October 4, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1306

Egyptian Coptic Intellectual Analyzes Islamist's Views on Muslim-Copt Relations

October 4, 2006
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 1306

In a July 9, 2006 article on the liberal website, Egyptian Coptic intellectual Magdi Khalil discusses the attitude of Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, a prominent figure in political Islam in the Arab world, towards Egypt's Copts. In his article, Khalil refers to Al-'Awa's recent book, Religion and Homeland - Chapters in Muslim Attitudes Towards Non-Muslims, that was published in March 2006. [1]

Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa is secretary-general of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, which is headed by the Islamist sheikh Dr. Yousef Al-Qaradhawi. Al-'Awa is a member of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue and belongs to many Islamic institutions, and is a founder of Egypt's Islamic "Al-Wasat" party. Al-'Awa frequently appears on Egyptian television and on Al-Jazeera TV, and his articles are published by many Arab papers. He is also a regular columnist for the Egyptian opposition weekly Al-Usbu'.

In his article, Magdi Khalil attempts to expose the real views of Al-'Awa - who usually presents himself as a moderate Muslim - and to show that these views are essentially no different from extremist Islamist views.

The following are excerpts from Magdi Khalil's article on the views of Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa:

The Copts Must Adapt Themselves to the Laws and Customs of Islam

"The first thing that draws attention," Magdi Khalil writes, "is the title of Al-'Awa's book: Chapters in Muslim Attitudes Towards Non-Muslims. According [to Al-'Awa], the status of the Copts is connected to Islam: They are non-Muslims. Throughout the book, Al-'Awa sets out the status of the Copts in all areas of life as [if they are] adjuncts to the Islamic [system] and religion - and that they must adapt to Islam's laws, customs, rules, and culture.

"Al-'Awa devotes his book to 'the unpretentious... who, when they hear the words of revelation of the Prophet [Muhammad], their eyes fill with tears because of the truth that they know... and they say: Our Lord, we believe [in Islam]...'" As Khalil explains, "Al-'Awa aims his books at Copts who believe in Islam - knowing that no Christian in the world believes in the Prophet of Islam and his mission, just as no Muslim in the world believes in Jesus's divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection, and that He was sacrificed for the sake of all mankind. Every religion has its own beliefs, so there is no point in arguing about these beliefs or in pressuring one side to recognize the beliefs of the other..."

Citizenship - In the Islamic Sense, Not the Modern Sense

Magdi Khalil's main argument in his article is that Al-'Awa views Copts as citizens "not in accordance with the rules of a modern state, but in accordance with the rules of citizenship that apply to non-Muslims in a Muslim state... and he declares this openly in the preface to his book: 'We defend the Copts out of our Islamic belief'... He does not recognize modern [social] concepts, and according to him, 'the treatment of people in the Islamic state is based on [their] faith - whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims' (p. 19). "

Khalil writes: "Although Al-'Awa stresses, at all his meetings and in all his writings, that the ahl al-dhimma [individuals with protected status] belong to history and no longer exist, he preaches that there is now a new protection apparatus that eliminates citizenship. According [to this apparatus], all rights and obligations stem not from citizenship but from religion: 'Islam gives the Copts the protection of Allah and of His Messenger, and does not set them under the protection of the government, the police, or the local authorities. Whoever attacks a Copt attacks the overall protection provided by Islam...' (p.78) [and] 'The religion [i.e. Islam] obliges the Muslims to protect the Copts in Egypt even before the law does...' (p. 93)."

Christian Clerics Must Not Discuss Issues Concerning Islam

"In the first chapter of his study, Al-'Awa explicitly states that 'the Koran is the fundamental and primary source for all Islamic laws, values, and virtues' (p. 25) and that 'the Koran is what determines the nature of the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims of all other religions' (p 33). Thus, 'in a society that is largely Muslim, Christian clerics are forbidden from discussing matters of religion, religious law, and Islamic shari'a, and from accepting what they like and objecting to what does not suit their inclination' (p. 73)...

"On this basis [explains Madgi Khalil] Al-'Awa condemns [Coptic] Pope Shenouda's opposition to the imposition of shari'a on the Copts, and the discussion of its details, saying: 'With regard to specific issues raised by Pope Shenouda regarding shari'a and its implementation, [his] dealing with these [issues] means admitting that he is entitled to discuss the subject of the Islamic shari'a and its laws. We do not agree that Pope Shenouda, or any other non-Muslim, [may do] this' (p. 76)."

The Copts are Infidels

Magdi Khalil explains that according to Al-'Awa, the Copts are infidels. In his book, Al-'Awa states that "the Koran determines that those of ahl al-kitab who believe that Allah is the Messiah [i.e. Christians] are infidels (p. 31)." However, explains Khalil, "although we are infidels, a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman whom he likes, even if she believes that the Messiah is Allah - because a Muslim man is entitled to marry a Christian or Jewish woman who believes in her religion without getting into the details of her faith (p. 40).... [But] a Muslim woman is absolutely prohibited from marrying a Christian or a Jewish man. First, this is because he rejects her religion, and second, because of the principle of guardianship. The Muslim man must be the guardian [in the relationship], and because the man is the guardian [of the woman, a non-Muslim man] must not have guardianship over a Muslim woman. Similarly, the Muslim man must be uppermost in bed..."

In this context, Khalil adds that even regarding neighborly relations, Al-'Awa determines that "it is preferable to have a Muslim for a neighbor than a non-Muslim (p. 26)." Similarly, if one of a child's parents is a Muslim, the child is also considered Muslim, "since a non-Muslim does not have legal authority over a Muslim (pp 212-213)."

Copt Media Appearances are Missionary Activity

"Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa refuses to give the Copts a fair part in the media so that their partners in the homeland will recognize their religion; he sees this [i.e. Copts in the media] as missionary activity - which is prohibited in an Islamic country: 'The state must not give in to the demands that are sometimes heard to permit Christian religious preaching in the government media. This is because Egypt is a Muslim country according to its constitution, and the Islamic shari'a is the primary source for legislation. The Copts are entitled to preach [only] in their churches, amongst their coreligionists, and in their own neighborhoods' (p 101)."

The Copts Control the Egyptian Economy with Foreign Help

In the first half of his book, Khalil says, Al-'Awa discusses the rules regulating relations between Muslims and others, while in the second half he discusses the situation of the Copts "and in it, he surprises with the quantity of lies, invention, mistakes, and incitement."

According to Al-'Awa, "the Copts control 60% of the Egyptian economy... This is not a problem if an individual has economic power as a result of his own efforts... but if this [superior] economic situation is the result of external help, is linked with external forces, or stems from help that is contingent upon conditions that must be met - herein lies danger (p 99)."

In four places in his book, Al-'Awa reiterates that the Copts constitute only 6% of Egypt's population; this figure is in line with that given by all the Islamic streams. However, Egyptian government figures state that Copts constitute 10% of the population, while according to the Copts themselves, they are 15% or more.

According to Al-'Awa, the Copts have privileges that, by right, Muslims should enjoy: "If the state is fanatical, it is fanatical in the Copts' favor. There is no oversight of the churches, and the [Egyptian] security forces protect them - even though no one knows what is going on inside them. In contrast, the security forces come to every prayer service in the mosques [to oversee what is going on] - and this is in addition to the 10 conditions for the construction of mosques set by the Ministry of Religious Endowments (p 98)."

In addition, Al-'Awa justifies the acts of the young and violent Muslims who damaged Coptic property during the incidents in Alexandria, and even called upon Muslims to visit them in prison: "The best sacrifice to Allah is to visit them in prison on holidays, and for everybody to ease their situation as best they can. Even if they committed an offense, it was done out of fanaticism for the religion, and in order to defend their religion (p 241)." [2]

Khalil: "The Only Acceptable Source of Authority is Citizenship as Defined by International Law"

In concluding his article, Magdi Khalil completely rejects the "moderate" Islam presented by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa: "We do not agree to rights originating in the religious texts. The only acceptable source of rights is citizenship as defined by modern international law, and rights as set out by the international treaties. A man receives his identity with his birth, and this identity gives him the right of citizenship. In contrast, religion is a personal matter, and a man can adopt it or change it as he wishes, at any time. He is not committed to a specific religion at birth, except in backwards countries..."


[1], July 9, 2006.

[2] Alexandria has seen several outbreaks of Muslim-Copt rioting. Apparently, the reference here is to the events of October 2005, which followed the performance at a church of a play that was perceived by the Muslims as defaming Islam and Muslims. Four people were killed and dozens injured in the subsequent rioting in the city.

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