Beyond extremism: towards a Modern Islamic theology?

RB 2Nowadays, the perception of Islam in the Western world is often reduced to its most radical anti-modernist interpretations. But there is more to discover in an Islamic world whose plurality is unfortunately mostly underestimated in the media. Islam has more to offer than a conservative retreat from modernity. Radical thinking is not a privilege of traditionalistic mullahs but is also at the core of some of the most interesting research projects in the academic discourse on Islam. These radically modern interpretations of Islam are not without risks for the persons defending them. Their persisting determination merits a larger recognition of their work in the European discourse on Islam.

Introduction to a new Islam

Way before the Arab Spring revolutions and the outburst of liberal hopes in many Muslim dominated countries, Rachid Benzine devoted a work to these courageous commentators of the Islamic tradition. Presenting basically eight of these new thinkers, Benzine introduces us to a universe that is highly worth the discovery. Benzine who studied mainly under Mohammed Arkoun has published several works on Islam and the interpretation of its foundational texts. His book on the new thinkers of Islam has been translated into German but still awaits its translation into English.

 

After a general introduction to the relationship between Islam and modernity and the context of the emergence of these new thinkers of Islam, Benzine gives us a rich and concise survey of their principal ideas. Among these thinkers are personalities as different as Abdul Karim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, Fazlur Rahman, Armin al-Khûli, Muhammad Khalafallâh, Nasr Hamid Abû Zayd, Abdelmajid Charfi and Farid Esack. The reader is introduced to every author through some biographical elements which are followed by an exposition of the key-elements of their thinking. In about 30 pages, every chapter succeeds in laying down the global vision of the author in question by giving an insight into his principal works and approaches. Thus, Benzine’s book gives the French public an access to their most important works which are often only available in English or in Arabic.

A reinterpretation of the Koranic message

What is the common denominator of the authors Benzine has chosen to introduce us to? Their shared goal is to revisit the traditional interpretations of the Koran in order to help Muslims all over the word to approach their religion’s core without the usual ideological manipulations. Accordingly, the main message of their works can be found in their appeal to a modern anti-dogmatic interpretation of Islam’s foundational text(s). This reappropriation of the religious tradition in the light of modernity goes hand in hand with the use of the most recent discoveries in the humanities.

But even though all these thinkers make use of the latest developments in historical and philosophical science as well as in linguistics, their main issue is to be identified with the creation of a modern theology of Islam. In order to achieve this goal, the Koran is reintegrated into its original context and freed from its posterior traditional interpretations. The discussed thinkers are all united in the search for an authentic understanding of the Koranic message in its earliest meaning, far from its consecutive ulterior deformations.

A concise, clear and instructive overview

Through his accessible style and clear phrasing, Benzine familiarizes us with this new way of thinking. Quite often he takes the reader by the hand by raising questions at critical junctures of the systematic presentation of each thinker which are immediately answered by the subsequent explanations. In doing so, Benzine puts forward the systematic coherence of each of the authors in question. This has the merit of making a clear case for their arguments. In addition to a clear presentation of the arguments raised by each author, Benzine directs the reader’s attention towards the intellectual filiations between some of these thinkers which makes it easier to appreciate similarities and differences in these new approaches to the Islamic tradition.

Even though the book is highly enjoyable and informative, some critical points cannot be excluded from this appreciation of Benzine’s work. The first concerns a formal decision of the author and/or the editor: the footnotes just indicate the source of quotations without mentioning the corresponding pages. This deplorable omission makes it difficult for the reader to trace back the quotations to the original text which would facilitate further reading.

Moreover, the book limits itself to a purely positive presentation of the eight modern Islamic thinkers. But at least at times it would have been desirable to integrate some critical thoughts about the limits of these forms of modern Islamic thinking and the aporia these approaches might have to face. Accordingly the book might have benefitted from mentioning some of the critics these modern interpretations of Islam have had to face from fellow scholars without making it too academic for the general public.

As none of the thinkers presented pledges for a literal interpretation of the Koran, it would have been nice as well to allude to their position in the larger Islamic discourse on theology and the interpretation of its foundational texts. This is done by alluding to the Mutazilites and the roots of modern reformism in Islam, but there is no integration of the ideas exposed into the currently predominant interpretations of Islam. Especially the division between Sunnites and Shiites that ever gains in importance nowadays might have been addressed in more detail by Benzine. To place the new Islamic thinking within the larger context of more traditional Islamic movements might have allowed a discussion of the possible integration of these mostly academic considerations into the everyday practice of Muslims as well.

Nevertheless, Benzine’s work remains a highly instructive and accessible introduction to modern interpretations of Islam. With its rich bibliography it invites Muslims and those who are interested in Islam to gain a new perspective on the religion of the Prophet and incites to further research in the field. Reading Benzine’s book, one is reassured: surely some branches of Islam still have a long way to go in order to succeed in integrating new knowledge into their religious interpretations of their foundational texts. But there are Muslims who are going down this road and their courage merits a larger recognition and promotion from the countries that flatter themselves with being the bearers of the project of Enlightenment.

Benzine, Rachid. 2004. Les nouveaux penseurs de l'islam. Paris: Albin Michel.