New Secularism in the Arab World

By Ghassan F. Abdullah(*)

 A major movement of secular writing in Arabic has been gaining strength and depth over the last fifteen years, little reported by outsiders.1 It is going into new directions, well beyond a mere reaction to Islamic fundamentalismwhich grew mostly afterKhomeini took over in Iran in 1979. This article is a quick overview of some of these recent writings that have come out in Arabic.

Islamists in many Arab countries seem to have the upper hand, and the coverage. News of fundamentalist violence predominate in many Islamic countries. In Algeria, the open conflict with the army-backed regime has reached new levels of atrocities, and the authorities keep trying to prove their piousness with more stringent conservative measures, not least in the cultural field. In Egypt, the main guardian of Islamic norms in the country and beyond, the al-Azhar Islamic Institution, is increasing its offensive on any signs of cultural liberalism, and is blamed by some of indirectly condoning the extremist armed militants. In Lebanon, Hezbollah occupies a special position as it is the main force confronting the occupying Israelis in south Lebanon. In Jordan, the Moslem Brotherhood movement has always been towing the line with the regime, but more radical elements have been probed by the security services, including Islamic ‘mojahidin’ who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet backed ‘atheist’ rule in the eighties. Everywhere in the Arab world, the Islamic discourse is being taken seriously by all governments. 

And yet, against this apparently one sided picture, there is a growing reaction to the Islamist tide, notably what is dubbed ‘political Islam’, both intellectually and on the ground. This is manifested by a spate of new books that are being seen more and more abundantly on book stands in many Arab cities. Some books by Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, the lecturer in Cairo university who was facing a court case to have him separated from his wife on the grounds that he is an apostate, and who had to flee from Egypt following increased threats on his life, were even bought in book exhibitions in Riyadh, capital of the Saudi strict Islamic regime. 

Secular ideas are, of course, not new in Islamic countries. Ever since the call of the prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, there have been doubters and secular writing. Some of its authors are documented in Abdurrahman Badawi’s book From the History of Atheism in Islam,2 which first appeared in the 1950s and has been reprinted many times since. It brings to light some of the debates and writings that marked certain periods of Islamic history, including the derisive poetry of Abul Ala’ al-Maari, the blind Arab philosopher who lived in northern Syria in the 10th century. 
In more recent history, a movement of Islamic revival took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, mostly as self defense against the culture of the European colonialists. Sheik Afghani and sheik Mohammed Abdo were among the best known figures of this movement which adopted Ottoman and sometimes new pan Arab positions against the West. A counter movement of liberal writers emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century on the pages of al-Muqtataf, the one time leading scientific journal in Arabic, which was published in Egypt many years before Scientific American, and lasted until the fifties of the twentieth century. Farah Antoun and Shibli Shmayyel were among the best known representatives of the scientific and secular ideas. For their audacity in dealing with religious subjects, texts of their articles and debates could not be reprinted today in most Arab countries. They were joined by other science and liberal writers, among them Yacoob Sarrouf and Ismail Mazher who translated Darwin’s Origin of Species. Ismail Adham could find a publisher, in the 1930s, for his Why am I an gin Mary. He made history by fleeing for a while from Lebanon to Syria for writing such a book. The norm was that Arab writers ran away usually from their countries to Lebanon to avoid intellectual persecution. A scathing and irreverent attack on religious thought and official Islamic history came in the long introduction by Lafif Lakhder to a translation of a collection of Lenin’s texts on religion.9 He criticized ‘Stalinist’ communist parties for their conciliatory attitude towards religion and evoked Marx’s dictum on starting criticism on earth by criticism of the Heavens first. 

The latest and probably the most radical movement of secular writing to date took off mostly since the mid eighties. It was sparked by the successful rise to power of Imam Khomeini in Iran with his Islamic State rallying cry and the return to Islamic fundamentalism. The wave of Islamic revival that swept the region has not subsided yet. No regime or political movement escaped its influence and fallout. Even conservative Saudi Arabia had to tighten even further its adherence, or pretense, to more fundamental tenets of Islam. In Syria, emboldened by the trend and other internal factors, Islamists declared open rebellion in the town of Hama in 1982. It was crushed with brute force by the regime. Shiite Islam, backed by Iran, became more organized and militant in Lebanon. The droves of Moslem ‘volunteers’ who fought against the communist regime in Afghanistan, trained and hardened, have been a menace to many an Arab regime since, and beyond. In Sudan, more Islamic integrism seems the only course for the regime out of a war beleaguered and impoverished economy. In Iran itself, the economic situation including the debt problem is getting more serious and the oil income is tied to servicing state debts for years to come. Against this background, some social disappointment with what an Islamic state can deliver in today’s world is beginning to set in. Intellectuals, especially liberal ones, are noting the trend and are coming out with their points of view, relating the Islamic discourse to the social and political problems besetting the countries of the region. 

In 1984, the then lecturer at al-Najah university in the Palestinian West Bank town of Nablus, the late Suleiman Basheer, published An Introduction to the Other History: Towards a New Reading of Islamic Tradition.10 The book was based on a wealth of material unearthed for the first time from the old Zhaheria Library in Damascus. It consisted largely of references which belonged to the first century and a half after Mohammed, and which were hidden or ignored by the official orthodox history of Islam. The book had a limited distribution outside scholarly circles, and especially outside the occupied Palestinian territories. It caused its author to be kicked out of the university. Illegal copies of the book are, however, still circulating in Jordan and elswhere in the Arab world. In Syria, Hadi Alawi has been reviving some little known old texts that bring out a rich impious and daring heritage in Islamic history.11 He is even directing some of his criticism at the classical Arabic language, which he claims was ossified by the Koran and its self appointed guardians, the ‘language clerics’ of the Arabic language academies, and calling for reform of its structures. 12 
Farag Foda in Egypt started publishing his controversial books around the same time. He espoused secularism openly and directed some of his outspoken criticism at political Islam and its theoretical and historical foundations, notably in his widely read book, The Missing Truth.13 His Islamic opponents accused him, as they often do their critics, of covering his atheism with secularism, the two concepts being synonyms according to them. He paid his life for his stand, at the hands of a fanatic Islamist, shortly after the famous debate with Sheik Mohammad Ghazali and others which took place during the 1992 Cairo book fair.14 Instigation for the murder goes back to some Azhar patrons, according to other secular writers. 
Hamed Nasr Abu Zeid, a Moslem scholar well versed in the history and theology of Islam, is formidable opponent of Islamists in the interpretation of dogma scriptures and their explanations. His books arebeing sold widely all over the Arab world.15 He declined police protection because, as he said on a visit to Amman, he will have to feed the badly paid government guardians round the clock. Further, they could not protect him against a determined fanatic anyway, and he had to flee to Europe. 

The book series Qadaya Fikriya in Egypt has devoted its 8th book16 which appeared in October 1989 to the question of Political Islam, and the combined 13-14th book,17 which appeared in 1993, to Islamic Fundamentalisms. The editor Mahmoud Amin el-Alem, a prominent scientist and political thinker, collected articles from well known free thinkers to discuss the notions of state and religion in Islam, and fundamentalism in Islam and other religions. 
Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni is another serious challenger who is questioning the very foundations of the Islamic historical and theological discourse as detrimental to progress and development. He started with a book on the rise of monotheism and the belief in eternity, Osiris,18 and studied the origin of Islam as the religion of the Hashemite ancestors of the prophet Mohammed and tracing it back to the Abraham of Arabia.19 Other writers and scholars in Egypt are providing more evidence and analysis of the religious phenomenon all the time in the cultural monthlies ‘Cairo’ and ‘Adab wa Nakd’ and the Progressive party’s weekly ‘al-Ahali’. The confrontation is taking new dimensions as the long running weekly magazine, Rose el-Yousef, has dared the Azhar and the government recently by publishing forbidden texts ranging from a previously censored story from the Thousand and One Nights to extracts of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.20 

Other trends in digging up the Islamic story are appearing all the time in many parts of the Arab world. In Syria, an engineering professor and an observing moslem, Dr. Mohammed Shahrour approached his study of the Koran from a linguistic point of view, tracing the meanings of Arabic words as they prevailed at the time, leading to new interpretations of much received wisdom. His 500-page book, which took him 20 years to complete, The Koran and the Book21 is making publishing history. It has gone into its fifth printing of 5000 runs each in two years in Syria alone, not to mention separate Lebanese and Egyptian editions. Another professor, Aziz al-Azmeh, at Exeter university in Britain, who wrote about Arabic and Islamic thought and Ibn Khaldoun previously, has produced a well researched volume entitled Secularism from a Different Perspective,22 reviewing the development of secular ideas in modern Arab thought. 

The History of God,23 written by Georgy Kanaan in Syria, traces the very idea of God in Syrian ancient religions and mythology. Firas Sawwah, also from Syria, has published a series of books dealing with the origins of religious beliefs in the region. Mohammed Arkoun, based in Paris, is analysing basic questions of Islam in a series of books that are selling well in spite of their high cost. 

Others are looking at the foundations of Judaism and Christianity, especially the claims to Palestine based on Jewish mythology, and the relations between Judeo-Christian Protestantism and modern Zionism. Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi’s controversial ideas about the origins of the Jews and the prophets, have also wide circulation. More ‘materialist’ scholars, analyse religion from a social point a view. This tradition goes back to the Russian educated Palestinian, Bandaly Jousy, who published his “From the History of the Intellectual Movements in Islam”24 in 1927, to the Lebanese communist Hussein Mroueh and the Egyptian school of Marxists. 
The secular scene is not limited to writing. Countless discussion groups concerned about the state of the Arab countries have religion on their agenda as one of the main elements of the underdevelopment formula. Heeding the call of Farag Fouda before his assasination, rationalist societies are coming into being in Egypt and other places under different names, unannounced officially. Some Arab intellectuals have also issued a statement in support of Salman Rushdie’s right to publish and against Khomeini’s Fatwa. 

No opinion polls concerning religious beliefs are usually allowed in Arab countries, to judge the real spread of secular ideas. An exception is the survey of living conditions of the Palestinian society under Israeli occupation in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem, 25 which challenges some widely held notions about religious attitudes. It shows that the percentage of ‘secular’ men is 20%, going up to an unexpected 30% among women, and that it is on average higher than the percentage of Islamic ‘activists’ on the other end of the spectrum even in the Gaza refugee camps. Secular is defined in the study as someone who’s life is not dictated by religion. The larger middle ground is being held by simply ‘observant’ moslems. Partial surveys by some university students elsewhere seem to confirm this distribution of the degree of belief. 

This growing flurry of secular writing should not, however, give the impression that the Islamist tide in the Arab world is being checked. The fundamental activists present an ‘alternative’ to the impoverished masses with their slogan, ‘Islam Is the Solution’, coupled with social welfare programs in many places, not provided by the state, in addition to other various activities for the masses. Islamic teaching as preached in thousands of mosques every week all over the Arab world, as well as the weight of history, still carries the day. The secularists cannot hope to compete for the minds and souls of the masses, without a change in social conditions, but their message is being written and distributed and they are reaching countless readers. Rewriting and re-evaluation of Islamic history, including its secular aspects, is taking place as never before in the contemporary history of Arab and Islamic countries.

(*) Ghassan F. Abdullah, Birzeit University in Palestine.
Palestinian, born in Akka (St Jean d’Acre), refugee for over 40 years,
lives in Ramallah since 1994. At present, he lectures and
works in information technology at the Birzeit University Institute of
Law, where they developed a legal and judicial databank.

Mafhoum al-nass: dirassa fi Ulum al-Koran, Al-Markaz al-Thakafi al-Arabi, second edition, Beirut, 1984 and Al-ittijah al-akli fi al-tafsir, Dar al-Tanweer, Cairo, 1986, and Nakd al-khitab al-dini, Sina li al-Nasher, Cairo, 1992. 
16 Qadaya Fikriya, Al-Islam al-siyassi, Cairo, 1989. 
17 Qadaya Fikriya, Al-Usuliyat al-Islamiyah, Cairo, 1993. 
18 Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni, Osiris wa akidat al-khouloud fi Misr al-qadima, Dar al-Fikr, Cairo, 1988. 
19 Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni, Al-hizb al-Hashimi wa ta’sis al-dawla al-Islamiya, Sina li al-Nasher, Cairo, 1990. 
20 Rose El-Yousef, no. 3423, Jan. 17, 1994. 
21 Mohammad Shahrour, Al-Kitab wa al-Koran, Al-Ahali, fifth edition, Damascus, 1992. 
22 Aziz al-Azmeh, Al-ilmaniyah min manzour mukhtalef, Markaz Dirasat al-Wehda al-Arabiya, Beirut, 1992. 
23 Georgy Kanaan, Tarikh Allah, Al-Nadwa al-Kan’aniya, Beirut-Aleppo, 1990. 
24 Bandaly Jouzy, Min tarikh al-harakat al-fikriyah fi al-Islam, Palestine Writers Union, Beirut, second edition, 1981. 

Marianne Heiberg, et al., Palestinian society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions, Oslo, FAFO-report 151, 1993 25.

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