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Efforts to renew Egypt’s religious discourse will counter extremists

Heba Yosry

Published: Updated:

For quite some time there has been a rigorous and concerted effort to renew religious discourse in Egypt to counter the pervasive extremist interpretation espoused by different organizations. The effort has been spearheaded by the President and his government, and has been implemented by Al-Azhar and Dar al-Iftaa through training preachers, eliminating extremists from within their midst, and issuing fatwas that reflect Islam’s spirit of openness and peaceful coexistence amongst world religions.

Such decrees include; support for women’s appointment as judges, supporting the legislative ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), supporting the government’s decision to outlaw oral divorce and even saying that dogs were clean and pure creatures who do not sully one’s ablution.

The caravan of progress, however, did not please everyone to say the least. Azhari scholars who espoused open and modern thought were hurled with abusive comments, suspicions of selling out true Islam to appease the government and sometimes even threatened by some sincere Muslims who believed the authenticity of their religion was being compromised by these Modern Sheikhs.

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Alas, the seeds of war have been sown between those who aim to modernize religion in a way that is congruent with our times and those who believe that a revision of antiquated religious notions is an unforgivable and insulting betrayal of Islam that ought to be punished.

The major flaw with the hardliners argument that prevents it from being readily accepted by the public is that the modernizers are Muslim scholars who have a firm grounding in religion. So, in reality the political dynamics that charges this war is not fueled by genuine articulation of religious discourse.

It is one that is between a living religion that has been awakened by the need to morph its teachings and be aligned with the zeitgeist versus ossified social norms that were camouflaging itself under the guise of religion for so long that it now feels naked in the wind without the blanket cover once provided by religious orthodoxy.

The fear that shackles people’s minds from accepting that God doesn’t want to micromanage their lives is unfathomable. The major issue is that those with the courage to think for themselves are being demonized and cast as blasphemous.

Muslims perform evening Tarawih prayers inside Al-Azhar Mosque on the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the old Islamic area of Cairo, Egypt, April 13, 2021. (Reuters)
Muslims perform evening Tarawih prayers inside Al-Azhar Mosque on the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the old Islamic area of Cairo, Egypt, April 13, 2021. (Reuters)

After Naguib Mahfouz wrote Children of the Alley, some sheikhs have encouraged their followers, the sincere Muslims, to avenge Islam by killing him. A failed assassination attempt left Mahfouz with a significant injury that almost prevented him from pursuing his writing.

Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid a philosophy professor was summoned to court to profess that he was a Muslim because a man thought that he was an atheist and accordingly shouldn’t live with his Muslim wife. Taha Hussein was also summoned to defend himself because some surmised that one of his books was insulting Islam.

One could imagine that the witch hunt for the blasphemous thinkers is a thing of the past, but one would be mistaken.

A recent incident occurred during a rap concert by Marwan Pablo, when his guest rapper switched a word from a popular religious song by Al Naqshbandi. Accusations of blasphemy and atheism were hurled and Pablo was prevented from holding future concerts.

I fail to believe that Al Naqshbandi, a Sufi lover, who venerated al-Hallaj who declared “I am Al-Haqq,” one of the Divine names and was killed when people charged him with apostasy, would agree with his self-appointed guardians. Is our religion so feeble that we should shudder in fear and hastily attack those whom we deem threatening? Will this self-righteous indignation rescue Islam from threats?

I honestly had no idea who Pablo was prior to this incident. I’m definitely not comparing him to Mahfouz or Abu-Zeid. Yet I am weary of the impact of this idolization of religious emblems that aren’t sacred and our elevation of them to the realm of sanctity.

I’m worried that this will turn a lived and experiential religion to dogmatic idol worshipping that will further alienate youth from embracing the religion they were born into. One of the eschatological signs for Muslims we were told is when people abandon the Quran. I always thought that meant that people would stop reading it.

However, I’ve come to believe that this will happen when the Quran turns into a relic that people aren’t meant to touch because it is too sacred, because they aren’t worthy of approaching it, until one day it slips into the abyss of forgetfulness. Let’s not allow that to happen.

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