Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd (1943 – 2010)

“I would like to tell the Muslim nation that I was born, raised and lived as a Muslim and, God willing, I will die as a Muslim.... My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not.... I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought.”

~ Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd (whom Islamists accused of apostasy), quoted in
al-Ahram Weekly

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Our beloved friend and colleague, Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd—the Director of Academics of LibForAll’s International Institute of Qur’anic Studies—passed away on July 5, 2010, in Cairo, Egypt.

Nasr possessed a remarkable depth of knowledge whose richness was amazing to behold, and the heart of a loving child. Although he has left us physically, his legacy will endure, as you can see from this sampling of tributes.

Those who love and admire Nasr may be interested to know that he entered a profound, and prolonged, spiritual state prior to his death, while visiting Java in May of 2010. Nasr’s description of the state was that of directly experiencing “the Reality which requires no explanation,” and entering “the [Divine] Fire from which Bistami and al-Hallaj did not return.”

As one who was with him near the end, it seemed as if the veil had been torn asunder, and the servant returned to his Master.

 ~ C. Holland Taylor, Chairman & CEO

 

“While many in the world are busy with the trappings of material possessions, Nasr behaved like a true Sufi monk in the temple of truth.”

~ Dr. Ali Mabrook, LibForAll Deputy Director of Academics, IIQS,
and a close friend and colleague of Nasr for 30 years

 

Allahummaghfir lahu war-hamhu wa 'afihi wa'fu 'anhu; My God, forgive him, love him, bless him, al-Fatihah... amin. With all of my heart, I bear witness that you're a good man.”

~ Kyai Haji Hodri Ariev, LibForAll Director of Programs, Southeast Asia

 

Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, “Farewell to Zayd, Liberal Islamic Theologian,” by Biancarlo Bosetti. “Should the [victory] of democracy ever be achieved throughout the Muslim world, the history that will be written will have to linger at length on this small man with his frail health, who held open the gates of ijhtihad and the interpretation of the Koran.”

Almasryalyoum, “Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid: Islam's scholar,” by Mohamed Shoair. “Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid got his wish: He died in his home country, Egypt, not in exile as he once feared. Abu Zaid passed away in a Cairo hospital on Monday where he was receiving treatment for the past few weeks. The renowned Islamic scholar had contracted an unknown virus last month during a routine visit to Indonesia, where he had recently co-founded the International Institute for Quranic Studies, a project dedicated to promoting tolerance, pluralism and critical thinking in the Islamic world.”

Al-Ahram Weekly, “Thus spoke Nasr Abu-Zayd,” by Mona Anis. “The death of Nasr Abu-Zayd in a Cairo hospital this week has deprived Arab-Islamic culture of a leading voice of rationalism.”

Al-Ahram, “The Classical Roots of Abu-Zayd’s Thought,” by Dr. Ali Mabrook. “The essence of Abu-Zayd’s work was to establish a kind of interactive relationship between the text (i.e., the Qur’an) and human understanding, in which the text is not positioned as an authority that subjugates or enslaves the human mind. In other words, Nasr sought to establish an arena of interactive communication between human understanding and the texts in question.”

“By framing the issue this way, we may quickly realize that the “interactive relationship” proposed by Abu-Zayd has extremely deep roots, which stretch all the way back to a central event in the history of Islam. I am referring to conflict between the Fourth Caliph, ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, and Mu’awiyah, founder of the Ummayad dynasty – whose parents Hind and Abu Sufyan had sought to kill the Prophet Muhammad and exterminate the early Muslim community, until the Muslims’ triumph led them to embrace Islam and seek power within the newly victorious community. The outcome of this bloody struggle between ‘Ali and Mu’awiyah helped determine the entire subsequent political and cultural history of Islam.”

The Jerusalem Report, “Death of a Hero,” by Mona Eltahawy. “The world is a lonelier place when we lose a hero. When I learned of Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s passing on July 5, my tears mourned the loss of a man who spent the past 14 years exiled from his beloved Egypt because his courageous work intimidated the lesser minds of fundamentalists.”

Al-Ahram Weekly, “When the professor can't teach,” by Nadia Abou El-Magd. “I would like to tell the Muslim nation that I was born, raised and lived as a Muslim and, God willing, I will die as a Muslim.... My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not.... I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought.” (2000)

Reuters, “Liberal Koran expert dies in Egypt, after exile,” by Alistair Sharp and Marwa Awad. “Nasr Abu Zayd is a heroic figure, a scholar who has risked everything to restore the traditions of intellectual inquiry and tolerance that for so long characterized Islamic culture,” wrote Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. Abu Zayd critiqued the use of religion to exert political power.... “I am anti-dogma,” he told Reuters in 2008. “It’s a meaning produced by humans, and I don't find that I am going outside the domain of religion if I challenge this dogma.”

Guardian, “Divorcing fundamentalism,” by Brian Whitaker. “Nasr Abu Zaid was a brave and honest scholar disgracefully persecuted for his attempts to read the Quran historically.”

New York Times, “Nasr Abu Zayd, Who Stirred Debate on Koran, Dies at 66.” Islam, Dr. Abu Zayd said, should be understood in terms of its historical, geographic and cultural background, adding that “pure Islam” did not exist and that the Koran was “a collection of discourses.”

Steampunk Sharia, “Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.” “The Egyptian Quranic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who passed away yesterday (5th July 2010), remains my personal model for Muslim intellectual integrity and critical analysis. His most vehement critics could do no better than misrepresent him or demonize him, usually by attributing views and stances to him that were simply untrue.... Abu Zayd saw the Qur’an as a “mode of communication”, a place of liminality between God and the individual most redolent at its moment of recital. As I understand it, he took as his inspiration the quotidian recital of the Qur’an by ordinary Muslims. What he rejected was literal interpretation that locked the Word of God in “the moment of its historical annunciation.” It’s a mode of Quranic intepretation that, in my view, rescues it from dogmatists, politicians and dour scholastics, and returns it instead to the kind and loving heart that is the Islam of the Prophet (aws).”

Women Living Under Muslim Laws, “Dossier 14-15: From Confiscation to Charges of Apostasy.” Detailed analysis of the divorce/apostasy case filed against Nasr Hamid Abu- Zayd, compiled by The Center for Human Rights Legal Aid in Cairo, Egypt (1996).

New Yorker Magazine, “Revolution by Stealth,” by Mary Anne Weaver. “In his work Abu Zaid has suggested that some Koranic references be interpreted as metaphorical. The death threat that hangs over him now is literal.” (June 8, 1998)

The Jakarta Post, “Major Islamic groups angry over scholar's treatment,” by Muhhammad Nafik. “[Indonesia's] two largest Muslim organizations criticized Wednesday the Religious Affairs Ministry for barring a liberal Egyptian Islamic thinker from addressing an international youth conference in East Java.” (2007)

Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, “Problems in the Islamic world cannot be blamed exclusively on Islam.” Nasr Abu Zayd interviewed by Nina zu Fürstenberg. “Abu Zayd explains that, contrary to widespread belief, within the Muslim world there are many reformists and organisations that spread the principles of liberalism, equality, democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, however, the West appears not to acknowledge this and instead of contributing to strengthen these tendencies, it tends to emphasise Islam’s negative aspects and, in particular, its links with terrorism. The problem – continued Abu Zayd – does not lie in Islam or in the Koran, but rather in the stubbornness that characterises extremists in interpreting the Holy Book in a rigid and literal manner, without allowing for any kind of critical debate. Applying hermeneutics to the Koran would instead facilitate its understanding and a more current interpretation, opening the way to a modernisation of the text without corrupting its sacredness.”

Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, “Taliban Law is Not Koranic Law,” by Nasr Abu-Zayd. “The Shari`a espoused by those radical groups, and even by other groups who like to present themselves as moderates, is nothing but the legal articulation of similar groups in medieval Islam, based on their own understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition. Compared with the legal discourse of the early pioneers of Islamic law, this reclaimed Shari`a is very distant from the obvious meaning of the foundational sources of Islam.”

Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, “Persecuted for ‘my’ Koran.” Nasr Abu Zayd talks with Giancarlo Bosetti. “How can your perspective be supported among Muslim scholars? Do you consider there is the possibility of creating a network of people sharing the same view?” “Yes, it is quite possible and plausible. Currently, within the Liberty for all Foundation (www.libforall.org) an international network is emerging. As one of the main programs of the Foundation, both the approach and methodology of modern understanding and interpretation of the Qur'ân and the Prophet[’s] tradition will be taught, and disseminated online and by video/audio modes of communication.”

 

 

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