ONTOLOGY AS METHODOLOGY
While the ensuing chapters will provide in-depth discussions of these exegetes’ methodological approaches, it is necessary to say a few words, right from the outset, about what exactly these exegetes mean when they state, often emphatically, that the Qur’an is the Word of God. The conception of the Qur’an as the Word, after all, does not reflect even a remote departure from historic Muslim understandings of the text. Indeed, all Muslims, irrespective of ideological or sectarian persuasion, believe in the divine ontology of the Qur’an: that the revelations that the Prophet received between c. 610 and 632, through the mediation of the archangel Gabriel, are the very words of the one God. What does represent a departure in these exegetes’ understanding of the term (at least in my reading of their works) is that the Qur’an’s ontological status has inescapable implications in regard to methodology, in terms of how authoritative Islamic normative thinking is, or rather ought to be, produced. Specifically, the unique nature of the Qur’an as the Word necessitates the hermeneutical elevation of that text over all other Islamic texts and traditions, which are created by fallible human beings and thus lie within a wholly different, and significantly less authoritative, ontological category. I write elevation because these exegetes, as will be demonstrated at various points in this book, do not sweepingly reject the inherited intellectual tradition but rather directly engage the Qur’an and privilege it over other Islamic texts. Invoking the Qur’an’s hallowed status as the Word, they use it as the framework, the criterion with which to engage other Islamic texts, often (though not always) critically. It is crucial to appreciate that this connection—linking ontological status with methodological approach—was not considered, by any means, intuitive in classical Islamic thought. For classical scholars, the sunna (literally precedent, referring to the custom of Prophet Muhammad) was on a par with the Qur’an in terms of authority. In fact, they even considered the sunna to be a form of revelation (wahy), while at the same time acknowledging that the sunna did not reflect the words of God. My point here is that while classical scholars may not have translated the Qur’an’s ontological status into method, while they may not have prioritized the text’s substantive content over that of other Islamic texts, they certainly did not consider the Qur’an as being anything less than the Word of God.
These exegetes’ particular understanding of the Qur’an as the Word poses, of course, a direct challenge to established religious hierarchy, especially the authority of the historic interpreters of the faith: the ‘ulama. The Quranic scholar Walid Saleh has described the genre of Qur’anic commentary (tafsir) as a ‘genealogical tradition’. That is, a commentator did not simply expound the Qur’an itself, but did so through the prism of the commentorial tradition, either reproducing existing exegetical insights or adding new insights to that pool, the former being more common than the latter. And it is through these accumulated layers of exegesis, spread over a millennia of scriptural reflection, that the religious authority of the ‘ulama—in this specific case, those specialized in the art of exegesis (mufassirun)—was sustained, consolidated. In linking the Qur’an’s ontological status with method and, by extension, seeking a direct audience, an unmediated encounter, with the text, these exegetes bypass the commentorial tradition and the broader Islamic intellectual heritage. In so doing, they undercut the ‘ulama’s authority as an interpretive class. Unsurprisingly, as a result of their Islamic writings, coupled with their justice-based activism, these exegetes have been controversial within Muslim circles, eliciting suspicion and distrust. Though they have attained modest followings among progressively minded Muslims, they are generally not accepted by the authorities in any Islamic school of law or established institution within centres of Islamic learning. In contrast, they have had a largely positive reception among non-Muslim Western audiences, particularly within the academy. This is partially due to their educational backgrounds, having been schooled in so-called secular universities (as we will see shortly, Esack is the only exegete who attended an Islamic seminary). My interest in this book, however, is not to evaluate their Islamic orthodoxy or to document how they have been received by varying readerships. My focus lies in expounding and assessing their ideas, and it is to the structure of this exposition and assessment that we turn to in the following section.