Zealots blind to kindness in Koran as they try to split man from wife - and cover up scandal

Egypt/ professor ordered to divorce
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The Independent Online
THE grey-suited cop at the door is obliging. "I'm a policeman," he says. "Here's my gun." And he lifts the right side of his jacket to reveal a German pistol tucked into his belt. "OK, you can ring the bell." Ibthal Abuzaid opens the door in a tired way, weary beyond her 37 years, pointing to the sitting room where her husband is waiting to explain why they won't divorce each other. The price is already high. Some Islamists have called for his death. Others have accused Ibthal of "fornication" because she refuses to leave the husband she has been told to divorce by the Egyptian Appeals Court and is thus living out of wedlock.

But it's worse than that. The court ordered the couple to separate - for if they merely divorced, they would be able to remarry and Professor Nasser Hamed Abuzaid can't be allowed to do that because, officially, he has been branded an "apostate". So now, ever since Judge Farouq Abdul- Ali - an Islamist appointee of the Justice Ministry - gave his verdict, the Interior Ministry has been guarding the Abuzaids from attack, one branch of the Egyptian government vigorously defending an Egyptian couple from another branch of the Egyptian government, a circumstance as preposterous as it is obscene.

"What if some official comes here now and tells us we must be separated?" Professor Abuzaid asks, a massive, broad-beamed figure in a grey galibea gown sitting opposite his slim and exhausted wife. "What if we physically hugged each other? Are they going to separate us by force? And who is going to leave the home? Her? Or should I? In either case, we have decided that if they are going to do it, they will have to kill us first. Only by killing us can they think they have separated us. But in heaven, we would be with each other."

Every Egyptian knows the long and deeply shaming saga of the Abuzaids, he a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, she a lecturer in the history of Spanish art and French civilisation, a diplomat's daughter who graduated from the Sorbonne, both now ordered by the state court to separate on the grounds that Abuzaid - in a university paper that won him his professorship - denied the reliability of the Koran.

A lawsuit filed against him by Islamist lawyers was originally overturned on the grounds that the appellants had no personal knowledge of the couple, but was upheld on appeal by Judge Abdul-Ali. The man behind the charges, however, was one of Professor Abuzaid's own colleagues, Abdul-Sabour Chahine, a third-rate television evangelist in the Arabic department who first opposed Abuzaid's promotion by claiming that in his university paper, he had "set himself up as an opponent of all the tenets of religious discourse".

Professor Abuzaid, it should be added, has been a Cairo University teacher for 20 years and has published highly respected works on 9th century Muslim theologians and the 13th century mystic Mohieddin Ibn Al-Arabi, who discovered divine authority in communion with God. Abuzaid's sin, however, was to state boldly in his latest work that "from the minute of its descent from God to the minute the Prophet recited it, the Koran changed from a divine text to a human one". In other words, the professor opposes the literalism with which so many conservative Muslims interpret the Koran, insisting instead that its teachings should be seen in the context of the Arab world of 1400 years ago and read with enlightenment rather than unquestioning obedience to every phrase.

That, however, may not be the only thing that got the professor into trouble. "In the introduction of my paper, I strongly criticised the Islamic discussions which paved the way for the Islamic investment companies which stole money from the public," he says, alluding to the group of front companies set up on "Islamic" lines by loaning money without interest while their directors fled the country with the investments or were arrested for fraud.

"I said that without fatwas against interest, this would never have happened - an ordinary bank was said to be haram (sinful) because it was demanding interest, so the poor people put their money into the 'Islamic' companies. This interpretation of holy teachings made people lose their rationality." What Abuzaid did not know was that a counsellor on one of the fattest and most bankrupt of the front companies, the Rayan Islamic Investment Co, was none other than Abdul-Sabour Chahine, the man who opposed his promotion and first accused him of being an "apostate" - one who renounces his faith. "I think when Chahine came to this part of my book, he became academically blind, like a primitive animal, hitting out at everything."

Abuzaid calls the Appeals Court decision "a disaster for the whole of our Egyptian society as well as for us" but notes sadly that the highest Islamic scholars in the land have either remained silent or tacitly accepted the verdict.

"There is an allegory here for all of us. On Monday, they tried to kill President Mubarak, our political leader, with guns. Last year, Naguib Mahfouz (the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist) who is a symbol of literary activity, was attacked by men with knives. And now it's me, a scholar, whose personal life is being attacked with a court verdict.

"This is an attempt at political, creative and intellectual destruction - if they destroy these three psychological pillars, they might be able to break the unity of Egyptian society. You must understand something: the people who make literal interpretations of the Koran take literally what the Koran says about a man being allowed four wives. Now the Koran, in its time, was very just for women. They had been treated worse than slaves and the Koran said they must be treated with fairness and justice - it was the first Arabic text which distinguished between men and women (earlier texts used the male pronoun only) and this was the message. It says you must be fair - and that should mean one wife, not four as the text says. So the real meaning of the Koran is not necessarily the literal meaning."

If one of the principal problems with Islamic teaching today is its demand for obedience, even subservience - "Islam" means "submission" - then Professor Abuzaid has struck at the heart of theological debate. And he intends to go on fighting. With the help of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights - which has expressed its abhorrence at a ruling "which could put the lives of Dr Abuzaid and his wife in danger from the Islamic groups who believe that it is their duty to immediately carry out the death penalty against an apostate" - the professor is taking his case to the Supreme Court, insisting that he still has faith in the Egyptian legal system.

He met his wife when she was just 21, impressed that a foreign language student spoke such impeccable Arabic, and married her in 1991 after renewing her acquaintance at a conference held, ironically, to honour Naguib Mahfouz. Round their sitting room are Arabic paintings and copies of works by Goya and Picasso. So how, I asked his wife, did she - a woman who grew up reading Racine and Balzac - respond to the hatred of Koranic literalists?

"Why talk about Racine?" she snapped. "Why don't you mention Camus or Sartre or Kafka? Their texts are very pale in comparison to what we are going through. The writers of the absurd could never have written this. To think that they missed what we are living through - poor Kafka!"

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