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memri
November 2, 2002 No.
436

An Egyptian Intellectual Campaigns to Change the Religious Discourse Led by Al-Azhar

At a recent symposium held in Cairo by the Egyptian Writers' Association, Egyptian intellectual and poet Ahmad Abd Al-M'uti Higazi sharply criticized Al-Azhar University "for producing terrorism." Higazi attacked Al-Azhar's Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi and Egyptian mufti Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, stating, "I do not consider what they say to be something I must listen to and obey..." The following are excerpts from several of his recent articles and comments:

Al-Azhar's Sheikhs and Egyptian Chief Muftis Are Responsible
"...Those who quote [religious scriptures] and impose the word [namely, the chief clerics] are the ones responsible for producing fundamentalist terror; it is they who kill thought and the development of a language of dialogue, and who eradicate democracy - which is the basis for society's progress… The positions of the sheikh of Al-Azhar and the mufti were established by the state, but they serve only to root the principle of quote-hear-obey. They kill creativity and lead to the atrophy of the Arab mind."[1]

The Need For a New Religious Discourse
"Had we truly tried to defend Islam and correct its image, [which was] distorted by extremism and fanaticism, we would have had to revive the principles of Islam. Fanaticism is barbaric and a throwback to the times when man was an animal, responding only to blood ties and using not his head, but his horns."

"Fanaticism is ignorance and blind zeal. The extremist [who] surrenders… to transient passions, does not think, does not examine himself, and does not control his excitement. The Islamic revival will not be Islamic and will not be a revival, if it is no more than emotions, radicalization, and a return to what was said in the past…"

"The [true] revival is a return to the faith itself… not the return, in our generation, to the rulings made under the conditions of another generation… All those who invest their best efforts in learning ancient texts by heart, and draw every answer from the ancient texts, are at best [donkeys] bearing books, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four, because they transform Islam from a living and constantly self-renewing experiment to mummified texts."

"We are torn between the texts that draw us backward and the developments pushing us forward, between what we read and what we live; between what we say and what we do; between the Islam that some want to turn into chains around our necks and a prison for the soul and mind, while we want to transform it into a universe, a space with room for all people, open to all the generations…"

"Does anyone think that Islam included, from its beginnings, all possible questions and the answers to them? Is every Koran ruling as suitable for the 20th century as it was for the 10th century?… Of course not… because the earth revolves around the sun and rotates, and everything is moving, developing, and changing - and so the questions must change, and the rulings and laws must [adapt]."

"Thus, the validity of Islam at all times and all places is not anchored in texts, because texts are subject to interpretation, reexamination, and criticism…"

"The validity [of Islam] stems from its goals and intentions. It is not something given in advance, but a possibility that we must transform into reality by our continuous efforts."

"When, for example, we examine Islam's position on women, must we examine it in accordance with the rulings that saw the woman as half or quarter of the man, or in accordance with the goal towards which these [Koranic] texts took a bold stride?"

"The status of women in ancient Islamic society was excellent in comparison with their situation in the pre-Islamic period. But such is not the case today, because human society has developed and the status of women has changed, as has the status of men. The rulings we have inherited no longer express the position of Islam with regard to women, and the texts need to be reexamined in order to derive from them new rulings that will suit the intentions of Islam..."

"We read the verse stating that the Muslim man is permitted to take one, two, three, or four wives… But we know that preserving justice [among the four wives, as the Koran stipulates] is a condition difficult to meet, because the relationship between a man and a woman cannot be measured; they are not just two bodies, but also two hearts and two souls…"

"[Therefore] the ruling that can be derived [from the Koranic text] is that Islam does not permit polygamy because it does not permit oppression. This is the texts' intent… In the days of the Prophet, and after him, restricting marriage to [only] four wives was a tremendous victory for women, because in the pre-Islamic period the Arabs wed without restriction, and marriage was more like rape than a free alliance… The question that must be asked is: 'Who is closer to Islam, those who make a woman prime minister or those who make her an adulteress if she puts on makeup?'"[2]

'How Have We Allowed These People to Speak in Our Name and in the Name of Islam?'
"…[Allah] tested us with many who issue religious rulings without being qualified to do so. Their knowledge [concerns only] the rind; all their words are quotes; their understanding of their responsibility is vague and distorted; they do not know what they are saying and who they are serving; all they can do is to look in the books and see what the ancestors had to say on a particular matter. They merely recycle and memorize. We ask them to think and they cannot; they cannot bear the burden of thought, and therefore they turn to books that we can open ourselves with no need for mediation by these people, who cost the state exchequer far beyond what it costs it to publish one or several books that include the opinions and religious rulings left to us by our ancestors."

"We are not illiterates, and we don't need anyone [to read for us]. We need… someone who will help us enter the new era… We read of the visit by some of these people [headed by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi] to the Taliban government in Kabul, in an attempt to prevent them from destroying the statues of the Buddha, when the civilized world rose up in horror and condemned this barbaric decision. What logic did those mediators use to try to persuade the Taliban not to touch this phenomenal human heritage? They told them: 'The timing is not right!' As if saying to them: 'We understand you and appreciate your sentiments, but the evil foreigners are setting a trap for you, waiting for the opportunity to ensnare you. Postpone the destruction of the statues for a while.' In effect, with this hypocritical language they incited the Taliban and encouraged them to destroy the statues."

"What is sickening in this matter is that anyone who incites to destroy the statues of Buddha can incite to destroy the statues of Raamses and Osiris. Moreover, he must incite to destroy them first, as he lives in their shadow [that is, in Egypt]. How have we allowed these people to speak in our name and in the name of Islam?"

'Muslims Must Use their Brains to Arrive at Appropriate Rulings'
"…If inspiration departed from the world when the Prophet ascended to God, the Muslims have no choice but to use their brains to arrive at the appropriate rulings for the needs of each generation… To those who deceive the people with honey-sweet words about the 'government of Allah,' we say that these are words of truth whose intention is falsehood. The government of Allah is a [spiritual] message, not a presidency; it is a religion, not a state. If, in the Middle Ages, it was possible to understand a religious regime - in the modern era it can no longer be understood."

"Humanity has tested it, shaken itself loose, and freed itself of it, after suffering torments and decline because of it. The method of regime suitable for the French, English, Japanese, and Indians is the democratic method. This and only this is suitable also for the Muslims…"

"We expect the new religious discourse to endorse democracy and make it the final solution, to fully accept its conditions, to strictly separate religion and state, to make man and woman equal, and to adopt human rights in practice. We expect from the new religious discourse to redeem Islam [from connection] with the corrupt and evil regimes that settled upon the Muslim lands, contradicting their religion, violating its principles, distorting its image, and enslaving its people…"[3]


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 16, 2002.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 27, 2002.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 6, 2002