The controversy of blasphemy in Egypt

“Blasphemy is a fascist law. It is a legacy of the Spanish Inquisition courts.”

A MAN walks past a graffiti of verses from the Koran at downtown in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN walks past a graffiti of verses from the Koran at downtown in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An Egyptian court sentenced the Islamic scholar and theologian Islam al-Buhairi to a year in prison for blasphemy. He was accused of insulting Islam on his TV show With Islam Al-Buhairi. Buhairi questioned “Islamic heritage.”
The sentence against Buhairi was softened from five years to one. His lawyer, Jamil Saad, told AFP: “Islam al-Buhairi didn’t insult religions because the pillars of Islam are the Koran, Allah and the Day of Judgment and he didn’t come close to these circles at all.”
Engaged in a demonstration of Egyptian liberal intellectuals against the conviction of Buhairi, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah Nasr said: “Blasphemy is a fascist law. It is a legacy of the Spanish Inquisition courts.”
What did Buhairi actually do? He criticized several books of Islamic interpretation that, according to him, include radical interpretations of the Koran and the Sunna. He argued in his program that these radical interpretations constitute the basis for extremist organizations such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida.
According to Buhairi, “The followers [of the prophet] have no sanctity. They were men and we are men,” referring to the need to scrutinize the hadith collections of Muhammad al-Bukhari and Muslim al-Hajjaj, Persian Islamic scholars who lived in the ninth century.
The former authored the hadith collection Sahih Al-Bukhari, including 7,257 sayings and acts of the prophet Muhammad, whereas the latter authored the hadith collection Sahih Muslim, including 9,200 acts and sayings of Muhammad.
Buhairi called for examining the interpretations of other men. He also demanded that Islamic scholars stop taking Islamic sources for granted, because they sometimes contain discriminatory, violence-inciting and illogical arguments.
“They had opinions which we would never be able to imagine. This is what we inherited.“All the bloodiness, killing, sectarianism, backwardness and extremism we are living have jurisprudential basis and [are] not related to the manuscript,” Buhairi explained.
Furthermore, he accused Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, of doing nothing to reform the traditional curriculum of Al-Azhar and limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the school. Fatwas (Islamic rulings) of Al-Azhar, al-Buhairi claims, don’t cope with contemporary developments and ways of life followed by the Egyptian citizens.
While the university refused to call IS militants infidels (kafer), claiming not to have the right to call Muslims infidels no matter what their sins are, it initiated court proceedings against Buhairi. Consequently, an Al-Azhar committee, on behalf of Sheikh Tayeb, filed a case against Buhari in April 2015 for “calling the precepts of religion in question and inciting a communal strife among Muslims.”
Al-Azhar’s media center told Egypt Independent that the university rejects Buhairi’s views, describing him as abnormal and deliberately undermining the imams and scholars of Islam. Buhairi, according to Al-Azhar scholarship, is ignorant or unaware of the great Islamic heritage, which has enriched the Islamic library and even the world.
Egyptian hard-line Salafist Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini described Buhairi as ignorant and as thinking “Christians are not infidels.” The Salafi Muhammad Hassan said: “Throughout history, those who fought against Allah and his messenger have never succeeded.”
It is noteworthy that after hundreds of years as an independent institution, Al-Azhar was nationalized in 1961 by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since that time, Al-Azhar has become inseparable from the government.
It has become the official institution overseeing cultural and educational materials related to the Islamic faith.
In a speech to Al-Azhar scholars in January 2015, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Sisi said: “We are in need of a religious revolution [...] That thinking – I am not saying “religion” but “thinking” – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have made sacred over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.”
Buhairi’s statements can be seen as a part of a campaign to renew the Islamic discourse initiated by Sisi upon his presidential win in 2014. Controversially, Sisi needs Al-Azhar, which is responsible for the content of sermons in more than 140,000 mosques across Egypt.
Thus Sisi pointed out clearly that all changes in religious discourse should be within the framework of the state apparatus and headed by Al-Azhar.
In response to Buhairi’s thoughts, Sisi said in April, “When I spoke about religious discourse, I just posed a title and did not go into detail,” claiming that he doesn’t agree with Buhairi’s statements.
While a spirit of critical thinking can be detected in the writings of many Egyptian intellectuals about sensitive religion-related topics, these intellectuals have been systematically subjected to hate campaigns and crimes, according to the Human Rights Watch. Here are two examples: • Professor Farag Foda, an activist in the field of human rights, was assassinated by Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in 1992, not because of his atheism and infidelity, but because of his harsh criticism of the violence of the armed Islamic groups. Foda was a critic of religious intolerance, and his murderers, religious zealots, proved him right.
• Liberal Egyptian theologian and university professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd also suffered major religious persecution in the 1990s and fled to the Netherlands for safety. His “crime” was his academic work. When certain individuals refused to accept his academic research, they took it to the Egyptian court instead of open debate. The court declared him an apostate and ruled that he could not remain married to his wife Ibtihal Younis, a French literature professor. The logic behind the forced divorce is that Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims.
Constitutionally, blasphemy (contempt of monotheistic religions) is based on Article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which was added in 1982 and amended in 2006.
According to this law, citizens who insult or ridicule heavenly religions, propagate extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, or contribute to damaging national unity can be confined for a period of no less than six months and no more than five years.
This is a legal license for the Egyptian state and its religious institutions to persecute their own intellectuals.
The writer is a lecturer in journalism, intercultural communication and the politics and culture of the Middle East at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg and the editor-in-chief of Mashreq Politics and Culture. He specializes in application of religion to political life and discourse in the Middle East.