First Published: 2006-10-02

Egypt professor compares Koran to supermarket

Hanafi’s remarks about Islam’s holy book spark fierce demands from his fellow Muslims he retract them.


Middle East Online

By Alain Navarro – CAIRO

An Egyptian professor has stirred up a hornet's nest among his fellow Muslims by comparing the Koran with a supermarket where you can find whatever you are looking for.

Hassan Hanafi's remarks, made at a seminar organized by the Alexandria Library, have sparked a fierce response, from demands that he retract them to suggestions that he might be mad.

Hanafi, who teaches philosophy at the University of Cairo, said Islam's holy book is often contradictory.

The Koran "is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn't want," he told an audience at the seminar last month on freedom of thought.

In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, critical interpretation of the Koran can land you in hot water.

In 1993 another professor, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, was convicted of apostasy for his writings, including one entitled "A Critique of Religious Discourse". A court ordered that he be forceably divorced from his wife, and the couple, fearing for his life, fled to exile in the Netherlands.

A more prominent case was that of Nagib Mahfuz, who died last month.

The only Arab ever to receive a Nobel literature prize, he was stabbed in the neck in 1994 by a man angered by his work. His injuries caused him pain for the rest of his life, and prevented him from using his right hand to write.

In 1959, his "The Children of the Medina" was banned as blasphemous by Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the most authoritative seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.

The allegorical work featured ordinary men representing Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed who struggled in vain to make the world a better place. It drew the authorities' ire because one of them predicted the death of the divine.

Abdul Sabur Shahine, a teacher of Sharia, or Islamic law, at Cairo University, figured prominently in the case against Abu Zeid and has slammed Hanafi's remarks.

"His despicable words should be condemned without appeal -- he should retract them without delay," Shahine said.

Sheikh Mustafa al-Shaka, from Al-Azhar's Center on Islamic Research, accused Hanafi of being a "marxist" for "uttering such nonsense totally divorced from Islam.

"If apostasy is proven, he who becomes an ex-Muslim should be executed," Shaka said. In Hanafi's case, however, "he deserves medical treatment, because he has a psychiatric problem".

Hanafi, who received his doctorate from the Sorbonne and has taught in Europe and the United States, was close to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in his youth. After passing through a phase of leftist leanings, he became one of the leading thinkers in the contemporary movement that posits a revolutionary political activism rooted in study of the Muslim scriptures.

Rarely do other thinkers publicly side with him, but one of them is Gamal al-Banna, a Muslim reformist and, ironically, younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.

"I have to say it wasn't very intelligent comparing the Koran with a supermarket but, in the end he's not wrong," says Banna, asserting that "one finds different opinions in the Koran".

Some of the holy book's verses are "very dense and confusing expressions" that require interpretation, he says, calling for a "return to the Koran", interpreting it where necessary in the light of the whole corpus of Islamic theological writing.

Banna himself has been at the receiving end of criticism by traditional Muslim scholars.

His book "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State in the Modern Age", in which he suggests ways for Muslim communities in non-Islamic societies to merge better with their environment, was banned in Egypt.

In his book, he said that if a woman feels uncomfortable wearing a traditional veil in Europe, then a hat would be permissible.

He recently came under fire for suggesting that smoking during the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is permissible, sparking a spate of attacks against him by more traditional jurists.

Like Hanafi, Banna and other Islamic reformists have continued to be sidelined in the religious discourse, with their views either being belittled as liberal babble or in extreme cases, being declared apostates.

For now, Hanafi has chosen to remain silent in the face of his critics.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "It is in the heart of the university that these things should be debated."


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