Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What is an Ecological Hermeneutic?

To pair the words "ecological" and "hermeneutic" requires that we accept the assumption that the human condition is no longer separate and distinct from our environment. When Islam was first revealed as a wisdom tradition, it was seeded in a tribal desert culture. All interpretations of Islam that originated in and evolved from that culture perforce have a tribal and/or ethnocentric dimension. In the 21st century, as a major world religion, Islam transcends all tribal and national boundaries. It is a trans-national faith in a planetary environment which is ecologically inter-dependent. Be it as a result of globalization which has resulted in an anthropologically pluralistic paradigm or because the survival of humankind requires a deep appreciation of the inter-dependence of all species, plants, insects, animals and humans - the entire spectrum of earth-based and sea-based species - any reality-driven hermeneutic of any world tradition can only be ecological if that tradition is to survive as a living, breathing faith tradition. This requires an array of lenses and perspectives to understand Islam, seriously, as a message for all of humankind and not for just 20% of the world's population.

Hans Kung, considered by some to be the greatest living theologian, in his masterful overview of Islam's 1400 year history, entitled "Islam - Past, Present & Future" surveys the landscape of Qur'anic exegesis, and draws some very pertinent conclusions in a chapter on Critical Exegesis:

"Diversity of approaches and forms

In the twentieth century, new tendencies in the Qur'anic exegesis developed, some of which can be found in classical exegesis, some outside it. The Islamologist Jacques Waardenburg of the University of Lausanne has given an analysis that is both knowledgeable and perceptive. First there are new tendencies in the traditional exegesis of the Qur'an:

- The unique character of the Qur'an, as the final revelation of God and the miracle of the Arabic language, is further intensified by some scholars and preachers, also in the media.
- At a practical level, the return to the sources of Islam, Qur'an and Sunnah, is making a separation from burdensome elements of the tradition possible.
- Reformers are emphasizing the rationality of the Qur'an, which often uses rational arguments and emphasizes the need to acquire knowledge.
- Many interpretations of the Qur'an are insisting on an emphasis on social values such as human dignity, the fight for social justice and the moral aspects of life: human freedom and responsibility, rights and obligations and the need for moral orientation.

New, predominantly practical, forms are arising outside classical exegesis of the Qur'an:

- a strict reforming exegesis, which aims to purify Islam from later forms of popular piety by a restoration of original Islam (such as the Hanbalite tradition in Saudi Arabia);
- a political-activist exegesis, which wants to shape state and society on the basis of Shariah in a 'truly Islamic' way, both from below (for example, the Muslim Brothers) and from above by the establishment of an Islamic state (for example, Ayatollah Khomeini);
- a modernizing exegesis, which wants to orientate individuals and society on the modern norms accepted world-wide and discover these universal values in the Qur'an also;
- a spiritual exegesis, which aims to develop a broad religious worldview, on the basis of mystical experience or a theological metaphysic;
- an even more markedly spiritual exegesis which, with the help of texts from the Qur'an, seeks to communicate a spiritual worldview which goes beyond Islamic teaching and practice and forms communities to match;
- a theoretical investigation which aims to develop new methods of interpreting the Qur'an and its message on the basis of rational arguments, often with the help of philosophical currents.

The first attempts at historical criticism also appeared as theoretical investigations around the middle of the twentieth century, above all in Egypt. Amin al-Khuli (1895-1966), professor of Arab studies at the (later) University of Cairo was the first to put forward the thesis of the existence of different literary genres in the Qur'an, which provoked an enormous scandal. His pupil Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah (1916-98) argued that not all texts of the Qur'an could be understood in a strictly historical sense; they were primarily addressed to the pagan Arabs of the seventh century. He was not allowed to say this in his 1947 dissertation but that did not prevent him finally from becoming professor at the Institute of Arab Studies in Cairo (from 1958 he worked in the Ministry of Culture).

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century a series of pioneer thinkers are working for a contemporary and viable Islam. Some of them are particularly concerned with a contemporary exegesis of the Qur'an: they include the Pakistani professors Fazlur Rahman and Riffat Hassan and the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush; the South Africans Farid Esack and Abdul Karim Tayob; the Egyptians Hasan Hanafi and Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd; the Sudanese jurist Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im; the Tunisian Mohamed Talbi; the Kuwaiti Abul-Fadl. In France the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun and in Ankara several young Turkish scholars are engaged in hadith criticism. These scholars all differ from other Muslim intellectuals by their profound knowledge of the Islamic heritage and from the traditional Ulama by their capacity to interpret this heritage using the present-day humanities - history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and hermeneutics." (2007, pp. 524-5).

~Excerpted from "Islam - Past, Present & Future" by Hans Kung, President of the Global Ethic Foundation. Until his retirement in 1996, he was Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tubingen. This 2004 work was translated by John Bowden in 2007.

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