​In its regular weekly seminar series, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) recently hosted Dr. Elnour Hamad for a discussion on “The Paradigm Shift in the Approach of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha to Islamic Renewal”. Hamad started his lecture with a definition of “paradigm shift”, before discussing the approach taken by Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (1909-1985) in his call for renewal in Islamic religious thought.

Coined by the American philosopher and historian of the natural sciences Thomas Kuhn, the term “paradigm shift” describes a situation in which incremental accumulations occurring under a given conceptual framework (or paradigm), in a particular historical period and under specific circumstances, may give rise to problems that challenge the existing framework; every “paradigm”, maintained Kuhn, produces, before the end of its conceptual dominance, a “crisis” that paves the way to the emergence of a new paradigm.

Mahmoud Muhammad Taha’s call for a renewal of Islamic religious thought, argued Hamad, constitutes just such a shift in the field of Islamic intellectual history: whereas the jurisprudential interpretation of preceding generations, have, since the very origins of Islamic jurisprudence until the present day, held that rational interpretation is warranted only in the absence of a text, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha located the problem in those very definite, clear, and unambiguous texts. Taha believed that all problematic matters within Islamic interpretation to do with religious freedom, unequal rights of minorities or dhimmis, slavery, and inequality between the sexes under shari’ah, originate from such definite, clear and unambiguous texts.

Taha went on to examine numerous Quranic texts which he felt had become ill-suited to modern societies and the modern state, as well as to the rights of citizens therein. After comparing the different copies, transcriptions and versions of Quranic revelation, Taha maintained that the verses of the Quran revealed in Mecca constitute the original Quranic foundations (or roots), while those revealed in Medina were branches or offshoots of the original ethos. In other words, the comprehensive humanist message of Islam is contained in the “Meccan” Quran, rather than in the “Medina” Quran, upon which basis legislation and jurisprudence was later elaborated, starting in the 7th century.  It is then the Meccan Quran which lends itself to tolerance, diversity and democracy, and to equality between Muslims, non-Muslims, women and men.

In Taha’s view, continued Hamad, the provisions of the Madina Quran are transitional edicts, at odds with the requirements of modern life, and valid only until a realization of the Meccan Quran becomes possible – a time when visions of democracy, socialism and equality materialize, along with progress and the development of societies. This kind of interpretation, concluded Hamad, can be seen as a paradigm shift, enabling a departure from the constraints of an outdated jurisprudential paradigm, and enabling Taha to squarely face dilemmas at their points of origin.

In discussion, members of the audience commented that the legacy of Islamic jurisprudence often exhibited great capacity for openness, development, and renewal; others observed that Mahmoud Muhammad Taha’s thesis was intrinsically difficult to accept.