Brother of another color

The Red Sheikh teaches a mixture of social justice and liberal Islam

by Steve Negus

NOTE: The parts of this article in red type were cut from our printed edition by the censor.


Khalil Abdel Karim, aka the Red Sheikh, is one of a group of writers (known as the Sina group from their publisher Dar Al Sina) whose agenda is to promote a liberal, apolitical interpretation of Islam. He's also a relatively successful lawyer (he directed the defense of Cairo University professor and fellow Sina writer Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid when the latter was accused of apostasy) and an activist in the leftist Tagammu party. But unlike most leftists of his generation, Abdel Karim's background isn't with the pre-revolutionary Communist party. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and morever, he claims that the blend of social justice and liberal Islam that he advocates today is closer to the original spirit of the movement than the apply-Sharia-as-law agenda of the Brotherhood's current leadership. 

A lot of Egyptians don't trust leftists because they have the sneaking suspicion that, rather than seeking the purest form of the faith or defending democracy or avoiding sectarianism or anything like that, these guys are really interested in the unfettered right to drink booze and watch racy movies. Listening to them go on about enlightened and liberal Islam, lots of people narrow their eyes and think, here's someone who's trying to turn religion on its head. On the other hand, when the conservatives speak, with their charities and flowing beards and encyclopedic knowledge of hadith, people think to themselves -- here's a word from a good Muslim; better listen.

So you wonder why more leftists aren't like Khalil Abdel Karim. Here's someone who looks like an Muslim Brother -- beard, galabiya, shaven upper lip, and the zabeeba bump from five-times-a-day prayers. He lives like a Muslim Brother -- a cramped law office in the slum district of Bulaq Al Dekrur, and lots of pro bono work for the neighbors (who call him Sheikh). For a good portion of his life, he actually was a Muslim Brother (and was jailed twice for his membership). But he sure doesn't theologize like most Muslim Brothers.

There's no such thing as Islamic government, he argues -- the early caliphate was a civil, rather than a religious regime. Sharia's a moral code, not a legal system. And you have to interpret Quranic injunctions liberally, because they were addressed to a society that is totally different than ours today. These kinds of ideas can get you in trouble with a state that still enforces a degree of Islamic orthodoxy. Cairo University professor Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid's been declared apostate by an Egyptian court, and is now living in exile. Former judge Said Al Ashmawi and historian Sayed Al Qimany have both had their books seized. But though Islamist publications might rail against "The Red Sheikh" or the "Mufti of Marxism," as they dub him, Abdel Karim didn't have any serious problems until this year. This might be because of his look, but more likely it's because his most famous book,Qureish from Tribe to State, was mostly targeted at political Islam. But when he started to delve into social issues with The Society of Yathrib or The Situation at the Time of the Prophet's Companions, that's when he had problems. The Islamic Research Academy of Al Azhar, Egypt's main doctrinal watchdog, published a report condemning the books last May. On 14 January, State Security officers raided Karim's publisher and seized copies of the two books. They're still banned today.

Karem's intention wasn't particularly blasphemous, he says -- all he wanted to do was explore the society into which the Quran was revealed. "We need to understand this society before we understand the texts. It was different in every way from our society today. I wanted to shed light" -- here he flicks on a desklamp -- "on aspects that have never been considered before." The problem, Abdel Karim says, was that he didn't approach the topic with the proper reverance. "The style in which I wrote the books is not a style that they were used to. They only know the classical style, praise-writing. But we cannot understand that society if we only focus on the beautiful things." For example, Karem repeats a tradition that the Caliph Omar condemned the payment of exhorbitant bride prices, but then went on to shell out 40,000 dirhams to marry a young girl. "I wanted to show that the Companions of the Prophet were normal human beings. They were not saints. The only one who is sacred in Islam is the Prophet."

Pointing out the Companions' moments of weakness, however, is not just about reasserting human fallibility. It's also a subtle attack on salafism, the belief that the past was perfect, and that early Muslims should be imitated in as many ways as possible. This is the dominant philosophy at Al Azhar -- partly because it means that one's credibility as a scholar is determined by the volume of tradition that one is able to digest, rather than the ability to use ijtihad, independent reasoning (something which Karem says that the great minds of Azhar have never properly understood). That is to say, if the behavior of Omar is no longer a source of doctrine, then all the time that Azhar scholars have spent memorizing Omar hageographies can no longer be a source of authority. The problem with Azharis, Abdel Karim says, is they don't think enough about real life. "They only think of the texts. All their articles, all the speeches, all their books -- the texts."

Karem, on the other hand, is someone who likes to get out in the world. For him, sharia means help the poor and eliminate social inequality -- "the demon of our time," he says. This desire to help the poor is what Karem claims got him into politics in the first place back in the 1940s. At that time, you could join the militant nationalist Young Egypt, the Communists, or the Muslim Brotherhood. For a child of a religious family in the deep southern province of Aswan, the choice was easy enough. Abdel Karim and his Brothers opened hospitals in poor areas, organized soup kitchens, helped students pay their school fees -- and got to know Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna, whom Abdel Karim says was more social activists then theologian or legalist. "A very intelligent man. He never spoke of [legal] details, he never spoke of hudud [Quranically-sanctioned punishments], he only spoke of general principles."

But Banna was assassinated in 1949, and his Brotherhood was smashed by the Nasserist repression of 1954. Abdel Karim was imprisoned twice, in 1954 and again in 1965. He was released after Nasser's death, and found that the next generation of Brothers -- mostly the eldest sons of the original leaders -- were a very different lot, one that had got their hands on some of the petrodollars flooding into the country from the Gulf. "Banna was a small schoolteacher; today's Brothers are bourgeois," he scowls. Abdel Karim found politics more to his liking  in the partly platform of the leftist Tagammu, which had just started up, and dropped by their office to sign up. "They said, 'What is a member of the Brotherhood with a beard doing here.' I said, 'I am more socialist than you.'"

In the early days of Tagammu, when Sadat's police arrested members or confiscated the party organ Al Ahali on an almost-daily basis, Abdel Karim put his legal skills on the parties' behest. Later, his religious column in Al Ahali showered the reader with left-leaning hadith: "If a man dies of hunger, all the people of the district are responsible for his death," or the revolutionary remark of the Imam Ali: "I am astonished that the poor man who has no food for himself, or for his children, does not take up his sword to kill his neighbors to get food." But there was always the sense that the Left could put Abdel Karim and his fellow religious leftists to greater use. "We express our thoughts in religious language, a style very suitable to speak to the people," he said. Abdel Karim suggested a progressive Islamic monthly, Sarkhat Al Fuqra (Cry of the Poor); this never really caught on with the Soviet-influenced senior cadres. "They buried the idea," he says. "They probably regret that now."

It's the Egyptian left's historic mistake: the whole "enlightenment" agenda that they were trying to promote, things like getting women to stop slicing off their daughter's clitoris or getting people to accept organ transplants, hasn't gotten through to the people, at least in part, because it's opposed by pious-looking scholars who can spice up their arguments with a pithy hadith or two. The left never really learned that having a former Communist in a safari suit telling you something is religiously OK is not the same thing as a sheikh in a galabiya telling you it's OK. Abdel Karim could have been the Left's secret weapon; someone who's piety wasn't in question, but who wasn't hung up on doing things just as they were done 14 centuries ago. If conservatives are fighting their culture wars with style over substance, well, so be it -- two can wear a beard. 

Vol. 2, Iss. 2
19 March 1998