Integration debate

Towards a Contemporary Interpretation of Islam – An Interview with the Theologian, Mouhanad Khorchide

Mouhanad Khorchide; Foto: Peter Grewer, © Ernst-Klett-VerlagMouhanad Khorchide; Photo: Peter Grewer, © Ernst-Klett-VerlagThe professor of Islamic religious education theory, Mouhanad Khorchide, argues the case for a liberation of the Islamic religion and talks about the principle of compassion as the interpretive framework for Islamic sources and the attempts to reform Islamic law.

Professor Khorchide, for many people the Sharia are a nightmare. Are they right in thinking this?

That depends on what people understand by the word Sharia. Many Muslims use the word and for them it means nothing more than believing in God, praying, and adhering to the other religious rituals like fasting, the pilgrimage to Mecca and being a sincere person. No way could or would anybody have anything against this interpretation of the Sharia. Some people however see the Sharia as a divine legal system that stands in contradiction to human dignity and is incompatible with human rights.

This view of the Sharia fails to understand that Islam strives towards the perfection of the human being and that it is not a judicial system. Of all the 6236 verses of the Quran there are only about 80 covering judicial matters that have an effect on the social order. This is why one cannot describe the Quran as a penal code or book of laws, nor can Islam be described as a legalistic religion. It is our task today to grasp the ethical principles behind the judicial measures, like justice and equality. It is not a question of transporting the individual judicial measures into the here and now, it is more about the underlying principles.

“The” Sharia have been shaped by tradition

Cover of the book “Islam ist Barmherzigkeit” by Mouhanad Khorchide; © HerderWhat regional differences are there in the Islamic world with respect to the Islamic understanding of law? Have any regional variations come about independently of the principles propounded by the Islamic schools of law, for example, in Asia?

Cultural traditions play a role when it comes to the configuration of certain social norms. In countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or Turkey in which democracies have more or less managed to establish themselves, the idea of democracy is viewed as being in line with the Sharia; in other countries, like Saudi Arabia, democracy is considered to be in contradiction with the Sharia. In Africa where, for example, female genital circumcision is an old, pre-Islamic, archaic tradition, this inhuman practice is seen as a part of the Sharia. In countries like Turkey, in which such practices are unknown, it is vehemently rejected. It is examples like these that show us how traditions have influenced people’s thinking on the Sharia.

The Sharia has never been codified, either. What effect does this have on judicial practice?

It means that there is always room for interpreting the sources - and that is a good thing. There has always been an inner Islamic diversity of thinking and that is how it should be. There is of course a risk of everybody interpreting the Sharia to fit in with their own interests. This is why it is important to find a criterion that would serve as a framework. The Quran itself says, “We only sent you, Mohamed, as a mercy to all the worlds.” This is why, in my book Islam ist Barmherzigkeit (Islam is Compassion), I recommend the criterion of compassion as a suitable framework for the interpretation of Islamic sources.

There have been signs endorsing an integration of the Sharia in Western democracies, even in Germany. Are such signs sensible?

That depends on what theses signs actually entail. For example, should the demand for stricter control of the financial markets and Islam’s ban on speculative business be taken seriously. The last financial crisis showed that it would be sensible to adopt such tenets. They have to be realised, however, by economic experts and not by theologians. The demand, however, to introduce corporal punishment in Western democracies would be disastrous. It is the task of Muslim theologians today to identify which elements of Islam could enrich present-day societies and then to develop these elements by working with experts on an interdisciplinary level.

Read between the lines!

Cover of the school textbook “Miteinander auf dem Weg”; © KlettAre there any signs of the Sharia being reformed?

It is important to situate the Sharia in a wider historical context i.e. those parts of the Sharia that do not affect religious ritual, but more the judicial measures like corporal punishment. You have to read between the lines and ask what God would tell us to do today. In Sura 16, vers. 8. the Quran describes donkeys and horses as a means of transport. Nobody in this day and age would hit upon the idea of claiming that donkeys and horses are forms of transport in modern Germany. This part has to be contextualised as these forms of transport were customary back in the 7th century. The judicial measures recommended in the Quran that have also been affected by social change have to be contextualised, too. Their ethical content, however, still applies even today.

Seen from the historical point of view non-Muslims have often had a better life under the rule of the Sharia than other minorities living at the same time in Western countries, for example, in the Islamic Spain of the Middle Ages or in the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. In the Muslim countries of today does the Sharia function well as a judicial basis?

As I have already mentioned, it is always a question of how the Sharia are understood. Viewed as the sum of the efforts of Muslim scholars to interpret Islam it is a construct formed by humans. An understanding of the Sharia that is in harmony with the Quranic principles of justice, equality, freedom, the inviolability of human dignity and social responsibility certainly does function well today. Any interpretation of the Quran that contradicts these principles is not in keeping with the meaning of the Quranic message and therefore of no use.

Mouhanad Khorchide, born in Beirut in 1971, grew up in Saudi Arabia, studied Islamic theology and sociology in Beirut and Vienna, where he did a doctorate that examined the teaching of Islamic religion. He has been at the University of Münster since 2010. His latest publications include Islam ist Barmherzigkeit. Grundzüge einer modernen Religion (2012) as well as a school textbook Miteinander auf dem Weg – Islamischer Religionsunterricht (2012).

Lewis Gropp
conducted the interview. He works as a freelance journalist, translator and editor for West German Radio in Cologne.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2012

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