Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2005
Issue No. 750
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bush book incites controversy

Al-Azhar is being criticised for sanctioning a highly controversial US biography of Prophet Mohamed. Gihan Shahine sifts through the 19th century tome to find out why

After much debate, Al-Azhar has finally approved the distribution of a 19th century biography of Prophet Mohamed authored by Reverend George Bush, a distant ancestor of US President George W Bush. Life of Mohamed: The Founder of Islam and of the Empire of Saracens has provoked a storm of controversy for its harsh criticism of Prophet Mohamed, whom it calls "an imposter". The book also occasionally refers to Muslims as "locusts".

Censors at the Al-Azhar-affiliated Islamic Research Academy (IRA), who have the authority to ban books on religious themes, have concluded that the contested volume is "a piece of documentation which portrays a lively picture of Prophet Mohamed's life", and "praises the prophet in almost 80 per cent of its content." A final IRA report said that although the book contains many negative inaccuracies, it does not contradict Islamic tenets.

Readers will have to decide for themselves. At one point in the 262-page book, Bush calls Prophet Mohamed "one of the most remarkable men" who was "very considerably in advance of the age in which he lived". Elsewhere, he writes that Mohamed was "decidedly the most successful imposter, that ever lived." The book claims that by marrying more wives than the four ordained by Islam, Prophet Mohamed "did not observe the rules of morality which he himself laid down, and which he enforced upon others by such terrible sanctions". The Prophet's wives are described as "concubines" and the holy Qur'an as "a pretended revelation" of which the prophet was the "original projector and the real author." In fact, Bush's primary argument seems to be that Islam is a "desolating scourge" and a divine "punishment" for the deplorable state Christianity had reached prior to the appearance and rise of Prophet Mohamed.

Some critics have already deemed the book -- and Al-Azhar's decision to allow the 2002 reprint to be distributed in Egypt -- as problematic. "The author abandoned all ethics of objectivity in his research," grumbled Ibrahim El-Zaafarani, secretary-general of Alexandria's Doctors' Syndicate and a Muslim Brotherhood member of the Shura Council. "Instead of refuting Islam in a scientific way, he indulged in using the meanest of terms to slander Prophet Mohamed and Islam. No religion can accept such a sacrilege."

El-Zaafarani also heads an independent committee whose self-stated goal is to defend the Qur'an and Islam. He said that permitting the distribution of "such books goes against values enshrined in the constitution like respecting religion, and would only drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians."

That was, more or less, the conclusion of an initial report by an examiner from the IRA's research and translation department, who recommend banning the "offensive" book altogether, on the grounds that it "contradicts the tenets of Islam", and would only "spread lies and slander that are likely to create confusion and social havoc".

Maher El-Haddad, a senior official at the academy, denied reports that Al-Azhar's decision not to ban the book was the result of any external pressure. "It's normal procedure for an IRA board to examine a controversial book when it gets rejected by an initial examiner," El-Haddad told Al-Ahram Weekly. El-Haddad concedes that the book contains offenses and inaccuracies, which he says "are not surprising as they are coming from a Christian scholar more than a century ago". Nonetheless, the board's final conclusion was that Reverend Bush praised Prophet Mohamed as "a remarkable character who was determined to convey his message, and refused to give in to frustration despite the plots engineered against him by his enemies."

In any case, El-Haddad was quick to explain, the academy -- chaired by Al-Azhar's Grand Imam -- only let the book through "on condition that it is appended with an English refutation of all the misconceptions included." The decision, he said, was also based on the fact that "the book has been all over the place for more than a century, and no one in the US or Europe is going to ask for Al-Azhar's opinion or permission to read it."

El-Haddad said far more slanderous books are readily available on the international market. "We found it more prudent to refute the book than leave it as is," he said. "As a cultural institution, our role is to engage in a religious dialogue, debating such publications, rather than just banning them."

Some, like Sheikh Gamal Qotb, the former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, were not convinced that Al-Azhar "would ever find the money to assign qualified personnel to refute the book and launch a media campaign to debate it; as such, the censors should not have approved it until they were certain they would be able to accomplish that."

Although Al-Azhar has the authority to bar books touching on religious themes, in practice, it does not examine a publication unless it receives an official request to do so. Besides, the enforcement of a ban is usually in the hands of the government and, more often than not, banned books remain available.

An Arabic translation of the Bush book, appended with a refutation of the 1938 edition, has been reprinted five times since it was published in 2004, and is currently available in bookstores. Abdallah El-Maged, the book's Saudi Arabian publisher, told the Weekly that after 9/11, "we wanted to explore the books available [in the West] to understand the western mentality and refute misconceptions. We decided to start with this book because it is particularly offensive to Arabs and Islam."

Islamic thinker Abdel-Rahman Abdallah El-Sheikh, who translated the text and provided the additional commentary, said, "the book is particularly interesting because it is part of the Library of Congress's collection, and was written by a fifth generation great grandfather of [President] Bush; as such, it provides a clue of how the world's 'emperor' thinks."

President Bush, however, has seemed eager to distance himself from the author's views. The US State Department was quick to announce, last year, that the controversial work was authored by "a distant relative of the current president, five generations removed, but not his direct ancestor". The statement, posted on the department's Web site, also explained that the author's views' are the product of "more parochial times" and "have nothing to do with the attitudes of current President Bush, who is respectful of Islam as one of the world's great religions".

The book had been out of print for more than half a century; although it was reissued in 2002, according to official estimates, it has not sold more than 50 copies since then. El-Sheikh told the Weekly that the 2002 version is "forged. The original copy, which we managed to procure, described Jesus as 'a mere messenger' and criticised Catholic and Orthodox doctrines more than it did Islam". He said the Protestant scholar was also "objective enough to describe Prophet Mohamed as a distinguished character who was able to build an empire in no more than 70 years -- which the Romans couldn't do in less than 700 years -- and as such cannot be a mere pretender." According to El-Sheikh, the new version, titled The Life of Mohamed, "was a politicised copy, where controversial parts on Christian theology were removed, probably to avoid conflicts with the world's Orthodox and Catholic nations".

The censors at Al-Azhar said they only examined the 2002 English-language version of the book, "at the request of a certain official authority", and not the translated original. Which, according to Qotb, is "a rather political decision," and "a great miscalculation on the part of the Grand Imam, who probably thought the book would go unnoticed for being written in English".

For his part, El-Zaafarani slammed the publisher for not removing the book's "extremely provocative and offensive language. The publisher probably used the similarity between the author's name and that of the current US president to market the book and make financial gains," he said.

By ignoring the Arabic version on sale, Qotb said, "Al-Azhar has abandoned its role and bargained on its credibility as the Sunni world's foremost seat of learning."

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