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Amr Emam

The Egyptian Gazette October 31, 2006


POET Ahmed el-Shahawi is one of many who have been branded 'infidel' in Egypt.

His book, volume one of Commandments on the Love of Women (2003), shocked the religious establishment for linking intimacy to religion and the hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Mohamed.

The Islamic Research Academy, the influential arm of Al Azhar, condemned the book as obscene and issued a fatwa (religious edict) stating that el-Shahawi was an apostate.

Since that time, el-Shahawi has been receiving death threats, but he firmly believes that his book is in no way blasphemous.
In televised debates with clerics who objected to his book, el-Shahawi said he quoted from the Holy Qur'an and the hadith to support his argument that his book was not sacrilegious.

'But none of those who have condemned me had ever read my book,' el-Shahawi told The Gazette.

He had never expected fanatical reaction work, which explores Islamic literary tradition to revive a genre known as wasaya (commandments). The controversial book is the poet's eighth published work.

'The previous seven books sold well and roused no controversies,' he said.

He believes that the row is the result of political scheming and the manipulation by the Muslim Brotherhood.

'I was declared an infidel, not because of the book or even my faith, but because of the manoeuvring by the Muslim Brotherhood to put pressure on the Government.'

El-Shahawi, 46, brought out volume two of 'Commandments' a week ago, but this time he has presented verses from the Qur'an and the hadith on love in the introduction to the book. The book has not yet appeared in bookshops, while he expects vehement reaction from the religious authorities.

'This time I will not be debating with sheikhs about my book,' El- Shahawi said.

'Most of them do not read, which gives me hardly a chance for explanation. Only their name-calling offends me.'

In an interview with a local newspaper, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar once called el-Shahawi 'impious'.

'I was shocked by that. How could he know that I was impious if he had never met me?' the poet said.

El-Shahawi is not the only Egyptian who has fallen foul of the religious establishment. Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz and Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid drew condemnation for their opinions and works.

'The problem is that such fatwas are never forgotten,' he said.
'Mahfouz was declared an infidel in 1959. In 1994 a fanatic tried to murder him. Death could come to me at any time.'

In 'Commandments', an experienced woman instructs younger women in the mysteries of love, but as the supreme act of self-fulfillment. El-Shahawi argues intertextual references to the Qur'an in the context of love and the mystical tone have numerous precedents in Islamic literature.

'Sheikh Youssef el-Qaradawi himself spoke one time on air about sucking,' he said. 'No one objected to that. He drew from the work of Malik Ibn Anas.'

El-Shahawi fears that the fatwa against his book would herald a purge of the Islamic literary heritage, in which love, the adoration of femininity and mystic traditions play an important part.

'The attitude of Al-Azhar nullifies all efforts to convey the message that Egypt is a country of moderate Islam,' he said.

Even so, el-Shahawi has written his epitaph: 'My murder is aggression against Islam. My book is useful to Muslims written by a poet who benefited from the Qur'an and the hadith.

'I was a Sufi until the end of my life. As the son of an Azhar scholar, I had never offended any of the clerics. Those who condemned me have rendered the enemies of Islam the biggest service. Reprint my books a thousand times and know that Islam is love and even deeper than we think.'