Rights activists team out to battle the most recent allegation of insult to religion, a book which on the surface of it wonders…
A number of human rights organisations, including the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), have formed a team of prominent lawyers to defend the Egyptian writer Karam Saber. Samir Bagoury, Mohamed Higazy, Hamdy al-Assiuti and the others on the team will provide legal assistance for Mr Saber, who has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment after a court found him guilty of defamation of Divinity and propagating atheism in a collection of short stories published last year by Nefro Publishing House. The appeal is scheduled for 12 November.
A number of conservative lawyers in Beni-Sweif had taken Saber to court in 2011 as Egypt came under the Islamist authority, for “offending the divinity” in the collection of 11 short stories he wrote under the title Ayna Allah (Where’s God?). They urged the venerable Islamic institution of al-Azhar to have the book confiscated.
According to ANHRI director Gamal Eid, al-Azhar reacted even before the prosecutor ordered an investigation into the accusations, referring the book to a committee of Islamic scholars to assess it and decide whether it contained any statements demeaning to Islam.
“Al-Azhar has no right to overstep its religious role and judge literary works or art,” Mr Eid argues.
Press reports had earlier said the collection published by Nefro described God as a “gambler” who played with the hearts of “millions of believers”.
This was the first case of hisbaa doctrine that entitles any Muslim to take legal action against anyone considered harmful to Islam—to be raised after the January 2011 Revolution. “It [hisba] practically allows anybody to play the role of a representative of society and demand the punishment of another for any wrongdoing that in some cases may have nothing to do with religion,” Mr Eid, a lawyer, explained.
ANHRI has described hisba as a sword of Damocles hanging over creativity and freedom of expression during the regime that was overthrown by the Egyptian people last July.
ANHRI has called on the authorities to amend the law in order to put an end to such cases which are likely to jeopardise freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt.
The thorny questions Saber raised in his stories have also come up in other creative works, and even in some texts of the Holy Bible. David the Psalmist wondered: “Why, O Lord, do You stand far off?” and “Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?”
All these questions come to the limited minds of human beings as they search for the wisdom of God. They are old, but renovated, questions for confused souls, and they do not imply atheism or disbelief but rather an attempt to find answers to justify the pain and strengthen faith during times of political and personal turmoil.
If the role of the clergy is to provide answers, the role of intellectuals is to ask questions. This is what Saber does in his stories, though readers might well be shocked by the number of doubts he raises.
The events and characters in the 11 stories express their anger and confusion at the lack of understanding of the injustice and pain which pervade the world.
Lughat al-Ahasees (Language of Sentiments) tackles the tragedy of a deaf mute man who says: “While the men in the coffeeshop were laughing at me because I could not speak, I looked bitterly at heaven and blamed the Lord who created everything with wisdom and justice, yet prevented me the grace of speech and hearing. I asked Him, ‘Why have You prevented me from expression, like other people, to express my feelings?’” This question may in all probability lead to surrender to God’s will, the answer favoured by clergymen, but it does not mean the question should not be asked.
In Al-Meerath (The Inheritance) Saber discusses dividing an inheritance according to sharia, Islamic law, which stipulates male rights as double those of the female. The main character, Awatef, has loved and served her brothers and sisters for 20 years. However she is widowed, and when her father dies her brothers refuse to let her to live in their family home where her legitimate share is just half a room. This drives her to insanity. Unable to believe that God discriminates between brothers and sisters, she immolates herself.
Saber depicts a man who worships God in his heart but does not go to the mosque in the story of Maarouf, who believes that God exists everywhere and that meeting Him does not require so much ritual. Maarouf discusses paradise with the sheikh of the mosque, and asks such questions as why men in Paradise can have as many women as they like for their pleasure, but what is a woman’s share?
Call for atheism?
The spiritual drill of the Sufi (mystic) movement, which is open to Divine love in a sublime form, is depicted in the story Divine Love. The story provides models of characters who believe the house of God is inside their hearts when they fuse together in the zikr (devotional Sufi chant and whirl). Followers believe they do not need to be cleansed because the pure heart is always clean. Sufism is close to Egyptian hearts, where religion is based on love and not on fear.
The absence of justice among humans is manifested in the story of Sheikh Taha, where Saber makes a comparison between a thief who has become a figure in society and the world of politics, and Sheikh Taha, a poor man who takes care of his sick brother and his mother who has kidney failure.
Do Saber’s stories make a stand for atheism? Are not all these stories looking for the hand of God in order to achieve justice?
Saber concludes his collection with the words, “How did our merciful God leave us in the hands of those brutes and sheikhs who have nothing but talk about ugliness, hatred, hell and devils to divest us of tolerance?
“Today, I believe that the wonderful God sees and hears me, because I see and hear Him. And He will be back again to take away from our hearts these concrete blocks that leave empty spaces in our spirit.
“O Lord, please do not let a believer’s prayer down. Who dares to have doubts about a storyteller’s religion?”
These are surely not the words of one guilty of defamation of divinity and propagating atheism.
1 November 2013