In the age of Islamic literalism we should remember the Egyptian scholar who fought back

Listening to Abu Zeid’s words today, they might have been used to condemn Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Isis pronouncements – or indeed the army of Saudi Arabian imams who preach the Salafist-Wahhabi cause so beloved of Isis

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the age of Isis, we should remember Nasr Abu Zeid. He was a hero of his time, who would, had he lived – now that the Salafist cult has been let loose in the Europe of his exile as well as the Egypt that was his home – have long ago been murdered. Before I telephoned him for the first time in Cairo, I wondered if he’d be still alive to talk to me by the time I reached his home.

Almost exactly 22 years ago, I rang the bell and it was his wife Ibtihal who opened the door in a tired way, weary beyond her 37 years, pointing to the sitting room where her husband was waiting to explain to me why they wouldn’t divorce each other. The price was already high. Islamists had called for his death. Others had accused Ibtihal of “fornication” because she refused to leave the husband she had been told to divorce by the Egyptian Appeals Court and was thus living out of wedlock.

But it was worse than that. The court ordered the couple to separate – for if they merely divorced, they would be able to remarry and Professor Nasr Abu Zeid couldn’t be allowed to do that because, officially, he had been branded an ‘apostate’. So ever since Judge Farouq Abdul-Ali – an Islamist appointee of the Justice Ministry – gave his verdict, cops from the Interior Ministry had been guarding the Abu Zeids from attack. Hence the cop at the front door, one branch of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government defending an Egyptian couple from another branch of the Egyptian government, a circumstance that was as preposterous as it was obscene.

Every Egyptian – every Arab, indeed every Muslim in the Middle East – knew the deeply shaming saga of the Abu Zeids, although these people do not speak of it today. He was a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, she a lecturer in the history of Spanish art and French civilization, a French diplomat’s daughter who graduated from the Sorbonne, both now ordered by the state court to separate on the grounds that Nasr – in a university paper that won him his professorship – denied the reliability of the Quran as a literal text. The man behind the charges was one of Abu Zeid’s own academic colleagues, a third-rate television Muslim evangelist who claimed that Nasr had “set himself up as an opponent of all the tenets of religious discourse”.

But let’s have a look at Nasr Abu Zeid’s original sin – which has much to do with Isis and the doctrine of infallibility that every Islamist cultist now flourishes before throat-cutting his way across the landscape. Abu Zeid himself had been a university teacher for 20 years and had published highly respected works on 9th century Muslim theologians and the 13th century mystic Mohieddin Ibn Al-Arabi. But Abu Zeid’s ‘crime’ was to state boldly in his work that “from the minute of its descent from God to the minute the Prophet recited it, the Quran changed from a divine text to a human one…” The professor opposed the literalism with which so many conservative Muslims interpreted the Quran, insisting instead that its teachings should be seen in the context of the Arab world 1,400 years ago and read with enlightenment rather than unquestioning obedience to every phrase.

There were other problems – Abu Zeid almost certainly infuriated corrupt Egyptian bankers who had fleeced investors with ‘Islamic’ front companies and then fled the country. But now it was Nasr Abu Zeid who had to contemplate exile. Islamists had just tried to assassinate Mubarak. A year earlier, the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was attacked by men with knives. “There is an attempt at political, creative and intellectual destruction,” Abu Zeid said. “If they destroy these three psychological pillars, they might be able to break the unity of Egyptian society.”

And here, as he sat in the bleak sanctuary of his police-guarded home, is what Abu Zeid said about the Quran: “The people who make literal interpretations of the Quran take literally what the Quran says about a man being allowed four wives. Now the Quran, in its time, was very just for women. They had been treated worse than slaves and the Quran 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 Quran is not necessarily the literal meaning.”

Abu Zeid met his wife when she was only 21, impressed that a French foreign language student spoke such impeccable Arabic. Around their Cairo home were Arabic paintings and copies of works by Goya and Picasso. Like the Algerian warrior, the Emir Abdelkader, they made no divisions between eastern and western culture. So how, I asked Ibtihal Abu Zeid, did she – who grew up reading Racine and Balzac – respond to the hatred of Quranic literalists? “Why on earth do you talk about Racine?” she snapped at me. “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!”

So the Abu Zeids were forced to flee for their lives from their homeland, just as tens of thousands of Isis victims have fled the cult’s literalist psychosis and violence in Iraq and Syria. It’s worth noting the disgraceful judgment of Egypt’s penal court – that Abu Zeid’s denunciation of the ownership of slave girls was “contrary to all the divine texts which permit such provided that the required conditions [sic] are met”. This is truly Isis-like in its simplicity – did not Isis turn their female Christian and Yazidi prisoners into slaves?

Nasr and Ibtihal Abu Zeid flew first to Spain and then to Holland, where Leiden University gave this brave man a visiting professorship. More than a year after I had first met him, I travelled to the Netherlands to speak to him again about his struggle for humanist reinterpretation – which is what he preferred to call his work. We met in the café of Leiden railway station. “If you consider the situation in the Muslim world, the absolute absence of political freedom and the failure of the all the projects which were started by socialism, communism, nationalism…” he began. Absolute failure! The poor Muslim citizen finally got nothing – and was deprived of his liberty to think – forty years with the absolute absence of democracy, of liberty! Only one voice was allowed. We had to echo the voice: the president, the king, whatever. Obedience to the ruler became some sort of religious conviction. So obedience here is the key word.”

Listening again to Abu Zeid’s words today, they might have been used to condemn Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Isis pronouncements – or indeed the army of Saudi Arabian imams who preach the Salafist-Wahhabi cause so beloved of Isis. After the disaster of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Abu Zeid said, Muslims were taught that they were defeated because they were not sincere in their religion. “And of course, here comes the discourse of political Islamists to make something that’s called the Islamic renaissance – so there is a renaissance which is opposed to the Western renaissance. Here it comes, the Islamisation of knowledge – instead of the modernisation of Islamic thought!”

Flying into exile, Abu Zeid was in a state of fury. “In the plane, I was very angry,” he said. “And I told my wife: ‘If I die in any place – in Holland, in Spain – just bury my body where I die. Don’t think about taking my body back to Egypt. I would like very much to be buried in Egypt, of course. But don’t do this, because you might face some idiots talking about ‘is it legal to have the farewell prayer on his body as a Muslim, or not?’ Don’t do this to yourself, or to me. And at the end, all the lands – it’s the earth of God! …I’m still angry and I think part of my anger is working on more writing and just go[ing] on fighting.”

He did go on writing and fighting. He occasionally, in some fear, returned to see his family in Egypt. But in Indonesia seven years ago, he caught an unidentified virus and was brought home to Egypt, where he died and was buried in his birthplace of Quhafa, not far from Tanta – where an Isis suicide bomber exploded a bomb outside a Coptic church less than two months ago, killing 27 Christians. In the end, he was indeed laid in what he called “the earth of God”. He was lucky to escape “martyrdom” himself.