01/28/2011, 00.00
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Egyptian revolt not only political but also spiritual and Islamic

by Samir Khalil Samir
Muslim intellectuals and theologians draw the prospects for a change even in Islam: the value of women and fraternisation of sexes; rejection of fundamentalist Salafism, seeking a religion of the heart and freedom, against the formalism of the veil, the beard and abstruse ritual practices. And above all, they welcome secularism, the separation of Islam from politics.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The "document on the renewal of Islam" published by the magazine "The seventh day" (see 26/01/2011 Egyptian Imams and intellectuals: Renewing Islam towards modernity) is attracting great interest on the Internet. In one day alone it was published by at least 12,400 Arab websites. Each of these sites received many comments from the public.

We must clarify one point of which we received confirmation today: yesterday we attributed the document directly to 23 figures from the Islamic world. In fact, the 23 figures are not really signatories: the document was prepared by the magazine according to indications received from more than 23 people interviewed. For each of the 22 items listed there are also comments and explanations that make it clearer and more profound.

The importance of the document lies foremost in the themes indicated by the 23 scholars and the magazine’s attempt to launch an interesting project of reform in Islamic discourse.

Of course, it is worrying to see that 88% are opposed to the document, with about 12% favourable. However among those who are against it, there are those opposed to just one or two points.

Another interesting aspect is that this project of reform of Islam was published Jan. 24, one day before the outbreak of demonstrations in Egypt. These protests have economic and political roots. This means that in addition to current politics, there is an intellectual current that is fed up with the Islam that has spread in the last 30 years in the country, an "externalized" Islam that puts the emphasis on external things (clothing, beard, veil, etc. ..). This shows that there is a global movement - both spiritual and political - in Egypt that wants to transform the country. And since it is a leading country in the Middle Eastern world, one can expect that the changes in act in Cairo will spread throughout the region. Perhaps the same demonstrations that are taking place on the streets of the capital will have an influence on this "externalized" Islam.

Now we come to our comments on some of the more important points.  

Fraternisation of the sexes

Take, for example, point 3, which talks about the fraternisation of the sexes. Their commentary states that the ulema should take into account the circumstances in which this takes place and ensure it is in accordance with sharia. If fraternisation of the sexes is a necessity, then there is no problem. But if there is no need, then it is bad. They cite an example: there are male and female students in university. Since this is a necessity of study, there is no problem in the fraternisation of male and female students. The same applies to the workplace. What is absolutely sinful is a man and a woman finding themselves alone, touching, hugging.

On the contrary, hardliners reject any form of fraternisation. In Saudi Arabia, male university students sit in front of the professor; female students are in another room, and follow the lesson via television monitor.

The reformist declaration, however, argues that Islam does not prohibit all contact between men and women. Such relationships are becoming problematic in Egypt because of a "Puritan" style which is increasingly becoming the norm. Some time ago, a fatwa issued by a doctor of Koranic law (faqih) caused quite a stir. In a television program, a woman explained that for work reasons she had to be in the same office with a man. But this was forbidden by Sharia, the woman could not resign and called for help. The ulema offered a solution: the woman should breastfeed her colleague. In response to the public’s scandalised reaction, the ulema explained that by doing so her colleague would thus become "like a son" to the girl and so they could stay together in the office, without the risk of possible sexual relations (given their new familial "relationship"). The ulema defended himself from the public outrage by saying that "we must not judge with our emotions, but with the law." This fatwa gave rise to strong reactions in the Islamic world, so much so that the ulema was in danger of losing his job.


The sixth point is jihad (holy war). According to the reformers of the document, in Islam jihad is directed against occupiers of Muslim countries "Fight against those who fight against you in the way of Allah, but do not transgress," (Qur'an 2.190). In comments on this verse, it is clearly stated that it is forbidden to kill unarmed people, children, old people, women, priests, monks, houses of prayer. And they add: this vision - so modern – has been present in Islam for 1400 years.

The reformers, in this clarification, point out that jihad can only be defensive and only on Muslim lands. The problem arises when Muslims carry out jihad at the wrong time and in the wrong places (obviously it means that it is wrong to attack people in Europe for example, which is not "Islamic land").

When it is done, who can do it, where it can be done: the answer to these questions makes correct jihad from Islamic point of view. In this way the reformists condemn all Islamic terrorism, the attacks on the Church of Alexandria and Baghdad. It must be said that this interpretation of jihad is classic, but unfortunately there are very contrary interpretations that justify terrorism.

Outward piety

Section 7 explains the need to "stop attacks on outward piety and the use of foreign practices that come to us from neighbouring states".  Those battling against this externalized Islam, says it is a new phenomenon, only 30 years old. This is due to the fact that many Egyptians went to work on the Arabian Peninsula and came back with foreign customs. The magazine explains that Egypt too has its own customs and ways of dressing for a few positions in Islam. But - they say - "we have recently begun to imitate the dress in the neighbouring countries [ in short Saudi Arabia - ed] with the long beard flowing to the chest, the long robe (jilbab), the veil .... Then arrived the obligation for women to use the niqab, the full veil as an expression of modesty". And they quote the Koran 24.30: "Tell the believing men that they should restrain their gaze and be chaste."

The document states that "the important thing is the modesty of the gaze." It is recalled that last year there were thousands of attacks on women not dressed in an Islamic way. "The exterior - explain the expert reformers - has now become the true religion. The appearance of piety has now become the model of the believer in Egypt, without questioning the purity of heart and chastity of the eye, which the niqab can not hide. "

These emphases are fundamental and very close to the Gospel. It is a new mystical inspiration that warns: you will not be able to save the purity of the relationship between men and women by the clothes they wear.

And they add: these people – who have brought ways of dressing from elsewhere – have divided families, playing one off against the other, because the men want to impose the veil and the women rejected it. "We are now - ends the comment - a nation that takes care of the outside and that is empty on the inside”.

Separation between religion and state, secularism

Section 8, on the division between religion and state, I believe to be the most important. The document uses the word ‘almaniyyah, secularism. At the Synod on the Middle East we were afraid to use that word because it is commonly understood as "atheism", only indicating a secular enemy of religion and therefore to be rejected.

Instead, the document uses this very word. And it explains that this is based on the idea of separation between religion and state. Secularism - they say - should not be regarded as the opposite of religion; instead it needs to be seen as a safeguard against the political or commercial use of religion. "In this context - it claims - secularism is in harmony with Islam and secularism is therefore legally acceptable. The same can be said about the control of the (Islamic) activities of the State. "

At the same time it says: "All that distances religion from ordinary life is unacceptable." And it explains that it is necessary to affirm "the rights of God" and "the rights of the servant of God", namely human rights.

Atheistic secularism instead regards religion as a ball and chain and therefore demands absolute freedom. This secularism is opposed to Islam, which places certain limits. Those who want to choose faith must do so out of conviction and, therefore, accept the rules of religion, and can not play with them.

It is therefore claimed that there is a extremist secularism and a good one. On the Internet, this point on secularism attracts a lot of criticism. For example, the site "The guardians of the dogma" publish the following criticism. "Everyone must know that secularism means anti-religiosity, and that anti-religiosity is the fast track to atheism. Islam has to fight it, because secularism is the seed of all evil, etc. .. ".

This point, though much discussed, shows that Egypt is developing the concept of civil society, not immediately coinciding with the Islamic community.

Attitude towards Salafism

Point 9 is also interesting. It demands the "purification of the patrimony of the ‘early centuries of Islam' (Salafism), eliminating myths (khurâfât) and attacks against religion".

The document states that "liberty, equality, knowledge, justice and science are the most important values that the Koran brought to us when it was revealed 14 centuries ago. They are the same values on which the society formed by the Prophet in Medina was founded. They are clear values on which there is no conflict. These values can not be minimised. We have a great need for these great values, more than in the past. " And it adds: "Countries do not develop other than in accordance with these values and will have no Renaissance (nahda) except with the abolition of this Salafi heritage that should be considered a drag on Islamic society, in its relation to myths (= human inventions), or inventions of schisms, or aggressions of religion".

These statements tackle the stifling practices of fundamentalism (dress codes, the pure and the impure, laws, etc ...) head on, which wants to reproduce the society of the time of the Prophet. For a Salafi, for example, it is forbidden to sit on a chair because the prophet sat on the ground; it is forbidden to use common toothpicks, instead he must clean his teeth with a twig taken from a plant in Saudi Arabia (miswak)! With these criticisms, the document aims at reforming Islam pushing it towards a more spiritual religious momentum.

Final Reflection

Judging from comments found on the Internet, we see that the great majority, contrary to the document, are prey to the external, traditional, formal, self-righteous Islam. There are still many intellectuals and religious thinking in a modern way, but they do not have the support of the institutions.

In the face of social unrest and pressures for change that are occurring in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa, we must say that Salafism is somehow a kind of "opium of the people", it focuses people's attention on external religious and secondary practices, regardless of the development, the well-being of society,. For their part, the political powers to leave be, provided they do not involve themselves in politics.

In Egypt, the political power is not a pure dictatorship, but to maintain power it allies itself, giving ever greater concessions to Salafism. The political power shows itself to be "Islamic" to avoid becoming an object of criticism of Salafism, or the Muslim Brotherhood. But each concession reinforces this exterior Islam and results in other, new concessions.

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