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memri
February 2, 2006 No.
264

French Moroccan Progressive Author on ‘The New Islamic Thinkers’

THE FOLLOWING IS THE FIRST REPORT FROM MEMRI'S RECENTLY LAUNCHED PROJECT: NORTH AFRICAN REFORMIST THINKERS

Rachid Benzine is a French-Moroccan intellectual known for his research in the modern interpretation of the Koran. He grew up in a religious Muslim family and holds degrees in political science and economics. Today, he is on the editorial board of Le Monde des Religions, a secular French magazine on religion associated with the leading French daily Le Monde. Benzine, a supporter of interreligious dialogue, has co-authored two books with Prof. Christian Delorme: We - Christians and Muslims - Have So Many Things to Tell Each Other (Albin Michel, 1997), and The Suburbs of God (Bayard, 1998) which deals with immigration, integration, Islam and interreligious dialogue.

Benzine's latest book, The New Islamic Thinkers (Albin Michel, 2004), denounces Islamists as "impostors" who interpret the Koran in ways that serve their own extremist purposes. He asserts that Koranic verses must be interpreted in their historical context and, paradoxically, that it is by acknowledging the historical roots of the Koran that Muslims can reconcile it with modernity. In his book, Benzine analyzes the ideas of a number of modern Islamic thinkers. Using their knowledge of history and of the Koran, these new thinkers are proposing - not imposing - new interpretations of Koranic verses which are anchored in history but harmonize with modernity.

The new Islamic thinkers include renowned French-Algerian professor Muhammad Arkoun; renowned moderate Pakistani cleric Fazlur Rahman; Egyptian pioneers in the literary study of the Koran Amin Al-Khuli and Muhammad Khalafallah; Tunisian intellectual Abdelmajid Charfi; and South African researcher of Koranic hermeneutics Dr Farid Esack. They all face strong opposition, both from Islamic circles and from Arab regimes. Some have been forced into exile by the regimes out of fear that they might undermine their authority.

Benzine believes that Muslims can regard the Koran as sacred and yet be receptive to rational criticism of it. Rational thinking, he explains, strengthens faith by providing it with a solid basis. Similarly, being a believing Muslim does not prevent Benzine from valuing the secular foundations of society. He believes that Islam should not encompass every area of human life, since other disciplines, such as democracy and human rights, deal with aspects of life other than faith. He also notes that it can be "dangerous" for a Muslim to define himself exclusively as such, insisting that religion is only a part of one's identity.

The following is a brief review of Benzine's religious thought, based on interviews he gave in 2004 to three media outlets: the Moroccan independent daily TelQuel, [1] the leading French Islamic website www.oumma.com , [2] and the French Christian daily La Croix [3] :

Islam and History

Benzine advocates a historical reading of the Koran: "In addition to the 'textual reading' [of the text], we can adopt a 'historical reading,' in order to understand it in the context of the time in which it was written." [4]

Benzine explains that Islam is more substantial than the simplistic and idealistic interpretation of the fundamentalists, since it is rooted in human history: "If we do not understand how the Koran emerged in the course of history, and if we do not study its social and cultural environment context and the political pressures that existed in 7th century Arabia, we cannot understand the text. By ignoring history, we... reduce Islam to [mere] ideas and concepts." [5]

Benzine explains that ignoring history leads to misinterpretation of the Koran: "Many readers are not aware that, when they read the Koran, their reading is biased, since the words do not necessarily have the same meaning today as they did when they were revealed…" [6]

In addition he points out that certain verses have abrogated other ones: "…When I speak to fundamentalists, I begin by placing things into context - by mentioning the circumstances surrounding the revelation, by reminding them that certain verses abrogated other ones, and by distinguishing the Mecca verses from the Al-Medina verses. This prevents an 'undisciplined reading' of the text." [7]

According to Benzine, an 'undisciplined reading' is the result of ignorance about historical circumstances. He denounces Islamists who use the Koran to serve their own ideas: "In order to prove the divine character of certain ideas, they turn the Koran into a kind of supermarket where they can find the verses that suit them best, as if to copy and paste them, and prove that their claims correspond exactly to what the Koran says. The Koran must be considered as one structured unit. In order to understand any [other] text, we resort to linguistic and literary analyses. Why not do this with sacred texts as well?" [8]

Benzine insists that analysis of the Koran is not a modern idea, but was done in the earlier stages of Islam: "…I believe that the Muslim public is able to understand reason. A literary analysis of the Koran [already] existed in the first centuries of the Hijra [...] [9]

Benzine accuses the Islamists of forging history: "Instead of studying history, the Islamists create it. They forget that Islam has a human history and that history is not sacred." He points to the danger of such an approach: "I try not to disconnect Islam from the countries [in which it developed]… It is dangerous to present Islam as a global idea, detached from any context and disconnected from history… The revealing of the Koran lasted 23 years."

On the other hand, he credits historians for countering fanaticism: "Historians are the ones who counter fanaticism. They are the ones who remind us who Al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymia were, and to what extent what they say is [only] ideology." [10]

Islam and Politics

The Iranian Revolution, says Benzine, has tried to reduce Islam to a mere ideology: "Since the Iranian Revolution, a certain ideology has been speaking in the name of Islam…" Muslims should be given the tools to understand their complex Islamic history and to look beyond the fundamentalist "myth." Benzine accuses the religious and governmental authorities of preventing such a development: "…Whenever someone suggests a new way of thinking, particularly a liberated way of thinking, he is viewed as a threat by the regimes and by the ulema, who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are." [11]

But this is not the only problem, Benzine asserts: "Since the masses are unprepared [for new ideas] and are often rather conservative, new thinkers find it difficult to be heard... They are also opposed by the Islamist movements, since they reject the concept of an 'Islamic state' which is supposedly advocated by God and by the [religious] texts. Many of those thinkers have been persecuted and exiled. But their work is nevertheless circulating." [12]

Benzine maintains that Islam shouldn't be expected to encompass every area of life, hinting that the Koran should be appealed to only on issues related to religion: "Abdelkrim Soroush [13] speaks of the 'obesity of Islam,' in the sense that Islam is expected to answer all questions. However, in addition to religion, there are democracy, human rights, etc..." [14]

He also notes that identification with Islam could become a trap: "Muslims are told Islam is their identity and they accept it. [Therefore] they do not introduce themselves as "Beurs" [French-born Arab] or North Africans. My various identities - my Moroccan identity, my Islamic identity and my French identity - all mean a great deal to me." [15]

Islam and the Criticism of Faith

Benzine insists that criticism does not pose a threat to faith: "The work of the 'new thinkers' does not aim to weaken faith. On the contrary, they believe that a better understanding of faith can only strengthen it. But we are talking of faith which is purified of imaginary and ideological [concepts]." [16] In further explaining his concept of "purified faith" - i.e., faith based on logic and not on superstition - he says: "More logic doesn't mean less faith. Faith is sometimes based on superstitions that affect one's judgment. Our intuitive knowledge should evolve into thoughtful knowledge. To achieve this, we must submit Islam to critical thought." [17]

The "new Islamic thinkers" to which Benzine refers in his last book are ones who enlighten the Muslims with their logical and knowledgeable approach. But, he insists, their purpose is not to "reform" Islam, since Islam is not an unchangeable entity to begin with. Islam is a series of approaches in constant evolution: "…One of the aims of the 'new Islamic thinkers' is to turn [religion] into an object of scientific study. I don't like the word 'reformists' because 'reform' implies mending, as though we had strayed from some original [understanding of] Islam and [now] wish to revive it." [18]

Regarding the "new thinkers," Benzine clarifies: "The goal is to enable people to think and not to impose a way of thinking." [19] Despite their diverse origins, these new thinkers are all believers and have respect for their religious heritage, says Benzine: "They appeared over the last decades in various places: Egypt, India and Pakistan, Tunisia, Iran, Turkey, Africa, Indonesia… [They are] historians, philosophers, experts on Arab literature, judges, theologians and scientists. They know a lot about their religious legacy and regard themselves as full members of the 'umma' - the Muslim 'community.'" [20]

Benzine points out that a critical approach does not make the Koran less sacred. He differentiates between the Koran, which is sacred, and its interpretations, which are of human origin: "We must continue to regard the Koran - not its human interpretations - as sacred." [21] He also says: "We must distinguish between the revealed text, which is unchangeable, and our interpretation, which is changeable and changing [...] I believe, like Soroush, that 'Islam is a series of interpretations of Islam... I am not trying to reform Islam, but to reform the understanding of Islam." [22]

He emphasizes the existence of various trends in Islam and stresses that all interpretations are of human origin and therefore limited: "It is important to understand why the Shiites and the Sunnis have different hadiths. It is more instructive to understand why things are so than to decide which Hadith is more valid or authentic… One should remember, once and for all, that all interpretations are human and that no one speaks for God… No reading can claim to reflect a [one true] meaning of the Koran." [23]

*Nathalie Szerman is Director of MEMRI's North African Reformists Project.


[1] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004, http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml . TelQuel is an independent liberal French-language Moroccan weekly, which has gained a reputation for addressing sensitive issues - such as the salary of King Mohammed VI - in a direct and uncompromising way. The paper was heavily fined, in August and in October 2005, for allegedly libeling a parliamentarian and the head of a child-relief NGO, respectively; the paper's editor, Ahmed Benchemsi, said that the Moroccan authorities were trying to "kill" the paper (www.soutientelquel.com ).

[2] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[3] http://www.la-croix.com/article/index.jsp?docId=1325400&rubId=4078.

[4] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[5] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[6] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[7] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[8] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[9] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[10] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[11] Tel-Quel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[12] http://www.la-croix.com/article/index.jsp?docId=1325400&rubId=4078.

[13] Abdelkrim Soroush is an Iranian intellectual residing in France who opposes the Iranian regime.

[14] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[15] http://www.la-croix.com/article/index.jsp?docId=1325400&rubId=4078.

[16] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[17] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[18] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[19] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[20] http://www.oumma.com/article.php3?id_article=962&var_recherche=benzine.

[21] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[22] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.

[23] TelQuel (Morocco), No. 128, 2004 http://www.telquel-online.com/128/sujet3.shtml.