EGYPT’S RELIGIONIST PROBLEM: THE EXAMPLE OF AL-SHAFI’I AND “A MUSLIM MUSTN’T BE EXECUTED FOR A COPT” IN MURDER CRIMES مشكلة مصر الدينية – مثال الشافعي وعدم قتل المسلم بالقبطي في جرائم القتل العمد
Racism is not a major problem in Egypt. This is not to deny that race does play a factor in Egyptian politics, but it only means that racial discrimination, serious as it is, is eclipsed in size by the religious discrimination that plagues Egypt, and from which many religions that are different from, or do not conform to, the Sunni majority faith, suffer. The Copts, who are the largest religious minority in Egypt, suffer particularly from it – their plight is well advertised and has been attested to by so many independent reports – ; however, we must recognise that the Copts are not the only people who suffer from such discrimination by the Sunni Islamists, but other Christian denominations, Shiites, Baha’is, Ahmadiyya, etc., are also exposed to it.
Racism, which used to be a major problem in the West, is not confined there – it is a problem that one meets across the world; however, the West has largely addressed this matter, as it did with other matters, with admirable success. The difference between the West and Muslim countries is that the West does not hide or deny the existence of its problems, and once detected, or brought to the light by pressure groups, it addresses them by a host of measures, including public education, enactment of relevant laws, and setting up of commissions and boards that are given the responsibility, in conjunction with the courts of law, to enforce the law. Change in the West may take some time, but there is no doubt which direction it takes. This is one of the reasons why the West is far advanced than the Islamic world in social and political progress – while the West advances in strides, the Islamic world, which has the habit of denying its problems and resisting any change towards equality and justice, stagnates.
In the process of fighting racism, the West coined the very word that describes it; it then went on to define it, so that everyone is clear about what it implies. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives two interrelated definitions of “racism”: 1, the belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others; 2, hatred of or discrimination against a person or persons based on their race. These two aspects of racism, the belief that leads to racial acts and the acts that are caused by racial beliefs, are then what constitute the twin definition of racism: any political or social belief that justifies treating people differently according to their racial origins;[i] and treating a person less favourably than another, or attacking him, on the grounds of his colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.[ii] David Robertson, in his Dictionary of Modern Politics, define racism similarly, “Any political or social belief that justifies treating people differently according to their racial origin.”[iii] Related to this: a “racist” is the person who harbours racist beliefs – i.e., he believes that one race should control all others, and may undertake racial acts, whether by commission (i.e., by attacking other races or imposing rules and regulations that are discriminatory) or omission (i.e., by refusing or deliberately failing to provide the same rights that are normally available to other members of the public).
If we turn to Egypt, and its specific problems, we can say with confidence that the major problem that faces Egypt’s progress, stability and unity is religious discrimination and inequality – a problem which is created, fostered and maintained by a strong belief in Islam that non-Muslims are inferior, hated by Allah, and, therefore, must be held in an inferior social, economic and political position. The Muslim culture of religious hatred, which is spread by Islamists throughout Egypt, in its thousands of towns and villages, and which is published in divers books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlet and banners, is well known and documented so that it will not be discussed here in detail. Suffice it to focus here on only one example of such religious teaching that fosters inequality and discrimination, and by which I would hope the reader would, on his turn, understand, by virtue of its symbolic seriousness, the extent of the problem. I take the Shafi’ism ideology on the question of the penalty that, in a Muslim state, ought to be meted out by the state on the Muslim who murders a Dhimmi, i.e. a Christian or a Jew who resides in the Muslim state. Shafi’ism, one of the four main Sunni schools of law, was founded by Imam al-Shafi’i,[iv] and is followed by the majority of the Muslims of Egypt. In Islam if a Muslim murders another Muslim person, the penalty for the murderer must be execution by Quranic injunction unless the aggrieved parties forfeit their right of quisas (equivalent retaliation).[v] If a Muslim, however, murders a Christian or Jew, in all Muslim schools of fikh, except the Hanfi School, the family of the victim are not entitled to quisas, and the Muslim murderer must not be executed for the murdered non-Muslim.[vi] To justify this discriminating Sharia law, and the different treatment of the non-Muslim, Shafi’i uses several lines of exegesis; but we will select only a few of them, which will hopefully help to demonstrate his, and his fellow scholars, dangerous thinking: Shafi’i refers to the Quranic aya (verse) “The People of Fire[vii] and the People of Jenna[viii] are not equal; the People of the Jenna are the winning party,”[ix] and deduces from it that “discrimination and inequality must be held between the Believers and the Kaffirs (Un-believers)”, and adds that the verse, “rules out in effect any equality between them – such inequality (divinely prescribed) precludes any equivalence in their souls or the value of their bloods.” Shafi’i then uses another source of Sharia, the Sunna, or sayings attributed to Muhammad:[x] “A Muslim mustn’t be executed for a Kaffir.”[xi] From these two sacred sources of Islam, Shafi’i is absolutely clear in his ideology: “Allah discriminates between the Muslims and the Dhimmis in temporal laws.” And again: “Allah has placed the Kaffir in the position of a slave to the Muslim – how can they, then, be made equal?” Thus Shafi’i attempts to justify, and advocates, the different treatment of human beings on the basis of their religion, even when it comes to the important matter of evaluating their souls and blood in murder crimes.[xii] How Sharia could be trusted in ensuring a just, moral and safe system of law, and society, when it fails at this important point. And how do Muslims expect the Copts to accept such an openly discriminatory and seriously unjust law to govern their country and themselves? In fact, Shafi’im in this, as in so many other points of laws in relation to non-Muslims, is much worse than the other schools of fikh, even the Hanbali School, which is commonly regarded as the strictest of them.[xiii]
The Muslim reader may say that such flagrant discrimination in human rights, and inequality based on religion, does not constitutes part of the current Egyptian Criminal Code, which is largely based on Western models, and is not practised by the courts. Although not clearly enshrined in the Code, at least not yet, such hateful ideology is followed in practice in Egypt: over the last thirty years when deadly attacks, including mass murder, have been carried out by Islamists on hundreds of peaceful Copts, no Muslim has been apprehended and executed for the crimes. Recently, and under intense international pressure after the Naga Hamadi (in Qena Governorate) sectarian attack on 6 January 2010, and for the first time probably in Egyptian history, an emergency state security court in Qena passed a death on Hamam al Kamouni,[xiv] the lead suspect in the case in which six Christians and a Muslim guard were shot dead. The sentence has not been carried out to this day. Although Copts received the sentence, which makes a departure with the past, with much relief, they are suspicious that the judgement was passed on al Kamouni only because one of the victims was a Muslim guard – the six Copts being inconsequential. Only time will tell whether this court sentence marks a real turning point in our modern history, or if our hopes will be dashed as they have so often been.
What has been described so far has been intended to show that religion, just as race, and may be even worse, can harbour dangerous beliefs that can potentially lead to acts of discrimination and violence that the civilised man finds abhorrent and unacceptable – acts that we, as a nation of Copts, have been suffering from for the last 14 centuries. And yet, it seems that the world has not fully acknowledged the seriousness of the aggressive aspects of religions, and developed appropriate vocabulary for it, as it has done with those of race. One step towards doing so is by popularisation of the use of words that accurately describe the aggressiveness of some religious ideologies.[xv]
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a religionist as a person adhering to a religion, especially a religious zealot; it, however, has no entry for “religionism”,[xvi] although the word may be much older, in English usage, than “racism”.[xvii] But even dictionaries that include the word on their pages give it an almost benign meaning: excessive or exaggerated religious zeal.[xviii] There is nothing in the “ism” of the word, in these dictionaries, that converts the simple meaning of the word into one which is pregnant with the moral, ideological and political significance that it should bear, as it has done with racism.
As race is a fact of humanity, and is not bad in itself, so is religion. The problem emerges when people from a certain religion develop a belief, or ideology, and they teach to their own, that they are superior to the rest of religion followers, and that these should, consequently, be treated as inferiors and enjoy a lower social, economic and political status in the state. Such religionism will surely lead those who believe in it to work to implement its discriminatory precepts, and make the followers of other religions suffer at their hands. One cannot see any difference between the beliefs of the Nazis, South African apartheidists and the US White Supremacists, in as far as they affect the lives of those who suffered under them, and the Islamists’ ideology which the Copts, and other non-Muslims in Islamic countries, suffer from.
The world seems to be in need of developing the meaning of the word “religionism” in a way that serves the same purpose that the coining and definition of the word racism has done: specifically distinguishing the word from the benign or neutral word of religion, and revealing, at the same time, the dangerous and aggressive nature some religions may possess. Such need is particularly urgent in, and for, Egypt, if Egypt expects to be part of the modern and civilised international community.
The word “religionism الدينية” must be differentiated from the word “religion دين”, as the word “religionist ديني” ought to be differentiated from “religious person متدين”. While religion and being religious may be good, and have in fact enriched and served humanity, religionism and religionist should be considered morally and politically suspect, just like racism and racist, in our modern world.[xix] One can use the example of racism to develop a practical meaning of religionism that could be used to advance the quality of debate in Egyptian politics:
Relgionism (الدينية) is the belief, ideology, that the followers of one religion are superior to the followers of other religions; that these latter are inferior in value by some divine pronouncement, and, in consequence, they should be held in a lower place in society and the body politic: humiliated, discriminated against, and their rights and liberties seriously curtailed.
In short, religionism is charged with hatred, and admits of no human dignity or equality to those who are of a different faith.
A religionist (ديني) could also be defined as someone who believes in religionism, and seeks to propagate or implement its ideology.
I don’t claim that the introduction of such words into Egyptian politics will alter the Islamists’ discriminatory and anti-Coptic policies and practices; nonetheless, it will, in my opinion, help to prepare Egypt for a meaningful debate on the acute religious problem that faces her. There is no doubt that an open discussion of this problem poses a hard challenge to the moderate Muslims of Egypt. Coptic nationalists expect them to confront their problems head on – yes, their problems, for, as I think, Islamism, this Islamic religionism (الدينية الإسلامية), gains ground only because of the moderate Muslims’ apathy and fear to combat the Islamism’s devastating effect on Egypt’s reputation and standing among the nations. The moderate Muslims have undoubtedly a colossal and gigantic task in front of them to wake up, and face up to the rot in the prevailing medieval culture that pervades the political and social life of Egypt, and that has for centuries humiliated and discriminated against millions of their fellow countrymen, and, by effect, degraded and poisoned the character of those who live by, and uphold, that culture. Moderate Muslims must combat the roots of the existing prejudice if they have to earn our full trust.
Admission that a problem exists is the first step towards finding a solution to it. Without the Muslims of Egypt acknowledging that a serious problem exists in Egypt that is caused by Islamism, and the threats that it poses not just to the Copts, and other religious minorities, but also, and may be most seriously, to Egypt’s stability and unity, there will be no hope of addressing it – and saving Egypt’s future.
[i] The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (1993).
[ii] Civil Liberty: The NCCL Guide by Anna Coote (ed.) and Lawrence Grant (legal ed.); Penguin Books (1973).
[iii] Dictionary of Modern Politics by David Robertson; London (2004).
[iv] Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (767-819 AD).
[vi] Al Ilaqat al-Ijtimaiyya bain al-Muslimeen wa ghair al-Muslimeen by Badran abu-al Inain Badran, Alexandria (1984); 253-286. The discussion on this matter is taken mostly from this book, which uses Shafi’ism reference books, such as al-Umm by Shafi’i himself, and al-Hawi al-Kabeer by Mawerdi.
[vii] People of the Fire are the unbelievers in Islam; Fire (al-Narr) being the Islamic Hell.
[viii] Al-Jenna is the Islamic Paradise, and the People of Jenna are the Muslim Believers.
[ix] Al Hashr (The Mustering): 20. “لا يستوي أصحاب النار وأصحاب الجنة أصحاب الجنة هم الفائزون”.
[x] Sunna is not just what Muhammad had said but also what he did, and what he approved of.
[xi] This saying of Muhammad is classified by Muslim scholars as sahih (perfect), meaning that its authenticity is respected, and is told in major Sunna books: Sahih al-Bukhari, and also Sahih Muslim, Sunan abu-Dawud, Sunan al-Turmazi and Sunan al-Nisa’i.
[xii] Al-Shafi’i says that the punishment that should be meted out on the Muslim who has murdered a Christian or Jew is the payment of double the diyya (blood money) that the Christian or Jew is entitled to if the homicide is manslaughter rather than murder – the diyya for manslaughter is one-third of the diyya of a Muslim. Here again, Shafi’i reveals himself as the worst Muslim scholar when it comes to the rights of Christians and Jews. While the Maliki and Hanbali schools judge that the diyya of a Christian or a Jew is one-half that of a Muslim, Shafi’i says it is one-third of a Muslim’s diyya. He uses arguments such as this to justify himself: “The imperfection of Kuffr is worse than the imperfection of femininity, and as the diyya of a (Muslim) woman is less than that of a Muslim man, so the diyya of the most imperfect (i.e. the Kaffir) must be less!” A Muslim woman’s diyya in Islam is only half the value of the Muslim man’s. In Saudi Arabia, the value of diyya is as follows for different groups of peoples: 100,000 riyals if the victim is a Muslim man; 50,000 riyals if a Muslim woman; 50,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish man; 25,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish woman; 6,666 riyals if a man of any other religion; 3,333 riyals if a woman of any other religion (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diyya).
[xiii] In modern age, some countries have used talfiq (basically, pick and chose from any Muslim school of fikh) to bring Sharia into line with the facts of modern life, so some Muslims may say that the Hanafi School’s position on the matter under discussion, a position which is more advanced, would be adopted. It remains, however, that Sharia is a mixed basket of rules, many contradictory or marginal, and a large degree of them discriminatory and immoral; and that the choice of which Muslim jurist’s opinion to be taken into account is entirely dependent on the Muslims will.
[xv] The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) does not give any help on this matter.
[xvi] As so many other dictionaries, including the Cambridge Dictionaries Online and the Oxford Dictionaries Online.
[xvii] Racism was coined in 1933; religionist (but not religionism) was first used in 1653 (see the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in that).
[xviii] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. See also Oxford Dictionaries Online.
[xix] Race عنصر is not necessarily bad, but racism عنصرية and racist عنصري are absolutely bad.