Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Towards practical religious reform

While the need to reform religious discourse has been acknowledged, little has been achieved towards that end. Two new books, however, help light the path, writes Mohamed Salmawy


I just finished two books, both of which I enjoyed equally: Are These Truly Religious Axioms? by Khaled Montasser and An Urgent Appeal to the Women of Egypt by Sherif Al-Shubashi. Generally, I read more than one book at the same time. It helps me increase and prolong my reading pleasure. The moment I tire of one subject, I move to the second book which is usually about a different subject. In this case, however, Montasser’s and Al-Shubashi’s books address pretty much the same subject. In fact, they complement each other. I advise readers to read them together or, if they prefer, to read them one right after the other.

Al-Shubashi discusses the question of the veil which became unprecedentedly widespread in our society during the past four decades. His book discusses an appeal to Egyptian women to remove the veil. He stresses, from the outset, that this appeal was addressed to the women who had been forced by male relatives into wearing the veil, rather than to those wore the veil voluntarily. In fact, however, that agency that has imposed the veil is the oppressive movement that has infiltrated our lives so insidiously and intensely that it has come to suffocate us with its narrow bigoted views on the otherwise open and tolerant world. Women who voluntarily wear the veil are no less a product than the father, husband or elder brother who compels the women in his household to wear the veil of that dominant backwards, Salafi trend that prevails in our society and that has grown so extreme that women who choose not to wear the veil are described as “indecent” at best and “whores” at worst. If women who claim to wear the veil voluntarily in our times were to exist in a different age, the chances are that they would not wear it. In other words, most of the women who wear the veil do so as the result of direct or indirect pressure from society.

Al-Shubashi’s book is not an appeal to remove the veil. He had issued that appeal about three years ago. Rather, it is an account of society’s response to the appeal. It is an insightful and, simultaneously, enjoyable analysis of the current state of society and how it deals with the new and unfamiliar. It thus transcends the question of the veil and becomes a sociological and psychological study of society in its present state. He writes:

“To the same degree that the purpose of the veil is to screen or conceal from the view of others, my appeal to remove it from the heads of Egyptian women has served to expose suppressed facts, repressed feelings and a hidden reality. It was as though I had removed the moral and psychological veil from an entire society at a particular moment in its history, baring its flaws for all to see. The appeal has exposed so many ills in Egyptian society that I felt that launching it was like removing a manhole cover that hides what lays beneath. I hope that everyone has sufficient courage for introspection.”

Khaled Montasser’s book addresses the notions that Wahhabist sheikhs have managed, during recent years, to convince us are axiomatic religious truths that are so immutable that merely to open them to discussion is to question the very tenets of the Islamic faith. But Montasser not only discusses those notions, he proves that they are erroneous and he does so in terms of the religious tenets themselves. In using authentic Islamic arguments to refute the claims of the sheikhs of ignorance and extremism, he defends Islam against those who offend and abuse it through their blindness and fanaticism.

Many of those religious “axioms” have to do with the subject of Al-Shubashi’s book: the oppression of women. Montasser argues that forcing women to wear the veil and many other means of female oppression rest on notions that have become taken for granted. Examples are: “Women are deficient in intelligence and faith;” “Most of the inhabitants of hell are women;” “God ordained that men should beat their wives;” “Polygamy is a right under Sharia;” “A husband may enjoy his conjugal rights whenever he wishes regardless of the circumstances and even if that entails rape;” “Women who refuse this will be condemned to hell.” Montasser, in his book, even cites sheikhs who interpret Quranic verses so as to assert that a man has the right to tie up his wife in bed, like one binds a female camel, in order to sleep with her much like an act of sadomasochistic sex!

Montasser’s invaluable book also discusses what must be the mother of all “axioms”. This one serves to safeguard the sheikhs against all accountability and states, “The flesh of scientists is poisonous.” This, he writes, “is the strangest, most flabbergasting expression I have ever heard or read in my life. It is an instrument of repression used to silence, intimidate and terrorise anyone who has the audacity to criticise jurists and sheikhs, or even to offer them a gentle word of reproach, a piece of calm advice or a corroborated correction. They forbid all such comments. They are the blue bloods, immune to criticism. That one sentence, which warns ‘Do not touch’, ‘Do not approach’, and ‘Do not photograph’, like the signs outside of military barracks, is intended to intimidate us against so much as contemplating questioning the sheikhs and to force us to swallow what they say silently and contentedly.”

The value of the two works stems from the fact that Montasser’s determination to question the “axioms” that are alien to Islam and Al-Shubashi’s appeal to Egyptian women to reject the equally unauthentic stricture to wear the veil help identify the correct path towards religious reform. Unfortunately, as much as we all speak of the need to reform religious discourse, we have yet to take concrete steps towards this end.

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