Maajid Nawaz and the Reform of Islam

What happens when one of the world’s most voluble critics of Islam sits down for a conversation with a former radical Islamist? When one of them is Sam Harris and the other is Maajid Nawaz, the answer is a book published by Harvard University Press: Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

I won’t give you a review of the work, except to say that it is an engrossing read and that I found myself nodding along with much of what both authors say. My real concern here is with a claim that Nawaz repeatedly makes within—that there is no “correct” interpretation of the Koran as such, just different views of its meaning shared out amongst many people. While Nawaz doesn’t extensively defend or develop this idea, Harris doesn’t directly challenge it either, except to say that there are more or less plausible ways of reading scriptural passages. Nawaz concedes the point, but continues to maintain that there is still no such thing as a “correct” interpretation. As far as I can tell, there is ample reason to disagree. Nawaz’s argument begins with him noting that even straightforwardly literal readings of the Koran require a methodology. Consider the claim in the Koran that “there is no compulsion to religion” (2:256) and the claim in the hadiths that those who abandon Islam should be killed (Bukhari 52:260, 84:57, 84:58). Unless we’re to believe conflicted things, some way of attenuating their meaning is needed if we are to fit them together. Ergo, interpretive decisions must be made, and even literal approaches to scripture require a methodology. Having noted that all interpretations of scripture require methodologies, and that multiple interpretations and methodologies are possible, Nawaz proceeds to claim that no single interpretation can be regarded as “correct.” The argument he gives in support of that conclusion is straightforward. In his own words, “any given subject [in the Koran] has multiple interpretations, which demonstrates that there’s no correct one.” When I first read this, I had to stop to check if I had done so correctly. If the “correct” interpretation of a sentence or passage is that which aligns with the meaning originally intended, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that because multiple interpretations of it are possible, there either was no meaning originally intended or that our chosen interpretation cannot align with the original. And if Nawaz means something different by what makes an interpretation “correct” than the meaning originally intended, he never mentions what it is. Just as troublesome for Nawaz’s position is the fact that he doesn’t appear able to accept Harris’s point about some interpretations being more plausible than others without falling into incoherence. After all, if there are more and less plausible interpretations of scripture, they are more or less plausible in terms of what, exactly? The meaning originally intended for scripture by Muhammad or God? But that is precisely what the “correct” interpretation would amount to, and Nawaz insists there is no such thing. What else, then? It’s hard to imagine what the answer could be, and just as before, Nawaz gives no clues. Interestingly, Nawaz looks to solidify his position against criticism with a pragmatic argument. On his view, popularizing the notion that there are many different interpretations of scriptural meaning with no “correct” interpretation among them is crucial because it will lead to respect for difference among Muslims, which will itself lead to pluralism and secularism, and from there to democracy and human rights. By stressing how wide the various possibilities for interpreting the Koran are, and by denying that any one interpretation is correct, Nawaz thus claims we gain our greatest weapon in the fight against Islamists and the narratives of violence and bigotry they peddle. On Facebook and over Twitter, Nawaz has appealed to antitheists to simply let him get on with the job. His argument is essentially “hey, I’m doing really important moral work here, and it is the only way forward. You think that talking 1.6 billion Muslims out of their religious beliefs is a more realistic option? Good luck with that. In the meantime, leave me and others like me be—don’t criticize us.” This is admittedly a somewhat ironic position for someone who frequently repeats the maxim “no idea is above scrutiny, no people are beneath dignity,” but perhaps there are intended exceptions. Unfortunately, it also asks the rest of us who find problems in what he says to engage in a kind of platonic noble lie by omission, remaining silent about them in order to facilitate religious reform. Perhaps you, like me, have conflicted feelings about such a thing. At any rate, there are stronger pragmatic reasons at hand for challenging rather than accepting his overall position. Among them is the following consideration: it stands to reason that God would not have bothered to undertake a project like revelation if the meaning of what he said could be endlessly interpreted without ever hitting upon the truth of what he intended. But this means that somebody who genuinely believes in the truth of Islam can never really accept what Nawaz would like them to, for doing so makes the whole point of revelation ridiculous. Accordingly, trying to convince the vast majority of Muslims that no interpretation of the Koran is correct is unlikely to succeed. So where does this leave us? Well, not only does the argument that Nawaz advances depend on a logical fallacy, it appears to be incoherent for him to accept that there can be more and less plausible interpretations of scripture while simultaneously denying that there is a correct one. These two points aside, there are stronger pragmatic arguments than the one he gives for challenging rather than silently accepting the details of his approach to Islamic reform. While I clearly disagree with Nawaz over this issue of interpretation, I also think that nothing important hangs upon it being true. The value of his historical and linguistic method comes in the fact that it forces people to consider less violent, intolerant, and hate-filled interpretations of scripture than those they may have actually ended up with. There is no additional need, so far as I can tell, to deny that any interpretation of scripture can be correct. Nawaz appears to almost make this point himself when he says: “The mere possibility of interpreting scripture [in some way other than how extremists do] fundamentally undermines the Islamist insistence that only they speak in God’s name, and only they are agents of His will.” Unfortunately, the quote there does leave something important out, which is that it’s not simply the possibility of interpreting scripture differently that matters, but also the plausibility of those various interpretations. After all, when we set out to interpret the available evidence, does the mere fact that aliens could have been the ones behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy undermine the theory that it was Lee Harvey Oswald? No, for the moment you consider how plausible that is, you have every reason to ignore it. Why such an emphasis on an absence of scriptural truth from Nawaz, then? Whatever the reason, one may suspect that it is helped by a worry that, in either some or many of the most important cases, the most plausible readings of scripture really are the ones that fundamentalists and extremists entertain. There at least is some common ground, for I share the same concern. So what should we do? Should we attempt to encourage the reform of Islam through creative interpretation? Or should we seek to leave Islam itself behind as humanity moves itself forward? My problems with the details of Nawaz’s position aside, I am sympathetic to the notion that the first of those two options stands the best chance of success. The idealist in me would be rather disappointed if reforming rather than abandoning Islam was the best humanity could ever hope for, but the world doesn’t exist to satisfy my ideals. Ultimately, however, if the truth is to mean anything to us, the conversation here must look to the plausibility of accepting alternative readings of Islamic scripture, not simply the logical possibility of doing so. To illustrate with a concrete example, when Nawaz discusses the Islamic prohibition on drinking alcohol, he notes that the Arabic word that appears in the Koran’s passages is khamr. Khamr, however, doesn’t strictly mean alcohol per se, but alcohol derived from grapes. What if God simply wants us to avoid drinking grape-based alcohol? (In which case, sorry Jesus, no turning water into wine for you). Having noted this linguistic possibility, though, we shouldn’t avoid asking how plausible it is that God would actually send down such a peculiar prohibition. After all, why limit alcohol from grapes but not alcohol from other sources? Where is the sense in that? For his part, Nawaz consistently refuses to speak about the plausibility of the alternative interpretations he raises. That may be understandable given the scope of the book, but the wider conversation cannot be left there. To Nawaz and others like him thus falls a great challenge: to show not merely that alternative ways of reading the Koran are possible, but to show that the more tolerant, less violent, and more humane readings are also the more plausible ones. After all, it’s not the mere possibility of theological alternatives that does the lion’s share of the work undermining the interpretations of extremists—it’s the plausibility of those alternate interpretations or the prospect that they might be correct. But that requires first believing that something can be correct when it comes to interpretations—something Nawaz has denied.Tags: , ,
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  • Frans

    Mr. Rowe seems to ignore the simple possibility that the group of medieval authors who wrote the Koran did not necessarily have the sophistication to express in writing what they actually meant (the correct meaning). After all, this problem still persists!

  • Joyce Patterson

    There are an infinite number of possible interpretations and only some of these are plausible but it can still be true that there is no correct interpretation. It just means, as noted, that there is no intended meaning. Just what we would expect if the author is imaginary. While I’m sure this is not Nawaz’ point, the position is one that atheists can get behind. These texts are ultimately meaningless except perhaps as scaffolding upon which one drape his or her own moral values.

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  • CJ

    Rowe is correct to point out the fallacy that disagreement about something means there is no truth of the matter. We find the same argument from Cultural Ethical Relativists in ethics. However, The point about whether there is a correct interpretation is moot. Devout Muslims have to think that the Quran is revelation, which it is not, so there is no correct interpretation if what counts as such is God’s intended meaning. On the other hand, Devout Muslims could not accept the correct interpretation if that means discovering the original intentions of its human author or authors. Practically speaking then, there is no correct interpretation. The other point one could make about this is that perhaps Nawaz is confusing epistemology and metaphysics here. Maybe he should say that there is no reliable way to KNOW for certain what the correct interpretation is rather that saying that there IS no correct interpretation.

  • Alan Mandelberg

    Western culture has advanced in tolerance not by providing plausible alternatives for religious dicta but by coming to ignore them. Very few people for example pay attention to the horrid injunctions in “Leviticus”. On can only hope that what are now countries dominated by Islamic fundamentalism become more secular as they become more acculturated, influenced by the wider world. I hope that this hope is not a dim hope

  • Anthony Glaser

    You’re assuming that people “interpret” their holy books with their heads, but I say they do it with their hearts. Plausibility doesn’t actually have much to do with it. I see moderate secular muslims as a tribute to humanism, in a way: I believe it is their innate tendency towards co-operation, compassion, and peace that lead them to decide who is “innocent” when reading the Koran much differently than the extemists.

    • Rob

      OMFSM, the brain thinks, the heart only pumps blood. If you cannot keep such a clear and simple distinction in your head… then I must suppose it is lurking, quite disconnected from reality, in your heart.

      For all I know, you went on to make a good point after shooing all the brain-endowed listeners out of the room with your first sentence, but you lost me before that.

      • Anthony Glaser

        No rational person would think I was referring to the organ that pumps blood when I used the word “heart”. You read my comment with the black & white literal inflexibility of a hard-head extremist. Language is fluid, flexible, imprecise. That is why you can have peaceful, moderate Muslims.

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