These fools, by dint of ignorance most crass, Think they in wisdom all mankind surpass; And glibly do they damn as infidel, Whoever is not like them, an ass.
—Omar Khayyam, Quatrains, 156
Nasr Abu Zeid never wanted to be Egypt’s Salman Rushdie. He had never wanted to give the impression that he “was against Islam. Far from it.” Among his worst fears was that Westerners would look at him and see a critic of Islam. That’s not what he was. The progressive professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Cairo University was born a Muslim, raised a Muslim, and, as he liked to repeat, inshallah, he would die a Muslim. He only wanted to make his religion more accessible in today’s world, gentler, less doctrinaire.
When Nasr was accused of apostasy in Egypt, just a few years after the Rushdie fatwa, the comparison to the British Indian novelist came easily to Western media reporting on a foreign country. But Nasr’s supporters in Egypt preferred to compare him to the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo. Some 350 years earlier, the Catholic Church had persecuted Galileo as a heretic during the Roman Inquisition for asserting that the earth moved around the sun. He had to recant his discoveries, which caused him much anguish until his death. Over time, the Church walked back its condemnation, and in October 1992 the pope closed a decade-long investigation into the condemnation and published a formal acknowledgment of the Church’s error. Nasr’s ordeal began around the time of that apology, and just like Galileo he believed in science and reason, insisting he would continue to “struggle in support of Islam, armed with scientific reasoning and solid methodology.”
Nasr’s critics dismissed him as a rotund, quiet man, as a “little” secular writer, an infidel. His supporters scoffed: Nasr was their Galileo, the only difference was that the Vatican had apologized to the Italian savant, whereas “some in our universities still believe the earth does not move.” That was the fear of progressive thinkers in Egypt, that the darkness spreading outside, “terrorism dressed in the garb of religion,” was now scaling the walls of universities to turn them into courts of inquisition. Reason and faith, science and dogma—all locked in battle in Cairo. For a while, Egypt’s intellectuals were defiant, buoyed and invigorated by the challenge. “Liberalism till victory or martyrdom” declared Mohammad Said al-Ashmawy, a senior, progressive judge on the court of appeals.
There would be many deaths.
For Nasr, it all began in 1992, with a straightforward request for a promotion to the position of full professor in the Arabic department of Cairo University. The tenure committee submitted his file, including all his publications, to three professors for evaluation. One of them, Dr. Abdel Sabour Shaheen, was a fundamentalist preacher at Cairo’s seventh-century Amr ibn al-As mosque, the first mosque built in Egypt. Shaheen did not like what he read.
Exegesis, the critical interpretation of scripture, is not an Islamic tradition, and for Orthodox Muslims like Shaheen, the Quran is the uncreated, eternal, inviolate word of God. Nasr, meanwhile, was the author of books titled Critique of Islamic Discourse and Rationalism in Exegesis: A Study of the Problem of Metaphor in the Writing of the Mu’tazilah.
The socially timid, bespectacled scholar was a freethinker who challenged the orthodox tradition in Islam and argued that the Quran had to be understood both metaphorically and in its historical context. He was a man of his time, eager to help his fellow Muslims apply the teachings of the Quran to the modern world. To do that, he believed that “the human dimension of the Quran needs to be reconsidered.” So although the Quran was indeed the word of God, Nasr’s argument was that it had been revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the use of a language, a local dialect even, rooted in a specific context: the Arabic language of the Arabian Peninsula of the seventh century. If the word of God had not been embodied in human language, how could anyone understand it?
Nasr was not starting from scratch: he was building on a great inheritance that went back to the eighth century. His master’s thesis had been about the Mu’tazilah, the rationalist Islamic movement drawing on Greek philosophy that had first stirred a big debate between reason and dogma barely two hundred years after the founding of Islam.
The Mu’tazilah first emerged in the eighth century, in Basra, in today’s southern Iraq. They believed that while God’s speech was uncreated and revealed to the prophet, the writing of the Quran was an earthly phenomenon: words, ink, paper. Furthermore, the writing had happened well after the revelation and the death of the prophet. The Mu’tazilah applied reason to the study of the holy book and believed in free will. Their movement reflected the times they were living in —the Abbasid era was the golden age of Islam, the time of science and philosophy, of Abu Nuwas’s libertine poetry about love and wine, the thousand and one days and nights of Scheherazade, and the Abbasid caliph Haroun al Rashid. Baghdad’s famed library, the House of Wisdom, became the repository of world knowledge, overflowing with original and translated works. At the same time in Baghdad, also under the Abbasid caliphate, was Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence: resolutely orthodox, literalist, and opposed to the Mu’tazilah doctrine, which had become state doctrine. His opposition landed him in jail, and his following surged. Hanbalis believed Muslims had lost their way, and as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, the followers of Ibn Hanbal became more organized, leading the fight against rationalism and anything that could distract from the purest form of the original faith, including music. They “set up in fact a kind of ‘Sunni inquisition.’”
As the four major schools of jurisprudence slowly crystallized, orthodoxy also settled in. Some Sunni religious leaders believed most major religious matters had been settled and began to restrict the gates of ijtihad, independent reasoning, to give precedence to emulation. Reading, understanding, and explaining the Quran would have to rely on the body of knowledge accumulated up until then—the Mu’tazilah period was over. Hanbalism would later soar and spread to Persia and the area around Palestine, where Ibn Taymiyyah was one of its stars, before declining again during the Ottoman era, under the weight of its own rigidity and intolerance. Its geographical influence would slowly be reduced to the austere interior of the Arabian Peninsula, the arid plateau of Najd, home of the first Saudi kingdom—where Muhammad ibn Abdelwahhab took it to another level.
Fast-forward twelve centuries, and Nasr was pushing his foot through that door of ijtihad. Shaheen’s takedown was vitriolic: he accused Nasr of an “atrophy of religious conscience,” passing judgment over his faith rather than his work. Shaheen described him as a heretic, an atheist leading a “Marxian-secularist attempt to destroy Egypt’s Muslim society.” The preacher also hoped that “God would make a place for him in paradise because of his good work against the academic who had lost his way.” The desire to be rewarded by God for showing others the right path in Islam would become a recurrent theme in years to come in attacks, verbal and physical, against progressive thinkers or anyone labeled an apostate, no matter the reason. In Pakistan, it was being used as the justification for forced conversion of Hindus and Christians to Islam.
By early 1993, the university had caved and denied Nasr’s promotion. On Friday, April 2, using his pulpit at the Amr ibn al-As mosque during midday prayers, the victorious Shaheen declared the scholar an apostate. Like a pinball, the word “apostate” bounced from minaret to minaret across Cairo, and by the following Friday, in sermons across the country, preachers went after Nasr—even in his own village. As an apostate, under Islamic law, he had lost the right to live and—perhaps even more precious to him as a newlywed—the right to be married to a Muslim woman. His wife was Ebtehal Younes, the French literature student who had silently approved of the killing of Sadat in 1981.
Theirs was a story of unconventional love in a traditional society, rebellious in an age of conformism, quiet in an age of simmering turmoil. They were an unlikely couple in more ways than one. Ebtehal was now an assistant lecturer in French literature at Cairo University. Nasr was all about Islamic studies and the Quran. He was a poor village boy, she was an upper-class Egyptian; his father was a grocer, hers a diplomat; she was petite, he was big. She was fiery and, at thirty, already a spinster by Egyptian standards; he was fifteen years older and divorced, still a stain on anyone in a conservative society.
She didn’t care. They were different but they spoke the same language, dreamed the same dreams. Their friendship grew into love, and when they married, just before his troubles started, Nasr felt as though his life finally made sense, that he had finally arrived at his destination. Suddenly, fundamentalists who didn’t know them or their love for each other were ripping them apart. The charge of apostasy wasn’t even on the books in Egypt, so Nasr was sued for separation in the family affairs court under a principle in Islam known as hisba, which allows any Muslim to sue in court if he believes Islam is being harmed—a loophole Islamists had just discovered and would abuse for years. Under Islamic law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim, and Nasr was now considered an apostate, which meant Ebtehal had to be separated from the heretic.
The legal battle dragged on for two years. Never before had such theological debates taken place. It was a turning point for Egypt and Islamists, with the Muslim world watching. Meanwhile in Cairo, there had been a run in the bookshops on all of Nasr’s publications. The headlines were focused on Nasr, but Ebtehal was deeply wounded, too. She felt morally raped, reduced to an object that Islamists were using to hurt Nasr, an object that was back on the market: Shaheen had even offered to find her a new husband.