|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 February 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (378)In a bid to augment his authority, King Fouad I set his sights on the lofty religious position that had been vacated in Istanbul after Turkey abolished the caliphate in 1924. Against this backdrop appeared Islam and the Principles of Government, a book authored by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq of Al-Azhar University. The book was of a political nature and took a secular approach, advocating the separation of religion and state and it was replete with references to King Fouad's bid for the caliphate. While it had its supporters and detractors -- Al-Ahram remained neutral -- in the end it was looked on as blasphemous and a synod of senior ulama found its author guilty. The verdict forced Fouad to dismiss the head of the Liberal Constitutional Party, a decision that jeopardised the ruling coalition. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the contents of a book that ultimately toppled the government
Cabinet toppled by a book
On 3 March 1924 the government of Ankara abolished the caliphate, deposed the last of the Ottoman caliphs and expelled all members of the royal family from Turkey, giving them 10 days to leave the country, depriving them of citizenship rights and confiscating their palaces. This decree, effectively converting Turkey into a secular state, was accompanied by two subsidiary decrees abolishing the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) and religious schools. While the effect of the closure of the ministry and religious schools was felt primarily in Turkey the abolition of the caliphate had profound repercussions throughout the Islamic world.
In Egypt, the strongest reaction to Ankara's action came from two groups. The first was the Islamic fundamentalists whose mouthpiece was Al-Manar, owned and operated by one of the most important proponents of this trend, Rashid Rida. Exemplary of Al-Manar's opinion on this issue was the following: "All Muslims will remain in a state of sin until they select another caliph and pledge allegiance to him. The sin will wreak havoc upon them in this world, not to mention the punishment of God that awaits them on the Day of Judgement."
The second body of opinion was represented by the Nationalist Party. Much of its history was associated with the call for pan-Islamism, a major cornerstone of which was the caliphate. Al-Akhbar, owned and edited by Amin El-Rafie, voiced the beliefs of this group and it wrote on this occasion, "No Muslim felt anything but the greatest indignation. The government of Ankara has gone too far in its abuse of religion, as well as in its abuse of the rights of the Ottoman royal family."
Al-Ahram had long been an admirer of Ataturk and an advocate of pan-Arabism rather than pan-Islamism. Nevertheless, on the sensitive issue of the abolition of the caliphate it opted to keep its opinions to itself and to concentrate primarily on covering the events. Even in this regard, it tended to restrict itself to statements made by those most immediately involved, such as Sheikh Mohamed Farag El-Minyawi, managing editor of Al-Majalla, mouthpiece of the General Islamic Conference for the caliphate in Egypt, or to relaying reports from the foreign press.
It is interesting that, in spite of the importance the abolition of the caliphate had for many Egyptians, the event was focused on by the public almost a year after it had occurred. Essentially this was because the political arena in Egypt in 1924 was dominated by developments of greater domestic impact, notably the election of the Wafdist government, led by Saad Zaghlul, in January of that year and its subsequent confrontation with the palace and the British high commissioner's office which culminated in the assassination of the commander-general in Sudan, Sir Lee Stack, and the fall of the Zaghlul government. The Wafd, which led the nationalist movement since the 1919 Revolution, was purely Egyptian nationalist in ideological orientation, with the result that the collapse of the caliphate had little effect on its agenda.
Following the collapse of the Wafd government the situation would change. For a good part of 1925 parliament was suspended as the palace, represented by Hassan Nashaat , deputy chief of the Royal Cabinet, acquired increasingly autocratic powers. Simultaneously, in a bid to augment his authority, King Fouad I set his sights on the lofty religious position that had been vacated in Istanbul.
King Fouad's ambitions had important regional repercussions. Until this point, it had appeared that the only legitimate contender for the caliphate was the Sherif Hussein, king of the Hijaz and head of the Hashemite family. However, tense relations between Hussein and Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, sultan of the Najd, culminated in the fall of the Hashemite kingdom and, consequently, the end of Hussein's claims to the caliphate.
Other contenders soon surfaced, opening the issue of succession to considerable journalistic speculation. On 28 February 1925, Al-Ahram relayed an article from the Carriere d'Italia predicting that the next caliph would be the Libyan leader Al-Sayed Mohamed Al-Senusi. It also published another news item from the Parisian newspaper La Liberté, reporting that another candidate was Emir Abdel-Karim Al-Khattabi, "who has acquired great repute for his victories over the Spanish and his assaults against the French [in Morocco]."
Such speculation in the Italian and French press mirrored the fears of Paris and Rome more than they did the actual prospects of these candidates. Al-Senusi, after all, was little more than the head of a relatively localised religious sect who had led the resistance movement against the Italian occupation of Libya. And in spite of the fact that his success against the Spaniards had won him admiration in the Islamic world -- particularly among Moroccan students at Al-Azhar who promoted his candidacy -- Al-Khattabi was, in the end, a local leader in an area far removed from the heart of the Islamic world.
It seemed, therefore, that the Egyptian king was seen as the most suitable candidate for the next caliph. Indeed, this was the opinion of La Liberté, which was quoted in Al-Ahram of 23 June 1925 as having suggested that the best solution was "to nominate His Majesty King Fouad I as caliph, for he occupies the throne of the largest Islamic nation and there is abundant evidence of his nobility of character, intelligence, wisdom and statesmanship. Added to this is the glorious historical stature derived from the legacy of the great royal house of Mohamed Ali."
Certainly, too, the existence of Al-Azhar in the Egyptian capital added weight to the argument, in view of that institution's lofty status in the Islamic world. Indeed, it seemed only appropriate that the rector of Al-Azhar be appointed to head the Caliphate Committee formed in Egypt to host an Islamic conference in Cairo and to issue a magazine to promote its call. Naturally, the committee and its activities received the full backing of King Fouad who saw himself as the most qualified candidate for the vacant position of "Leader of the Faithful."
The palace's plans, however, did not proceed as smoothly as hoped. Letters poured into committee headquarters from around the Islamic world, some from Islamic groups asking for clarifications on the purpose of the proposed conference and the delegates expected to attend. Others came from "Islamic peoples far removed from the major Islamic centres, inquiring about the qualifications of the caliph and the rules for electing him." Yet a third batch of letters inquired about rumours that the Caliphate Committee was formed solely to promote the candidacy of King Fouad, to which Al-Azhar Rector Sheikh Mohamed Mustafa El-Maraghi responded. "The committee members do not entertain any such notion at present," he said. "Their sole intention is to find the best man for this exalted religious position."
Because of these complications, the committee was forced to postpone the Islamic conference and it was against the backdrop of these developments that one book made a significant impact on modern Egyptian history.
Islam and the Principles of Government: a Study of the Caliphate and Government in Islam, by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq "of the University of Al-Azhar and a magistrate in the religious courts" appeared in April 1925. Islam and the Principles of Government consisted of nine chapters: The Caliphate and its Nature; The Government of the Caliphate; The Caliphate from the Social Perspective; The System of Government in the Age of the Prophet; The Prophetic Message and Government; Mohamed's Message versus Government and Religion versus State; Religious Unity and the Arabs; The Arab State; and The Islamic Caliphate.
In spite of the religious tenor of the book, it was of a political nature and made a secular approach. As the title of chapter six suggests, it advocated the separation of religion and state, while the last chapter was replete with references to King Fouad's bid for the caliphate. In a study entitled Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq: An Intellectual Battle, published in Al-Talia in November 1971, Mohamed Imara points to several instances in Islam and the Principles of Government in which the author alludes to the Egyptian throne and the tyranny of the monarchical system. Abdel-Razeq proclaims, "Were it not excessive we would review for the reader the chain of succession to the caliphate up to our times. We would make him see how subjugation and coercion are etched in every link and that what is called a throne was lifted above the heads of humankind only to rest upon their shoulders. And that which is called a crown has no life other than the life it takes from human beings, no power but that which it usurps from them and no prestige apart from what it can plunder."
Abdel-Razeq also declares, "It is only natural for those Muslims who believe in freedom, who submit themselves only to God, the Lord of the Universe, and who appeal to their Lord in the name of that belief during the five times of prayer, to refuse to submit to one of their own numbers or to anyone else in that manner that kings demand from their subjects. This is none other than the submission to force and to the rule of the conquering sword."
It is not surprising that controversy erupted within days of the publication of the book and that battle lines were quickly drawn. On the one side were the fundamentalists, represented by Sheikh Rashid Rida and Al-Manar, which wrote that Abdel-Razeq's book was a weapon in the secularist war the West was waging against Islam, a war that was "more pernicious than the Crusades." On this side, too, was Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the royalist party of that name.
Championing the book and its author was the Liberal Constitutional Party through its newspaper Al-Siyasa. As Imara writes, the members of this party "threw all their intellectual weight -- remarkable at the time -- behind the book and its author. The articles in Al-Siyasa on this subject constitute a distinguished page in the annals of Egyptian thought that merits special and independent study."
Again, Al-Ahram was reluctant to join the fray, inspiring Sheikh Rida to write to it. "It pleases me that in Al-Ahram you have chosen to remain neutral on Islam and the Principles of Government because the issue concerns the Islamic creed and the question of faith and heresy."
And so remained Al-Ahram, until it featured an article by the Egyptian philosopher Mansour Fahmi who declared, "Islam has nothing to do with questions of the caliphate, nor with any particular form of government." Fahmi also took the occasion to condemn the appeal launched by Muslim authorities to have Abdel-Razeq expelled from Al-Azhar on the grounds that "he thinks differently from you (the authorities) and takes a different view on certain issues."
Sheikh Rida was not pleased that Al-Ahram published that article by "one of the principal defenders of the book" who, he charged, "used all his guile to support the book and attack men of religion." In response to Fahmi's charges, Rida, as exponent of the opposing camp, replied, "We never denounced a different mode of thinking or perspective on theoretical issues in Islam. We did denounce the author of the book for having departed from the beliefs all Muslims hold with regard to the caliphate and the rule of Islam."
Following this minor skirmish Al-Ahram stepped back to the sidelines in the battle though it continued to follow developments regarding Islam and the Principles of Government throughout the summer of 1925. These culminated in "the prosecution of its author and the ruling against him," as Al-Ahram reported in its headlines of 13 August after a synod of senior ulama, headed by the rector of Al-Azhar, met to deliberate the case. Several weeks later, on 5 September, the newspaper described the precise charges brought against Abdel-Razeq. He was accused of holding that Islamic law, Shari'a, was a purely spiritual order intended to regulate the relationship between man and God and that it had no bearing on the organisation of man's worldly affairs; claiming that faith does not preclude that the prophet's jihad was to acquire worldly power and not to disseminate the faith throughout the world; asserting that the nature of the system of government in the days of the Prophet was ambiguous and unresolved or deficient and confusing. He also was alleged to have said that the mission of the Prophet was to convey the message of the Shari'a and not to implement it through rule. He was also charged with renouncing the unanimous opinion of the Companions of the Prophet on the necessity of appointing an imam, or leader, to oversee the spiritual and worldly affairs of the Muslim nation, from which followed his rejection of the religious authority of the courts and his claim that the governments of Abu Bakr and the Caliphs who followed him were earthly, not religious governments.
Abdel-Razeq was found guilty of these charges. The synod said the law of Al-Azhar stipulated that "any member of the ulama, regardless of his position or occupation, who acts in a manner inappropriate to the dignity of the body of ulama, shall be expelled from their ranks... The name of that person so condemned shall be stricken from the records of the University of Al-Azhar and other institutes and he shall be barred from further employment and deprived of his remunerations from any agency." The full weight of this ruling fell on the author of Islam and the Principles of Government.
But the crisis did not end there. There still remained the matter of which agency would have the right to put the synod's ruling into effect. Five days after the rector pronounced the sentence Al-Ahram reported, "There have been conflicting opinions over who has the right to implement the ruling, with some suggesting the Ministry of Justice and others the cabinet, although the fact remains that all matters pertaining to Al-Azhar should be referred to the prime minister."
Meanwhile, as Abdel-Razeq was awaiting the outcome of such deliberations, the news of the Al-Azhar authorities' decision reverberated throughout the Egyptian press, with some newspapers voicing indignation and others support. Al-Ahram opted for caution, expressing itself through articles it relayed to its readers from the foreign press, in particular the British press.
On 14 and 22 August, under the headline "Reactions in London to the Ruling against Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq," Al-Ahram featured excerpts from the London Times on the issue. The Cairo correspondent of the British newspaper commented, "The case has caused great concern. There is strong popular sympathy for Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq and strenuous efforts are now being exerted to have the synod's ruling annulled. This is the first time in which the board of Al-Azhar has tried an Islamic scholar on charges of heresy."
A subsequent Times item described Abdel-Razeq as "the Egyptian Luther." The Times correspondent in Cairo wrote that the author of Islam and the Principles of Government belongs to the modern Islamic reform movement that included such figures as Gamaleddin El-Afghani, Abdel-Rahman El-Kawakbi and Sheikh Mohamed Abduh. He added that "Mohamed Abduh, like Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq, met with strong opposition among his contemporary clergymen. However, he also found powerful political support that not only spared him from persecution but elevated him to the post of Mufti."
The correspondent went on to describe "the rigidity of Islamic customs for centuries. The approval or rejection of Islamic laws in Islamic countries is restricted to the body of Islamic jurisprudence, men whose qualifications to command and prohibit were honed in a climate of austerity, similar to that of the medieval hermit, in which they learned how to literally apply the sayings of the ancient Arab sages which may have been wise for that period."
Al-Ahram also quoted from the Turkish press which, as would have been expected, came out in support of Abdel-Razeq whose book, one newspaper observed, "conforms with the policies of the Kemalists and justifies their actions." Nor was it surprising that a prominent writer in the state that had just abolished the caliphate should hasten to translate the book into Turkish and "send it section by section to newspapers to be published in an abridged version."
Back in Egypt Abdel-Razeq found political and moral support within the Liberal Constitutional Party. True, the sheikh belonged to one of the prominent founding families of that party, but it was also true that Al-Siyasa, the party's mouthpiece, grouped some of Egypt's leading intellectual giants who were proponents of liberal thought and religious reform. Not only did such figures come out in Abdel-Razeq's favour, but so, too, did the Liberal Constitutional Party chief Abdel-Aziz Fahmi who, at the time, was serving as minister of justice and charged with implementing the Al-Azhar ruling. Fahmi's support would have important political repercussions.
According to a report by the chargé d'affaires of the British high commissioner's office, Fahmi was dragging his feet in implementing the ruling and towards this end he submitted the documents on the issue to the Ministry of Justice's legal advisers for their opinion. This prompted Yehia Ibrahim, who was standing in as prime minister as Ziwar Pasha was still on holiday in Paris, to notify King Fouad that he would resign unless he dismissed Fahmi. Fouad found the latter option most convenient and dismissed the head of the Liberal Constitutional Party from the government on 5 September, a decision that jeopardised the ruling coalition of the Liberal Constitutional Party and the Ittihad Party.
In order to salvage the situation, the palace attempted to pressure the former party. This took the form of open letters of support for the king from the rector of Al-Azhar and other religious officials, praising the king for safeguarding religion against "the sins of transgressors and heretics," and there were also declarations of loyalty from members of the Ittihad. Such tactics, however, failed to accomplish their objective. On 19 September, Tawfiq Doss and Mohamed Ali, the two other Liberal Constitutional cabinet ministers, tendered their resignation, heralding the imminent collapse of the Ziwar government, the first and so far only Egyptian government to be toppled because of a book.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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