Moderate Islam: Koranic exegesis

Once a student of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Dr. Tawfik Hamid is now a preacher of tolerance.

Tawfik Hamid 1 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tawfik Hamid 1 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Want to know how to turn radical Muslims into tolerant Muslims? Ask someone who has gone through that transformation. Tawfik Hamid joined Jema'a Islamiya more than 20 years ago, while he was in medical school in Cairo. He listened intently to lessons from Ayman al-Zawahiri - who would go on to become the No. 2 man in al-Qaida - and others whose radicalism forced the Egyptian government to outlaw the group. "Many of us became attracted to God and religion because we used to see the anatomy room and cadavers on a daily basis," Hamid tells The Jerusalem Post via telephone from the DC area. "The Islamists would tell us that this world is nothing, that only the next life matters. To see cadavers every day, it made us think of the afterlife and want to avoid hell. Also, we used to see diseases at work and many felt that, as a way of thanking God for our not having diseases, we should fast and pray and whatnot. In fact, the Islamists would threaten that those who did not obey would be stricken by Allah with these terrible diseases." Hamid continued to be influenced by the group's exhortations to extreme piety - and to benefit from the cheap textbooks that it distributed to the medical students - until a particular incident shook him from its grasp. "Some of them were planning in front of me to kidnap a police officer and dig a grave for him near the mosque and bury him alive. I felt that this was wrong. So I took a step back and started to think more critically about all the things I had been taught." When Hamid started preaching about Islam as a tolerant, peace-loving religion, he was chased from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and eventually to the United States. Now the 47-year-old doctor lives in Washington, writing essays on radical Islam for various think tanks and speaking to government agencies about his experiences. He has authored a new book called Inside Jihad, and founded the movement ISLAM: the Islamic Society for Liberty and Modernity. He is also preparing a modern commentary on the Koran - "like a Torah commentary, if you will" - that will provide moderate interpretations of the verses commonly used to justify jihad and intolerance. Far from fighting Islam, Hamid believes it is necessary rather to teach Muslims to embrace the positive elements of their faith. "Just rejecting Islam is not going to solve the problem," he says. "There are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, and they're not going to just abandon Islam. What we need is moderation and tolerance, otherwise we will all be in big trouble." AS FOR ANTI-SEMITISM, Hamid says the cure is in the Koran itself. "Most of the prophets of Islam come from the Jews. So to slander Jews is to insult most of the prophets in Islam," he says. "There are also many verses in the Koran that are quite laudatory concerning the Jews." Of the verse traditionally used to denigrate Jews, calling them monkeys and pigs, Hamid says: "In the Koran, the word 'Jew' is not included in the verse at all; it is put there by those who want to apply the verse to all Jews today. Actually, the verse is referring to a certain village of Jews who disobeyed the Torah. So it was a very specific verse about a small group of Jews, who rejected not Muhammad but Moses." Hamid deals similarly with the infamous command to "kill the infidels... wherever you find them." "I asked myself, 'What am I supposed to do, kill my Christian neighbor just because she doesn't wear the hijab?' In reexamining the verses, I realized that all the verses that talk about violence against infidels are not general, as they are usually explained, but very specific and relating only to a certain period in the past." Key to Hamid's message is that the Koran is far more flexible than it is made out to be. "People think that the Koran is absolute. But the Koran itself says it is not absolute," he says. "As it says, 'Follow the better of what God has revealed to you...' In some times and in some places, one verse is preferable to the other... When you talk to a Muslim today, he cannot defend the religion's human rights record, because of the amputations prescribed as punishments, and whatnot... But the Koran talks of what is acceptable among humankind. So now, if you say that humankind does not accept certain traditional practices, you have Koranic justification to reject such things as cutting off the hands of thieves." Consider that good news for convicts in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are still commonplace. Among the rank and file, though, how far can Hamid's message penetrate? "Before 9/11, when Islamists were arrogant and booming, and Muslims felt they were going to control the world, they rejected everything I said. Now, Muslims have two options: to lose Islam entirely, or to accept a moderate interpretation. Muslims today are in a state of shock. They are under attack. Sometimes they become more radical because they don't have an alternative. But I can tell that there are a growing number of Muslims who are ready to welcome more liberal interpretations." Ultimately, Hamid believes, it comes down to self-preservation. "If you have a son and he is exposed every day to the message that Islam is violent and radical and intolerant," he says, "you have two options - you can tell him, yes, we have to kill people, etc. - and the chances are 95 percent that you will lose him as a Muslim. Or, you can tell him that there is a way to interpret Islam peacefully." That is precisely what Hamid is preaching. He is even preparing a curriculum for Muslim day schools that focuses on critical thinking skills that, he hopes, will "protect children's brains from violence." It's a major shift in teaching, and one for which he has already paid a price. But Hamid remains optimistic. "On an individual level the response I get is very positive," he says. "Twenty years ago they wanted to kill me for saying these things. Now I am being hugged for it."