According to a recent news item in the Cairo daily al-Ahram, a book which hit the bookstands in Egypt prompted a confiscation order by al-Azhar, the venerable Cairo-based Islamic institution and university which goes back to the 10th century, and which is today the topmost authority worldwide on Sunni Islam. The book tackled a story that appears in the Qur’an and the Bible: the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, and his predicament with Potiphar’s wife, which caused his subsequent imprisonment.
Claiming that the book represents an offence against Islam, al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy filed a lawsuit against the author on the grounds that he had insufficient knowledge or experience to comment on the Qur’an, and that he had insulted the Prophet Joseph.
The first degree court overruled al-Azhar’s lawsuit, saying that: “The book casts no doubts on the bases of the Islamic faith, and does not contradict the Qur’an. The author aimed at vindicating Prophet Joseph from any accusation of adultery. The door of ijtihad [literally endeavour in the sense of endeavouring to offer interpretations to the religious text] is open without any restriction unless it involves offence or misrepresentation of religion.”
The question that begs an answer is who is right: the Islamic Research Academy or the Administrative Court, given that both sides cite the common claim of defending Islam.
Confiscation by fatwa
This lawsuit, which flagrantly challenges freedom of thought and research, is not the first of its kind and nor will it be the last as long as al-Azhar sheikhs insist on claiming divinely attributed authority.
Al-Azhar’s trend of opposing research freedom goes centuries back in history. In the 20th century especially, with enlightenment spreading in Egypt, the Islamic institution was especially active in what has come to be its hallmark ultraconservative practices. In 1913, faculty member of Fuad I University—today Cairo University—Fahmy Mansour returned from a scholarship in France to find himself dismissed from the Egyptian national university on a recommendation by al-Azhar; his doctorate thesis was on “The status of women and its development in Islamic traditions”.
In 1925, the Azhari Sheikh Ali Abdel-Raziq published Islam and the Fundamentals of Ruling. Basing his opinion on an Islamic reference, Sheikh Abdel-Raziq stressed that khilapha, succession as in the caliphate, had no basis in Islam proper. Even though this came nowhere near the fundamentals of Islam it did not justify his argument before al-Azhar sheikhs who promptly excluded him from the ranks of al-Azhar scholars.
In May 1950 another book, From Here We Start by Khaled Muhammad Khaled, was confiscated because of a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) by al-Azhar. The fatwa claimed that: “The author depicted the [typical] Islamic, government as one with features and instincts that would lead souls to battle [abhor] this type of rule. The author also mentioned that the Qur’an and sunna (Prophet Muhammad’s life and acts, used by Muslims as a reference and role model) included ambiguities and ‘oddities’, by which he implied that Qur’an and sunna were not valid as a good base for rule….” Surprisingly, only twenty days after the prosecution confiscated the book a Cairo primary court overruled the confiscation order.
Ruling on intention
In its ruling on Mr Khaled’s book, the court mentioned that: “The author is not guilty because he intended no insult even if his opinion might have been erroneous.”
A silimar legal reasoning was used by Muhammad Bey Nour, Egypt’s public prosecutor, in a lawsuit filed by Sheikh Khalil Hassanein, a graduate student at al-Azhar University, against Taha Hussein (1889 –1973), known as “the dean of Arabic literature” and one of the most prominent figures in Egypt’s enlightenment movement in the 20th century. In his 1926 book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, Dr Hussein expressed doubts about the authenticity of much of the traditional Arabic poetry, claiming that it may have been faked in later pre-Islamic or early Islamic times, because of tribal pride and competition. In this book, he also hinted indirectly that the Qur’an should not be taken as an objective source of history. The book aroused the intense anger and hostility of al-Azhar and many other traditionalists. Dr Hussein was prosecuted for allegedly insulting Islam, but again the public prosecutor stated that what Taha Hussein said was the opinion of an academic researcher and intended no offence, and no legal action was taken against him. His book was banned but was later published with slight modifications in 1927 under the title On Pre-Islamic Literature.
Jumping to the 1980s, al-Azhar again was behind the confiscation of Ahmed Sobhy Mansour’s 1985 book The Prophets in the Holy Qur’an. Here the author propounded the human nature of Prophet Muhammad and the contradiction between his presentation in the Qur’an and the images of him fabricated by Muslim fanatics. Using Qur’anic verses, he demonstrated that Prophet Muhammad was not infallible.
New horizons in storytelling
Along the same lines, the book Awlad Haretna (Children of our Alley) by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was confiscated because of a report by Azhari Sheikh Muhammad Ghazali that it offended Islam. First published in 1959 by Al-Ahram, the book explores new mystical horizons in storytelling by telling the spiritual history of mankind and man’s everlasting search for spiritual values. Al-Azhar sheikhs saw obvious parallels between the book’s characters on one hand and Allah and the prophets as depicted in the Qur’an on the other.
Confiscation of thought as expressed in print on the grounds that it insults Islam has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
If both sectors, Islamic clerics and those who oppose them, rely on ‘Islamic references’ to back their views of the so-called correct Islam, then who does possess the key to correct Islam?
Anyone who reads Al Milal wal Nihal (Islamic Sects and Doctrines)by Imam al Shahrastani will discover the countless schisms between religion jurists. Shahrastani (1086 – 1153) was a Persian historian of religions and a historiographer, Islamic scholar, philosopher and theologian.
I believe that Egypt will not emerge from this dark tunnel unless it rids itself of the notion of Islamic clerics invested with divine authority. I know this is a Utopian dream but, who knows, it may come true after so many years—centuries even.
23 March 2016