Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the Qur’anic scholar and public intellectual whose bravery greatly inspired us at MERIP, passed away on July 5 in Cairo at the age of 66.

Abu Zayd taught in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University until he was denied tenure and then, in 1995, forced into exile in the Netherlands for his ideas, notably that the holy book of Islam is a “collection of discourses.” This literary-critical approach earned him numerous enemies, even among colleagues, as Muslims traditionally consider the Qur’an to be the unitary revealed word of God. Abu Zayd also ran afoul of the Egyptian government, embroiled at the time in a low-grade civil war against radical Islamists, when he wrote that state-sponsored Islamic institutions like al-Azhar were as resistant to critical inquiry as the “extremists” arrayed against them.

Islamist lawyers filed suit to divorce Abu Zayd from his wife Ibtihal Younis, on the grounds that the professor was an “apostate” and hence could not be married to a Muslim woman. Eventually, the courts annulled the marriage, compelling Abu Zayd and Younis, a loving couple, to move abroad. In the Egypt of the early 1990s, with religious conservatism in the ascendant, few defended Abu Zayd. His university colleagues had already labeled him an “unbeliever” in the course of denying him tenure. He also received death threats. He did, however, return to Egypt several times in subsequent years for lecture engagements and, later, health reasons.

Despite his bitter personal experiences, Abu Zayd refused to be enlisted in Islamophobic projects in Europe, insisting on multiple occasions that he was “a Muslim” and not “a new Salman Rushdie.” Unlike many Egyptian intellectuals, he did not back President Husni Mubarak’s regime in its double game of ceding social-cultural ground to Islamists while blocking their participation in formal politics. He told Middle East Report in 1993: “The struggle for advancement won’t ever be decided in the Arab world until they try Islam — the Islam that the Islamists have in mind.”

Such courage and integrity is precious. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd will be missed.

We reproduce below the full text of his 1993 interview:

“Silencing Is at the Heart of My Case”: An Interview with Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

When a group of Islamist lawyers filed a suit this summer to divorce a Cairo professor from his wife, against the couple’s wishes and without their knowledge, on the grounds that he was an apostate, the story got attention even in the Western media. But little attention was given to the intellectual work of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, associate professor in the Arabic Language and Literature Department at Cairo University, which prompted this incredible move.

Abu Zayd first felt the hand of intellectual intimidation in March 1992, when Cairo University denied him tenure on the grounds that he was a kafir (apostate) and a heretic. His case has reinvigorated public debate in Egypt on the power of religious institutions managed by and serving the state, and on the absence of protection for critical thought. Coming less than a year after the assassination of secularist Farag Foda, and in the midst of general anxiety about where the social and ideological tensions at work in Egyptian society are leading, Abu Zayd’s case has become symbolic of a number of struggles — between Islamists and secularists, between Egyptian critical thought and Western cultural imperialism, and, most importantly, between the Egyptian regime’s ideological institutions and the freedom of individuals to think critically. What is at stake is the future of Egyptian intellectual life.

It is unfortunate that recognition of Abu Zayd’s important contribution to Islamic thought has only come through his widely publicized confrontation with the university and now the religious court. Readership of his work in Egypt has soared since his tenure case became public; still, most know more about his struggle for academic freedom than about the challenges his work poses to the institutional and intellectual hegemonies of the religious authorities.

Abu Zayd’s most recent work, A Critique of Religious Discourse [Naqd al-khitab al-dini] (Cairo: Dar Sina’, 1992), situates his critical work in its immediate social context. In one of the most frank contemporary discussions about conflicts among the official state religious apparatus, the religious opposition and secular supporters of free thought, he convincingly argues that the difference between the “moderates” of the official state religious institutions (al-Azhar, Dar al-‘Ulum) and those “extremists” the political-religious opposition (the Muslim Brothers, the Islamic Group, Jihad) is less one of content than of style. Those who opposed Abu Zayd’s promotion came from the ranks of the so-called moderates. Ayman Bakr and I interviewed Abu Zayd in Cairo on May 25, 1993. (Elliott Colla)

Could you tell us what you intend to accomplish through your work in the Egyptian academy?

The Arabic department at Cairo University needed someone in the department to specialize in Qur’anic and hadith studies. I was thinking of pursuing literary criticism, not religious studies. I didn’t have any objections to working on this, but I did know that the last graduate student in the department working on this topic was dismissed on account of his dissertation: He wanted to study stories in the Qur’an from a literary-critical perspective.

And what happened?

It caused a huge uproar, just like the one we have on our hands now. He was expelled from the university. There was something within me that didn’t completely object to working on the topic, but I requested from the department that if they were going to compel me to specialize in this field, they should at least allow me the freedom to decide under whom I would work. I chose Professor ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Ahwani.

My first thesis focused on Mu‘tazila concepts of figurative speech in the Qur’an.  This began my acquaintance with the Arab religious tradition, and led me to a number of conclusions that have since been at the forefront of my work. One is that the interpretation of religious texts in the Qur’an has been an integral part of the cognitive framework in Arabo-Islamic consciousness. Any intellectual concept had to find its legitimacy by virtue of not contradicting the Qur’an. The ideas of the Mu‘tazila, philosophical ideas with social and political implications, had to be legitimized by returning to the Qur’an. Moreover, interpretation was not just used by the Mu‘tazila but by all the different groups. Even in the divisions of the Qur’an into what are called “clear” and “unintelligible” passages, you see that the different schools of thought vary. Any verse which the Mu‘tazila held to be “clear” and thus not in need of interpretive reading, when looked at by any other school might be deemed “vague” and in need of interpretation. Qur’anic interpretation was one of the tools used in intellectual, social and political struggles. If an idea did “contradict” the text of the Qur’an, they had no choice but to resort to interpretation.

I became preoccupied with the idea that interpretation of Qur’anic texts was, within Arab culture, the base upon which any idea had to be founded. At that time, during the 1970s, Sadat’s regime released Muslim Brothers from prison to offset the left in the universities and outside. The Brotherhood began to organize and the Gama‘at Islamiyya began to be active.

Sadat’s speeches were fertile ground for me, because they showed how the matter of interpretation isn’t just connected to classical Arab culture. I was raised in the 1960s. The common understanding was about the Islam of social justice, the Islam of the underclass. With the change in the regime’s political tendencies, a different kind of Islam came into being. I began to wonder whether or not religious texts were open enough to accept these different types of interpretation. I became influenced by the science of interpretation and Western hermeneutics, and the role of the interpreter, the commentator, in reading texts and making them understood.

This inquiry is designed to uncover the ideology that the discourse serves, and the extent of the authority which a given interpretation might offer to the text. My project crystallized and widened — should I only look at religious discourse, or should I consider the kinds of political discourse filled with interpretations as well, not only the official political discourse but also nationalist and Marxist discourses?

You attempt to distinguish the original religious text from its various interpretations, and from its use in contemporary discourse.

The text has an existence independent of interpretation and commentary. It has a history and historical context. The reader, whether a medieval Mu‘tazilite or a modern one, whether a secularist, Marxist or modern-day salafi (traditionalist) more often than not undervalues the original context for the benefit of his or her interpretation. Once the context is done away with, the text is left hanging in mid-air, and one can pin any meaning onto it.

The role of commentators seems invisible.

There was a belief that whatever the commentator said about the text was really only a restatement of what the text said — “what the text really wanted to say.” Many of those who find fault with my work have cited the opinions of commentators — as if the opinion of this or that commentator is the measure to which we have to submit ourselves.

Qur’anic commentators acquired a sacred position by virtue of their interpretations.

This holy status was given by others. The commentators in the early generations of Muslims knew fully that their interpretations or grasps of the text of the Qur’an might not have completely agreed with the original. The expression that’s used at the end of any opinion — “God the Almighty is more knowing” — was a very important expression that’s since become a cliché. But in its first uses it meant that if ever two commentators would disagree over interpretation, it allowed one to grant the validity of the other interpretation.

What is the current state of intellectual freedom in Egypt?

In the field of literary culture, there has been a strong attack by Islamists on what’s called modernity, attacking Arab intellectuals interested in modernism as being Orientalists, collaborators with Zionism or imperialism. There has been a fight going on, but not with the same degree of vehemence and viciousness as in studies of tradition or religious thought.

This fight has made the point clear to everyone that the types of discourse which are “closed” are those which, when you transform them into politics, are undemocratic. All of us defend democracy, but we place an implicit condition: that it not increase the power of anyone else. A lot has been said about the blood that might flow if the Islamists were to come to power, and therefore we should get rid of democracy before the Islamists do. That’s part of the structure of closed thinking — that “we” know the truth and give ourselves the authority to predict and preempt the future. There was no democracy in Algeria, and Algeria has paid in blood for its absence. If the mechanisms of the political system bring one’s opponent to victory one does not stop resisting. Conceding victory doesn’t mean surrender. The struggle for advancement won’t ever be decided in the Arab world until they try Islam — the Islam that the Islamists have in mind.

Of course, I’m scared. If they come to power, I’ll be left out in the cold. No doubt about it. But my fears about my own personal safety should not outweigh my fears about the future of the umma. Defending our opponents, the Islamists, as intellectuals is like defending ourselves as individuals. I don’t mean to defend their interests, but I can’t support freedom and say “except the Islamists.” Some will tell you that when the Islamists talk about freedom, they mean freedom only for themselves. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean we should make the same mistake.

When we talk about freedom, we unleash a number of problems. I’ll give you an example. When our society moved from nationalist economics to open-door capitalism we had to carry the burden of all sorts of corruption. We bore the brunt of it in order to get out of the economic crisis. Now we’re in a social crisis, and greater freedom is the way out. It will create all sorts of problems. Who shoulders the burdens of economic crises? The people do. Who will bear the brunt of the social crisis? The regimes will. Now there is economic freedom, but there is no intellectual or political or social freedom. The ruling elites do not understand that freeing up the economy can only succeed when it is accompanied by intellectual, social and political freedom.

There does seem to be some intellectual freedom, but there is a prohibition on putting those ideas into practice.

It’s been said that “Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s books don’t amount to anything. Let him say whatever he wants.” That’s essentially correct. But look at the upshot: He’s free to say whatever he wants outside the university, which means he’s deprived of freedom in the one place where freedom of thought is absolutely necessary. Write all the books you want, say all the heresies you want, but there is a danger if you teach. You’re free, but prevented from ever trying to transform your ideas into any sort of power.

Didn’t we see the same thing 60 years ago with Taha Husayn?

Taha was accused of apostasy by people from outside the university, and the university defended him. In my case, I was accused of apostasy inside the university and some people from outside are defending me. Taha Husayn was never called a kafir. What’s most telling is how the conception of apostasy has now been transplanted into the university.

Part of your case relates to criticisms you have made of the official religious establishment and those Islamic scholars who worked in Islamic banking schemes.

The personal part of it was maybe what drove them initially. But what has sustained them is a general struggle between the Islamists within the regime and those whom the Islamists consider to be secularists. The Islamists see all the Marxists, socialists, enlightenment thinkers, the intellectuals from the Nasserist period, to all be the same: They are all people who aren’t sympathetic to their political tendency.

Some of the attacks on you have come from Gama‘at Islamiyya, but the more serious attack is from the moderates, those religious scholars or thinkers who work within the official state institutions.

Everyone’s been saying that the problem is religious extremism. The moderates put themselves forward to the regime as representatives of the type of Islam with which the state should and must deal. The state may wake up to this mistake sooner or later. There are people within the regime who have defended me, people writing in the government media.

There is a secular, “enlightened” tendency, and there is an “Islamic” wing of the government. Is the government really committed to being a secular state — for instance, committed to protecting the rights of Christian Egyptians to the same degree as it protects the rights of Muslims?

You’ve put your finger on the problem. The part of the government that has to keep up its relations with the West is the “enlightened” wing. The Arab regimes need the Muslim Brothers in order to situate themselves in the place where the West wants them vis-à-vis the oil states. The oil is under the control of states whose regimes are reactionary in all senses — religiously backward, xenophobic and tribal. And it’s in America’s interests that no genuinely democratic states are set up. After 1967 and the peace with Israel, Egypt lost its political power in the region. Then Egypt lost its economic power after it was transformed into a labor-exporting society for these Gulf states. The government is forced to deal with the “moderate” Islamists so it can bargain with the Gulf states.

Why does the government need an enlightened tendency at all? The US has no problem dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. If the regime has to choose between the two tendencies, if one of them has to go…

…it will be the secularists. Our own history of colonialism prevented any real enlightenment from taking place. When the Muwajaha series published Farah Anton’s book, they took out the part in which Anton calls for a secular state. None of the contemporary secularists use the word “secularism.” They talk about civil society. But we know that number one on the program of civil society is secularism.

I think perhaps — I have to say perhaps — there will be an alliance between the state and the Islamists. The greater fear would be that this sort of alliance will happen by means of bloodshed. Sometimes politics sanctions killings. I wasn’t able to get that through to Farag Foda.

Silencing is at the heart of my case. Expelling someone from the university is a way of silencing him. Taking someone away from his specialization is a way of silencing him. Killing someone is a way of silencing him. They need to get rid of some people.

What is the role of the Egyptian intellectual now?

The role of an intellectual is to produce concepts. I continue to fight. If they take me out of my specialization, I’ll continue to teach. It’s not the subject you teach, but the method you use to teach.

—Translated by Elliott Colla


How to cite this article:

"Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd," Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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