The religious persecution of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1945 - 2010) // Interview: My life fighting intolerance // Mahmoud Mohammed Taha & the Second Message of Islam

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was born in Quhafa, some 120 km from Cairo, near TantaEgypt 
on July 10, 1945. He died on 5 July 2010 in Cairo as a result of an unidentified virus infection and was buried in his birthplace, on the same day. He was 67. At the age of 12, Abu Zayd was imprisoned for allegedly sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood. After receiving technical training he worked for the National Communications Organization in Cairo. At the same time, he started studying at Cairo University, where he obtained his BA degree in Arabic Studies (1972), and later his MA (1977) and PhD degrees (1981) in Islamic Studies, with works concerning the interpretation of the Qur'an. In 1982, he joined the faculty of the Department of Arabic Language & Literature at Cairo University as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor there in 1987

From the beginning of his academic career, he developed a renewed hermeneutic view of the Qur'an and further Islamic holy texts, arguing that they should be interpreted in the historical and cultural context of their time. The mistake of many Muslim scholars was to see the Qur'an only as a text, which led conservatives as well as liberals to a battle of quotations, each group seeing clear verses (when on their side) and ambiguous ones (when in contradiction with their vision). But this type of controversy led both conservatives and liberals to produce authoritative hermeneutics.

This vision of the Qur'an as a text was the vision of the elites of Muslim societies, whereas, at the same time, the Qur'an as an oral discourse played the most important part in the understanding of the masses. Nasr Abu Zayd called for another reading of the holy book through a humanistic hermeneutics, an interpretation which sees the Qur'an as a living phenomenon, a discourse. Hence, the Qur'an can be "the outcome of dialogue, debate, despite argument, acceptance and rejection". This liberal interpretation of Islam should open space for new perspectives on the religion and should account for social change in Muslim societies.
That is why Abu Zayd's analysis can find in the Qur'an several insistent calls for social justice. For instance, when Muhammad was busy preaching to the rich people of Quraysh, and did not pay attention to a poor blind fellow named Ibn Umm Maktūm who came asking the Prophet for advice, the Qur'an strongly blames Muhammad's attitude (chapter 80:1–10). As well, he found a tendency to improve women's rights, arguing that the Qur'anic discourse was built in a patriarchal society, and therefore the addressees were naturally males, who received permission to marry, divorce, and marry off their female relatives, hence, it is possible to imagine that Muslim women receive the same rights. The classical position of the modern ‘ulamā’ about that issue is understandable as "they still believe in superiority of the male in the family".

Abu Zayd promoted a view on modern Islamic thought by critically approaching classical and contemporary Islamic discourse in the fields of theologyphilosophylawpolitics, and humanism. The aim of his research was to substantiate a theory of humanistic hermeneutics that might enable Muslims to build a bridge between their own tradition and the modern world. Zayd suffered major religious persecution for his views on Qur'an. In 1993, he was promoted to the rank of full professor, but Islamic controversies about his academic work led to a court decision of apostasy and the denial of the appointment. In a hisbah trial started against him by Muslim scholars, he was declared an apostate (murtadd) by an Egyptian court, and consequently was declared to be divorced from his wife, Cairo University French Literature professor Dr. Ibtihal Younis. The basis of the divorce decree under Sharia law was that since it is not permissible for a Muslim woman to be married to a non-Muslim man, and since Zayd was an apostate, he therefore could not remain married to his wife. This decision, in effect, forced him out of his homeland.[2]

Rejection of promotion: 
The Nasr Abu Zayd case began when he was refused a promotion for the post of full professor. In May 1992, Dr. Abu Zayd presented his academic publications to the Standing Committee of Academic Tenure and Promotion for advancement. Among his thirteen works in Arabic and other languages were Imam Shāfi‘ī and the Founding of Medieval Ideology and The Critique of Religious Discourse. The committee presented three reports, two were in favor of the promotion of Dr. Abu Zayd. But the third one, written by Abdel-Sabour Shahin, a professor of Arabic linguistics and a committee member, accused Abu Zayd of "clear affronts to the Islamic faith," and rejected the promotion.

Despite the two positive reports, the Tenure and Promotion Committee voted against the promotion (seven votes to six), arguing that his works did not justify a promotion. The Council of the Arabic Department stated against the committee's decision, and The Council of the Faculty of Arts criticized the committee report. Despite all that, the Council of Cairo University confirmed the decision of the committee report in 18 March 1993.

Forced divorce proceedings: The  case was no longer one involving only Cairo 
University after a lawyer filed a lawsuit before the Giza Lower Personal Status Court 
demanding for the divorce of Abu Zayd from his wife, Dr. Ibtihal Younis. The case was filed on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. But, on 27 January 1994, the Giza Personal Status Court rejected the demand because the plaintiff had no direct, personal interest in the matter. However, the Cairo Appeals Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and declared the marriage of Abu Zayd and Ibtihal Younis null and void in 1995. The irony of the story occurred when Cairo University promoted Abu Zayd to full professor and the academic committee wrote:

After reviewing the works submitted by Dr. Abu-Zeid in his application for promotion, examining them both individually and as a whole, we have reached the following conclusion: his prodigious academic efforts demonstrate that he is a researcher well-rooted in his academic field, well-read in our Islamic intellectual traditions, and with a knowledge of all its many branches — Islamic principles, theology, jurisprudence, Sufism, Qur’anic studies, rhetoric and linguistics — He has not rested on the laurels of his in-depth knowledge of this field, but has taken a forthright, critical position. He does not attempt to make a critique until he has mastered the issues before him, investigating them by way of both traditional and modern methodologies.

In sum he is a free thinker, aspiring only to the truth. If there is something urgent about his style, it stems from the urgency of the crisis which the contemporary Arab-Islamic World is witnessing and the necessity to honestly identify the ills of this world in order that an effective cure be found. Academic research should not be isolated from social problems, but should be allowed to participate in current debates and to suggest solutions to current dilemmas by allowing researchers to investigate and interpret as far as possible

The principle behind hisbah gives all Muslims the right to file lawsuits in cases where an exalted right of God has been violated. The hisbah principles are stated in Article 89 and 110 of the Regulations Governing Sharia Courts. In 1998, however, this law was amended by the Egyptian government, making it impossible for individuals to file lawsuits accusing someone of apostasy, leaving the issue to the prerogative of the prosecution office.

Court decision: The decision provoked a great debate, and human rights organisations criticized the decisions because of several offenses to fundamental human rights. The Court case was based on the alleged apostasy of Nasr Abu Zayd, hence the decision was based on Qur’anic punishment. But the Egyptian Penal Code does not recognize apostasy, and Civil Law restricts the proof of apostasy to two possibilities: either a certificate from a specialized religious institution certifying that the individual has converted to another religion, or a confession by the individual that he has converted.

Since a Muslim inherits his/her religion from his/her parents, he/she does not need to re-announce his/her Faith (Court of Cassation, 5/11/1975 – Court decisions 1926, p. 137).

It is stated that for a person to be a Muslim it is enough that he articulates his belief in Allah and the Prophet Mohamed. The judge may not look into the seriousness of incentives behind the confession. It is not necessary to make a public confession (Justice Azmy El Bakry, The Encyclopædia of Jurisprudence and the Judiciary in Personal Status, 3rd Edition, p. 234)

In accordance with the established course of this court, religious belief is considered to be a spiritual matter, and consequently is to be judged only by what is explicitly declared. Therefore, a judge is not to investigate the sincerity nor the motive of such declared statement (Cassation 44, judicial year 40, session 26 January 1975).

This court has always taken the course established by the law that religious belief is among matters in which the judgment should be based on declared statement, and by no means should the sincerity or motives of this statement be questioned (Cassation 51, judicial year 52, session 14 June 1981) (Both rulings in Azmy al-Bakry, p. 125)

Nasr Abu Zayd never declared himself to be an apostate. In an interview, he explained:
I'm sure that I'm a Muslim. My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not. I'm not a new Salman Rushdie, and don't want to be welcomed and treated as such. I'm a researcher. I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Qur'an as a naṣṣ (text) given by God to the Prophet Muhammad. That text is put into a human language, which is the Arabic language. When I said so, I was accused of saying that the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Qur’an. This is not a crisis of thought, but a crisis of conscience

The judgement stated that: "the defendant's proposition that the requirement of Christians and Jews to pay jizyah (poll tax) constitutes a reversal of humanity's efforts to establish a better world is contrary to the divine verses on the question of jizyah, in a manner considered by some, inappropriate, even for temporal matters and judgments notwithstanding its inappropriateness when dealing with the Qur’an and Sunnah, whose texts represent the pinnacle of humane and generous treatment of non-Muslim minorities. If non-Muslim countries were to grant their Muslim minorities even one-tenth of the rights accorded to non-Muslim minorities by Islam, instead of undertaking the mass murder of men, women, and children, this would be a step forward for humanity. The verse on jizyah, verse 29 of Surat al-Tawbah, which the defendant opposes, is not subject to discussion". (p. 16 of the judicial opinion)

Further, the judgment stated that the denunciation by Abu Zayd of the permissibility of the ownership of slave girls, a principle considered "religiously proven without doubt", is "contrary to all the divine texts which permit such provided that the required conditions are met" (p. 16 of the judicial opinion).

Social context: The decision was not isolated; it was made during a period of several assaults on liberal intellectuals and artists in the Muslim world in the 1990s. Dr. Ahmed Sohby Mansour was dismissed from Al-Azhar University and imprisoned for six months. This was based on a verdict reached by the university itself on the grounds that he rejected a fundamental tenet of Islam in his research of truth of some of Muhammad's sayings, or HadithNobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist in 1994, leaving him incapable of using his hand to write. Egyptian courts were the theatre of different lawsuits brought against intellectuals, journalists, and university professors such as Atif al-Iraqi, Ragaa al-Naqash, Mahmoud al-Tohami, and Youssef Chahine (for his film El-MohagerThe Emigrant).

In Kuwait in 1996, Ahmed al-Baghdadi, a journalist and professor of political science, was jailed for one month for making offensive remarks about Muhammad. Laila al-Othman and Dr. Aliya Shoeib, two of Kuwait's top female authors, as well as publisher Yahya al-Rubayan, stood trial on November 10, 2000 for allegedly insulting Islam in their novels. They were convicted of indecent language and defamatory expressions, and sentenced to two months in prison for moral and religious offenses. In Lebanon in 2003, Marcel Khalife, a well-known Lebanese singer, faced up to three years in jail after Beirut's newly appointed chief investigating judge reopened a case that accused him of insulting Islam in 1996, and again in 1999, by singing a verse from the Qur'an in one of his songs (Ana YussefI am Josef). He was found innocent. Source:

When the professor can't teach Al-Ahram Weekly; 15 - 21 June 2000: When I called Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a professor of Islamic studies, requesting an interview, he said, "Why don't you come right away?" I was in Amsterdam. He was in Leiden, and we agreed to meet the following day in Leiden. Abu Zeid gave me a warm welcome. My actual presence in his home was, he explained, like "a part of Egypt coming to see me." Abu Zeid has not seen his homeland in the last five years. 

On 14 June 1995, a Cairo Appeals Court for personal status litigation ruled that Abu Zeid, then a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, should be separated from his wife on the grounds that his writings included opinions that make him an apostate. The verdict was based on hisba, a doctrine that entitles any Muslim to take legal action against anyone or anything he considers to be harmful to Islam. Abu Zeid's problems began when he applied for promotion to the post of professor. He submitted two examples of his research, Imam Al-Shafei & A Critique of Religious Discourse, to an examining committee 

Abdel-Sabour Shahin, a professor of Arabic linguistics and a committee member, denied him the promotion and accused him of rejecting some fundamental tenets of Islam. Abu Zeid appealed to the administrative court in 1993, but lost. Then things went from bad to worse. His case became a cause célèbre after a group of Islamist lawyers filed a lawsuit at the end of 1993, demanding the breakup of Abu Zeid's marriage to Ibtihal Younes, a lecturer in French literature at Cairo University. The case was filed on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. Abu Zeid and his wife found themselves in the midst of national public scrutiny...

Mahmoud Mohammed Taha (Author of Second Message of Islam); also known as Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, was a Sudanese religious thinker, leader, and trained engineer. He was executed for apostasy at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry

(See him make his Court statement)
THE MODERATE MARTYR - A radically peaceful vision of Islam

Najam Sethi - Pakistan: Pluralism and tolerance

Unfortunately, attempts to rationalize and modernize our education system have continuously foundered on the rock of misplaced, conservative or politically motivated religious elements in society..Two such cases have caught headlines recently. The first is an attempt by Imran Khan's PTI government in KPK to undo the rational cleansing of the textbooks by the previous ANP government by reinserting nations of jihad and "Islamic" vice and virtue into the curricula. The second is an attempt by a section of the media to devalue the teaching of "comparative" religion in schools in which the values of relative compassion, mutual respect and human dignity common to all religions are emphasized...See more:

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree. // We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons. // We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights. // We find traditions of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral heritage of humankind. We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called "Islamaphobia" in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.... We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine; to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is, and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens; and to nonbelievers: we defend your unqualified liberty to question and dissent.

Before any of us is a member of the Umma, the Body of Christ, or the Chosen People, we are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must choose for themselves...

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