Long before Egyptians rose up against dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian authorities prosecuted an Islamic scholar who argued that Muslims should view the Koran as both a holy text and a historical document.
Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, believes that scholar was on the right track. Noting that vigorous discourse produced "a kind of vibrancy" in Catholicism, Moosa says, "In the Muslim tradition, this work has not really been done yet."
Moosa made these observations in early February on the University of Colorado campus. His appearance was part of an event honoring a CU expert on Islam, Professor Frederick Denny.
Moosa analyzed the writings of Nasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian theologian whose "Critique of Religious Discourse" led to his being denied tenure at Cairo University in 1995.
Abu Zayd argued that Islam should be understood in the context of its historic and geographical context and that the Koran was a "collection of discourses." Abu Zayd also argued that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam.
Ultra-conservative Muslims persuaded a court to declare that Abu Zayd was not a Muslim because he denied things that a Muslim must believe. Because he was convicted of apostasy, his marriage to a Muslim woman was annulled.
Based on the court's decision, radical Muslims declared that it was permissible to shed Abu Zayd's blood. He and his wife fled to the Netherlands, where he became a professor. Abu Zayd died last July from a virulent illness.
During his life, Abu Zayd attracted strong praise and withering criticism. As Moosa noted, a Saudi critic accused the Egyptian scholar of "assaulting the Koran." Another critic said Abu Zayd's views were in convergence with those of the United States.
Such detractors, Moosa argued, have misread the history of Islam, in which "diversity is a strong feature." The very fact that Islam is practiced differently by Sunnis, Shiites and Sufis demonstrates that, historically, learned Muslims had divergent views on how to interpret the Koranic text, Moosa said.
Moosa's presentation echoed themes in some of his writings. In a November 2010 blog post, for instance, Moosa elaborated on the need for textual discourse: "If the Koran becomes a fixed philosophical construct and freezes time and history to a particular sanctified moment, then there is little possibility for movement in thought. All history becomes a sacred drama, and all contingency is basically sucked out of life, for it is all foreordained. And the specificities of the Koran, such as the rules and regulations become a permanent ordinance from which there is little escape, and one is compelled to follow life forms that are extinct, such as slavery."
He continued: "But if you imagine the Koran as revelation, where the divine voice continuously inspires humanity, then the Koran becomes a poetic space where creativity, imagination, beauty and the inner and outer meanings play out on the human soul and its countless meanings are disclosed to its readers. … Then, life is no longer a game, the rules of which had already been fixed in advance but rather it is open ended and allows for creativity."
At CU in February, Moosa noted the tradition of discourse about biblical interpretation among Catholics. He suggested that Muslims should follow a similar path. "Therefore, I'm taking sides," Moosa said.
Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies attending the presentation, praised Moosa but asked if he were concerned about backlash.
Moosa replied, "I'm happy to take the backlash as long as it doesn't involve a bullet in my head."
As his appearance in Boulder was scheduled to commemorate the career of Professor Denny, Moosa praised Denny, noting that Denny was an integral figure in the American Academy of Religion's Study of Islam Section. That center, Moosa added, "has served people across the world."
John Stevenson, a CU professor of English and interim dean of the Graduate School, noted that he is nearing the end of his 29th year at the university. Denny's name was one of the first Stevenson heard.
"He was already legendary for his wisdom and, beyond wisdom, his personal grace," Stevenson said.
Noting the "odd little moment a few years ago when Denny officially retired," Stevenson added that Denny has remained active in his scholarly activities.
"That reflects the life of the mind," Stevenson added. "It's a way of life. Fred has provided inspiration as an embodiment of that for decades."
Dennis McGilvray, a professor of anthropology who has spent decades studying Sri Lanka, noted that he and Denny share an interest in the religion. "Fred is always the person I turn to first when I have my typical, dumb Islam 101 question."
Ruth Mas, associate professor of religious studies, organized the event, which she noted was not a "retirement party," but rather an attempt to honor a well-respected colleague.
Mas said Denny has received and continues to receive a lot acclaim. "His books have really put CU-Boulder on the map in terms of religious studies and Islamic studies."
Denny's scholarly focus includes Koranic recitation, comparative studies of ritual, and Muslims and their communities in Egypt, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and North America. He is editor of the University of South Carolina Press series "Studies in Comparative Religion."
He is also the author of "An Introduction to Islam" and numerous articles on Islamic and religious studies. He co-authored "Jews, Christians, Muslims: A Comparative Introduction to Monotheistic Religions."