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“Never do I want to give the impression that I am against Islam. Far from it. Nor do I want to give the impression that I am the new Salman Rushdie. I am not […] I identify myself as a Muslim. I was born a Muslim, I was raised a Muslim, and I live a Muslim. God willing, I will die a Muslim.”

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in Voice of an Exile, (Praeger, 2004)

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who died at the age of 66 in July 2010 in Cairo, was regarded as a controversial figure, dividing religious and political opinion in Egypt. A lecturer at the University of Cairo, Abu Zayd rose to public attention in 1993 in the wake of a controversial decision to deny him a promotion. The decision, which was swayed by a personal and intellectual rivalry led by the prominent preacher of Amr Ibn As Mosque, Abdel Sabour Shahin, also subsequently led to the latter declaring Zayd’s apostasy during a Friday prayer sermon. In the wave of a strengthening Islamic revival in Egypt—which saw the murder of secular thinker Farag Fouda in 1992 and the brutal stabbing of Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz—a fatwa was issued by Ayman Al-Zawahri for the death of Zayd.

Under threat, Zayd, along with his wife and colleague Dr. Ebtehal Younis, went under 24-hour police protection in their house in the satellite suburb of Cairo on 6 October. Once declared an apostate from the pulpits of Cairo, a case was brought against Zayd to separate him from his wife in the Giza courts. The justification for this case, which had been brought forward by sponsors of Shahin, was that a Muslim woman could not be married to a non-Muslim man. The reality, however, revealed strong tensions between intellectual freedom and the hegemony of political and religious institutions. While an initial ruling in January 1994 dismissed the annulment case, a court of appeal in 1995 found Zayd guilty of apostasy and subsequently dissolved the marriage. According to the prominent Islamic judge Sa‘id Al-Ashmawy, “We are unfortunately returning to the age of the Inquisition.” In 1995, the now “unmarried” couple left Egypt for Madrid and later the Netherlands, where Zayd was offered the chair of Islamic studies at Leiden University. 

Accusations of Apostasy

The events surrounding the controversy of the declaration of apostasy and subsequent divorce divided Egyptian opinion drastically. The pulpits of the mosque, media and general public discussions on the streets of Egypt informed opinions. The reality however, was that rarely in any of these forums were the intricacies of Zayd’s arguments discussed. What had he written that had been so abhorrent and sacrilegious that his life could be under threat?

Naqd al-Khitab al-Dini or “Critique of Religious Discourse,” published in 1992, scrutinized the relationship between political Islamic discourse in Egypt and the socio-economic scandal caused by Islamic investment companies. On a personal level, Dr. Shahin, who had been one of the members of Zayd’s promotion committee and later declared him an apostate, had close interests in the Islamic banks, which Zayd so forcefully criticized.

Indeed, Shahin had been a key religious advisor to Al-Rayyan Islamic Investment Company, which subsequently stood accused of misappropriating the savings of millions of investors. In the academic report submitted to the university, Shahin claimed that Zayd’s writing demonstrated an “atrophy of religious conscience” while engaging “in intellectual terrorism.” Moreover, Zayd’s work was likened to “cultural AIDS” and he was personally dismissed as a secular-Marxist attempting to destroy Egypt’s Muslim society.

On an intellectual level, at the essence of Zayd’s writings was his claim that socio-political and cultural factors would always inform any process of interpretation. For instance, Zayd highlighted that aside from the oral tradition of the Koran, there were many copies of the written Mushaf, literally “the book,” circulated at the time of the Prophet, which, though in Arabic letters, omitted the vowels. This was of little significance in the early years, particularly as the written text had aimed to assist the memory of the reciter. By the third century and the reign of Caliph Uthman Ibn ‘Affan however, some discrepancies between the citations were noted. This led to accusations that the sacred text had been altered. Uthman acted swiftly by standardizing the Koran and all other copies were burnt.

While this is well known and recognized by the most prominent Islamic thinkers, Zayd argued that this incident, amongst others, revealed how the Koranic text and even the Hadith were appropriated by hegemonic powers to assert their socio-political authority and the “valid” interpretation, or “right” path. He argued, that even within traditional established schools of thought, there was always the politics of interpretation of text.

Zayd asserted that the insistence of orthodox Islam to apply the text of the Koran, revealed in the seventh century, as eternal and uniform across time and space was problematic. Highlighting those who challenged orthodox scholars, including the Mu‘tazilites in the Abassid Empire (750-935), Zayd concluded that to make sense of the Koran, one needed to understand the text metaphorically rather than literally.

Islam has no tradition of using textual criticism, something that had been adopted by both scholars of Hebrew and the Bible. Zayd claimed it was essential to interpret the text by taking into account the cultural context in which it was received. Applying this theory further, Zayd stressed that gatekeepers and protectors of the text, be it the Koran or even contemporary law, created a culture of subjection and the servitude of “the people” by a ruling elite. Those who were opposed or questioned, were accused of blasphemy. The whole controversy revealed to Zayd what he termed a “stagnant intellectual climate in the study of religions.” Rather than an exchange and debate of ideas, Zayd argued that a siege mentality had formed in Egyptian public intellectual space.

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