There are two methods to understand the Qur’ān. The first is the Methodology of Transmission, which gives precedence to revelation over reason, and involves the unquestioning acceptance of the veracity of the text and the inability of reason to comprehend its ultimate aims and objectives. The second method, the Methodology of Reason, gives precedence to reason over revelation, and its ability to comprehend the truth without need for reference to the text. The text is the last concern of the mind that is, in itself, free and independent.
For that reason, when I write this book, I will employ the Methodology of Reason, which Descartes established at the beginning of the modern age, even though he did not always abide by it, failing in particular to apply it in understanding religious texts. Instead, he maneuvered, twisted, and distorted the neck of reason to stop the rot that fills revelation, and that which revelation contains of the garbage that diseases minds.
See how this great man compromises for the sake of divine text? Descartes wasn’t the first to compromise—not at all—and he will not be the last, apart from those who believe in reason and act according to it, and trust that which reason obligates—and they are few, indeed! For divine text has such influence and power that few can withstand it.
The fundamental principle of the methodology of reason is impartiality and objectivity, and the ability to approach the research with a mind free from prejudice and bias. “Bias is sickness,” as they say. In this spirit, we must resolutely proceed in studying the Qur’ān, and treat it as we would any other scientific research. We must subject it to examination, analysis, skepticism, rejection, and contestation, because that is what will make our examination fruitful and profitable, and make it of universal benefit.
Applying the Methodology of Reason to the Qur’ān is, in my view, a pivotal and momentous event that will shake the Earth below the feet of those who follow blind faith and who are trapped within the straight-jacket of imitation and slavish conformity. And it is something that must be done, for the most extreme cure is cauterization.
The Qur’ān has deep roots in our cultural composition, and if these roots are shaken, the composition changes to a different composition, and destiny changes to a different destiny, and a people will change to a different people, and, as a consequence, a new generation will emerge that wasn’t in the reckoning. For that reason, the first thing I will confront you with in this discourse is that I doubt the Qur’ān, and in the god of the Qur’ān. I doubt the teachings of the Qur’ān, and I doubt the miraculous nature of the Qur’ān and sublime language of the Qur’ān.
I insist on doubt; I embrace it on principle. Doubt, as Al- Ghazali says, leads one to the truth. So one who does not doubt cannot look, and one who does not look cannot see, and one who cannot see will remain in blindness and error.
This is my method in doing the work, and this is how I start examining, thinking, reading, and reflecting until the circumstances lead me to something resembling certainty. That is because what we call the miraculous and infallible Qur’ān is really like any other piece of human work, containing error as well as correctness.
I am aware of the consequences of that which I have arrived at, but that won’t deter me from proving them and broadcasting them, and expressing my opinion freely. I know in advance that it will lead to mortal dangers and grave confrontations that, I perhaps, don’t need. But I will not stop—no! For truth deserves to be followed. I will take refuge in a mountain that will protect me from the water, as far up as I am able to climb, and, if it does not protect me, then martyrdom is better than suffering such incapacity and weakness. I must declare what I believe in, and what many others besides me believe in, although they are waiting for the spark of light. After that, many sparks of light will come, and the sparks of light will illuminate the dark tunnel that we are living in. Is there any other way to escape from a path?
As for the reasons that led me to doubt in the Qur’ān, they are its contradictions, generalisations, pompous rhetoric, and facetious phrases that have no meaning. The grammatical and stylistic errors that the classical scholars were at their wits’ end trying to find explanations for. And other mistakes, both of scientific and historical natures that I consider the Lord of the Worlds to be above making.
Similarly, the Qur’ān is full of rhetorical explosive charges and verbal bombs that create such an extreme uproar that ears almost become deaf. But after deep analysis, and despite what it contains of sweetness and charm and alluring beauty, it becomes clear that it is pale, emaciated, with little content and lacking substance, like bubbles in the air, or radiating beams of light from fireworks that soon extinguish and fall to the ground, spent, leaving behind pitch darkness: “It is as though it is a bolt of lightning, glistening with fury, which then fizzles out and as though it never shone.” (30)
Many of the prose of the masters of eloquence (classical literati), and even the doggerel of soothsayers, is better—a thousand times better, in fact—than many of the Qur’ānic verses that are of nonsensical language and so stuffed full of fairy tales that the Qur’ānic commentators (and, strangely, some Mu’tazilites) became masters of dealing with and defending.
There remains another matter, and it isn’t the last. It is the matter of the indictment of the Qur’ān upon the Qur’ān, for the narrative of the Qur’ān is confused, for how abundant are the contradictions of the Qur’ān? The Almighty has said, “And if this was from other than Allah, you would have found a lot of contradiction.”
The Qur’ān has passed the guilty verdict upon itself! For that which it contains of contradictions goes beyond the limit of “a lot.” Nay, it is the centre of every disparity and contradiction! The amount of disparities and contradictions in any other book in the world has not yet reached the level of the Qur’ān. Yet they want us to believe that there is neither disparity nor contradiction in the Qur’ān. We must ignore the evidence to believe that which does not agree with reason in the manner of “Believe Allah, and disbelieve the stomach of your brother.” (31) But if you do not ignore evidence and reason, then you will see and hear that which will not please you.
I am not calling for the renunciation of religion, for that is a difficult objective. In fact, it is a demand that cannot be sought, because religion, for all of its adherents, is a sweet nectar, and for so long I savoured this sweetness until I returned to my senses.
I say that I am not calling for the renunciation of religion, but I am calling for the end of resorting to religion for decisions in all matters, and allowing it to stick its nose into every tiny matter in the affairs of life. And this goal can be achieved by applying secularism as a principle, both in thought and in life. Secularism is not disbelief, nor is it a call to disbelief, as some of its enemies portray it as. It is merely placing a limit to the interference between religion and the state.
Religion is not the execution of the captive, nor the stoning of the adulterer, nor the chopping of the hand of the thief. Religion, according to secularists, is that which lives in the heart and dwells in the conscience. Believe what you like, but beware of imposing your beliefs on others, and do not make it into a system for government or life. Religion is for God, while the nation is for everyone. That is the slogan of secularism.
There is nothing inviolable, nothing sacred in secularism. The only thing that is inviolable and sacred in it is humanity, and the value of humanity, and the freedom of humanity, and respect for the dignity of humanity. Secularism means the lack of exploitation of one man by another. The unbeliever (kafir) is not the one who disbelieves in religion. The only unbeliever is the one who disbelieves in humanity and human rights.
The value of life is reason. The value of life is freedom. The value of life is progress and development. The value of life is innovative vision, and the ability to express it according to what suits the requirements of the time and place. As for disbelief and belief, angels and devils, it creates conflict that impedes the development of innovations and the flow of progress in a world of powers, balances of powers, and centers of powers.
The thing that most frightens man is to be consigned to the debris of memory. We have been ruminating over myths and delusions, in a trance over the invisible and over and text, and over claims of miraculousness. We have consumed the rhetoric, and allowed ourselves to follow the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Houris, and the verse of light and the servant boys of paradise, and stories of jinn, and tales of Luqman. The likes of these stories and tales have, for so long, fertilized the minds and imaginations, both in the near and distant past, but today they lose the bet.
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(30) A line from a poem by Ibn Sina
(31)This is a reference to the following hadith: “A man came to the prophet and said, ‘My brother has got loose motions. The Prophet said, Let him drink honey.” The man again (came) and said, ‘I made him drink (honey) but that made him worse.’ The Prophet said, ‘God has spoken the truth, and the stomach of your brother has told a lie.”