This book is an emphatic and unambiguous call for a rereading of the Qur’ān in order to understand it as it should be understood. It is a call to break the shackles and chains that have distorted our thinking and corrupted our understanding of life, the universe, and our destiny in it. It has forced us to see the universe and life from a single, narrow ideological perspective. Whereas in earlier centuries, the Qur’ān was a source of progress and building, it has today become a source of backwardness and ruin. It has become dead weight that lies heavily upon our minds and souls.
This book is an earnest critical attempt to liberate and emancipate us from those immovable and unshakable presuppositions that have led us into the crisis we face today. It is an attempt to shine a light of hope onto our current dark state. I have supported it with evidence from the Qur’ānic text, along with criticisms and analyses of its verses in an attempt to lift the veils that obscure our vision—nay, that have blinded it. They have paralysed our ability to think freely, anaesthetised our faculties, and killed the free spirit and innovator within us. They have turned our intellectual gifts into something negative, and caused us to have no ambition or concern apart from preserving the past, justifying and defending the “holy” text, and immersing ourselves in its profound and hidden wisdoms and “treasures.”
I wrote this book with a sincere heart that yearns for change, one that seeks to motivate us to take up this challenge and work towards a profound shift that shakes our old ways to their cores. As a consequence, I want to present a view of the Qur’ān that is different from the well-known picture that is passed around amongst the common people, and also different from those of the select, and even the select of the select, because, in fact, the level of reverence, devotion, and prostration to the text is often no different coming from a common man than it is from a great scholar. How many giants of Arabic literature grovel in front of the Qur’ānic text to the extent that they appear like a dwarf, trembling and terrified, or like a mouse that has seen the spectre of a cat? This is how it has left many a giant of Arabic literature, fooled by the lion’s roar that wards off all those who dare to peek behind.
My sole intention in writing this book is to storm this lion’s lair that guards the text of the Qur’ān. First and foremost, we must tear away the layer of sanctity and holiness that surrounds this text. Without doing so, it will be impossible to properly study the text. We must disrobe the text, see it naked, and question its sanctity. We must apply the methodology of reason to the text. It is only through this process that new horizons will open themselves up to us. Horizons that those whose eyes are veiled with the holiness of the text can never hope to reach, for they are idol worshippers. There is no difference between those who worship statues and those who worship the text.
We must reconsider the distinction we have created between the sacred and the profane; that which is profane is not necessarily impure. We must reconsider the claim that there is a rivalry between them, for there is nothing sacred but humanity, and the mind which distinguishes man from other creatures. For that reason, the holiness and sanctity of the text must not distract us from bold and vigorous rational analysis. Rational analysis is about activity and stimulation. It is about using one’s abilities, and being courageous, and facing the facts regardless of fear, apprehension, and unease.
The supremacy and dominance of religion over thought and culture confiscates reason, isolating it from reality and from the life of man. Because of this confiscation of reason and the knowledge that reason produces, Arab culture appears as though it has nothing to do with life, except that which concerns the next life and all it contains of bliss, Hell, houris, and fruit from that which they desire.
The time has come for us to climb over the walls built around us as a result of the confiscation of reason. There is no other way to do this other than by starting a revolution of understanding, a revolution in our perceptions and most basic assumptions of the texts and readings. It must be a revolution that will come from seeing the texts in a new way, and treating them as we would treat any object that is subject to analysis and reason.
There are open horizons that lie before reason if we treat the Qur’ān as a text that is open to rational study and reevaluation. If we don’t do this, the text will remain dominating and immovable, as “no-one can change his words.” The old perceptions will remain fixed, limiting us, holding us prisoner and holding us back.
Identity is not something that simply corresponds to a past glory, formed at one moment in history and remaining like that forever. It is an ongoing process of constant reinvention. Man moulds his own identity and creates it. He forms his own ideas, concepts, and systems with which to live his life. Identity is about living life, while the “holy” text is about stagnation and imitation.
How can we allow life to be held hostage by any text? Identity gives birth to the future, while the text returns us to the museum of the past. How can the future be made to go back to the past? Identity is a promise on its way to achievement, while the text is like handcuffs that obstruct every achievement. How can achievement and non-achievement be reconciled? Slavish devotion to the text undermines the dynamism of man, the gaining of knowledge, and the progress of history. So choose for yourself that which is good; the free one and the one in the dark are not equal!
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We must not remain imprisoned in this dark, cramped room while the world around us marches on, growing and evolving without us. We must throw open the curtains and go out into the light. We must rediscover the spirit of dynamism and enterprise that we had before retreating to this time capsule and locking the door behind us. We must stop blindly following the dictates of the text and start using the light of reason we have been blessed with so that we can start engaging with and living in reality. We must make a positive contribution to the world and spread light. How long are we going to remain here, taking pleasure by being in this gloomy room, chained with the shackles of darkness, refusing to see the light?!
It seems to have escaped our notice that texts have a time limit, after which point they become dated and obsolete. When it’s time comes, it should give way to others. We should not try to distort the text’s place and twist the neck of time to extend its life, ignoring the calls demanding it move aside. We must learn how to perform the delicate operation of liberating ourselves from the yoke of the texts after centuries of its rule and supremacy over us. We must break its continuing emotional hold as it evokes feelings of nostalgia for the glorious past, filled with the texts and those who worship the texts.
Certain texts that have no meaning for us today delighted and enriched our ancestors yesterday. They discovered in them spiritual ecstasy that knew no bounds. It is hard for us to understand this today, but they eagerly engaged in competition to outdo one another, shoving and jostling each other, to discover the pearls of wisdoms that the book of God contained. This is a bygone age.
Our grandfathers devoted themselves to studying the Qur’ān. It was a study full of invention, concoction, and artefact. They ascribed to the Qur’ān eloquence, clarity, and miraculousness that it did not merit. They wrestled from it meanings, intentions, and purposes that never occurred to its author. They spread around it processions of images, colours, imaginary beings, and gloss that no other book has been granted.
This is what faith does to those who worship the text and delusions. But the monuments, divination, and idols all came tumbling down, and so shall the texts in their wake. Humanity has changed with the changing of time. The period of the Caliphate is over. Their time has passed, and a new time has come.
The Arabic Qur’ān has been credited with an unparalleled unique and mythical character. They made it live outside of history, while events around it bustle with change. I wonder when it will emerge from this dark tunnel to enter the courtyard of history, for the words of a bygone era do not build the future. Only that which is aware of our present challenges can help us.
The tyranny of the text has prevailed over every attempt at a renaissance—even the dream of a renaissance—so that all efforts to produce one came to nothing, and all of our hopes of achieving a plan for a renaissance are dashed. Instead, we have seen that the Salafis, the fundamentalists, the bloodthirsty and the regressive have all conspired to throttle the tentative breaths of any renaissance, and disabled all initiatives that might lead to one.
It is a pity that the march of history never sleeps or stands still, except in our countries. And what can I say? Even in many Third World countries, we see the march of progress and movement. Almost the whole world is moving forward like a surging river, even if, at times, with choppy waters. The exceptions are our countries, where there is a still lake, stagnant and unmoving. I have no other objective or motive in this book other than to throw a stone into this lake so that, perhaps, it might make it stir, disrupting its calmness and composure.
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The scent of an intense revolution emanates from the depths of this book: a powerful desire for change, a fundamental challenge to the traditional approach to life that fears its course and its twists and turns. It is an ardent aspiration that is reiterated on every page.
This book contains a lot of berating and slaps in the face, but even more tears and sorrow, for it is a screaming summons to take life earnestly and to work together to rectify our reality, our history, and our humanity. If we are not truly determined to face the challenge and to confront the bitter reality we find so difficult to acknowledge and accept, then we share in perpetuating our backwardness rather than trying to end it.
The book that is in front of you requires that you suffer some pain, and that you persevere with reflection and introspection. It may strain your nerves, frighten you, and anger you. At the very least, it will trigger instinctive defensive mechanisms.
The Qur’ān has become a stumbling block, an impregnable barrier in the face of every attempt at a renaissance or progress. I am only saying the truth, and I come to you with clear authority. So whoever wills, let him believe, and whoever wills, let him disbelieve, for I am not a guardian over you. I have delivered the message and fulfilled the trust, so bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses. (1) So what do you say?
We talk a great deal about that which is of no use to us, and yet we are silent about that which is. I want to articulate those things we are afraid to say. I have not written this other than with good intentions and the longing for us to be better. I am even prepared to die for the sake of the change we need.
The image I present in this book is different from the images passed around the “marketplace.” I want to build a new mentality on the ruins of the prevailing mentalities. I want to plant the seed of free, independent, secular thought that doesn’t fear the making of sacrifices. I want to create a heated atmosphere of questioning around the tragedy of our state, around the roots of the sickness, and around the medicine that we need.
I am not asking the reader to blindly accept what I say, even though I am quite certain of it, and have calculated and placed every word in its right place. It is up to the reader to judge what I write and say for himself.
This book is aimed firstly at my own people, the Arabs. I don’t want to just hurl them into the stream of modernity, but into its raging furnace, for streams do not purify—in fact, they may be polluted. But the raging furnace cleanses all impurities. Fire is the greatest cleanser. There are no impurities in fire.
While writing this book, I began to think about the risk I was taking, and began to wonder and question myself as I worked amid a growing sense of the dangers that should not be absent from the mind and spirit of the wise. This book confronts myths that people hold dear.
(1) The author frequently references the Qur’ān and plays on Arabic words, which is difficult to translate. I generally refrain from highlighting these instances to avoid overburdening the translation with footnotes. However, as an example, two sentences from this section alone contain five references to the Qur’ān: “For I have come to you with clear authority.” (44:19) “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills, let him believe and whoever wills, let him disbelieve.” (18:29) “I am not a guardian over you.” (6:104) “O Messenger! Deliver what has been revealed to you from your Lord” (5:67). There is also reference to hadith of the last sermon: “‘By God, have I delivered?’ The people replied: ‘We bear witness that you have delivered and fulfilled (your duty)…’” as well as another reference to the Qur’ān: “So bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses.” (3:81)