Esack and the Exodus: A Critique and a Proposal

Indeed, the Exodus is the central paradigm in Esack’s liberation theology—an aspect of his Qur’anic hermeneutic that bears a striking similarity to Christian liberation theology. The Exodus is an exemplary model of interfaith solidarity with the oppressed, Esack argues, for it not only reflects a deity who sided with the enslaved Israelites against Pharaoh, but did so in spite of the Israelites’ constant displays of disbelief (Q. 2:51; 2:55; 26:67), refusing to leave their side until they had reached the Promised Land.[1] God stood with the faithless

Israelites, then, because they were being oppressed.[2] Yet as compelling as the Exodus is as a pluralistic model of liberation, it is important to note that Christian liberation theology, too, builds heavily on the Exodus experience. In addition to drawing great inspiration from the example of Jesus Christ as the struggle for justice personified,[3] Gutierrez—a founding figure of Latin American liberation theology whom we mentioned earlier—drew extensively upon the Exodus when putting to paper his pioneering tract on liberation theology in the 1960s. In fact, according to Gutierrez, the Exodus represented a ‘paradigmatic’ event in biblical history, constituting a liberating hermeneutical lens with which to reinterpret the Old and New Testaments.[4] In other words, when reading Esack in light of Christian liberation theology, one wonders how organic an Islamic theology of liberation built upon the Exodus experience truly is? This is not to imply that the Exodus is an exclusively biblical event and, as such, Islamically inauthentic. On the contrary, the Qur’an lays a powerful claim over all the Abrahamic prophets, embracing them as part and parcel of the monotheistic call.[5] In fact, Moses is the most mentioned prophet in the text, his name surfacing approximately 140 times.[6]

Rather, my argument is that because of the power differential that exists between Christianity and Islam, it is necessary to foreground the specificity of Islam in order to counter a universalizing Christian framework. As a result of over 200 years of world dominance through colonialism and imperialism, Europe and North America have come to occupy very different positions within the global power structure than the rest ofthe world. This disparity, in turn, has had tremendous consequences in terms of modern knowledge production. As the South Asian historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, sums it up: insofar as the academic discourse of history—that is, ‘history’ as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call ‘Indian,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Kenyan,’ and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that would be called ‘the history of Europe.’[7]

In other words, Europe has become universalized as an intellectual frame of reference. Or, to put it another way, non-European histories have been stripped of their specificities, becoming homogenized in their incorporation as backward into a grand narrative defined by (an idealized reading of) European historical experience. There is, therefore, an intellectual culture of inequality. Asian and African historians are often expected, for example, to refer to the histories of Europe and North America while European and North American historians seldom feel the need to cite the histories of Asia and Africa.[8] And because Christianity in general, and the figures, stories, and imageries of the Bible in particular, were—and to varying degrees remain—a major source of European culture,[9] the language and experience of (Western) Christianity, too, has become universalized.[10] This phenomenon is particularly acute in the modern academic discipline of Religion, also known as Theology, which originated in Catholic and Protestant circles.[11] Within the field of Religion, students of Islam are expected to be familiar with Christianity, Christian debates, and the Bible in a way that is rarely reciprocated by their Christian counterparts. Indeed, the very terms of discourse reflect a history rooted in a distinctly Christian past. For instance, the idea of religious tolerance, which is routinely used nowadays to refer to mutual understanding between different faith traditions, emerged in the aftermath of Europe’s wars of religion, seeking to underline the plurality of paths within Christianity.[12] In other words, just as non-European historians need to struggle against the grain of the European experience as an underlying, universalizing tendency in the discipline of History, so must non-Christian theologians struggle against the epistemic might of the Christian experience as a homogenizing force in Religion. And it is in this pursuit to craft an Islamic theology of liberation that becomes more than simply a variation on a master narrative called Christianity, I argue, that historical and theological difference—that is, the specificity of Islam and Muslim experiences—ought to be foregrounded.[13]

An alternative point of departure that may be more promising in conceptualizing an Islamic liberation theology that explicitly embraces this question of difference is that of tawhid—or the Divine Unity (the absolute Oneness) of God—and the ensuing social, economic, and political implications of this central Islamic belief. This liberating idea that the Oneness of a just God must be paralleled by the Oneness of a single humanity, and thus that anything that divides the creation into hierarchies violates the divine unity of the Creator, was first articulated amongst Islamic radicals during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, in particular the Mujahidin-i Khalq.[14] Combining Islamic and Marxist teachings, the Mujahidin-i Khalq was a resistance group committed to armed struggle against the Shah’s regime.[15] Ali Shari‘ati (d. 1977)—a leading revolutionary figure and intellectual in Iran—became a chief exponent of the sociopolitical implications of tawhid. As a divine concept built on the intrinsic unity of all beings, argued Shari‘ati, tawhid cannot accept any

‘contradictions’, such as those of economic, social, legal, geographical or racial hierarchy.[16] Whereas Shari‘ati and the Mujahidin-i Khalq approached tawhid primarily from the perspective of class, two decades later gender activists would draw on tawhid extensively when critiquing patriarchy and male privilege. As we shall see in the following chapters on Wadud and Barlas, Islamic monotheism is a core paradigm in women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an. This doctrine, therefore, has been invoked increasingly as a guiding hermeneutical principle in liberationist expositions of Islam.

Two points of clarification are in order here. Firstly, I do not wish to imply that tawhid is entirely absent from Esack’s hermeneutic. In weaving together an Islamic theology of liberation, he redefines, in light of his own experience and struggles against apartheid, a number of Qur’anic concepts, such as al-mustad‘afun fi al-ard (‘the oppressed on the Earth’), jihad (‘struggle and praxis’), al-nas (‘the people’, that is, in the popular sense of the word), taqwa (‘integrity and awareness in relation to the presence of God’), and tawhid (‘divine unity’).[17] And in his reading of tawhid, Esack echoes the earlier arguments of Shari‘ati by unpacking the sociopolitical implications of this key tenet. But Esack consigns tawhid to the back of his theology and devotes far more attention to the Exodus, despite the fact that the language of tawhid became widely circulated amongst South African Muslims during the anti-apartheid struggle. As he himself notes, Islamic activists used terms like ‘tawhidi society’ and ‘the sociological implications of tawhid’ in their demands for a qualitatively different order, condemning apartheid as a form of shirk—the cardinal sin of associating partners with God and, thus, the theological foil of ta- whid—since apartheid undermined the unity of God by dividing humanity into unequal racial camps.83

Secondly, I do not mean to suggest that contemporary Muslim thinkers have drawn upon tawhid in solely progressive terms. Consider the Wahhabi movement or, as they refer to themselves, the muwahhidun (literally, the monotheists). Tawhid was a central aspect of the revivalist discourse of the Najd-based scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). Calling for a return to the Qur’an and

sunna, he and his followers maintained that Islam needed to be cleansed from so-called deviant beliefs and practices—especially Sufi Islam and its emphasis on saintly veneration, as well as heterodox sects like Shi‘a Islam—which, they claimed, were guilty of shirk.[18] Wahhabism thus reflects a sharply puritan, literalist approach to Islam, fixated on dogma and ritual practice and with little interest in questions of social justice. The political thought of Mawdudi is another example of a non-progressive exegesis of tawhid. Islamic monotheism was central for Mawdudi, and his reflections would have a lasting impact on Qutb. For Mawdudi, to accept tawhid is to acknowledge the ‘sovereignty of God’ with all its political and legal consequences, namely, that ‘God alone is the source of the law, all people must submit to this law, and the sole mandate of the Islamic state is to implement this law.’[19] Tawhid, then, has become an increasingly prominent theme in contemporary Islamic thought, and progressives like Shari‘ati, Wadud, and Barlas are a part of this broader trend while, at the same time, departing from it by reinterpreting monotheism in significant and unique ways.[20]

What makes tawhid so provocative as a point of departure for a liberating Islamic theology is that it not only weds the struggle for justice to the single most important tenet in Islam, but also foregrounds the specificity of Muslim theology. Christ stands at the centre of Christianity in general,[21] and of Christian liberation theology in particular,[22] and the nature of the biblical text mirrors the distinctiveness of this theology. Indeed, in traditional Christianity it is not the Bible that is considered to be the Word of God but Christ himself.[23]

The Bible represents a collection of texts, produced by individuals and communities, which reflect upon the example of Jesus and, as a sustained reflection, can never fully capture him, since the Son of God cannot be confined to a text. The roles of Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’anic text within the Islamic worldview, on the other hand, are markedly different. The Prophet of Islam holds no comparable position to the Christ of Christianity for, according to Muslims, Muhammad was a mortal man whose vocation was to deliver a divine message. The closest Islamic equivalent to the Christian Jesus is the Qur’an,[24] which is understood as the actual Speech of God. And it is precisely because Muslims perceive the Qur’an as being the Word that it is God, alone, who stands at the heart of the Islamic faith. The intrinsic value of tawhid as the conceptual framework for radical thought and action, then, is that it acknowledges the theological distinctiveness of Islam as a vigorously monotheistic religion. As Esack himself affirms, it is God and the belief in this single deity that comprises the crux of the Qur’anic call, receiving far more attention than any other topic in the text.[25]

  • [1] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 195-6.
  • [2] The faithlessness of the Israelites is further evidenced, as Esack points out, byQ. 10:83, which states that only a small group of them (dhurriyyatun) believed in theGod of Moses. See ibid. In a separate study, it is worth noting, Esack has explored thecomplex manner in which Jews are represented in the Qur’an, underlining a pluralityof Qur’anic narratives and thereby challenging mainstream Muslim assumptions thatthe Jews have incurred divine wrath. See Farid Esack, “The Portrayal of Jews and thePossibilities for Their Salvation in the Qur’an,” in Between Heaven and Hell: Islam,Salvation, and the Fate of Others, ed. Mohammad Hassan Khalil (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2013).
  • [3] Gutierrez, 35 . 3 Ibid, 158-9.
  • [4] 70 Omid Safi, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (New York:
  • [5] HarperOne, 2009), 196.
  • [6] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 154.
  • [7] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 27.
  • [8] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1.
  • [9] John Riches, The Bible: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2000), 100.
  • [10] To be sure, the power differential between Islam and Christianity is not necessarily material, but rather epistemic. This is particularly true in the context ofliberation theology, since Latin America has been the continental wellspring ofChristian liberation theology. Radical exegesis of the Bible, then, has emerged froma region of the world that has been as economically exploited as Africa and Asia.
  • [11] Carl W. Ernst, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the ContemporaryWorld (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 47.
  • [12] Ibid, 39-43.
  • [13] For a more extensive exposition of this critique, see Shadaab Rahemtulla, ‘ImSchatten des Christentums? Die Herausforderung islamischer Befreiungstheologie’[In the Shadow of Christianity? The Challenge of an Islamic Liberation Theology], inGott und Befreiung. Befreiungstheologische Konzepte in Islam und Christentum [Godand Liberation: Concepts of Liberation Theology in Islam and Christianity], eds.Klaus von Stosch and Muna Tatari (Paderborn, Germany: Schdningh, 2012).
  • [14] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 83.
  • [15] The Mujahidin emerged in the 1960s as an outgrowth of the religious faction ofthe wider national struggle. Its members were initially part of the Freedom Movementof Iran, which underscored the compatibility between Shi‘a Islam and modernity, andwas thus largely liberal in scope. However, state suppression, especially in 1963,radicalized segments of the Freedom Movement and the origins of the Mujahidinare to be found in this transformation. See Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots andResults of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 220-2.
  • [16] Ali Shari‘ati, ‘On the Sociology of Islam: The World-View of Tawhid’, inIntroduction to Islam: A Reader, ed. Amina Wadud (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/HuntPublishing, 2007), 3.
  • [17] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 83 . 83 Ibid, 91-2.
  • [18] There is a dearth of serious scholarship (as opposed to sensationalist writings)on the history and politics of Wahhabism. For two refreshingly sober and nuancedaccounts, see David D. Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (London:I.B. Tauris, 2009) and Natana J. DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival to Reformto Global Jihad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • [19] Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Q. Zaman eds., Princeton Readings inIslamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 81. To clarify, here I am quoting Euben and Zaman.
  • [20] I am grateful to James McDougall for this insight.
  • [21] Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Roberts, The Bible for Sinners: Interpretation in the Present Time (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,2008), 21.
  • [22] BoffandBoff, 4.
  • [23] This is not the case, of course, for many conservative Protestant Christians, whoview the Bible as God’s Word, as ‘God-breathed’, and hence holding a similarontological status as the Qur’an for Muslims.
  • [24] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 16. 2 Ibid, 147.
  • [25] 92 Farid Esack, ‘Open Letter’, Jewish Peace News (2009), available at:
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