On December 31, 2021, former Egyptian Minister of Culture and Arabic literature professor Gaber Asfour died at age 77. Asfour served as Egypt's Minister of Culture briefly in 2011, under President Hosni Mubarak, and again in 2014-2015, under President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. He also headed Egypt's National Centre for Translation, and was known as an advocate who spoke out against religious extremism.
Source: Al-Ahram, December 31, 2021
The following are MEMRI TV clips of Gaber Asfour.
Gaber Asfour, former Egyptian Minister of Culture, said that the government needs to implement a family planning policy to prevent the rapid population growth in a country with more than two million. "I want a decision to stop pregnancies of people with more than three children," he said. Asfour, who was speaking on the Egyptian Sada Al-Balad TV channel on December 15, called for reform in the religious discourse and said: "When the national interests of your country require you to put an end to the population explosion, you just do it. Otherwise, you are violating the shari'a."
Gaber Asfour: "We must give absolute priority to... The importance of the armed forces goes without saying, but education and culture should be a top priority as well. We must have schools in proportion to the Egyptian population. We are in danger. There are 100 million Egyptians now, and we grow by over two million every year. Yet our government has not decided to implement a family planning policy.
"I want a decision to stop pregnancies of people with more than three children."
Host: "What do you mean?"
Asfour: "A decision forbidding pregnancies."
Host: "And the religious institution will allow it?"
Asfour: "It will, and then some! They might quote the hadith: 'Marry and beget children for I will be proud of you before the nations on the Day of Resurrection.' However, this hadith was relevant when the Muslims were a persecuted minority. Today, there are billions of Muslims.
"I would like there to be reform in religious discourse in the style of Muhammad Abduh."
Host: "What do you mean?"
Asfour: "We should use reason to the full extent permitted by Islam. We should use reason to interpret religious texts in a way that serves the interests of our nation. The shari'a is in keeping with the interests of the nation. When the national interests of your country require you to put an end to the population explosion, you just do it. Otherwise, you are violating the shari'a."
In a January 10, 2016 interview on the Egyptian ON TV, former Egyptian Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour came out in support of reformist intellectual Islam Behery, who was recently sentenced to a year in prison for blasphemy, and criticized Al-Azhar's position, saying that reverting to the law, rather than debating one's adversaries politely is "a sign of weakness" and "the beginning of the end" for the institution.
Interviewer: "Do you think that lawsuits and accusations of blasphemy limit free thought?"
Gaber Asfour: "This is an obsolete article in an outmoded law, which was resurrected in order to punish people. There is no such thing as blasphemy. The word is intended to punish people for other things, not blasphemy."
Interviewer: "In what way is it blasphemy when a researcher like Islam Al-Buhairi – or any other young man or citizen – criticizes another researcher, who lived over 1,200 years ago, called Al-Bukhari? We have one researcher criticizing another researcher. In what way is this blasphemy?"
Asfour: "There is no blasphemy here. On the contrary, when Islam Al-Buhairi or anyone else wants to reform the religious discourse, it is out of respect for religion, and a desire to restore reverence and sincerity to the Islamic discourse. This is the exact opposite [of blasphemy]. When people acknowledge that the Al-Bukhari compilation contains some hadiths that are illogical, what they are saying makes sense! Otherwise, we will have to believe hadiths that even a child could not accept."
Interviewer: "Do you think that under these circumstances, in which a researcher or a thinker is sentenced to imprisonment, merely for thinking..."
Asfour: "In my view, this has nothing to do with the Islamic religion."
Interviewer: "It's far-fetched..."
Asfour: "It has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.
"We are surprised when people attack the Shi'ites for no reason whatsoever. Why does it happen? Why is there such inter-Muslim strife? You are a Shi'ite Muslim? Welcome. I am a Sunni Muslim? Welcome. What binds us in Islam is the belief that God exists, and that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger. How can one make a distinction between me and another? How can one instill hatred in the heart of my son or grandson toward Shi'ites, merely because they are Shi'ite? This is very strange.
"The people of Al-Azhar say one thing when the president is there, but do something else after the president has left. When [the Sheikh of Al-Azhar] meets the president and talks to him, he says: 'Yes, we will reform the religious discourse.'"
Interviewer: "And what happens?"
Asfour: "I don’t know how to answer that. On the ground, there is no reform."
Interviewer: "Anybody who has talked about reform or development, or who has leveled criticism against an institution or a scholar, throughout history, from the time of Muhammad's prophecy to this day, has faced lawsuits, has had his books banned, and has been accused of heresy, of atheism..."
Asfour: "Do you want to hear my opinion?"
Asfour: "In my opinion, this is the beginning of the end. It is a sign of weakness. When you find no justification, you resort to force, but when you are sure of yourself, you debate adversaries politely. Instead of doing this, Al-Azhar reverts sometimes to the law, and that, in my view, marks the beginning of the end.
"I'd expected the president to use his authority to intervene in Islam Al-Buhairi's trial, and to order his immediate release."
In a recent TV interview, Gaber Asfour, the former Egyptian minister of culture, talked about the need for reform in religious thought and discourse. "Unless the religious discourse is renewed and undergoes reform, have no doubt that you will have people like ISIS in every neighborhood," he said in the interview, which aired on Al-Arabiya TV on June 23, 2015.
Gaber Asfour: "With regard to the reform of the religious discourse, I believe that we were in need of a president like Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who would take this task upon himself, because this issue is, in a nutshell, a matter of national security."
Interviewer: "National security? In what way?"
Asfour: "Yes. I will tell you in what way. Unless the religious discourse is renewed and undergoes reform, have no doubt that you will have people like ISIS in every neighborhood. This is a matter of national security. It threatens the country. Take a close look at the Arab countries. Take your immediate neighbor, Libya. What happened to it? What happened to Sudan? To Syria? To Iraq? Everything that has happened is the outcome of deviation in religious thought. This deviation begins with the brain, which gives orders to the hand, which, in turn, perpetrates murder and terrorism, beginning with swords and ending with bombs.
"Al-Azhar has less sway over the so-called religious discourse than all the religious institutions."
Interviewer: "But it is Al-Azhar from which supposedly the moderate preachers graduate."
Asfour: "That is true. However, the reformist preachers who graduate from Al-Azhar have become few and far between. Secondly, the preachers who do not subscribe to Al-Azhar, but to all kinds of Salafi groups instead, greatly outnumber the Al-Azhar preachers. Therefore, Al-Azhar does not have the same influence that we used to think it had. I believe that the Salafi discourse has much more influence than that of Al-Azhar."
Interviewer: "Within Al-Azhar?"
Asfour: "No, in Egypt in general.
"I always say that the issue of religious discourse is ultimately a matter of culture. The religious discourse is part of the general cultural discourse. So long as the general cultural discourse is backward, it is only natural for the religious discourse to be backward. Since life constantly renews itself, the religious rulings should also be renewed. The religious rulings are the effect, and (life) is the cause. If the cause changes, the effect should follow suit. Take, for example, the issue of women becoming judges.
"The women who live in this day and age are entirely different from the women who lived in the days when the Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Islamic law were formed. This should be taken into consideration when you debate whether women should be allowed to become judges. The jurisprudents in several Arab countries have said this, and they allowed women to become judges. The result is that women serve as judges in many Arab countries, but are denied this in Egypt. Isn't this disappointing? Women serve as judges in Sudan, in Tunisia, in Algeria, and, I think, in Libya, but they cannot become judges in Egypt, which is the leader [of the Arab world]. Isn't this disappointing?"