Critique of Religious Discourse

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Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd
Jonathan Wright
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a prominent scholar of Islam, was convicted of apostasy in 1990 after the publication of his book, Mafhum al-Nass. The book presented his core tenets, which challenged the ahistoricity of religious texts and called for a reading of the Qur’an as a cultural text. Unfortunately, the Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd apostasy case garnered more international attention than his ground-breaking oeuvre. This year, an excellent, pleasant, and highly readable translation of his essay, Critique of Religious Discourse/Naqd al-Khitab al-Dini, is being released to the English speaking academia. Carool Kersten’s extensive scholarly introduction guides the reader in situating Abu Zayd’s intellectual project within the domains of Western hermeneutics philosophy and Islamic studies.

First published in Arabic in 1994, Critique of Religious Discourse problematizes a longstanding and prevalent Westernized religious/secular binary, which has shown limited ability to understand, let alone explain, the complexities and contradictions inherent in the interpretation of religious texts. This book could prove invaluable in furthering a conceptual reconfiguration of religion and secularism. Scholars will have an opportunity to rethink boundaries that separate religion and secularism through this work, and most importantly, the epistemological implications and consequences in interpreting authoritative texts.

Abu Zayd, keen to distinguish between religion and religious thought, tied only religious thought, not religion, to his conception of the historicity of ideas. Religions, he writes, are “historically” established holy texts while religious thought is the “human endeavor to understand and interpret those texts and extract meaning from them [that] naturally differ from one ethnic, geographic, historical, and social reality to another,” and how “the endeavors are equally diverse from one thinker to another in a particular environment” (227). The problem, he argues, is that historicity of religious thought was always suppressed in favor of “absolutism that verges on the sacred and that ascribes indirectly to itself” (228).

There is a common thread that runs throughout the essay, in which the dichotomy between major voices affecting Islamic scholarship is continually explored. This tension has led to disagreements over the meaning of religion and secularism: “does it mean religion as it is presented and practiced in a self-interested ideological form by both the right and the left, or does it mean religion after it has been analyzed, understood, and interpreted in a scholarly manner that eliminates myth and retains the impetus that religion provides toward progress, justice and freedom? Secularism is in essence no more than the real interpretation and scholarly understanding of religion and not, as its denigrators claim a form of atheism that separates religion from society and life” (32). The goal of this intentional confusion, he argues, is instrumental: “to combine the power of religion with the power of the state, political authority, with religious authority” (32).

The work was originally published as three individual papers throughout 1989-1990. In the first two chapters, Abu Zayd considers varying Islamic approaches, attempting to clarify their interpretations of the religious text as either “tendentious and colored,” or “not innocent” (137). A reading acts as a non-innocent perusal that can “be explained epistemologically … given that the act of cognition does not start from an absolute total vacuum analogues to the state of original and primal innocence,” if such a vacuum could ever exist. On the other hand, tendentious, colored interpretation is only meant to serve certain ideological/political goals (142, 144).

In the first section, Abu Zayd discusses the approach to religious text as mainly endorsed by the official religious establishment (al-Azhar). In the second section, he examines attempts to interpret religious texts by the Islamic left, whose representative contributions were greatly influenced by their exposure to discourses of Western philosophy, as well as by their affiliation to the political and intellectual left (marxism, socialism, and Arab-nationalism). Abu Zayd characterizes these seemingly disparate approaches as colored and tendentious. He finds a commonality between the interpretative work performed by the Islamic right and left. The Islamic right takes the past as the basis of the present, while the Islamic left is, “giving tradition a revelatory reading,”  a “reading of the past in the present and vice versa” (167). However, he argues, the renewal project of the Islamic left is merely a “painting” of an old construct, and not a genuine renewal of old traditions (178). Both approaches make “the past central and the present peripheral … in fact, the left goes beyond the naiveté of the rightist thesis and turns tradition into both the starting point and the endpoint” (189).

In the final chapter, Abu Zayd returns to the question that concerns him most: what do we mean by scholarly historical awareness of religious texts? Such awareness “goes beyond theories about religious thinking in ancient or modern times and depends on the achievements of linguistics, especially in the field of hermeneutics” (232). Religious texts embody a language that belong to certain cultural structures. It is in this sense that religious texts serve as historical texts, or “human texts by virtue of belonging to language and culture in a particular historical period” (241).  “Whereas religious thinking makes the speaker of the texts—God—the focus of its attention and its starting point, we make the audience, human beings in all their socio-historical surroundings, the beginning and the end of our approach. The problem with religious thinking is that it starts from ideas based on the doctrines of a particular school of thought about the nature of God, human nature, and the relationship between the two and then makes the texts give voice to those ideas and doctrines … in other words, religious thinking always tries to dress up [meaning that is necessarily historical, human meaning] in metaphysical garb to make it seem eternal and everlasting” (232).

As a progressive scholar, Abu Zayd was interested in moving the conversation within the Islamic tradition forward to create a rational, historical, and uncolored interpretation of religious texts. He wrote, “religious discourse does not conceal questions because it is unaware of them, but rather because bringing them up is at odds with the interests of the powers that it speaks for and supports,” (272). He saw this form of interpreting religious text as the only way to counter the ideological use and manipulation of religion. This work is an important step in presenting the work of Abu Zayd to a wider audience. Its significant contribution will continue to shape debates on the interpretation of authoritative texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Magda Gamal El-Ghitany is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

After his exile, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010) became the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht.

Jonathan Wright is an award-winning translator.


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