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Book Reviews

The Liberal Ditch between Hadîth and Qur’an

L’Islam, La liberté, la laïcité and Le Crime de la tribu des « Il nous a été rapporté », edited by Dominique Avon and Amin Elias, with Adbellatif Idrissi

The younger brother of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, Gamâl al-Bannâ was born in 1920 in a deeply religious and humble family of the Egyptian Delta. For forty years his father dedicated his energies to the ambitious project of reorganising by subject-matter the hundreds of thousands of hadîth (prophetic traditions) contained in the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal (ninth century) with the aim of facilitating their use for scholars of Islamic jurisprudence. It is therefore an authentic irony of history that it was specifically Gamâl al-Bannâ who published in 2008 one of the most polemical writings, if not on the hadîths themselves, at least on their supporters.

 

 

The champion of a liberal Islam, Gamâl al-Bannâ carries to extreme the critique of traditional religious sciences which is one of the constants of contemporary Islamic thought. In this way the author digs a ditch between the Word of God, the Qur’an, and the words of men, including those of the Prophet of Islam. The purpose is two-fold: to consign the prophetic tradition to the critical examination of history and, in opposing fashion, to further stress the centrality of the Qur’an. This operation is carried out with great mastery, demolishing with their own weapons the building constructed by the traditionists and the advantages are evident: a series of hadîth that today create difficulties for Muslims in organising society (‘obey the prince even if he beats you or steals your money’), or in relating to the believers of other religions (‘kill those who change religion’), are de-sacralised and thus relativised. Al-Bannâ, indeed, ends his fierce argument with a magisterial piece on the typical day of a backward-looking Muslim, the unknowing victim of the crimes of the tribe of ‘we have been told’ (the formula with which every Islamic tradition begins). The condemnation is without appeal: ‘The outcome of superstition, these hadîths have annihilated souls and made the mentality of Muslims idiotic and not creative’ (p. 183).

 

 

In a totally mirror-like way the Qur’an is projected into an absolute and a-temporal dimension: those hadîths, cherished by modern textual criticism, which seem to allude to a steady redaction of the Holy Text, are rejected as an example of the bad faith of traditionists. The result is the absolutisation of the Qur’an, whose logical conclusion is the rejection of the doctrine of the abrogating and the abrogated, according to which a later verse, which is usually more restrictive, is said to annul previous ones, which not rarely are more universal. This dual approach – rejection of the hadîth and a global reading of the Qur’an – allows Gamâl al-Bannâ to endorse a modern vision of Islam, no longer tied to medieval models. One could, however, ask whether the return to the pure letter is really possible or whether the possibility of transcending history remains a dangerous illusion. The theme of the pure Qur’an is indeed very present in the fundamentalist literature too, whilst exponents of traditional knowledge, and in particular that of a mystical character, appear to be more aware of the need for a mediation between the believer and the Text.

 

 

Of less theoretical importance but of great practical relevance is the first text of the volume which is centred around freedom and secularity. One cannot but agree with the proposal of al-Bannâ to revitalise religious values against the excesses of secularism without, however, abandoning the principle of freedom of thought, a position which, indeed, the author defended with great courage during the trial for apostasy against Nasr Abû Zayd.

 

 

Perhaps it was specifically this coherence and rigour that obtained for the author a vast following in Egypt, differently from other liberal thinkers who have remained essentially marginal. It is thus doubly sad to observe, in particular in the text on secularity, how al-Bannâ had access to a vision of Christianity and in particular of the Catholic Church which we can, without exaggeration, define as grotesque. That liberal Muslims should address European history through a deforming lens is an authentic tragedy, demanding an urgent solution. Since it is specifically the Christian experience that could offer these reformist intellectuals new hints both at a political level – for example in relation to ‘positive secularity’ – and at a theological level, for example as regards the relationship between revelation and history.

 

 

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