“Making Ethics Theological Through Qur’anic Exegesis”

[This is the sixth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. These notes are NOT a transcript, but a lightly edited presentation of  my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the conference director.]

“Making Ethics Theological Through Qur’anic Exegesis”

Jacquelene Brinton, University of Kansas

I see intervention into faith discourses is also a typical academic discussion about the history of the law. I will engage at the level of popular discourse. I am less interested in what scholars are talking about than about preaching, how information comes down to the people. I want to talk about intentions, capacity, and outcomes. Law is the true locus of the discussion of ethics in Islam. Ethics is the science about the rightness of acts. Law is useful, but in human life there are in-between times. It is by performing righteous deeds that one becomes virtuous; virtue ethics is a process of becoming. To Reinhardt, it is about practice, a way of life, in which the individual relationship to God is not important.

Different discourses are addressed to different audiences. I will look at Shaikh Sharawi, the popular preacher. In my visit to Egypt in 2000 everyone said if you want to know about Islam, watch Shaikh Sharawi. He was everywhere in Egypt, the peoples’ preacher, but ignored here in the US. Trained at al-Azhar, an exegete and TV star, a national preacher, but not innovative in his thinking. he was a renewer, not a reformer. His ideas were definitely Ashari. His exegetical methods were traditional. He was best known for his linguistic abilities, and even Egyptian lawyers admired his ability with language. He was able to simplify ideas and present them to the masses. He made ideas relevant and personal, based on the love between the individual and God. He spoke of the negative, but emphasized the positive. He did have some detractors.

I will speak about theology of action. His ideas were universal, but from an Islamic perspective. He spoke of the empty spaces uncovered by fiqh when we face everyday moral decisions. He was not a systematic thinker. His basic foundation was that God has been bountiful with humanity and provided a system of commandments and prohibitions that require humans to praise God through worship. Revealed legislations should be a moral way of life built on rules but not confined to rules. It is all about reciprocal affection between Creator and man. Worship does not end but begins with daily action. How to behave is informed by revelation and not by human desire. He would not see the rational self as an alternative to revelation, but as a complement. If you follow the commandments and prohibitions of the Qur’an, it develops in you a virtue that allows you to follow God’s will in all aspects of life. For him worship is an act of love, gratitude and remembrance. “Praise of God is not confined to the tongue; it passes through the mind and settles in the heart.” Worship makes one a more loving person.

Talal Asad says people see a tension between teleology and eschatology, but Sharawi spoke about life in this world. Human action is freedom within restrictions. God allows you to walk past a liquor store and you decide whether to walk in or not. These opportunities are connected to the purpose of Creation. Free will was acquired in creation because God offered free will to all Creation, but only humans wanted it. The human choice to obey God is the choice to love God.

Sharawi explains 2:190 by what is happening in the Prophet’s life at the time. Fighting must be “in the way of God” as a response to aggression. The recompense for evil is an equal evil. If I respond in kind, have I committed an evil? God pardons those who are not only just, but who pardon. He did not argue with categorizations, but personalized the arguments. But why would God permit acts that made one a sinner? Moral action is motivated by pleasing God and increasing beauty in the universe.

Response by Asaad al-Saleh, University of Utah.

Sharawi is more authoritative among the masses than among the ulama, in contrast to Bin Baz who is the shaikh for many scholars in the Gulf. He actually was engaged with world events, including the issue of organ transplants. When he announced his opposition to it, some hospitals refused to engage in it. Why is he so popular? How was he popular with both the elite and the working masses? You focused on patterns that interested you, but there are hundreds of others, like his notion of the “catalog” (i.e., the Qur’an).

I think there is a right in Islam not to be asked more than he or she can do. Obligations are paired with rights and obligations are waived when they are impossible.

Response by Katrin Jomaa, University of Rhode Island.

I grew up with Sharawi. I didn’t listen to him (my mother did), but I regret it. In contrast with worship as external he emphasizes that worship begins with the performance of a duty. I sensed a lot of Sufi tendencies. You say his is a philosophy of action, but when it comes to politics he seems to feed into the political quietism of which Islam has been criticized. “One hour of fitna is worse than years of tyranny.”


Brinton. I did go to Egypt and talk to many people. There are two featured apps for Sharawi, one for Khaled Amr, but I could find none for Yusuf Qardawi. Sharawi is still important in Egypt. His talks are played on TV as national propaganda, but yes, he has no school. I’m not sure his legacy will live on after him. There is nobody quite like him. Ghazali and maybe Kishk were like him, but now there is no one. He was emotional, expressive and charismatic. He was interested in law, but he went beyond that interest.

He never officially joined a Sufi order, but he has a lot to say about esoteric thought. I see no contradiction between Ashari and Sufi. There is a contradiction with regard to the political. He was a government preacher on government television, but there was a point in his life when he was untouchable. After the assassination of Sadat he spoke directly to Mubarak about how God can give rule even to the ungodly; it is one of the most watched clips on YouTube. Some say this is speaking truth to power and others say it is not enough. I think he was not really interested in politics, but only sought to restore the ulama as the expositors of religion. His support of Sadat when he made peace with Israel is a controversial part of his work.  He helped the rulers establish an Egyptian national religion. His purpose was to counter the more radical elements in society.

Name omitted. Sharawi did not write tafsîr (exegesis), he delivered it as lecture; and it is not sophisticated exegesis, but he is an important person in contemporary Islamic society. There are three types of religion: world renouncing (like Indian religions); the world affirming religions (like Islam) and the ones in-between (like Christianity). Islam is not world renouncing.  As to your quotation of Abu Bakr, he was not trying to take from the rich and give to the poor; he was saying without zakat the state would not survive.

Name omitted. It was the state that gave Sharawi his platform and he was a tool of the state.

Name omitted. A researcher on the Indian mufassir (“Hamka,” Hajj Amrullah Karim) compared him with Sharawi.

Name omitted. With the fiqh discourse appearing on television, it is opened to a new audience.

Brinton. The state did create this opening for Sharawi, but I would not go so far as to say he was a tool for the state. Once he became the authority through media he was able to take the position on organ donations that adversely impacted the state’s policy. What fascinates me about media is it is no longer about those who write or influencing other scholars. Shaikh Sharawi is kept alive by the apps on Smartphone.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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