We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Islam in Transition Muslim Perspectives Second Edition - The Reinterpretation of Islam - The Reinterpretation of Islam - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

The Reinterpretation of Islam

Āsaf A. A. Fyzee
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Related Content

The Reinterpretation of Islam

Āsaf A. A. Fyzee


He was a distinguished jurist, professor of law, and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jammu and Kashmir as well as a former visiting professor at Cambridge University and U.C.L.A. Among his more important works are Outlines of Muhammadan Law and A Modern Approach to Islam.

Fyzee clearly champions what came to be known from the 1920s to the 1950s as “Modernist Islam,” which took its cues from Muhammad ‘Abduh and ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq. In this selection from 1962, the author warns that if modernist efforts fail, freedom, one of the greatest values of modern life, will continue to be held ransom by unreconstructed conservative advocates of rank imitationism. Fyzee distinguishes between religion and law. The former is eternal, the latter mutable. As for Islam, the shari‘ah (holy law) is, he maintains, both law and religion. Given this, Fyzee’s solution to the problems Muslims have faced in recent generations is “to define religion and law in terms of twentieth-century thought” and interpret Islam accordingly. Thus, Fyzee urges a reconsideration of Qurān 4:34: “Men are in charge of women because God hath made one of them to excel the other” by describing it as “purely local and applicable for the time being . . . a rule of social conduct which [sic] was restricted to conditions existing in Arabia at the time of the Prophet” and “no longer applicable in modern life.” Fyzee finds justification for this reinterpretation in Qurān 3:7, which stresses that some verses are clear while others are ambiguous and allegorical. Fyzee avoids a sustained legal argument here for distinguishing clear from ambiguous verses, though one might suppose that he could argue for textual abrogation (al-nasikh wa al-mansukh) or public interest (al-maslahah al-mursalah).

In Islam law is not distinct from religion. The two streams flow in a single channel and are indistinguishable. They are known as Sharī‘a (Pers., Tur., Urdu,—Sharī‘a) and fiqh, the two aspects of the religious law of Islam. Sharī‘a is the wider circle, it embraces in its orbit all human actions; fiqh is the narrower one, and deals with what are commonly understood as legal acts. Sharī‘a always reminds us of revelation, that ‘ilm (knowledge) which we could never have possessed by for the Qur'ān or hadīth; in fiqh, the power of reasoning is stressed, and deductions based upon ‘ilm are continuously cited with approval. The path of Sharī‘a is laid down by God and His Prophet; the edifice of fiqh is erected by human endeavour.

It must, however, be candidly confessed that the line of distinction is by no means clearly drawn, and very often the Muslim doctors themselves use the terms synonymously: for, the criterion of all human action, whether in the Sharī‘a or in the fiqh, is the same—seeking the approval of Allah by conforming to an ideally perfect code. . . . The faith of Islam teaches the belief in one God and His Messengers; but it cannot and ought not to lay down how it can enforce such obedience. By “enforce” is meant (a) order the doing of a thing and (b) punish its disobedience. How can a matter of faith be a matter of enforcement by an outside agency? A teacher may teach me; he can inspire me by his example; he can fire my enthusiasm. But how can he make me believe? Thus there is a clear difference between a rule of law which can be enforced by the state, and a rule of conscience which is entirely a man's own affair.

Today in Islam this is the greatest difficulty. Sharī‘a embraces both law and religion. Religion is based upon spiritual experience; law is based upon the will of the community as expressed by its legislature, or any other law-making authority. Religion is unchangeable in its innermost kernel—the love of God for His own sake is sung by sūfīs and mystics throughout the world. If sharī‘a is the name given to this duality, then one of the forces constantly pulls in the other direction. The cognition of God is a mystery, and man is forever pursuing it. In this pursuit, all men of faith regardless of their particular religion are equal. But laws differ from country to country, from time to time. They must ever seek to conform to the changing pat-tern of society. The laws of the Arabs cannot be applied to the Eskimos; and the laws of the bushmen of Australia are unsuitable for the fertile basin of Uttar Pradesh. Laws are like metals in the crucible of time and circumstance; they melt, they gradually solidify into different shapes; they re-melt and assume diverse forms. This process of evolution is coterminous with human society. Nothing is static except that which is dead and lifeless. Laws can never be static. India is changing with the rest of the world before our own eyes. These changes are the result of our powers over nature, our views on life, and our desire to improve the social conditions of men. Our legislature pours out a stream of statutory law, and this legislative activity attempts to regulate our dealings in society.

But the mind and conscience of man is free. He must be permitted to believe what he will in respect of the ultimate things in the universe, and he cannot be fettered in his faith and imagination. There is thus an internal strife in Islam. First, the ageless concepts of the religious law come into conflict with modern civil law, e.g. insurance or the loans which Government raises. Insurance and the giving or taking of interest is forbidden by the Sharī‘a; while it is not only permitted but encouraged by the modern state.

Secondly, in order to do away with the rigours of the older law, principles of a newer system are engrafted upon the ancient law of Islam; or a new set of laws replaced the Sharī‘a. An illustration of the former is the Muhammadan law of Gifts in India, where the principles of English equity are grafted upon the fiqh (Islamic law, proper). An illustration of the latter is the Evidence Act in India, which completely replaces the Islamic law of Evidence. Everywhere in Islamic countries this dual process is at work—qānūn, the secular law, is eating into and replacing the laws of the Sharī‘a. In North Africa, French jurisprudence; in Central Asia, the Soviet laws; in India, the English common law; in Indonesia, the Dutch law and above all, International law, are profoundly influencing not only the body of law but the meaning of justice as it affects the Muslims.

We have seen that the Sharī‘a is both law and religion. Law is by its very nature subject to change. The heart of religion, on the other hand, is unchangeable, or at any rate, the belief in God is an unalterable ideal, a perennial quest. If two such divergent forces are made to live together, there will be a clash. . . . My solution is (a) to define religion and law in terms of twentieth century thought, (b) to distinguish between religion and law in Islam, and (c) to interpret Islam on this basis and give a fresh meaning to the faith of Islam. If by this analysis some elements that we have regarded as part of the essence of Islam have to be modified, or given up altogether, then we have to face the consequences. If, on the other hand, belief in the innermost core can be preserved and strengthened, the operation although painful will produce health and vigour in an anaemic body which is languishing without a fresh ideal to guide it. . . .

General Principles of Reinterpretation

The message of Islam was sent to the world fourteen centuries ago. Does it need reinterpretation? Is it not meant for the whole world and for all time? The answer to both questions is in the affirmative. Even if a message is true, and, in a sense eternal, it is by the very premises essential to understand it in accordance with the science, philosophy, psychology, metaphysics and theology of the modern world; nay, the sum-total of the world's thinking and its blazing light should be brought to bear upon it. . . . No language remains static. The evocative power of words and phrases increases and decreases; it is not a constant factor, it is one of the known variables. . . . I wish to understand the Qur'ān as it was understood by the Arabs of the time of the Prophet only to reinterpret it and apply it to my conditions of life and to believe in it, so far as it appeals to me as a twentieth-century man. I cannot be called upon to live in the desert, to traverse it on camel back, to eat locusts, to indulge in vendetta, to wear a beard and a cloak, and to cultivate a pseudo-Arab mentality. I must distinguish between poetic truth and factual truth. I must distinguish between the husk and the kernel of religion, between law and legend. I am bound to understand and accept the message of Islam as a modern man, and not as one who lived centuries ago. I respect authority, but cannot accept it “without how” (bilā kayfa) in the matter of conscience.

Islam is based upon the Qur'ān, and the Qur'ān is to be interpreted in its historical setting and on chronological principles. We must first study the main principles of Judaism and Christianity before approaching Islam. . . .

Specific rules of Interpretation

The six principles which are proposed for a modern reinterpretation of Islam are as follows:

i. Study of History of Religions.

ii. Comparative Religion of the Semitic Races.

iii. Study of Semitic languages and philology.

iv. Separation of Law and Religion.

v. Re-examination of Sharī‘a and kalām.

vi. Reinterpretation of cosmology and scientific facts. . . .

The separation of civil law from the moral or religious law can now no longer be delayed in Islam. We must in the first instance distinguish between the universal moral rule, such as, truthfulness, marital purity, honesty, etc., and the particular moral rules, such as the prohibition of ham and of wine. The former are enjoined by all religions; the latter are not. A difference of emphasis is clearly indicated in such cases.

And then we must deal with the law. The first task is to separate logically the dogmas and doctrines of religion from the principles and rules of law. The essential faith of man is something different from the outward observance of rules; moral rules apply to the conscience, but legal rules can be enforced only by the state. Ethical norms are subjective, legal rules are objective. The inner life of the spirit, the “Idea of the Holy,” must be separated to some extent from the outward forms of social behaviour. The separation is not simple; it will even be considered un-Islamic. But the attempt at a rethinking of the Sharī‘a can only begin with the acceptance of this principle. . . .

Such a liberal interpretation would affect the constitution of an Islamic country. According to Islam, God is the owner of everything; He is the true sovereign in a state. Such a theory would be impractical in the modern world, and the only workable principle is as laid down by numerous modern democratic constitutions, namely, that the people of a country are sovereign within their own domain. If religion is gradually freed from the shackles of civil law, and law (qānūn) is allowed to grow and develop freely, Muslim society is bound to progress rapidly. . . .

The theology of Islam must be re-examined in all its aspects, and modern philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, psychology and logic should be applied to formulate and restate its essential dogmas. The scholastic theology of Islam (‘ilm al-kalām) in its various aspects has not been substantially reformed since the days of Ghazālī. The current stream of European thought; the great advances made by Protestant thinkers from Luther downwards, and by the scholastics from St. Thomas Aquinas and Suarez down to Maritain and Berdyaev; and the speculations of Jewish and other thinkers of the modern world must be used with discrimination to fortify and re-shape Islamic theological principles. . . .

Subsidiary Principles. When a rule is laid down in the Qur'ān or Sharī‘a it is necessary to determine whether it is a rule of law or a rule of ethics. If it is a rule of law, the state should enforce it; if it is a rule of ethics, the state cannot enforce it. Once it is determined in accordance with the foregoing principles that there is a clear rule of law laid down in the Qur'ān, the question assumes importance. The law of God, it is said, cannot be disobeyed. This statement, it is respectfully submitted, requires careful re-examination. The Qur'ān may lay down a fundamental rule governing the actions of man; or it may speak of a particular by-law, restricted by time and circumstance, not laying down an eternal verity, or it may speak in the language of poetry, metaphor, myth or legend: He it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations (muhkamāt)—They are the substance of the Book—and others (which are) allegorical (mutashābihāt), Qur'ān 3:7.

In such a case, we may come to the conclusion that it is a question of interpretation and that law can be changed, but religion is more permanent and need not be altered.

In order to examine a clear dictate of the Qur'ān . . . we must follow a certain procedure. The procedure submitted is as follows:

1. What was the rule or custom before Islam? . . .

2. How did the Prophet try to reform it? . . .

3. What were the results of such reform? The case of women may be taken as an illustration. The law of marriage in Islam, with certain important reservations, is beneficial to women; and so is the law of inheri-tance. Why is it that almost everywhere in Islamic countries women have been denied rights by custom over immovable property? That is so in India, Indonesia, Egypt, Persia, and North Africa. And what is more disturbing is that not only is woman denied her Qur'ānic rights but she is considered inferior to man and not fit for certain political rights. Travel in Muslim countries demonstrates the painful fact that woman is considered the plaything of man and seldom a life-companion, co-worker, or helpmate. It is not enough to brush this aside by saying that a particular practice is un-Islamic or contrary to the spirit of Islam. It is necessary to face facts, to go to the root of the matter, to give up inequitable interpretations, and to re-educate the people. The Qur'ānic verse: Men are in charge of women, because God hath made one of them to excel the other (Qur'ān 4:34) should be reinterpreted as purely local and applicable only for the time being. Its wider application should be reconsidered; and it may be possible to construe it as a rule of social conduct which was restricted to conditions existing in Arabia at the time of the Prophet, and as being no longer applicable in modern life.

4. How were the rules applied and interpreted in the various schools of law in the succeeding centuries? The two rules mentioned above are closely connected. Contemporary sources, particularly independent and critical accounts, will have to be scrutinized to discover what the immediate results were, and the historical evolution of the doctrines will have to be examined. Were the commands obeyed in the latter and the spirit in the succeeding centuries? Were they misunderstood or changed or distorted? Were they used for political or personal ends? These are some of the questions that arise.

5. What is the present state of the personal law? How far does it fall short of the highest norms fixed by modern juristic thinking? In what way can the rules be sustained, amended, or repealed, so as to conform to modern concepts of social justice and to promote the social well-being of the Muslim community as an integral part of society in general? This method of interpretation deals with the personal law in India; a similar process can be applied to theological and moral rules.

If the complete fabric of the Sharī‘a is examined in this critical manner, it is obvious that in addition to the orthodox and stable pattern of re-ligion, a newer “protestant” Islam will be born in conformity with conditions of life in the twentieth century, cutting away the dead wood of the past and looking hopefully at the future. We need not bother about nomenclature, but if some name has to be given to it, let us call it “Liberal Islam.”


The greatest gift of the modern world to man is freedom—freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to act. . . .

And what does Islam do, so far as religious doctrine is concerned? It closes the Gate of Interpretation. It lays down that legists and jurisconsults are to be divided into certain categories, and no freedom of thought is allowed. Iqbāl and ‘Abdur Rahīm amongst recent Indian writers have rebelled against this doctrine, and yet none ventures to face the wrath of the ‘ulamā’. Some ten years ago, there were disturbances in Pakistan and an inquiry was instituted. The Chief Justice of Pakistan questioned several ‘ulamā’ regarding Islam and its essential tenets; and, according to his analysis, some of the ‘ulamā’ were, in the opinion of their fellow-‘ulamā’, unbelievers. Such is the degree to which fossilization of thought has taken place in our faith. Islam, in its orthodox interpretation, has lost the resilience needed for adaptation to modern thought and modern life.

It must be realized that religious practices have become soulless ritual; that large numbers of decent Muslims have ceased to find solace or consolation in the traditional forms of prayer and fasting; that good books on religion are not being written for modern times; that women are treated badly, economically and morally, and that political rights are denied to them even in fairly advanced countries by the fatwās of reactionary ‘ulamā’; that Muslims, even where they constitute the majority in a country, are often economically poor, educationally backward, spiritually bankrupt and insist on “safeguards”; that the beneficial laws of early Islam have in many instances fallen behind the times; and that the futile attempt to plant an Islamic theocracy in any modern state or fashion life after the pattern of early Islam is doomed to failure.

And finally, that the time for heart-searching has come. Islam must be reinterpreted, or else its traditional form may be lost beyond retrieve. . . .

Bibliography references:

From A Modern Approach to Islam (Bombay: Asia Publ. House, 1962), pp. 85–96, 98–108.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice