Theology of the Margins. The Reading of Farid Esack


This chapter is devoted to the Qur’anic exegesis of the South African theologian Farid Esack. The first part of the chapter will focus on hermeneutical method: how does Esack read the text and how is his reading a departure from other interpretive methods? Here, I will demonstrate that, although the Qur’anic text certainly plays a prime role in Esack’s commentary, the experiences of the marginalized coupled with struggle against oppression constitute as important a text that is to be read alongside scripture. This will then lead into a discussion of how Esack interprets justice in the text. According to Esack, the God of the Qur’an is not only a just deity, but is in solidarity with the marginalized—a preferential option that is embodied in the Exodus. In this section, I critique Esack’s usage of the Exodus as the key paradigm in his liberationist exegesis, pointing to its centrality in Christian liberation theology and, in its stead, proposing a more organic paradigm, one that can underline the distinctiveness of Muslim theology and experience. This chapter will then explore the scope of Esack’s discourse on justice. I will argue that while the genesis of his radical theology lies in the South African struggle against apartheid, it cannot be reduced to this struggle. Indeed, to do so would undermine his very conception of justice. Esack’s articulation of liberation is a fully comprehensive one and cannot be confined to a specific struggle. ‘Prophetic’—or a principled—solidarity, therefore, is a fundamental component of liberation and lies at the heart of a meaningful commitment to social justice. The final section of this chapter will deal with the wider significance of Esack’s hermeneutic, which, I argue, is twofold. Firstly, his pluralistic reading of the Qur’an speaks to the potential of liberation theology, as an approach that is not only critical of power relations but built on the struggle against oppression, to act as an effective, interfaith alternative to the problematic and simplistic language of religious dialogue. Secondly, Esack’s hermeneutic undermines any objective, disembodied claim to ‘Islam’. In so doing, he forces Muslims to raise larger questions of whose Islam is being articulated in a given context and whose interests are being served by this particular understanding. This chapter will first set the stage for discussion by providing a short history of South Africa and some biographical background on Esack.

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