The case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd
Abdou Filali-Ansary 13 August 2010

The ordeal suffered by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (NHAZ) is a sad reminder of how destructive the dealings of academics can be with each other, particularly when things go too far. NHAZ could have remained one of the most creative and influential scholars in his country, writing and publishing in the language that is most accessible to wide audiences in the Arab world and beyond. His influence, eye-opening and ‘awakening’ for the wide public, would have been immense had some of his colleagues not been too unhappy about his potential popularity and success, and had their actions not taken the form of base manipulations. Sadly, their actions will have lasting and serious consequences on the status of scholarship in society at large.

NHAZ was brought to fame, or rather fame was imposed on him, for bad reasons. Some of his ‘rivals’, annoyed by a display of creativity that they could not match, chose to call on old reflexes: manipulating mobs by suggesting that NHAZ’s academic work could represent a threat to deeply held beliefs, for the simple reason that it dealt with ‘sacred sources’ (the Qur’an). Faced with cases like this, political authorities, following a familiar pattern, determine their attitudes with a (rather febrile) concern for potential impact on ‘public order’, rather than the real facts of the case. In response, NHAZ was forced into exile, and became famous in a way that he did not expect, nor which fit his profile or work. Labelled as a ‘heretic’, he saw his work prevented from reaching out to those who needed it most: those who were trained in the traditional ways (with a restricted access to works that shaped those traditional ways); those who had been (over) exposed to apologetic literature; and, wider readership at large.

In fact, NHAZ’s approach to the Qur’an was very much in line, in substance and tone, with well-known commentaries on the Qur’an. Many of these commentaries have been widely accepted within the most conservative circles, amongst whom are those that claim to be the defenders of the ‘orthodoxy’. Such actions in society are, again, a sad reminder of bad things from the past. The mihna (ordeal, inquisition) undergone by some creative intellectuals was often initiated by instigation from ‘jealous’ colleagues, who found it easier and more effective to call on feelings of the mobs and reflexes of the authorities than to face creative works through serious criticism, loyal competition and/or harder work. This is not an unfamiliar scenario for those who study intellectual history, particularly in medieval or pre modern times. But in our time, it is simply callous. The ‘fight’ between intellectuals is transferred to the public arena in vicious ways, preventing any serious debate with new ‘theses’ or findings.

At the end of the day, we find ourselves, again, in a familiar position. NHAZ held a moral high ground and commanded respect from most scholars, but was prevented from being heard by those who needed to learn from him. The artificial polarisation and tension around him prevented even serious criticism from those who could assess his work with expertise. The motives alleged to justify his ordeal will always sound ridiculous. In time, people will find the story somewhat amusing (attempting to force divorce on a couple for reasons independent from their will), but the real disaster will go unnoticed: another wake-up call will go unheard by those who are kept in their sleep. Those who use these ways have indeed shown that they have no respect for the public, nor faith in the ability of the literate public to make judgements for themselves. Their names will be (or already are) forgotten, but their misdeed will be a shame forever.