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Yusuf ABA AL-KHAYL
With 20 years of study in Islamic law, the Saudi columnist Aba al-Khayl specialises in issues of Islamic law and liberalism, arguing for a radical reconfiguration of Islamic discourse that will incorporate tolerance and pluralism as an undisputed necessity. He campaigns against the attempted pigeon-holing of liberalism as a competing doctrine inimical to Islam, on the grounds that historical precedent demonstrates the de facto existence of religious tolerance and pluralism during the periods of Islamic strength, as being the intellectual infrastructure that underpinned it. He argues that tolerance and pluralism is commanded by the Qur’ān itself and remains today as the only guarantor of the ability of contemporary Muslim societies to absorb the implications of a pluralist world.
Abd al-Hamid al-ANSARI
The Former Dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, Dr. Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari is considered to be one of the leading defenders of enlightened and progressive thought and modernism in the Arab world. He has written extensively on the progressive politicization of religion, on the implications of Islamists in power, on the misuse of religious influence and the need to challenge this with liberal intellectual currents. He has also focused on the damage wrought by the culture of hate, on the need for reform in religious discourse and the need for intellectual reform at a deeper level. He has formulated a 7-fold programme for religious reform: 1) the application of the UN Security Council’s prohibition on religious incitement; 2) the revival of humanitarian discourse in the mosque; 3) the removal of religious coercive power which acts at the expense of civic institutions; 4) the prohibition of fatwas of takfīr and those which denigrate the beliefs of others; 5) the control of Muslim charity institutions and the obligation to transparency; 6) the criminalization of the use of pulpits for political or ideological purposes; 7) the re-examination of education methods and the removal of extremists from the educational sector.
Gamal Abdelrahim ARABI
Gamal Abdelrahim Arabi is a Sudanese activist for enlightenment and religious reform, writing regularly on these issues. He is the author of a book in Arabic titled Opening the Muslim Mind in which he criticized the fundamentals of traditional Islamic thought and suggested a new approach whereby Muslims may catch up with contemporary levels of global modernization. He is author also of a book titled Women in Salafist Thought in which he endeavoured to attribute the suppression on women to traditionist, rather than specifically Islamic, thought as represented in the Qur’ān and the Sunna.
Rasha Awad is a leading voice of enlightenment, a prominent campaigner for civil society, human rights and women issues, and has been at the forefront of opposition to the abuses of the Islamist dominated regime in Sudan. After being banned from writing in 2012, she became an editor of the Sudanese newspaper Al-Tahgyeer (which means ‘Change’ in Arabic) founded in May 2013, which publishes work by leading journalists and writers who have been detained, tortured, denied their rights to write, or otherwise lost their jobs due to newspapers being controlled or shut down by the regime. It has had its own circulation confiscated on more than one occasion. Rasha Awad has distinguished herself for her courage and forthright reporting, and due to the accelerating levels of persecution of liberal and enlightenment opinion in Sudan, is now living in Cairo from where she continues her journalistic and campaigning work.
Babikir Faysal BABIKIR
A writer and progressive reformer from Sudan, Babikir Faysal Babikir has specialized in African and Asian studies and issues related to economics and development in the Muslim world. He frequently contributes to the Sudanese electronic and daily publications and is a regular commentator on Arabic-language television. He has published several books on Sudanese politics, democratization and the problems of Islamic religious education. In 2008 his English-language study Islamic Religious Curricula and Terrorism: A Case Study of the Azherite Religious Schools in Egypt analysed the relationship between current teaching materials on Islam and their relationship with currents of thought leading to radicalization and terrorism.
Gamal al-Banna (1920-2013) was an Egyptian author, a high profile commentator on Islamic issues and an outspoken activist for reform. He was the youngest brother of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike his brother, however, Gamal al-Banna was a liberal thinker and well-known for his criticism of Islamic traditional narratives and his opposition to the notion of an ‘Islamic state.’ He represented an interpretation of Islam which was rationalist, humanist, egalitarian, feminist, anti-authoritarian, liberal and secular, holding that every Muslim had to think for themselves, that none had the right to enjoin anything on anybody in the religion, and that absolute freedom of belief included the freedom to renounce Islam. He held that a Muslim should regard all human beings as equal, no matter what their religion, and that equality extended without condition to women, who are just as justified as men to take on the rôle of imam and lead the prayer. Gamal al-Banna was seen as an inveterate opponent of the religious establishment and invited criticism for his forthright, unconventional views.
Raja BEN SLAMA
Dr. Raja Ben Slama, the Tunisian university professor and writer, is considered one of the most prominent Arab voices advocating modernism, enlightenment, and the defence of human rights and the rights of women in the face of religious ideology. She calls for respect for individual liberty and the freedom of belief and expression, for going beyond the religious text, and for depending on positive law as the basic sources for the personal status laws. She has called on intellectuals and modern scholars to devise intellectual and philosophical solutions to the reconciliation of religious beliefs and the pressures of reality and modern understandings, which have gone beyond traditional Muslims concepts.
Al-Buleihi held a number of government posts in Saudi Arabia, before retiring as executive director of the municipalities of Qassim. He is currently a member of the Saudi Shura Council (the national consultative body whose members are appointed to advice the king and the ministers), and also a member of a number of other organizations and institutions. He has long been concerned and troubled at the decline of the condition of the Arabs, a concern that has led him to go beyond what is allowed by the dominant culture in Saudi society. Al-Buleihi holds that Arab societies will not advance unless Arabs engage in critical thought and that the solution to the tragedy of Arab society lies within. Al-Buleihi is unusual for having decided early on to study the roots of the western triumph, which he concluded was due not to superficial factors of wealth and aggression, but to deep cultural patterns, patterns inherited from its long history and ethical and philosophical underpinning.
Abdelmajid Charfi is Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought at the University of Tunis and holder of the UNESCO chair in the study of comparative religion. He is the author of several ground-breaking works on Islam, including Al-Islām wal-Hadātha (‘Islam and Modernity’) and Al-Islām bayn al-Risāla wal-Tarīkh (‘Islam between the Message and History’). Professor Charfi distinguishes between Islam as history and as message. He maintains that differing interpretations that have emerged throughout history necessarily suggest that the Qur’an does not and could never have one singular meaning or “truth”, a point made plain by the fact that the Qur’ānic text is not a continuous ‘linear’ narrative but one assembled according to the length of the suras, and in which the influence of humankind and the history of the period can be discerned in the transformation of a divine inspiration from an orally-transmitted discourse to what is now the received text. He thus advocates that the relationship between exegesis and jurisprudence should be reversed: that traditional exegesis should not determine contemporary interpretations of the Qur’an, but vice versa. By opting for the latter, he argues, by understanding the historical processes at work and the active ingredients of faith through the application of critical tools borrowed from the humanities and social sciences, all manner of energies would be released to re-interpret the Muslim’s relationship with the past and with the contemporary world. In his educational work, and his direction of an entire school of thought on interpretation, Professor Charfi has mentored an entire generation of young scholars, equipping them with the tools of modern criticism.
Iqbal al-Gharbi is a Tunisian psychologist with a doctorate in anthropology from the Université René Descartes at the Sorbonne in France. She is the Director of the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and University Curriculum Reform at the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunisia, and an advisor to the UN. She has written extensively in promotion of liberal values in Islam, is known as a reformist scholar with a modernist interpretation of the Qur’ān, and her viewpoints have generated heated debate. Her election to the post of director of Tunisia’s Islamic radio station Zitouna FM in September 2011 caused an uproar among conservative currents, and she has been the object of attacks by a group calling themselves the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, in apparent imitation of the Saudi Arabian religious police.
Dr. Hanafi chairs the philosophy department at Cairo University and is a leading figure among the currents of progressive Islamic thought. He has argued that Islam needs to be understood in way that facilitates human freedom and progress and calls for rebuilding the foundation of Arab Enlightenment and the rejection of the secular current’s domination of this term. His aim is to promote an intellectual current which conjoins Islam with contemporary modernity, a current which is able to accommodate the plurality of modernity’s intellectual currents and put an end to the constant conflict between the champions of religion, liberals and conservatives. He believes in giving humankind complete freedom of thought and full responsibility for his own actions – in contradistinction to the ideological starting points of the Salafists. He points to the Enlightenment currents within Islamic history, for instance among the school of the Mu‘tazila, and during the 19th century Nahda, arguing that therefore the roots of this new Enlightenment may be found in the process of religious reform and the resumption of ijtihad. His courageous standpoint has met with considerable opposition, and his liberal opinions about Islam have infuriated conservative Islamic scholars from al-Azhar. His recent book An Invitation for Dialogue has been accused as heresy and apostasy, and a fatwa issued against him arguing charges of apostasy.
Dr. Nabil al-Haidari is an Islamic scholar, lecturer and researcher in theological ideologies, focusing on their development and renovation. He has taught Islam, Qur’ān and interfaith issues for more than 20 years at universities and Islamic centres worldwide. His work seeks to establish peace and harmony between different faiths, especially between Islam and Judaism through a process of dialogue and discussion. He is a frequent commentator on Iraqi affairs in the fields of political emancipation and religious reform.
An internationally celebrated Egyptian liberal political thinker and one of the most creative analysts of the Arab world. His work constitutes some of the most systematic social criticism of the Arab mindset and predicament, and his writings advocate the values of modernity, democracy, tolerance, and women’s rights in the Middle East, values which he holds to be universal values essential to the region’s progress. Tarek Heggy focuses on the need for economic, political, cultural and educational reforms and calls for self criticism and to admit the failures of the political ideologies/dogmas that have dominated the region. He has characterized the Arab mindset as currently in a state of crisis, which expresses itself in exaggerated self-praise and exotic conspiracy theories. His approach is unconventional since he has chosen the unconventional route of examining the deeper roots of the current Arab Muslim decline and difficulties with contemporary thought. He presents, on the basis of this analysis, counter-intuitive arguments on how the frequently voiced criticism of western colonialism for the current Arab backwardness was ‘putting the cart before the horse.’ Tarek Heggy has written extensively on the ‘cultural dilemma’ of the Egyptians, and some very thought-provoking criticism of the educational system that prioritizes copying over independent thought, and the preference for an epistemology of the collective and repetitious over the individual and creative. The result of these directions taken has been the production of “educational institutions and programmes that, rather than foster the values of progress and humanity, actively promote a xenophobic rejection of these values” and which considers the call for progress and modernity “a call to accept a cultural invasion and the loss of cultural specificity.” The range of his writings, on the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood, on religious reform, on the shortcomings of religious education and the suffering of Christian minorities, indicate the unique value of his approach to the problems besetting the region.
Abd al-Khaliq HUSSEIN
Dr Hussein is an Iraqi British citizen born in Fao, in the Basra province in Iraq. He is a prolific writer on liberal themes and is well-known for his campaigning for democracy and modernity for the Middle-East. In the 1990s Hussein was Editor-in-Chief of the Arabic Newspaper Al-Ghad Al-Dīmuqrātī (‘Democratic Future’) which was established to serve as an opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Through his more than 700 publications and essays, Dr Hussein aims to promote public awareness regarding Muslim fanatics and fundamentalists and advocates for women’s rights, Western style liberal democracy, civil society and secularism. He argues against the ‘root cause analysis’ taken by most Arab and western commentators, and instead argues that the roots to terrorism must be in Islamic teachings
Dubbed variously the ‘Spinoza of the Arab world’, or the ‘Arab Thomas Paine prophet of liberty’, Lafif Lakhdar (1934-2013) was a Tunisian citizen resident in Paris who occupied a special place in the Middle East for the courage of his positions taken on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, positions that on several occasion placed his own life in danger. Mr. Lakhdar openly called for secularism and on October 24, 2004 was a signatory to a manifesto written by Arab liberals in which they petitioned the U.N. to establish an international tribunal for the prosecution of terrorists and people and institutions that incite to terrorism. Mr. Lakhdar was an intellectual polymath who called openly for the root-and-branch reform of education in the Arab world, and for the reform of Islam. He called for a form of positive ‘censorship’ which removed the teaching of the violent Medina verses and instead taught the universal verses of peace which can be found in the verses of the Mecca period. More than that, Lakhdar openly advocated the inculcation of rationalist disciplines. At same time he was scathing about the absurdity of much western analysis on the phenomenon of Islamism, particularly those who saw in the movement some form of progressive force with a potential for reforming Islam and bringing it closer to western liberalism. Such an approach, he explained, was evidence of thinkers having “succumbed to the comic temptation of analogy and to the lazy facility of repetition.”
With an academic background in History and Middle East Studies (Harvard University, Georgetown University, and the American University of Beirut), Hassan Mneimneh has written extensively on radicalization and insurgency in the Middle East, and he continues to participate in initiatives designed to assess extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. He is co-editor of the biannual review Current Trends in Islamist Ideology and was involved in the Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP) since its inception at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He is at present at the Hudson Center, Washington DC. He argues that the historical record of Muslim societies can be read in two different ways: normative and empirical. The normative reading accepts a priori the notion that there is one Muslim global community (Umma) endowed with one central authority (Khilafa or Caliphate), the legitimacy of which derives solely from its status as successor to the rule of the Prophet. History is, therefore, the account of the fulfillment of, and aberrations from, this ideal. He notes how, in fact, it is the philological efforts of Western Orientalists, relying primarily on the output of the scholastic tradition—that provide the justification for the Islamist normative view of Muslim history, and the view that Arab-Islamic civilization had a Golden Age that should be emulated and restored. He argues, however, that an empirical reading of Muslim history reveals a considerably more nuanced reality, and does not support the Islamist position.
Shaker Al-Nabulsi (1940-2014) was a reformist well-known across the Arab world who strongly advocated for secular democracy in the Middle East. In his movement to promote democracy, he harshly criticized radical Islam and the terrorism that stemmed with it and authored 32 books related to these issues. In response to Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi’s 2004 fatwa proscribing U.S. citizens in Iraq, al-Nabulsi initiated the idea and helped create a petition to the United Nations. The petition called the UN to launch an international tribunal that would indict terrorists and any institutions/persons that called for terrorism. In 2006 he authored an open letter to letter to Saudi King ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz, demanding an investigation into a doctorial dissertation submitted to the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University that named 200 modern Arab intellectuals and authors whom the author accuses of heresy. In 2007 he participated in drawing up the St. Petersburg Declaration that called for Islamic societies to oppose the Sharī‘a law, fatwas and promote religious freedom and tolerance, effectively a manifesto and affirmation of Human Rights and Freedom of thought for Muslims and non-Muslims in the Muslim world.
Sayyid al-Qimny was one of the most outspoken and courageous commentators on Islam and the Arab world. Taking as his starting point the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967 al-Qimny set out in his works to understand the cause of Egyptian and Islamic ‘backwardness’. To do this he researched deep into Islamic and pre-Islamic, history, to understand the elements obstructing progress. His work on the era of the Prophet and on the compilation of the Qur’ān, such as Al-Hizb al-Hāshimī (‘The Hashemite Faction’), Al-Dawla al-Muhammadiyya (‘The Muhammadan State’), and Hurūb Dawlat al-Rasūl (‘The Wars of the Prophet’s State’), which trace the tenets of Islam to political pressures rather than revelation, earned him the respect of scholars and the odium of Islamists, who on several occasions called for him to be silenced. He called for the raising of national consciousness in Egypt over against an Islamic consciousness which he held to be holding citizens back and producing extremism in education. Al-Qimny was engaged on re-arranging the order of suras in the Qur’ān in order to dispel the confusion of nāsikh and mansūkh verses juxtaposed together, which has historically necessitated commentators to clarify the confusions. He wrote extensively on the methodology of reform and the need to detach the legacy of Islamic thought from Arab tribal conventions.
Dr. Hashem Saleh is a writer, researcher and translator specialising in issues of religious reform, modernity and the critique of Islamic fundamentalism. He is a columnist for the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and writes analysis for the Al-Awān website. He is the author of many books on these subjects and has also specialised in translating into Arabic and analysing the work of the late Algerian philosopher Mohamed Arkoun. He is one of the founder members of the ‘League of Arab Intellectuals’ and is a frequent figure on the Arab media defending the cause of reform.
Dr. Mohammed ‘Izz al-Din al-Sanduk is an Iraqi physicist, thinker, and academician and visiting professor at the University of Surrey, with a doctorate in Physics from Manchester University’s Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST). He specializes in Plasma Physics and the foundation of Quantum Mechanics with a number of studies and scientific research papers published in his specialist journals. He is a Chartered Physicist, a member of the Institute of Physics (IoP), and a member of American Physical Society (APS). In addition to his specialty he is interested in the philosophy of science and technology and was a member of the academic staff of Pontifical Babel College for Philosophy and Theology, and a member of Philosophy of Science group in Iraq’s Bayt al-Hikma “House of Wisdom”. He has presented models such as the employment of a statistical technique to trace the development of science in Arabic-Islamic and western civilization, showing explicitly the rise and decline of Arabic-Islamic science. Sanduk’s researches serve to throw light on the historical origins of the present problems of the Arab-Muslim societies.
Is a regular commentator in Kuwait on matters of religious reform. He has written extensively on the need to re-examine the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic discourse, arguing for a deep penetration into the methodology. In this he reflects the work of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, whose work he has frequently analyzed and commented upon. He calls for the prioritization of enlightenment values, and rationality over against the closed discourse of the Salafists. He has been active in the Kuwaiti Writers’ Association defending freedom of expression, leading a campaign against the banning of books at a book fair which demonstrated, he argues, the inability to accept differences of opinions. His writings courageously take on the issue of ‘religious mendacity’, ‘religious arrogance’ and the ‘religious view of ethics’ in the Islamic world, and calls for the promotion of rationality and the courage to face down subservience to tradition and false ‘sanctifications’ of ideas and concepts that should be susceptible to change and development.
Dr. Youssef is a Tunisian researcher known for her critical approach to Islamic thought, deconstructing human preconceptions about the religion and its holy texts and criticising the contemporary misuse of Qur’ānic interpretation for political interests. Her recent book Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman highlights the growing radicalisation of interpretation and how it impacts particularly on women. With the intellectual arena of Islamism delineated as one that has shut itself off from the free exercise of reason in favor of a conditioned, circumscribed trajectory that abdicates consistency out of respect for Scripture, Olfa Youssef challenges Islamist interpretations of the Qur’ānic Text itself and the tendentious use they put it to. This exercise is particularly productive with respect to the rights of women as conceived in Scripture, as opposed to the pre-occupations of Islamists. The courageous position she expounds in this paper is that all law is man-made, despite the pretensions of the Islamists, and that it is therefore subject to historical influences and cultural starting points. She uses the implications of Islamic law for women as a tool to highlighting contradictions in Islamist legal interpretation, and argues that no interpretation of the Qur’ān can support any program of action, on the grounds that “the Qur’ān is bigger than its commentators” and that there are too many multiplicities of meaning to allow for an absolutist conclusion. Youssef is celebrated for her provocative work Le Coran au risque de la psychanalyse, and in her work concludes that Islamic identity has always been subject to change, and that therefore the case for an Islamist policy itself collapses.