BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamic dogma is narrowing the space for debate in the Arab world, argues an Egyptian professor whose own life was overturned by persecution for free thinking.
Thirteen years after an Egyptian sharia court declared him an apostate from Islam, annulled his marriage and effectively forced him into exile, Nasr Abu Zayd looks back without rancour.
“I define myself as an ordinary Muslim who is able to think,” he told Reuters during a recent visit to Beirut.
“Now when some people say ‘you are an apostate’ or something, I really laugh rather than try to defend myself.”
Abu Zayd, a short, portly man whose eyes often gleam with humour beneath bushy eyebrows, said in early Islamic tradition different modes of thinking about the divine were acceptable.
Today, constant claims to a monopoly of Islamic truth by Arab rulers and opposition groups scrabbling for legitimacy have stifled discussion, in contrast to debate flourishing elsewhere in the Muslim world, notably in Iran and Turkey, he added.
“Religion has been used, politicised, not only by groups but also the official institutions in every Arab country,” the 64-year-old professor of humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht, The Netherlands, asserted.
“Nearly everything is theologised — every issue society faces has to be solved by asking if Islam allows it. There is no distinction between the domain of religion and secular space.”
He said ulema (Muslim scholars) were all too keen to deliver rulings on economic, social or even medical issues like organ transplants: “You’ll hardly find any scholar who says, ‘I’m very sorry, but this is not my business, go consult a doctor’.”
Abu Zayd has not altered the liberal, critical approach to Islamic teachings that upset some Muslim conservatives in his homeland in the 1990s, a decade when President Hosni Mubarak’s government was combating an uprising by armed Islamic militants.
“I am anti-dogma,” he declared. “Dogma in the history of any religion was made by authoritative institutions. It’s a meaning produced by humans, and I don’t find that I am going outside the domain of religion if I challenge this dogma.”
Abu Zayd left Egypt in 1995 with his wife after finding it irksome to teach at university under police protection — the sharia court decision had elicited death threats against him, notably from the Islamic Jihad group led by Ayman al-Zawahri, now deputy leader of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
He said the pressure of colonialism on Muslim societies in the 19th and 20th centuries had prompted debate over how to respond to modernity and how to match the power of Europe.
The abolition of the Islamic caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularist Turkey in 1924 fuelled a traditionalist backlash, with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, founded just four years later, fighting secularism and demanding sharia law.
Abu Zayd, who believes Islam is compatible with modernity, democracy and human rights, said the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities had unleashed a flood of ill-informed, simplistic debate in which stereotypes and slogans often triumphed on both sides.
Islam should be understood in its historical, geographic and cultural background, he argued, adding that “pure Islam” did not exist and even the Koran was “a collection of discourses”.
After September 11, there was a tendency in the United States and Europe simply to blame Islam and to refuse to recognise any link between terrorism and politics, the scholar contended.
“If you analyse the messages of terrorist groups, you find a message to the believers quoting the Koran or Sunna (Islamic practice based on words and deeds of the Prophet) — they know they don’t represent Islam and need to justify their actions.
“But there is also a political message, whenever they mention the situation in Palestine or elsewhere. These are real, burning issues, which we need to analyse and deal with, to disconnect them from the message to the believers,” he said.
Abu Zayd sometimes lectures in Egypt now, after staying away for years in anger at the court ruling to dissolve his marriage because a Muslim woman cannot stay married to an apostate.
“The entire affair was political. I served as a battleground for the religious groups and security services. Understanding that it wasn’t personal protected me from feeling victimised.”
But the affront to his family life was a different matter.
“Here I’m a real fighter. If you touch my wife, if you touch my family, I’m a real Egyptian, not a thinker,” he chuckled.
“Fortunately, my wife is a very strong intellectual, so we moved on, to give ourselves space to breathe and work.”
Editing by Sami Aboudi