‘Awaiting Abu Zayd’

Religious sectarianism has a particularly bitter taste, and Egypt is presently witnessing one of its darkest chapters amid a spread of religious bigotry. But this is not new; a chronicle of brutality against religious minorities stains Egyptian history. What is new, however, is the hope for a better future brought about by the January 25 revolution.

Amid our daily struggle and political skirmishes, we seem to have lost faith in this revolution, or forgot its meaning altogether. Historian James Collins reminded us of the meaning of revolution by quoting French dictionarians, Emille Littre and Antoine Furetiere, who defined it in the 17th and 18th centuries. For Furetiere, a revolution is a change of spirit. For Littre, it is a “system of opinions composed of hostility to the past and the search for new future by opposition to the conservative system.” The past two years have made it clear that, for Egypt, the revolutionary promise, the change of spirit, the step towards a new future cannot be attained without renewing the way we think.

These are not exactly my words, but are inspired by the great Egyptian thinker, Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd. In an Ahram Weekly article, Zayd wrote in 2002 that “if we want to create a society which is based on freedom and justice, we will have to change the way we think.” And this is exactly the revolution that we are awaiting.

“Awaiting Abu Zayd” is the title of a documentary by the Syrian director Mohamed Ali Attasi. The documentary was first screened right after Abu Zayd’s death in 2010. Attasi followed Abu Zayd for 6 years. From an aesthetic perspective, the documentary suffers greatly; it ascribes more to low-budget television reportages than creative film-making. But Abu Zayd’s presence, his sense of humor, and most importantly his ideas make this one of the most important visual documents today when the country is tripping on ignorance and religious fascism.

The film, most importantly, speaks to us of Abu Zayd’s own project, his call to open the doors of freedom, allowing scholars and students to research freely in our Islamic heritage, critique our past, in order to fight societal intolerance, sectarianism, and sexism in the name of Islam.

Egypt has been pulled back by those who believe that Islamic discourse is static, that we need to copy the past, not critique it, and that any change or renewal of the religious thought is apostasy.  Amid this environment of religious conservatism, Abu Zayd himself was persecuted for his views on Quran and his calls for renewing Islamic thought.

Abu Zayd was accused of apostasy and faced a hisba trial in 1995, when the court ordered his divorce from his wife, French literature Professor, Ibtihal Younis. Ibtihal’s heroic presence in Abu Zayd’s life and intellectual journey are vividly demonstrated in the film. She reveals the reasons behind Abu Zayd’s prosecution; “had he been an atheist, they would have left him alone. They know quite well that he is not, but he poses a great danger to them, because he wants to enlighten the minds.” Abu Zayd, like Ibtihal attests, posed a threat to the gate keepers of religious conservatism.

The hisba trial, says Abu Zayd, was meant to humiliate him by taking aim at his wife. After the trial, Ibtihal narrates how Abdel Sabbour Shahin, who led the battle against Abu Zayd, wrote an article to celebrate his “victory” titled, “the woman was divorced.” Ibtihal responded by another article under the title, “the subject has been objectified.” Ibtihal explains how Shahin and those like-minded Islamists objectify women, treating her as a mere sexual tool. The inherent sexism in Shahin’s writings is part of a greater religious discourse that Abu Zayd was fighting.

Abu Zayd’s ideas are threatening because they call for a renewal of the rigid religious discourse that attracts supporters who thrive on intolerance and bigotry. “The rigid understanding of religious thought… could be an obstacle to progress,” Abu Zayd claims in the film. The core of this rigidity is the present mainstream approach to religious texts, especially the Quran.

The rigid interpretation and anachronistic approach to religious texts are the main culprits of societal ills today. In a lecture at the University of Leiden, Abu Zayd spoke against the abuse of Quranic recitation and the literal interpretation of the text. He eloquently explained how “the Quran as a mode of communication between God and man teaches us something more beyond ‘law’ and ‘politics’ in the narrow sense of the two terms. It teaches us that the literal interpretation means that we lock the word of God in the moments of its historical annunciation.” In saying these words, Abu Zayd challenges those who resort to literal interpretation in order to promote regressive ideas, subduing the text to their own bigotry. They also recite the Quran, according to Abu Zayd, not to communicate with God, but to spread their ideologies and attain political gains.

After millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand their freedom, they are now faced with a dark reality, where sexual assaults on women and prosecution of religious minorities are sanctioned by bearded men, who claim to be speaking the word of God. To get out of this debacle, however, we need to revive Abu Zayd’s ideas. “The call for the renewal of religious discourse should be seen as part of the more general call for freedom,” Abu Zayd once wrote. The renewal of religious thought has to be an essential component of our revolutionary demands.

It has never been more obvious that without a bold engagement with the dominant religious discourse, the dream of freedom and justice will never be attained.

Dina K. Hussein is an Egypt Independent editor.

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