The Azharites Who Revolted Against Religion

The Azharites Who Revolted Against Religion

Yehia the Salafist sheds his Azharite robes in favor of a faithless credo, while Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s writings unshackle Al-Aswany from considerations of politics and religion, and Hemeida seeks refuge under the guise of Magianism to escape the scarlet letter of atheism.
The conditions had been ripe; son would follow father on the righteous Azharite path and learn the fundamentals of religion, one day fulfilling his family’s ambitions of occupying the highest pulpits, after completing his education in Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution. Yet, fate would dictate a different path for these youth, who would diverge from the religious paths set out by their fathers.
“Since childhood I had been preparing to become a sheikh in our zāwiyah in Abu Qir, East Alexandria, and so I enrolled myself in Azharite studies from primary school to university, until i found myself losing patience with religion itself,” Ahmed Yehia, 31, tells Raseef22, speaking of his journey from Al-Azhar to irreligious ideology.
Like many of those who studied at Al-Azhar but ended up embracing ideologies that stood in opposition to the religious environment in which they were raised, Yehia often found himself caught between a near-fundamentalist stringency, skepticism, and their misguided attempts to find interpretations that were better suited to their practical needs, in line with contemporary times.
For seventeen years, Yehia studied the fundamentals of religion and jurisprudence, over the different stages of an Azharite education. Such an education required students to memorize the Quran, and study the legislative and linguistic subjects, which included the biography of Prophet Muhammad, the creed, the ḥadīth and tafsīr, and jurisprudence (fiqh). These subjects amalgamated to create a negative image in Yehia’s mind, causing him to treat them purely as mandatory subjects, and ultimately leading to the recognition that he would not adopt the lifestyle his father had set out for him.
“The first blow was studying the sections dedicated to concepts surrounding purity and intercourse in jurisprudence at an early age--it reached the point that one of our muallimeen would teach us with the aid of pornographic films,” he adds.
He points out that what struck him the most was the extent of the exaggeration in the narration of Islamic history in the biography of the prophet. “I noticed a lot of hyperbole in the descriptions of the wars and invasions led by the first Muslims, and their treatment of non-Muslims and apostates. This was in addition to the discrepancies between each narrator’s version of events. Honestly, I found them odd and unbelievable,” he continues.
With Yehia’s skepticism regarding the narratives of Islamic invasions came a different, more insidious, skepticism regarding the message-bearer himself--the Prophet Muhammad. “I would find myself wondering, ‘was he really a prophet, or simply a clever individual served by fortuitous circumstances that helped him unify his milieu around a cause?” he says.
Despite maintaining the appearance of religiosity around his family for a long time, Yehia graduated with a degree in Arabic Language from Al-Azhar University and a great deal of confusion about religion. His doubts consolidated into a need to dig deeper for theories on the origin of the universe in cosmological, philosophical, and historical readings, leaving him with a foggy worldview and even larger existential misgivings.
“Studying at Al-Azhar will either produce well-balanced individuals on one hand, or imbalanced ones on the other, while it also separates those with secular ideas from those with extreme ideologies,” says Sheikh Mohamed Abdallah Nasr, founder of the Front for Azharites in Support of a Secular State. Nasr has gained some notoriety for heated face-offs with the sheikhs of Al-Azhar, particularly focusing on the need to revise the institution’s curricula and heritage books.
Nasr posits that the cause of the rising phenomenon of young secularists among the graduates of Al-Azhar is that these students often run into a jolting experience in their education. Having been exposed to academic subjects rife with contradictions, such as those between the freedom of belief espoused in Islam in contrast with the teachings on verdicts against apostasy and capitations for Christians in some of the ḥadīths, Nasr further contends that the accredited curricula are no longer viable for this day and age.
In recent years, heated discussions have unfolded between Azharite sheikhs and researchers regarding the violent approaches depicted in heritage books. Perhaps the most conclusive indicator of a defect in Egypt’s oldest religious institution is the formation of a committee by Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb to review the institution’s curricula.
Nasr tells Raseef22 that Azharite scholars are more susceptible to either atheism or religious extremism than others due to their direct confrontation with imams and their teachings in a regressive environment. This in turn limits their freedom and ability to think or question beyond the narrow limits upheld by the influence of these religious figures.
It is this same sequestered environment that drove Mohamed Al-Aswany, 21, a senior in the Faculty of Languages and Translation at Al-Azhar University, to search for the ideals of enlightenment, seeking to break out of the religious deadlock he had been caught in since his enrollment in the institution. This was precisely what he found in Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s writings on theology and the critique of religious rhetoric, which marked his first steps in metaphysical skepticism.
The writings of Abu Zayd, one of the most prominent thinkers of the nineties, created a new awareness for Al-Aswany, particularly as the Islamic researcher was fiercely embattled by the Azharite sheikhs due to his calls to liberate religion from literal readings of texts, and to reinterpret religion according to its historical framework. Like many of his predecessors who had questioned the status quo at the time, his research was accused of promoting atheism.
Though Al-Aswany’s case resembled Yehia’s in their Salafist upbringing, the former initially assimilated, and did not revolt against the religious teachings at an early stage. Though he concurred that the curriculum was difficult, his inner conflicts did not materialize until he became involved in political confrontations.
“I wasn’t concerned with the curricula until high school, but in 2009 I became preoccupied with politics, and the mobilization that was taking off at the time. I began reading independent newspapers, and in particular a number of writers who could be described as enlightenment thinkers. I began discussing their ideas with my family, whose response, of course, was to condemn them as secularists who knew nothing about religion,” Al-Aswany says.
Al-Aswany’s life radically changed in conjunction with the January 25 Revolution, where he immersed himself in reading Aby Zayd’s theses over the historicism of religious texts, which coincided with his involvement with the Revolutionary Socialists.
“My perspective on everything gradually began to change. More and more, I began to doubt the official Islamic narratives, and I began reading hypotheses that were critical of this narrative. Eventually, this began to crystallize into the idea that there is no such thing as religion or even ideology, to the point where I even lost faith in the metaphysical,” he says.
“I no longer believed in the transcendental, or in legislations that were separate from time and place. A conviction slowly took root, that religion was a man-made thing,” Al-Aswany says. Yet, he shies away from professing his atheism within his circles, to avoid confrontation or ostracism by his friend, choosing instead to save his energy for discussions with those who understand his position.
In Egypt, the personal calculations involved in the decision to proclaim one’s atheism, or publicly express ideas that are critical of religion, must account for the inevitable barrage of accusations and divisions that would ensue, particularly for those who belonged to a conservative religious current. Yet, Ahmed Hemeida, 31, chose to throw these calculations out of the window when he decided to announce his atheism to his family and friends, six years after graduating from Al-Azhar with a degree in Islamic law.
Hemeida currently works in the Primary Courts in Alexandria, having--upon his family’s bidding--spent his life within the walls of Al-Azhar, as a regular student who would not question what he was taught.
“During my studies, I was just as ignorant as all the other students; we were prohibited from thinking, on the basis that the forefathers had done enough thinking for us,” he says. Nonetheless, he kept record of his observations regarding the differences between the three different doctrines, and the methods employed by some of the muallimeen in teaching about intercourse in the subject of jurisprudence.
He read the history of the caliphs as recounted by Egyptian Islamic scholar Al-Suyuti, history according to Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, and the Prophet Muhammad’s biography as told by Ibn Hisham. These painted a pictures of the times of the Rashidun Caliphs, and the Umayyads and Abbasids. Yet, according to Hemeida, these readings bred a negative outlook due to their logical fallacies and the politicization of religion during the Islamic wars.
Hemeida nonetheless held on to his faith for six years after his graduation, before resuming his search for the origin of the universe between science books and the Quran. It took a whole year of research, during which he allowed these thoughts to ferment, before he made his big announcement, and was met by a furor.
“My parents wanted to kill me; they forbade me from my wife and forced me to divorce her. My friends at work purposefully ostracized me,” he said.
Hemeida tried to overcome these difficulties by appealing to his family and convincing them that he had returned to his faith but did not believe in the Quranic stories, but his relationship with his wife was restricted to raising the children.
Hemeida did not only employ ruses to assuage his family--on his Facebook page, he lists Magianism as his religion of choice, to appease the religious folk and their theories with the implication that he cannot live without religion.
He concludes, sardonically, “[Egyptian] society believes that the atheist is ideologically deviant, and does not submit to a divine power, whereas the Magian is implicitly included among those who believe in the Creator.”

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