I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I came back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam. — Muhammad Abduh
At the end of the 19th century, Egypt came into increased contact with Western ideas. Travel to and from Europe became commonplace. Many intellectuals learned French and spent time in Paris. Egyptians started to feel that their conservative Islamic culture was increasingly outdated, irrelevant and inferior compared to the supposedly irreligious West.
The above saying of Muhammad Abduh elegantly expresses this realization; that despite the fact that Islam was supposed to be God’s latest and greatest religion, an irreligious civilization had built institutions, legal structures and prosperous societies that put Muslims to shame.
Cairo’s al-Azhar University was the world’s foremost authority on orthodox Sunni Islam at the time (and still is for most of the world). Al-Azhar’s scholars rushed to update their understanding of Islam so that its teachings wouldn’t seem inferior to the Western doctrines of socialism, communism, romanticism and humanism. Books were published with the intent of proving that, despite appearances and the obvious facts on the ground, Islam was really a socialist doctrine, and that it had great respect for logic and human rights.
Islam’s secularist detractors, thanks to the weakening of scholarly authority as a result of colonial rule, were able to speak loudly and point out Islam’s various failings. It was more than sufficient for them to point out the superiority of Western science, ideas and living conditions to show how inferior the Islam of their time was.
The Egyptian reformist jurist Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905 CE, al-Azhar professor and Grand Jurist of Egypt in 1899-1905), who had spent time in Paris and England, started a movement that resolutely worked to update Islamic thought and doctrine, and his follower Mahmud Shaltut (1893-1963, chief jurist of al-Azhar University in 1958-1963 CE) continued this work. They made many new and sometimes controversial rulings, some of which remain controversial up to this day. They were the first major establishment scholars to dare to risk controversy and become the subject of attack by going against established opinions and coming up with new interpretations of the Quran that sometimes conflicted with authentic hadith narrations.
By somewhat discrediting the Islamic establishment, they helped create a new generation of Islamic intellectuals that re-embraced Islam in a Quran-focused way, rather than a hadith-focused way, deriving their ideals and principles chiefly from the Quran rather than hadith.
This movement was similar to the Salafi movement, in that it wanted to go back to Islam’s roots to re-establish an authentic version of Islam pure from the decay and irrelevance of the Islamic establishment. The difference was that while the Salafi movement bought into the classical doctrine of considering the Quran equal or nearly equal to hadith, the Egyptian Islamic intellectuals considered the Quran a living book, something completely different from hadith.
Similar to the way that the printing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 CE revived Christian belief and initiated the Puritan movement that took Christianity away from the clerics and put it inside everyone’s homes, the Egyptian movement took the Quran away from the Islamic establishment and put it in every intellectual’s home, as a living guide that taught them nearly everything they needed to know about Islam. Hadith was relegated to the task of explaining matters of ritual and practice, being an example of how the Quran is applied, rather than being a competing authority to the Quran.
The Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), after spending much of his life as a secular intellectual, rediscovered Islam at the end of the 1940’s. Thanks to the new intellectual atmosphere of Egypt, he placed nearly all of his focus on the Quran, acting as if the book was sent down to him personally, instead of acting as if the Quran was merely a text belonging to a large library of Islamic texts determining Islamic belief and practice, which is how a person going through a classical Islamic education usually thinks.
The fact that he was a secular intellectual was probably crucial in developing his new understanding of Islam. He was originally repulsed by the classical Islam of his time and considered it outdated and irrelevant, only to rediscover the Quran and realize that the spiritual and ethical teachings of the Quran led to a worldview, spirituality and religion that were very different from the Islam of his time.
Imagine if the Prophet, peace be upon him, was brought back to life and placed among the people to lead Islam once again. What kind of revolution would that be? What kind of inspiration and revival? Sayyid Qutb says that you must treat the Quran as if it is alive, as if it was being revealed on the mouth of the Prophet this very moment, guiding us every hour and every day.
To a secular person reading this, this may sound like insanity, to treat a 1400-year-old book as if it is up-to-date even though its text has not changed in that time. It would be insanity if the Quran wasn’t a miraculous book. But, if like Sayyid Qutb, you are a secular person with very good knowledge of Arabic (he was a literary critic) who rediscovers the Quran, ignoring all their preconceived notions about Islam, you’d know exactly why he thought as he did.
Realizing the Quran’s immense superiority over all other texts and authorities, he came to consider it what the Quran was meant to be all along; a miraculous text designed to guide humanity for all time; a living guide. This means that the Quran is as much of an authority as the Prophet, peace be upon him, would have been if he were living among us today. The Quran is not considered a dead book to be left on the shelf, to be considered along with hadith as a historical artifact, sometimes to be followed, other times to be ignored in favor of hadith-based principles. What the Quran says, it is as if God is saying it to us today, as if He sent it down to us this very moment.
The Quran as a Software Program
The easiest way to understand the difference between Sayyid Qutb’s Quran-focused and classical Islam is to use the analogy of a computer program. A computer program can choose to do entirely different things based on the environment in which it is run. The program is always the same program, but its behavior can be different depending on the environment. The issue of slavery makes this clear. When the Quran was applied during the Prophet’s time ﷺ, it led to an Islam that tolerated slavery, since the environment required this toleration. When the Quran is applied today, it leads to an Islam that does not tolerate slavery, because the environment no longer requires that Islam should tolerate slavery.
The Quran with its laws and principles has always been the same, it has not changed. But it contains programming logic that does different things at different times:
If the environment already practices slavery, then tolerate it, reform it and slowly eradicate it. If the environment does not practice slavery, then do not practice it, but act the way the best of mankind act.
The Quran does not seek to control every facet of our lives. It gives us a set of ideals, principles and basic laws, and from there gives us the freedom to live our lives according to reason, common sense and our knowledge of the world. The Quran does not lead to an Islam that is out of date or anachronistic, seeking to bring 630 CE into the modern world. It leads to an Islam that is made up of Quranic logic applied to the modern world. It stands up to all of its challenges, rejects its falsehoods and adopts the good in it.
This Quran-derived Islam can evolve and become better over time. As we humans become better connected and find better ways of social organization and interacting with outsiders, we can adopt these new practices and make them part of our Islam. The Quran teaches us to adopt the highest ideals and principles, therefore if the modern world teaches us things about the rights of humanity that all of us can recognize as good, then we can adopt these new things even if the ancients did not. The Quran does not teach us to freeze ourselves in time.
Classical Islam and Salafism make the mistake of trying to follow the Quran and its ancient application (hadith) as equal authorities, not realizing that hadith is nothing but a derivation of the Quran, a record of how the ancients applied the Quran in their specific time and place, a record of the behavior of the Quranic program in the ancient world.
Classical Islam and Salafism will always suffer conflict as they try to apply the Quran and hadith equally, because they are misusing both the Quran and hadith when they do this, not recognizing the status and role of either. It is like having a computer program that acts a certain way today, but that acted a different way in 630 CE, and trying to adopt its 630 CE behavior instead of its modern behavior. It is rejecting the Quranic program’s modern authority, treating it as a dead guide, acting as if following the unreliable record of its behavior in 630 CE is preferable to following its reliable, ever-living, ever-authoritative principles and ideals today.
By mistaking hadith for a program by itself (rather than considering it a record of the way the Quranic program functioned), an unreliable and enormous tome of text becomes an equal authority to the Quran and refuses to allow the Quran to have the freedom to respond to the modern world. It mistakenly tries to adopt the program’s ancient behavior, instead of trying to adopt the program.
Classical Islam neglects the program (the Quran) in favor of adopting its unreliably recorded set of behaviors (hadith). In this way it refuses to admit that the Quran could do anything different today than what it did in 630 CE, acting as if God’s miraculous text, God’s guide to mankind for eternity, is a dead book that can teach us nothing new today. We are made to ignore God’s miraculous program in favor of a record of the way it was applied, a record that was written down somewhere between 100 and 200 years after the fact. The software analogy and an appreciation for the Quran’s immense superiority over hadith shows that this is almost insanity and is bound to lead to a corruption of Islam’s mission; instead of being a highly dynamic, always-relevant, always-responding program that deals with the matters of the age, it becomes an outdated program that thinks its highest achievement can only be an accurate reenactment of 630 CE.
This way of thinking led Muslims to forget their duty of living in constant renewal as necessitated by the Quran, becoming a backward religion that focused on appearances and rituals, leading to a worldwide Muslim community that had the rug swept from under them by the modern world. Instead of being leaders of modernity, they had divided societies where the religious leadership continued to advocate for a remake of 630 CE while the general population watched on with horror as their supposedly world-class religion was proven inferior time and again by the West’s prosperity, justice, empathy and peacefulness.
The analogy to a computer program is, of course, not exactly accurate. Hadith is a necessary part of applying the Quran in the modern world. The proper response is not to abandon hadith, but to realize that it is the Quran that we must follow as our ever-living guide, as our program in life, and to use hadith as a helper where needed, a helper toward following the Quran.
Once we think of hadith as a helper toward applying the Quran, everything falls into its proper perspective. Hadith no longer dominates Islamic thinking, and the Quran is no longer neglected and its mission abandoned. The Quran once more becomes the center of Islam, its priorities becoming the priorities of Islam, and its philosophy is used to judge both the modern world and hadith.
A Religion for Everyone, Not Just Scholars
Since the Quran is a very clear and simple book, Sayyid Qutb’s Islam takes the power of interpretation from the clerics and gives it to every Muslim capable of reading and understanding the Quran. Sayyid Qutb’s Muslims are not followers of the clerical establishment (although they respect it and use it where necessary), rather, like the Prophet’s Companions, they are followers of the Quran, and this gives them the power, the courage, and some would call it the audacity, to question everything within Islam, using the Quran to renew Islam daily, removing all practices and beliefs that went unchallenged a hundred years ago, but that today we have good reason to challenge as we follow the Quran.
Islam becomes a merger of the Quran and the cutting-edge of modern thought (rationalism and empiricism), instead of being a behemoth of tens of thousands of pages like classical Islam that only a scholar can properly understand.
Hadith is not a competitor to the Quran, or an equal authority to it. Hadith merely tells us about the Prophet’s efforts in following the Quran’s guidance. Islamic belief and practice is entirely about following the Quran, hadith is there to help us toward this goal, it is not there to give us new goals, to add things to Islam, to create a companion religion to the religion of the Quran that also has to be followed, which is sadly how Islam is practiced today.
What I am describing is not Quranism, the belief that only the Quran should be followed. We are still within orthodox Sunni Islam, we are merely rediscovering the Quran’s status and role.
Sayyid Qutb is today a controversial figure due to his political activism; his teachings have been used as inspiration by a number of famous terrorist organizations. Sayyid Qutb’s new, Quran-centric thinking naturally made him one of the most dangerous men in Egypt, because he had a version of Islam with him that was always up-to-date. Unlike the Islam of the scholars, it wasn’t concerned with technical matters of jurisprudence, or reciting the virtues of performing the minor pilgrimage and fasting on particular days of the month. His version of Islam was like the Prophet’s, was concerned with fighting injustice and tyranny, freeing the people from slavery and oppression, and reconnecting them with God as their always-present guide. He naturally made many enemies due to discrediting the authority of the ruling class on the one hand, and the authority of classical clerics and their control over Islam on the other.
Sayyid Qutb made the mistake of believing that the seeking of political power by Muslim groups is a good thing, and that said groups had the right to carry arms to defend themselves. This, as would be expected, was used (after his death) by others to justify terrorism. This matter is unrelated to the discussion (of Quran-focused Islam), therefore I will not delve into it. For a discussion of why I consider political power-seeking by Muslim groups detrimental to the interests of Islam, Muslims and humanity, please see my essay The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan (And a Critique of Political Islam).
Two major Islamic leaders who followed in Sayyid Qutb’s footsteps were the Iranian Sunnis Ahmad Moftizadeh and Nasir Subhani. It is unclear to me how much influence Sayyid Qutb had on Moftizadeh, it is possible that Moftizadeh developed his Quran-focused Islam in parallel to, rather than as a result of, Sayyid Qutb’s Islam.
Nasir Subhani was a member of Iran’s Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb’s influence on him is well-documented.
Ahmad Moftizadeh worked against the oppressive (but Western-backed) Shah regime of Iran, and later with the leader of the Iranian Revolution (Khomeini) in good faith, trying to ensure the rights of Iran’s multi-million Sunni population. Khomeini soon betrayed his promises to the Sunnis (and to some of his own Shia cleric friends who truly believed in reform and coexistence with Sunnis, such as Ayatollah Beheshti) and started a campaign of torture and assassination against them that continues until this day. Moftizadeh spent many years in prison under torture. He died in 1993, three months after being freed, due to the irreparable damage he had sustained under the regime’s treatment.
Similar to Moftizadeh, Nasir Subhani, who was more of a classical scholar than Ahmad Moftizadeh, also worked against the Shah’s regime, and later worked with Iran’s revolutionary government to advocate for the rights of the Sunnis. Like Moftizadeh, he fearlessly criticized the duplicity and tyranny of Iran’s new “Islamic” regime, so that he was stalked by the Iranian authorities for years while he continued his activism and teaching career in Iran and abroad, until he was caught in 1989 and executed in 1990.
It should be mentioned that neither men ever condoned violence against the regime. In fact both spoke harshly against certain violent nationalist elements of the Kurdish population. Their imprisonment and deaths were brought about without any semblance of due process, and the Iranian treatment of both men were harshly criticized internationally.
The Plasticity of Interpretation
The most significant result of Sayyid Qutb’s Quran-focused school is that it results in a form of Islam that is always renewing itself, day by day and year after year. Regardless of what year we are in, we always go back to the Quran, treating it as if it was revealed right at this time, as if everything it says is relevant and authoritative this moment. This means that as times change, interpretations can change (because they are updated daily as new knowledge and ideas arrive and are exposed to the Quran), and in this way Islamic thinking can change, while always staying true and authentic to the Quran.
One good example of this is the issue of evolution. Old interpretations of Islam fought evolution, and classical scholars to this day continue fighting it. But the Quran-focused version of Islam is perfectly capable of handling it, absorbing it and making it a part of Islam, because the Quran is compatible with evolution. If science says something, our living authority (the Quran) agrees with it, but hadith and the scholars disagree, Sayyid Qutb’s Quran-focused Islam enables Muslim intellectuals and scientists to bypass the classical scholarly community and make progress on their own, reconciling science and Islam. For a detailed discussion of Islam and evolution, please see my essay God, Evolution and Abiogenesis: The Topological Theory for the Origin of Life and Species.
And if one day science proves evolution false, we again go back to the Quran and ask its opinion on the new theory. We have the Quran living among us, enabling us to answer any challenge that Islam faces, now or 10,000 years from now.
Sayyid Qutb’s Islam is the Quran applied in the modern world, guided by hadith where needed. In this way a simple, highly capable, intellectually satisfying and non-contradictory Islam is achieved that is not anachronistic or irrelevant, that is not concerned with unimportant and technical matters, but that is always fully fitted to the needs of the age, that’s always highly relevant and highly activist, because it is derived from God’s living authority, as if the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, was living among us this day.
Embracing Sayyid Qutb’s Islam is like going back to the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, being with him and supporting him in his mission. It accomplishes what Salafism wishes to accomplish; to have an Islam that is alive and relevant today, having a living authority from God that guides each one of our steps, motivates us and inspires us to spend our lives in the service of God.
While classical Islam futilely continues to try to derive a modern Islam from the Quran and hadith, Sayyid Qutb’s Islam derives Islam only from the Quran, then uses hadith to provide guidance where needed. Since the Quran is a living authority, the Islam that is derived from it is always fully modern and up-to-date, and always fully compatible with science (if it wasn’t, if it contained even a single scientifically-provable error, it wouldn’t be worth believing in).
The Quran is not twisted to fit science and modern thinking, because it does not have to be. The Quran, by the virtue of being a miraculously always up-to-date book, always fits science and modern thinking, whether it is the ‘modern’ of now or the ‘modern’ of the next century we are talking about. The Quran opposes many things in the modern world, such as usury and sexual freedom. Those of us who know something about the history of the world know that when it opposes the modern world, the Quran is not backward, but ahead of its time. Usury is a highly corrupt practice that causes the super-rich to enjoy exponential wealth growth at the expense of everyone else. Sexual freedom breaks down the evolutionary mechanisms for the continuation of civilization; no matter how good it sounds, the end result is always below-replacement fertility rates and ultimately extinction; just because it takes a few centuries to cause a society to go extinct does not make it any less evil than a deadly plague.
Renewing Islam While Following the Sunnah
Quran-focused Islam gives its adherents immense freedom to modernize Islam and counter attacks against it, while also giving them the freedom to live authentically modern intellectual and personal lives. When living in the West, instead of acting like Salafis and Orthodox Jews, separating ourselves from the world, we fully embrace Western life and thinking, reject its evils, and work to improve it from the inside. We act the way the Prophet, peace be upon him, acted in Mecca. He did not separate himself from his pagan people, even though he recognized the evil they did and tried to change things for the better. He was fully-fledged member of Arabian society, living it and breathing it, and instead of being concerned with matters of technical detail, he was concerned with Islam’s spiritual message. His mission was to teach people to recognize the Oneness of God and to serve Him with everything they had.
We in the West, instead of hating the people and the society, love it and its people, recognize the good in them, forgive them their faults, and try to show that there is a better way. We do not try to destroy the West and rebuild it, any more than the Prophet, peace be upon him, tried to destroy Arabian society and rebuild it. Unlike Salafis who are generally authoritarians who think that everything must be forbidden unless expressly allowed by Islam, we leave it to the people to manage their personal and intellectual lives. If, like the Prophet, we succeed at spreading Islam through good manners and kindness like he did, then people will by themselves, democratically, choose to do what is in their best spiritual interests, similar to the way the people of the city of Al-Madinah invited the Prophet, peace be upon him, and made him their chief.
Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed God. (The Quran, verse 4:80)
A person reading this may think that this way of thinking rejects hadith or considers it unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth. We continue to love and respect hadith and the classical scholarly tradition, all that we want to do is make one crucial reform, which is to recognize the Quran’s immensely high status compared to hadith, and the crucial differences between the role of the Quran compared to the role of hadith.
The Quran is my guide in life. The Prophet, peace be upon him, is my hero. He is the best man ever to follow the philosophy of life that I want to follow, therefore I use his example as my inspiration.
This is similar to a person who loves the rationalist and humanist teachings of Western philosophy and wants to apply them in his or her own life. To do so, they go and study the lives of the West’s greatest intellectuals, in this way finding inspiration and guidance toward applying rationalist and humanist ideas in real life. They gather a number of heroes whose thinking, sayings and ways of life are taken as a guide.
The point is not to follow those heroes due to any innate virtue the heroes contain within themselves, considering them sacred and holy. A person who loves the Western tradition follows these heroes because they embody the philosophy they want to follow. They want to follow the philosophy, and those heroes, by having applied such philosophies very well in their thinking and lives, are followed.
In Islam, the point is the Quran. This is the philosophy we follow. The Prophet, peace be upon him, is the hero that we follow for having embodied the Quran’s teachings best in his life. As Aisha, may God be pleased with her, says:
His manners were the Quran. (Mentioned in Sahih Muslim, al-Nasa’i, Ahmad, Ibn Majah)
Most of the difficulty that the scholars have with raising the status of the Quran (the way Sayyid Qutb suggests) is that it automatically lowers the status of hadith, and to them, this lowers the status of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Anyone who praises the Quran’s immense status and mentions its central place in Islamic life is considered potentially a dangerous fanatic, because they think the person is attacking the Prophet’s status. It is a sad state of affairs when even great scholars are short-sighted enough to think like this, to think there is some competition between the Quran and the Prophet, and to have an issue with a person taking the Quran as their guide in life.
The Quran, Islam’s only entirely reliable and trustworthy source, never mentions anywhere that the Prophet was anything more than human:
Muhammad is no more than a messenger. Messengers have passed on before him. If he dies or gets killed, will you turn on your heels? He who turns on his heels will not harm God in any way. And God will reward the appreciative. (The Quran, verse 3:144)
We did not send before you except men, whom We inspired, from the people of the towns. Have they not roamed the earth and seen the consequences for those before them? The Home of the Hereafter is better for those who are righteous. Do you not understand? (The Quran, 12:109)
And in fact it mentions him making several mistakes:
It is not for a prophet to take prisoners before he has become firmly established as a sovereign the land. You desire the materials of this world, but God desires the Hereafter. God is Strong and Wise. Were it not for a predetermined decree from God, an awful punishment would have afflicted you for what you have taken. (The Quran, verses 8:67-68)
May God pardon you! Why did you give them permission before it became clear to you who are the truthful ones, and who are the liars? (The Quran, verse 9:43)
O prophet! Why do you prohibit what God has permitted for you, seeking to please your wives? God is Forgiving and Merciful. (The Quran, verse 66:1)
1. He frowned and turned away. 2. When the blind man approached him. 3. But how do you know? Perhaps he was seeking to purify himself. 4. Or be reminded, and the message would benefit him. 5. But as for him who was indifferent. 6. You gave him your attention. 7. Though you are not liable if he does not purify himself. 8. But as for him who came to you seeking. 9. In awe. 10. To him you were inattentive. (The Quran, verses 80:1-10)
We can argue about the status of the Prophet, was he nothing but a messenger like the Quran says, or was he somehow intrinsically divine like the Christians think Jesus was? Was his task to give humanity the Quran, or to also give them a 9-volume second Quran (Sahih al-Bukhari) that competes with the Quran as a second authority?
A fair-minded reading of the Quran that has not been biased by classical Islamic doctrine will see that the Quran considers itself the center of Islam, and the center of the Prophet’s mission. It wasn’t the Prophet’s job to create a religion that is 50% based on an entirely reliable and miraculous text, and 50% based on a different, and ten times bigger, text that is full of unreliability and contradiction, and that often opposes central tenets of Quranic philosophy, and that due to its massive size overshadows the Quran.
The classical, outdated view of considering the Quran and hadith equals or de facto equals leads to the creation of a monstrosity that is very difficult to follow in good faith without one’s intelligence and sense of justice being insulted. The Quran says God is just and does not punish needlessly. Authentic hadith mentions someone being sent to the Hellfire because they did not clean themselves properly after urinating. The Quran says the Prophet is unable to hear the dead. Hadith mentions him listening to people in their graves. The Quran says when a person dies, they wake up on the Day of Judgment feeling as if only a few hours or days have passed. Hadith mentions them going through eons in their graves, being conscious, before being resurrected. The Quran says God guides humanity toward what is good, yet according to hadith He supposedly will give miraculous powers (such as the ability to bring back the dead) to some anti-Christ so that he can misguide people and take them to the Hellfire. The Quran does not contain a single mention of Jesus coming back to life and establishing some Paradise on Earth, instead strongly suggesting that he is already dead, while hadith is full of narrations regarding these matters, apparently taken directly from Christian mythology.
While there is usually not sufficient evidence to clearly rule out the above claims of hadith, Quran-focused Islam turns them into non-issues:
- Since they are not in the Quran,
- and since hadith is not 100% reliable (even if it is 99% reliable. Imam al-Bukhari, may God have mercy on him, says that the chain of narrators Malik-from-Nafi`-from-Ibn-Umar is the “most reliable” chain that exists, which naturally means all other chains are less reliable)
- therefore they are not important parts of Islam, or they may not even be parts of Islam,
- and therefore they can be safely ignored,
- and therefore they cannot be used as a basis for any argument or for establishing any principle or law.
A fair-minded person then will read the following authentic narration from the Prophet:
There will be after me narrators of hadith. Expose their narrations to the Quran; any of them that agree with the Quran, then follow those, and those that do not agree with it, then do not follow them.
And they will realize that even hadith calls for considering the Quran a judge and authority over hadith.
Then they will learn that Umar and other Companions disliked that hadith narrations should spread, because they feared that this would reduce the Quran’s importance in people’s minds (and they were sadly right). Then they will find out that Ibrahim al-Nakh`i (A Tabi` who met Aisha, may God be pleased with her) and Abu Hanifah both considered Abu Hurairah, a major “authentic” narrator of hadith, unreliable, because they considered him a human capable of human errors and of overextending himself, rather than considering his status holy and sacrosanct like those after them considered him.
The point is not to abandon the Sunnah. The point is to acknowledge the Quran’s central place in our daily lives, to acknowledge its authority over all other authorities, and to give preference to its principles and philosophy over hadith narrations.
One important fruit of Quran-focused Islam is that it has the power to revolutionize the science of hadith. As Muhammad al-Ghazali, may God have mercy on him, and his students argue, the Quran can be used to judge the content of hadith, something that has not been done formally in the classical science of hadith. Since Islam is always updating itself due to the merger of the Quran and modern thought, if through this process we conclude that something is true (such as evolution), then we can use this new finding to go back to all existing hadith narrations and reevaluate them. Those of them which clearly contradict evolution can be lowered to the status of “unauthentic”, which will affect our opinion of the narration’s chain of narrators, and this effect will go on to affect our opinion of all other narrations that have a similar chain of narrators.
When a hadith says something questionable, it is even possible that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said something from his own opinion that is incorrect or that he has corrected in another saying. The following is recorded in Sahih Muslim and other collections:
Anas reported that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) happened to pass by the people who had been busy in grafting the trees. Thereupon he said: “If you were not to do it, it might be good for you.” (So they abandoned this practice) and there was a decline in the yield. He (the Holy Prophet) happened to pass by them (and said): “What has gone wrong with your trees?” They said: “You said so and so.” Thereupon he said: “You have better knowledge in the affairs of your worldly life.” (Sahih Muslim 2363, Musnad Ahmad 24964)
And from Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet:
When he arrived at Badr, the Prophet set up his camp near the first wells he found. Seeing this, Ibn al-Mundhir came to him and asked: “Was this place where we have stopped revealed to you by God, so that we must not move either forward or backward from it, or is it an opinion and a strategy of yours, linked to war expedients?” The Prophet confirmed that it was his own personal opinion; Ibn al-Mundhir then suggested another plan that consisted of camping near the biggest well, the nearest to the way from which the enemy was to arrive, then blocking the other wells in the area so that the enemy could not get to the water. During the battle, the Muslims’ opponents were thus bound to find themselves in difficulty. Muhammad carefully listened to the explanation of this strategy and accepted it straightaway: the camp was moved and Hubab’s plan was implemented. (Page 103)
These examples show that the Prophet is not infallible in matters not having to do directly with Islamic guidance. They should not be used to reject narrations left and right without proper scholarly work, and this is not what I am suggesting. Quran-focused Islam wants to correct the corruption of the status of the Quran in the minds; it does not seek to throw away the scholarly tradition, it only seeks to reform it. Scholars of hadith can continue doing the important work of analyzing hadith, but now with the Quran always in their minds as the Criterion by which all narrations are judged.
An Always-Modern Islam: Solving the Problems of Slavery, Stoning, Apostasy and Others
Sayyid Qutb’s Islam is about correcting the error of the scholars in lowering the Quran to the status of hadith. It places the Quran back in its proper place; at the center of Islam. By doing this, it creates a form of Islam that is never outdated or irrelevant, but that is always fully fitted to the needs and concerns of the age, while also always fully authentic to the classical spirit of Islam, because it continues to respect and follow the Sunnah.
The great difference in this new form of Islam is that whenever modern science or thinking recognize some truth, and the Quran supports it, then Muslims can accept it, even if there are narrations that say otherwise. The Quran is used as a judge over both modern thinking and over hadith, in this way preventing us from adopting false modernist ideas (such as women’s moral superiority over men, or communism), while also preventing us from holding onto false ancient ideas that are in hadith but that are today proven false. The Quran, being always up-to-date, enables us to live through the ages and respond appropriately to all of the challenges the world throws at us, while also staying authentically orthodox Muslims.
When modern science and the Quran support the theory of evolution, if a scholar finds an authentic narration or two that go against it, then it is science and the Quran that are given precedence, by the Prophet’s own command (to use the Quran to judge all hadith narrations).
When we modern folk consider slavery repulsive, when we believe in human rights and the dignity of every human being, and when we find that the Quran, while regulating slavery, never commands it, then we can reject slavery and ban it in our societies. Our living guide, the Quran, does not ask us to practice slavery. Our dead guide, hadith, mentions that the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his Companions, widely practiced it, because that was the common practice in the world at the time, and it served various beneficial functions (it was far superior to the Jewish and Christian practice of killing all men, women and children of a defeated enemy, or leaving them to starve). It served a purpose at the time. And if 10,000 years from now, the world goes back to being undeveloped and slavery becomes commonplace, then the Quran is there to regulate it again and slowly eradicate it.
Classical scholars today are all against slavery to some degree, but they also have to “defend the Sunnah” by saying that it is a part of Islam and by finding various justifications for it. They are placed in the difficult position of having to say that there is nothing morally wrong with slavery (because the Prophet, peace be upon, practiced it), that the Prophet’s traditions are meant to be applied as an equal to the Quran today, and that slavery today is wrong and that Islam is against it. Quran-focused Islam doesn’t suffer from having to adopt these contradictory stances, because it believes the point of Islam is to follow the Quran, and that the Sunnah is merely a help toward this.
The Quran does not command slavery, therefore if there is no slavery in a society, then Muslims do not have to engage in it, and they are free to ban it. But, if Islam finds itself in a society that already practices it, then Islam can be adopted by it, in this way their practice of slavery is reformed and slowly eradicated (the Quran strongly encourages freeing slaves, and a child born to a slave and her master is considered a free person in Islamic law.)
The Slave Market, painting by Allan David (1838)
While classical Islam will always have difficulty with slavery, Quran-focused Islam does not. We can sincerely say that Islam is against slavery, and that its toleration of it is for practical purposes, since, as the experience of the American Civil War shows, abruptly ending slavery can create great discontent and unrest. It is far better to gradually phase it out, as Islam does. What the Prophet, peace be upon him, did in his time in practicing slavery does not apply to our time, because we are not required to follow his way of life in a vacuum (as Salafis think), we are required to follow the Quran and use his example when it applies, and needless to say, a modern person who authentically and unabashedly follows the full letter of the Quran does not have to have anything to do with slavery, and is in fact perfectly justified in opposing it, fighting it and working to put an end to it.
What the example of our Prophet, peace be upon him, teaches us is that if we find ourselves in a society that practices slavery, instead of taking up arms against the society, we can become part of it, help Islam spread, encourage people to free slaves, and in this way phase it out. If we find a slave woman on sale in the market, we can buy her and free her like the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr used to do. Other Muslims, who are still stuck in the mindset of that slavery-practicing culture, can buy her and use her as a slave without being condemned. The culture is respected, while slowly being changed.
Unlike a Quran-focused Muslim, a Salafi, cannot have such a mindset toward slavery (that it was acceptable then but is not acceptable now). The Prophet, peace be upon him, and the Salaf (“The Pious Predecessors”) practiced slavery and had slave women with whom they had sex, therefore there is nothing wrong with it, and the practice can be continued today (as the Saudi Shaykh al-Fawzan recently ruled regarding Yazidi women captured by terrorist groups) even if most of the people of the world, including Muslims, find it repulsive.
To them, since Islam is a derivation of both the Quran and hadith, slavery has to be considered a good and acceptable thing, since it is part and parcel of hadith. While in Quran-focused thinking, since Islam is a derivation of only the Quran, we are free what we think about slavery, if we find it repulsive, we do not have to support it, we can avoid it and work to eradicate it. If the world, or part of the world, or some isolated space colony, goes back to practicing slavery, then the Quran and hadith are there to regulate and eradicate it again.
So to a Quran-focused person, the fact that the Prophet, peace be upon him, had slaves does not have sufficient force in argument to justify it in the modern context, and such a person can stay true to the Quran while also supporting a worldwide ban on slavery. If there is a just war between a Muslim and a non-Muslim entity, the Muslim entity, while recognizing that technically Islam permits them to enslave the enemy, also recognize that Islam is a derivation of the Quran and the modern world, and neither of these things recommend enslavement of people today. In a different time and place, in a world that practices slavery, things could be different. But, since their Islam is always up-to-date, in today’s modern context, it is fully in accordance with Islam to oppose slavery and not practice it.
So we can honestly say that slavery was a part of Islam then, but that it is no longer part of Islam today, and that one day in the far future it could again become part of Islam. Our religion is always updating itself. There is no such thing as a single Islam the entirety of whose practices and ways of life can be set in stone and followed for eternity, as Salafis think. Instead, Islam is always a self-renewing derivation of the Quran and life, guided by hadith and classical scholarship wherever needed. If people say slavery is wrong, we agree with them, and tell them that Islam wants to eradicate it. If they point out Islam’s historical practice of slavery, we say it tolerated it because it was a worldwide practice then, because it served practical purposes, because banning it could have had violent consequences, but now that the world is different, Islam, too, can be different, because the Quran is living among us, telling us how to respond to each new age of the world.
The Quran-focused view is that Islam tolerates slavery for practical reasons where it is already practiced. The classical view is that slavery is not so bad, because the Prophet, peace be upon him, practiced it. The Quran-focused view admits the possibility of development in human ideas about morality and ethics, the classical view does not.
It is true that Islam’s dedicated detractors will probably not be satisfied by the Quran-focused view on slavery, but it is not our mission to satisfy them. Our mission is to reach fair-minded and moderate people, people who do not have a hatred against Islam but who merely want to understand it.
Another important matter solved by the Quran-focused view is that of stoning adulterers, which is something that perhaps 99.999% of Muslims would not agree to witness or carry out. The Quran-focused view effortlessly shows that there is no such thing as stoning or executing adulterers in Islam. There is strong evidence in the Quran against it, as I will describe in another essay, and there is sufficient evidence to believe that the hadith narrations that mention stoning were mentioning instances of the Prophet following Jewish law before Islamic law was revealed in the Quran, as Imam Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898 – 1974 CE), prominent 20th century Egyptian scholar of Islamic law, al-Azhar professor, member of al-Azhar’s Academy of Islamic Research and president of Cairo University has argued.
Another issue is that of punishing Muslims for leaving Islam (for committing apostasy), which is clearly in opposition to the Quranic concept of “no compulsion in religion” (as stated in verse 2:256). As our modern appreciation for logic shows, forcing someone to stay in a religion is as much compulsion as forcing someone to adopt a religion. Quran-focused Islam rejects the classical Islamic thinking that apostasy is punishable, considering it a human right granted by the Quran. Ahmad Moftizadeh is the major Islamic leader I know of who has advocated for this new view of considering apostasy a right of Muslims.
And another issue is the treatment of non-Muslims in Islam. While traditionally nearly all non-Muslims were considered kafirs (“infidels”), a modern reading of the Quran shows that a kafir is someone who knows and accepts the truth but denies it and acts against, committing Satan’s sin. This means that most of the people of the world are not kafirs. It also means that faithful Christians and Jews living today, those who believe and do good deeds, will go to Paradise as the Quran teaches, rather than going to the Hellfire for not accepting Islam as classical Islam teaches, since they barely know anything about Islam. God only burdens a soul with what He has already given it, it is highly unjust to punish a Christian for not being Muslim when they barely know anything about Islam, and when they do their best to serve God in good faith.
The Quran, besides reiterating the fact that pious Jews and Christians will go to Paradise in many places, has the following verse which criticizes Muslim exceptionalism in their thinking that only they will go to Paradise, while also criticizing the Christians and Jews who say similar things:
It is not in accordance with your wishes, nor in accordance with the wishes of the People of the Scripture. Whoever works evil will pay for it, and will not find for himself, besides God, any protector or savior. But whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, and is a believer—those will enter Paradise, and will not be wronged a whit. (The Quran, verse 4:123-124)
It is a sign of the incredible ignorance and negligence of Quranic principles and the status of the Quran that Muslims, including scholars, read the above two verses, then go on to say that Jews and Christians will go to the Hellfire in clear contradiction to it.
As can be seen, while the classical view insults our sense of justice regarding non-Muslims by teaching us to consider nearly all of them enemies of God, the Quran-focused view teaches us to have a positive view of them, since they are humans partaking in the same human struggle as ourselves, without being blessed with knowledge, and it also teaches us to have great respect for faithful and practicing Jews and Christians (few as they might be), and for people of other Abrahamic religions. And to give all of them the benefit of the doubt, since we do not know what is in their hearts, and to realize that it is opposed to the Quran to call them infidels when for all that we know they might be close servants of God. The only infidels among them are those who know the truth but act against it, and such people are also common in Islamic societies.
Salafism’s Better Alternative
One criticism of Quran-focused Islam could be that by giving the power of interpretation and argument to everyone who reads and understands the Quran, it promotes disrespect for the Sunnah and scholarship, that it teaches everyone to create their own sect. The best proof of the invalidity of these allegations is the ways of life of those who have actually adopted Quran-focused Islam, such as Iranian Kurdistan’s Maktab Quran movement. They continue to be full members of mainstream Islam, they love Islamic scholarship, and they follow the Sunnah. The same is true for those in Egypt who love Sayyid Qutb’s Quran-focused teachings.
Unlike Salafis (note that I have great respect for many Salafi scholars, such as Ibn Baaz, and consider them good and pious men), who often create elitist cliques that separates itself from the mainstream, who have an “us vs. them” mentality toward other Muslims, who attack respectable and pious scholars and leaders like Yasir Qadhi, Quran-focused Muslims, since they judge the world by Quranic philosophy, have an open and loving attitude toward all other Muslims (and non-Muslims), judging people first and foremost by the quality of their hearts, not by the quality of their virtue-signalling or their exact adherence to their version of Islam.
Quran-focused Muslims treat all Muslims as innocent unless proven guilty, while Salafism treats everyone as guilty until proven innocent.
Both Quran-focused Islam and Salafism have the same goal; to revive Islam based on Islam’s original teachings. Salafism makes the mistake of trying to derive Islam equally from the Quran and hadith, which, while often leading to good results in matters of fiqh (Islamic law), also leads to an exclusive, elitist and intolerant form of Islam.
Quran-focused Islam corrects Salafism’s mistake by not buying into classical thinking, but by evolving beyond Salafism to place the Quran back at the center of Islam and to re-derive Islam from its principles and philosophy, leading to an extremely open-minded, spiritual and tolerant form of Islam that thinks the best of everyone, that fits modern science, that solves the various issues that have Muslims questioning Islam, and that remains fully part of mainstream Islam.
It is important to reiterate that I have the same goal as a Salafi person; I too want to follow a version of Islam that most accurately represents Islam’s original mission. Having looked at both Salafism and Quran-focused Islam, it has become clear to me that Quran-focused Islam is far superior to Salafism; it accomplishes everything Salafism was meant to accomplish, while avoiding all of its pitfalls, and just as importantly, while creating a version of Islam that stands the tests of all time:
- Salafism tries to derive “true Islam” from the Quran and hadith equally, creating a rule-based (rather than ideals-based) form of Islam. Every Muslim is judged based on their abidance by thousands of different rules, regulations and ways of thinking. Quran-focused Islam, on the other hand, tries to derive a far smaller “true Islam” from the Quran only, leading to a religion that is not rule-based, but ideals-based. Kindly and well-intentioned people of all sects are accepted, because the Quranic ideals are what matter most. Passing judgment on people is highly discouraged, because this is directly in opposition to the Quranic commandments of mercy, forgiveness and thinking the best of others.
- Salafism always leads to elitist cliques of Muslims who separate themselves from the mainstream. Quran-focused Islam does not, because it contains nothing to build cliques on. It is a spiritual practice, a person who uses it to feel superior to others has failed to understand the basic precepts of it and will be shunned by the rest.
- Salafism leads to a mindset that has a total lack of empathy for those who refuse to abide by its authoritarian version of Islam. It doesn’t matter that a scholar has a good heart, is pious and God-fearing, if a Salafi person finds a few technicalities to attack them by, they will do it without shame, and they will say they do it in the service of God, of course.
- Salafism makes intellectual progress (in things like solving the problem of evolution or stoning) nearly impossible, because it refuses to admit that the Quran is an authority over all authorities, it considers Islam’s unreliable history an authority to be dragged into the modern world. Quran-focused Islam gives its adherents immense intellectual freedom, because their central authority by which they judge all other authorities is a simple and extremely open-minded book. This enables them to go out into the modern world and have a fully-fledged intellectual life that is in no way inferior to that enjoyed by the rest of the world, and is in fact far superior to it, because it has the courage to reject the things like the West’s fashionable but irrationalist ideas and ideologies.
Practicing Quran-Focused Islam Today
We cannot preemptively say what conclusions we may reach once the classical Islamic sciences are reformed according to Quran-focused teachings. For now, we can use the following rule to practice an intellectually satisfying and modern form of Islam that is free from the pitfalls of classical Islam:
Whenever someone says something about Islam that is not in the Quran and that is not anticipated by the Quran, you can safely ignore it.
If you hear a hadith narration about the virtue of performing the prayer (the salah) at a certain time of day, then you are encouraged to follow it, since the Quran encourages prayer, and it is fully in keeping with the Prophet’s mission (as an applicator of the Quran) to have prayed in such a way, therefore, even though such a time for performing the prayer is not in the Quran, it is anticipated by the Quran, therefore there is no issue with following it.
On the other hand, if someone tells you about devils praying on your fingernails, the Dajjal, or the need for exorcision, then while you may not be able to say that these things are definitely false (unless you have great evidence to back up your saying, or you rely on a well-respected scholar’s research on the matter), you have the right to be skeptical toward these things and to ignore them. Using the above rule, you can stay focused on Islam’s message and mission; its spirituality, its dedication to worshiping and serving God, its activism, and ignore everything that insults your intelligence.
From the outside, you can continue practicing Islam just like before, but now focusing more on the Quran, and due to the renewed devotion to God that this causes, working to carry out more of the Sunnah good deeds, while also being free from suffering the confusion, hesitation, and moral indignation that classical Islam causes. When a preacher says something so ridiculous that it makes you want to cringe and shudder, instead of feeling hopeless and questioning why you belong to this religion, you can simply think: “It is not in the Quran, and it is against the Quran’s principles, therefore it is not worth talking about. End of story.” You no longer have to submit to anyone’s authority except the Quran’s, with hadith acting as your helper toward applying the Quran in your life.
To many Muslims, what I describe here (of placing the Quran at the center of Islam) will not sound new or controversial. Within the scholarly community, however, few people dare to voice such an opinion, since they will quickly be attacked by Salafis and other hadith-centrists. Most scholars would rather choose the safe path of complacence that will ensure they will not be condemned, instead of choosing the path of respecting the Quran as an unchallenged authority as it is meant to be. In this way, with their silence and lack of courage, they continue to enable countries like Saudi to continue exporting their highly intolerant version of Islam with little resistance, so that today most Muslims cannot answer if asked why they are not Salafis.
We are not Salafis because it gives precedence to the Quran’s ancient application (hadith) rather than to its modern application (applying Quranic principles in the modern world). It thinks that if the Quran tells us to do something today, but hadith tells us that Muslims did something different in 630 CE, that we must ignore the Quran and follow the hadith, despite the fact that hadith is inherently unreliable.
Salafi attitudes toward slavery, stoning, apostasy and the treatment of non-Muslims is sufficient to show the inferiority of hadith-focused (classical) Islam and the immense superiority of Quran-focused Islam in the way it solves all of these issues.
Note: The concepts mentioned in this essay are developments of Sayyid Qutb’s ideas as carried forward by the Iranian Sunni leaders Ahmad Moftizadeh, Nasir Subhani and myself. They are not directly taken from Sayyid Qutb, but are inspired by his method in interpreting the Quran.