The sad news of Mohammed Arkoun’s death will, no doubt, give rise to assessments of his past, present and future impact on the “reformation” of modern Islamic thought.  Of particular interest to the LIVIT project is Arkoun’s reading of the āyat al-sayf – the “Sword Verse” in Q9.5 (“…kill ‘those who associate’ - mushrikīn - wherever you find them…”).  The verse is both a proof text, and a legitimating divine imperative in nearly all legal discussions of jihād.  Arkoun’s discussion can be found in  his challenging and difficult collection of essays The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought.  The basic approach seems straightforward enough:  the powerful create a range of potentially “thinkable” interpretations of Revelation.  In so doing, they create a class of “unthinkable” and “unthought” notions.  Arkoun works in the realm of the latter.  This is more than simple sectarian difference, as each sectarian tradition enforces an orthodoxy, which in turn can only exist contrasted with other claimed orthodoxies.  Arkoun wishes to transcend these existing expressions with a reassessment of the Muslim notion of Revelation, on which he has written extensively. His thinking on the Sword Verse, though, can be summarised.  He rejects the tactics of present and past apologists.  The verses should not be explained away as having only temporary validity; neither should the violence should not be spiritualised by employing the greater-lesser jihad dichotomy.  In this, Arkoun shares an uncomfortable and ironic commonality with many contemporary jihād theorists, who also argue against restricting jihād to a purely Prophetic action thereby diluting its essential nature as eternal sunna; and who also condemn attempts to see the verse as a poetic idiom representing the self’s internal ethical struggle.  But this is where the common ground ends.  The Jihadists are locked into the same epistemological framework as the liberals.  Arkoun asserts that Sūra 9, from which the verse comes, establishes how the three concepts of “violence, sacred and truth” are linked together in this particular expression of Islamic monotheism.  Violence becomes sacralised in the defence of truth.  Q9.5 is understood as a “micro narrative” within a “macro framework” of the Quranic discourse on salvation history, in which God sends a Prophet whose message is rejected by all but a few;  the majority suffer defeat and the few become justified in the eventual victory.  It is the last of these stages that Q9.5 is situated.

I don’t pretend to understand all the implications of Arkoun’s semiotic analysis of Sūra 9 (or the Qurʾān generally), but the crucial point is that revelation is not simply a source of moral guidance or legal injunctions.  There is no “justification” in Q9.5 for violence – because looking for justifications treats the Qurʾān as a “pretext” rather than a “text”.  We look to the Qurʾān  as a “source” for moral, legal and theological guidance – the ultimate criterion of Islamic ethics or the Sharīʿa.  This approach is, I think, is part of the problem for Arkoun. It leads to a circularity in interpretation in which we argue over the meaning of the āyat al-sayf, but without a process external to our claims to establish who is right.  From such a base, power will always decide what is reasonable and what is not.  Arkoun is resisting the deceptive manner in which we get drawn into arguments about the legal/moral injunctions that individual verses indicate.  The Qurʾān is not a straightforward source for Islamic law or ethics however counterintuitive this seems.  To treat it as such is to devalue it as a religious document.

This is a rather sophisticated approach – Arkoun himself admits his analysis is intentionally technical – he wants to establish a new way of talking about the text.  The full impact of his thought may take some time to percolate – and there is always a danger that events might make his methodology redundant.  But nonetheless, his exploration of Q9.5 does provide us with an alternative approach to the supposed scriptural justification of violence.