Freedom of academic research:

From confiscation to charges of apostasy


1. Events from the committee report to the divorce case

The events of the crisis began in May 1992 when Dr. Abu Zayd presented his academic publications to the Standing Committee of Academic Tenure and Promotion for advancement to the position of full professor. These publications included the books, Imam Shafai and the Founding of Medieval Ideology and The Critique of Religious Discourse, in addition to eleven other studies published in several Arab and foreign journals. The committee prepared three reports on Dr. Abu Zayd's research, two of them in favor of his promotion based on his obvious efforts to propel the Islamic community forwards and his ability to productively interact with the Islamic tradition. However, the third report, submitted by Dr. Abdel-Sabur Shahin, resembled those of the Spanish Inquisition. The report was not based on an intellectual critique of the contents of Dr. Abu Zayd's research, but rather on an investigation into his intentions by which it sought to establish the illegitimacy of Abu Zayd's application for promotion on the basis that his research consisted of 'clear affronts to the Islamic faith.' The report also criticized the orthodoxy of Abu Zayd's faith.

Basing its decision solely on the negative report, the Committee ruled seven votes to six that Abu Zayd's publications did not justify promotion. The Council of the Arabic Department prepared a report stating its objection to the committee's decision. The Council of the Faculty of Arts also submitted a report detailing its procedural concerns regarding the Tenure and Promotion Committee report. However, the Council of Cairo University, in a meeting on 18 March 1993, adopted the Committee report.

At that point, the case was completely transported outside the confines of Cairo University and provoked intense debate among intellectuals. It is understandable that in the prevailing climate of religious fanaticism, the tenure battle would lead to charges against Abu Zayd of apostasy, and consequently to threats against his life. An escalation of the crisis occurred when a lawyer brought a suit before the Giza Lower Personal Status Court calling for the divorce of Abu Zayd from his wife, Dr. Ibthal Younis, on the grounds of his alleged apostasy. Attempts were began to involve al-Azhar in the ongoing battle. However, on 27 January 1994, the Giza Personal Status Court ruled against accepting the divorce suit because the plaintiff had no direct, personal interest in the matter.

It should be noted that on 31 May 1995 -- two weeks before the divorce ruling -- the Cairo University Council decided to promote Abu Zayd to full professorship after the matter was reviewed by the Academic Committee which said:

After reviewing the works submitted by Dr. Abu Zayd 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, Quranic 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 fas as possible.

This report appears to put a finger at the core of the current crisis, a crisis whose danger extends further than the ruling of apostasy and divorce, but which also threatens to drag civilization backwards by denying the community's need for free and creative intellectual work and by establishing the domination of inflexible and fanatical ideas. Abu Zayd's only crime is that he used his mind, giving free rein to his intellect, and undertook critical interpretation in an age which does not tolerate critical interpretation.

2. The general climate in which the ruling was made

The ruling was made in a general climate of armed violence and intellectual terrorism, unknown to our country for decades. It expresses a situation of intellectual and cultural retreat from the values of enlightenment and progress. The ground is being paved for a flood of values of intolerance, fanaticism, and intellectual inflexibility which attempt to rehabilitate interpretations by material scholars of jurisprudence and subject society to their concepts.

Closing the door on critical interpretation grants a sacred quality to these interpretations and commentaries and prevents personal interpretations suppressing, the freedom to doubt the opinions of ancestors. This is a basic freedom for scientific, intellectual, and cultural advancement. Thus, the realm of 'rationalism' gives way to the domination of uncritical 'transmission' of tradition, leaving Muslims no choice but to conform to tradition. This imitation leads to fanaticism and inflexibility whereby Muslims are declared apostates.

What befell our ancestors many years ago in the times of cultural backwardness, happened also at the turn of the twentieth century and is happening now at the end of the century. Although a certain trend to make Islam in keeping with the spirit of the age was introduced by many religious innovators and reformers such as Gamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mohamed Abduh, Rashid Rida and others, it was not accepted by nor encouraged by Islamic jurisprudents.

In the 1920's, there was a heated controversy over the freedom of intellectuals. Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razek was taken to court on the basis of his book Islam and the Principles of Government, one of the rare books that managed to influence the intellectual atmosphere in the first half of the twentieth century. Abdel-Razek was accused of being a heretic and he was dismissed from al-Azhar University and never attempted to publish another edition of his book.

In 1932, Taha Hussein was dismissed from the University after a dispute that lasted for six years over his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry. A group of extremists reported him to the Public Prosecutor demanding the book destroyed, the author to be prosecuted, and that he be dismissed from the university. Hussein was accused of apostasy on the basis that he dealt with the case of Ibrahim and Ismail in the Quran, the seven readings, and the lineage of the Prophet Mohamed.

Having examined the case, the prosecutor, Mohamed Nour, who was assigned to question Hussein reported that: 'the objective of the author, Taha Hussein, was not to merely challenge religion. The core sentences in the book dealing with religion are there for the sake of enhancing the academic research. Since the criminal intention is not valid, the case is dismissed.' (Abdel Latif Mohamed, Political Jurisprudence in Egypt, Part III, 1927 Edition, p. 1067-1073).

Compared to the cultural climate of the 1930's, the 1980's and the 1990's are characterized by chaos and extremism. Dr. Ahmed Sobhy 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 on the truth of some of the Prophet Mohamed's sayings, or Hadith.

Chaos and extremism have acquired an incredible force in the 1990's. The climax of the denial of freedom of thought was reached when the court ruled Abu Zayd an apostate and that he must be divorced from his wife, although he announced his adherence to the creed of Islam.

CHRLA is concerned that this ruling might lead to the strengthening of extremism and intellectual inflexibility, a climate that threatens the values of religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and expression. Such a climate could lead to further rulings of apostasy by Egyptian courts which, in turn, could be damaging to Egyptian society. Most significantly, these accusations serve only to legalize extremism.


Introduction | Parts 1,2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Conclusion

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