Islam Al Beheiry : The Embattled Reformer
In post 2011 Egypt, the term “Reformation” is becoming the favourite political expression and weapon of choice amongboth politicians and Journalists. After the historical call of President Al Sisi for the imperativeness of reforming the perceptions of what Muslims believe as the core of Islam, all the press and Media outlets along with politicians applauded the call. In fact almost everyone in Egypt did speak about the imperativeness of reformation ironically including the radical Salafists who would in reality rather die than actually approve reforming their beliefs. The only problem here is that each individual may perceive the word “Reformation” according to his/her own whim. While the President specifically demanded a reformation in what is perceived to be proper Islamic beliefs. This reformation according to the President is imperative to stop the wave of violence and terrorism not just in Egypt but all over the world.
Being a reformer in the Middle East has always been a risky business. Once you are labeled as a Reformer, you are most likely to become a public target, to lose your social status, your steady income and if you are not quite lucky, it is very possible that you will lose your own life. The odds are always stacked against you in every way. Between rigid medieval minded clerics and a swarm of their blindfolded followers who mindlessly parrot their wordsyou will be left besieged and trapped within yourself. You usually have one of two choices, renounce your own convictions or face the consequences.
Despite all the above , every generation usually features its own major social and religious reformers who dare to break the ice and think outside the box. The last generation featured great scholars such as Farrag Fouda who was assassinated based on a Fatwa by Muslim Brotherhood affiliated cleric. It also includes the likes of the late Gamal Al Banna, Sayed Al Qimny, Mourad Wahba along with many others reformers.
The new generation of reformers is now starring Islam Al Beheiry who initiated his activity with a series of articles in the Egyptian daily Al Youm Al Sabea. Al Beheiry represents a new generation of religious reformers outside the clergy and religious caste. Al Beheiry dared to delve deeply into the true meanings of the Holy Quran and highlighted the massive misinterpretations of Islam’s holy book on the hands of Islamists and their allies. He mentioned that throughout history clergymen deviated the meanings of Quran to serve either their own political ambitions or the rulers, and El Behiery have mentioned countless examples of such practices. Accordingly Al Beheiry called upon all Muslims to rediscover the true meanings of Quran and shun the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that terrorists like Muslims Brotherhood, Al Qaeda , ISIS , etc.. Invented and manipulated to foster their agendas for power in most Muslim Predominantly countries.
With the exception of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Egyptian authorities are far from being serious on any form of reformation in religion despite declaring that they welcome the President’s call for religious reform and a new Religious revolution. It is noteworthy that the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awkaf) have been exerting more efforts than Al Azhar institute for reformation. Unfortunately, it falls short from achieving tangible results because they are trying to avoid the main issues raised by reformers like Islam Al Beheiry or Journalists like Ibrahim Eissa. These issues lie in the books that formulate a good portion of Islamic Jurisprudence based on the opinions of elder scholars of Islam that may have befitted their medieval eras but are certainly in total conflict with modern societies and norms. Hence, comes the call for reformation and omitting what is not in the core of Islam as of religious opinions based on elder scholars own perception of Islam. In addition to that, proper beliefs of the core message of the religion should be reinstalled and ones that can accommodate the 21st century world with all its complications and challenges.
The famous speeches calling for reformation by Egyptian President Al Sisi usually fell on deaf ears. The reason for that Al Sisi has chosen the wrong messenger to carry his message. While Al Azhar is a the oldest and most respected Islamic institution all over the world, the current administration comprised mainly of Muslims Brotherhood sympathizing imams and scholars such as Mohamed Omara, Abbas Shouman and several others who endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and condemned the June 30th revolution against former Islamist President Morsi. It is estimated that over 4000 out of 6000 assistant professors in Al Azhar have been assigned during the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and practice their jobs in the old Islamic institution. This only means that within 15 years the entire body of professors will be teaching Muslim Brotherhood teachings in Al Azhar according to Abdel Ghani Hindi – Head of Al Azhar independence movement. This movement called on December 2014 for sacking all personnel and teachers who follow the Muslim Brotherhood teachings from Al Azhar.
It is unfortunate that very Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar Ahmed Al Tayeb implicitly snubbed the president call for reformation during the presence and attendance of President Al Sisi himself in the very day he called upon Al Azhar institution to lead the charge of reformation. They changed their stance just the next day when they announced that based on the “instructions” by President Al Sisi , they will conduct a religious revolution”!
“War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”- George Clemenceau – French Stateman
The French statesman couldn’t be more accurate as war involves not just the fate and lives of soldiers and generals but entire nations’ fate depend upon decisions taken during wars. Hence, war cannot be entirely trusted to Military men.
Similarly, religion on the other hand is too important to be entrusted to clergymen since it involves the fate of billions worldwide and cannot be left to the whims of clergymen and theologists alone. Accordingly Assigning Al Azhar institute to be the sole responsible for reformer who decides what to be reformed or not will lead to a very limited if not negligent change due to the nature of Al Azhar conservative stance.
Al Azhar institute that profusely refused to label ISIL and Al Qaeda as heretics “Kafirs” meanwhile they had its propaganda machine geared towards bashing reformers like Islam Al Beheiry , Sayed Al Qimny and Journalist Ibrahim Eissa for daring to challenge the institution. They accused the institution of not simply sitting idle in front for the deluge of extremism that has engulfed the Egyptian society in the past 6 decades but actually fostering it through generations of Sheikhs and clergymen who call for further radicalism most of whom were affected by the Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia. While Al Azhar refused to label ISIS and Al Qaeda as heretics though called them terrorists in some instances, some of its clergymen would insinuate if not directly call the above mentioned reformers as “Heretics” despite the fact that they neither killed or actually harmed a single human being.
Al Beheiry took no prisoners when it came to criticizing many of Islam’s most revered scholars such as Sheikh Al Bokhari. His bold and unorthodox methods have gained him millions of supporters and many other enemies. He didn’t focus his criticism on the character of the clerics or scholars but their criteria and the methods they utilized in collecting the sayings of prophet Mohamed also known as “Al Hadeeth” . He proved that many of these sayings didn’t occur in the first place because they contradict the Holy Quran which is Islam’s infallible holy book. Accordingly, he called upon revising and cleaning up such sayings by comparing them to the holy scripture of Islam. All of which sound logical and if there is a modicum of sensibility, it should be the way all texts to be weighed and assessed. Nevertheless , this call for logic was met with the most mindless character assassination and attacks by Al Azhar, Salafists and many other media minions in Egypt who usually surface during times of crises to prove that they still matter.
Al Beheiry struck a nerve when he opened the door for a revisionist view of what was taken for granted as an integral part of religion among the religion traditional and legacy books especially by scholars like Al Bokhari ,IbnHanbal and AbouHanifa. These books included thousands of unverified Prophet sayings, some of which contradict with the Holy Quran and makes no sense neither logically, religiously or even historically. Yet the Islamic Institution of Al Azhar as well as other Islamists insist on keeping these books away from any revisions or reform despite according to their own clergymen that it contained a lot of misconceptions that resulted in some younger men embracing Jihadist and extremist ideas based on such books.
As a matter of fact, extremists such as Hassan Al Banna founder of The Muslim Brotherhood, Sayed Qutb the Godfather of modern terrorism , Sayed Imam of Egyptian Jihad (Formerly Islamic Jihad Organization) , Ayman Al Zawahry and Osama Bin Laden of Al Qaeda have all based their theories, rhetoric on some misconceptions and books that were contradictory the real message of Islam and it was all based on these legacy books.
Moreover, Al Beheiry refuted the notion propagated by Islamists that only Muslims are going to heaven preached by Islamists and even many of Al Azhar clerics. Instead he highlighted and cited the very Quranic verses that proves that all who believe in God will be in heaven contrary to the popular belief propagated by the current body of the institution and Islamists.
The Islamic faith was never a religion that meant to be contained in a Black Box to be only accessible to some clergymen regardless of their status and inaccessible to others. On the contrary, Islam in its original and true format was a religion of freedom of choice of all levels. Thanks to institutions of Al Azhar and Salafists within its walls , the religion propagated by Al Azhar is now is a shadow of its original meaning and philosophy. Though Al Azhar has been one Egypt’s and Islam’s greatest institution, its governing body has submitted to the will of its more conservative and occasionally extremist wings of Wahhabis who have hijacked the institution in the past decades.
Accordingly, Al Beheiry attempted to absolve Prophet Mohamed of the accusations of Orientalists and anti-Islam critics which were all based on the writings of such so called Islamic Scholars. Ironically, instead of being commended for his great effort to absolve and clear the name of Prophet Mohamed, he would face a storm of blind and mindless criticism for his approach. Most of his critics had their criticism based on either fallacies or words that were taken out of context but hardly any criticism on the criteria which any valid criticism should be based on.
What some of Al Azhar clerics and their minions fail to grasp is that the truth always surfaces and find its way out regardless of how long it is suppressed or twisted. Al Beheiry work may have been suppressed by the counter attacks of the state and religious institutions who seem to prefer to keep the population docile and malleable.
Nevertheless, the die is cast and the impact of Islam Al Beheiry 300+ episodes on reform has far reached further heights not just in Egypt but in other predominantly Muslim countries. The ground has shaken underneath the vanguards of the temple and it is time for them to face the nation.
Many Egyptians now are revisiting their religious books with a different mindset and more open mind towards the true meaning of religion which has been distorted through decades if not centuries of misconceptions and misinterpretations. Al Beheiry followed the path of his more elder reformers and taken his ambition much further. Gamal Al Banna, Farrag Fouda, Sayed Al Qimny and many others spent decades of book writing and researching but their impact mostly reached those who possess the intellectual abilities to read their works which were usually on a smaller scale hence the effect was usually limited. In addition to that, the suppression effects of the Salafi infiltrated Azhar along with other Salafists,led that these reformers’ efforts despite huge no to meet the desired results.
Islam Al Beheiry TV program had a more appealing stance since it was in colloquial Arabic language in addition to being broadcasted on a popular Satellite TV network. The huge success created a huge defensive stance from Al Azhar clerics along with other extremists in Egypt who resorted to Ad Hominem attacks instead of addressing Islam’s criticism to their methods and discourse point by point. The end result was Al Azhar pressing the State by launching a lawsuit against the TV network and Islam Al Beheiry as being disdainful towards the Islamic faith.
The TV network instead of fighting for freedom of speech succumbed to taking the easier path and tilting in the face of the storm. They chose to shut down the program abruptly much to the disdain of all freedom fighters in Egypt who believed that this is a step in the wrong direction and allowing extremist whether in Al Azhar or their minions to have the upper hand.
Many believe amongst Al Azhar and other Islamists that by shutting down Islam’s program the problem is over and his words and efforts will be forgotten, little did they know that Pandora’s box is now open and many will be seeking the same path of enlightenment and reform.
The lack of vision and courage by clergymen and Islamic scholars have stagnated the Islamic Faith for almost a millennium and Muslims have not been able to cope with the changes of the world on the account of adhering to their religion. Ironically, Islam as a faith was always work and research conducive. Accordingly, the problem lies in the legacy books that has distorted the faith’s true meaning and diverted the path of Muslims into wars, sectarianism, and backwardness within many societies.
The true enemies of Islam are not in the form of mad pastor in Florida who think that burning the Holy Quran will send a message to Muslims or a bleached haired Dutchman who cannot seize enough opportunities to express his profound hatred for Muslims indiscriminately. These type of jokers though dangerous hardly matter on the long run because madmen and extremists existed in every generation and epoch in history.
The worst enemies of Islam exist within some of the adherents faith, they call themselves Muslim Brotherhood, ISIL , Al Qaida, Jihadists, Salafists , etc. all of whom backstab the religion they claim to uphold every day.
Though the majority of Muslim societies shun these groups, some members of society pave the way for them every day when they prosecute the likes of Islam Al Beheiry , in fact they become the Useful Idiots who unconsciously parrot the same discourse and rhetoric of Islamists against reformers like Al Beheiry thus paving the way for Islamists to regain any ground they lose.
The Useful idiots exist in every society and they have been increasing in number in the Egyptian one in recent years thinking that they are doing a favour to their religion. They are the same who pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to the front seats for spite against other revolutionary groups only to regret it later after one year. The fate of nations cannot be allowed to be decided by such useful idiots who come in all shapes and forms as Media anchors, journalists, political analysts, lawyers, activists, etc.. These are exactly the type of court jesters that need to be shunned by society. They appear as holier-than-thou or revolutionary –than-Thou or patriotic-than-thou whenever the chance appears.
These nuisances within the society have been lurking in the Egyptian society since 1952 and they keep growing in all shapes. They battle any form of change or development by all means especially when the reform is about the religion or the chance to instill more laws for freedom.
The Egyptian nation needs to be aware that the path they have chosen for the past century cannot lead to any major overhauling or development for the oldest Nation in the world. The taboos created by society everyday need to be reversed and more openness towards refuting what was presumed as the core of the religion needs to be instilled. The witch hunting of all reformer in Egypt will only lead to further deterioration within society.
In may 30th 2015, Islam Al Beheiry received a 5 year in prison sentence in absentia for Religious Blasphemous Libel. While the court ruling will likely to be overturned in a Court of Cassation but it displays the sort of atmosphere and challenges that reformers like Al Beheiry have to face to deliver his message. He also faces another 48 lawsuits raised by the minions who claim to be defenders of the faith. Al Beheiry mentioned that he will face these lawsuits and he will continue his message for reform regardless of the consequences.
President Al Sisi Call for reform will go in tatters if he doesn’t personally supervise the task hands on. The task is enormous and may take years beyond his one term or two terms if he gets reelected in 2018. Nevertheless, President Al Sisi can use his constitutional rights and demand omitting laws binding the reformation and freedom of speech including the notorious Egyptian law No 98 of Religious Blasphemous libel which has led to many Egyptians receiving prison sentences for what can be perceived as Blasphemy or defiling religious beliefs. This law should be part of history and cannot be part of Egypt’s future. The law can be deemed unconstitutional as it is a direct contradiction to the freedom of speech and religious freedom clauses in the New Egyptian constitution of 2013. Furthermore, this law is used by Islamists and their extremist minions as a weapon to witch-hunttheir critics and writers who expose them.
Unlike Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, Egypt has been given a Golden Chance to reform and develop with the minimum amount of bloodshed compared to the aforementioned countries and with the Egyptian state still intact. This golden chance for a change to pave the way for a brighter future should never be missed as all the circumstances are not aligned for it. Islam Al Beheiry among many other vanguards of personal and religious Freedom in Egypt, will help attain that noble goal.