Introduction to Classics

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

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This article is the introduction to “Life in the Shade of the Qur’an”.

“The Qur’an is always virgin.” Thus reportedly spoke Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897), a pioneer of modern Islamic reformism, to stress the need to read and reread a text whose full depth, he believed, remained unexplored in spite of the plethora of commentaries inherited from tradition. So great was the wealth of scholarship that it had become unwieldly, and it was hold accountable for the decline of Islamic societies and their inability to respond to the many challenges of modern civilization. To repeat the glories of the past, concluded al-Afghani, Islam needed to be reformed through a purge of all the accrued elements that over the centuries have come to encumber it.

Afghānī, who was more of an activist than a theorist, mapped out the route but did not follow it to its end. The reformist baton was thus passed to his disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), and then to the latter’s disciple, Rashid Ridā (1865-1935). It was Ridā, in particular, who mooted the idea of a new commentary of the Qur’an that would finally be in keeping with the times. After some hesitation, ‘Abduh accepted the challenge, and between 1899 and 1905, at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, held a course on the subject. The lessons were scrupulously transcribed by Ridā and published in the journal al-Manār (“The Lighthouse”). In this work, co-authored by the two men, it is difficult to tell the contributions of the teacher and the disciple apart, also because, during his teaching course, ‘Abduh had commented on only the first four suras of the Qur’an. Ridā extended the commentary to the twelfth sura, whereupon their work was interrupted. He collated the work into a book that became known under the title Tafsīr al-Manār (Manār’s commentary), from which the first excerpt we are presenting is drawn. The excerpt comes from the introduction to the Tafsīr, which Ridā explicitly states as expressing the thought of his master and in which the cornerstone ideas of the entire commentary are set forth. At their heart is the belief that traditional exegesis ended up multiplying various partial approaches to Scripture, distracting many from “its true meaning,” which is an understanding of the Book as “moral guide given by God to the world.” ‘Abduh and Ridā therefore did not propose any new methods of inquiry, but merely call on Muslims to replace the Book at the centre of their personal, social and political lives.

The credit for introducing methodological innovations belongs instead to the movement inaugurated by the Egyptian Amīn al-Khūlī (d. 1966). He, too, believed that the Qur’an should be considered a guide for Muslims. But, unlike ‘Abduh and Ridā, thought that for it to be truly understood, it had to be read first and foremost as a literary text.

One of the intellectuals interested in the literary aspects of the Qur’an was another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who before becoming one of the leading contemporary Islamist ideologues was an esteemed critic with liberal tendencies, to whom we also owe the discovery of the great writer Naguib Mahfouz. Qutb transformed the Qur’an from an object of aesthetic study into an experience of faith and active militancy. In the early 1950s, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and suffered the consequences of its repression by the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime. While in prison, he turned his writing talent to serving the cause of Islamism, and wrote Fī Zilāl al-Qur’ān (“In the shade of the Qur’an”), of which the second piece we are presenting in our anthology is an excerpt. Along with Tafsīr al-Manār, Qutb’s work became the most influential Qur’anic commentary of the twentieth century. In fact, more than a commentary proper, the Zilāl is an experiential exegesis, a sort of struggle with the text, not for the purpose of lyrically contemplating a past marvel, but in order to mark out “a practical path to utopia for the umma of tomorrow” (Olivier Carré). Through immersion in the experience of the first Muslim community, “Life in the shade of the Qur’an” allows Muslims to escape the darkness of paganism, i.e. the jāhiliyya (ignorance) that was traditionally associated with pre-Islamic Arabia, but that, in Qutb, becomes a trans-historical category to which all non-Islamic societies, past and present, belong.

Qutb’s journey from literary criticism to Islamist militancy was made in reverse by another great Qur’anic scholar of the 20th century, Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd. Born in 1943 in Lower Egypt, at the age of eight he already knew the Qur’an by heart, and, while still a child, joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Distancing himself from Islamism, in the 1970s he dedicated himself to literary studies, and rediscovered and elaborated Amin-al-Khūlī’s literary analyses of the Qur’an. For Abū Zayd, who approached Scripture with the tools of linguistics, the sacred text was first and foremost a message, and therefore a communicative relationship between a sender and a receiver. In Mafhūm al-Nass (The Concept of the Text), from which the third piece in the anthology is taken, he argues that “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 text should therefore be understood primarily with reference to the linguistic and cultural context in which it was revealed. In as much as it is also an act of communication, however, the Book is continuously subject to the fresh interpretation, which may never be absolute or definitive, by whomsoever receives it. For holding these views Abu Zayd was dismissed from the university and condemned for apostasy, which forced him into exile in the Netherlands. It is a sad fate for a scholar who never wanted to be a revolutionary, and has repeatedly argued that he simply drawing on the lessons of such classics as al-Suyūtī and al-Zarakshī.

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

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “The Qur'an: still New after Many Centuries”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 105-106.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “The Qur'an: still New after Many Centuries”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: