Book review: Egyptian author discusses Islamic 'Hesba' laws

Reuters, Tuesday 3 Jul 2012

Helmy El-Namnam examines how Islamic 'Hesba' laws have been used to limit freedom of speech in Egypt

Hesba and Freedom of Expression

Al-hesba wa horeyet al-taabeer  (Hesba and Freedom of Expression) by Helmy El-Namnam, Cairo: Arab Network for Human Rights, 2012.199pp.

Egyptian author Helmy El-Namnam has written a new book placing Islamic 'hesba' laws – rules stating that if a Muslim acts in a way that is against Islamic law, s/he can be declared a non-believer and forced to divorce his or her Muslim spouse – in their historical context.

The term was originally used in relation to economic issues but in recent decades it has been used against writers and artists who say or do things that are deemed against Islamic law.

El-Namnam calls this a "holy war against creative people" and says "new punishments have placed limits on writers' creativity" through lawsuits accusing writers of insulting the divine or promoting atheism. Cases have targeted Egyptian authors Naguib Mahfouz and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, and the actor Adel Imam.

Adel Imam was sentenced in February 2012 to 3 months in prison for insulting Islam in his films and plays. Two days later the court rejected the lawsuit, which was described as "without foundation."

El-Namnam, currently chairman of Dar Al-Hilal publishing, stresses that early Muslims did not know the term Hesba and no one was "charged" with that offence.

The author claims hesba and other punishments disappeared from Egypt in the 19th century when Mohammed Said Pasha took power in 1854 and turned the country into a modern state.

In 1993, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid was due to be promoted to professor at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts but a committee rejected his promotion, describing one of his research topics as blasphemous. The case reached court and Abu Zeid was forced to divorce his wife and as a result he left the country.

El-Namnam believes political, social, or religious tyranny is behind the suppression of freedoms, citing examples such as the assassination of Egyptian writer Farag Foda in 1992 by Islamist militants, and the attempted assassination of Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 for allegedly insulting Islam in the novel Children of the Alley, which was banned – after serial publication in Al-Ahram in 1959 – on grounds that it offend the Prophet Mohamed.

The novel was republished a few years ago, with introductions by two authors who belong to the enlightened trend of Islam: Ahmed Kamal Abu-Magd, a law professor and member of the Islamic Research Academy, and Muhammad Salim Al-Awa, former secretary general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars.

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