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Philosophers of  the Arabs

 Professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd
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Professor Nasr hamid Abu Zayd (b. 1943 - 2010), an Egyptian thinker, specialized in Islamic studies – Arabic language department, a pro of religious reform on the basis of reinterpreting the religious texts in view of modern and contemporary scientific methodology and in light of its cultural, social, and political contexts.

His life

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was born near Tanta, Egypt (about 100 km north of Cairo), on July 10, 1943. He earned diploma in industrial high school, wireless division 1962, during working he graduated from college of literature, Arabic language department with distinction 1972. He obtained the Masters degree from the same department in Islamic studies 1976, with distinction, and Ph. D. in Islamic studies from the same department, with distinction 1981. From 1975 to 1977 he earned Ford Foundation Fellowship at the American University in Cairo, and from  1978 to 1979 he earned Ford Foundation Fellowship at the Center for Middle East Studies of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia USA.

 In 1982, he joined the faculty of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1987. Later on, 1995, he was promoted to the rank of full professor at Cairo university, faculty of literature after a well known incident that ended up by leaving to Leiden university, Amsterdam, as a visiting professor of Islamic Studies.

On 1993 one of the members of tenure committee of Cairo University entrusted to review his scholarly works has written a negative report and accused him of apostasy. The promotion was refused at that time, and the accusation of apostasy escalated to the extent of forcibly divorcing him from his wife through court. This verdict has been appealed and annulled, later on, but the whole incident has ignited major questions about freedom of the academy, with respect of religious studies, and the correct methodology in dealing with it.   

He holds the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht, The Netherlands, while supervising MA and PhD students at the University of Leiden as well. He also participated in a research project on Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique in the Working Group on Islam and Modernity at the Institute of Advanced Studies of Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin).

 His Project

The essence of the philosophical project of Professor Nasr is that understanding the religious text (i.e. Islamic heritage) should be performed using modern and contemporary methodology. This would lead to accomplishing the preparatory period of 'religious reform', which is essential for Arabic renaissance. Modern and contemporary methods, here, include, hermeneutics, structuralism, discourse analysis, linguistics, and historicism, in addition to history of ideas and sociology of knowledge.

Consequently, Professor Mahmoud Ismael (a well know Egyptian thinker), sees that Professor Abu Zayd:

 One of those thinkers who combined in-depth knowledge of both the Arab/Islamic heritage and the Western thought in an academic scientific way, especially social and humanistic scientific methodologies. In addition, he is deeply interested in the problematic of contemporary Arabic realities, politically and intellectually; for he has introduced leading critical studies of Arab/Islamic heritage.


(Mahmoud Ismael, 1998, "Critical reading in contemporary Arabic thought, Pp. 23)

On the other hand, Mr. Mahmoud Elalem (A well known Marxist thinker) sees that,

In reality the reading of Professor Abu zayd [of Arab/Islamic heritage] is a reading within the framework of the religion itself, not only through what he declares and asserts in his sayings and writings, but also through its content as well as its outcomes…

For, Professor Nasr says in the introduction of his book, "Text, Authority, and Truth":

"The discourse introduced in this book may be considered as a continuation of the discourse of the [Arabic] renaissance period in its religious side, not only of Muhammad Abduh till Muhammad Khalaf Allah, but it is a continuation that extends back to its deepest dimension which is represented by the Rushdi – Mu'tazali accomplishments. It represents a critical extension not only with renaissance discourse, but also with heritage discourse too."

The starting point in the reading of Professor Abu Zayd is his distinction between 'Religion' and 'Religious thought'. Religion – as he says – is a collection of sacred texts that are historically preserved, whereas religious thought is the humanistic endeavors to understand these texts and extract its connotations. The addition of Professor Abu Zayd is represented by his trial to analyze these texts and his efforts to extract or produce its connotation, according to his sayings. In his analyses he articulates on a few methodological and conceptual basis, of which the most eminent is his utilization of the modern methodology to produce the required connotations, such as linguistics, hermeneutics, and sociology. His work is also characterized by being careful to produce connotation from within the texts itself without imposing ideological view from outside, with understanding, at the same time, that human thought in general, including religious thought, is a natural product of a collective of historical and social facts of its age.


(Mahmoud Amin Elalem, 1997, "Critical Positions form Heritage", Pp. 60).

His Philosophy

As mentioned above what characterizes Professor Abu Zayd's philosophical project is his articulation on contemporary methodology to deal with Arab/Islamic heritage texts. Hence, we may approach his philosophical thought through three basic divisions, his methodology, his analysis and his philosophical positions.

His Methodology

Professor Abu Zayd applies modern and contemporary methods of text analysis with some way of particularity with respect to heritage and religious Islamic texts. Modern methods are, in general, the same, but application differs with the differences of cultures. Therefore, it may be said that Professor Abu Zayd combines in a special way the classical traditional methods of the Islamic heritage and the modern and contemporary Western methods in understanding, analyzing and interpreting heritage texts, and in analyzing the Islamic discourse. Concerning this basic trait, he says,

"The method of discourse analysis depends on making use of 'semiology' and 'hermeneutics' in addition to 'linguistics', 'stylistics' and 'science of narration'. Such a dependence is not based on literal utilization of categories of such sciences and its methodological regulation, rather, it tries as much to base itself on a contemporary reading of the [Islamic] heritage's accomplishments in the sciences of language and metaphor. Especially, those accomplishments which made serious advancements, and which has put seeds that allows to found modern science on an Arabic cultural foundation.


(Text, Authority, and Truth, Pp. 8)

Mahmoud El'alem describes this feature of mixing between the two methodologies as follows,

 In my view, the reading of Professor Abu Zayd of the Arabic religious heritage as well as contemporary Arabic thought, in some respects, represent an extension to the project of Professor Hassan Hanafi, albeit it differs greatly in its methodology. Both readings purport toward a new and unique reading of the Arabic religious thought, with the ambition of reconstructing it in a new way. Both readings, in my view, represent a continuation of the ancient Mu'tazali vision but with new and different methodological tools… Professor Hanafi's reading is limited to the second religious text not the first, the Qur'an, which Professor Abu Zayd has analyzed the mechanisms of production of its connotations…

However, despite that Professor Abu Zayd concentrates on the internal analysis of heritage texts, he points always to the effects of the objective historical and sociological elements that affect its formulation. Albeit he doesn't pose long at it due to the nature of his study, which is devoted to uncover the internal structure of the texts, and mechanisms of production of its connotations.


(Mahmoud El'alem, "Critical Positions from Heritage", Pp. 65)

Philosophical Analysis

It can be said that the central notion in the analysis of Professor Abu Zayd is "Multiculturalism". Multiculturalism, in Abu Zayd's thought, is not only a feature of major cultures but also a feature within the major cultures itself. The basic function of discourse analysis in the Arab/Islamic culture, in his view, is to uncover the mechanisms of cultural hegemony, i.e., hegemony of a specific view within the same culture over the other different views.

Therefore, Abu Zayd founds his analysis on a few axioms that reflect clearly his 'multiculturalism'. On the basis of these axioms, processes of text analyses as well as discourse analyses are being performed in order to reach the final aim which is freeing the mind from the authority of the texts (i.e., from a specific authority that utilizes the texts), as an essential condition to accomplish renaissance.

1-      Conditions of Knowledge

Abu Zayd introduces the axioms upon which he constructs his analyses in the form of theoretical conditions of knowledge, as follows,

   The book – as I said before – is not a study of the 'fiqh' [Islamic jurisprudence] of 'Alshafe'y' [the founder of the major system of 'fiqh'], but it is a study of the 'theory of knowledge' as introduced by 'Alshafe'y' through the science of 'fiqh'… The subject is the theoretical 'basis' upon which 'Alshafe'y' has established his inferring means and his methodological processes… What we aim at is to follow the 'mechanisms' of authentication itself as mental processes, it is a study in 'methodology' in the philosophical sense… and the trial to uncover such mechanisms depends on a few axioms that define the methodology of our reading.

The first of these axioms, is that any field of knowledge is not, within a specific culture, separated from the other fields of knowledge. For example, the field of the sciences of language is related to the other scientific fields in the Arab/Islamic culture …

The second axiom is that any intellectual activity – in any field – is not detached from the nature of the social problems (the economic – political – intellectual) which occupies the social creature… Natural truth is a result of deterministic laws, but knowledge in any intellectual activity within social (or human) sciences, is not…

The third axiom is that the intellectual methodology can only be described as 'true' or 'false' within a specific 'worldview' which differs, in its details, within the same culture, but similar in its general elements… When we admit the concept of 'worldview' in our analysis of thought 'truth' or 'untruth' become relative things, or historical in the social meaning. This is what makes it possible for us to speak about different ideologies within the Islamic intellectual system…

The fourth axiom is that all the social differences between the different groups in the history of the Islamic state have been expressed through the religious language in an ideological form. Hence, it was not possible to pursue any conflict unless on the ground of the issues of text explanation and interpretation, i.e., through the struggle for seizing the texts and extracting the meanings that support each group's orientation and interests…

This leads us to the fifth axiom, which states that the long domination of a specific intellectual view doesn't make the other view illegitimate or heretical; for theses descriptions are no more than mere mechanisms of domination. Intellectual domination is usually forced through political mechanisms that have no relation to 'reality' in the philosophical sense….

The sixth axiom is that what is 'fixed' and 'stable' of contemporary religious thought has in many cases its roots in heritage. The relation between them my be obvious, it may not be as well, then it will be in need for analytic mechanisms capable of 'digging' in order to reduce the ideas to its ideological origin… Ideas have a history, and when such a history becomes obscure, these ideas become 'sacred beliefs' and what is alien form religion become part of it, and the human ideological intellectual efforts become 'sacred'.

(Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, Pp. 127-133)

2-      Text and discourse Analysis

On the basis of these axioms the process of text analysis as well as discourse analysis is performed. Abu Zayd defines his concept of the 'Text', which is the subject of analysis as follows,

The term 'Text'…is used in two interfering fields of knowledge: the science of 'discourse analysis' from one side, and the 'science of signs' or semiotics, from another side. In the field of semiotics, the term 'Text' covers a wide space and includes every system of linguistic or non-linguistic signs that transfers a general meaning… However, the term 'Text' in the science of discourse is limited only to the system of linguistic signs that leads to production of a general meaning. Hence, a space of interference between the two fields is evident, representing a relation between the whole and the part; for the science of semiotics is the general one…

In the field of 'discourse analysis' – which is the field of interest of the writer – there is a differentiation between the 'primary text' and the 'secondary text'. The primary text, in the case of the Islamic heritage, is 'the holy Qur'an', which is the text that represent the first 'fact' in a system that has been emanated from it and accumulated around it. The secondary texts start by the 'second text' which is the 'Sunna' [the sayings and deeds of prophet Muhammad], for it is in essence an explanation and explication of the primary text. And if the 'Sunna' were a secondary text, then the 'Ijtihadat' [the efforts of explanation] made by the successive generations of 'Ulamaa' and 'Fuqahaa' [the knowledgable and experts of the Islamic religion] represent other secondary texts as being either explanations or comments on either the primary or the second text.

 (Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, Pp.133-135)

3-      Authority of the Text

The final purpose of text analysis and discourse analysis is challenging the authority of the text and uncovering the mechanisms of utilizing it as a means of hegemony. This is made clear by Abu Zayd as follows,

Now we can say that 'Texts' in itself does not possess any authority, except the epistemic authority that any text, as such, imposes in the field of knowledge to which it belongs. Each text tries to introduce its epistemological authority through novel ideas that it presumes to present with respect to the texts precedent to it. But this 'textual' authority doesn't turn out to be a cultural – sociological authority except through enforcement by the social group which adopt the text and turn it into a referential framework. Because of this, we differentiate between 'the texts' [and its epistemic authority] and authority, which is enforced by the human mind, not emanated from the text itself. And because of this, the call for 'freedom for the authority of the texts' is in reality a call for freedom from absolute authority and overall reference of thought, which exerts coercion, hegemony and control when it imposes on texts meanings and connotations outside of time, space, circumstances and context. (Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, Pp.138)

4-      Texts Authority and Religious Reform

The net result of such analysis is freedom from authority of the text, as well as freedom of human mind, and hence accomplishing the process of religious reform,

The call for freedom from the authority of texts and from its overall reference is in essence a call for freedom of human mind that engages in positive dialectic with nature, in natural sciences, and with social and human reality, in human sciences, art and literature. Does such a call contradict religious texts or contradict authority imposed, unrightfully, by some on those texts and turned it into shackles on the movement of mind and thought? Such a call for freedom doesn't stand upon discarding religion or its texts, but it stands upon understanding religious texts a scientific understanding.

(Thinking in the Time of Excommunication, Pp.146)

The Philosophical Position

The central philosophical position concerning Professor Nasr's central thesis, which is reading the Qur'anic text, is stated in his own terms as follows,   

Let me start by briefly setting out my own scholarly view concerning the status and position of the foundational scripture, namely the Qur'an. Studying the history and methodology of classical exegesis, I became aware of the fact that there is neither an objective, nor an innocent interpretation. Theologians have long established a hermeneutical principle deduced from a specific verse of the Qur'an (3:7) that divided the Qur'an into ‘ambiguous’ or ‘revocable’ (mutashabih) verses on the one hand, and ‘clear’ or ‘irrevocable’ (muhkam) verses on the other. Hence, they logically agreed that the irrevocable should be the norms to interpret, or rather to disambiguate, the revocable. Hermeneutically they agreed, but when it came to the implementation of this principle they disagreed. Every group decided according to their own theological position what was revocable and what was irrevocable. In the end, what was considered revocable by a given group was considered irrevocable by their opponents and vice versa. And so, the Qur'an became a battlefield for the adversaries to situate their political, social and theological positions.


(Reformation of Islamic Thought, Pp. 93)

Intellectual Turn

This philosophical position has been developed in the works of Abu Zayd gradually from his Ph.D. thesis in Ibn Arabi passing by his study 'the concept of the text' and his other works. However, the basic turn in his thought has been marked by the turn from 'analysis of text' to 'analysis of discourse'. In his view this insures a democratic position in reading and understanding the Qur'anic text. He describes this situation as follows,

Initially, I started out as a proponent of the Qur'an as a text that should be subjected to textual analysis. In my book Mafhum al-Nass (The Concept of the Text, first published 1990) I introduced the historical and linguistic dimensions of the Qur'an by critically rereading the classical sciences of the Qur'an (ulum al-Qur'an), concluding that the Qur'an was a cultural production, in the sense that pre-Islamic culture and concepts are re-articulated via the specific language structure. …

In my inaugural lecture of the year 2000 for the Cleveringa rotating Chair of Law, Freedom and Responsibility at the University of Leiden, I added the human dimension to the historical and cultural dimensions of the Qur'an ….

Being so deeply involved in the debate around the present hot issues of modernization of Islamic thought and/or Islamization of modernity, I started to realize that, just like the classical theologians, both the modernists and their opponents are trying to situate their position in the Qur'an  by implicitly or explicitly claiming its status as a text…

In my inaugural lecture for the Ibn Rushd Chair for Islam and Humanism at the University of Humanistics in Utrecht (27 May 2004) I therefore developed my thesis on the human aspect of the Qur'an  one step further, moving from the vertical to the horizontal dimension of the Qur'an . By the horizontal dimension I mean something more than the canonization,… What I mean is the dimension that is embedded in the structure of the Qur'an  and which was manifest during the actual process of communication. Realization of this horizontal dimension is only feasible if we shift our conceptual framework from the Qur'an  as ‘text’ to the Qur'an  as ‘discourse’.

(Reformation of Islamic Thought, Pp. 97-98)

The Future of Arabic Renaissance

 Professor Nasr's position from the problematic of religious reform, which is based on implementing the correct methodology in analyzing and interpreting the Qur'anic text is reflected on his position from the problematic of Arabic renaissance.  He sees that, as a result of the absence of the correct scientific methodology in dealing with the religious texts, the modern Arabic renaissance thought has fallen into an unacceptable form of 'combinatory thinking'. He introduces his position as follows,

For these reasons, the motive behind the process of 'combination' was a direct beneficiary one. This has turned the 'combination' between the two sides into a form of 'concoction', in which both sides retain its basic trait. And this what we see today of polarization between two sides: either full annexation to the west according to the imperial colonial conditions, or the complete following of traditional thought, from the other side. Despite the apparent contradiction between the two sides, each one leads to the other in its own way. Dictatorship leads to alienation and exploitation of the human beings in the name of modernism, whereas traditional thinking leads to the same result in the name of religion and heritage.

(Text, Authority and Truth, P. 35)

This polarization resulted, according to Abu Zayd, from the hesitation of the Arabic renaissance thinkers to confront the real essence of the problem, which is achieving real autonomy of thought from the control of 'the political'. Hence, the essential condition for achieving renaissance, in the future, is unfolding the relation between 'the intellectual' and 'the political',

 It is time now for the Arabic intellectual to be aware that the need to cut the 'link' between 'the intellectual' and 'the political' has become a matter of 'to be or not to be'. This is so despite admitting that the process of thought is in its deep sense a political process. Thought has its own mechanisms and purposes and politics have its own mechanisms and purposes, and it is dangerous for the first to be in the service of the second…

The interference between the political and the intellectual, to the degree of identity, with what it leads to the 'combinatory position', has a deep existence in our mental and cultural history… No doubt the Islamic project, which can be extracted from the texts and positions of its founder, is an Arabic humanistic one. And as much such a fact have been comprehended, the project have been in advance, and as much it has been ignored, the project has been in recess.


(Text, Authority, and Truth, Pp. 53-55) 

 Major Works

Books in Arabic

·       Rationalism in Exegesis: A Study of the Problem of Metaphor in the Writing of the Mutazilites (Al-Ittijâh Al-`Aqlî fi al-Tafsîr: Dirâsa fî Qadiyat al-Majâz fi ‘l-Qur’ân ind al-Mu`tazila), Beirut and Casablanca 1982, 4th edition 1998.

·       The Philosophy of Hermeneutics: A Study of Ibn `Arabî's Hermeneutics of the Qur'an (Falsafat al-Ta'wîl: Dirâsa fi Ta’wî al-Qur’ân ind Muhyî al-Dîn ibn `Arabî), Beirut and Casablanca 1983, 4th edition, 1998.

·       The Concept of the Text: A Study of the Qur’anic Sciences (Mafhűm al-Nass: Dirâsa fî 'Ulűm al-Qur'ân), Beirut and Cairo 1991, 5th edition 1998.

·       The Problematic of Reading and the Method Of Interpretation (Ishkâliyât al-Qirâ'a wa Aliyyât al-Ta'wîl), Beirut and Casablanca 1995, 5th edition 1999.

·       The Foundation of the Moderate Ideology in Islamic Thought by Al-Shafi`î (Al-Imâm al-Sh fi`î wa Ta'sîs al-Aydiyulujiyya al-Wasatiyya), Cairo, 3ed edition 1998.

·       Critique of Islamic Discourse (Naqd al-Khitâb al-Dînî), Cairo, 4th edition 1998.

·       9. Thinking in the Time of Excommunication (Al-Tafkîr fî Zaman al-Takfîr), Cairo, 3ed edition 1998.

·       10. Caliphate and the Authority of the People (Al-Khilâfa wa Sultat al-Umma), Cairo, 1995.

·       11. Text, Authority and the Truth (Al-Nass, al-Sulta, al-Haqîqa), Beirut and Casablanca 1995, second edition 1997.

·       12. Circles of Fear: Analysis of the Discourse about Women (Dawâ'ir al-Khawf: Qirâ'a fi khitâb al-Mar'a) Beirut and Casablanca 1999.

·       13. Discourse and Hermeneutics (Al-Khitâb wa al-Ta'wîl), Beirut and Casablanca 2000.

·       14. Thus Spoke Ibn `Arabi (Hakadhâ Takallama Ibn `Arabî) The Egyptian National Organization for Books, Cairo 2002.


Books in English

·       Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.

·       Rethinking the Qur'an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics. Utrecht: Humanistics University Press, 2004.

·       Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam (with Esther R. Nelson). New York: Praeger Publishers, 2004.


Honors and distinctions


Articles and Interviews




By: Samir Abuzaid