Book banning in Egypt targets a Muslim moderate
A religious council last month condemned a treatise on how Muslims can better integrate into non-Islamic nations.
Egypt's highest religious authorities recommended banning several books and magazines, including a work by a moderate Islamic author calling for a more open interpretation of Islam.
In the now blacklisted book, "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State," author Gamal al-Banna suggests ways for Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere to integrate into non-Islamic societies. He argues that it would be permissible for women to cover their hair with a hat, rather than a head scarf, and recommends men use an early Islamic tradition of temporary marriages, legal in the Shiite sect, to avoid intercourse outside of wedlock.
Such ideas, deemed to "differ from the consensus of religious scholars," prompted the Al Azhar Islamic Research Council to call for the book's banning last month. The council reviews books sent to it by security services and recommends about 10 to 15 books be banned every year on the grounds that they are unIslamic or insulting to the religion.
The incident illustrates the ongoing tension between conservative Islamic authorities and those advocating for a more moderate approach to the religion. The attempt to stifle moderates like Mr. Banna is a setback for a chorus of critics inside and outside the Muslim world who want leaders to confront the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic militancy.
"[Banna] is becoming increasingly important," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and professor at the American University in Cairo. "He argues very forcefully that Islam needs reform. For centuries there has been no revision of the rules of sharia [Islamic law]."
This is not the first time Banna has raised the ire of Al Azhar. Only a few years ago, he published a three volume work entitled "Towards a New Jurisprudence" that called for total reevaluation of Islamic law. He is also the brother of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood from which most present day militant Islamic movements take their inspiration. Gamal al-Banna, however, has much more moderate views of the religion than his sibling.
"We must open the doors for the freedom of thought without any restrictions at all," Banna says. "Even if one wants to deny the existence of God."
Banna, who considers himself a believer, talks of the need for more outside influences in Islam and Islamic culture.
"We can read and learn more from European culture and history - from all human culture," he says. "Islam is the last of the religions, but it must not be a closed box, it must be a kind of open road."
According to Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert on Islam at the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, Banna is an important part of a movement to reform Islam that has been around for over a century.
"All the innovators of Islamic thought in the 19th century until now talked about the need to liberate methods of religious interpretation," says Mr. Abdel Fattah.
While some religious scholars have come to Banna's defense in print, his ideas are far outside the views of religious institutions - though these sorts of ideas have support elsewhere in society among liberals, communists, and Arab nationalist groups.
Banna has written about the need to reexamine the traditional sources for Islamic law, such as the hadith (the sayings of the prophet Muhammad), to bring the religion back to its original form.
"The Islam which Muslims think is their religion is not the Islam from God and the prophet, it is the Islam of the jurists," he says referring to the religious scholars who have interpreted Islamic law over the past 1,400 years. "It is quite different from the Islam of the Koran."
Banna points out that many customs associated with Islam, such as the need for the head scarf and death sentences for apostates, are not from the Koran but come rather from hadiths of questionable veracity.
Al Azhar's ban recommendations are not always implemented by governments, but booksellers say that these days they prefer to remove books regardless to avoid any trouble.
"We can't risk selling [Banna's book] now, because we can get into trouble," says an employee at a major downtown Cairo bookstore. "This has happened before and the [owner], got into trouble."
Banna blames the state for giving Al Azhar this power. After all, Al Azhar only reviews books submitted by the state.
"The government and the Islamic institution of Azhar are quite allied," he says. "The government speaks about Al Azhar as the banner of Islam and Al Azhar praises the government and tells the people to obey it because this is Islam."
But Banna says he is undeterred by the ruling and continues to write books that suggest a different approach to the religion. He says that perhaps Al Azhar's opposition might even help.
"My ideas are not well known, only after these bans do they become popular," he says, indicating the debate sparked in the newspapers by the whole affair.