Professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid: Modernist islamic philosopher who was forced into exile by fundamentalists

When The Independent interviewed Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, then professor of Islamic Philosophy at Cairo University, and his wife Dr Ibtihal Younis, a graduate of the Sorbonne who taught French Literature, they tried to put a brave face on their predicament. "When we lived in sin no one paid attention," joked Dr Younis. "Now we are respectably married, they [Muslim fundamentalists] want us divorced."

The couple had been targeted in a test case designed to sneak Sharia (the Islamic code) into Egypt's legal system, which is historically secular and based on French law. The applicants, a group of Islamist lawyers, unearthed a ninth-century court ruling known as Hessba which permits any group of at least three Muslims to seek injunctions or force action against people or an activity if they prove in court that they are acting to avert harm befalling Islam. Sharia, the plaintiffs argued, forbids Muslim women marrying non-Muslims since their children, who follow their father's faith in Egyptian traditions, would be born non-Muslims. Eventually the couple were forced to leave Egypt.

Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid was born in 1943 in Qahafa, 82 miles north of Cairo. His peasant family had no money for his schooling, but Vocational Studies grants enabled him to gain a communication diploma, and he got a job in 1960 with the country's Telecommunications Authority. He saved up for eight years to enrol at Cairo University to read Arabic and history. He graduated with honours and in 1972 became a fellow in the Islamic Studies Department, working overtime to finance his MA (1977) and PhD (1981) in Islamic Philosophy while learning English and German, which helped him as a visiting professor and on lecture tours.

Islamists initially targeted Abu Zaid because his seminars encouraged students to think beyond the rigid 13th century interpretation of texts considered by fundamentalists to be the ultimate authority on Islam. The Islamists' influence grew in the 1980s, and by the mid-1990s they were openly intimidating women into giving up the western fashions that had been the norm since the Europeanisation of Egypt's social and culture life by Ismail Pasha.

Traditionalists were shocked by Abu Zaid's philosophical analysis of the Quran in his books. His research into ancient texts was published in four volumes, whch challenged orthodox assumptions about the Quran's textual authority: The Philosophy of Hermeneutics, Critique of Islamic Discourse, Text, Authority and the Truth and Women in the Discourse of Crisis.

The fundamentalists' crusade against Abu Zaid was led by the head of Islamic Studies at Cairo University, Dr Abdul Sabour Chahine, who hand-picked a committee to evaluate the writings Abu Zaid had presented to support his candidacy for the University's professorship of Islamic Philosophy. It condemned his work as "blasphemous" and referred to him as "an infidel".

Chahine lost no time announcing the "verdict" to a 700- strong congregation during Friday prayer at a Cairo mosque controlled by radicals. This was dangerously provocative. The writer Farag Foda had been assassinated following condemnation of him during Friday prayer; and Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Noble laureate was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist who had heard his condemnation during a Friday lesson.

The persecution moved to new ground when a lawyer filed a lawsuit demanding that Abu Zaid and his wife divorce. In January 1994 the court rejected the demand because the plaintiff had no direct personal interest in the matter, but the Cairo Appeals Court accepted the argument that as a Muslim Dr Younis should not have married Abu Zaid.

The marriage was nullified, setting a precedent that allowed Islamists to form a Hessba each time they wanted to silence a secular intellectual. The film-maker Youssef Chahine and the acclaimed feminist Dr Nawal El Saadawi and her husband, the novelist Sherif Hetata, were among those dragged before the courts. Hundreds of mixed-faiths couples fled Egypt, where marriage between the faiths has been normal for generations.

The Abu Zaids settled in the Netherlands, where he became professor of Humanism and Islamic Studies at Utrecht University. "We are not only man and wife," Abu Zaid said. "She is a professor. She is an intellectual. She is not only a wife supporting a husband, she is a colleague supporting a friend."

Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, philosopher and scholar: born Qahafa, Egypt 10 July 1943; married 1991 Ibtihal Younis; died Cairo 4 July 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions