Scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd reignites debate over religious, political and social taboos

1 06 2008

Scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd reignites debate over religious, political and social taboos

By Noha El Hennawy
First Published: May 4, 2008

CAIRO: After years of self-exile, controversial Islamic thinker Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd came back home on a short visit, still carrying the same incendiary religious and political outlook.

“Despotism and corruption are the root causes of the different patterns of backwardness our societies suffer from,” Abu Zayd told an audience of almost 200 at the American University in Cairo who anxiously listened to a scholar whose unconventional writings became a cause celebre in the mid-1990s.

“Sometimes I tell young people that if I had lived in their times, I might have become a terrorist. This is an epoch where there is no horizon for the future,” said Abu Zayd. 

The case of Abu Zayd is counted as a clear manifestation of the contention between liberal secularists and Islamists in the 1990s. In May 1992, Abu-Zayd, then assistant professor of Arabic Studies at Cairo University, applied for promotion to the rank of professor. He submitted a number of his works to the University Tenure and Promotion Committee in support of his application. However, the applicant did not know that he had sealed his fate by bringing to the committee’s attention his unconventional writings on Islam. 

Apostasy in court

One of the adjudicators, known for his staunch Islamist leanings, issued a negative report on Abu Zayd’s application accusing him of demonizing Islam in his writings. A few months later, the university refused to promote him.

The case gained wide media coverage as it elicited a storm of anger among secularists who accused the university of succumbing to pressures exerted by Islamists at the expense of freedom of academic research.    

Shortly after, the case of Abu Zayd was brought to court in 1993 by a lawyer and a former vice-president of the State Council, who sought the separation of Abu Zayd from his wife on grounds of apostasy. The case languished in courtrooms until the Cairo Appeals Court ruled that Abu Zayd was an apostate and should be separated from his wife on grounds that the Sharia does not allow Muslim women to be married to non-Muslims. Back then, Abu Zayd’s life was in jeopardy as the radical militant Islamist Jihad group called for his execution. In response to the verdict, Abu Zayd affirmed his belief in Islam; however, his statement fell on deaf ears.

His wife, Ibtihal Younes, who was assistant professor of French literature at Cairo University then, refused to be divorced and declared her full support of her husband. In the meantime, the state has never attempted to enforce the verdict and separate the couple. However, the couple decided to move to the Netherlands where Abu Zayd was offered the post of a visiting professor of Islamic Studies at Holland’s oldest University of Leiden.

Saturday’s talk caught too much heat after a man contested Abu Zayd’s view that Islam did not forbid statues. In strongly-worded response, Abu Zayd crushed his contender’s argument that keeping status could revive old forms of paganism saying: “If Muslims are that vulnerable and weak, they better die.” 

Abu Zayd was expected to deliver another lecture at Cairo University late Sunday.

The critical approach

“My decision to leave was based on the fact that teaching in the university would not be possible. So by leaving my intention was to save the scholar; I am glad I did,” Abu Zayd told Daily News Egypt from the Netherlands in an interview prior to his current visit to Cairo. 

“Had I stayed [in Egypt], I would not have been able to carry on my research. I would have been kept busy with rivalries and replying back to those who insult me, which would not have allowed me to come up with productive scientific knowledge,” he said.

Abu Zayd currently holds Ibn Rushd Chair of Islam and Humanism at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht which is the youngest university in the Netherlands nowadays.

However, the physical distance did not mean a full disengagement from his homeland. “I never left Egypt, physically I am not there but intellectually I am present,” said Abu Zayd. “Living in Holland for [13] years did not change my internal deep sense of belonging to Egypt; on the contrary, it provided me with enough distance to appreciate its positive dimension and to critically view its negative dimension.”

Abu Zayd still maintains that the study of the historical context of the injunctions of the Quran is one of the requirements to achieve genuine religious reformation. “I think it is time now to start applying a historical critical approach without being afraid of damaging the divine status of the Quran,” he said.

“Historical criticism would enable Muslims to distinguish between the ‘historical’ and the ‘universal’ in the message and to unfold the ‘universal’ dimension in the present historical context to address our concerns.”     

In fact, this was one of the arguments that brought Abu Zayd under fire in the 1990s. In his writings, Abu-Zayd argues that the revelation of the Quran is a historical event; thus, the interpretation of the text should be based on the examination of the social and historical context in which it was revealed.

Ultimately, changing circumstances would mean the suspension of some Quranic commandments, he argues. To his detractors, this argument implies a denial of the divinity and the sacredness of the holy text.

A year after the departure of the couple, Egypt’s highest court of appellate, the Court of Cassation, upheld the verdict rejecting an appeal filed by the couple from Holland.

Every time, the couple land in Egypt, they are protected by Egyptian policebodyguards against fundamentalists, he adds. Even before they left Egypt, the couple has been guarded by the police in the wake of the ruling.

Hypocrisy of ideologies

For Abu-Zayd, the fact that the same state that convicted him offers him protection is clear evidence of its self-contradictory nature. “This contradiction exists already in the structure of Arab modern states. It [the state] has a modern appearance; however, deep inside it still belongs to the middle ages where courts would try people for their thoughts,” he says. 

As far as freedom of thought is concerned, Abu Zayd believes no improvement has taken place in Egypt.

“As long as ‘freedom of religion’ is not guaranteed we cannot really think of any progress in the issue. ‘Freedom of religion’ entails the individual freedom of making choices and making decisions concerning her/his private as well as her/his public commitment. This is not possible as long as the state claims a specific religion.”

For his detractors, Abu Zayd is a secularist who tries to alienate religion from public life; however, his proponents place him among contemporary reformers who seek to rejuvenate religious thought. Abu Zayd would not endorse any of the two identifications as he insists on identifying himself merely as a scholar.

“I would rather classify myself as a scholar who tries to raise questions and investigate possible answers from within the Islamic paradigm without scarifying the modern context of knowledge. A scholar is, by definition, a critical mind who does not blindly follow any ideology, or to be exact, who tries his best to minimize the impact of his own bias and prejudice.

However, his staunch support of secularism is undeniable. He has always contended that secularism is not opposed to religion, but should be hailed as a “safeguard” of freedom of religion and thought.   

“We could formulate our own definition of ‘separation’ of the state and religion without necessarily pushing religion to the rear of society.

“First, the state should have nothing at all to say or to do in any of the affairs of religion; religion belongs to the community of believers. All religious statements in the constitution should be removed and deleted with the exception of the principle of ‘freedom of religion’. The state should have no religion.”

The Egyptian constitution stipulates that Islam is the official religion of the state and that shariah is the primary source of legislations — provisions that are dismissed as discriminatory by Copts and Egyptian secularists.

Although he is known for his vehement opposition to Islamism, he dismisses secularists’ fears of the growing following of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as “a phobia based on absolute self-distrust.”

“Why do we think that they will be the sole players in the socio-political and the cultural arenas? Where are the other socio-political groups?” wondered Abu-Zayd.

“The threat to ‘freedom’ in general is rooted in our culture where solidarity is superior to individual freedom which is perceived as a threat to national solidarity. The Arab intelligentsia in general and the Egyptians in particular, are still unable to tolerate difference. That explains why we always hear about the ‘thawabit’ [the Arabic word for immutable values], the untouchable norms and principles. We have to get involved in debate and discussion instead of expressing fear.” 

The 65-year-old scholar authored several books on Islam including “Rationalism in Exegesis: A Study of the Problem of Metaphor in the Writing of the Mutazilites,” “The Problematic of Reading and the Method Of Interpretation”, “Critique of Islamic Discourse,” “Women in the Crisis Discourse,” “The Caliphate and the Authority of the People” and “Text, Authority and the Truth.”

In 1995, the court based its ruling against Abu Zayd. on the Islamic principle of Hisba, which grants every Muslim the right to file lawsuits in cases that imply violation of religious commandments. The court found that the Hisba principle was applicable to cases of personal status. Based on this principle, many lawsuits were filed by Islamists against writers and artists in the 1990s, which prompted the parliament to pass a law in 1996 to forbid individual citizens from filing Hisba lawsuits, restricting this right to the Prosecutor-General only.

However, the new legislation did not bring about any change, according to Abu Zayd. “The Hisba was a donkey; the government pushed the Islamists off its back to ride over it herself. No change.”

“The hisba institution was a historical expression of ‘public responsibility’ based on the Quranic injunction of ‘commanding virtue and preventing vice’.

Now, we need to re-institutionalize the content of ‘public responsibility’ on modern norms where individual freedom is guaranteed and legally protected,” added Abu Zayd. “I mean, we need to re-institutionalize in civil code to protect the public interest … Under a secular state, religion is part of the ‘individual freedom;’ it is not part of the public interest.”s


نها الحناوي تكتب مقال عن حوارها مع دكتور نصر ابوزيد باللغة الانجليزية في جريدة ” دايلي نيوز ايجيبت”

1 06 2008

كتبت نها الحناوي في جريدة “دايلي نيوز ايجيبت ” يوم اربعة مايو الماضي عن حوارها مع الدكتور نصر ابوزيد ويمكن الوصول الى موقع الجريدة على النيت وعن المقال من خلال الضغط على الوصلة التالية

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