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Book review: Religion and Religiousness

Judge Abdel-Gawad Yassin argues that the earliest Islamist polities were secular, with laws and religion kept separate

Sayed Mahmoud, Thursday 25 Oct 2012
Religion and Religiousness
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Al deen wal tadayun (Religion and Religiousness) by Abdel-Gawad Yassin, Cairo: Dar Al-Tanweer

At a time when liberal political forces and Islamist fundamentalists are becoming even more polarised in their views, there is a dire need to review many of the statements that intentionally mix religion and religiousness.

The importance of this book, subtitled "Legislation, Text and Society" cannot be underestimated. Abdel-Gawad Yassin, the Egyptian judge who worked for years to put this project on track, is known for offering an alternative reading of Islamic history. Yassin takes two approaches: firstly, analysing Salafist legislative thought between text and history, and secondly, criticising the theories of political Islam.

Yassin's earlier works include Introduction to Legislation of Contemporary Jahiliyya, Development of Political Thought in Egypt During the 19th Century, and Authority in Islam. His books have caused a stir in a number of Arab countries and have quickly joined the bestsellers, next to works of prominent progressive Islamist writers Hassan Hanafi, Mohamed Abed Al-Gabry, Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid and others.

However, Yassin's works took an altogether alternative route by tackling the idea of law in the structure of the Islamic state.

The book approaches the concept of religion within the context of monotheism and the relation of religion to people, deducing the following: religion is based on a Higher Being that is not human. However, humans are the subject of religion and, therefore, religion has no place except through social interpretation.

Yassin stresses that humans are the recipients of religion and exercise it through religiousness, and therefore there can be no realisation of religion without the aspect of human community.

Egypt's constitution and sharia

The author poses various important questions as we look at the arguments related to the clauses of Egypt's new constitution and how they link back to Islamic sharia (law). Among these questions is whether law, which is by definition a relative concept, can be part of religion, which is 'absolute truth.'

While the Quran may be considered an 'absolute', social dimensions are subject to change. Yassin declares that faith in God and in absolute values are religions indeed, while legislation is linked to history. While the text and interpretation cannot be identified as one and the same, the writer argues, historical legislation has accumulated around the religious text, ending up in the analysis and the interpretation we see today.

It is interesting to note that the author confirms that there were no legislative texts in the early stages of Islam in Mecca, and no promises whatsoever of a state. Later Medina texts (Quranic verses that dated after Mohamed's pilgrimage to Medina) include the legislation related to the state. Those increased with the height of political action associated with the spread of Islam.

The book discusses how legislative thought developed throughout Islamic history. Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs (661–750 AD), for example, it was clearly secular by design - never mixing the role of the state and the nature of religion.

Despite the various religious statements that would seem to justify political tyranny at the time, the Umayyad rulers never claimed that the role of the state is to protect religion, whereas the dynasty that would follow them, the Abbasids (750-1258 AD) did.

The Umayyads' rule was when the new religion was slowly taking root and becoming a cultural presence, including the development of various schools on religion, by definition increasing the debate and freeing it from any fundamentalist barriers.

Under the Abbasids a critical change occurred. The merger between religion and state was only exacerbated by the merger between society and the state under the flag of religion. This created a new culture of religiousness, where religious law replaced pre-existing laws and religious leaders took the place of legislators.

The book claims that the Islamic state did not issue a single law in its early history, despite historical calls for the caliph to do so. The author questions whether the reason for this is the expanded role of religious law or has deeper roots in the socio-religious context, where the original state was born from a tribal tradition not familiar with the idea of the state order. This led to where we are today, with no single set of laws with clear dimensions, but rather faced with various, sometimes conflicting, statements and indoctrinated views.Al deen wal tadayun (Religion and Religiousness) by Abdel-Gawad Yassin, Cairo: Dar Al-Tanweer

At a time when liberal political forces and Islamist fundamentalists are becoming even more polarised in their views, there is a dire need to review many of the statements that intentionally mix religion and religiousness.

The importance of this book, subtitled "Legislation, Text and Society" cannot be underestimated. Abdel-Gawad Yassin, the Egyptian judge who worked for years to put this project on track, is known for offering an alternative reading of Islamic history. Yassin takes two approaches: firstly, analysing Salafist legislative thought between text and history, and secondly, criticising the theories of political Islam.

Yassin's earlier works include Introduction to Legislation of Contemporary Jahiliyya, Development of Political Thought in Egypt During the 19th Century, and Authority in Islam. His books have caused a stir in a number of Arab countries and have quickly joined the bestsellers, next to works of prominent progressive Islamist writers Hassan Hanafi, Mohamed Abed Al-Gabry, Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid and others.

However, Yassin's works took an altogether alternative route by tackling the idea of law in the structure of the Islamic state.

The book approaches the concept of religion within the context of monotheism and the relation of religion to people, deducing the following: religion is based on a Higher Being that is not human. However, humans are the subject of religion and, therefore, religion has no place except through social interpretation.

Yassin stresses that humans are the recipients of religion and exercise it through religiousness, and therefore there can be no realisation of religion without the aspect of human community.

Egypt's constitution and sharia

The author poses various important questions as we look at the arguments related to the clauses of Egypt's new constitution and how they link back to Islamic sharia (law). Among these questions is whether law, which is by definition a relative concept, can be part of religion, which is 'absolute truth.'

While the Quran may be considered an 'absolute', social dimensions are subject to change. Yassin declares that faith in God and in absolute values are religions indeed, while legislation is linked to history. While the text and interpretation cannot be identified as one and the same, the writer argues, historical legislation has accumulated around the religious text, ending up in the analysis and the interpretation we see today.

It is interesting to note that the author confirms that there were no legislative texts in the early stages of Islam in Mecca, and no promises whatsoever of a state. Later Medina texts (Quranic verses that dated after Mohamed's pilgrimage to Medina) include the legislation related to the state. Those increased with the height of political action associated with the spread of Islam.

The book discusses how legislative thought developed throughout Islamic history. Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs (661–750 AD), for example, it was clearly secular by design - never mixing the role of the state and the nature of religion.

Despite the various religious statements that would seem to justify political tyranny at the time, the Umayyad rulers never claimed that the role of the state is to protect religion, whereas the dynasty that would follow them, the Abbasids (750-1258 AD) did.

The Umayyads' rule was when the new religion was slowly taking root and becoming a cultural presence, including the development of various schools on religion, by definition increasing the debate and freeing it from any fundamentalist barriers.

Under the Abbasids a critical change occurred. The merger between religion and state was only exacerbated by the merger between society and the state under the flag of religion. This created a new culture of religiousness, where religious law replaced pre-existing laws and religious leaders took the place of legislators.

The book claims that the Islamic state did not issue a single law in its early history, despite historical calls for the caliph to do so. The author questions whether the reason for this is the expanded role of religious law or has deeper roots in the socio-religious context, where the original state was born from a tribal tradition not familiar with the idea of the state order. This led to where we are today, with no single set of laws with clear dimensions, but rather faced with various, sometimes conflicting, statements and indoctrinated views.

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