The Big Pharaoh
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Friday, August 12, 2005

Why we're in the mess we're in?

I was discussing the current events with a friend. "What do you think is the solution to what we're in?" he asked. "Islam must change" I answered.

He gave me a look that said that he wasn't expecting such a straight forward simple answer.

"Islam must change just as Christianity and Judaism changed" I continued. "Religious reform cannot be separated from political reform. In fact, I consider it to be much more important."

Around 600 years ago, a guy named Martin Luther discovered that something was wrong. Rabbis who were part of the Jewish reform movement also discovered that something was wrong. I really think it is about time for Muslim leaders to finally wake up to the fact that something is definitely wrong here. When the so called "Islamic law" or "Shariah law" strick so much fear in many Muslims before non-Muslims then surely something is wrong with it and that there is a huge possibility God is not happy about it too!

What is really needed here is a reinterpretation of Islamic law and what constitutes as the "right Islamic way of life". There are some things that can never change throughout history. The 5 pillars of Islam and the basic message of the religion cannot be changed. However, issues such as judiciary law, personal affairs laws, rituals, relation between mosque and state, personal freedoms, etc can definitely be subjected to reinterpretation and to the furnace of reform.

Who is talking?

I believe the main reason why we don't hear much about religious reform is because the wrong people are discussing this issue. Apart of the hardcore terrorists who claim that they are carrying out God's orders, currently there are 3 people who are involved in the "Islamic discourse":

Mainstream religious clerics: These folks form the bulk of the religious clerics. Many of them are clerics by profession who want to earn a living. They preach what a normal preacher preaches, yet very few will dare to think differently. Changing Islamic law is not on their agenda. Many of them consider the idea of changing Islamic law as blasphemy, others just don't think about the issue.

If one of them talked about reform and altering Islam's 1400 years old status quo, he gets persecuted and disowned by those who gave him his degree: the Al Azhar University, the world's largest Sunni institute that has a habit of silencing any voice that calls for reform even if this voice came from a secularist or from one of its own students.

Non-religious intellectuals: By these I mean intellectuals and authors who do not belong to the religious establishment. They are the most outspoken and might be the only ones calling for a change in Islam today.

These guys were so powerful in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. In these periods, Egypt's upper and middle classes listened to these folks due to the fact that Egyptians were more liberal back then and were more able to brush aside what Al Azhar and the "religious folks" were saying.

Today, this group almost lost its voice because of 2 main reasons. One, our consecutive dictatorships paralyzed our intellectual community and wiped out those who think. Second, the foul superficial wave of religiosity that is currently sweeping across the nation made the message of those intellectuals less appealing to the public. For example, if you told my grandma when she was 20 to don the hijab, she would have told you to sod off because Mr. Qassim Amin (prominent women rights defender) said that covering up a woman was something of the past and that she believes God looks beyond what's on her hair. Now, today if you went up to an average veiled Egyptian girl and told her that the hijab is not a religious obligatory, she will probably call you an infidel who doesn't read his/her Quran. You get the idea?

Religious reformers: These are our hope, reformers who were born out of the religious establishment. Clerics and Islamic thinkers who will stand up and declare that we must witness drastic changes in Islam. Martin Luther was a priest; the Jewish reformers were rabbis, Islam's reformers must be Sheikhs.

However, as mentioned above, the mainstream religious establishment persecutes and silences those people. They have done that to an excellent reformer who lived in the 19th century, Mohamed Abdou. And they have done the same thing 20 years ago with one of Al Azhar's professors, Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour. Anyone who calls for a different interpretation of Islam gets demonized.

Unless we witness the rise of religious reformers, this part of the world will stay well behind for a very long time.


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