The Trial of Ali Abdel Raziq

The year 1966 witnessed the death of two men in Egypt; Sayed Qutb and Ali Abdel Raziq. One is now famous, the other largely forgotten, except by scholars. Of the two, Qutb influenced Egypt and the world more, albeit negatively, while Abdel Raziq had the potential to transform his country, and perhaps others as well. The most critical events of Abdel Raziq’s life occurred 40 years before his death.

In August 1925 a committee of Azhari learned men convened to place one of their own on trial. The seven charges leveled against the man, Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), were vague and amounted to nothing more specific than “insulting” Islam and the early Caliphs. The most serious was turning the Shari’a into a spiritual rather than a legal concept.  As expected, he was found guilty. The penalty was to strip him of the honorific title of ‘Alim (learned), potentially leading to his loss of a government stipend to serve as Qadi, or Islamic judge. In today’s Egypt he would have faced prison. Yes, Egypt has gone backwards in the last century.

What prompted the trial of Ali Abdel Raziq was the publication of a short monograph titled “Islam wa Usul Al Hokum” (“Islam and the Foundation of Governance”).The scholar made a simple assertion; that nowhere in the Qu’ran or the Hadith was the Caliphate mandated or even recommended. He further stipulated that it is a human creation used mostly to bolster tyrannical rule and is of no particular use in the current world. Abdel Raziq was no secular radical. A pious and observant man, he strongly urged his fellow Muslims to follow the tenets of the faith and lead life according to its laws and strictures. Today, we accept the Azharis’ reaction as expected, an indication of how the discourse about religion and governance in Egypt and surrounding region has come to be set and dominated by Islamists.  Although the trial has faded from the popular imagination, it remains a watershed mark in the history of Egypt and beyond, and a warning sign of subsequent problems.

Abdel Raziq stepped into a firestorm less because his book “attacked” Islam, but because it upset the Egyptian King Fu’ad and his supporters. After Mustapha Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1923, Fu’ad thought to acquire added legitimacy by becoming a Caliph. He sat on a thorny throne (he was seen as a stooge of the British and attacked for his inability to speak Arabic) and he needed to stand up to the nascent nationalist Wafd party. He imagined the Caliphate as his ticket to a more comfortable reign. The dominant political ideology at that time was Egyptianism, which asserted a territorial definition of the nation and one that superseded religion, and also celebrated the uniqueness of the Egyptian stock and the need for national rulers. Fu’ad was in its ideological cross hairs. He gave tacit support for the push for a “Caliphate Conference” during which his supporters imagined he would be declared Caliph. Al Azhar, then as now, was always supine to the ruler. Most of the Muslim scholars outside Egypt did not wish to be entangled in what they saw as a purely Egyptian boondoggle. When the conference was finally held in 1926, it was a shabby affair, dominated by Egyptian sycophants of the monarch, and poorly organized to boot. The failure of the conference was a also a symptom of a new change in the region, the rise of the House of Ibn Saud and the resulting hostility between it and Egyptian rulers (Fu’ad would never fully recognize Saudi Arabia). Still, it marked a change, which continues till today, where a variety of men ranging from opportunistic political leaders to jail birds would seek to unify the Muslims and bring back greatness by subjecting them to their rule. The idea of the classical “Caliphate” died with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. The modern version rose on the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (July 21 1774) between the Ottoman Empire and Russia was humiliating in a variety of ways. Not only did the Ottomans relinquish territory in the Crimea, populated mostly by Muslims, but it also allowed the Russians to intervene on behalf of the Eastern Christians in Ottoman provinces. The decent but hapless Sultan Abdel Hamid I came upon the idea that the Crimean Tartars ought to pledge allegiance to him because he was their “Khalifa”, thus doing an end-run around the Russians. Furthermore, other Ottoman provinces, such as Egypt, were restive and this notion gave him legitimacy against the local usurpers. For the next 150 years, the weaker the Ottomans got the stronger the claim to the Caliphate became. The Caliphate does not beat in every Muslim heart as some Western scholars claim, it was a cudgel used to coerce them, as Abdel Raziq insisted.

The reaction to Abdel Raziq’s trial was dispiriting. Some at the time defended Abdel Raziq, but on purely procedural grounds. No one advanced credible scholarly arguments based on the Qur’an and Hadith to debunk his claim. No prominent religious scholar undertook a systematic defense or refutation of his thesis. The civilian politicians were not much braver. Sa’ad Zaghloul, the lion of Egyptian nationalism and leader of the Wafd party, was ailing in the last few months of his life, and more or less acquiesced to the Azharis. Some of Abdel Raziq’s relatives were prominent in the Liberal party; yet the party was keen on keeping good relations with Fu’ad and offered hardly any defense.

None of the secular political leaders in Egypt, and no prominent religious leader, rose to his defense on principle. Few intellectuals took up his cause. More interestingly, no credible scholarly arguments based purely on the Qur’an and Hadith were ever advanced to debunk his claim. It is tempting then to argue that Abdel Raziq lacked popular appeal and therefore was “inauthentic”. This is certainly the charge brought against him by many Islamists today. But it is difficult to sort out cause and effect in his lack of popular appeal. The rise of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood was prompted in some part by his ideas and environment that gave rise to him. Their appeal was often populist, even demagogic, and socially reactionary. But the success of men such as Hasan Al Banna, who came to prominence only a few years after the trial, was due less to his ideas (he had few original ones) than to his political acumen and ability to elicit support from the rulers, even while simultaneously conspiring against them. Today’s Islamism is difficult to attack because it has retreated into a posture of group identification, viewing itself not merely as a current within Islam, but as the very essence of it.

A variety of Western scholars seem entranced by the idea that “Islam” is unique and special and Muslims require a different set of rules from the rest of humanity. These range from the immensely learned to the utterly romantic to the opportunistically careerist. But sensible people, especially decision makers, need not attune too closely to this stuff. As one of Sayed Qutb’s former bosses called his later work, this is mostly “Kalam Fadi”. Empty talk.

— Maged Atiya


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