Is Sex Slavery Legal in Islam?

Yazidi Sex Slaves
(via REUTERS/Ari Jala)

In my recent post about al-Azhar and the doctrine they spread around the world, one reader offered this question in the comments:

Someone I know wrote an article about Islam recently and made the statement that, according to his knowledge, official Islam has never condemned the action of ISIS soldiers in raping Yazidi women. He made several other statements I didn’t particularly like, but on this point, he is saying they cannot condemn such treatment because Muhammad did this sort of thing and even gave his troops permission to do the same. Have you ever come across any statement that al-Azhar believes such action is wrong?

First of all, a little context, excerpted from an article in the National Catholic Register on the same topic:

In the Quran, slave girls are referred to as “those whom your right hand possess,” … Verse 4:3 allows a man to have up to four wives but advises that if he can’t deal fairly with all of them, he should marry only one, or else resort to “those whom your right hand possess.” Verse 4:2 says that men are forbidden to have sex with married women “except those whom your right hand possess. It is a decree of Allah for you.”

The article also draws from traditions about Muhammad. These have varying degrees of reliability but are regarded as an authentic source in principle. I cannot comment on these specific traditions mentioned, but they are provided in well-attributed collections.

After the assault on the Jews of Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a leader of the tribe, Kinana bin al-Rabi, be tortured until he disclosed the location of the group’s treasure. A fire was lit on Kinana’s chest but, as he still refused to reveal the secret, Muhammad had him beheaded. Muhammad had promised Kinana’s young wife, Safiya, to another Muslim, but, after hearing of her beauty, he went back on his word and took her in “marriage” for himself. By some accounts, this occurred only hours after he dispatched her husband. (Ishaq, p. 515; Bukhari, 1. 8. 367).

The issue of sex slaves in Muslim history and interpretation is of course contested, but what do Muslim authorities do with it today?

Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, has strongly denounced the Takfiri Daesh [ISIS] terrorists’ newly-released rules for sex slavery, stressing that they have nothing to do with Islam.

“This organization is a criminal and terrorist organization, and one of the goals of terrorism is the spread of its ideologies and the spread of its propaganda that will attract people’s attention,” Mohamed Mehna, a member of al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh’s Technical office, said on Wednesday. (from Press TV)

This alone should satisfy the question from the original comment, asking only if official Islam condemned the action.

But maybe something in ISIS’ rationale was deficient, it could be asked. That is, while their specific action is condemned, does the practice still has an Islamic basis?

Consider then this document, called A Letter to Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. The list of signatories includes representatives of official Islam from around the world, including Egypt.

It criticizes the Islamic State on several points, and this is from the executive summary:

10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.

11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.

12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.

‘Consensus’ is an important word here. While it does imply anti-slavery developments around the world, in which Muslim nations share, it also is a term of Islamic jurisprudence.

Sharia is developed from different sources, but ijma’, or consensus of the scholars, is one of the essentials. Here is how point 12 is developed in the letter:

No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery …

For over a century, Muslims, and indeed the entire world, have been united in the prohibition and criminalization of slavery, which was a milestone in human history when it was finally achieved …

After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth.

You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century. Indeed all the Muslim countries in the world are signatories of anti-slavery conventions.

Where I have placed three dots it represents the letter quoting from the Quran to establish its points. I admit I followed some of the logic, but not all of it. But I am hardly a scholar. Read yourself to review.

But the fact is that these are the words of many of the highest Islamic authorities around the world. It is a shame this fact is not more widely known.

Still, though I know the basics of the principle of ijma’, I am still curious about the question posed in the comment and cemented in the Catholic journal. If something was permitted by Islam at Muhammad’s time, can it really be condemned absolutely?

One scholar I asked told me that in the story above, Muhammad married Safiya in order to end the practice of sex slavery. When their prophet set her free and married her, his companions could do no less with those they captured. He tells me this related in the literature.

Getting into the details of this question requires far more study than I have yet done and this post allows. Here are two links to competing sides. But here are a few principles as it is considered.

One, there are many Muslims whose interpretive system requires near-absolute fidelity to the earliest practices of the Islamic community. Through them we are often convinced this is normative Islam. It makes sense, but is it necessary? Islam has a long history and an interpretive framework that has adjusted to time and place. Shall Muslims not be given the freedom of development, if they work to claim it in fidelity with their sources?

Two, there are many commands and practices in the Bible that Christians today consider obsolete, though they came through God’s command. There is not absolute symmetry here with Islam; the religions are different and have different interpretive systems. But give pause before declaring offensive an attribute of Islam, lest the accusation be returned. For those who reject all religion in general, of course, this is less applicable.

Three, for everyone, find a balance in critical charity and charitable criticism. Islam, like all religions and worldviews, deserves its hard questions given its universal claims. But Muslims are individual human beings . Like many others, many Muslims cherish their faith without delving into all the details. Take care before bludgeoning anyone with details we also know little about.

Islam may be true or erroneous, it may engender virtue or vice. But of Muslims, honor them to the degree they seek to honor both God and humanity. Where they are deficient, remember, we all are too.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: New Proposals

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt is debating significant changes. Give her the wisdom to walk the right path.

Some have proposed the constitution be amended to allow the president a six-year term. Others say leave the constitution alone, and implement it.

Some have proposed the marriage age be lowered to 16 to legalize longstanding practice. Others say there are too many Egyptians already, and it is backwards.

Some (in Tunisia) have proposed inheritance be divided equally between the sexes, and marriage made open to non-Muslim men. The Azhar says it is against Islamic sharia, and condemns it.

Some have proposed the train system be mechanized. No one opposes, but who will fund it?

God, your discernment is needed.

Grant the president wisdom to achieve agenda, and the people a choice in approving their leader.

Grant Egypt wisdom in population control, and women a choice in the details of marriage.

Grant the Azhar wisdom in Islamic interpretation, and Tunisia a choice in religion and state.

Grant the ministry wisdom with limited resources, and funders the choice of both safety and gain.

God, develop Egypt to function well – government, institutions, and citizens.

In all the above, lead her. Changes must come, may they be the right ones.




What the Azhar Believes

al-Azhar 1912
al-Azhar Mosque in 1912

I recently attended a gathering at al-Azhar University, where the World Organization of Azhar Graduates presented with Egyptian Radio about the work and need to spread “Ashari, Wasati” Islam, and define the parameters of true religion. This is done, they said, to help combat terrorism and extremist interpretations of Islam.

That is all well and good, perhaps, provided we know what Ashari and Wasati mean.

The World Association has over 131,000 members – within Egypt but also throughout Asia, Africa, and the West. Formally an independent organization, it is headed by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost spokesman for Sunni Islam in the world.

There is much debate these days, even within Egypt, about whether or not al-Azhar is part of the problem. Some say its reliance on ancient interpretations pulls from the same ground as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is noteworthy, they say, that al-Azhar has not declared these groups non-Muslims.

The particulars of this debate are beyond this small posting, and unfortunately still beyond my expertise. But here are the basics about Ashari and Wasati.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari died in the first-half of the third century of Islam, in 935 AD.

Early Islam was wracked by internal conflicts and philosophical debates, with the two chief sparring partners the Ahl al-Hadith, the family of tradition, and the Mu’tazila, the translation of which is not especially important here, but represented what they called a rational understanding of Islam.

Ahl al-Hadith relied on literal readings of the Quran with strong dependence on the many traditions and sayings of Muhammad that circulated widely. Among their important beliefs was the uncreated nature of the Quran and the absolute sovereignty of God in the details of man’s destiny.

The Mu’tazila gave metaphorical meanings to much of the Quran, believed it was delivered in time to Muhammad and was not eternal, and that man possessed free will or else God would be unjust in populating Heaven and Hell.

Depending on the caliph, either Ahl al-Hadith or the Mu’tazila would have the upper hand and persecute their opponents. For the record, Ahl al-Hadith bear some resemblance to today’s Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims, while the Mu’tazila no longer exist.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari was raised in Ahl al-Hadith but studied and eventually joined the Mu’tazila. But he repented of this viewpoint in a famous speech at the mosque in Basra, Iraq, and eventually forged his own school.

Concerning the Quran, it was God’s eternal, uncreated word but delivered at a certain point in time. Concerning destiny, God determined certain aspects of a man’s life but did allow him free will. The Ashari position sought to moderate between the two trends at the time, and eventually became the official position of al-Azhar.

But among the most important principles promulgated was the idea that all are Muslims, no matter their philosophy or sins. Al-Azhar today accepts equally the four primary schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, and will call no Muslim an infidel.

Here then is the context for why they do not excommunicate, so to speak, the Islamic State. They are great sinners, al-Azhar repeats continually. But their belief in Islam’s essentials is correct, so they may not be put outside the faith. It is a position that has since saved the Muslim world from much of its early discord. Terrorists like the Islamic State as well as other non-violent but still extreme groups, label most everyone an infidel.

Wasati, meanwhile, simply means “of the middle.” You might think this is related to the story above, but it is of relatively modern coinage. The Quran speaks of Muslims being “the middle nation,” but in early commentary this tended to be interpreted as a people of justice and a religion that is meant to ease the life of mankind.

Wasati is often paired with another term – moderate – to basically say Islam is not a violent, extreme religion. Fair enough, as it often faces the accusation among some who view it through the terrorist lens.

If this is how Azhar graduates and Egyptian Radio are defining Islam to Muslims worldwide, that seems an encouraging matter.

Of course, the issues run deeper, but this post is long enough. I will thus close in imitation of how traditional Muslims ended their commentaries: Any mistakes are mine, and God knows best.

Those with knowledge are invited to provide a better, broader explanation of the above.


al-Azhar Today
al-Azhar Mosque Today

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Azhar Blasphemy

Flag Cross Quran


The Azhar defends Islam. The state defends the law. You defend your name.

Together, may Egypt find its way.

The grand imam fired the Azhar University president for calling a prominent critic an infidel.

The minister of endowments censured a preacher for calling Christians unbelievers.

The critic had been convicted of blasphemy, later pardoned. The preacher is now sued the same.

It has often been that critics or Christians are charged if offending the sensibilities of Muslims. Are these reversals a sign of equality?

Or is the blasphemy law offensive itself?

Different Egyptians view it differently, God. In lieu of consensus, defend.

Defend the Azhar from unwarranted charges. Empower its reform and right interpretation of Islam.

Defend the state from manipulative agendas. Empower its enforcement and right crafting of law.

Defend your name from vain incantations. Empower the life that comes through right fear.

Where it is right for men to assist, give equity and humility.

Where it is right for men to argue, give insight and patience.

Where there is blasphemy, guide rightly. Blasphemer and society alike.

Defend your name, God, that you may be made known. Honor those dedicated to what it rightly entails.


Informed Comment Middle East Published Articles

Pope Francis, Islam, and Peace-Building

This interview was first published at Informed Comment.

Kamal Boraiqa
Dr. Kamal Boraiqa

Dr. Kamal Boraiqa is a lecturer at al-Azhar University and a member of al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, the al-Azhar Observer for Combating Extremism, and the Egyptian Family House. With a PhD from al-Azhar in Islamic Studies, he has served as an imam at the Santa Rosa Islamic Center in the United States and as a visiting scholar at the UK’s Birmingham University Center for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations, and is a member of the African Union steering committee to link policy makers and religious leaders.


Dr. Kamal, as an al-Azhar scholar, what aspects of Pope Francis’ visit and speech resonated with you the most, especially in terms of your responsibilities in dialogue?

The meeting itself was a message to the whole world that the three heavenly religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – are against violence, fanaticism, and radicalism. One who contemplates the speeches of Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib will learn many lessons.

First, that faith is incompatible with violence, for violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression. Religious leaders are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God. Holy is his name, he is the God of peace.

Religion, however, is not meant only to unmask evil. It has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever. This is done through teaching the younger generations, because education becomes wisdom if it draws out of men and women the very best of themselves, in contact with the One who transcends them and with the world around them, fostering a sense of identity that is open and not self-enclosed.

Sincere dialogue is the only alternative to civilized encounter, lest we are left with the incivility of conflict. Wisdom seeks out the other, overcoming the temptation to rigidity and closed-mindedness. It is open and in motion, at once humble and inquisitive. It values the past and sets it in communication with the present, within suitable hermeneutics.

Pope Francis demonstrated this when opened his speech with “As-Salaam Alaikum.” This traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic means, “Peace be upon you,” and reflects his great respect and appreciation of the Muslim faith.

But he followed up also with a practical call. He said that in order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more easily takes root. He also spoke forcefully about blocking the flow of money and weapons to those who provoke violence.


How does al-Azhar contribute to the fight against radicalism?

Al-Azhar’s strategy to combat radicalism is both local and international. Its system of education is built upon layers and layers of exchange through dialogue and the acceptance of difference of opinion and interpretation. Al-Azhar’s moderate curricula teaches and encourages the proper understanding of Islam that is far away from extremism. It reflects the true spirit of Islam and the essence of Islamic heritage in both rationality and rhetoric.

Spiritually, al-Azhar embodies Islamic moderation and tolerance, the two fundamental characters of the three monotheistic religions in general…

Please click here to read the full interview at Informed Comment.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Pope

Flag Cross Quran


The pope is here. Of course, Egypt already has a pope. But this one is different.

To most Egyptian Christians he is not. In the ancient world Rome and Alexandria were equals. But since then the Tiber has far eclipsed the Nile.

God, to you your church is one. Give humility to one and all, a spirit of brotherhood between servants of servants.

For joining them also is the heir of Constantinople. As the visible symbols of Christianity convene, fix their eyes on you the invisible. Give them wisdom for leading their flock. Give them encouragement for the small portion here.

Middle East Christians are under pressure, God. Evil men target them for death. Seductive dreams target them for immigration. Guide each one individually in the path you desire. But guide them together toward local flourishing.

For the sake of your name, God. For the sake of their peoples.

For with the three symbols is a powerful fourth. The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar unites most of the world’s Muslims. He is the host, and their partner in peace.

May it be so, God. Certain forces wish to pit one religion against the other.

Some say it comes from texts. Some say it comes from power. Some say it comes from the devil.

Regardless, they say it should not be.

Strengthen their voice and witness, God. Unite them in purpose and friendship. May those who follow them follow their example. And with them, all peoples and nations beside.

For it is the state, God, with power to implement. Guide all who bear your sword, to wield it rightly.

And through men like these four, but only in accordance with your spirit and truth, may they hear from you.

The pope is here, God. May your peace come with him. May things thereafter be different.



Current Events

Egyptian Writer May Face Jail for Defaming Religion

From Ahram Online, telling a story that is not unusual:

Saber says those who filed the lawsuit took his words out of context, adding that he did not defame religion in his short stories.

“In my stories, the characters are wondering where God is in the face of all the grievances and evils that they face. It’s like they’re asking him to interfere; this is not in contempt of religion, it is merely posing a question,” Saber explained.

Here is an angle, though, what while also not unusual, is less known by many:

According to a statement made by a coalition of Egyptian right human rights organisations, the prosecutors undertaking the investigation consulted the church in Beni Suef as well as Al-Azhar to seek out their opinion as to whether the accusations were correct.

The church told the prosecution that the content of Saber’s literary work contradicted divine religions, ridiculed the divine, and invented stories that stray from noble and sophisticated literature.

Al-Azhar affirmed the church’s stance, stating that the work destroys intellectual values and tears apart the fabric of Egyptian society.

The church in Egypt is a very conservative institution that is not shy to seek the power of the state as a defense against encroachment on religious values. I do not know anything about the content of the book, if it targets Islam, Christianity, or religion in general. The author’s name also does not infer his religious background.

But the church would do well to review its own literature. Habbakuk the prophet does little but rail against God’s apparent inaction in the face of injustice:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

And his answer is simply to trust God, even when he does not ‘deliver’:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

It is unfortunate when religious leaders ‘protect’ their flock from the very same doubts and questions that fill their scriptures. But this, also, is not an unusual story.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Education and the Journey to Islam

Christiane Paulus
Christiane Paulus

From my new article on Arab West Report:

When it comes to Egyptian education and Islam, Christiane Paulus is both a critic and supporter. So much so, she adopted both.

Paulus is a German national, resident in Egypt since 1998. She is currently a professor of Islamic studies and Protestant theology at the Azhar University, through the medium of the German language. Her journey here is a story all its own.

Paulus studied Protestant theology and postmodern philosophy in Marburg, Germany, with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But in 1988, before her final tests, she married her husband, an Egyptian Muslim. Unless he converted to Christianity, the church ruled she could not receive her preaching license, as both spouses needed to be of the faith.

Years thereafter Paulus remained in her Christian faith, even after moving to Egypt with her family.

Paulus does describe what she finds are the culturally derived faults of the Egyptian education system, with consequences falling directly on religious and political relations:

Dialogue, Paulus believes, is a subject of the social sciences – a discipline largely ignored in Egyptian education. Curriculum, methodology, and pedagogy have remained stagnant since the Nasser era, when a resistance to new ideas was the norm. Since then, however, both students and teachers have sought to escape the system. At the basic level this involves the reliance on private tutors; for those able it means enrollment in private or foreign schools.

Women, she noted, are in general educated relationally. This equips them for dialogue more readily than men. But in addition to educational lacking, the Egyptian culture is bound by concepts of honor and shame. Together with pride, this produces an atmosphere of ‘not talking’. An Upper Egyptian husband, for example, will ignore his wife and stay silent with her when upset. Outside the family, discord produces the same result. The first casualty of Egypt’s political division is a lack of communication between liberals and Islamists.

But her focus in presentation was on what drew her to Islam as a religion. Much of this was due to the influence of her husband and his family, but it was also from historical study:

In 2005 Paulus read a book by the Egyptian Muslim theologian Amin al-Kholy, an active intellectual in the early 20th Century. ‘Islam and the Connection to Christian Reform’ summarized his presentation on the Protestant Reformation, representing the Azhar at the 1935 Brussels conference on the religious sciences.

Kholy noted that the early Protestant reformers – prior to Luther – emerged from areas long occupied by Muslims. From Spain under the Reconquista, Lyon, and Monaco, figures such as Peter Waldus and William of Ockham adopted ideas originating in Islam, translated them into Latin, and began applying them to criticize European Catholic Christianity. The Muslim populations of these areas had been forcibly converted into Christianity but retained their Islamic beliefs in secret. A few centuries later, Islamic-cum-Protestant ideas such as no mediation between man and God, private reading of the Scriptures, and clerical marriage began to take hold.

But she remains critical of prevalent Islamic thinking as well, which generally leaves their received religious heritage unquestioned:

Of course, a great deal of irrationality has entered the Muslim world, too. Where education is lacking the religious discourse takes over everything. Contrary to the prevailing religious spirit, Paulus says each individual Muslim has the right to read and evaluate Islam’s religious sources – the Qur’an and Hadith – weighing their value. The condition is to keep the Islamic culture of discussion respectful, objective, and academic.

This individuality also comes out in Paulus’ decision not to wear a headscarf.

Paulus is a charming person who is clearly a deep and sensitive thinker. Her testimony was given in a presentation with brief time for questions and answers; otherwise, it would have been useful to probe many of her arguments further. Please click here to discover them by reading the whole article on Arab West Report, and here for an Arabic language article on Paulus.

But less interesting than arguments is the story of an individual human being, seeking to make sense of the world. Tomorrow I hope to post a link to another recent article I have written, this time in the other direction.


Related Posts:


Religious Dialogue and Civil Society

Representatives of the major Egyptian religious communities

Under the slogan, ‘We live together, think together, work together’, The Egyptian Evangelical Synod of the Nile opened the Religious Dialogue and Civil Society Conference September 20-22, sponsored by the Konrad Adenuer Foundation. The conference featured an impressive array of participants among Egyptian religious and civil society leaders.

Opening remarks were moderated by Dr. Imad Abul Ghazi, the Egyptian Minister of Culture. He introduced each of the many religious representatives to follow.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is the Papal Ambassador to Egypt. He described the living together of Muslims and Christians in Egypt to be natural, but fragile. He lauded the efforts of the Azhar to create a ‘Family House’ in which religious leaders meet to discuss issues affecting Egypt and their communities. He urged, however, this effort to seep down to the grassroots – its imitation represented in each local community. He also described the necessity for religious communities to have a share in civil society to raise concerns against government policies. For this to be effective, he declared, religion must maintain some distance from the state.

Dr. Safwat al-Baiady is the President of the Egyptian Protestant Council of Churches. Following on the imitation of God who dialogues with man, he urged dialogue between men to transcend baser stages to the more effective. From Shared Monologue to Skillful Discussion to Reflective dialogue to, finally, Creative Dialogue, he declared that partners must enter dialogue as freemen, not slaves to their constituencies. The goal of this effort is not to defend yourself or to convince the other, but to reach common ground on the basis of friendship and love. This requires, he believed, not only self-confidence, but also confidence in the other.

Rev. Albert Ruiess is the President of the Synod of the Nile. He noted that the valuable process of reform often results in the emergence of different groups. This was noticeable in the Protestant Reformation, as it is noticeable in Egypt today. What is necessary is to find the elixir that can make Egypt one again. The Bible, he declares, teaches that humanity is one body with many different parts, and that the elixir needed to unify them is love.

Dr. Mahmoud Azab is the Azhar Advisor for Dialogue and Deputy to the Grand Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib. He stated that as the Azhar views Islam as a religion of mercy, so it also sees Christianity as a religion of love. He noted the historic cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, seen in their opposition to the British occupation, and more recently in the January 25 Revolution. He praised the efforts of the Azhar to guide discussion of the future Egyptian state between liberals and Islamists, declaring the Azhar document demanding Egypt to be a civil state was recognized by almost all parties. He also commended the ‘Family House’ initiative, in which Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican leaders join with the Azhar to promote dialogue, discuss interreligious issues, and confront extremist religious discourse, whether in churches, mosques, or on satellite television channels.

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church

Dr. Mouneer Hanna is the Anglican Bishop for Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. He provided examples of the commitment of Anglicans in Egypt to serve their communities, as well as of Anglicans worldwide and locally to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. He praised especially the agreement between the Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury, crafted after September 11, 2001, to conduct yearly sessions to better know one another. Finally, he urged application in Egypt of wisdom he learned from political leaders during a recent trip to China: I don’t care the color of the cat, as long as it catches the mouse. So in Egypt, religious affiliation should be unimportant in the civil state, as long as citizens contribute to the good of the nation.

The conference was held at the Movenpick Hotel in Media Production City, near 6 October City on the western outskirts of Cairo. Panel sessions included other well known Egyptian figures from the churches of Egypt, civil society, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

On Religious Tension in Egypt, from Leading Thinkers

Note: Sorry for a lack of new news and stories. There a number of good ideas floating around in my head, three texts in production, but nothing finalized yet. Instead, here is an interesting review I wrote for Arab West Report from a few months ago. It depicts the nature of discourse on the religious question in Egypt, as described by some of its leading thinkers. I hope you enjoy.

There is no religious strife (fitna) in Egypt, but there is religious tension; there is no Christian persecution in Egypt, but there is Christian discrimination. This, in summary, was the message presented in a seminar organized by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), hosted by the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis, on February 17, 2010. The session was moderated by Dr. Nabil Abadir, secretary general of CEOSS, and included three prominent members of Egyptian society. Dr. Mustafa al-Fikki is the president of the committee for foreign relations in parliament, and was described as a leader in promoting national unity, being a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Dr. Abd al-Muti al-Bayoumi is professor of philosophy and Islamic law at al-Azhar University, and is greatly concerned with the renewal of Islamic thought in the modern age. Dr. Makram Naguib is pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, and maintains friendly relations with both of these figures. Each of these distinguished guests participated in the seminar under the title, “Social and Sectarian Tensions: Towards Societal Peace”.

Dr. Abadir opened the seminar by stating that Egyptian society is changing. Whether these changes come from inside or outside the country is open for debate and is often a point of contention; what is clear, however, is that these changes have religious implications. The tension which is gripping Egypt in many sectors is social tension. Though it cannot be tied directly to the religious differences which exist between Muslims and Christians, it takes residence within them, presenting the tension as a religious issue. The important question is how to resist these negative changes while keeping respect to society, culture, human rights, and civil society? How can national peace be preserved?

Dr. Fikki supported the words of Dr. Abadir that sectarian troubles are a part of social troubles in general, adding that these stem from a lack of political transparency and social stagnation. The government, he declared, bears responsibility over the long run for its failures to purify the educational curriculum and political discourse from sectarian spirit. Education and military service are the two primary means of instilling national unity into the population, as it provides a place of contact and cooperation between members of the two religions. Instead, the government has allowed the language of absolutes—religion, to mix with the language of relativism—politics. The government is not the primary perpetrator, but it has stood by while this societal transformation has taken place. Citizens, meanwhile, remain largely ignorant of one another and of the other’s religious beliefs. Such knowledge, however, are the building blocks of good relationships. Dr. Fikki ended his presentation with a renewal of the call for the government to pass a unified law for building houses of worship. This could be done within twenty-four hours if the will was found, and is a crucial step in signaling to the nation the equality of all citizens. Political changes can lead the way for subsequent social advancement.

Dr. Bayoumi opened his address by confirming that there is no religious strife in Egypt, but that tension certainly exists. He believed this was due to the national project being lost among many in society, having been replaced by certain elements[i] with a religious project for the nation. Islam, however, does not support this change. Religion, as Dr. Fikki mentioned, is the realm of absolutes, and Islam defines God and religion in these terms. At the same time, the religion demands interaction with the world, and as such there are elements of Islamic practice which are relative to ages, countries, and cultures. Dr. Bayoumi esteemed common origin of all Abrahamic religions, stating that God in Islam exhorted Christians and Jews to follow the teachings of their books. Muslims have erred in calling these groups ‘unbelievers’ and their books ‘corrupted’. They have erred further in seeking political rule over them in particular and over society in general. Prophetic government was a civilian rule; Islamic government is found in the application of its principles. As Muhammad Abdu has stated, Islamic government is often found among non-Muslims (Editor: Dr. Bayoumi wrote his PhD about Muhammad Abdu, an Islamic reformer of the first part of the 20th century). Dr. Bayoumi closed his remarks with a call for renewing the educational system, which currently focuses on rote memorization. Though this is necessary for all of society it is also imperative for Islamic scholars, that they may be freed from the tyranny of the text in order to share in a necessary cultural revolution, which allows religion to change with the times and ceases to divide its particular adherents.

Dr. Naguib confirmed the importance of Dr. Bayoumi’s religious remarks by asserting that the pattern of co-existence is the norm for human relations, from the first chapters of Genesis, but that it is so easily disturbed, as seen in the story of the Tower of Babel. The problem in Egypt is similar, as Muslims and Christians speak the same language but cannot understand each other. This is due to the fact that society has become increasingly religious, a process aided by government procrastination in taking real measures consistent with its positive rhetoric. The slowness in creating democracy and civil society is causing many to lose faith, and these take refuge in their religion, both Islam and Christianity. It is not that Egypt has made no effort in this direction; on the contrary it has a long history of liberal values. The problem is that Egypt is like Sisyphus; once it has nearly rolled the rock of a civil state to the summit it crashes back down. From here, the agenda of the civil state starts again, but unfortunately it begins at ground zero, with nothing gained from previous attempts. Dr. Naguib expressed his fear that the crisis of co-existence will only become more dangerous in the days to come, and urged the government to decisively reform the educational curriculum. All ideas of religious absolutism and particularism—for any religion—must be removed in favor of engendering the multiplicity of thought, which will lead to a culture which embraces all.

Following the presentations there was an extended time of audience participation, asking questions and presenting their comments. Though it seemed that Christians represented a majority of the audience as seen through the questions posed, the general theme of response was supported also by Muslim inquiries. These included criticism of the media, print and television, for failing to support national unity and educate about Christian belief. There was also a general questioning of the effort to insist on unity between the religions. Rather than seeking for commonality, would it not be better to simply admit differences but accept each other anyway? Egypt in general, it was said, lacked a culture of accepting differences. Finally, there were proposed various criticisms of the government, and wonderings about who would implement the fine words of this seminar.

This final point was my lasting impression of the time spent. Though I was pleased to hear the dialogue both from the presenters and from the audience, I wondered about the point of the meeting. What good would any of this do? My impression, given the location in upper class Heliopolis and furthermore in a church, was that it was a service for airing grievances among those discouraged but distant from the tensions in society, especially the Christians among them. The seminar provided an opportunity for prominent members in government linked agencies like the Azhar and the National Council for Human Rights to express their opposition to societal trends. Such a word could provide comfort for troubled hearts, as well as evidence that within government voices exist for co-existence, national unity, and social development. This is necessary and useful civil society behavior.

Yet what good will it do? I suppose that the voices which spoke today have been speaking for some time, and will continue to speak. Yet my focus is not on actualizing change in the government but in society. Specifically, how will the value of these words reach those who are engaged in sectarian tensions—the grassroots people who give worry to the denizens of Heliopolis? Proposed solutions offered included the reform of the education system, the passing of a unified law for building houses of worship, and changing the culture of traditional Islamic education. While each solution is good and will have an effect over time, who is preaching the message of co-existence to the masses? Government and civil society organizations bear much responsibility for the long term trends and the institutional constructs. Who, however, is touching human hearts? Seminars such as these renew the political discourse, but who is renewing social integration and cooperation? Furthermore, where are the plans to do so?

Certainly each sphere has its due, and is deserving of encouragement. Yet I am eager to meet those implementing such ideals on the ground. I was glad to have been in attendance, for I met some of the major spokesman of these ideals. It is the macro picture wherein power and influence lie. Perhaps becoming familiar with this world will assist in understanding how it works, and provide introductions to those who labor in the grassroots. It is in the micro that change and redemption take place. Though by the end I was weary of words, words play an important role in motivating deeds. May these words find connection with living hands and feet.

[i] It was not clear to the author, perhaps for language reasons, if he defined what these ‘certain elements’ were or who was behind them.