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Should ’people in the West’ read the Qu’ran in order to understand what is happening in the ’Muslim world’?

Sunday 4 February 2018, by siawi3


Wednesday 12 December 2018,

Interview with Anissa Hélie

by Andy HEINTZ

Andy Heintz – How important is it for people in the West to understand that issues like homosexuality and abortion are open to diverse interpretations in the Qur’an?

Anissa Helie – Along other scholars and activists, I have pointed out that - contrary to claims that Muslim-majority nations’ treatment of social issues are primarily informed by their adherence to key Islamic sources such as the Qur’an - the broad cultural and political diversity of Muslim societies, as well as the variation in religious interpretation, cannot be overlooked. As a result of this diversity, and despite references to a “Muslim world†that is presumed to be homogenous, legal approaches and national policies can be quite varied on a number of issues. Issues related to sexuality and women’s bodily rights (including same-sex behavior and abortion) are no different, and are legislated in very different ways in various Muslim-majority societies.

For example, as I have shown with regard to abortion, data from 2009 related to 42 Muslim countries highlight the wide scope of legal approaches with regard to voluntary termination of pregnancy - ranging from complete prohibition, to abortion being allowed on a variety of grounds: either to preserve the woman’s physical health, or to preserve her mental health, or on the basis of socio-economic factors, or even without any restriction, i.e. on request. Over 15 years ago, when I started writing on same-sex relations in Muslim contexts, 26 Muslim-majority countries condemned homosexuality as a criminal offense, with alleged “offenders†facing penalties ranging from forced medical procedures (e.g. anal testing) to imprisonment or even the death penalty. Aren’t such empirical examples making clear enough the fact that “issues like homosexuality and abortion are open to different interpretations†in the legal arenas of various Muslim-majority societies?

Why, then, does it seem necessary to some commentators to frame this question with such an emphasis on the religious realm: why is it relevant to focus on the Qur’an in relation to social issues such as sexuality or termination of pregnancy? Why is the religious text seen as so important in this early 21st century? And by whom is the Qur’an (or the Sunnah, or hadith) casted as paramount in defining citizens’ rights? By formulating this question in such a way, aren’t “people in the West†at risk of legitimizing Muslim political actors (whether governments or other entities, including non-state actors) who tend to rely on religious claims when politically expedient, and often to secure their own power?

Drawing a parallel with non-Muslim contexts may help to drive the point home: do people routinely refer to the Bible when envisaging social issues relevant to modern societies with a Christian tradition (e.g. European or Latin American nations)? Or, do we systematically assume that the Torah necessarily impacts the life decisions of, e.g., (all and any) Jewish New Yorkers? I am afraid that the question itself reinforces an assumption about the primacy of Islam (and of Quranic interpretations) as an essential factor in the lives of “Muslims†- an assumption that most people do not hold with regard to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, etc. Hence, I am not sure that the constituency you refer to - i.e. “people in the West†- need to be further encouraged to look at Muslim-majority societies primarily through the prism of Islam.

Instead, one issue that may be worth enquiring about would be: why do so many Westerners, both scholars and lay people, display such an overwhelming interest in the Qur’an? Often, it is because they confuse and conflate the religious and social realms, attributing more impact of the former onto the latter than is wise to do. Several experts - among them, French scholar of Islam Maxime Rodinson in the 1960s, or Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani in the wake of 9-11 - have criticized this long-standing (and still widespread) Western tendency to apprehend most trends affecting Muslim communities with exclusive references to Islam. Rodinson is even credited to have coined the term “theologocentrism†to describe this phenomenon which, by privileging the religious, ignores other significant historical and social developments affecting Muslim-majority societies.

Decades ago, Rodinson analyzed and debunked the notion of a homo islamicus, an entity that was constructed as essentially different from the (imagined) Western man. As he noted in the 1980s: “In the nineteenth century, [the Oriental] became something quite separate, sealed off in his own specificity. This is the origin of the homo islamicus, a notion widely accepted even today†. Indeed, the assumption of a Muslim Other persists, whose “essential characteristics (…) could be identified [through the] study of certain key texts which were regarded as embodying the core principles of Islamic civilization. The Qur’an was naturally deemed to be first among these (…) [S]cholars believed that they could deduce the characteristics of the†Muslim mind,“based on the assumption that all Muslims, from the rise of Islam until the present, were constrained to think and believe and act within the rigid limits set by the essential character of the civilization to which they belonged.â€

Yet, the issue may well be political, as noted by journalist Warda Mohamed:

“It’s with great rigor and without any value judgement that Rodinson contradicts those who, by adopting an essentialist approach, look to Islam to offer an explanation for all the behaviors and actions of Muslims (…) In the same vein as during Rodinson’s times, we must ask ourselves why and, above all, who continue to analyze Muslim societies and the misdeeds of Muslims exclusively through the religious. And we must ask ourselves for which purpose are such questions instrumentalized. (…) How must we analyze the societies of the Muslim world? Does Islam offer an analytical tool to understand these societies’ development and their problems? To these questions, which are still being asked today, Maxime Rodinson attempted to provide answers about 50 years ago.â€

Mohamed reminds us of Rodinson’s own words, a reminder that s to be timely: “It is not the Qur’an that molds society - instead, it is society that draws from the Qur’an what can be matching it [what can correspond with/to it?].†[Original quote = “Ce n’est pas le Coran qui façonne la société mais la société qui puise dans le Coran ce qui peut lui correspondre.†.] "

Rodinson specifically emphasized socio-historical developments and economic structures as crucial factors, and believed these shape(d) Muslim-majority societies in more significant ways than religion. Other researchers have embraced Rodinson’s rejection of the dominant Western approach with regard to Muslim cultures (the “theologocentrique school of thought†), and made similar observations with regard to gender and sexuality norms.

For example, twenty years ago, Lebanese-American professor As’ad AbuKhalil wondered: “How can Islam be used as a standard methodological yardstick when the diversity of Muslim lifestyles and interpretations are apparent to the researcher?†AbuKhalil also deplored the fact that “The tendency to attribute all manners of sociopolitical life and systems of thought to the Islamic theological worldview has for long been a staple of Western studies of Islam.â€

It is now clear this particular bias is no longer restricted to academia, but has spread among the public at large. The anecdote related by Mamdani regarding the 2001 spike in sales of the Qur’an, just after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, is telling in this respect:

“I was in New York when 9/11 happened. It surprised me when I saw the craze to buy copies of the Quran in America (…) They want[ed] to find the reasons for Muslims’ rage in the Quran.†But, he asks, “Why didn’t the Bible’s sales shoot up when America attacked Afghanistan and Iraq?†So, yes, the Qur’an may well provide key guidance to some believers; the sunna (i.e. post coranic tradition related to the life of prophet Muhammad, specifically his sayings and deeds as reported by his family and entourage) is a rather important source of guidance as well, also in terms of Muslim jurisprudence. But again, religion matters only for those to whom it matters (whether believers or cynical politicians). And - as hinted in the interview question - the fact remains that interpretation of religious sources is key: all religious traditions can be understood as offering either a conservative, exclusionary, blueprint or, on the contrary, an emancipatory path to those who subscribe to any particular faith. Feminist theologians of the Qur’an, (Muslim scholars such as Riffat Hassan in Pakistan, Amina Wadud in the United States, Siti Musdah Mulia in Indonesia, or Kecia Ali in South Africa), have struggled to promote interpretations that are grounded in religious texts while upholding, for example, the rights of women and of stigmatized sexual minorities.


Anissa Helie is an assistant professor at John Jay College. She has written powerful academic articles like Multiculturalist Liberalism and Harms to Women: Looking Through the Issue of the ’Veil’ and she wrote the Introduction: Policing gender, sexuality and ’Muslimness’ for the book “Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Resistance and Restrictions†, which she edited with Homa Hoodfar.


* This interview will be included in Andy Heintz’s upcoming book Dissidents of the International Left.

* Andy Heintz is a freelance journalist who has been published in the Culture Project, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres, Foreign Policy in Focus, Secularism is a Women’s Issue, Balkan Witness and CounterVortex.