The future of religious thought in Egypt has been brought to the forefront of intellectual discussion by the unprecedented rise of the Islamic current in Egypt. But according to Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi, the future of religious thought is no different from its past or present condition.
Hanafi, who was recently hosted by Egypt's Supreme Council for Culture to debate with Coptic thinker Samir Morqos and Sheikh Mohamed Yousri Gaafar on the future of religious thought, shocked the audience when he entered the seminar on a wheelchair, raising concerns about the renowned philosopher's health.
Hanafi, who looked a little pale but still has a sharp-witted mind, told the audience that there was no difference between the future, present or past of religious thought in Egypt. He said the progress of this thought had been "very slow" over the past two centuries, which had seen the same religious currents and discourses.
"There will be no change unless a radical and enormous thing happens. Religious thought is developing very slowly; it's almost static," he said. "Over the past two centuries, there was always extreme orthodox religious thought, the reformists, and the innovators; always dominated by the first two, with the third often marginalised and accused of blasphemy."
"These three currents will control our religious thought for years to come, and I have no idea of how to transcend it," he added. "Let me today talk, neither as a Salafist nor a reformist nor a marginalised [person], but as a philosopher who reflects on the very essence of religious thought in general."
Historically, Islamic thought spanned between the Mutazilah, which was a rational theological school of thought, and the Asharis, which is static and sidelines rationality in regards to religion, according to Hanafi.
“As we know, the Ashari thought won out in the end and is now dominating the whole domain of religious thought, so when we speak of the future of religious thought, we're speaking of the future of the Ashari thought," Hanafi explained. "Ashari thought confers recipes on God; it describes Him as 'the Almighty' and the 'victory giver' and so on, and this is nonsense; we never saw God and so these recipes have no meaning."
Hanafi concluded that the Islamic "thought of belief" – and not belief itself – does not make sense. According to Hanafi, religious thought is "alienated from us" as it speaks of transcendental things that we cannot see or describe, and until we can change the subject of this thought to study things we can know, religious thought will not see any transformation.
For Hanafi, religious thought has long focused on the duties of believers, but not their rights. It tells them what is prohibited more than what they can do freely.
"The most dominating sciences in religious thought are the ones that exclude rationality of the Ijtihad, and this is very influential in our age," he said.
Morqos, meanwhile, a former assistant to President Mohamed Morsi, shed light on the historical transformations of religious thought, asserting that we must reconstruct "religious values."
Morqos focused on the 1980s, when religious thought used to market neo-liberalism, and in some cases adopted stricter stances to face the "damaging effects of this savage thought."
"We're at a watershed moment after the January 25 Revolution and religious thought must respond to this moment," he said. "Either it deals with it positively and gives us the religious perspective of justice and freedom, or it must stay locked in its conservative positions."
He added: "The youth will not accept any more conservative positions and religious thought must be geared towards them."
Sheikh Gaafar, for his part, criticised the distortions of religious teaching in Egypt and the mixture of Islamic currents that resulted in malformed texts of what he described as "myths."
"There are some religious currents that are interpreting the holy texts of Islam to suit their own interests, and every Islamic scholar and researcher knows this," he said.