He does not come across as your run-of-the-mill infidel. In an interview just before his untimely death, widely available on YouTube, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010) sports an affable smile. He is mild-mannered and erudite. One would be hard-pressed to imagine how such a genial man can be deemed devilish rather than a dervish. Then, about halfway through the interview, while talking about his scholarly work, he declares: ‘it was surprising and shocking in the meantime to find how the meaning of the Qur’an was subject to manipulation by different theological schools. And they (the commentators) wrote about this, about their strategy of getting what (they) want from the Qur’an, not really looking (at) what the Qur’an signifies’. Thus, the accusations hurled at him are revealed.
A ‘good’ Muslim hearing these words would react instinctively; and pronounce Abu Zayd an apostate, an act known as takfir. Yet there is a sense of ambiguity about the man and his thought. His mannerisms may be highly respectful, but his discourse is not so. It is in fact ambiguity that fuels the late thinker’s most renowned idea: a method of reading the Qur’an known as ‘humanistic hermeneutics’. And it is through the virtues of ambiguity that we must reclaim the good name of Abu Zayd – the Devil’s interpreter to some, but God’s advocate to others.