egypt from 1899 to 1905. Mahmūd Shaltūt (1893-1963) was Grand Iman of Al-Azhar from 1985 to his death [Ed.].

[8] Imrān al-Badawī, “Al-Bahth ‘an siyāq al-Qur’ān al-tārīkhī – nubdha ‘an i l-dirāsāt al-qur’āniyya al-hadītha,” Al-Mashriq al-raqamiyya 5 (December 2014).

[9] Famous legal scholar, founder of one of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. He died in Baghdad in 767 [Ed.].