Scholar seeks aid against death call

August 15, 1997

A TOP Egyptian scholar has appealed to academics around the world for help to fight what human rights groups claim is a death sentence on him and his wife.

Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid made his plea on the the first anniversary of an Egyptian supreme court decree that he was unfit to be married to a Muslim woman and that the couple should be divorced. Under traditional Islamic law, since they continue to live together, they are both "deserving of death".

Dr Abu-Zeid's appeal was made in Edinburgh, at the annual Congress of International PEN, whose "Writers in Prison" committee has adopted his cause.

The court ruling follows reaction to Dr Abu-Zeid's book, A Critique of Islamic Thought, published in 1992. In it he questions some traditional Islamic tenets, including those concerning thestatus of women and money, arguing that the Koran's message, although divinely inspired, was coloured by the sociological and cultural situation of the Prophet's time, and needs updating.

He cites a financial scandal of the early 1980s in which many people were persuaded, on the basis of the Koranic ban on lending money at interest, to transfer their savings from western-style banks to "Islamic investment companies", which then crashed.

The "apostasy" charge brought the following year by the supreme court is believed to have been filed by one of his academic colleagues, who had been a religious adviser to one of the investment houses.

The charge was first made when Dr Abu-Zeid applied to upgrade his post at Cairo University to a full professorship. His application was reviewed by a tribunal, which included his accuser. Shortly afterwards, this person, together with other like-minded scholars, petitioned the Giza court of personal affairs to dissolve Dr Abu-Zeid's marriage.

"I don't think he was really interested in our moral life. What he wanted was to get some judge to pronounce that I am an apostate," Dr Abu-Zeid said.

The university, like all institutions funded by or subordinate to the Egyptian government, followed the government's line towards fundamentalism. It dared not support Dr Abu-Zeid openly. He is still recorded by the university as being a member of staff on sabbatical. His books were removed from the library, and he is living abroad, lecturing at the University of Leiden.

Nevertheless, such a situation cannot continue indefinitely and, apart from the physical danger to him and his wife, Dr Abu-Zeid is particularly concerned about the exclusion of his books from the university library. For that too, he says, is a kind of death threat - intellectual death by exclusion from scholarly life. If the world-wide academic community would express its support of him, he urged, perhaps the university would at least reverse this ban.

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