An Interview with Farid Esack by Noah Black on Liberation Theology and Esack’s Scholarship | The Maydan Podcast

In 1994, South Africa had its first democratic election with South Africans from all races allowed to vote. With the African National Congress (ANC) victory, the racist system of apartheid began to be dismantled. Three years later, in 1997, Farid Esack, an anti-apartheid activist, who is too often forgotten, wrote Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression.Reflecting on the Muslim community’s history during the anti-apartheid struggle, Esack outlines a vision of Islamic theology that is both intense and intentional about eliminating all forms of injustice. For his dedication to the struggle, Esack was appointed as a Gender Equity Commissioner by Nelson Mandela. He is now a professor at the University of Johannesburg, head of the South African branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and is known for his solidarity with the community living with HIV and AIDS. 25 years after these first democratic elections, I sat down with him to discuss the book, his idea for interpreting the Qur’an for the liberation of all and how oppression shifts over time, constantly demanding new approaches, movements and questions. I am Noah Black and you are listening to the Maydan podcast. Stick around.

Noah Black: Ok. So to begin, it has been quite a while since the publication of Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism. I know you said you are working on a number of other projects to kind of outline exactly what you mean when you talk about Islamic Liberation Theology or if you use another term I am not sure… But have your opinions on the interpretive process or Islam’s role in the struggle changed significantly in those years or no?

Prof. Farid Esack: It sounds… It is not something that I am proud of. I changed and I would not want to think of myself as trapped in dogma or fossilized thinking. And at the same time I think that fundamentally I have remained unaltered. The basic impulse of Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism…And by the way, just about a couple of months ago, the book was published in Turkish and I was really surprised that the book was published in Turkish. It is out in a number of other languages. It is out in about ten languages I think.

So, I can talk about the influence of the book later but more directly in response to your question: No, I do not think that anything fundamentally has changed in my approach to the Qur’an or the fundamental issues that I try to present in that text. I basically use the argument that the Qur’an is a living text that it can only be understood in context but that this does not mean that all contextual readings are equally valid. And I never spoke about an authentic meaning; I always spoke about greater authenticity and the whole notion that greater authenticity lies with the marginalized that is still very much at the heart of my theological approaches. So the project to rethink Islam: yes, the project to understand the Qur’an as a living text: yes; but it has a particular resonance and a particular legitimacy when it is read from the margins. And at that time the margins for me, the dominant margins was race and racism and the struggle against apartheid.

And the one example of reading the text was the text as seemingly denouncing all forms of relationships with Christians and Jews and “people who don’t believe” because the Qur’an as you know does not have the term disbelievers in it.

And so the terrain of how I have applied the marginalize the terrain has expanded. I am  very interested in the poor and I am curious about how identity politics is seen to be marginalizing issues of poverty and the poor.  And yes, so the areas where I am searching for the marginalized may have shifted but the basic message of the texts I think is so very much one that I uphold. And I have become more aware of the same issues at a global level.

The question of race or the question of marginalities, the question of the power of the Global North versus the Global South and then the various Global North(s) inside the Global South. You know, the questions of privileges and marginalities and how the Quran speaks to it, It’s still very much at the heart of what I am busy with. And I still do not know whether I am an activist masquerading as a scholar or a scholar masquerading as an activist.

Noah Black: Yeah… So I think it is a good question to build off of that kind of confusion there is.. In the book you write that some people might denounce this as a post hoc justification but it is actually regarded by liberation theology you say it is both inevitable and a privileged option. So I am wondering can you expand on this a little bit and specifically is this a matter of you know to use a popular phrase ‘the ends justify the means’ or maybe more broadly that the principles of struggle and solidarity with the marginalized is what the interpretation is based off of?

Prof. Farid Esack: Yeah I mean.. I deal with this question of whether it is an issue whether it is a matter of reading into the text what you want to read into the text or whether it is the old idea that the text speaks to you. And I think I arrive at a position that it is not an ‘either or position’;  it is you in constant conversation, in constant wrestling with this text. It is not you, well it is not you demanding answers that is “convenient” for you. Because when the Quran for example says “Wa hadaynaahun” in Surah Aqaba, one of the short Meccan Surah, [it says] “Wa hadaynaahun najdayn”.

And we have shown you the two path “Falaq tahamal-‘aqabah Wa maaa adraaka mal’aqabah” and “Laaa uqsimu bihaazal balad, Wa anta hillum bihaazal balad, Wa waalidinw wa maa walad, Laqad khalaqnal insaana fee kabad,…. Alam naj’al lahoo ‘aynayn,  Wa lisaananw wa shafatayn, Wa hadaynaahun najdayn, Falaq tahamal-‘aqabah, Wa maaa adraaka mal’aqabah, fakku [raqabah]…”

So the Quran speaks about…It is a bit of a longish Meccan surah ….So the Quran speaks about the difficult path. And then the Quran speaks about how we are shown the two paths and that there are few that choose the difficult path and then outlines what the difficult path is. So it is “fakku rqabah فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ” but it is the freeing of next the freeing of people from slavery or “fakku raqabatin Aw itAAamun fee yawmin theemasghaba” or to feed a person on a dark day. “Yateeman tha maqraba” an orphan who may be a part of your family. “Aw miskeenan tha matraba” or any other poor person whose faces rub in the dust, you know. “Fala iqtahama alAAaqabah.” I mean back to the beginning…

By the way when it comes to the Quran… my head goes into Arabic so it is not a kind of showing off you know… it is just that I do not think when I think about the content of the Quran. Then I can not think in English. You have to go back to the… OK.

So the Quran speaks about this as a difficult path. And so it is not like you know I want to do what is convenient.. no, no, no. It is the assumption of a difficult task. So on the one hand, I mean in hadith literature “Bashshiru wala tinaffiru, yassiru wala tuassiru” “give glad tidings and do not dismiss people.” “Yassiru”, [meaning,] “make things easy for people and do not make things difficult for people.”

But the truth is that these are the tidings that we are supposed to give. But being a Muslim is not an easy task. And this is where I part company from people who say that [wait,… I know]  I am not sticking to your question. I am aware of that… I still have your question.

But this is where I part company from people who say that Islam is an entirely unproblematic religion. Islam is just about love and kindness and embracing everybody. And then and…

No! The Qur’an also warns, you know this is a God who promises one thing to one crowd but also promises the destruction of the one crowd. You know in Surah Al-Qasas, the liberation of Bani Israel is premised on the destruction of the Fir’awn/ Pharaoh. So it may not sound nice in the post 9/11 period but the Qur’an has there is… you know “Ya ayyuhan nabiyyu harridil mu’minine alall qital” The Prophets split the believers on tobacco. Now what are we fighting for you? We part company with many of our other people who use the same kind of rhetoric. So I do not think it is an instrumentalist or a utilitarian thing.

This is why I mean one of the first hermeneutical keys that I write about is the question of taqwa. It is not me and just my intellectual soul. It is just not me and I am a thinker. These are the tools that I come to with the texts and I am now going to interrogate the texts and I… No,it is also a trembling believer that approaches the texts.

It is  a trembling believer, it is a believer that is in awe of these texts. But it is believed that threshold at the same time. So I do not know. I mean no this is very personalist apparently very personalist kind of approach you know…To really say no I am a God fearıng believer that is not what I am trying to suggest.

I am only trying to say that it is a package deal but it is not just a thinker that is anchored to his or her books and his or her theries and now coming in this ana ana, you know me, me and I am now coming to the text it is a trembling relationship.

And so and I do not know. But for me this element of “yourism” of trial and an error, of I am not sure. It is the believers’ safeguard against elevating him or her above God and say “I want God to say this, I want God to say that…” At the same time I am willing to concede that there is an element of construction in this. Am I constructing a God that is on the side of the marginalized. I think partly there may be construction in it because I am not able to live with the idea of a God that is on the side of the powerful.  Is my idea sustained by the Qur’an? Yes.

Are there parts of the Quran that I still find troubling? Yes. When the Qur’an for example says “tuAAizzu man tasha wa tuthillu man tasha’” [3:26-27] that “God honors who he wants to and disgraces who he wants to.” What is meant by this? This becomes a license for the Pharaohs and sultans and God has elevated us. So the next things you know in Sunni theology you have “al-sultanu zillullahi fi’l ard”. That the Sultan is the shadow of God on Earth. Oh so now you use the same text you know God has honored who he wants and he disgraces who he wants.

So are there issues? Yes, there are constantly issues and I am happy to embrace these issues and live alongside them. But I think a combination of this trial and error. A combination of courage to challenge the takes and humility in who you are and your own frailty as a human being and as a believer.

I think that that is why I presented these hermeneutical keys not as a stand alone thing because if it is a stand alone thing then say jihad as a key. Jihad just becomes your own personal arrogant weapon against all the people whom you dislike. Because there is no taqwa involved that is no trembling in front of God. There is no praxis you know. So it just becomes a slogan that you’re going to use to wipe out everybody that you do not agree with.

So yeah I do think that of course in some ways you know you are not asking me a bit of personal question but something that I would suggest that you have a look at the second thing that I am suggesting that we have a look at. There is one dua in the Shi’i tradition. it is known as the Du’a Kumayl and Imam Ali is supposed to have taught this to one of the companions who was known as Kumayll. And it is a fascinating, a bit of a longish prayer; it lasts for about 30 minutes. I use it to go to bed with sometimes and I read it every Thursday; I make a point of it, I am very devoted to it. It is like a part of my life. And the one fascinating thing about that takes just a long intense wrestling between you and God between the believer and God.

And so in some ways this wrestling with the text…it is a wrestling, it is an engaged believer and an engaged lover that derives meaning and inspiration from this texts. But also find the text from time to time infuriating; like you can find your mother infuriating like you can find your elder brother that you love so much infuriating… but it is a part of your relationship of love.

Noah Black: There is a lot to think about there… But one of the things that I did really appreciate about the texts was I am not sure if it would be misreading it to say that a lot of the hermeneutical keys were built on taqwa but I found it really interesting that it seemed like you were using taqwa as a kind of an insurance of accountability both to the texts and to the people living on the margins. It’s not a question but…

Prof. Farid Esack: But it’s you know I have seen this and I wrote it. There was a larger context and this became very important for me. Qur’an, Liberation, [and Pluralism] appeared in what year… Ninety seven?

Noah Black:  Yeah. The year I was born.

Prof. Farid Esack: Yes. And in 1994 South Africa had become a democracy. And in that short period, I saw the transformation of activists and I saw the loss of a revolutionary ethos, and a commitment to simplicity, and to avoiding qualm, and avoiding ostentation… And I saw a departure towards material values. And so I often thought you know what is it that makes today’s revolutionary [individual], tomorrow’s oppressor [individual]?  And the only insurance against your own arrogance and your own transformation into that evil which once upon a time you abhorred. The only insurance against that is a feeling of utter accountability to a transcendent beyond you and beyond the material.

By the way we had elections in South Africa a few days ago. I do not know if you can see my finger…there is a mark on my nail that is the ink that they put on your thumb when you go and vote.

So I mean I still support the African National Congress as I did then. But even inside the ANC around me I have seen how people who espouse all these values of simplicity and you know how we have abandoned it. And so taqwa is not [and was not] only for me. It was also a protection I could see this coming on at that time and I mean just come on. Many people will say that we have really lost the battle. But it was both a question of scholarly and revolutionary arrogance. We now… you know… first you speak in the name of the people and then the next moment you are the people. That is pretty much what our other friends are doing. We speak in the name of God, in the next moment we are God you know. So we kill in the name of God do we. But yeah you would. That was just a side question.

Noah Black:  Okay. So this was something that struck me across several different texts that I was reading; not just yours but also that of Hamid Dabashi and Asghar Ali Engineer. So, if the process and struggle for liberation is something that is continual and I am not sure that you think it is. That is part of the question. What does that liberation look like? Something that struck me about Dabashi’s is work is that it did not actually seem like there was a definable goal. It seemed more as if he was characterizing liberation as a condition of always being within a certain interpretive paradigm rather than describing certain material conditions.

Prof. Farid Esack: Yes… Just incidentally, Dabashi had never read my book. And his wife had to remind him who I was after his book came out and two-three reviews pointed out that you know this guy does not mention or has not read Farid Esack… And I mean yeah we get on well with each other. We have had chats about it and so on and I have a lot of respect for the guy’s positions. I think I am cautious about utopianism about promising any kind of utopia. I do think liberation theology takes you to a more liberative.. understanding of the text. But I also believe that as our own eyes. I mean I think this hermeneutical circle as our understanding of the text of the conditions around us and the text and [through] this engagement we become aware of other marginalities; we develop a deeper awareness of marginality. And so you know, it is like in our nonracial democracy. Then the question of poverty became more stark.

The question of gender justice became more stark. The question of sexual orientation became more stark. And now, I mean, if you just look at social media for example, for a long time you thought that your cat was cute or that your dog was clever or your budgy or your parrot or your… And now we are becoming aware at a mass level of intelligence of other sentient beings. So you were indifferent to left and people before. And you never thought of the kind of discrimination, the pejorative way in which especially in many Asian societies and in many traditional sites left-handedness is treated.

So now with social media and now you begin to reflect you know on the lives of animals the lives of other sentient beings. And it poses a new challenge for you. So I do not think that that liberation theology ever settles and I do not think that we are intended to be settled human beings. From the accounts of the Prophet’s life,…the Prophet was not an unsettled human being until the last days of his life.

Now look, I am not for a moment suggesting kind of permanent pathology of permanent… You know kind of you know this guy is just wacky and he now embraces his wackiness or he has got issues. I do not think that all of human beings are always riddled with issues and it is a continuous struggle with all of them.

But at the same time I think that we have a responsibility to embrace this disease with this state of the world, this state of injustice. We have this on the one hand and on the other hand, it is just the question of our growing awareness of more dimensions to this injustice.

So I do not think that liberation theology promises a state but I do think that if you look at the intersection between liberation theology and the general discourse on decoloniality, the one problem that I do have is I agree with the project that we do not shape our understanding of the Qur’an in terms of the demands of the powerful. But we shape it in terms of the demands or the urgencies of [the disenfranchised]. And you will probably know that after I worked on Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism, I moved into the field of HIV and AIDS and Muslims living with HIV and the stigma that accompanies sexually transmitted diseases. So that was a new marginalized that I became focused on. So I do not think that there is ever a point that we say “we have arrived.”

So you can say South Africa was liberated from apartheid and then all slavery ended on a particular day.

And then you discover the slavery of the bonded laborers in many parts of the world. You discover the sweat shops, the slavery of the sweat shops… and how oppression reinvents itself and captures your Martin Luther Kings and captures your….And then you know…they remove all the anger.

And so the point that I’m trying to make is this that I think liberation theology is about the process. It is about the permanent process. There is also this hadith that comforts me but it also discomforts me. You know, it says “Ba’da Al-Islamu ghariban” that Islam started off in a is in a strange in a state of dis-ease. And it will return in a state of dis-ease. And then “fatuubuu lil ghuraba,” give glad tidings to those who are… kind of well wacky or weird or strange. It is not your excuse to be impolite to everybody that you meet because you know this is just.

But look you know it is a bit of a cliché of mine. But I have not had ever heard of an account to me that there is not a single prophet in any tradition whether it is in the Buddhist tradition or in the Qur’anic tradition or in the Hebrew Bible tradition whose fundamental question was: “How do I fit in with the dominant powers in society or the dominant norms of the society.”

Not a single prophet had this. And so this liberal Muslim or moderate Muslim project that the major task of Muslims is to become invisible and to fit in without interrogating [the questions of] who or where or fit in with America. Whose image of America? Is it the United States of the decayed inner urban parts of the cities? The United States of incarcerated people for 30 40 years? Or is it the iftar dinners at the White House? That I do not even think Trump is having this year, is he?

Noah Black: I’ve not heard anything no…

Prof. Farid Esack: You’re not interesting enough to get invited. You should up your game a bit man. I mean you are in Washington, D.C. after all…But I think you know the point that I am trying to make here yeah?

Noah Black: So yes, to move in a little bit of a different direction. Earlier in the conversation you talked about exodus a little bit. And when I was reading Qur’an of the Oppressed by [Shadaab] Rahemtulla. He criticized your use of exodus because I think he portrayed it as playing into a universalization of Christianity and said that liberation theology in Islam needs to foreground Muslim specificity and to some degree I kind of understand the concern of countering certain master narratives.

Prof. Farid Esack: I do not recall the critique so I am not really able to respond to it. I read an earlier version of the chapter on my work that in earlier drafts of it and I was not…First of all, I am not a great fan of myself. And I say this not with humility just as a matter of fact. OK. God is my witness. Wallahi.. I do not mean this in a kind of I do not care what people say about me but I am genuinely not a fan of myself. And I thought that chapter was a bit too uncritical of my work. And then I am sure that later on you know because you can’t be taken seriously as a scholar if you are just seeing somebody else’s phrases.

So Shadaab had to come up with some stuff and I am happy that he did. But I do not particularly remember what was the issue that he had with… my use of the exodus paradigm..

Noah Black: Okay so I guess maybe let me reframe it without necessarily using that book.  And this comes a little bit from even the use of the phrase liberation theology. But I guess to what degree is there a concern about buying into certain universalized European Christian frameworks and in their relationship with liberation theology in Latin America. Is there anything that Islamic Liberation Theology has to lose in using certain framings or are there things that can be gained from that relationship?

Prof. Farid Esack: Okay. So it is a difficult question that you are asking. Because in some ways you are also asking. Is there nothing unique about Islam? Yes.. and no.

No, in the sense that we believe that it is the same God that has spoken to humankind and other beings from the beginning of creation until now.  So no there is not. Is this the past. For me ….it is that I believe the best part for me and for humankind at the same time. Yes. I do not want to… Perhaps I am. I was about to say, I do not want to be facetious or too simplistic about it but perhaps I am. The Qur’an is a text that speaks to me like no other but I am not going to…I am not going to berate somebody else if the Qur’an doesn’t resonate with him or her, so am I being reductionist? Am I being a relativist in saying that this is good for me? But I’m not prepared to recommend it for anybody else? I do not know; it is an awkward question that I need to think through and my detractors or people who do not like my ideas. They can easily assail me or attack me on this one. I recognize the vulnerability of my ideas on this point.

But you know during the liberation struggle Desmond Tutu was somebody that inspired a lot of people. Then some [people] came to one of our struggle heroes Imam Hassan. [They said] You guys; you and Maulana Farid are so close to Desmond Tutu. Have you guys thought of him converting to Islam and giving him da’wah? So Imam Hassan said: Look, you know Desmond Tutu is straight and upright. It is going to be more straight than what he is? He is going to be better? Can you please leave him alone as he is?

So in some ways it is not the Qur’anic kind of rethought to the kuffar of Mecca: lakum deenukum waliyadeen, “you have your deen and I have my deen of your faith and I have my faith. Because that to a talk doesn’t give equality to the legitimacy to the kuffar and to their faith. And it was more of a rhetorical kind of, “get the hell out of here.” You know “I have nothing to do.” You know this is where we part company.

But there is an approach to our faiths that we have in common. And they were in some ways the four corners of the systematizing of this theology. That is as it evolved in Latin America and later in the Philippines. They were the forerunners of this  and subsequently you had others writing on the Buddhist liberation of Buddhist engaged theology of Mark Ellen’s writing on Jewish liberation theology and so on. We are all the children of the same parents. And in this sense I rejoice in this kind of diversity and strength. I mean when I do some work with the World Council of Reformed Churches with the World Communion of Reformed Churches and I’m very much at home there. So I do not know.

I mean I need to think a bit more about the question but I am happy with my own comfort. I do not think of Islam as a set of answers. Answers belongs to God. We must kind of measure our questions and come with our challenges and get closer and closer to the truth. But the truth is also that the closer and closer we get the more and more questions we discover. So as a believer I am happy to embrace my questions as much as I embrace the few sentences that I had.

Noah Black: It is a very challenging and also somewhat satisfactory answer from yes from a spiritual standpoint. In my understanding of your interpretive process the asbab-ı nuzul play a not insignificant role. And so if I guess my question is if the events occasioning revelation have a significant role to play. But the hadith literature… needs to be subject to more re-evaluation. Guess where and when does that re-evaluation happen? In terms of its relationship to Qur’anic interpretation.

Prof. Farid Esack: Okay.

Now you know there is this kind of project. I do not know how fine is going to go but there is this project where people are trying to reassess hadith not in terms of the chain of narrators but in terms of the content. And so a hadith to be judged on how valid the ideas in it is rather than… I do not know. I mean if it is a viable project because the whole question of the viability of an idea…That depends on who is doing the compilation; it is kind of this new state project of engineering Islam for this society. They engineered a jihadist Islam when Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviets and after that they engineered a moderate Islam that is at peace. In order to put in with Pax Americana.

So that project aside, I do think that I made extensive use of hadith in trying to figure out the meanings of some of the difficult ayat that I dealt with. And I had an interesting piece that came out in the Journal for the International Qur’anic Studies Association on Nabi Lut’s offer of his two daughters. When the gang approaches he offers his daughter and they are… Not consciously, but I threw through tafsir literature. I look at hadiths and so on around what happened you know. I mean he is a prophet of God making an offer of his daughter to a bunch of approaching rapist or…So I have made use of hadith, OK.

But the larger point I think that I wanted to illustrate was not so much the value of hadith in asbab-i nuzul. But the phenomenon of a text that speaks inside eastern, so that was my larger point to prove. But you are raising a question for me about. So if you’re going to be using asbab-i nuzul what about a critique of the nature of hadith. And the many kind of lots of awkwardness in the content of hadith. How do you then negotiate that?

I am working on with two three of my students on some aspects of hadith and this is one dimension of it. But the truth is it is just a much bigger elephant… than say…at a superficial level. I mean if you look at say the hadith and gender; although some people have [looked at it]… I mean there are book on Hadith and gender equality relooking all of those awkward ahadith. So these are kind of a project but I think that hadith remains you know one of those more difficult challenges and this is why most people who are right on say gender justice they preferred to not go to hadith but go to Quran…I do not have any definite answers.

Noah Black: Okay yeah. Now thank you so much..

Prof. Farid Esack: It’s really a pleasure.

Noah Black: Okay okay. Thank you, good night.

Prof. Farid Esack: Thank you, enjoy this Ramadan, Okay..Assaalamu alaykum

Noah Black: Alaykumsalaam.