Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

After the Arab spring was there an Islamic awakening?

Hosni Mubarak

More than a decade and a half ago, I travelled to Holland to meet - in the anonymity of a train station café at Leiden, at his request - one of the most brilliant Arab professors of Islamic thought, Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid.

This rotund, friendly, secular man had been declared an apostate by a Cairo court, deprived of his university professorship, and shamelessly hounded out of Mubarak's Egypt in 1995 after an official declaration that he was now divorced from his wife, Ibtisam Younis.

As an apostate, how could he have a Muslim wife? Ibtisam, a professor of French, followed her husband into Dutch exile. Nasr Abu Zeid's sin was his belief that the Koran must be subject to reinterpretation, that centuries of Islamic scholarship needed to be re-studied.

And this is what he said to me in that train station café in 1996: "If you consider the situation in the Muslim world, the absolute absence of political freedom and the failure of all the projects which were started by socialism, communism, nationalism - absolute failure - the poor Muslim citizen finally got nothing. And he was deprived even of his liberty to think - 40 years with the absolute absence of democracy, of liberty! Only one voice was allowed. We had to echo the voice: the president, the king, whatever. Obedience to the ruler became some sort of religious conviction. So obedience here is the key word."

Abu Zeid was a tough guy who didn't conceal his anger at the outrageous way he had been treated. "In the plane, I was very angry. And I told my wife: 'If I die in any place - in Holland, in Spain - just bury my body where I die. Don't think about taking my body back to Egypt ... at the end, all the lands - it's the earth of God!'"

Here was a 20th-century - indeed, a 21st-century Muslim -reflecting on a retrograde, accusatory Islamist "renaissance" that was opposed to the Western Renaissance. "Here it comes," he told me. "The Islamicisation of knowledge - instead of the modernisation of Islamic thought!"

Those were dangerous days.

But today? Surely the doors of Islamic perception may now swing open in the Arab world. It's not for Westerners like me to say so. But I ask it after reading Tom Holland's stunning new blockbuster In the Shadow of the Sword. Holland tries to date the Koran (scarcely referred to for 200 years after the Prophet's death) to the actual time of Mohamed's life. And he pretty much - and very convincingly - comes to the conclusion that the Koran was indeed contemporary.

We are supposed to be treading on eggshells here. One of Holland's reviewers mentioned the Islamists who have taken umbrage at such research. "We must hope that Holland is spared their wrath," he intones. But this is preposterous. Holland confirms that Mohamed was a real man and the more the Prophet is real, the more compassionate should a monotheistic God's followers be. Islamic Awakening, then?

As for poor Nasr Abu Zeid, he missed the Arab revolution in his country by a mere six months. But he was buried in Egypt.

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