Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Timely & Thoughtful Theological Discourse By An Egyptian Scholar

A previous post, dated 25 October 2006, reported on an an interview with the Islamic scholar and prominent Egyptian thinker Gamal El-Banna.

More recently, on 24 November 2008, Copts United website reported on a symposium, titled “Freedom of Thought in Islam,” that was hosted by Dar Haven for Translation and Publishing and held in Cairo.

Before posting the remarks made during that symposium, it would be helpful to reintroduce the person in question:

Gamal El-Banna is known in the Egyptian society as a progressive, moderate and liberal thinker who is also a scholar who has published several books and manuscripts on various aspects of reform of religion and Islam as it applies to the modern Egyptian society.

On several occasions, El-Banna has publicly defended the civil rights of Egyptian Baha'is, and their entitlement to recognition and equal treatment under the law.

His older brother Hassan El-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt's Suez Canal city of Ismailia in 1928. The movement was subsequently outlawed, its followers were incarcerated over the years, and its founder was assassinated in 1949.

The following is a verbatim translation of the article that was published in Arabic on Copts United:

[Translator’s notes appear in square brackets [ ].]

Copts United [a liberal electronic newspaper concerned with Copts in Egypt]
24 November 2008

Gamal El-Banna:

- 90% of the heritage [doctrinal works of Islamic scholars] is no longer valid.
- Anyone who, after sincere consideration, converts to another religion does not incur punishment in this life.
- Who says that religions are only three; this is sheer stupidity!
- Hassan el-Banna was a liberal.
- When there is a conflict between the Text of the Qur’án and the commonweal, the latter should prevail.

Reported by-Emad Thomas

Islamic writer and controversial thinker Gamal el-Banna launched an unprecedented attack on the old books of our [Islamic] heritage and demanded that they be put in museums, adding that he is not bothered with Al-Bukhari and others like him, because he is a human being and is not infallible.

In a symposium titled “Freedom of Thought in Islam” hosted by Dar Haven for Translation and Publishing on Saturday evening, 22 November 2008, Gamal el-Banna said: “We should not give ourselves headaches and waste our time with heritage, because we have the genuine heritage—the Qur’án—and if we want to refine our heritage, it will take an age to get there.” He likened the heritage to a vein of gold in a mountain of iron; [in order to get hold of it] the whole mountain needs to be demolished. He further asked: “Why don’t we use our brains? Our ancestors could not dream of the knowledge and technology we have today.” El-Banna rejected the idea of refining the [Islamic] heritage as 90% of it is no longer valid—as he put it.

The punishment for apostasy
El-Banna emphasized that although apostasy is mentioned in the Qur’án, there is no punishment attached to it in this life. It is not a crime for someone to be guided to another religion, after due consideration; it is freedom of belief. El-Banna agreed with the scholars who have stated that there is no judgement on a person who thinks sincerely and converts to another religion, quoting the Quranic verse, “On no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear”.

Baha’ism is welcomed
El-Banna was very welcoming of the Bahá’í religion and whoever wishes to embrace it—in the framework of freedom of thought—and demanded freedom for Bahá’ís; he added that if God had so willed, He could have made mankind one people, but He created the nations with inherent differences. Therefore, we should accept pluralism and conversion from one religion to another—after all, everyone believes in one God. The Islamic writer [El-Banna] then added: “Who says that we believe in three religions only? This is sheer stupidity; China has more than three religions and it is an advanced country. He stressed that according to the Qur’án, there are prophets we do not know about.

Hassan El-Banna
Gamal el-Banna said that his late brother, Hassan el-Banna, founder of the Society of Muslim Brotherhood, was a liberal and a genius in the way he organised the structure of the Brotherhood group, which began with six individuals in the city of Isma‘iliyyah in 1928 and became “a way of life” in 1948. He added that all the women in the Brotherhood [Society] wore no veils at that time.

Najmuddin al-Tufi
In support of his assertions, El-Banna referred to the Hanbali scholar Najmuddin al-Tufi [who had stated that] in the event of a conflict between the Text of the Qur’án and the commonweal, the latter should prevail, as “the commonweal is the ultimate purpose of the lawgiver [God], and should be observed if a contradiction occurs between the commonweal and the Text, not as a means of fabricating the Text, but as a way of interpreting it”, and this for the purpose of “greater benefit for a larger number”. Commenting on freedom of thought and the religious institutions’ attitude to it, El-Banna said: “Who can believe that Christianity is the religion of love when the Church in the middle ages instituted courts of inquisition for its followers. There is a close relationship between freedom of thought and religions; religions should be a call for freedom and not fanaticism; freedom in Islam is part of the mechanism which ‘Aqqad referred to as “an Islamic obligation”. El-Banna further added that all the Quranic verses call for freedom of thought; people’s misconception of religion is the cause of their retardation. At the symposium, Gamal el-Banna also spoke about his big renaissance project, established under the title “Islamic Revival”, which he began fifty years ago when he published his book A New Democracy in 1946; the book included a chapter entitled “A New Understanding for Religion” which incorporated the core of the idea for his renaissance project—belief in the human being—“do not believe in faith; believe in the human being”, the wording has progressed to “Islam sought the human being, but scholars sought Islam”. The key idea in this call is to take Islam back to what it was fourteen centuries ago—a revolution to free people leading them out of darkness into light, a desire to change a society that worships in the ways of its forefathers, and to spread noble values.

- [Judiciary] Counselor Dr. Hassan Hind conducted the symposium, and Dr. Afaf Abdel-Mu‘ti, director of the publishing house, Dar Heffen, was the coordinator.
- Gamal el-Banna, the Islamic writer, presented three booklets as gifts to those present; a booklet about the topic of the symposium “Freedom of Thought in Islam” was one of them.
- The symposium received extensive media coverage in a number of electronic sites as well as the Egyptian and Arab press.
- The next Dar Heffen symposium on freedom of thought and belief is on the theme of rights of women in relation to personal status, and will be held on Saturday 27 December 2008.

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