Out of Eden

By Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly, Jan. 1999

The names of Abdel-Sabour Shahine, a professor of linguistics at the Faculty of Arabic Language at Cairo University, and Sheikh Youssef El-Badri, a Muslim preacher and former member of parliament, are eternally linked in the Egyptian imagination by one of the most bizarre court cases of this century.

Some years ago, Shahine, who also delivers the Friday sermon at a Cairo mosque, produced a report on the writings of a fellow Cairo University linguistics professor and Islamic scholar, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. Both in his report and in his Friday sermons, he accused Abu Zeid of blasphemy, and declared him an apostate. According to some interpretations of Islamic doctrine, apostasy is punishable by death.

El-Badri, a flamboyant Islamist figure from the Cairo suburb of Maadi and a former member of parliament, picked up Shahine's charges and initiated court proceedings against Abu Zeid, seeking to divorce him from his wife on the grounds of his apostasy, the argument being that an apostate cannot remain married to a Muslim woman. In June 1995, a Cairo court ruled that Abu Zeid was indeed an apostate and ordered him divorced from his wife. The ruling forced the couple into self-imposed exile in the Netherlands.

The verdict was based on hisba, a doctrine interpreted as entitling any Muslim to take legal action against anything he considers harmful to Islam.

Whether Shahine and El-Badri directly collaborated in the case against Abu Zeid, or merely happened to find themselves on the same side of the barricades, is still not clear. But for the Egyptian intellectuals who stamped them with the epithet, shiukh al-takfir (the blasphemy sheikhs), they were co-conspirators in a campaign to stifle freedom of thought and expression in the country.

Now their names are linked once more, but for a different reason. Shahine recently published Abi Adam (Adam, My Father), a work of religious exegesis in which he sets out to analyse the story of Man's creation as described in the Qur'an. The book would probably have passed almost unnoticed, had it not been for the fact that El-Badri promptly seized on it, pronouncing his erstwhile comrade-in-inquisition's text blasphemous, and calling upon Shahine to renounce the book and repent, or else. Allies or merely fellow-travellers, the two sheikhs now found themselves staring at one another across the same barbed wire they had erected when they were fighting their war against Abu Zeid. Secularist intellectuals, understandably perhaps, began to feel that perhaps God was on their side, after all.

Shahine's argument rests upon a subtle distinction between the Qur'anic terms al-bashar (mortals) and al-insan (man). He claims that, contrary to popular belief, Adam is the father of al-bashar, he is, in fact, merely the father of al-insan, who may himself have had mortal, though non-human, ancestors.

Any other interpretation, says Shahine, is equivalent to "the myths of the Israelites", which constitutes a naive understanding of the creation of mankind.

For El-Badri, however, Shahine's book is not a step towards greater enlightenment, but is tantamount to "a full-fledged violation of the code of Islam". In an interview with the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef, published a few weeks ago, El-Badri vociferously denounced Shahine's argument, often in curious terms: "I tried very hard to imagine that Adam had parents and that he was young... I imagined him a young boy, getting hit by his father... and did he have a football to play with or a doll?"

The following week, Rose El-Youssef ran another article under the headline: 'A legal case to divorce Abdel-Sabour Shahine from his wife'. The magazine declared editorially: "The sheikhs of apostasy are falling into the pit they dug for those who opposed them in thought and opinion". A third issue of Rose El-Youssef carried a telephone interview with Abu Zeid himself, in which he was asked to comment on the falling out between the two "blasphemy sheikhs".

Will Shahine face a similar fate to that of Abu Zeid? El-Badri has not said he will file a hisba lawsuit against Shahine. "I asked him to declare his repentance," he told the Weekly. And what if he doesn't? "Why make premature decisions? When and if this happens, I will take the necessary steps."

According to El-Badri, Shahine's book "supports Darwin's theory, which dismisses the existence of God who created man." By distinguishing between 'mortal' and 'man', he explained, Shahine has proved that "he is an infidel who has denied the story of the creation of man in the Holy Qur'an."

"Shahine studied phenomenology and, sadly, he is approaching this issue and the Qur'an as if they were simply a phenomenon," said El-Badri. "How does that make him any different from controversial unbelievers, such as Sayed El-Qemni?"

If anything, El-Badri considers Shahine "more dangerous than El-Qemni or Abu Zeid, because everyone knows that they are non-believers, whereas Shahine has the status of a preacher. Moreover," he added, "Darwin calls man's predecessors monkeys or chimpanzees, while Shahine calls them 'bashar'. Does this make him any different from Darwin? I will not rest until I have corrected these misleading theories about Islam."

Uncowed by these accusations, Shahine, however, is standing his ground. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, he was adamant he has nothing to repent. "I did not violate the Qur'anic verses; all I did was attempt to remove from the Muslim mind certain naive and backward myths about the creation of mankind which, although they were introduced by the Israelites, still dominate our mainstream culture."

The aim of Abi Adam, he explained, is to "bring about a rapprochement between scientific discoveries and the story of the creation of Adam in the Qur'an." Quoting the Qur'an, Shahine explained that Adam was "solala min al-teen", "a product of wet earth". The word "solala", which translates as generation or ancestry, he said, "means that Adam had ancestors, who were not of mankind, but were mortal creatures, described in the Qur'an as 'bashar'. There is no translation for this word." Shahine dismisses El-Badri's argument as "groundless", describing him as "ignorant" and accusing him of "seeking fame". "He has become notorious as the very model of Islamic fanaticism," said Shahine.

El-Badri told the Weekly it was he who contacted Rose El-Youssef, because he wished to publicise his views. However, he denied sensationalising the issue, and said, "I cannot see something wrong and remain silent about it." He then asked the Weekly: "Do you want a longer and bigger interview?"