Behind the ban
Al-Ahram Weekly reviews the controversy surrounding Al-Azhar's banning of a title published by the American University in Cairo Press
When Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, written by Natana J. DeLong-Bas, a senior research assistant at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, was first published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in New York in 2004 it occasioned not a ripple in Egypt. But then it was re-printed in paperback by the American University in Cairo (AUC), in an edition published in conjunction with London-based I.B. Tauris, only to be banned by Al-Azhar.
While the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, has been quoted in the local press as saying Al-Azhar prevented the book from entering Egypt because it contains "information not in accordance with the principles of Islam", repeated attempts by Al-Ahram Weekly to contact Al-Azhar to clarify its response met no response.
AUC Press was notified of the ban -- the first time it has faced such censorship -- by letter on 8 October. "They just say this is offensive to Islam. They just say 'No'. They don't really justify it or explain it or go into details," AUC Provost Tim Sullivan told Reuters, adding that the decision may be linked to the parliamentary elections.
"The book essentially argues that Wahhabism has been hijacked by the jihadists," he continued, adding that a specialist in the subject reviewing the book had "recommended enthusiastically that it be published".
Mark Linz, the director of AUC Press, told the Weekly that "AUC has made no intervention yet".
"But we have asked the authorities and those who have notified us that the book cannot be published because it contains information not in accordance with Islamic principles to provide us with a copy of the report and with information about where this is the case in the book, and we would like to enter into dialogue about what can be done about evaluating such an important scholarly study so that it can be read not only in the rest of the world but also in Egypt."
Asked how the ban might affect AUC Press, publisher of over 1,000 titles, Linz asserted that "we are very confident that our publishing plans will continue as they are. We obviously believe in freedom of discourse and we are disappointed that the book has been censored and hope that the decision will be reversed."
"I was surprised and disappointed to read reports of Al-Azhar's ban of Dr. Natana De Long-Bas' book Wahhabi Islam... and the inaccurate information that some have circulated," said Professor John L. Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, in a statement exclusive to the Weekly. "We have great respect for Egypt's religious institutions and in particular for the important role that Al-Azhar has played throughout history as a major center of Islamic scholarship and learning and an authoritative voice in the Muslim world." Esposito said he assumed that "there is some misunderstanding regarding the content and message" of the book.
"Rather than starting with contemporary events and asking questions like 'what went wrong?' Wahhabi Islam... starts with the question: What did Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab actually write and teach? After a comprehensive analysis of Arabic texts, including ibn Abd al-Wahhab's writings and other sources, the book presents a portrait of a careful and thorough Muslim scholar dedicated to the continued renewal of Muslim faith and life. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is described as being very different both from the twenty-first century religious extremists who attempt to justify terrorism with religion and from the picture presented by twenty-first century Neo-orientalists who view any religious renewal as a form of extremism."
Esposito goes on to point out that "the main critics of the book have been Neo-orientalists who tend to be critics of Islam and Muslims (and who seldom would be in agreement with Al-Azhar). On the other hand, Dr. De Long-Bas, who consulted with Saudi scholars in researching and writing the book, has received positive responses from many Saudis after its publication and was invited to Saudi Arabia to lecture on the book."
For Esposito, we "live in an age when mutual understanding and dialogue have never been more important. Al-Azhar has emerged as a major leader in inter-religious dialogue. I would hope therefore that the authorities of Al-Azhar will review their decision, contact the author and share their concerns and objections and give the author an opportunity to respond in writing or in person."
In statements made to the Weekly Gaber Asfour, Cairo University professor of Arabic literature and secretary-general of the Ministry of Culture's Supreme Council of Culture, commented that he is "against the banning of any book except by legal ruling, and the Islamic Research Institute [affiliated to Al-Azhar] has no right to censor books." Asfour added that he feared "political influence in this decision".
"But whether or not this is actually the case," he continued, "one must re-assert the general rule that no authority has the right to curtail freedom of opinion, an infringement of human rights that runs counter to the principles of tolerance enshrined in the charter of the United Nations, of which Egypt is a member."
Heba Raouf Ezzat, lecturer in political theory at Cairo University, sees "the incident as indicative of the sensitivity regarding any criticism of Wahhabism or Saudi Arabia in Egypt". This sensitivity, believes Ezzat, cuts across the religious-secular divide.
"I would assume that the book has not been read, that its title was [thought] reason enough to reject it. The religious establishment does not want to court Saudi anger... I would add, though, that this is also the position of many intellectuals, even the most secular. It is well known that the Saudis penetrate all sorts of intellectual circles. If the circle is Islamic they do so via Islamic forums and organisations; if it is secular, they do so via cultural forums such as the annual Janadiriya festival. So, in fairness, one cannot say that the problem is confined to Al-Azhar."