Abdel-Gawad Yassin: Sharia law must be flexible

Mohammed Saad , Tuesday 8 Jan 2013

Judge Abdel-Gawad Yassin says Sharia law must be open to change because it is related to the social life of the people and argues religious practice in the public sphere must be restructured to take account of this fact

Abdel Gawad Yassin
Abdel Gawad Yassin during the conference

At a conference held to honour and recognise his intellectual efforts, Egyptian judge and thinker, Abdel-Gawad Yassin, vehemently criticised what he called ‘religious thinking’ in general, and in Islam in particular way, because it mixes what is divine with human, social and historical realities, giving the social conditions a religious character.

The conference was held on Saturday, 5 January in Cairo by ‘Believers without Borders’, which is an association concerned with the reform of religious discourse. 

Yassin has lived in the Emirates since the 1980’s and works there as a judge after he resigned from the Egyptian judicial system in 1981 because the system was not applying Sharia law. He now criticises the application of Sharia law in the judicial system and completely rejects the merger of state and religion.

He asserted in his speech that religion can never mix with the state, as religion is an individual relationship between human and God, while the state is a social structure that people establish regardless of their religion.

The author of Religion and Religiousness differentiates between religion, which is faith in God and morals, from religiousness. Yassin means by religiousness the practice of religion in the public sphere. Unlike religion, religious practices are not absolute, rather they're changing all the time according to historical realities and the laws of social progress. This is contrary to the 'official understanding of religion,' which tries to show us that religious practices are sacred and absolute regardless of the social and historical contexts.

“I’m a believer without borders, and by this I mean that I strongly believe in God and this belief is liberated from religious institutions that  try to impose their understanding of religion on the people,” he said.

The judge said that an Islamic state works to serve its own interests by ruling in the name of God. Combining political and religious powers results in a theocratic state, he added.

“Faith is one and absolute, but the practice of faith in real life isn’t absolute, it differs according to the vision of every one of us and thus legislation should not be made according to religious principles. I say that religion is one thing and religiousness is another, the first is absolute and the second is changing because it’s the outcome not only of religion but of historical, economic, and political circumstances,” Yassin explained.

The presence of many young Salafists at the conference was remarkable, because Yassin has always been critically engaged with Islamic traditions, including the central texts and iconic figures of Salafism. What was even more remarkable was their critical engagement with Yassin as they believe applying Sharia is still possible despite the changing economic and social structures of the state.

Yassin criticised the icon of Islamic Fiqh, Imam Abi Shaf’ie (d. 820), who is considered the founder of this religious discipline, because he was the first to discuss the social condition of the people as if it was absolute and never changing, considering it an original part of the religion.

In the conference dinner room, young Islamists discussed Egypt’s political future with young secularists. Some said that the country would survive and would not become another Iran because the reputation of Islamists was falling. Others, however, said all possibilities remained open.

Yassin ended his speech by commenting on the new Egyptian constitution. It included Article 219, which states that Sharia is a source of legislation. Yassin said he looks at this article and others like it with a doubting eye because all Islamic thinking needs to be restructured.

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