Playing God with the arts

The continuing controversy over Passant Rashad's book, 'Love and sex in the Prophet's Life,' is symptomatic of the increasing influence of religious institutions over the arts in Egypt.
Egypt, Cairo, Al-Azhar.jpg
Al-Azhar University in Cairo. © S.M. /

CAIRO, March 25, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Hamada Emam was shocked when he recently turned on el-Hekma (Wisdom), an Egyptian Islamic TV station, and saw his private address being announced to the public at large.

It wasn't long before the phone started ringing with people accusing him of blasphemy and threatening to kill him.

The reason for Emam's outing was that he is the publisher of a controversial book, Love and Sex in the Prophet's Life, by 28-year old Passant Rashad.

The book caused an uproar when it was presented at the Cairo International Book Fair in January; it revisits the way the holy scriptures talk about the importance of sex in Islam and the Prophet's own sex life.

"El-Hekma acted in the most unprofessional way," Emam said.

He said the station pretended to be a Christian bookshop interested in ordering 200 copies of Rashad's book.

"They recorded the conversation without my permission and put me on the air. Then they screened my phone number to find out my address and they broadcast it."

Passant Rashad herself has gone into hiding since religious leaders called her an infidel on TV and issued a fatwa calling for the faithful to spill her blood.

"I wanted to explain sex from the real Islamic perspective and to make it the reference for having a healthy sexual life," she said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV in February.

"When I mentioned the Prophet I meant to demonstrate how his relationship with his wives was the perfect example of a healthy sexual life that is devoid of the complications Arabs try to impose on it these days.

"I kept silent, hoping this campaign will end or those sheiks will contact me to discuss the book, but none of that happened. Now I fear for my life," Rashad told Al-Arabiya, adding that she is a devout Muslim herself and she would never insult the Prophet.

Part of a trend

Earlier, Cairo's Al Azhar University, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, had called on the Egyptian authorities to ban the book and prosecute the author. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood suggested the publisher too should be prosecuted.

Advocates of free speech see the controversy over Rashad's book as part of the growing influence of religious and security institutions over the arts in Egypt.

While the Egyptian constitution acknowledges the "freedom of literary, artistic and cultural invention," and considers freedom of expression a right, publications and productions can be banned and their authors or publishers prosecuted for both religious and security reasons.

At the moment, it is believed that around 16 different security, media and religious authorities are involved in the reviewing of written publications and art productions in Egypt.

However, while an increased number of publications are pulled off the shelves for discussing taboo religious and political issues, books that call for religious hatred can still often be seen on display in the windows of Cairo's bookshops.

The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) said in its 2007 annual report that "many authorities and personalities are trying to overwhelm and interfere in the artistic creation in Egypt" and that "the censor often responds positively to such authorities and personalities."

Since 1999, Al-Azhar and its affiliated Research Council have the right to inspect publications and art productions that involve religious themes.

Among productions censored by Al-Azhar is the controversial play, God Resigns in the Summit Meeting, by Nawal el-Sa'dawi.

Both the play and the latest edition of the Sa'dawi's autobiography were pulled off the shelves from the Matbouli bookshop in Cairo and shredded; Sa'dawi was not even allowed to keep a copy of her own book. 

Conservative voices have suggested stripping el-Sa'dawi of her Egyptian citizenship; Sa'dawi has since left Egypt for Holland.

75-year old Sa'dawi, who is herself the daughter of an Al-Azhar clergyman, has referred to the case as "a prime example of what intellectuals face in Egypt."


Publications that deal with divinity, sex or religious doctrines top the list of books that are subject to censorship.

"The Prosecuted," by the Middle East Christians Organization (MECO), which discusses the alleged repression of Coptic Christians in Egypt, was banned, as was Ahmed Rasem's "My Journey with Shiaa and Shiism in Egypt," which was accused of embracing the Shiia doctrine.

Islamic thinker Gamal el-Banna, the younger brother of Hassan el-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, does not believe that Al-Azhar's Research Council should have the permission "to act as a superior authority over thinkers."

"There should be no interference of any religious authority in the fields of arts and expression. It only harms our intellectual outcome and ruins our culture. It creates a mess where the unprofessionals are in control," said el-Banna.

El-Banna is a well-known voice in Egypt's Islamic community and he is often subjected to harsh criticism by his conservative counterparts for his liberal views.

Most recently, the 86-year old controversial writer caused a ruckus by declaring on an Egyptian TV show that young men and women are not sinning if they kiss and hug when greeting each other in public.

"We are human beings and we are weak creatures, so if we hugged or kissed in public, we are not really sinning," El-Banna said in an interview with Daily News Egypt.

El-Banna's statement immediately caused religious scholars to accuse him of encouraging adultery among Egypt's youth.

Sheikh Gamal Kotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, stated that El-Banna is not qualified to state his opinion on religious matters, adding that "adultery would become rife" if El-Banna's opinions were put into practice.

El-Banna reportedly responded by saying that at least he did not issue a fatwa but only a statement.

He added, "I hate both fatwas and the people who set themselves up as the only ones authorized to issue fatwas."

Also read:

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

God and Woman in Egypt. A feminist writer accused of insult to Islam

From Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

Egyptian writer threatened for challenging holy book

From Al-Arabiya:

Book on Prophet's sex life draws anger, threats