Book review: Salama Moussa tackles religion vs. state - 85 years ago

Reuters , Tuesday 6 Mar 2012

Moussa's classic, now more than eight decades old, argues that the religious clergy - rather than religion itself - has historically represented the main source of persecution

Salama Moussa and Book Cover

Horreyet Al-Fikr wa Abtalaha Fil Tareekh (Freedom of Thought and its Heroes throughout History), by Salama Moussa, Doha: Kitab Al-Duha, 2012. 212pp.

The 85-year-old book by Egyptian thinker Salama Moussa, Freedom of Thought and its Heroes throughout History,” remains valid for today’s reader in the contemporary Arab world. It offers perspective on both the relation between the regime and religion and that between religious piety and discrimination. The author notes that all human advancements must first be labelled “heresies” against a reigning religious belief or public idea, and that the gradual acceptance of such heresies takes time.

Moussa (1887-1958) is among the leaders of Egypt’s literary renaissance and among the founders of the Mentalist school of thought, together with Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayyed, Taha Hussein and Al-Azhar sheikh Mostafa Abdel-Razziq. The book was written in 1927, following two controversies stirred by the books Al-Islam wa Osul Al-Hokm (Islam and the Origins of Temporal Rule) by Abdel-Razziq, and Fi Al-Sher Al-Gahely (On Pre-Quranic Poetry) by Hussein.

In the book, Moussa states: “Religion itself cannot persecute; but what discriminates is the authority representing religion or using it, and those performing these actions are politicians or clergy. However, priests themselves cannot persecute unless they have authority. As long as religion is separate from government, neither it nor its priests can persecute anyone. However, if the state and religion become one thing, religious men can persecute whoever they wish.”

The author goes on to insist that past persecutions in the name of religion weren’t the fault of religion itself, but are rather a testament to how rulers can abuse religion for their own political ends.

The passion rulers find for religion is much more than what religious men find for authority, since the latter tend to humility, while the former need religion to strengthen their authority, Moussa concludes. He points to Machiavelli’s classic that calls on the ruler to protect religion even if he is a non-believer himself, as religion can cement his rule over the masses.

The author concludes that it’s for ideas alone that people have given their lives, noting that nobody ever sacrificed their life for food or an object, but only “for a new faith they believed in and of which masses didn’t approve.” He adds that revolution represents the only way forward if the organisations’ rigidity prevents necessary development, as seen by Socrates, who willingly drank poison because “the drive for development was driving him forcefully upwards, and was stronger than the passion for life.”

This is similar to all those who believed in new ideas, and to the thousands whose blood were shed throughout history for preaching innovation. Fear and ignorance are the twin causes of persecution of new ideas, Moussa states, although the heresies win in the end, for, “although it starts with a minority, it eventually gets over the habits.”

Moussa looks particularly at the inquisitions of the Middle Ages. “The monks would roam, trading religion, living with people, eating, drinking, living,” he writes, “and if they got bored, they would accuse the household of heresy, fearless – for they knew the accused would eventually confess under torture.”

Building on this, he continues about the Arab world’s Abbassi rulers, like Al-Mahdy and Al-Hady, who persecuted atheists like the priests of the inquisition – even though the Quran appoints no Caliph and the Bible appoints no Pope.

For Moussa, men in power – be they politicians or priests –would look at those different from themselves based on the political context, with either feelings of forgiveness or persecution.

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