Ridā, Qutb, and Abū Zayd: the approaches of three Muslim thinkers of the modern era

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:19:46

To understand the Book as a religion that leads men to happiness in this life and the next; expose the corruption of those who love their low desires more than God; analyse the sacred Text as a communicative relationship between God and man, to show that the Absolute reveals itself to men through their linguistic and cultural system: the approaches of three Muslim thinkers of the modern era

Writings by Ridā, Qutb, and Abū Zayd


Rashīd Ridā, Tafsīr al-Manār[1]

It is not easy to talk about the Qur’anic commentary: indeed, it is perhaps one of the most serious and difficult tasks that we can undertake. But we cannot simply ignore that which is difficult: we must apply ourselves to the task, though the difficulties are legion. The greatest difficulty is that the Qur’an is heavenly Word that descended from the divine majesty, whose essence is unfathomable, onto the heart of the most perfect of the prophets. This Word is replete with exalted knowledge and argument, which only those in possession of a pure soul and a clear mind can contemplate. Whosoever sets out to examine this word is confronted with a magnificence and splendour that descends from sublime perfection, such as to fill him with awe and almost prevent him from reaching his goal. But God Almighty eased our task when he commanded us to reflect on His Word and to understand it. For He has sent down the Book as a guide and a light that reveal to men His judgments and His laws, which would remain unknowable if men could not understand it.

The purpose of the commentary on the Qur’an that we have in mind is to foster an understanding of the Scripture as a religion that leads men to happiness in this life and the next. This is the ultimate goal of a commentary, and anything else that might be sought for through it depends on this goal and is instrumental to it.

A Qur’anic commentary comes in several different types. The first is a stylistic and semantic analysis of the Book and of its rhetorical tropes to demonstrate the elevated nature of the Word and its superiority over other discourses. This is the method followed by Zamakhsharī,[2] who also considered other aspects. Others have followed in his footsteps. A second type of analysis focuses on grammar (i‘rāb). Many have dedicated themselves to this form of study and gone into great depth in their exposition of the various aspects of grammar and the possible readings that result. A third type of commentary concentrates on the stories of the Qur’an. Many who adopted this approach have added at will by drawing from history books and isra’iliyyāt.[3] […] The fourth type regards the study of obscure words in the Qur’an (gharīb al-Qur’ān). The fifth deals with extracting from the text sharia rules relating to acts of worship and social relations. […] The sixth type treats of the discourse of the foundations of doctrine and defence against deviations. Imam al-Rāzī[4] was particularly interested in this form of exegesis. The seventh type concerns itself with exhortation and spiritual elevation. Some have got carried away and mixed it up with the stories of the Sufi[5] and ascetics, sometimes crossing the boundaries of virtue and morality established by the Qur’an. The eighth type of commentary is known as allusive (bi-l-ishāra) exegesis[6]…. Belonging to this type is the commentary attributed to the Great Sheik Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī, although in reality it is the work of Kāshānī, a famous esoteric scholar.[7] This type of commentary includes some questionable points that have nothing to do with the religion of God and His Noble Book.

As you can see, the plethora of particular approaches to the Book distracted many from its purpose, leading them down paths by the end of which they have forgotten its true meaning. This is why we have said that by commentary we intend an understanding of the Book as a religion and as a moral direction that God has given the world, as showing that which men ought to do in this life to make them blessed in the Hereafter; and, as a secondary matter, the commentary examines rhetorical questions to the extent permitted by the meaning, and grammatical aspects […]

A contemporary went so far as to say that there was no need to comment on or analyse the Qur’an, because the imams who preceded us had already examined the Book and Sunna and extrapolated the necessary rules from them. We should therefore heed their books alone, and limit ourselves to them – so says this person. But if that were true, the wish to compose a commentary would be frivolous, and doing so would be a waste of time. Yet, for all the admiration we may have for fiqh (jurisprudence, Ed.), this opinion contradicts the consensus of the umma, from the Prophet himself to the last of the believers. I do not know how such an idea could enter the mind of a Muslim.

Practical rules that are conventionally referred to as fiqh make up but the smallest part of what is in the Qur’an. The purification of the spirits, the invitation to let them find their happiness, to raise them from the depths of ignorance to the heights of knowledge, to guide them on the road of their life together – no-one who believes in God and in Judgement Day can wish for anything else; this is what is worthiest of inclusion in an authentic jurisprudence. The guidance can be found in the Qur’an alone, and in what is to be found there.


Sayyid Qutb, Fī Zilāl al-Qur’ān[8]  

Life in the shade of the Qur’an is a grace that only those who have savoured this life can enjoy. A grace that elevates existence, blesses it, and purifies it. I thank God for allowing me, for a certain period of time, a life in the shade of the Qur’an, where I savoured a grace such as I had never savoured before. A grace that elevates existence, blesses it, and purifies it. I have lived listening to God – glorified be His name! – who spoke to me through this Qur’an. He spoke to me, His humble and small servant. What great and sublime an honour this is for a man! How much this revelation can elevate existence! With what dignity is man filled by his Noble Creator!

I have lived in the shade of the Qur’an looking down from above at the jāhiliyya[9] that pervades the Earth, and at the small and petty interests of the people who live there, and I have observed the consternation of the people wallowing in this jāhiliyya, in their infantile knowledge, ideas and interests, just as the adult observes the frivolities of children, their efforts and their babbling. What can be said of these people? Why do they fall into the putrid mud and not listen to the higher and majestic appeal, the appeal that elevates existence, blesses it, and purifies it?

I have lived in the shade of the Qur’an nourishing myself from its full, unbroken, exalted and pure understanding of existence [...]. I have compared it with the jāhiliyya in which humanity lives, in both the East and West as in the North and South, and I ask myself, how can humanity dwell in a fetid swamp, in degrading abjection, and in brutal inequity when it could attain the pristine pasture, the elevated summit, and the immaculate light?

I have lived in the shade of the Qur’an perceiving the harmonious correspondence between the movement of man, as God wills it, and the movement of the cosmos that God created. But I see the prostration into which humanity has fallen by deviating from the laws of the cosmos, and I see the contradiction between the evil and immoral teachings being imparted to humanity and its God-given nature. And so I ask: What vile demon is it that leads humanity on the path to this hell? How much grief for men!

I have lived in the shade of the Qur’an seeing how much bigger existence is than its merely visible part: how much greater in its truth, how much greater in the multifariousness of its aspects. It is not only the visible but also the invisible world. It is not only this lower world, but also the Beyond. […]

I have lived in the shade of the Qur’an seeing in man a dignity far superior to any that humanity has ever allowed him. For in this man is the spirit of God: “When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit in him, fall you down, bowing before him!” (Qur’an 38:72). Because of this breath, he is ruler on earth: “And when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am setting in the earth a viceroy’.” (2:30). And all that which is on the earth is subject to him: “And He has subjected to you what is in the heavens and what is in the earth” (Qur’an 45,13). […]

In the period of my life that I passed in the shade of the Qur’an, I reached absolute and definitive certainty that there is no rectitude on this earth, nor restoration for this humanity, nor peace for man, nor elevation, nor blessing, nor purity, nor harmony with the laws of the cosmos or with the nature of life unless man returns to God. And the return to God – as may be seen from the shade of the Qur’an – has but one shape and but one path. It is the only path, for there is no other. It is returning one’s entire life to God’s method, to the method that he marked out for humanity in His Noble Book. And this method consists making sure that what governs the life of humanity is this Book alone, and for those affairs that concern it, one must entrust oneself to its judgement alone. Otherwise there will be only corruption on the earth, the depravity of people, the despair in the mud, and jāhiliyya, which loves low desires more than God: “But if they answer thee not, know that they only follow their low desires. And who is more erring than he who follows his low desires without any guidance from Allah?” (Qur’an 28:50).


Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd, Mafhūm al-Nass[10]

This study begins with an examination both of the entire reality that Arab culture has built up around the Qur’anic text, and of the concepts that emerge from the text itself. In truth, the difference between what the text produces by itself and what is shaped by the surrounding culture is arbitrary. It is nevertheless essential to note the difference for the purpose of clarity of exposition. In fact, the text is essentially a cultural product, i.e. it acquired its form within the context of a certain reality and culture over a period of more than twenty years.[11] Although this might seem an obvious and accepted truth, it is rejected on account of the belief in a prior metaphysical existence of the text, thus undermining the idea that a scientific understanding of the textual phenomenon is possible.[12] A belief in a divine source of the text, and, therefore, in the possibility that it existed prior to its concrete cultural existence, is not incompatible with carrying out an analysis of the text by seeking to understand the culture to which it belongs. To put it another way, when God revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet, He did so by choosing the particular linguistic system of the first recipient. Choosing a language is not the same as choosing an empty vessel, even though this is what contemporary religious discourse is claiming. Language is in fact the most important tool at the disposal of the community for receiving and understanding the world and the way it is organized. Consequently, we cannot speak of a language that transcends culture and reality, nor therefore of a text that transcends culture or reality, since a text is situated within the context of the language system of a culture. The divine source of the text does not contradict the materiality of its content, nor, therefore, its belonging to human culture.

The Qur’an characterises itself as a message. A message is a communicative relationship between addresser and an addressee through a code or language system. Since in the case of the Qur’an, the addresser cannot be the object of scientific study, the only viable angle of approach to studying the text is through an examination of reality and culture. [...]

The message contained in the act of communication/revelation, be it linguistic or not, is not reserved for the first recipient, but must be transmitted and communicated to the people. If the message is linguistic-discursive, as is the case of the Qur’an, then it must be transmitted without change, modification or alteration. In many passages, the text distinguishes between the subject of the discourse – he who speaks or reveals – and the first recipient: “And if he had fabricated against Us certain sayings, we would certainly have seized him by the right hand” (Qur’an 69:44); “Or say they: He has forged it. Nay, they have no faith!” (52,33).

The mission of the first recipient is to transmit the message and tell it to the people, not merely receive it and simply know its content. To do only this would be not to go beyond the stage of prophecy (nubuwwa); for it is the act of communication that makes of the Prophet (nabī) a messenger (rasūl): “O Messenger, deliver that which has been revealed to thee from thy Lord; and if thou do (it) not, thou hast not delivered His message” (Qur’an 5:67). […]

The fact that the text is a “communication” means that its beneficiaries are all the people – all the people who belong to the same language system as the text and to the cultural context built around this language. The concept of “descent” (revelation, Ed.) needs to be understood as referring to a descent through two intermediaries: the first is the angel; the second the man, Muhammad. Certainly it is a message from heaven to the earth, but it is not a message that transcends the laws of reality, nor does it transcend all the structures with which this really is organized, the most important of which is culture. The Absolute reveals Himself to men through His word. He descends to them using their semantic, linguistic and cultural system.


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] Rashīd Ridā, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Hakīm al-mashhūr bi-Tafsīr al-Manār (Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, Beirut, 20113). The excerpt translated here is from the introduction, vol. 1, pp. 21-22.

[2] Abū l-Qāsim Mahmūd al-Zamakhsharī (1075-1144) was a prominent representative of the mu‘tazilite rationalist theology. His Qur’anic commentary, al-Kashshāf, stands out for the depth of its linguistic analysis.

[3] These are stories of Jewish or Christian origin used to explain some Qur’anic verses, and in particular those relating to the stories of the prophets.

[4] Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (1149-1209) was a theologian and philosopher of Persian origin. He is the author of a monumental rationalist Qur’anic commentary known by the title al-Mafātīh al-Ghayb (The keys to the mystery).

[5] We read mutasawwifa instead of mutasarrifa.

[6] On allusive commentary, see the article by Denis Gril in this issue of the journal.

[7] The confusion is due to the fact that al-Kāshānī (1256-1353), a Sufi master of Persian origin, was strongly influenced by the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī (1165-1240), the celebrated and influential mystic born in Murcia, who did indeed compose a commentary that has been lost, as Denis Gril explains in his article.

[8] Sayyid Qutb, Fī Zilāl al-Qur’ān (Dār al-Shurūq, Cairo, 2003). The excerpt given here is from the introduction, pp. 11-15.

[9] Jāhiliyya, literally “ignorance,” is the characteristic state of Arabian society before the advent of Islam. In Qutb, this concept takes on a trans-historical significance as he applies the term to all societies that are not true followers of Islam, be they non-Muslim or Muslim in name only.

[10] Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd, Mafhūm al-Nass. Dirāsāt fī ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān (al-Hay’a al-misriyya al-‘āmma li l-kitāb, Cairo, 1990). The excerpts here are taken from the introduction, pp. 27-28, and from the first chapter, p. 64.

[11] The reference is to the period 610-632, when, according to Islamic belief, the Qur’an was revealed.

[12] According to Sunni Islam, the Qur’an, being the Word of God, has existed since all eternity, before its “sending down” to Muhammad. It is uncreated.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Ridā, Qutb, and Abū Zayd, ““Life in the Shade of the Qur’an””, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 107-112.

Online version:
Text by Ridā, Qutb, and Abū Zayd, ““Life in the Shade of the Qur’an””, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/life-shade-qur.