An Egyptian intellectual's unlikely quest for religious change

Daily News Egypt
5 Min Read

Agence France-Presse

CAIRO: Gamal Al-Banna is a Muslim scholar and younger sibling of the Muslim Brotherhood s founder, but his controversial vision of Islamic reform puts him at odds with the religious establishment in Egypt. Banna, 75, does not believe that the donning of the headscarf is prescribed in the Quran, nor does he believe there is an explicit ban on smoking during the fasting month of Ramadan. However, Banna, while critical of his fellow Muslims, does not support Pope Benedict XVI, who last month pope made a speech in Germany in which he quoted a medieval emperor who linked Islam with violence. The comments were bitterly condemned in the Arab world but have also triggered a debate about the evolution of the Muslim religion. Banna says Benedict s comments did not help the Muslims cause, because the Pope is led astray by Greek philosophy and in a war against Muslims.

Still, this adversary of Islamists and the Al-Azhar establishment, the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam, believes the history of Protestant reform should serve as an example to help what he calls Islam s downward spiral.

Islamic intellectuals have an opportunity to do what Martin Luther achieved for Christianity 500 years ago, he says. It is in his office in Abbasiya in central Cairo, surrounded by 13,000 books, that Banna welcomes the views of the religious and the secular. His elder brother, Hassan Al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, from which the modern Islamist movement was born. The Brotherhood is now the largest opposition force under the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He s a wonderful organizer and an exceptional human being, says Banna of his brother though he doesn t agree with his ideas, he says. He speaks disapprovingly of the pretentious Muslim Brotherhood and of the prospects of an Islamic state. He also describes his grand-nephew, Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, as upright but impulsive and criticizes him for not condemning the stoning of women. Banna calls for a return to basics. Let s go back to the Quran; only the Quran but all of the Quran, he says adding that one must not deny the book s contradictions, or its difficulties of interpretation. His call for a re-evaluation of Islamic law – which calls for thieves hands to be amputated and adulterers to be stoned – has caused a widespread scandal in the Muslim world. Al-Azhar banned his last book in 1994 in which he said that Islamic jurisprudence is a total failure in relation to the real world.

He believes it is time to sift through the Hadiths, the words and actions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed and which constitute custom for Sunni Muslims, putting him at odds with Sunni jurists. He also finds it absurd to impose the headscarf on women. There is nothing explicit in the Quran, and a hat would do the trick, he says. Most Muslim women in Egypt are veiled. On the eve of the holy month of Ramadan which requires Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset, he declared a fatwa or religious edict which said it was not forbidden to smoke during the long fasting hours. In Arabic you say to drink a cigarette , and that s how the confusion came about, even though there weren t any [cigarettes] during the time of the Prophet, he says. Banna has his share of critics who believe he is wrong. Let him be quiet. He has no right to issue a fatwa. His only credential is his family name, says Abdel Sabur Shahin, a professor of Islamic law at Cairo University. Another issue for Banna is the conversion of a Muslim to another faith which is strictly prohibited by Islam. He argues that the prohibition of such an act is wrong, quoting a verse of the Quran which says no imposition in religion.

But for Henri Boulad, the director of the Jesuit College in Cairo who calls for greater clarity between Christianity and Islam, Gamal Al-Banna shows great courage and the path towards reform.

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