It is one of the normal laws of life that ceasing to develop risks extinction. A language that ceases to accept new terminology and adapt to the everyday uses of its natives surely becomes a dead language — Latin is an example. People who stop coping with new realities and willingly refrain from embracing a paradigm shift in their understanding of the continued need for evolution are surely outdated and will be left behind the march of human progress. This holds true for religions that find it hard to adapt to new ideas and thoughts. Those religions surely risk losing followers or, in the worst-case scenario, some may turn their backs on their faiths completely.
Religion is not a rigid mould to which people should fit, or an iron mask that lets in air through a very narrow opening only for survival. Rather, it should be able to assimilate modern ideas and get followers to love their faiths, no matter their deity. In the case of Egypt, official and popular calls have been made long ago on the urgent need for a renewal of religious discourse, which has now become a top priority given the extremist ideology that has led many in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, such calls have been avoided like the plague because of the odd mix between the pillars of any given faith and the narrow-minded interpretations or newly introduced rituals into it, on the one hand, and because of that misperception that embracing new ideas into a given faith may ruin its very basis.
The Wahhabi faith, for instance, has been erroneously mixed for decades with the teachings of Islam and widely embraced by Muslim preachers, giving a killer blow recipe for average Muslims. Those followers tend to believe in their preachers and deal with their instructions as gospel.
Citing an example, before many Egyptians flocked to the Gulf nations in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when oil boosted the economies of the Gulf States, they used to take pride in their own Egyptian traditions. Take, for example, the case of celebrating the birthday of a new-born infant. People, rich and poor in Egypt, used to organise the famous Egyptian subu (celebrating the seventh day of the new baby by holding folkloric and colourful ceremonies, traditionally passed on from parents and forefathers). Being under the influence of Wahhabi concepts, some Egyptians all of a sudden remembered, once they returned from the Gulf, that aqiqa (a Bedouin celebration in honour of the new baby, now seen by many as a revival of a Sunni tradition, in which a sheep is slaughtered in celebration of the seventh day of the new-born infant) was the “correct” religious way to celebrate their infants’ birth!
This is more of a cultural influence than a religious one, but it has been given a religious aspect to replace the traditional. Now, since slaughtering a sheep is much more expensive than observing the traditional subu, aqiqa has been widely practised by the rich, while the former has been defined as the humble celebration of the limited-income and the poor. Having this superior perspective has been a breach of the very substance of Islam, as a faith that has advocated equality and respect for one another among people at large, in favour of the form, something that can be clearly noticed in most if not all the rituals of the Wahhabi faith.
Last week, Al-Azhar, the most highly prestigious Sunni Muslim institution in the world, held a keynote event under the title “Renewal of Islamic Thought”. The conference did acknowledge in a set of recommendations that renewal, in general, is part and parcel of Islamic Sharia law, which remains inextricable because it is needed to cope with the developments of the age and realise the aspirations of the people. This is an inextricable truth though it remains ink on paper. Average Muslims are not aware of many things about the core of their faith. Their source of information remains preachers at mosques, who in turn instil in the minds of the faithful a set of thoughts widely intermixed with misinterpretations and misconceptions of the holy book of the Muslims: The Quran.
In case you need evidence, the famous sermon on Fridays at mosques is a living example. The preacher, or imam, usually starts the sermon with an introduction to the subject earlier defined by the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, a process which was meant to prevent preachers from choosing sermons on their own and get them committed to the main pillars of a given subject. But as the preacher carries on, nothing is raised on the point at hand other than the title, while worshippers are confused because the preacher distracts their attention with amusing stories from the past which have nothing to do with the goal set by the ministry, nor are those stories real.
Many preachers are busy taking audiences back to ancient times, delivering quite impressive stories about the once golden era in which people were almost angelic in the way they perceived life and dealt with one another. Such an approach does sanctify dead eras and those people who once led their lives based on the prerequisites of their own time. Above all, historical facts tell us those people were not angelic at all! Remember that the holy house of Muslims, Al-Kaaba, was once hit by a ballista to bring an end to a sit-in by a rebellious challenger to the rule of the Umayyad caliphate.
In his book Discourse and Hermeneutics, late Egyptian thinker and philosopher Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, who was forced into exile in the 1990s over charges of heresy, said: “Old rigid thoughts that have been sanctified because they have been repeated over and over are nothing but time bombs.” He argued that, “the explosion of thoughts are not to be taken in the metaphorical sense only, because our Muslim and Arab nations have seen real explosions in streets and roads whose source has been ‘thoughts’ in which the young tend to believe.” This is the core of the problem: thoughts which have been sanctified because they were said by people in ancient times and are mixed with religion on purpose.
Those thoughts have been given a quasi-revelation nature and almost become a parallel to divine scriptures. Revelation remains holy to a given believer, but thoughts said by whosoever are not that holy and can be criticised, downplayed, made use of or even ignored completely. The call for the renewal of religious discourse does aim at that point in particular: a critique of outdated ideas, logically refuting them in order for a given religion to embrace new realities and keep followers wholeheartedly affiliated with their faith. Continued ignorance of that call has cost Muslims dearly in their day-to-day lives. Those who kill say they do this in honour of the revelations of the Super Being. But Yahweh, God, or Allah (names of The Almighty as perceived by followers of the three Abrahamic religions) has never advocated killing nor does He bless the murderers, but those who speak in His name and think their interpretation of His words are the only viable version do.
When he was advocating a new religion among the pagans of Mecca, the fierce campaign against Mohamed, the Prophet of Islam, was because his call would send the old beliefs into oblivion, something which senior leaders in Mecca, nowadays in Saudi Arabia, were not ready to tolerate. His call did question their religious authority over other Arab tribes, did wash away their gains inherited over time, did replace their old superstitious beliefs with new concepts based on reasoning and sense. This was the real challenge: it was not a battle between the old and the new, rather a fierce conflict between well-established thoughts whose champions were not ready to tolerate any change, even when proven wrong, and brand new ideas which have been meant to liberate the human mind from suppression under the name of religion.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.