Building peace in the minds of men and women


The Koran: between text and context


“Minaret Hats (2011), a series of photographs by Italian-born multimedia artist Maïmouna Guerresi, who converted to Islam after living in Senegal.
© Maïmouna Guerresi
Why are Muslims not reacting more forcefully against those terrorist organizations that act in the name of an Islam they do not subscribe to? Mahmoud Hussein answers the question by analysing the premise of Koranic imprescriptibility. 

By Mahmoud Hussein

The vast majority of Muslims are horrified by the barbaric regression that the Islamic State (ISIS) represents, as well as by its claim to speak in the name of Islam – an Islam most Muslims do not identify with. But while condemning ISIS on both a moral and human level, they have difficulty confronting it on a theological level. They tend to reject the organization as existing outside of Islam, asserting that the ISIS discourse is not Muslim, and thus they wash their hands of it. 

But in truth, things are much less clear-cut, because ISIS does claim its origin in Islam, and refers explicitly to the Koran and the Hadith. To refute the group's argument, one has to begin by accepting an obvious fact – that Islam does not manifest itself in one single form. In the past, as now under our very eyes, it assumes many different, divergent guises, some of them opposed and even hostile to each other. In this way, we can see how ISIS promotes one particular vision, intended not to win people over but to provoke terror, not to convert souls but to arouse our most primitive and murderous instincts. The group offers a distorted vision of the Koran and the Hadith. 

ISIS must be condemned on two levels.  On the one hand, for the manner in which it picks and chooses fragments of the original texts, and then rearranges them to conform to an anti-humanist agenda. On the other hand, for the way it translates sections of these texts (whose scope is relevant in the context of 7th-century Arabia) into commandments it claims are absolute and eternal. It is by this means that ISIS can sanctify woman's submission to man and justify the practice of slavery. It is how it can forever stigmatize all Jews and all Christians, based on judgments imposed on certain Jews and certain Christians under conditions of conflict and at a time that no longer bears any relation to our own.  

Restoring free will

Why do so many secular Muslims, who share this negative opinion of ISIS, not make their objections heard loud and clear? Because they would have to admit to a radical proposition. They would have to accept explicitly the fact that the Revelation contains both timeless teachings and circumstantial prescriptions. In other words, they would have to question the dogma of Koranic imprescriptibility. 

This dogma is based on what seems at first to be irrefutable logic: the Koran being the Word of God, and God being infallible, all the verses of the Koran must necessarily have eternal and universal scope. Hence the crisis of conscience that confronts so many Muslims today when they come up against verses that are understandable in the context of 7th-century Arabia, but obviously out of sync with today's moral requisites.  

However, this crisis is unfounded. The dogma can be repudiated without betraying the Koran's core truth. Better yet, the way to reach the Koran's essential truth is to repudiate the dogma — because the dogma does not derive from the Koran itself, but rather from an ideological premise tacked onto the Koran since the 9th century — namely that the Word of God is consubstantial with God Himself, part of His divine nature, and eternal as He is.

But in fact this premise contradicts the Koran entirely. In the Koran, God and His Word do not enjoy the same status. God transcends time, yet His Word is implicated in time. The Word intertwines the absolute and the relative, the universal and the particular, the spiritual and the temporal. This is why the Koran cannot be read as a body of commandments to be adhered to literally, everywhere and forever. 

Yet, how could such a dogma come to be accepted in the Muslim world for such a long time, when it so clearly runs counter to Koranic evidence? It prevailed only at the end of a long struggle, which dates back to the 9th century, in the Baghdad of the Abbasids.

That period was characterized by various exceptionally bold currents of thought.The Mutazilite theologians argued that human free will was not incompatible with absolute divine power. God endowed humans with the capacity for rational judgment and with creative strength, called qudra, thanks to which they can act freely. The Falasifas (philosophers) constituted another school of rationalism, which set itself up outside theological perimeters; their aim was to encompass all fields of knowledge, in keeping with the Greek philosophical tradition. 


A Mamluk Qur’an manuscript (shelfmark Masahif Rasid 14), part of UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register, National Library and Archives of Egypt.


But the Mutazilites and Falasifas would be confronted with a growing and ever more powerful conformist tide. As the guardians of tradition, jurists and theologians became determined, in their respective disciplines, to destroy any notion of free will by asserting that it challenged God's omnipotence. The decisive stand-off between the two currents finally hinged on how each faction viewed the nature of the Koranic text.

For the Mutazilites, the Koran was ’created’ by God, meaning it is distinct from God and came into being at a particular moment of His creation. A temporal dimension is therefore implied, which leaves humans some latitude for interpretation.  For their adversaries, however, the Koran is ’uncreated’. In other words, it is consubstantial with God and it shares in His eternity.  From that point, it becomes less important to understand the Koran than to be permeated by it, to let oneself absorb its divine nature by means of a literal reading, repeated indefinitely.  And thus the text acquired the status of absolute, intangible truth from which sprang the notion of Koranic imprescriptibility.  

The tenets of the imprescriptibility argument were to emerge victorious from this confrontation. Thus, for many centuries, the idea of free will lost out on Islamic soil, not to appear again until the end of the 19th century. 

Led by pre-eminent Muslim intellectuals, reformist thinking sought to undermine the doctrine of imprescriptibility, deriving inspiration from the spirit of the Enlightenment and relying on the modern disciplines of history, anthropology and linguistics.  Without questioning the divine origin of the Revelation, the movement set out to examine the historicity of its earthly manifestation. 

As a result, it ran up against the doctrinal guardians who discredited the new thinking by branding as illegitimate its methodological tool – critical reasoning – that prevailed in the humanities and social sciences. According to the guardians of the dogma, asserting that the Revelation of the Koran corresponds to anything other than the eternal will of God – and imagining that it could be linked in any way to some particular historic context – is an aberration invented by non-believers. It looks at the divine from an external viewpoint. The proof, the aberrant idea is based on arguments drawn from profane disciplines alien to Islam.

In the light of  9th- century chronicles

The question for us now becomes: can we get around this objection? Can we show the necessary link between text and context — without having recourse to the secular sciences, but relying entirely on the religious texts — deemed indisputable by the most punctilious guardians of the dogma?

The answer is yes. There are indeed religious texts that permit this interpretation, and they have long existed. They arose out of a pressing need already recognized in the Koranic schools in the first century of Islam. Scholars needed to fathom numerous verses that were difficult, if not impossible, to interpret without examining the circumstances surrounding their Revelation. 

They set about meeting this challenge, returning to the source of all available information concerning the time of the Revelation – the testimonials left by the Prophet's companions. Most of these followers did not always grasp the meaning of the verses the Prophet recited to them. They would go alone, or in groups, to ask him about them. And the Prophet would answer by explaining, commenting on,  and illustrating the different verses. 

After his death, the task of transmitting what they had learned from the Prophet's mouth to the growing ranks of new believers fell to his companions – their words now enriched by their own memories of when and where the verses had been revealed to them.

After the death of the Prophet’s last companions, people started to collect these testimonials and write them down. At the turn of the ninth century, a first compilation appeared entitled The Life of the Prophet Muhammad (Al-Sîra al-nabawîyya) and signed Muhammad Ibn Is'haq. That first compilation was followed by several others, notably those of four great chroniclers who worked during the Abbasid dynasty: al-Wâqidî, the author of Kitâb al-Maghâzî (The Book of History and Campaigns), Muhammad Ibn Sa‘d, who wrote Kitâb al-Tabaqât al-Kabîr(The Book of Major Classes, also known as The Book of Companions, Helpers and Followers; al-Tabarî (839-923), author of Kitâb al-Rusul wal-Mulûk (History of the Prophets and Kings); and al-Balâdhurî, who wrote Kitâb Ansâb al-Ashrâf (Genealogies of the Nobles).

The main interest of these chronicles is that they tell us the story of the Prophet's life, with the principal events following a rough timeline.

Thanks to them, we possess an approximate mapping of the successive moments of the Revelation, which allows us to situate hundreds of verses chronologically, each one relative to the other, and also to place each one in its proper context. 

Reading the text of the Koran in light of these chronicles, we are struck by an obvious fact:  nowhere in the Koran is it permitted to conflate God and His Word. At no time is it permitted to extrapolate the eternity of His Word from the eternity of God Himself. A reading that puts the text back into context leads us to draw three fundamental conclusions. The first:  in the Koran, the Word of God adopts a language, a culture, and a way of thought that reflect the concerns of Arabia in the 7th century. The second: in the Koran, the Word of God is not presented as a monologue, but rather as an interchange between Heaven and Earth. God is conversing in real time with the community of the first Muslims, through the intermediary of the Prophet. The third: God does not always give His Words equal weight. The Koran enunciates different orders of truth, some absolute and others relative, some eternal and some circumstantial.  

So true is this that God sometimes replaces certain truths with others, decreeing the abrogation of certain verses through subsequently revealed verses.

This was the principle of abrogation, formulated in the following verse: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that we bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it.” (Verse II, 106).

Thus, from that point, the concept of time in the Koran becomes unavoidable.  

In fact, only the concept of time can restore the fullness of God's power. It is precisely because God intervenes temporally that He can deliver relative truths, linked to different circumstances. And as situations change, relative truths change with them. So if God happens to say two contradictory things, that is because the truth has changed in the meantime. God is always right at the moment He speaks. To understand His relative truths, we just need to link each of them to the circumstances in which they were spoken. 

No verse can be ’better’ than any other, if we remain in the realm of the absolute. In the absolute, everything is equal and no comparison is possible. For one verse to be ‘better’ than the other, they must both exist in an ambit of relativity. And they cannot both be true unless they relate to different circumstances or, in other words, to changing times.  

Thus there are successive moments in the Koran, times that are ‘before’ and ‘after’, and even moments that erase others – hence a truly temporal dimension. The conclusion is self-evident: the Word of God cannot be confounded with God Himself. The Word cannot be assimilated into God's divine essence. We cannot – we must not – read the Koran as if each one of the verses embodies God's divinity, as if the slightest detachment represents a betrayal of Him.

Once the Word of God is separate from God, and once the Word is involved in human temporality, the postulation of Koranic imprescriptibility can no longer be defended. It not only fails to reflect the truth of the Koran, it even contradicts it. Believers are thus called upon by the Koran itself to make use of their reason and to exercise their free will, to decide for themselves which verses are binding, and which no longer concern them. 

The Koran then ceases to appear to the believer like a set of commandments and interdictions, to be followed everywhere and forever. It becomes once again what it was during twenty-two years for the Prophet and his companions — an open discourse about remaking the world; a call to think and to act in full responsibility; an opportunity offered to everyone to find God’s way in everyday life. 

Mahmoud Hussein

The shared pseudonym of French-Egyptian writers Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, Mahmoud Hussein has authored a series of reference books, including Al-Sîra (2005), Penser le Coran (Thinking about the Koran, 2009), Ce que le Coran ne dit pas (What the Koran does not say, 2013), Les musulmans au défi de Daech (Muslims challenged by ISIS, 2016), and Les révoltés du Nil: Une autre histoire de l'Egypte moderne (The Nile Rebellions: Another  history of modern Egypt, 2018). Elnadi and Rifaat edited the UNESCO Courier from 1988 to 1998.