The controversy in social media during the first part of Ramadan, mainly among Emiratis but also with some participation from the region at large, over a religious programme broadcast daily on Abu Dhabi TV was a result of divided opinion, with some appalled by its content and others hailing a new and different interpretation of Islam.
So, what was the fuss all about?
The show is called La'allahum Ya'qilun, a Quranic term that can be roughly translated into "So They May Reason". It was a daily conversation, or interview, with the Syrian Islamic thinker and author Dr Muhammad Shahrour.
He is perhaps new to UAE audiences but at about 80 years of age he is famous, or infamous, the world over among people interested in Islamic reform. He has not been a stranger to controversy in the nearly 30 years he has been writing about the Quran and Islam.
Dr Shahrour took an unusual road to reach the centre of the Islamic reform movement. He studied engineering in Syria and then in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, before earning his engineering PhD from Ireland in 1972. But over the next 40 years or so, he dedicated himself to studying the Islamic religious texts and their interpretations since the time of the Prophet.
He published his first book, The Book and the Quran: a Contemporary Reading, in 1990. The reception was immediate and largely negative. Most religious scholars were horrified by his unconventional and very liberal ways of interpreting the Quran.
Some accused him of “inventing a new religion” and of outright heresy. A few others, mostly young, saw his method as a needed interpretation of the Quran, helping to reconcile Islam with the modern world. Since then he has written more than 10 books.
Dr Shahrour’s central theme is that the Quran is the only Islamic source that is truly divine and eternal. Its interpretation, therefore, is always open and would necessarily differ when life and times change.
The Islam we have today, he says, is not what God intended for us in the 21st century but rather a frozen version from more than 1,000 years ago. This heritage is often backward, irrational and certainly not sacred, according to his views. He contends that even the Hadiths of Prophet Mohammed are not revelations nor sacred, and that we should follow the Quran alone.
This view of Hadiths is the same as that of the Quraniyoon who, as the name suggests, limit themselves to following the Quran only. But he is not considered part of this group because he has his own wide-ranging and unconventional interpretation of the Quran.
He emphasises the use of reason and logic in reaching the true meaning of the Quranic message instead of the blind acceptance of centuries-old opinions.
The idea of using reason and logic instead of literalism is certainly not new. The Mu’tazila School of theology, from the eighth to the 10th century, advocated such a view. Its defeat, along with that of Islamic philosophy, by the literalist orthodoxy is mainly blamed for centuries of Islamic decline and stagnation.
The orthodox theologies were codified and thought to have answered all the important questions. There was no room for any innovation, new ideas were discouraged and “the gate of ijtihad” was closed. Ijtihad refers to independent thinking as opposed to taqlid, or imitation.
For the past two centuries, the Muslim world has come in contact with and has been dominated by a much stronger, advanced and prosperous West. And as a reaction, there have been constant calls for Islamic renewal and a reopening of the gate of ijtihad if Muslims are to develop and compete in the modern world.
Secular currents seek to go far beyond the mere reinterpretation of our religious texts, to learn from others and accept the norms and achievements of modernity and science. Nonetheless, even with the calls of renewal and modern reinterpretation of Islam by religious reformers for more than a century, the religious and intellectual climate has moved in the opposite direction.
In the past four decades, traditional and even extremist interpretations have gained ground. Dissenting views and lifestyles are less tolerated now than decades ago, culminating in the rise of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The call for a new ijtihad remains a popular slogan even in some traditional quarters. But while calling for ijtihad is one thing, doing it is quite another. And that’s the reason behind the controversy over Dr Shahrour’s programming on Abu Dhabi TV. He is implementing the ijtihad slogan and presenting wide-ranging and specific interpretations of the Quran and Islam.
As an example, he sees religion as a personal matter, and that a person can follow any religion or no religion at all. That would mean there is no such thing as punishment for apostasy or leaving Islam, as most Islamic scholars still believe.
On Abu Dhabi TV, Dr Shahrour said that societies shared common moral values and laws regardless of the religious affiliations of their members, while religious belief and commands are for individuals only.
In a later episode he said that God would not judge, for example, “the French nation or the Saudi people” collectively but would judge only individuals, because religion is purely a personal matter. He also puts extreme limits on polygamy, where it is permissible for men to remarry only if the second wife is a widow with orphans.
And for inheritance laws, he suggests that each son should share an equal amount with each daughter as opposed to the opinion of virtually all scholars that give the male the share of two females.
In his interpretation of the Quran, he goes beyond the commonly accepted excuses of sickness and travel for not fasting during Ramadan, saying that those not up to fasting or who live in countries with much longer daylight hours can give money for charity to avoid fasting, although it is still preferable to fast.
Dr Shahrour’s view is that the physical punishments of Sharia are only some of many possible punishments that might be applied and, in our era, the non-physical alternatives should be implemented, such as jail or fines.
He also (generally) accepts the Darwinian theory of evolution, unlike most Islamic scholars, although he still maintains the special status of human beings because God “breathed souls” into them, unlike their pre-human ancestors.
However, even more significant than the examples of his interpretations mentioned above is “the method” he uses and the idea that Muslims now can find “linguistic” meanings and “modern” insights in the Quran that fit their lives irrespective of history and traditions.
This understanding is significant because it reduces or even eliminates the sectarian affiliations in a time of polarisation and strife between Sunnis and Shiites. His appeal crosses sectarian lines despite the current polarisation, or perhaps because of it.
Dr Shahrour’s ideas are bold and revolutionary. But it is not clear how big a following he has. We have no data or polling about such issues in our region. But there is anecdotal evidence of a small but growing following worldwide. His new videos on YouTube are watched by tens of thousands of people. Most of the thousands of viewers’ comments on YouTube appear to be very positive. His books are all in print with multiple editions.
Yet the challenges to him and his movement remain formidable, and his ideas will almost certainly not become mainstream any time soon, as the reaction to the TV programme showed.
Some reactions on social media had elements of fear, exaggeration, and even wild conspiracy theories. Many felt that he should never be given a chance to spread “his heretical views” of Islam.
Many called for the show to be withdrawn and some even said that those who had decided to broadcast it should be fired. But, regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, there are many TV channels in the region committed to sectarian agendas and sometimes spread hate.
Yet they do not get as much criticism as this different (and peaceful) religious interpretation. And even if these views are contrary to “the real Islam”, as they claim, how can people’s faith be so fragile that it will be affected by hearing such ideas?
One can choose not to watch it and instead find traditional alternatives. And, in the era of the internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, it is futile to try to keep ideas – whether we like them or not – from reaching people anywhere.
Aidha Saleh Albreiki is a division manager at Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge. The views expressed here are his alone. Email email@example.com