Promises of a Brave New World : Competing Visions of Islamic Liberation Theology, Part 2

Reception Hermeneutics:

It is at this juncture that Esack takes the above two mentioned jurisprudential techniques further by introducing the concept of hermeneutics. Belief in the eternal relevance of the Qur’an is not the same as a belief in a text that is timeless and spaceless (ahistorical). Hermeneutics is commonly understood as the science of reflecting on how a word or an event in a past time and culture may be understood and become existentially meaningful in our present situation. It seeks to understand 1) How do people make sense of a text 2) the possibility that different people understand the same text differently 3) the possibility that the same people understand the same text differently in different circumstances and finally 4) what is the text? Hermeneutics as a method for understanding the Qur’an is imperative according to Esack since Muslims though near unanimous about the divine nature of the Qur’an differ widely on its role and ways of understanding it. Reception hermeneutics in this context would include within the task of interpretation the problem of the shift in the horizons of diverse audiences and transformation between past and present horizons of expectations toward the text.27

Traditional Islamic Scholarship and Hermeneutics:

Traditional Islamic scholarship poses three difficulties to any attempt to introduce hermeneutics as a method of understanding the Qur’an:

Traditional Islamic scholarship inspite of its own attempts to introduce contextualization in understanding the Qur’an, does strongly hold on to the idea that the Qur’an as a word of God is trans-contextual and therefore eternal. Insistence of hermeneutics on contexts and human contingency in the recovery of meaning implies that the Qur’an does not mean something outside its socio-historical contexts, but is always a text in need of interpretation.

Stress on human agency in producing meaning is opposed to the ostensible traditional school idea that God can supply people with watertight correct understandings. As Esack quoting Aitken argues “To write large the significance of human agency is to see meaning itself as a contest within power relations; divinity lies within the working of the contest and cannot be predicated transcendentally outside the contest as a guarantor of a finally achievable meaning.”28

Traditional Islamic scholarship makes neat distinctions between production of scriptures, interpretation and reception. Reception hermeneutics on the other hand does not try to recover the author’s (in this case God) elusive intention. Instead it studies the contributions to an ongoing and ever changing understandings of the text.

Understanding a text: Esack’s responses to the traditionalists:

For Esack the fundamental issue as regards interpretation of the Qur’an remains that who and in whose interests is the hermeneutical task pursued. Understanding a text according to him consists of an awareness of three elements 1) the text and the author 2) the interpreter 3) the interpretation. He discusses each of these separately:

Getting into the mind of the author:

Where God is the author of a text as in this case, the question of getting into the mind of the author becomes an impossible task. While it is farfetched to claim to have got into the mind of God, it is not uncommon in traditional and mystical Islamic scholarship to claim piety and scholarship as a method to produce a similar effect. Almost as if the interpretation was God inspired by virtue of the moral integrity and the careful imitation of the life of the Prophet Mohamed (Peace be upon Him) by the interpreter. This is a kind of pious form of historical positivism, where the true meaning can be retrieved by pure minds. Though this may be possible, there would be serious problems in applying consciously applying this method in the domain of public morality. Identification with the author or recipient of the text of primary audience, in whatever form (cognitive, spiritual, psychological etc.) does not take into account the differences in the historical situations of the recipient of the text and the interpreter. What is worse is when claims of interpretations being God inspired are made, they tend to retard any debate and in that sense any democratic attempt to understand the text. Since there can be only a few individuals who could be so inspired. Further difficulties are encountered since one person’s saint is invariably another’s charlatan, and there would be conflicting claims of purified minds or at least whose mind is purer.

The interpreter- a bearer of varied baggage:

Every interpreter enters the process of interpretation with some pre understanding of the questions addressed by the text - even of its silences and brings with him/her certain conceptions as presuppositions of his or her exegesis. Meaning, wherever else it may be located is also in the structure of understanding itself. There is no innocent interpreter or innocent interpretation or innocent text.29

There is very little discussion in traditional Islamic scholarship on the role of the interpreter in interpretation. The absolute reference point for Muslims is the Qur’an and for Sunni Muslims, the Prophet’s (Peace be upon Him) conduct. Both these are criteria to determine normative Islam. But Esack believes that the unavoidable point of departure for approaching these criteria is one’s self and the conditions wherein the self is located. By ignoring this there is a glossing over between normative Islam and what the believer thinks it to be. Both traditionalism and fundamentalism deny any personal or historical frame of reference. While they insist that normative Islam is to be judged solely by the Qur’an and the Prophetic practice, they will throughout their discourse simultaneously imply that they have understood this correctly.30

Interpretation: In the prison-house of language:

What is communicated to the hearer or reader is sufficiently close to what is intended by the speaker or writer, that we do well to be awed and grateful but yet it is in principle never exactly the same- and especially not in important or deep and subtle matters. Since, the meaning for any person of any term or concept, let alone any phrase or sentence is integrated into that person’s experience and world view, it is or becomes a part of it… Therefore, meaning can never be exactly the same for any two persons…nor for any two centuries…nor for any two regions.31

The problem of language thus goes beyond the interpreter. Any act of interpretation is a participation in the linguistic-historical. Our interpreting of the Qur’an also takes place within the takes place within language culture and history out of which we cannot escape. So the uncritical revivalism of many of the current reformers who wish to go back to the Qur’an and the Sunna and bypass the traditions somewhere down the line refuses to acknowledge the fact that the traditions of interpretation form an integral part of the text. Esack asks two questions to the reactive revivalists which to some extent has the echoes of the problems traditional scholarship also has with this kind of revivalism: 1)How is it possible to bypass tradition and argue that historical interpretations, an intrinsic part of tradition, must be judged from an understanding based on the Qur’an itself 2) Can one emerge at the one end of the vacuum without ever having entered it, with the Qur’an as a disembodied soul floating at the other end?32

Hermeneutical Keys: Towards an Islamic Liberation Theology:

What then is the way forward? Even if one is conscious of hermeneutics and thereby engages with the Qur’an it still does not adequately address the fears of traditional scholarship. What is to prevent hermeneutical promiscuity they would ask? What is to prevent anyone from getting into bed with the text and interpreting it to suit their interests? How can one thus be both true to the word of God and at the same time understand His (?) word in today’s context? How does hermeneutics address the fact that to contemporanize the Qur’an so as to be in step with the new understandings of other spheres of knowledge, necessarily means to make the false assumption that these other spheres are value free? How does one distinguish the core message of the Qur’an from the other messages that were relevant to the Muslim umma at the time it was revealed? In response to these questions Esack provides a set of what he calls “hermeneutical keys” to interpret the Qur’an. These keys not only serve as a lens through which one must view the Qur’an but also act as breakers against any easy interpretation. These keys when used rigorously provide the believer with a set of tools so as to extrapolate the transcendental message of the Qur’an. Esack isn’t naïve enough to believe that the provision of these keys would put an end to all debate. There would still be differences in what people uncover when they rely on them. Yet they provide a basic framework within which further debate can take place, and that is definitely a start. Esack goes on to say that it is reflecting on one’s practice (praxis) that would a test of the rightness of one’s interpretation. There are no miracles here, just a process of trial and error, but nevertheless with some kind of a compass to guide one through the turbulent sea of life. The hermeneutical keys Esack provides were developed through his work as an organic intellectual while fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa. They are taqwa (integrity and awareness in relation to the presence of God); tawhid (divine unity); al-nas (the people); al mustad’afun fi’l-ard (the oppressed on the earth); adl and qist (balance and justice) and jihad (struggle and praxis).

A theology of liberation Esack believes is one that strives to dislocate religion from social, political and religious structures that demand uncritical obedience and moves towards a freedom of all people from all forms of injustice and oppression including those of race, gender, class and religion. Liberation theology tries to realize this in collaboration and solidarity with those whose social and economic liberation it seeks. An Islamic liberation theology derives its inspiration from the Qur’an and the struggles of all its prophets and it does so by engaging the Qur’an and the examples of the prophets in a process of shared and ongoing theological reflection for ever-increasing liberative praxis.33

These keys cannot be listed in order of priority. They are intertwined. This is based on the principle that the theological cannot be separated from the ideological, the spiritual from the mundane, nor the text from the context.

Taqwa- and God is my Witness:

Taqwa in the Qur’anic sense means that one is accountable to God for all of one’s actions. It also implies a certain piety that, this kind of God consciousness engenders. It is a kind of God awareness that acknowledges one’s insignificance and the transience of life; the futility of actions that stem from greed and for the sake of self-aggrandizement. In essence it is a kind of self-reflexivity that arises from a belief that God is aware of one’s innermost urges.

It is taqwa that acts as a barrier against the use of the Qur’an as a text to legitimize any self-serving position. Taqwa also serves to reinforce integrity and strength of character that prevents either religious obscurantism or political knee jerk reaction. Taqwa compels the engaged interpreter fighting for justice to also embark on a process of introspection, a process for which activists in a struggle have little time. This in turn locks the engaged interpreter into a dialectical process of personal and socio-political transformation. Change for an interpreter with taqwa, is not just of the unjust structures but also of the hearts of people who fight these structures. Taqwa ultimately is perhaps what ensures that the ‘orders’ we critique do not end up ordering our lives.

Tawhid- what you do to the least of your brethren, you do to Me:

Tawhid in the Qur’anic context implies unity of God. The notion that there is one God and God is without any partners is a fundamental belief in Islam. “Say: He Allah is one, Allah is One upon whom all depend, He begets not nor is He begotten, And there is not anyone like unto Him”(Q 112:1-4).

Nevertheless there is more to the unity of God then an acknowledgement that God is One. It is also about not deifying other material objects. Being enamored by wealth, success, fame etc amounts to a kind of shirk (worshipping false gods). As Ali Shariati the Iranian dissident scholar puts it “In Islam tawhid is opposed to the avaricious tendency for hoarding and aims for eradicating the disease of money worship…”34The concept of tawhid is emphasized in the Qur’an in the Surah Maa-oon where denying charity is akin to denying Allah inspite of external displays of worship. “Did thou see him who denies the deen(Islam), then that is he who repulses the orphan, an urges not the feeding of the needy, so woe unto the Slaah-sayers (worshippers), who are neglectful about their Salaah, are those who make a display of their piety and withhold charity.”(Q-107)

The unity of God in tawhid necessarily means the unity of God’s people. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity etc. amounts to shirk. It amounts to denial that all creation comes from Allah and all people are therefore equal. This in effect is a rejection of the all-encompassing nature and the unity of Allah. At a socio-political level tawhid implies a rejection of the dualistic conception of human existence whereby a distinction is made between the political and the spiritual. True tawhid is to see religion as a legitimate and even necessary means with which one fights against injustice.

Nas-Power to the people:

Nas in the Qur’a refers to ‘the people’ as a social collective. The Qur’an is full of instances where God proclaims that He has placed a trust in humankind and humankind is to act as his vicegerent on earth: Lo I am to create a vicegerent on earth (Q 2:30). The ‘people’ as God’s representatives on earth implies that people are sovereign. This is not to be understood as a challenge to God as the ultimate sovereign but should be taken to mean that the rulers should be accountable to all people they govern upon whom God has placed sovereignty on earth. It is this dignity of ‘the people’ that the Qur’an emphasizes. The relevance of this hermeneutical key is that the legitimacy of earthly rulers in the eyes of God, is how accountable they are to God’s people. Insolent might, unjust and corrupt exercise of power militates against this important principle of the Qur’an, and demands of people to rise up an reclaim their legitimate sovereignty.

Given the stewardship of humankind on earth and God’s overwhelming concern for them, two hermeneutical implications follow. First, it becomes essential that the Qur’an be interpreted in a manner that favors the majority of the people who include the poor, dispossessed and marginalized, rather than a small and powerful minority. Second, Qur’anic interpretation must be shaped by the experience and aspirations of humankind as distinct from, and often opposed to a privileged minority amongst them.35

Mustad’afun-And We shall favor the oppressed and make them leaders among men:

Mustad’afun in the Qur’anic sense does not mean the poor or the weak. It implies those who have been impoverished or victimized by someone else. The mustad’afun are those whose condition is a result of the actions of the mustakibirun (the arrogant and the powerful). The Qur’an stresses on God’s preference for the marginalized even though they reject God due to the enormity of their suffering. The blame for this loss of God consciousness among the oppressed is laid squarely at the door of the powerful, who through their actions, compelled the former to reject God. When the powerful reject this charge saying that the oppressed had a choice to lead their lives in the path of God, the oppressed, the Qur’an says will reply “ ….Nay, devising your false arguments night and day against God is what kept us away-as you did when you persuaded us to blaspheme God and to claim that there were powers that could rival Him.” (Q-34:31-3). The accusation the marginalized make of setting up powers that rival God, should be understood in the context where the powerful through their resources (material and political), hold the oppressed hostage to their whims, corruption and prejudices. These acts of the powerful that give the impression that they are the virtual gods on the earth, is severely chastised by the Qur’an. There is constant warning that for acts such as these the arrogant and powerful shall be punished, and the oppressed shall rise to be the leaders. “And it is Our will to bestow Our grace upon the mustada’afun on the earth and make them the leaders and to establish them firmly on earth, and to let Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts experience through those (the Israelites) the very thing against which they sought to protect themselves”. (Q 28:5).

Virtually all the prophets including Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon Him) came from peasant and working class backgrounds. They emerged as social critics challenging the arrogant might of the powerful. Even Prophet Moses (Peace be upon Him) who didn’t emerge from a poor background was forced to sojourn in the desert of Madyan where he was employed as a shepherd for 8-10 years. This is akin to some sort of process where the prophets are made aware of the conditions of the marginalized so that they may fulfill the word of God as the liberators of them.

Within Qur’anic hermeneutics there is a clear need for the interpreter to understand the text in favor of the marginalized and locate him/herself as a participant in their struggles. The interpreter in the light of the Qur’anic preference for the marginalized is bound to make a subaltern reading of the text and creatively respond to suffering of all peoples whether this suffering is based on class, gender, ethnicity etc.

Qist and Adl- And justice for all:

On that day (Day of Judgment) will humankind issue in scattered groups-that they may be shown their deeds, So whoever does good- the weight of an atom-shall see it, and whosoever does evil- the weight of an atom- shall see it. (Q-99)

Qist means ‘equity’ and to ‘give someone his/her due, and adl implies ‘just and righteous action’. The Qur’an constantly exhorts believers to stand up and bear witness for justice (Q 4: 135, 5:6). “He has set up the balance of justice in order that you may not transgress the measure. So, establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance”(Q 55: 2). When confronted with injustice the Qur’an demands of the believers to rise up and fight, irrespective of the personal discomfort, for they will be fighting in God’s way. Justice as a hermeneutical key implies reading the Qur’an in a manner where all forms of injustice are addressed, socio-economic, and political, gender, race etc. Invariably this duty to uphold justice has been viewed rather myopically as something that implies to wage war against non-believers. Esack advocates that this is convenient and neither historicizes the text nor forces the believer to engage in hermeneutics and be conscious of the other keys in understanding the Qur’an. Liberation/justice isn’t to be used as an easy tool to buttress one’s prejudices but involves a constant reflexivity, especially in the realm of class and gender discrimination.

This has two implications: Firstly one cannot justify adoption an objective approach to the Qur’an especially when one is surrounded by injustice, without searching for ways the Qur’an can be used against it. Secondly, this approach presupposes the need to be conscious of the other keys highlighted earlier. These values are concretized in a struggle along with the oppressed, to create an order based on tawhid. This notion of justice is ever unfolding and is reborn every time new forms of injustice emerge.36

Jihad-And to those who strive in Our path, We shall show our ways:

Jihad in the Qur’anic context implies to strive/struggle in the path of God. Though it has popularly come to be known as sacralization of combat, it should be understood to embrace a wider struggle towards self-transformation and the transformation of the society. It is not just used in the context of warfare, but also includes spiritual struggle.

Esack understands jihad as struggle and praxis. Praxis is understood as reflection that stems from action and thus leads to increasingly conscious action. Jihad is thus a ceaseless, continuous, conscious and effective struggle for justice. Esack believes that jihad as a hermeneutical key implies that human life is essentially practical and theology follows. As for the presence of the divine in the process of transformation, the Qur’an in 13: 11 states “God does not change the condition of people until they change what is in themselves”. It means that history and society is the terrain where, for the people transformation effectively takes place.37

The Islamic activists in South Africa fighting the apartheid regime turned to praxis in jihad as a way for making theology a less of a false theology, less of an academic/clerical illusion and less of an incoherent abstraction. They firmly believed that jihad as a hermeneutical key is about a dialectical process where the Qur’an and their faith will inform their struggle as much as their understanding of this will be informed by their struggle.

Theology for change-Esack’s ethical universe :

For Esack, to engage in Qur’anic hermeneutics in a situation of injustice is to do theology and to experience faith as solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized in a struggle for liberation. This represents a break from traditional and modern theology. Islamic liberation theology emphasizes that in conditions of injustice Islam can only be experienced as a liberative praxis for solidarity. Traditional theology obsesses on rituals and legalities and loses the spiritual and emancipatory content of religion. Modern theology on the other hand is located and addresses itself to the secular privileged world and the serious thinkers within it. It is liberation theology is located in and addresses the marginalized world. Further liberation theology distinguishes itself as faith that emerges from praxis, and understanding of God’s world is an ever disclosing path, that one comprehends better the more one strives with the lesser of God’s people. Post action theological justification for one’s struggle which both traditional and modern theology denounces, is perceived by liberation theology as inevitable and a necessary option. Liberation theology does not claim to provide eternal truths, that are to be used to understand history, nor does it ponder on existential truths that are supposed to be revealed through the unfolding of history. Rather liberation theology creates truth. Truths that emerge from the turbulence of life and truths that help create a history in favor of the subaltern.38


Esack seems to be able to effectively counter the fears and anxieties of traditional scholarship. He neither demands that Islam stay uncritically in step with changes in society, nor does he reduce the Qur’an to abstract principles that are open ended and with no measures against self-serving interpretation. On the contrary he stresses on an interpretation that emerges through a struggle for justice, but nevertheless within a framework of specific hermeneutical keys to prevent any easy conclusions. He neither claims nor believes that this process is going to be easy but in fact acknowledges that it is a long march towards an ever-disclosing truth. But this long march stems from praxis, where struggle is combined with serious reflection and lessons are learnt from successes and failures. Esack in his views is definitely not liberal but in fact communitarian. He speaks by locating himself amidst the marginalized and plants his ideas in the soil of subaltern cultures. Social change for Esack is not about clean breaks; it is in fact a constant critical engagement with one’s tradition and reclamation of religious space by those who have been excluded from speaking.

What the different methodologies discussed here attempt inspite of their limitations is to engage with religious space on behalf of the dispossessed and ensure that it isn’t occupied and interpreted solely by the uncritical revivalists and religious fascists. The emergent extremists cash in by plugging into a religious social fabric that in more ways than one forms a part of the psyche of large numbers of people. Ironically the response to this kind of extremism by those who dissent is manifested through calls for secularism. Demands for secularism leave religious space uncontested, thereby giving a free run to those who use it to further their political ends. Secularism also makes the grave error of ignoring religion in entirety and relegating it to a private sphere. This if anything is suicidal especially in a context where for large numbers of people it informs their identities beyond their homes and hearth. It forms an intrinsic part of their moral, social and psychological universe and any dismissal of it (however enlightened it may be) necessarily gives rise to a serious communication gap. What emerges in effect is two worlds with no ways of communicating with each other. The secular intellectual effectively cuts himself/herself off leaving no channels of dialogue open. Most people refuse to take their faith lightly nor are they willing to relegate it to a private sphere. Emancipation and change therefore come from a constant engagement and dialogue with faith rather than a frustrated dismissal of it, as the cause of all strife.

In this essay I have attempted to compare and contrast three methodologies of Islamic liberation theology while at the same time ensuring that serious thought is given to the criticisms and anxieties of the clergy and traditional scholars. While I do find that the positions of Soroush, Shabestari and An-Na’im are insightful, they are still unable to answer some of their detractors convincingly. Esack on the other hand seems to adequately address these concerns. It is clear from a summary of the works these four liberation theologists that there are a considerable number of overlaps in their ideas, and they are all rooted in their years of experience as courageous dissidents who have spoken truth to power at huge personal costs. The ideas of each of these scholars have emerged from their specific geographic, cultural and religious contexts. Perhaps what is important isn’t so much to find a perfect method in engendering a theology that meets the needs of our tumultuous times and speaks on behalf of the disempowered; on the contrary what we must strive for is as Esack exhorts to derive locally rooted ideas and methods that emerge from local struggles and reflections of the discriminated, oppressed and marginalized. 

1 Kamali, Hossein, The Theory of Expansion and Contraction of Religion,

2 Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics, 2nd ed., Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,1987.

3 By Muslim countries I mean countries where Muslims constitute the majority of the population. One can safely assume that there are about 35 countries wherein Muslims constitute at least 70% of the population.

4 Smith, W.C, Islam in Modern History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p.47.

5 By traditionalists I mean those who believe that there is no space for re-interpretation of either the Qur’an or the Sunna irrespective of the new questions that have been raised in contemporary times.

6 By the reformers I mean those who believe that we would have to incorporate changes in our understanding of the afore mentioned texts, but the changes I am specifically dealing with here are those related to aspects of socio economic justice and human rights.

7 Mehrzad, Boroujerdi, “Three Philosophical Debates in Post Revolutionary Iran”, in Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism, NY: Syracuse, 1996.

8 Sadri, Mohmoud and Sadri Ahmad, “Let the Occasional Chalice Break”, from Reason,Freedom and Democracy in Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

9 Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion, Beacon Press: Boston, 1956.

10 Bellah, Robert, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post Traditional World, LA: University of California Press, 1970.

11 Bell, Daniel, “The Return of the Sacred? The Argument on the Future of Religion” in The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980, Cambridge MA: ABT Books, 1980.

12 Supra n.8

13 Qutub, Sayyid, In the Shade of the Qur’an, website of the Muslim Brotherhood.

14 Schrazi, Asghar, “Criticism from Outside”, in The Constitution of Iran, London: I.B.Tauris, 1997.

15 Supra n.14.

16 In , under biography of Soroush.

17 Supra n.1

18 Ibid.

19 An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Towards an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996. p.xii

20 Michael C. Hudson, “Islam and Political Development”, in John L. Esposito, ed., Islam and Development: Religion and Sociopolitical Change, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980, p.5.

21 Supra n.19, p.9.

22 Supra n.19, p.14.

23 Voll, John, “Renewal and Reform in Islamic History: Tajdid and Islah”, in John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam, NY: Oxford University Press, 1983.

24 Taha, Mahmoud Mohamed, The Second Message of Islam, translated by Abdullahi An-Na’im, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

25 See generally, Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd ed., NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998, MacIntyre, Alisdair, After Virtue, 2nd ed., Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986, Walzer, Michael, Interpretation and Social Criticism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.


27 Esack Farid, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism, Oxford: One World, 1997, p.50-51.

28 Ibid p.53.

29 Tracy, David, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987, p.79.

30 Supra n.27, p.75.

31 Cantwell Smith, “The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian’s non-Reductionist Interpretation of the Qur’an”, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 11, 1980, p.502, cf, Esack, Supra n.27, p.75.

32 Supra n.27, p.77.

33 Supra n.27, p.83.

34 cf Esack, Supra n.27, p.91.

35 Supra n. 27, p.96.

36 Supra n.27, p.106.

37 Supra n.27, p.108.

38 Chopp, Rebecca, The Praxis of Suffering, New York: Orbis Books, 1989, p.61, c.f. Esack, Supra n.27, p.111.

Originally printed at, and reprinted at TAM with permission.