Farid the fair and faithful

November 29, 1996

South African lecturer Farid Esack is one of a rare breed, the radical Muslim, unafraid to challenge Islamic prejudice. His appointment to the new Gender Equality Commission is all grist to the mill.

It happened in a moment. A young white man came out of London's Embankment tube station, snatched a bar of chocolate from the kiosk opposite and fled. Farid Esack saw what happened, chased him, grabbed him, forced him to hand over the chocolate. He returned it to the stunned salesgirl. Then he went on his way.

All part of the struggle against injustice? "Some people say to me, 'Farid, you're always in a corner fighting', " says Esack. "You know the people in the Korean war who never came out of the trenches because they didn't know the war was over? I'm one of those people, I never realise the war is over."

Nevertheless the trenches are quieter these days. No longer battling against South African apartheid, Esack, 38, is now senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of the Western Cape. His visit to London, rooting out chocolate thieves and promoting his new book, Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism, coincides with his appointment to South Africa's new Gender Equality Commission.

The commission's powers include personal and property searches, plus a review of all South Africa's laws. It is almost government but not quite. It is as close as Esack plans to get. "I'm not someone who could be in government: I'm critical, I'm a dissident. It's very easy to say I've earned my stripes, I've earned my Merc. It frightens me I could be like that."

It seems unlikely. He confirmed his role as political outsider recently by criticising the motherhood-and-apple-pie status of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. He argues that they require forgiveness from apartheid's victims without offering them justice.

It is a stance that others in the African National Congress, closer to power and so more constrained, have encouraged, he says. On the other hand, he has offended some of them, as well as many Muslims, by also calling on ANC MPs who oppose legalised abortion - their party's official policy on which they fought the election - to resign.

Nor is he eager to join the academic establishment. With a doctorate in Qur'anic Hermeneutics from Birmingham University, research experience in Frankfurt and Saudi Arabia and an international reputation as a rare radical Muslim, it is hardly surprising that prestigious university faculties of religion, particularly in the US, have offered him jobs. Sceptical of their motives, as well as his own, he turned them down: "There's a desperation among people in the West to find and engage with Muslims they can talk to. Along comes this theologian, a cleric, who's done post-doc work on Biblical hermeneutics and remains a committed Muslim. So this is a fascinating fellow - but not so much because of his fascinating ideas as because he's someone who can talk our language."

He chose instead UWC, the university with the strongest radical political credentials - though ironically with a conservative faculty of religious studies, In it he teaches morality, religion, culture and ideology and Islamic studies. One day he writes academic papers on postmodern interpretations of the Qur'an, the next a folksy popular newspaper column - like "ask the vicar" but "ask the mullah" - covering issues in everyday Islam.

And he pursues the research that has made him a religious outsider in parts of the Muslim world for the past ten years. His book takes forward ideas he has both researched and preached: that traditional interpretations of the Qur'an are just that, rooted in time and circumstance, and no more.

It argues that contemporary interpretations of the Qur'an offer justification for protecting the environment and liberating the oppressed, including women; that Islamic worship can include men and women together; that texts which appear to be hostile to other peoples and religions have in fact narrowed and hardened in interpretation over hundreds of years and therefore that Muslims are not obliged to separate themselves from others as tradition has required.

"People make truth," he says; everyone's personal baggage, even that of ancient authorities, affects their theology, So Qur'anic texts about "disorder", traditionally quoted in support of the political status quo, are capable of radical interpretation. It is an argument that parallels Christian liberation theology, taken up enthusiastically by the Student Christian Movement with which the seminary student Esack did charity work in Pakistan slums.

Esack starts his book with an account of his childhood: his mother was abandoned by his father, left to support six sons who sometimes scavenged in the gutter for apple cores because they were so hungry. He presses the point that his radical theology stems from personal experience, both of oppression and of resisting oppression, in the company of blatantly righteous others - the Christians, Jews and women who stood together in poverty and who together fought apartheid.

Yet it took years for him to make the connection, An outstandingly bright, articulate and religiously committed child, he was teaching in the mosque at the age of 11. (He had become politically active a year earlier, having read Trevor Huddlestone's Naught For Your Comfort). At 13 he chose to go to a traditional Muslim seminary in Karachi, where he studied the Qur'an 12 hours a day, six days a week, for eight years, Cape Town Muslims paid his fees: he was, after all, one of their greatest hopes, a potential iman.

When he came back he did not immediately disappoint them. He joined the Muslim Judicial Council, Cape Town's Islamic court, and became a member of its Committee of 10 - the Muslim equivalent of the Inquisition. Still in his early twenties, he was the kind of Muslim who gives fanatics a bad name. He blames his lost childhood for this intensity. "I don't take pride that I arrived so far so fast. I think it's really sad and I feel really angry that societies such as South Africa or Rwanda spawn kids that aren't allowed to be kids, that have to be adults."

Naturally he picked up his political activity again, too. He was detained, his passport withdrawn. Indeed for some time he justified his inquisitorial activities as part of the political struggle because they were largely directed against Muslims who argued that resistance to apartheid could not be justified from the Qur'an. Yet there came a time, he says, when he was exploiting his position in the Muslim leadership to preach rebellion under the guise of religion, while the Muslim leadership was claiming radical credentials because of its connections with him. The compromise was intolerable. He broke away from the MJC and from the more radical organisation he had helped to found, the Call of Islam.

A key turning point was his mother's funeral. He had long argued against the oppression of women; it was brought home to him by the sight of a lonely figure at his mother's funeral - her illegitimate daughter, his only sister, who had been kept from her mother throughout her life. Publicly he expressed remorse for his activities with the MJC. He began to argue and preach openly that God was on the side of the oppressed and brokenhearted. That the theology of protest which establishment Muslims could live with relatively comfortably under apartheid was not the same as a theology of liberation. And that a theology of liberation could expose the oppressed as also oppressors. "When people like myself started saying freedom is indivisible from justice, when we started talking about the imprisonment of women in the kitchen then people were alarmed. But I couldn't live alongside lies and cliches - like saying Islam gave women rights 1,400 years ago. The point is, what are the rights that Muslim men are withholding from Muslim women today?" Surprisingly there were no denunciations, no fatwas. Not even when he denounced capital punishment, a key tenet of Islam. Surprisingly, that is, to those in the West who do not grasp that the Taliban are not the only story; that Islam is less homogeneous, less centralised, less reactionary than they wish to believe.

Nevertheless Esack finds it safer these days to identify himself not as a Muslim theologian but as a committed Muslim who is also a scholar of religion. There have been threats; invitations to speak and preach are regularly proffered and then withdrawn. Some Cape Town fundamentalists are deeply disappointed in their potential imam. But their fellow Cape Town Muslims, who worship at the mosque Esack frequents, boast the only Friday service in the world where a woman is allowed to preach.

"Speaking the truth carries dangers with it," he says. "But the South African struggle for freedom, living on the run, fleeing meetings, assuming different identities, pretending you are not who you are - all these things have taught me certain survival skills. Survival becomes second nature after a while."

Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism is published by Oneworld, 185 Banbury Road, Oxford.

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