This volume is an important source for anyone interested in the place of the Qur’an in a changing world. In the contemporary world, millions of Muslim refer to the Qur’an on a daily basis. They turn to it to justify their aspirations and, as we have seen recently with graphic effect, to explain their actions. The extent of such direct reference is probably unprecedented in the history of Islamic experience, and it brings with it a vast diversity of readers and readings. If academic debates speak in abstract terms of the virtual impossibility of fixed meaning in texts, recent Muslim thinking concerning the Qur’an furnishes much practical evidence of this.
In recent decades, new voices have appeared on the contemporary Islamic intellectual map, vying for a place with the now hugely influential Salafi approach to Islam, generally characteristic of Islamism, and that of its traditionalist opponents. These are the voices of new Muslim intellectuals which, taken together, capture an emerging trend in Muslim interpretation. This trend is the subject of this volume. Essays by eminent international scholars examine the work of ten intellectuals from around the globe, providing biographical and contextual-analytical discussions. The introduction situates and evaluates the thought of these intellectuals, assessing and explaining responses to it among Muslim and non-Muslim audiences.
The Qur’an and its meanings for contemporary Muslim life form an important focus for these intellectuals’ efforts. Reflecting their exposure to western culture and its intellectual debates, they often adopt an approach to the sacred text informed by contemporary trends and critical methods. Their tendency is to project it as a source of general ethical guidelines and principles, rather than the immediate answer to all human questions. While most participate in the creative encounter between Islam and modernity, others move beyond this, bringing to their approach to the sacred text a post-modern mood of radical criticism, challenging head-on centuries-old Muslim consensus. Seeking a renaissance in Islamic cultural and intellectual life, and progress and reform in Muslim countries, their political ideas are often close to the heart of the liberal tradition, favouring democracy. These intellectuals are all products of a secular education. Some combine this with elements of ‘traditional’ Islamic learning, while others are ‘self-taught’ in the Islamic disciplines. Most are professional academics, but we also find here a Syrian engineer, a Libyan literary figure, and an Indonesian public activist.
The voices of this trend are likely to multiply in years to come, as Muslims form increasingly diverse communities of readers, as they become increasingly established in western academic institutions and as cultural globalisation proceeds apace. This is one reason to study this trend. Another lies in the fact that, by its very nature, it crystallises the burning issues in contemporary Muslim debates. Three in particular are highlighted in this volume. First: the problematic of Islam and western modernity. Second: the growing confusion over who speaks for Islam, and third, the absence of consensus concerning the limits of Islamic reform. Opinions concerning this trend are deeply divided. When compared to competing Islamic formulations, in Muslim circles its appeal is confined to a small minority, while many dismiss its contributions outright. On the other hand, western circles have provided such thinkers with a platform, and have welcomed their contributions. More than one has been described as a long-awaited ‘Martin Luther of Islam.’ In such thinkers, some western observers believe they have found the moderate Muslim voices that must be cultivated and supported, in the hope of a positive outcome to what has been dubbed ‘Islam’s internal war’.
In spite of this interest, the writings of such intellectuals have remained somewhat inaccessible to a wider English-reading public. This volume fills this gap through a focused treatment of the pivotal theme of Qur’anic meaning. For the first time, it points to the emergence of a new Muslim community of interpretation, characterised by direct engagement with the word of God while embracing intellectual modernity in an increasingly globalised world. It also demonstrates that such intellectuals discuss the Qur’an and its meaning in the context of diverse discursive struggles, and in multiple arenas. These include opposition to Islamist discourses, authoritarian regimes, and dominant patriarchal modes, and responses to the threats of inter-communal strife, cultural stagnation and underdevelopment, for example.
Whatever their specific arena, the intellectuals studied in this volume constitute in themselves a clear reminder of the continued cultural centrality of the Qur’an, and the pivotal place it occupies in working out the aspirations of Muslim societies. By making their writings available, the hope is to enrich debates concerning the profound issues of change and tradition, authority and the management of pluralism and diversity, and culture, identity and exchange that concern us all as members of the new global society.