Critical Essay

In the Qur’an, God is a great debater

The Qur’an is not a description of God. It’s a call to conversion.

In 1947 an Egyptian Muslim thinker named Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah (d. 1991) completed a dissertation in Cairo with a thesis that would hardly seem radical to most students of the Qur’an in the West. He argued that the Qur’an includes many aspects of storytelling.

By his own account, Khalafallah’s motivation in advancing this argument was to defend the Qur’an against “atheists, Orientalists, and missionaries.” Some Muslims in Egypt, however, were outraged by his claims. The Qur’an is not a bunch of stories, they insisted (caricaturing his argument), but rather the true, revealed word of God. The outrage grew to the point that Khalafallah was never allowed to defend his thesis, and his reputation (along with that of his doctoral supervisor) was forever tarnished.

A worse fate awaited a later Egyptian scholar, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010). He argued that the Qur’an can be understood in some places to be metaphorically, and not literally, true. For this he was criticized and eventually (in 1995) declared an apostate in an Egyptian court. Forcibly divorced from his wife (since a non-Muslim man cannot be married to a Muslim woman), he fled with her to Holland.