Taking a stand
Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, Monday 17 Dec 2012
A year has passed since Sheikh Emad Effat was killed at the clashes outside the cabinet offices. While his wisdom still inspires, his murderers have not been brought to justice

“I urge everyone, especially my students, to pause and reflect. The gauge is not the success of the revolution but taking a stand. Revolutions can be aborted, and sincere calls can be defeated. Some prophets (peace be upon them) will come alone on the Day of Judgment, some were killed, and that is not a measure of failure. Not at all; the gauge is one’s stand.

Do not look at the consequence of what has happened but look at its nature and what it was. What was your position? Where were you? Why were some of us present in classes and at prayers, but absent at these blessed moments? We must reassess and hold ourselves accountable because God, with His mercy, extended our lives, and so this is an opportunity to re-evaluate. As long as we breathe there is room for repentance and revision. The end is the gauge; it is not too late;perhaps what is coming is harder than what has passed.”

These were the sheikh's words in the first lecture after Mubarak's ousting. Lectures were on hold for three weeks, which he spent in and around Tahrir Square, where the “real lesson” is, as he told a student who ran into him in the square. Tahrir is where he was injured on the Friday of Rage, and where I saw him carrying stones for those defending the square during the Battle of the Camel, and throwing them at attackers. Tahrir is where he took his infant son to celebrate the day Mubarak was ousted. It was where – a few months later – he was martyred.

The words of the sheikh – these and others – and his positions demonstrate his principled, uncompromising positions; his standing by the wronged and rejection of injustice, irrespective of the consequences. This is why he joined demonstrators whenever they were assaulted and that is why he supported the protestors at Mohamed Mahmoud in November 2011. A few hours into the clashes I told him the situation is complicated but he responded that he sees it as clear as daylight: the authorities unjustifiably attacked peaceful protestors and therefore it is an obligation to support them.

In these confrontations and others, the sheikh was always quick in defending what he saw as right, without attracting any attention to his actions. Until the day he was martyred, he always took off his Al-Azhar outfit before joining protests, because – as he always said – he protested as a citizen fighting injustice, not as a religious scholar.

The sheikh arrived at these principled positions through knowledge and moral discipline. He was an extension a long chain of scholarship belonging to Al-Azhar’s school: Ashaarite theology, the four schools of jurisprudence, and Sufism; a school based on accumulated religious knowledge, transferred in books written by earlier scholars, and explained by those who came after, tied via chains of narrators and scholars to the prophet.

The sheikh followed scholars who adopt this approach, urging his students to read biographies of earlier scholars, and learn from them, including Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Bigouri, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Dardir, Sheikh Hassouna Al-Nawawi, Sheikh Selim Al-Bishri, and other sheikhs who combined scholarly authenticity with principled uncompromising positions, and independence of conscience. He combined scholarship with proper moral conduct, and rejected that the presence of the former is reason to overlook the latter.

He wrote to me several years ago condemning my "unacceptable excusing" of the positions of some scholars:

“There are all these good words about respect for sheikhs, giving them leeway and excuses, but where is God’s right to His own religion? Where is the right of the public who are confused about the truth because sheikhs are silent, and your own silence out of respect for senior sheikhs? What is this new idol that you call pressure; how does this measure to Ahmed Ibn Hanbal’stolerance of jail and refusing to bend and say what would comfort the unjust rulers?"

“What is this new idol you invented? The idol of pressure! If we submit to these new rituals, to this new idol, we would then tolerate everyone who lies, commits sins and great evils under the pretext of easing pressure and escaping it. Oh people, these pressures are only in your head and not in reality. Is there a new opinion in jurisprudence that coercion can be by illusion? Have we come to use religious terms to circumvent religion and justify the greater sins we commit? So we use legitimate phrases such as pros and cons, the lesser of two evils, and pressure to make excuses for not speaking up for what is right and surrendering to what is wrong!"

“Sheikhs of Al-Azhar used to leave their resignations in the drawers of their secretaries and told them: if you see us submitting to pressure then hand over the resignation to the press. When they are honest to God, He makes them victorious and cherishes them.”

The sheikh greatly respected expertise and listened closely to experts in all fields and gladly sought the advice of social studies specialists before expressing his opinion on something in their field. He criticised “preachers” and “sheikhs” who talk about God’s religion without being qualified.

Between the time of the sheikh’s martyrdom and the first anniversary of his death dozens more martyrs have fallen at the cabinet offices, in Port Said, the second Mohamed Mahmoud, Abassiya, the third Mohamed Mahmoud, the presidential palace, and in other clashes. The killers remain free; most – including Sheikh Emad's killer – were not put on trial, while those who were tried were found innocent. This is not unexpected, since those in charge of investigations are the ones accused of killing and thus are unwilling to assist in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The lack of evidence in courts is for two reasons. Firstly, a lack of earnestness in collecting evidence – the crimes at Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud and the cabinet offices occurred under the noses of security agencies whose cameras (at the cabinet and parliament, for example) recorded many details that would have benefited investigations.

Secondly, because criminal law puts the burden of proof on the victim. This means that in order to bring perpetrators to justice, someone on the martyr’s side must file a report accompanied with evidence that is in the hands of state agencies. In practicality, this makes it impossible to prove the crime. While this is a correct legal rule in general, in this case especially it fails to achieve justice since it is in the interest of the party holding the evidence or assisting with it to conceal it. This is something that administrative law recognised, and it therefore transferred the burden of proof in cases by individuals against state institutions to the latter. But this has not been redressed in criminal law.

One year has passed since the killing of Sheikh Emad and our hearts are wrung with sorrow for his departure; his blood still awaits just retribution that might uncover the crimes of the Egyptian state, to prevent their repetition.

Meanwhile, the battle of the revolution in which he died continues.