Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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Mohamed Selim El-Awa:

Political thought, activism, and the spaces between

Faith in the struggle

Profile by Omayma Abdel-Latif

photos: Ayman Ibrahim

The medium sized photo standing on the desk of Dr Mohamed Selim El-Awa speaks of a lifetime of struggle. The photo, a gift from the former Iranian President Hashemi Rafasanjani, is a panoramic shot of the International Conference of the Islamic Revolution in Support of the Palestinian People, held in Tehran in November 1991. Dr El-Awa made the keynote speech on behalf of the Islamic delegations attending the conference. One of the highlights of this speech was his criticism of the constitution of the Islamic state for restricting the post of president of the Islamic Republic to a Shi'ite president of Shi'ite lineage.

"I thought this went against the true spirit of a universal Islam where sectarian differences do not and should not count. I believed this was a wrong that should be righted," El-Awa says.

Defending the rich, humanistic moral heritage of Islam has become a life-long quest for El- Awa. His struggle has long been to allow the scripture and the insights of scholastic Islamic traditions to speak to us within the circumstances we find ourselves in.

El-Awa, 61, is one of the most sought-after interpreters of Islamic thought. He is also acknowledged, by friends and foes, as one of Egypt's finest lawyers specialised in constitutional law.

His seminal book, Fil Nizam Al-Siyasi lil Dawla Al-Islamiya (On the Political System of the Islamic State) remains the most important and comprehensive study of the concept of the Islamic state and governance.

"He is one of Egypt's best lawyers. His legal knowledge spans the spectrum from the Egyptian legal system, Islamic Shari'a to a profound knowledge of Anglo-Saxon legislative systems. He is someone whose opinions on Islamic fiqh and constitutional law are constantly sought and adhered to," says Tarek El-Bishri, Egypt's most respected judge and Islamist thinker who is also a long time acquaintance. El-Awa, Bishri continues, is a true nationalist whose degree of dedication to national causes and political activism is beyond question.

The best thing about El-Awa, his foes argue, is that he never preaches and makes no attempts to convert people to his cause.

Sitting comfortably in his spacious office, his desk is littered with a great many papers and objects -- a copy of the monthly magazine Al- Manar Al-Gadeed, a periodical concerned with Islamist movement and doctrine, a copy of the Ramadan schedule of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue, an NGO concerned with spreading cultural awareness which he chairs, a copy of his weekly newspaper column published in the independent Al-Osbou' and a green mug emblazoned with Egypt's pre-1952 flag. On the wall behind him is a silk rug with a Qur'anic verse. Though he has a heavy schedule of meetings, court appointments, deadlines and seminars, El-Awa is at ease.

In El-Awa's vision of the world Egypt is at the heart of the matter, something that underwrites his reputation as a nationalist. That Egypt has a role to play, a mission in this world, is an article of faith. "God has bestowed a special status on Egypt," El-Awa says matter-of-factly. "It is meant to preserve a value system, to be in a position to defend the two religions embraced by the majority of people on this planet."

This fervent belief in Egypt's mission has been translated into political activism, into the long- standing defence of democracy, freedom and justice. The son of a political activist, El-Awa recalls that he was introduced to the world of politics at a very early age through his father, a disciple of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"God has bestowed a special status on Egypt," El-Awa says matter-of-factly. "It is meant to preserve a value system, to be in a position to defend the two religions embraced by the majority of people on this planet."


He grew up in a house where "a deep sense of religiosity" was maintained by parents who remained "open to the world around them".

"It was this duality," he believes, that mostly shaped his way of thinking in the years to come.

"Our neighbours were a cosmopolitan mix of Christians, Muslims, Armenian Lebanese and British. We mixed and mingled with them and one thing I learned from my parents was to deal with people regardless of their religion, racial roots or cultural belonging."

There was "an implicit agreement" between his parents to raise their five children to a proper understanding of religion and a command of classic Arabic. It was a house where reading books was never considered a diversion from routine schoolwork, and where newspapers from across the political spectrum regularly arrived.

El-Awa was encouraged to read through the literary canon and developed fondness for Arab poetry, a talent which he later transferred to his five children. "All of my children speak classical Arabic flawlessly," he announces, thanks, perhaps, to the poetry sessions he held for them while growing up.

Close to both parents, El-Awa's deepest attachment was with his father. It was through him that his awareness and understanding of the world began to develop.

"He was a serious man but this seriousness was laced with kindness and tolerance," remembers El-Awa.

One of the most durable themes of his father's advice, from his early youth right through to the end of his undergraduate education, was "to question everything and not accept anyone's views as a given".

"He would tell me to question even the interpretation of a Qur'anic verse or a prophetic saying and not to take it for granted. I learned from him to steer away from the dogmatic understanding of religion."

El-Awa is seen as one of the more important voices from within that group of Islamist intellectuals regarded by many commentators as representing the voice of the Muslim mainstream, as grounded in the Qur'anic verse "We have willed you to be a community of moderation" (2:143).

This idea of moderation, of Al-Wasatiya, is the basis of the notion of centrism which he embraces and may well have underwritten his decision to side with Al-Wasat Party, a group of young professionals who defected from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1995 and sought to establish a political party.

When some of the party members were arrested he represented them, and their right to form a party, in the courts.

"I was defending the idea of Al-Wasat (centrism) first because I believe it to be a notion that could create waves of change in this society. That the Egyptian Al-Wasat has led to a mushrooming of political parties in a number of Arab countries adopting the same name and platform reinforces this view."

El-Awa's future vision was, he says, greatly influenced by the discussion groups his father used to host. The discussions, he recalls, were attended mainly by members of the nascent Muslim Brotherhood group as well as some of the country's best lawyers.

"I would sit at the far end of the room because I was the one serving tea and cake but I used to listen intently to what was being discussed."

One particular meeting was attended by Sheikh Amin Al-Husseini, the then mufti of Palestine. It was in 1948, though the memories of the meeting remain with him till this day. It was the first time he had encountered words like Palestine, Jewish gangs or massacre.

"At the age of seven I could not really comprehend the tragedy that had befallen us in Palestine. Nor could I piece together all the different narratives to understand what had happened though I knew something dreadful was taking place." But the discussions were to make enough of an impact to divert El-Awa from Al-Azhar, where he originally wanted to study, to the Faculty of Law at Alexandra University.

"I wanted to be a lawyer who also has knowledge of Islamic thought, history and law. My years in the faculty of law taught me that this world does not function without laws, and that human beings do not function without religion. To study both the law and religion was one of the best choices I made in life."

He followed his graduation with two diplomas in usul al-fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He was appointed at the office of the prosecutor-general following his graduation and then enrolled as a PhD student at Alexandria University.

In 1965, as the clampdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood was reaching a climax, El- Awa was arrested and charged with being a member of the banned group, a charge he dismissed as baseless, though it cost him his job.

"Since that time I have never had any political affiliation to any group or political movement, not with the Brotherhood, not with any other group. I had friends who were communists, pan- Arabists and Islamists. But I was keen to avoid political or doctrinal commitments, keen to preserve the ability to think critically and independently," El-Awa explains.

His father's troubled relationship with the Muslim Brothers may, in some degree, have shaped El-Awa's own approaches to political affiliation. According to El-Awa, the turning point in his father's relationship with the group occurred when the first act of violence was perpetrated in the group's name.

"He cut off his links with them from that day on. It was an act of protest against their act of violence. He always believed that shedding innocent blood was prohibited. He had argued and counter-argued in countless debates with members of the group that whoever committed such acts was in violation of Islamic teaching."

Expelled from university and jobless for two years El-Awa, on the advice of his mentor Hassan El-Ashmawi, to whose daughter he is now married following the death of his first wife, accepted a place at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London as a PhD candidate. He earned his degree in May 1972 for a comparative study of systems of punishments in Islamic and Anglo-Saxon legal systems. After a few years in the Gulf, where he helped establish departments of law at several universities he returned to Egypt in 1985 and began teaching constitutional law at Zaqaziq University.

El-Awa began a long process of research into concepts of the state within Islamic political thought. He became involved in countless public activities and debates, emerging as a public figure who sought to apply Islam's message to contemporary issues. His book on the political system of the Islamic state remedied the dearth of scholarship on the topic and El-Awa's ideas and analysis remain vital to today's intellectual debates.

While El-Awa maintains close contacts with prominent figures within the Muslim Brotherhood he does not accept their doctrine, and questions it often. Do his reservations, then, extend to the whole project of an Islamic state?

He thinks hard and long. "I think their project -- as defined by Hassan El-Banna -- was about the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim community and the Muslim world . And this is the project of Prophethood, not of Brotherhood. I mean, it was the project of Islam itself and no one can object to this vision but when it comes to translating it into actions I would ask, how do you raise the Muslim individual. Do you raise him or her to be free, independent, capable of making decisions and to think and act out of his own free will or do you indoctrinate blind obedience in him or her? I believe that most Islamic movements, including the Brotherhood, opt for the latter. They raise the individuals to be cogs in the machine. They cannot question or think critically. The same applies to most political parties in this country."

It has, nonetheless, become routine for him to take up cases defending the group's imprisoned members, not out of doctrinal loyalty or political affinity but because of his belief in the importance of "defending their right to freely express their political views just like any other group".

Such positioning makes it difficult to define El-Awa politically -- is, indeed, probably a dilemma for El-Awa himself. He maintains the independence necessary for the principled pursuit of the law while fervently believing in the need for the kinds of change and reform that result from political activism.

"I consider myself a part of the reformist trend in Islamic thinking. I have been preoccupied with the issue of Islamic reform, though on the level of political thought not political activism."

El-Awa has written extensively on the reform of Islamic thought and institutions. His seminal work, Azmat Al-Mu'assasa Al-Diniya (The Crisis of the Religious Establishment) offers a critical survey of the sorry state of the religious establishment -- Al-Azhar, Al-Awqaf (Ministry of Religious Endowments) and Dar Al-Iftaa.

In 1998 he produced the award-winning Al- Fiqh Al-Islami fi Tariq Al-Tajdeed (Islamic Jurisprudence on the Path of Renewal) for which he was named Arab thinker of the year, the culmination of eight years of painstaking research.

With so many agendas pushing Muslims to reform, how does El-Awa define the process. Does it mean a retreat of religion from the public domain, as some agendas for reform contend?

"Reform (islah)," says El-Awa, "equals renewal (tajdeed) and by that we mean a new lease of life for Islamic values and meanings that have been abandoned or forsaken or deliberately replaced by either rulers, or religious establishments that operate on the basis of political expediency."

The mission of those seeking a renewal of religious thought, he explains, is to bring people back to basics. And this process of reform should not be the exclusive property of the ulama or the religious establishment. "Every Muslim individual should contribute, each in his own field."

He places the brunt of blame for the failure to create the framework within which principles of Islam, such as shura, could be implemented, on Muslim intellectuals. The framework that comes closest to the principle of shura is Western democracy, a reliance on the ballot box as a means to allow people to hire and fire rulers whenever they see fit.

The greatest obstacle to reform, he believes, are the ruling systems that are "likely to be the first victims of this reform". And the greatest challenge facing Muslim societies, he reckons, is to establish a vibrant civil society.

He does not hide his frustration at the state's deliberate attempt to neuter professional syndicates, which, he argues, offered a life-line to a whole range of political forces.

"They offered platform for the wide range of political forces in Egypt and it was a mistake to kill this in the budding," he insists.

He leans back in his chair as if suddenly remembering that he is not in the courtroom.

He is the happiest man on earth, he says, when he spends time with his five children -- "any one of them or with them all if possible.. even a telephone call makes me happy."

He remembers fondly how he and his late wife -- they were married, he tells me, for 27 years and seven months and 27 days -- shared every detail of their children's upbringing.

His eldest daughter Fatma El-Awa, works at the WHO; Salwa teaches Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham; Ahmed is a teaching assistant at Cairo University currently working on a PhD in pharmacology, Mariam is an architect and Abdel-Rahman a dentist.

"They are a good lot and every one of them is a success story," El-Awa says, his pride finally expanding into the broadest of smile

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