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Unveiling Islam: Author Challenges Orthodox Precepts

Aging Egyptian Says Religion Allows 'Freedom of Thought and Evolution'

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A11

CAIRO -- The Islamic state? A contradiction in terms.

Jihad? Far too much emphasis these days on military action.

In one of his 30 books, author Gamal Banna argued that head coverings for women were a continuation of tribal traditions pre-dating the birth of Islam 1,400 years ago and were not mandated by the Koran. Banna has drawn particular interest because his brother was the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. (Dana Smillie For The Washington Post)

A requirement that women wear a veil? A quaint leftover from pre-Muslim times that is not mandated by Islam.

These and other observations by Gamal Banna, an 84-year-old Egyptian author, have created a stir in Egypt recently. They are indicative of the ferment within Islam at large, and of the increasingly passionate discussion of political and religious issues in Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country.

Controversy surrounds Banna's books because they challenge some Islamic orthodoxy and the roots of Muslim teaching. His work is also a curiosity because of his family connections. He is the younger brother of Hassan Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototype of radical Islamic groups throughout the Middle East. The Brotherhood is associated with rigorously pious practices, with an intense role for Islam in politics and with violence.

Criticism of Gamal Banna reached a peak last fall when Egypt's main guardian of Islamic orthodoxy, the Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar University, recommended a ban on one of his books. The council's critique centered in part on the accusation that Banna was an unqualified amateur who exploited his brother's notoriety.

"Let them say what they will, but reply to what I am saying or writing," Banna said in an interview. "Islam allows for freedom of thought and evolution. Reform requires an open mind."

In the West -- where general attention to Islam among non-Muslims seldom extends beyond the threat of terrorism and the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his followers -- it is common to hear that Islam has no new ideas and has been unable to adapt to the modern world. Yet for decades, Islamic scholars have challenged the notion that Islam is opposed to everything Western and that only radical and violent solutions can bring change to Egypt, the Middle East and Islam itself. Today, Banna says, the perception of a cultural war between the West and Muslims has brought life to the promoters of new Islamic thinking.

"We are living in a world where the gun is battling ideas. Change is the greatest priority," he said.

Various articles on new ideas in Islam have been published recently in the Egyptian press. In one, Yusuf Qaradawi, regarded as one of Islam's most influential scholars, contested the notion that Islam and Judaism are inherently at odds. Another advised Islamic activists in Egypt to tolerate criticism. Al-Ahram, the government-run newspaper, used quotations from a book written by another prominent Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ghazaly, to urge young Muslims to study science, thereby keeping up with modern life.

The book by Banna that spurred the Islamic Research Council to action is called "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State." The council declared that it diverged from "the consensus of religious scholars." The police brought it to the attention of the state-run Al-Azhar University after a complaint from a reader who objected to passages that claim Muslim women in non-Muslim societies can wear hats to fulfill requirements that they cover their heads.

The Islamic Research Council blacklisted the book because it said the author justified "temporary marriages" for Muslim expatriates in non-Islamic countries. The practice, which involves a temporary marriage contract and permits a couple to have sex without breaking Islamic law, is allowed in the Shiite branch of Islam but not the Sunni branch to which Banna belongs.

In another book, "The Veil," Banna argued that head coverings were simply a continuation of tribal traditions that existed before the birth of Islam 1,400 years ago and were not mandated by the Koran.

Banna's reference to Koranic verses underscores the foundation of his approach to Islamic reform. He believes that much of the commentary attributed to the prophet Muhammad, which became the basis for Islamic teaching, known collectively as the Sunnah, was invented and even falsified in the earliest centuries of Islam by self-styled jurists. The jurists served the caliphs who ruled in the Middle East and were interested in maintaining the status quo. These teachings stray from the Koran, Banna asserts.

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