Even if Egypt’s rate of unemployment is alarming, its legal profession must be experiencing something of a boom. Hardly a day goes by without Egyptian newspapers carrying headlines about a major court case, whether against prominent Islamists, journalists, or, oddly enough, against the head of the Central Auditing Organization for reporting on state corruption.
One recent case that has grabbed a particularly significant amount of attention is that of Islam al-Beheiry. As reported by Mada Masr, two weeks ago – December 28th – the law-graduate-turned-TV-host was sentenced to one year in prison for “insulting Islam, disrespecting God and misinterpreting the Quran.” With this sentence, the court overturned its previous decision to imprison al-Beheiry for a period of five years.
This case, as well as another that has yet to be decided, was brought against al-Beheiry after a number of complaints were filed against him, most prominently by al-Azhar, Islam’s most prominent religious institution. The complaints accuse al-Beheiry of using his TV-show, With Islam, to “distort Islam’s teachings” and describe his preaching as “a fierce and elusive campaign against the foundations of Islam and Islamic legacy.”
For his part, Al-Beheiry insists that he is only urging Muslims to think critically and challenge the taboo on critical, modern interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet). This taboo, according to al-Beheiry, must be broken.
As this controversy has played out, both sides have justified their position as being the sole bulwark against extremism. On the one hand, al-Beheiry has argued that extremism is the product of a lack of freedom of thought, much like Enlightenment scholars did before him. Convinced that free debate will allow rational, moderate beliefs to flourish and arguing that state control will achieve the oppposite, al-Beheiry’s hope, as described by Mada Masr, is to renew “Islamic jurisprudence in order not to allow Islamic teachings to be a continued source of extremist views.”
Al-Azhar has taken the opposite view. At the beginning of a four-and-a-half hour discussion between al-Beheiry and two Muslim scholars, which took place on April 17, 2015, one scholar, al-Azhar professor Osama al-Azhary, compared al-Beheiry to Sayyid Qutb. Qutb is considered one of the founders of violent Islamism and an inspiration for groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Like Qutb, or so al-Azhary argues, al-Beheiry does away with the tradition of religious interpretation that has developed in Islam since the time of the Prophet – la bud min takhlisu hadha at-turath. Instead, al-Azhary insists that both al-Beheiry and Qutb rely solely on the original text. The effect of this move, according al-Azhary, is to open the door to extremist interpretations of Islam.
While it is ludicrous to suggest that al-Beheiry and Qutb are one in the same, it is true that doing away with the long-standing tradition of religious interpretation removes the first line of defense against extremist views. Without a religious authority grounded in a millennium of scholarship, extremist ideologues become much harder to oppose on religious grounds.
As explained by Habib Ali al-Jifri, the other participant in the April 17 debate, the complaints against al-Beheiry are directed less against the substance of his views on Islam and more against the “methodology and manner” – al-manahij wa al-uslub – with which he approaches the principal sources of Islam.
In response to this “traditionalist” argument, one could argue that al-Azhar’s scholars are less concerned with preserving Islamic tradition and more concerned with protecting the school’s position. Al-Azhar’s alliance with the Egyptian state as the guardian of Islam, as well as its influential and lucrative work in providing diplomas to Islamic scholars worldwide, would be undermined if people were to accept the view that the interpretative traditions it teaches are vacuous and irrelevant.
Even so, al-Azhary’s argument still stands. To the extent that both men challenge traditional religious authority (and only to that extent), Qutb and al-Beheiry resemble one another. In fact, Qutb’s distaste for religious authority figures is rooted in the work of a progressive Islamic theorist. Through the influence of Rashid Rida, a major Egyptian intellectual of the early 20th century, Qutb’s ideas are historically related to those of the great reformer Muhammad Abduh, who is often praised by liberal Muslims and non-Muslims alike as an enlightened thinker.
For these reasons, it is an oversimplification to paint the al-Beheiry case as solely political and devised by regime acolytes. While political and economic factors may be at play, the case is part of a much larger phenomenon, in which new technologies, such as satellite TV and the Internet, have led, in the words of journalist Lindsay Wise, to the continuing “fragmentation of religious authority in the modern Muslim world.” This fragmentation will inevitably result in a loss of power for certain traditional authorities and possibly create greater religious freedom for the layman. Whether this is for the best, however, is an open question and will depend on what people will do with their newly gained powers of religious interpretation.