My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

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Location: Cairo, Egypt

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Crime of Obeying God! - Part 2

I received many responses and comments after publishing the first article about Kareem Amer and his blog. One of the comments inspired this article. The comment said amongst other things: “But Kareem did write some very explosive articles. In an ideal world that should not have landed him in jail, but by posting them on his blog, he took a huge risk in the current climate in Egypt, where radicalization is on the rise and the government is weak and trying to portray itself as the guardian of religion and morals. In one article he describes the University of Al Azhar - where he was enrolled as a student - as "the other face of Al Qaeda.”

Therefore today I would like to analyse this particular post, which as Kareem Amer’s title tells us was based on “Contents of a mail from another Azharite student - Al Azhar and Al Qaeda - two sides of the same coin.”

His post was about a debate on a discussion forum online between him and another fellow student of Al Azhar whom he sarcastically calls "enlightened”. The debate was about the gender segregation of students in Al Azhar, its effects on them, such as heightened sexual tension leading to violence, discrimination, hate and vindictiveness. The fellow Azharite declared him to be a non-believer or rather an apostate and threatened to kill him. Kareem Amer asks if Sheikh al-Tantawi knew that inside his own university were students adopting the very same line of thinking, which he himself condemned while performing the funeral prayers for the slain Egyptian Ambassador to Iraq. Ihab al-Sherif was killed,
according to a statement released in the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq “because he was an apostate, who had betrayed his faith.” Kareem further writes that this line of thinking is not only advocated by many students, but also by a number of faculty members, especially in the departments of fiqh and sharia, using the same arguments like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kareem concludes that when violence and threats replace logic and reasoning, a solution needs to be found very fast. For Kareem the similarity between Al Azhar and Al Qaeda comes from this fanaticism, parallels in behaviour and outlook, a comparable disregard of life and frankly very little concern towards basic kindness and compassion to other human beings.

Declaring another human to be a kafir or an apostate is an extremely serious theological charge and should never to be carried out lightly. Not only did Al Azhar itself condemn that practice, but a select group of Muslim scholars, representing all eight different mazhabs, of the Sunnis as well as the Shias,
denounced the same thing at the end of the recent conference held in Oman.

Given the rather extreme reactions by the almost illiterate fanatics to these accusations (we have seen too many people killed in various Muslim countries after being accused of being apostates), it is surprising that we see this very same behaviour repeatedly coming from the eminent institution itself.

Al Azhar has not only figured as a major player, but has also continually declared many an intellectual as overstepping the lines by using examples of their art, literature, speech or other forms of expression.

In an article titled “
Ban.. Ban..published in French, Tunisian columnist Zyed Krichen condemns the censorship and denial of free speech implemented by most Arab states and Islamist groups since the introduction of printing. In the second part of his article, he lists examples of censorship and persecution in the name of Islam from various Muslim countries, including banned works and artists who have been imprisoned, flogged, and/or killed. He writes: “As for literature the list of banned books is so long that it would be easier to name the ones that are permitted and approved. This is true even in large countries like Egypt, and even for masterpieces of our cultural heritage, like the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Works by Abu Nawas, Bashar Ibn Bord, Al-Isfahani, Al-Madari, and hundreds of others were banned from bookstores in the 20th century.

Sadly Al Azhar has participated in this heavily. In the Name of Islam many books have been banned. Starting in 1925 with ‘Islam and Principles of Government’ by Al Azhar’s very own Sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq, which was termed heretical, because it advocated the separation of religion and state as a principle of proper governance. Ali Abdel Raziq was then expelled from Al-Azhar University. Since then this has happened almost regularly. In 1926, Taha Hussein’s book ‘On Pre-Islamic Poetry’ was banned and he too was later expelled from the university for his rationalist interpretation of pre-Islamic literature and the Qur’an. In 1959 Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Children of the Alley’ was condemned by Al-Azhar as blasphemous. In 1975 Al-Azhar censored books, including previously published works, by Tawfik Al Hakim and Youssef Idris. In 1981, ‘History of the Arabic Language’ by Fikri Al Aqad was also banned for claiming that certain words in the Qur’an are of Egyptian origin. Four years later in 1985, three thousand copies of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ were destroyed and the publisher was sentenced to jail for corrupting the morals of the younger generation. In 1990, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid proposed a reformist approach on reading and interpreting the Qur’an and later received death threats and was declared an apostate. He felt he had to flee the country and settled down in the Netherlands. In that same year Farag Foda's book "To Be or Not to Be" was banned and he was prosecuted for offending religion.

Book banning increased and in 1992 Al-Azhar scholars demanded the banning of eight books on Islam. In the very same year Farag Foda was shot. Al Azhar’s Sheikh Muhammad al Ghazali had previously declared Foda an apostate and said that Islamic law would condone his killing. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya accepted responsibility for the murder, saying “al-Azhar issued the sentence and we carried out the execution.” Though Al Azhar scholars later deplored the way in which Foda was murdered, they nevertheless still considered him an apostate who deserved a death sentence.

In 1994, Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck and seriously wounded after Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the spiritual leader of the fundamentalist group al-Gama'a al Islamiyya, issued a fatwa 'excommunicating' him.
196 books were to be banned on moral and religious grounds in 1997, according to a compilation by Al Azhar. However that same year saw the release of author Alaa Hamed after serving a year in prison for writing a novel that 'insulted Islam'.

The year 2000 sees the writer Haydar Haydar being declared an apostate for writing ‘A Banquet for Seaweed’, in which a character says: ‘The divine Bedouin laws and the teaching of the Qur’ran are all shit.’ Al Azhar University called for a public burning of the book. A year later journalist Salaheddin Mohsen and female preacher Manal Manea are each sentenced to three years in prison for atheism and blasphemy. In 2004, al Azhar’s Islamic Research Council recommended banning Nawal el-Saadawi’s novel ‘The Fall of the Imam’, which had been on sale in Egypt since 1987.

Beginning with Law Number 102 of 1985, President Mubarak’s various governments gave Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Council (IRC) the power to advise on the banning or censoring of any book it judged as heretical. Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni later gave the increasingly potent body a boost when he was quoted as saying, “Al Azhar is the supreme authority; when it states an opinion, we must all fall silent.” Paradoxically Minister Farouk Hosni said recently that “
the headscarf is a symbol of backwardness”, which caused him a lot of trouble in Egypt, yet he was not accused by Al Azhar of anything at all.

The IRC at Al Azhar University had the legal authority to censor,
but not to confiscate any books, but unfortunately the Center was given the authority to confiscate books and audio and videotapes that they believe violate Islamic teachings by Minister of Justice Faruq Seif al-Nasr. The minister’s order led to the confiscation of hundreds of publications from bookstores.

Not only were books affected by that, but also the range of academic research was rigidly restricted. The case against Nasr Abu Zeid began as a response to his interpretation of the Qur’an and resulted in an implied decision in all Arab language and philosophy departments to ban registrations of any theses involving an interpretation of the Qur’an that might lead to the same problem. Any academic researcher thinking of a thesis on a religious subject no longer has complete freedom to decide the subject. Yet in 2006, Al Azhar not only allowed, but also granted, a
doctorate to an obvious fanatic. The thesis listed who all he thought are apostates, with one of Egypt’s first female journalists, Rosa Al-Youssef, in the lead.

What I find very puzzling is that the government clamps down so very hard on Islamists and Muslim Brothers, yet allows their constant meddling in intellectual affairs. This is very strange, because it is exactly this intellectual backwardness disguised as religious zeal, which is the core challenge to President Mubarak’s ostensibly secular state. In the
Human Rights Watch Report of 2005 it was noted: “The Egyptian government must create an environment where academic freedom is respected, i.e., restore autonomy to the universities and cease violating the rights of individual members of the community. Such steps would make it harder for those who challenge academic freedom to achieve their goals. The state should also actively oppose intolerant individuals or groups who carry out attacks against academic freedom. For example, it should reject calls to censor books and allow students to choose their own thesis topics. Rather than combating Islamists’ attempts to limit academic freedom, Egypt has allowed them to deprive others of their rights.”
In an explosive interview in September 2004 Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst with Al Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Center wrote about how Politicians have used religion to gain legitimacy, how extremists have used it to condone murder and how religious institutions have been more than happy to play the power game to win some control of their own. Welcoming the reader to twenty five years of religious politics in Egypt, he said: “Al-Azhar has been censoring books and, worse, we’ve become accustomed to reading about one Islamist lawyer or another calling for movies to be banned because the posters were ‘suggestive’. Instead, the state over-used religion in its political war and it over-used Al-Azhar. We can’t ignore the fact that there are extremists inside Al-Azhar itself, which put additional burdens on people and society.” This was published in Egypt Today, a famous Magazine in Cairo. The words are not very much different from Kareem Amer’s conclusion now are they?

Islam is intrinsically a moderate religion. Yet, today the biggest problem it faces is the extremism of its advocates. Al Azhar, as one of the oldest universities and Islamic institutions should be the first to ensure that Muslims stay on the middle path. Islam neither teaches extremism nor rejection, neither arrogance nor ignorance. In fact, it condemns them all. My parents and teachers never taught me this. I do not recognise many aspects of this violent intolerant behaviour. What then does Islam teach? The Islam I learned teaches people to be kind and forgiving, to be open hearted and modest in behaviour. It teaches a beautiful middle way, a critical balance between two unhealthy and unworthy extremes. "And it is thus that We appointed you to be the community of the middle way, so that you might be witnesses before all mankind and the Messenger might be a witness before you." (Qur’an 2:143)