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Any shrewd observer knows that there is a crisis of communication and dialogue in the Arab world on numerous levels since intellectual trends and political groups seek to invalidate one another.

When Arab societies lose control they launch attacks of a destructive nature and this is happening amongst the intellectual elite.

This is the case in Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

However, the gravest danger of these wars of invalidation on both the intellectual and cultural levels is that regarding religion and the opposing intellectual’s “elimination” from the group in the same way that pre-Islamic Arabs would deal with the vagabond poets [As-Su’luk].

After having been ostracized by his tribe, one vagabond poet [Tarfa Ibnul Abd] said:

I was isolated like a quarantined camel!

Firstly, one must clarify that excommunication is practiced by people in charge of religious institutions in any religion in order to maintain the ideological, intellectual and social system by propagating this system within the community.

Let us look at matters in a broader context; we should remember that the clergy of European churches most prominently would use this kind of ideological weapon. Likewise, the Jewish rabbis would issue religious edicts or “herem,” a ban of excommunication, and such was the case with the Dutch philosopher [Baruch] Spinoza in the seventeenth century. They considered him a nonbeliever and a deviant from the community because he was daring and proposed a conception of divine existence and nature that differed to the teachings of the synagogue.

In the herem (and it is astonishing how the same ideas surface despite the differences in religion) they [the rabbis] said: “With the judgment of the angels and with that of the saints, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch Spinoza with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and of all this holy congregation, before these sacred Scrolls of the Law, and the six hundred and thirteen precepts which are proscribed therein. Cursed be he by day, and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lieth down, and cursed be he when he riseth up; cursed be he when he goeth out, and cursed be he when he cometh in; the Lord will not pardon him; the wrath and fury of the Lord will be kindled against this man, and bring down upon him all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law; We ordain that no one may communicate with him verbally or in writing, nor show him any favour, nor stay under the same roof with him, nor be within four cubits of him, nor read anything composed or written by him,” [Wolf 1910 translation].

One need not explain that Spinoza became one of the European philosophers who provided the foundation for 18th Century Enlightenment. After his excommunication, he was revered and a statue in his honor was erected on the same street where he was excommunicated by his community.

As for the Catholic Church, it demonstrated more severity. The religious rulings of “heresy” were not limited to philosophers; they expanded to include astronomers and physicists because they proposed scientific theories and conceptions that contradicted with the interpretations of Christian astronomers and physicists. Some of them were sent to be burnt at the stake, some suffered other forms of torture and some revoked their opinions out of fear of being subjected to such a fate that they were threatened with by the popes and the public.

Excommunication and killing were not confined to scientists and scholars and were not limited to religions such as Judaism or the Islam of Andalusia; it spread to encompass the followers of Christianity, including non-Catholics. It is evident to those who read up on the Inquisitions that numerous tragedies occurred as a result of the religious rulings issued by the [Roman] Catholic Church.

Therefore, excommunication, and killing as a consequence, is not particular to one religion. It is true that in contemporary Christianity, it no longer exists; the shackles that constrained free thought have been broken and the church has reconciled with the scientific movement. However this took place only after a long process of conflict and sacrifice from scientists and intellectuals for the sake of the independence of criticism. Yet accusations of heresy are still cast even today by some pockets of Western Christianity as well as by some Eastern churches such as the Coptic church in Egypt that denounced one of its followers, Dr George Bebawi, professor of theology, as a heretic due to differences between him and Pope Shenouda III on the nature of the Egyptian Christian beliefs.

If we look at Islam, there is a long history of excommunication (Takfir) and counter-excommunication between intellectual opponents. It [Tafkir] is not a product of today’s world. Takfir was not only levelled against philosophers or “intellects” in the modern sense; it also affected scholars of jurisprudence.

A large number of scholars of Hadith [Prophetic traditions] denounced Imam Abu Hanifa as an infidel and this was stated in ‘History of Baghdad’ by Al Khatib Al Baghdadi and the ‘Kitab al-Sunnah’ [Book of Sunnah] by Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal as well as in other sources.

Throughout Islamic history, scores of jurists, poets, theologians and philosophers have been accused of heresy. I could have recounted a list of those who denounce others as infidels or apostates but such a list would be too lengthy. Some were killed as a result of these religious rulings, some withdrew [from society], and others revoked [their ideas] out of fear and were asked to repent by their rivals and their moblike followers as was the case with the great Hanbali scholar Abu al Wafa Bin Aqil. Similar cases occur even today.

It is odd that the ideological weapon of Takfir has been used even within the same school [of thought]. When Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Ajlan, a Salafist preacher based in the Arabian Peninsula during the second [Saudi] state permitted Imam Abdullah Bin Faisal to seek help from the Ottoman state during the conflict with his brother Imam Saud Bin Faisal, Sheikh Hamad Atiq issued a fatwa in which he prohibited asking the polytheistic Ottoman state for assistance. He went even further and accused Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Ajlan of heresy! This pushed Sheikh Abdullatif Bin Abdul Rahman Bin Hassan, the then head of the Council of Senior Ulema, to denounce Sheikh Bin Atiq’s fatwa even though he agreed with the original ruling.

There is a long history to the current climate of denouncing reformists and intellectuals as heretics, especially in Egypt.

Some Al Azhar scholars cast accusations of heresy towards the reformist Sheikh Muhammad Abdu and were close to depriving him of his Al Azhar degree had it not been for some rational Al Azhar scholars who stood by him and were aware of the Sheikh’s knowledge and status.

Taha Hussein, Khaled Muhammad Khaled, Muhammad Ahmed Khalafallah, Naguib Mahfouz and Nasr Abu Zayd were also condemned as apostates. Sheikh Abdel Sabour Shaheen, who launched the heresy campaign against Abu Zayd, was himself told to repent by another Sheikh called Yusuf al Badri after Shaheen had published his book [My Father Adam] about Adam and humankind!

This religious distortion has happened in so many places over different periods of time and against numerous reformists.

The Kuwaiti reformist and historian Sheikh Abdulaziz al Rasheed (who died in 1938) was exposed to such campaigns, launched by extremists, as a result of his call for religious innovation.

In Saudi Arabia, the late scholar Hamad al Jaser was attacked and defamed because he welcomed the Indian Prime Minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru during a visit to Saudi Arabia [in 1956] by using the words “Rasool al Salam” [messenger of peace].

Numerous other cases [of accusations of apostasy] have involved intellectuals such as Turki al Hamad, Mansur al Nuqaydan, Abdullah Bin Bajad and Yusuf Abu al Khayl.

The intellectual acts based on his natural right to research and think as long as he does not defame a certain person or entity. He has the right to write about knowledge, science, thought and public affairs. Most of those who issue statements of Takfir, or their followers, talk and write about all fields. There is no preference of one over another.

In the long term, Takfir has no gains; it may cause intimidation and hinder openness and natural progress ─ perhaps ─ however, in the medium and long term, it becomes a historical text to be written as a cultural and social background explaining the nature of interactions involved in the process of change only.

This is the lesson of eternal history that many overlook amid the uproar of the passing moment.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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