Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 July 2007
Issue No. 852
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Matters of faith

The arrest of four members of the little known Quranist group has sparked a wide-ranging religious debate, reports Karim El-Khashab

When security forces arrested a four-member group of Quranists on charges of defaming Islam last month, and the state security prosecutor ordered their remand in custody pending investigation, they could have little anticipated the debate the move would provoke.

Quranists believe that only the Quran, and not the Sunna -- Prophet Mohamed's sayings and doings -- should form the framework for Islamic thought and practice, a position seen as verging on heresy by many Islamic scholars.

The four detainees are believed to be led by Islamic thinker Ahmed Sobhi Mansour. They are either relatives of Mansour, or else worked with him when he was in Egypt. Mansour, who lives in the US, has published several books and articles suggesting that the process of compiling the hadith (the prophet's sayings) was inherently flawed, and that many sayings attributed to the prophet may well not have been uttered by him. Mansour, and other Quranists, argue that the Quran should be the only source of Islamic thought, noting that the Sunna has been tainted with many inaccurate hadiths and is therefore not a reliable source for understanding Islam.

Following the arrests, Mansour's homes in Cairo and Sharqiya were searched by the State Security.

Quranists are a relatively new import to Egypt. According to Islamic scholar Abdel-Fatah Asakir, it is a train of thought that only emerged in Egypt in the second half of the 20th century. Mainstream Islamic thought promotes the Quran as the primary text in Islamic jurisprudence but maintains that scholars also rely on the hadith, and the Sunna, in issuing fatwas.

Fathi Mohamed, a 25-year-old follower of Mansour, told Al-Ahram Weekly the aim of the group is to filter elements that have led to the emergence of extremism and fundamentalism from Islam.

"If you look at many extremists you will find that they rely on the hadith and not the Quran," argues Mohamed, who remains keen, nonetheless, to stress that Quranists do not reject the hadith and Sunna out of hand. "We differentiate between issues like how to pray, fast and perform the Haj, practices passed down from generation to generation, and issues that are open to interpretation," he said.

Mona, a fellow Quranist, adds that such an approach has been growing in popularity for some time. It only attracted the attention Al-Azhar, however, and as a consequence the attention of State Security, security body, when Quranists launched a website that contained criticisms of many of Al-Azhar's recent pronouncements.

Naasa Ali, sister of one of the four men arrested, describes how State Security officers raided her brother's apartment in the early hours of the morning, taking away CDs, books and computers.

"I don't understand why this has all happened now," she said, noting that her brother and his associates have long published their work either online or in print and have never worked in secret or as an underground organisation. "Most of the members declare their views openly and don't hide from anyone. So why are they being treated like terrorists?" she asks, pointing out the irony that their avowed aim is to counteract extremism.

But Ahmed Basyouni, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, insists the Quranists have gone too far. "The Quran itself is very clear," he says. "It mentions that Muslims must follow the word of God and the ways of the prophet and there can be no argument there." Denying the doings and sayings of the prophet, accuses Basyouni, is to deny Islam.

"These types of ideas are extremely dangerous and if we allow them to spread they will lead even more people astray."

Similar views were echoed by the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who told reporters outside his office that the State Security has every right to arrest anyone who tarnishes the image of Islam. Asked by Al-Ahram Weekly where freedom of speech fits into the picture, he insisted the law was clear. "We respect freedom of speech but the law clearly places limitations on matters of faith."

Islamic scholar Gamal El-Banna, while admitting that there are problems with the hadith and the way by which it was collected, thinks the Quranists have taken matters far. "I don't think that Quranists are heretics, but I do think they need to ease up their views a little," says El-Banna.

NGOs and human rights organisations, including the Ibn Khaldun Centre, headed by sociologist and human rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim, condemned the arrest as well as the state's meddling in religious debates. One of the four detainees is employed at the centre, and was in charge of monitoring the recent Shura Council elections.

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