Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, in Arabic: نصر حامد ابو زيد, (born July 10, 1943) is an Egyptian Qur'anic thinker and one of the leading liberal theologians in Islam. He is famous for his project of a humanistic Qur'anic hermeneutics.
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was born in Qufaha near Tanta, Egypt on July 10, 1943. At the age of 12, he was imprisoned for allegedly sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood. After receiving technical training he worked for the National Communications Organization in Cairo. At the same time, he started studying at Cairo University, where he obtained his BA degree in Arabic Studies (1972), and later his MA (1977) and PhD degrees (1981) in Islamic Studies, with works concerning the interpretation of the Qur'an. In 1982, he joined the faculty of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor there in 1987.
Zayd suffered major religious persecution for his views on the Qur'an as a religious, mythical, literary work. In 1995, he was promoted to the rank of full professor, but Islamic controversies about his academic work led to a court decision of apostasy and the denial of the appointment. A hisbah trial started against him by fundamentalist Islamic scholars, he was declared a heretic (Murtadd) by an Egyptian court, and consequently was declared to be divorced from his wife, Cairo University French Literature professor Dr. Ibthal Younis. The basis of the divorce decree under Sharia law was that since it is not permissible for a Muslim to be married to a non-Muslim, and since Zayd was an apostate, he therefore could not be married to his wife. This decision, in effect, forced him out of his homeland.
The Nasr Abu Zayd case began when he was refused a promotion for the post of full professor. In May 1992, Dr. Abu Zayd presented his academic publications to the Standing Committee of Academic Tenure and Promotion for advancement. Among the thirteen works in Arabic and other languages were Imam Shafei and the Founding of Medieval Ideology and The Critique of Religious Discourse. The committee presented three reports, two were in favor of the promotion of Dr. Abu Zayd. But the third one, written by Abdel-Sabour Shahin, a professor of Arabic linguistics and a committee member, accused Abu Zayd of "clear affronts to the Islamic faith" and rejected the promotion.
Despite the two positive reports, the Tenure and Promotion Committee voted against the promotion (seven votes to six), arguing that his works did not justify a promotion. The Council of the Arabic Department stated against the committee's decision, and The Council of the Faculty of Arts criticized the committee report. Despite all that, the Council of Cairo University confirmed the decision of the committee report in 18 March 1993.
The case was no longer one involving only Cairo University after a lawyer filed a lawsuit before the Giza Lower Personal Status Court demanding for the divorce of Abu Zayd from his wife, Dr. Ibthal Younis. The case was filed on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. But, on 27 January 1994, the Giza Personal Status Court rejected the demand because the plaintiff had no direct, personal interest in the matter.
However, the Cairo Appeals Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and declared null and void the marriage of Abu Zayd and Ibtihal Younes in 1995. The irony of the story occurred when Cairo University promoted Abu Zayd to full professor and the academic committee wrote:
"After reviewing the works submitted by Dr. Abu-Zeid in his application for promotion, examining them both individually and as a whole, we have reached the following conclusion: his prodigious academic efforts demonstrate that he is a researcher well-rooted in his academic field, well-read in our Islamic intellectual traditions, and with a knowledge of all its many branches — Islamic principles, theology, jurisprudence, Sufism, Qur'anic studies, rhetoric and linguistics — He has not rested on the laurels of his in-depth knowledge of this field, but has taken a forthright, critical position. He does not attempt to make a critique until he has mastered the issues before him, investigating them by way of both traditional and modern methodologies. In sum he is a free thinker, aspiring only to the truth. If there is something urgent about his style, it seems from the urgency of the crisis which the contemporary Arab-Islamic World is witnessing and the necessity to honestly identify the ills of this world in order that an effective cure be found. Academic research should not be isolated from social problems, but should be allowed to participate in current debates and to suggest solutions to current dilemmas by allowing researchers to investigate and interpret as far as possible."
The principle behind hisbah gives all Muslims the right to file lawsuits in cases where an exalted right of God has been violated. The hisba principles are stated in Article 89 and 110 of the Regulations Governing Sharia Courts. In 1998, however, this law was amended by the Egyptian government, making it impossible for individuals to file lawsuits accusing someone of apostasy, leaving the issue to the prerogative of the prosecution office.
The decision provoked a great debate and human rights organisations criticized the decisions because of several offenses to fundamental human rights
The Court case was based on the alleged apostasy of Nasr Abu Zayd, hence the decision was based on Qur'anic punishment. But The Egyptian Penal Code does not recognize apostasy and Civil Law restricts the proof of apostasy to two possibilities: either a certificate from a specialized religious institution certifying that the individual has converted to another religion or a confession by the individual that he has converted.
"Since a Muslim inherits his/her religion from his/her parents, he/she does not need to re-announce his/her Faith". (Court of Cessation, 5/11/1975 - Court decisions 1926, p. 137).
"It is stated that for a person to be a Muslim it is enough that he articulates his belief in Allah and the Prophet Mohamed. The judge may not look into the seriousness of incentives behind the confession. It is not necessary to make a public confession". (Justice Azmy El Bakry, The Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence and the Judiciary in Personal Status, 3rd Edition, p. 234)
"In accordance with the established course of this court, religious belief is considered to be a spiritual matter, and consequently is to be judged only by what is explicitly declared. Therefore, a judge is not to investigate the sincerity nor the motive of such declared statement". (Cassation 44, judicial year 40, session 26 January 1975).
"This court has always taken the course established by the law that religious belief is among matters in which the judgement should be based on declared statement and by no means should the sincerity or motives of this statement be questioned". (Cassation 51, judicial year 52, session 14 June 1981) (Both rulings in Azmy al-Bakry, p. 125)
Nasr Abu Zayd never declared himself as an apostate. In an interview, he explained:
"I'm sure that I'm a Muslim. My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not. I'm not a new Salman Rushdie, and don't want to be welcomed and treated as such. I'm a researcher. I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Qur'an as a nass (text) given by God to the Prophet Mohamed. That text is put in a human language, which is the Arabic language. When I said so, I was accused of saying that the Prophet Mohamed wrote the Qur'an. This is not a crisis of thought, but a crisis of conscience."
The judgement stated that:
"the defendant's proposition that the requirement of Christians and Jews to pay jizya (tax) constitutes a reversal of humanity's efforts to establish a better world is contrary to the divine verses on the question of jizya, in a manner considered by some, inappropriate, even for temporal matters and judgements not withstanding its inappropriateness when dealing with the Qur'an and Sunna, whose texts represent the pinnacle of humane and generous treatment of non-Muslim minorities. If non-Muslim countries were to grant their Muslim minorities even one-tenth of the rights accorded to non-Muslim minorities by Islam, instead of undertaking the mass murder of men, women, and children, this would be a step forward for humanity. The verse on jizya, verse 29 of Sura al-Tawba, which the defendant opposes, is not subject to discussion". (p. 16 of the judicial opinion)
Further, the judgement stated that the denunciation by Abu Zayd of the permissibility of the ownership of slave girls, principle considered "religiously proven without doubt", is "contrary to all the divine texts which permit such provided that the required conditions are met" (p. 16 of the judicial opinion).
The decision was not isolated; it was made during a period of several assaults on liberal intellectuals and artists in the Muslim world in the 1990s. Dr. Ahmed Sohby Mansour was dismissed from Al-Azhar University and imprisoned for six months. This was based on a verdict reached by the university itself on the grounds that he rejected a fundamental tenet of Islam in his research of truth of some of Muhammad's sayings, or Hadith. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist in 1994, leaving him incapable of using his hand to write. Egyptian courts were the theatre of different lawsuits brought against intellectuals, journalists, and university professors such as Atif al-Iraqi, Ragaa al-Naqash, Mahmoud al-Tohami, Youssef Chahine (for his film El-Mohager, The Emigrant).
In Kuwait in 1996, Ahmed Al-Baghdadi, a journalist and professor of political science, was jailed for one month for making offensive remarks about Muhammad. Laila Al-Othman and Dr. Aliya Shoeib, two of Kuwait's top female authors, as well as publisher Yahiya Al-Rubayan, stood trial on November 10, 2000 for allegedly insulting Islam in their novels. They were convicted of indecent language and defamatory expressions, and sentenced to two months in prison for moral and religious offenses . In Lebanon in 2003, Marcel Khalife, a well-known Lebanese singer, faced up to three years in jail after Beirut's newly appointed chief investigating judge reopened a case that accused him of insulting Islam in 1996, and again in 1999, by singing a verse from the Qur'an in one of his songs (Ana yussef, I am Josef. He was found innocent. .
After the verdict, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization (which assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981) said the professor should be killed because he had abandoned his Muslim faith. Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd was protected by the police, but soon rejected it. On 23 July 1995, the couple flew to Madrid, then decided to go from Spain to the Netherlands, where he was invited to teach as a Visiting Professor at the Leiden University. On 8 November 1999, he filed a suit against the Egyptian justice minister, demanding that the 1996 ruling which annulled the marriage be declared illegal.
He currently holds the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht, The Netherlands, while still supervising MA and PhD students at the University of Leiden as well. He also participates in a research project on Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique in the Working Group on Islam and Modernity at the Institute of Advanced Studies of Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin). In 2005, he received the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, Berlin. His wife returned several times to Egypt for discussion on MA and PhD theses at the French department at Cairo University, but Dr. Abu Zayd has not been to Egypt since 1995.
From the beginning of his academic career, he developed a renewed hermeneutic view of the Qur'an and further Islamic holy texts, arguing that they should be interpreted in the historical and cultural context of their time. The mistake of many Muslim scholars was to see the Qur'an only as a text, which led conservatives as well as liberals to a battle of quotations, each group seeing clear verses (when on their side) and ambiguous ones (when in contradiction with their vision). But this type of controversy led both conservatives and liberals to produce authoritative hermeneutics.
This vision of the Qur'an as a text was the vision of the elites of Muslim societies, whereas, at the same time, the Qur'an as an oral discourse played the most important part in the understanding of the masses. Nasr Abu Zayd calls for another reading of the Holy book through a humanistic hermeneutics, an interpretation which sees the Qur'an as a living phenomenon, a discourse. Hence, the Qur'an can be "the outcome of dialogue, debate, despite argument, acceptance and rejection". This liberal interpretation of Islam should open space for new perspectives on the religion and should account for social change in Muslim societies.
That is why Abu Zayd's analysis can find in the Qur'an several insistent calls for social justice. For instance, when Muhammad was busy preaching to the rich people of Quraysh, and did not pay attention to a poor blind fellow named Ibn Umm Maktûm who came asking the Prophet for advice, the Qur'an strongly blames Muhammad's attitude (chapter 80:1-10).
As well, he finds a tendency to improve women's rights, arguing that the Qur'anic discourse was built in a patriarchal society, and therefore the addressee were naturally males, who received permission to marry, divorce, and marry off their female relatives, hence, it is possible to imagine that the Muslim females receive the same rights. The classical position of the modern ulamâ about that issue is understandable as "they still believe in superiority of the male in the family".
Abu Zayd promotes a view on modern Islamic thought by critically approaching classical and contemporary Islamic discourse in the field of theology, philosophy, law, politics and humanism. The aim of his research is to substantiate a theory of humanistic hermeneutics that might enable Muslims to build a bridge between their own tradition and the modern world of freedom of speech, equality (Minority rights, Women's rights, Social justice), human rights, democracy and globalisation.
1. Rationalism in Exegesis: A Study of the Problem of Metaphor in the Writing of the Mutazilites (Al-Ittijâh Al-`Aqlî fi al-Tafsîr: Dirâsa fî Qadiyat al-Majâz fi ‘l-Qur’ân ind al-Mu`tazila), Beirut and Casablanca 1982, 4th edition 1998.
2. The Philosophy of Hermeneutics: A Study of Ibn `Arabî's Hermeneutics of the Qur'an (Falsafat al-Ta'wîl: Dirâsa fi Ta’wî al-Qur’ân ind Muhyî al-Dîn ibn `Arabî), Beirut and Casablanca 1983, 4th edition, 1998.
3. The Systems of Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics (`Ilm al-`Alâmât), co-editor, Cairo 1986.
4. The Concept of the Text: A Study of the Qur’anic Sciences (Mafhûm al-Nass: Dirâsa fî 'Ulûm al-Qur'ân), Beirut and Cairo 1991, 5th edition 1998.
5. The Problematic of Reading and the Method Of Interpretation (Ishkâliyât al-Qirâ'a wa Aliyyât al-Ta'wîl), Beirut and Casablanca 1995, 5th edition 1999.
6. The Foundation of the Moderate Ideology in Islamic Thought by Al-Shafi`î (Al-Imâm al-Sh fi`î wa Ta'sîs al-Aydiyulujiyya al-Wasatiyya), Cairo, 3ed edition 1998.
7. Critique of Islamic Discourse (Naqd al-Khitâb al-Dînî), Cairo, 4th edition 1998.
8. Women in the Crisis Discourse (Al-Mar'a fî Khitbâ al-Azma), Cairo 1995. See extract in English here : Dossier 17: Women in the Discourse of Crisis, September 1997, Translated by Marlene Tadros, http://www.wluml.org/english/pubsfulltxt.shtml?cmd%5B87%5D=i-87-2642
9. Thinking in the Time of Excommunication (Al-Tafkîr fî Zaman al-Takfîr), Cairo, 3ed edition 1998.
10. Caliphate and the Authority of the People (Al-Khilâfa wa Sultat al-Umma), Cairo, 1995.
11. Text, Authority and the Truth (Al-Nass, al-Sulta, al-Haqîqa), Beirut and Casablanca 1995, second edition 1997.
12. Circles of Fear: Analysis of the Discourse about Women (Dawâ'ir al-Khawf: Qirâ'a fi khitâb al-Mar'a) Beirut and Casablanca 1999.
13. Discourse and Hermeneutics (Al-Khitâb wa al-Ta'wîl), Beirut and Casablanca 2000.
14. Thus Spoke Ibn `Arabi (Hakadhâ Takallama Ibn `Arabî) The Egyptian National Organization for Books, Cairo 2002.
1. Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
2. Rethinking the Qur'an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics. Utrecht: Humanistics University Press, 2004.
3. Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam (with Esther R. Nelson). New York: Praeger Publishers, 2004.
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3. The Case of Abu-Zaid, Index on Censorship, London, 4, 1996, pp. 30–39.
4. Linguistic Exposition of God in the Qur'an in Fundamentalismus der Moderne, Christen und Muslime im Dialog, Evangelische Akademie, Loccum, Germany, 75/94, 1996, pp. 97–110.
5. The Textuality of The Koran in Islam and Europe in Past and Present, NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in The Humanities and Social Sciences), 1997, pp. 43 – 52.
6. Divine Attributes in the Qur'an: Some poetic aspects in Islam and Modernity, edited by John Cooper, Ronald Nettler and Mohammed Mahmoud, I.B.Tauris, London, 1998, pp. 120–211.
7. Inquisition Trial in Egypt, in Human Rights in Islam 15, RIMO, Maasstricht 1998, pp. 47–55.
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9. Literature and Heresy–Literature and Justice: The Critical Potential of Enlightened religion in Literatur, Menschenrechte in Islamischen Gesellschaften und Staaten, Evangelische Akademie Loccum 22/96, 1998, pp. 18–32.
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20. Entries in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ân, Brill, Leiden-Boston-Koln: 1-Arrogance, Vol. I (2001), pp. 158–161. 2-Everyday Life: Qur’an In, Vol. II (2002), pp. 80–97. 3-Illness and Health, Vol. II (2002), pp. 501–502. 4-Intention, Vol. II (2002), pp. 549–551. 5-Oppression, Vol 111 (2003), pp. 583–584.
1. Beyond The Written Words: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion by William A. Graham, Die Welt des Islam, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1995, 35, 1, pp. 150–152.
2. Muslim, Jews and Pagans: Studies on Early Islamic Medina, by Micheal Lecker, Bibliotheca Orientalis LV No. 1 / 2, January-April 1998, Column 275-8.
3. Paradise Lost, Reflections on the Struggle for Authenticity in the Middle East by C.A.O. can Nieuwenhuijze, Bibliotheca Orientalis LVI No. 3/4, May-August 1999, Column 510-513.
5. Reforming the Muslim World, by M.A.Shoudhury, Biblitheca Orientalis, LV11 No.1/2, January-April 2000 column 221-224.
6. Islamic Banking and Interest: a study of the Prohibition of Riba and its Contemporary Interpretation by Abdullad Saeed, Biblitheca Orientalis, LV11 No. 5/6, September-December 2000 column 736-739.
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1. Imam Syafi`i: Moderatisme - Eklektisime - Arabisme, translated by Khoiron Nahdliyyin, LKIS, 1997.
1. Islâm e Storia, Critica del discorso religioso, Bollati Boringhieri, 2002. 2. Una vita con l'Islam, Il Mulino, 2004
1. Mafhum al-Wahy, by Muhammad Taqi Karmi, in Naqd wa Nazar, vol 3,no. 4, fall 1997, pp. 376–433.
2. Al-Tarikhiyya: al-Mafhum al-Multabis, by Muhammad Taqi Karmi, in Naqd wa Nazar, vol 3,no. 4, fall 1997, pp. 328–375
1. Universal Principles of Sharica: A New Reading, translated from Arabic to Turkish by Mostafa Unver, Journal of Islamic Research, Ankara, Turkey, vol. 8, n. 2, 1995, pp. 139–143.
2. The Problem of Qur’anic Hermeneutics, from Classical to Recent Period by Omer Ozsoy, Journal of Islamic Research, Ankara, Turkey, vol. 9, no. 1-2-3-4, 1996, pp. 24–44.
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