Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Religious reform in question

Islamic researcher and TV announcer Islam Al-Beheiri has been sentenced to one year in prison for misinterpreting the Quran, reports Reem Leila

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 28 December the Court of Misdemeanours convicted Islamic researcher and TV announcer Islam Al-Beheiri for insulting Islam and sentenced him to one year in jail instead of the initial five. The court convicted Al-Beheiri after Al-Azhar, along with lawyers, filed a lawsuit against him for calling for the removal of what Al-Beheiri called “extremist material” in texts of religious interpretation during his TV show ‘With Islam’ which was aired on the satellite channel Al-Qahera Wal-Nas.

Immediately after his sentencing and before being taken to Tora Prison, Al-Beheiri slammed the court’s decision on his Facebook account. “I’m sentenced to one year in jail. I offered every good thing to the religion and the people, and now I’m sentenced to one year,” said Al-Beheiri who added, “Egypt is the country of justice.”

Al-Beheiri’s lawyer Gamal Said said the ruling was illegal because Giza’s Court of Misdemeanors had previously acquitted him on similar charges. “I will appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to review the conflicting verdicts,” Said stated.

Lawyers who filed the case against Al-Beheiri stated that he has no chance because the accusations against the contentious preacher were different. They said Al-Beheiri was acquitted of charges related to insulting major Islamic scholars and doubting the sayings of the companions of the Prophet Mohamed. However, in the lawsuit in which he was convicted, Al-Beheiri was accused of insulting Islam, disrespecting God and misinterpreting the Quran. “These are two different charges with two different verdicts and that’s a different story,” said one lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Abdallah Al-Naggar, a member of the Islamic Research Centre (IRC), believes that the court has resorted to Al-Hesba law as a basis for its verdict. According to this law, Muslims who express their views which are considered contrary to Islamic Sharia should be persecuted as non-believers. “This was in the old days to protect and preserve Islam as well as Quranic verses against any change or inappropriate interference. This was applied against anyone other than the four imams (scholars): Noaman Ibn Thabet, known as Abu-Hanifa, Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, Mohamed Ibn Idris Al-Shafei and Abu Abdallah Malek, known as Imam Malek,” cited Al-Naggar.

Things have now changed, according to Al-Naggar. “Any professional and specialised Islamic researcher has the right to igtehad to come out with different views other than the old scholars. But they don’t have the right to change any of the Quranic verses or Prophet Mohamed’s sayings (hadiths),” stressed Al-Naggar.

At the same time, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a statement the day following the verdict, condemning the court’s ruling, and blaming it for taking into consideration only Al-Azhar’s point of view without considering Al-Beheiri’s. Ishak Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at EIPR, said the court’s ruling shows how powerful Al-Azhar, Egypt’s and the Arab world’s oldest Islamic institution, is and its aim to enforce its guardianship over society. “The ruling shows that calls to review religious speech are nothing more than empty talk. Governmental officials do not truly believe in freedom of expression, belief and opinion,” Ibrahim said.

“Is this the reward for someone who wants to do something good for the country? To be jailed for saying his opinion? Is this what President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been calling for? The president has been calling for amendments of religious speech since he first came to power in 2014,” argued Ibrahim, who added that people will now refrain from stating their opinions freely “since they will be afraid of being imprisoned”.

In January 2015, Al-Sisi called for a “religious revolution” in a speech which he delivered at Al-Azhar on the occasion of the birth of Prophet Mohamed. In his speech, Al-Sisi urged Al-Azhar scholars to reform many misunderstood religious traditions that might affect the image of Islam, instructing the Endowments Ministry and Al-Azhar to prepare a plan for the desired reforms.

Said, Al-Beheiri’s lawyer, said his client did not insult Islam. “He was simply stating his opinion about certain traditions from the past which could be easily changed to suit the present time. He did not call for changing any Quranic verses or the prophet’s sayings. He just said his opinion.”

On his TV show, Al-Beheiri questioned the credibility of Al-Bukhari’s interpretation of Prophet Mohamed’s quotes and life. “Many sheikhs of Al-Azhar believe it is completely wrong to do this, especially someone like Al-Beheiri, who is not a sheikh or an Al-Azhar scholar or even an Al-Azhar graduate,” said the lawyer.

According to Said, Article 98 of the Penal Code was specifically criticised because it criminalises contempt of religion but only loosely defines the crime. The article also gives judges extensive powers in interpreting the legal text, which usually leads to the conviction of defendants involved in such cases.

In this regard, president of the Egyptian Secular Party Hisham Ouf condemned the domination of Al-Azhar and its scholars’ ideologies over Egyptian society concerning religion. “The court’s verdict is considered a blow to all efforts of renaissance. It is also a huge humiliation to intellectuals, artists and thinkers in Egypt,” Ouf said.

Ouf described Al-Beheiri as a man of letters and was not the first to challenge the credibility of Islamic scholars in modern times, neither in Egypt nor the Islamic world. “Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali published a book in 1989 challenging the quotes of the prophet attributed to Al-Bukhari in a way that angered Salafists and hard-liners in the Arab world. [But] I do not think Sheikh Al-Ghazali was dragged to court over his views or was a secret secular or atheist. Now, Al-Beheiri is being jailed for his thoughts. His imprisonment won’t change his mind or his thinking nor will his supporters change their minds about him or their thinking,” said Ouf.

Moreover, on his Facebook account, parliamentarian and renowned film director Khaled Youssef criticised Al-Beheiri’s verdict, urging the president to intervene and pardon him.

“To the person who called for the renewal of religious speech, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, we all wish that you use your powers to pardon Al-Beheiri until this law is amended so as to be in accordance with the constitution, not just for the sake of Al-Beheiri but to end terrorism and extremism. We all should side with a revival, otherwise darkness will prevail,” wrote Youssef on his Facebook account.

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