It wouldn’t look as though they have much in common, but the Paramount Pictures blockbuster Noah, Karam Saber’s book Ayna Allah? (Where is Allah?), and Magallat al-Azhar (Magazine of al-Azhar) have all been caught up one way or another in the sway of fundamentalist Islamic thought in Egypt. Whereas the first two have been victims of that thought, the latter helped transmit it.
Egyptian cultural circles are all in an uproar over what they see as attempts by Islamic religious authorities to curtail freedom of expression and creativity. The ultimate authority on Sunni Islam in Egypt and the Islamic World, al-Azhar, issued a fatwa (Islamic legal edict) urging a ban on the screening of Noah. Writer and novelist Karam Saber was handed a five-year prison sentence by a court in Beni-Sweif for defamation of the Divinity and propagation of atheism in his book Ayna Allah? (Where is Allah?). And the most recent issue of al-Azhar’s monthly publication Magallat al-Azhar (Magazine of al-Azhar) included a complimentary gift of the booklet Limatha Ana Muslim? (Why I am Muslim) which brazenly insults the Christian religion.
Noah: Allah’s prophet
Egyptian viewers who wish to see Noah will have to look for it somewhere other than theatres in Egypt.
The Darren Aronofsky production depicts the story of the Biblical deluge and the saving of species in an ark built by Noah according to God’s command. The story features not only in the Torah but in the Qur’an as well.
Al-Azhar issued a fatwa which “renews its rejection of the screening of any production that characterises Allah’s prophets and messengers and the companions of the Prophet [Muhammad],” an official statement by al-Azhar’s Highest Scholars Committee said. “Such productions contradict the higher stature of prophets and messengers, and affect the constants of Islamic law. They also provoke believers’ emotions”. The statement called on Muslims not to view the film, and said that al-Azhar in its capacity as a reference in Islamic affairs urged the authorities to ban the film.
Egyptian law, however, says no religious institution has the final say on what can be shown in theatres; the artistic censorship board is the only entity with the power to legally bar particular content. A source on the censorship board, who asked to go unnamed, told Watani that the board approved the film in full and that it is probably not being screened according to some political decision. The ban effectively avoids tensions with al-Azhar at a time when the Egyptian scene is already riddled with conflict along secular religious lines. Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also banned the screening of Noah.
Culture Minister Muhammad Saber Arab had said that there was practically no point in banning a film which anyone can later find on the Internet. The Ministry, he said, upheld creativity.
Secularists and intellectuals have vocally criticised the banning of Noah. The Front for Creativity, an NGO, lambasted the Azhar ruling, arguing that: “Al-Azhar has overstepped its authority. It could condemn the film or warn viewers that they would be committing a sin in viewing it, but it is not within its rights to demand that the film should be banned.”
The prohibition on depicting prophets, the Front said, “is a matter of clerical interpretation on which there is no consensus and for which no explicit Qu’ranic or scriptural text exists. We are also past the days when such images can practically be banned, since the film will circulate on the Internet in any case.”
The Front invited al-Azhar clerics to a debate in order to reach a consensus on the film, but al-Azhar Under-Secretary Abbas Shuman responded by saying that: “Al-Azhar does not wait for the word of any Front to decide what it should or should not do. The request for a debate in itself indicates the Front’s ignorance of the real conditions of debates, which should be conducted between counterparts equal in expertise. I do not think that this condition is met by the Front.”
In 1976, the film The Message starring the actor Anthony Quinn was banned in Egypt for chronicling the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. However, some other films depicting Biblical figures, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ were never censored or banned in Egypt. Noah generated no controversy among Christians.
Some 15 international and regional authorities have filed an appeal to interim President Adly Mansour urging him to use his constitutional authority to overrule the five-year prison sentence against Karam Saber. Mr Saber was charged with disdain of the Divine and propagating atheism in his collection of short stories Ayna Allah? (Where is Allah?) published in 2013 by Nefro Publishing.
A number of Islamist lawyers in Beni-Sweif some 100km south of Cairo had sued Mr Saber in 2011, the year of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolution in Egypt, for disdain of Islam. They urged al-Azhar to have the Where is Allah confiscated, claiming that it described Allah as a “gambler” who played with the hearts of “millions of believers”. Back then, Egypt was coming increasingly under Islamist authority.
Human rights organisations, among them the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), provided legal assistance to defend Mr Saber in court.
This was the first case of hisba, a doctrine which entitles any Muslim to take legal action against anyone who commits an act considered harmful to Islam—after the January 2011 Revolution. “It [hisba] practically allows anybody to play the role of custodian to the community and demand the infliction of penalty for ‘wrongdoing’ that may have nothing to do with religion,” Mr Gamal Eid, a lawyer and director of ANHRI, explained. ANHRI described hisba as a sword of Damocles hanging over creativity and freedom of expression, and called for an end to such cases which can very well jeopardise freedom of expression and creativity.
Incidentally, critics found nothing at all disdainful in Where is Allah. Quite the contrary, the writer holds a dialogue with Allah in which he bitterly complains of human injustice and asks for divine intervention. “Today,” he writes, “I believe that the wonderful God sees and hears me, because I see and hear Him.”
Acceptance not banishment
Al-Azhar’s monthly publication Magallet al-Azhar (Al-Azhar Magazine) has been around since 1931. It is the mouthpiece of the venerable institution which is seen by many as the stronghold of moderate Islam. But the magazine today has Muhammad Emara as editor-in-chief; Mr Emara has made a name for himself as a prominent fundamentalist. In its last issue of Gamada al-Awwal 1435, March 2014, Dr Emara proudly introduced the complimentary book the Magazine was distributing to its readers Why I am Muslim by Sheikh Abdel-Metaal al-Saeedi. The book, which was first published back in 1935, presents a religious debate between a young Muslim and an American minister, and includes passages that blatantly disdain Christianity and Christians.
The question which begs an answer is: Why print such material now, at a time when Egyptians need to rally round one national banner and join hands to build their country, not to sink into an abyss of difference and division? It is a self-evident truth that religious differences exist and that arguments around them more often than not lead to nowhere. There has been an unwritten agreement between wise Egyptians to steer clear of inter-religious argument in order to avoid at worst futile conflict and at best lingering bitterness. So why slip into the dangerous dead-end path of religious debate? Can anyone in Egypt today bear the consequences of raging religious differences?
More than anything, Egypt today needs to entrench a culture of acceptance and respect of the other. And al-Azhar is very well positioned to lead here, not to hinder.
30 March 2014