Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Quranists, Islam’s Outcasts

Photo: Marghoob bin Safdar / Flickr

Quranists are a small group of Muslims who regard the Koran as the only valid source of religious belief, guidance and law in Islam. They call themselves ‘the people of the Koran’ while their opponents call them ‘disruptors of the Prophet’s sunnah’. Quranists have long suffered persecution and non-recognition in the Middle East. Their rights have been curtailed and they have been the subject of attacks by governments and Islamic institutions.

Quranism gained a significant following in India in the 19th century, thanks to the Islamic cleric Ahmad Khan, as well as in Egypt, under the leadership of Dr Ahmed Sobhy Mansour. Mansour was a professor at al-Azhar University in Cairo before being dismissed for his unorthodox religious views in 1985. He left Egypt and was eventually granted political asylum in the United States in 2002. The exact number of Quranists is unknown as the majority of them hide their beliefs in Arab countries for fear of abuse and persecution.

Quranists describe themselves as preachers and researchers who embrace ideas of peaceful jihad and thinking and aim to reform Muslims by reference to the essence of true Islam, which is the Koran, and understanding it objectively based on its terms and legislative foundations. Quranists are not a group, sect or party, but they adhere to an intellectual trend that is open to all people, and they advocate what they call ‘the removal of all barricades placed by the religious priesthood on the movement of scientific and mental jurisprudence of Muslims’. Meanwhile, their opponents, including Salafists, see them as misguided ideologues and mercenaries motivated by money and fame.

Quranist doctrine

The Quranists’ belief that the Koran is the only source of religious law and guidance means they reject the authority of other sources, such as the hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and sunnah (the body of traditional social and legal custom and practice of the Islamic community). Notably, they believe that God’s message in the Koran is clear and complete and can be understood without reference to other sources.

Moreover, Quranists cast doubt on these other sources, arguing that the Koran is the word of God while the other sources are communicated by human beings. In the case of the hadith, the most common reason for rejecting them is that they are not mentioned in the Koran as a source of Islamic theology and practice, there were not recorded in written form until a century after Muhammad’s death and contain internal errors and contradictions.

In contrast, Quranists’ opponents believe that the hadith and sunnah explain and complement the Koran and do not contradict it, and that Muhammad’s actions are inspired by God.

Mansour said in a press interview that Muhammad’s true biography lies in the Koran, and that the first person to write his biography was Ibn Ishaq, decades after the Prophet died. According to Mansour, Ibn Ishaq fabricated the biography, and those who came after him added their own fabrications, all of which created a fictitious figure that contradicted Muhammad’s true personality.

So, the Quranists do not consider the hadith or the Prophet’s biography or the biographies of his companions and followers to be legitimate sources of religious guidance but rather facts that are subject to evaluation and judgment and may not necessarily be followed.

Quranists disagree with Sunni and Shiite scholars on other religious points as well, such as the Quranists’ belief that the punishment of apostasy does not exist in Islam. This contradicts some Salafi clerics’ notion that whomever renounces Islam must be killed. The Quranists also have different views on the stoning to death of male or female adulterers, and they deny that there will be punishment in the grave, unlike the majority of Sunni sects. Neither do Quranists recognize al-Miraj (the Prophet’s nightly ascension to heaven and his return home), a miraculous journey that most Muslims believe in. The Quranists say that it is not permissible to kill those who renounce Islam or to kill male adulterers or stone female adulterers.

Criticism of Quranism

Opponents accuse Quranists of lacking faith because they deny a great deal of Islam, notably the hadith and the biographies of the Prophet, his companions and followers who interpreted and explained many of the teachings of Islam. For their part, the Quranists believe that the majority of Muslims do not act according to the Koran and they only consecrate the hard copy of the Koran, i.e. they do not follow the teachings enshrined in it unless it is accompanied by a physical book to make judgments on the Koran. Some Quranists go so far as to claim that Sunnis negate the provisions of the Koran, and that they place the words of jurists and interpreters of the Koran above the words of God.

Quranists have been persecuted by religious institutions and governments across the Middle East. According to a report by Minority Rights Group International on religious minorities in Egypt, this community is viewed by major institutions such as al-Azhar to be bidah (false innovation). As a result, the community faces severe hostility. This includes hate speech and incitement by senior al-Azhar officials, who accuse Quranists of seeking to undermine Islam. Over the years, they have been harassed and subject to arbitrary arrests. In 2007, for example, four Quranists were arrested for allegedly defaming Islam. In October 2010, a Quranist blogger was arrested in what was described as a ‘forced disappearance’ and detained in prison for three months. In July 2015, four Quranists were arrested in Sharqia Governorate for alleged links to Mansour.