A bright light of critical scholarship of Islam was just extinguished in Cairo with the death at 66 of professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd on July 5. I saw him only last spring at the international conference “The Qur’an in Its Historical Context” held at the University of Notre Dame, where he and professor Abdolkarim Soroush, the great contemporary Iranian philosopher and intellectual, together gave one of the most intellectually rigorous and emotionally moving keynote presentations I have ever experienced at an academic conference. These two Muslims represent the zenith of intellectual and ethical expression among any people of faith I know.
Abu Zayd is, unfortunately, best known for being tried by a civil court in Cairo in the mid-1990s and convicted of apostasy, after which he was to be forced by the court to divorce his beloved wife before fleeing Egypt for the West. He of course was not an apostate but a true believer who epitomized the intellectual and spiritual life of the classical alim (plural ulama), the archetypal Muslim scholar who combined expertise in jurisprudence with philosophy, rhetoric, theology and Qur’an hermeneutics. Like Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), and like their contemporaries, Maimonides the Jew and Thomas Aquinas the Christian, Abu Zayd insisted on applying critical thinking to theology and even to what believers have the most difficult time viewing in this light: divine revelation.
For this he had to suffer the consequences, but not because he was a Muslim or because Islam cannot countenance self-criticism. The fact is that he was thoroughly a product of the contemporary Muslim world. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Cairo University — not at the Sorbonne or Oxford or Princeton. He grew up and lived his entire life in his home country of Egypt until his forced exile in 1995.
Had he lived during another age in the Muslim world, his life would have been different. While the church was wasting its resources engaging in bloody crusades against heresies such as the Cathars (Albigensians), the Muslim world was producing such eminent scholars as the great Sufi theologian and poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, the greatest botanist and pharmacist of the Middle Ages, Abdallah Ibn al-Baitar, and the doctor Ibn Al-Nafis, who discovered the function of coronary arteries and whose hospital in Cairo taught Christian and Jewish physicians as well as Muslims.
Abu Zayd wrote more than a dozen books and over two dozen articles. He was regularly asked to review the books of the greatest Western scholars in the fields of Islam and Muslim history, such as William A. Graham at Harvard and Michael Lecker at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was bold in his thinking but humble in his living.
Unfortunately, much of the Muslim world is experiencing a period in which scholarship and creativity such as Abu Zayd’s are being suppressed by authoritarian governments, which have found strange bedfellows in their obsession to hold onto power at any cost. The most threatening force to despots is always the true scholars and creative thinkers, those who are willing to shout out that the emperor has no clothes. That shout is made not only through politics but also through scholarship and the arts.
We are impoverished by his loss but enriched by his inspiration. The number of Muslim critical scholars of Islam, including of the Qur’an, has picked up dramatically in recent years. More than a dozen Muslims gave papers at the Notre Dame conference last spring, and more Muslims are attending and organizing academic conferences on Islam in the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East than even a decade ago. In the current political climate of the Muslim world, it is increasingly difficult for Muslim scholars such as Abu Zayd to be heard. Rather than complain that they don’t exist, we need to support the growing community of Muslim true believers, those who are struggling to pursue their critically important work.
Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California (usc.edu/cmje).