Aging Egyptian Says Religion Allows ‘Freedom of Thought and Evolution’
CAIRO — The Islamic state? A contradiction in terms.
Jihad? Far too much emphasis these days on military action.
A requirement that women wear a veil? A quaint leftover from pre-Muslim times that is not mandated by Islam.
These and other observations by Gamal Banna, an 84-year-old Egyptian author, have created a stir in Egypt recently. They are indicative of the ferment within Islam at large, and of the increasingly passionate discussion of political and religious issues in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.
Controversy surrounds Banna’s books because they challenge some Islamic orthodoxy and the roots of Muslim teaching. His work is also a curiosity because of his family connections. He is the younger brother of Hassan Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototype of radical Islamic groups throughout the Middle East. The Brotherhood is associated with rigorously pious practices, with an intense role for Islam in politics and with violence.
Criticism of Gamal Banna reached a peak last fall when Egypt’s main guardian of Islamic orthodoxy, the Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar University, recommended a ban on one of his books. The council’s critique centered in part on the accusation that Banna was an unqualified amateur who exploited his brother’s notoriety.
“Let them say what they will, but reply to what I am saying or writing,” Banna said in an interview. “Islam allows for freedom of thought and evolution. Reform requires an open mind.”
In the West — where general attention to Islam among non-Muslims seldom extends beyond the threat of terrorism and the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his followers — it is common to hear that Islam has no new ideas and has been unable to adapt to the modern world. Yet for decades, Islamic scholars have challenged the notion that Islam is opposed to everything Western and that only radical and violent solutions can bring change to Egypt, the Middle East and Islam itself. Today, Banna says, the perception of a cultural war between the West and Muslims has brought life to the promoters of new Islamic thinking.
“We are living in a world where the gun is battling ideas. Change is the greatest priority,” he said.
Various articles on new ideas in Islam have been published recently in the Egyptian press. In one, Yusuf Qaradawi, regarded as one of Islam’s most influential scholars, contested the notion that Islam and Judaism are inherently at odds. Another advised Islamic activists in Egypt to tolerate criticism. Al-Ahram, the government-run newspaper, used quotations from a book written by another prominent Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ghazaly, to urge young Muslims to study science, thereby keeping up with modern life.
The book by Banna that spurred the Islamic Research Council to action is called “The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State.” The council declared that it diverged from “the consensus of religious scholars.” The police brought it to the attention of the state-run Al-Azhar University after a complaint from a reader who objected to passages that claim Muslim women in non-Muslim societies can wear hats to fulfill requirements that they cover their heads.
The Islamic Research Council blacklisted the book because it said the author justified “temporary marriages” for Muslim expatriates in non-Islamic countries. The practice, which involves a temporary marriage contract and permits a couple to have sex without breaking Islamic law, is allowed in the Shiite branch of Islam but not the Sunni branch to which Banna belongs.
In another book, “The Veil,” Banna argued that head coverings were simply a continuation of tribal traditions that existed before the birth of Islam 1,400 years ago and were not mandated by the Koran.
Banna’s reference to Koranic verses underscores the foundation of his approach to Islamic reform. He believes that much of the commentary attributed to the prophet Muhammad, which became the basis for Islamic teaching, known collectively as the Sunnah, was invented and even falsified in the earliest centuries of Islam by self-styled jurists. The jurists served the caliphs who ruled in the Middle East and were interested in maintaining the status quo. These teachings stray from the Koran, Banna asserts.
One such teaching ordered death for apostates. “It was done at the service of the imperial state. The teachings are products of their time,” Banna said amid the dust and clutter of his library in a musty building in central Cairo. The 16,000 books in his library, most of them in Arabic, are neatly labeled with white tags.
“We can now create our own rules, based on the Koran,” Banna said. “Some rules have no reason to survive as history evolves. This is an old story in all religions.”
Armed with his notion of a dynamic Islam, he assaults some of the most widely promoted current fashions. He speaks in a curiously lighthearted tone, considering the seriousness of the criticism he is facing.
The notion of an Islamic state, Banna contends with a laugh, contradicts the foundation of Islam as a community of believers. The use of old Islamic teaching to justify the rule of kings and dictators has made Muslims submissive as well as exclusionary toward women, he added.
The recent focus on jihad as a justification for violent means of change also departs from the emphasis in the Koran on jihad as a moral struggle, Banna asserts. In that vein, bin Laden is using the concept “to give a religious covering to a political struggle.”
Banna’s critics are especially rankled by his notion that some of the post-Koranic attributions of statements to the prophet Muhammad are invalid.
“Banna’s culture and education do not qualify him to understand the Koran and the Sunnah in a scientific way,” said Abdul-Moti Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Council. “He is not an Islamic thinker. Islamic scholars have long distinguished what is true and false in the Sunnah. I had memorized the Koran by the time I was 9 years old.”
Despite the criticism, Banna’s 30 books have caught the eye of observers around the world. A self-styled liberal Islamic Web site in Indonesia noted that Banna battles the idea that Islam is “political and power-oriented.” Some rivals cite his recent meeting in Cairo with former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright as evidence that his ideas are more attractive to Westerners than to Egyptians.
“He makes Westerners feel good,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a commentator for Al-Ahram.
Banna acknowledges that, formally, he is not an Islamic scholar. “Unfortunately, I did not memorize the Koran,” he said. “But I have read, and am serious about what I do. The point of freedom is not to let important subjects be monopolized by the few.”
Banna is 13 years younger than his brother and spent much of his early adulthood in labor union activity, not Islamic studies. His first book, published in 1945, was on social welfare. President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned his 1952 book “Rationalization of Renaissance” because it labeled Nasser’s takeover of Egypt as a coup.
Banna eventually drifted into state-controlled labor union activity and was a professor at a labor institute.
He insisted that despite efforts to contrast him with Hassan, his brother’s thinking would have evolved over time. “He wrote 50 years ago. He would agree with me now, if he had lived,” he said. Hassan Banna, who had founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, was killed by Egyptian secret police in 1949 in retaliation for the Brotherhood’s assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi Nuqrashi.
Gamal Banna says he is unafraid of the hot political climate within Islam and threats that his ideas and critiques of the violent extremes might attract. “Remember, to be a martyr is good,” he said with a smile. “Anyway, I am so old, death is not far off.”
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