Last week, the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel Al-Qaherah wal Nas decided to pull the controversial talk show “With Islam” at Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh’s request. The show’s host, Islam al-Behery, is a controversial figure in Egypt because of his candid views and biting criticism of what he describes as the unchallenged Islamic heritage passed on since medieval times, which is still used to justify many regressive practices. The channel announced the show’s withdrawal after Al-Azhar filed a lawsuit demanding its cancellation.
The decision also followed the airing of a long, heated TV debate between Islam Behery and two mainstream Islamic scholars (one from al-Azhar) on another TV channel (CBC TV), in which various contentious issues regarding Islamic theology were discussed for the first time on such a forum. The debate ended without any common ground being reached between the two sides, and left many in the audience baffled and frustrated.
Central to the issues raised in the debate were the Prophet’s sayings (hadiths) and traditions, compiled by Imam al-Bukhari in the eighth century. Imam Bukhari was born 138 years after the death of the Prophet, and his collection, Sahih al-Bukhari, is a series of hadiths compiled by Imam al-Bukhari (d. 256 AH/870 AD). The overwhelming majority of the Muslim world recognizes his collection of reports of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad to be the most authentic. It contains over 7,500 hadiths (with repetitions) in 97 books.
Islam al-Behery has argued that Bukhari’s books are just a historical collection and therefore are not sacred and can be disputed. On the other hand, Al-Azhar scholars have defended Bukhari’s books and argue that they are reliable and religiously “scientific.” They also say that only highly educated scholars may issue religious verdicts based on Bukhari’s (among others) collection.
It was interesting to see how the Islamic scholars focused heavily on Beheiry’s aggressive attitude and his choice of words, reducing the debate to a pedantic interpretation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh). Their aim clearly was to discredit Beheiry, and not to address the maze of existing religious verdicts (fatwas) on many contentious topics in Islam, which Beheiry has boldly raised in his program.
Furthermore, a few days before Behery’s show was pulled off air, President Sisi remarked that ‘religious reforms’ must come through state institutions and from qualified scholars. His comments were seen as clearly directed at Beheiry and in open support of Al-Azhar. The president may sincerely want to reform Islamic thought, but he also understands that without Al-Azhar backing, his legitimacy will be in question. He blinked, allowing Al-Azhar to force his way out of the controversy.
The problem, however, is not in Beheiry’s critical analysis, as Al-Azhar and probably President Sisi like to believe, but in the endless, often ludicrous, interpretations of Bukhari’s book. Here, again, is an example from Egypt of one controversy that was flared up few months ago due to Bukhari’s books:
A Salafi Muslim scholar, Mahmoud Al-Masry, has claimed in a video that the Prophet’s power was superior to ordinary humans. He went further, citing a specific number, “The Prophet’s physical power was equal to the power of 4,000 ordinary men.” Al-Masry justifies his claim by citing two hadiths allegedly in Bukhari’s books: The first was a conversation between two of the Prophet’s companions who claimed the Prophet was able to have sex with all his “9” wives in one night because of his “super-ability,” which matched 40 men in Paradise. The second hadith claims that every man who reaches Paradise would gain more power than 100 ordinary men. Extending his mathematical prowess (40 x 100), Al-Masry concluded that the Prophet’s power amounted to that of 4,000 “ordinary men.”
Al-Masry was, off course, mocked and attacked for describing the Prophet as someone with such an indulgent and excessive sex practice and for having nine, and not four wives, as Islam clearly states. Al-Masry later denied the sex part of the story and insisted he was only trying to explain the Prophet’s physical strength. He added that all his claims were based on Bukhari’s books.
This story is not an isolated incident. There are many similar stories of weird explanations of the Prophet’s life that Muslim youth learn from some mainstream scholars. It highlights how the adherence to every detail in Bukhari’s doctrine can lead to silly portrayal of the Prophet and even glamorization of wrong promiscuous behaviors. Indirectly, Bukhari’s books are used by radical groups like Isis to flourish and sanction sex slavery, among other abhorrent practices.
Islam Behery may be feckless, even inaccurate in some of his attacks on Islamic theology, but the essence of his argument is sound and it actually portrays Islam in a far more modern way than all the medievalist nonsense that the likes of Mohamed al-Masry propagate. The irony is that al-Azhar tolerates scholars like Al-Masry (who studied theology extensively in Saudi Arabia, as his website claims) more than a daring researcher like Islam Beheiry, whom al-Azhar sees as “insulting” to Islam.
Al-Qaherah wal Nas TV has justified its decision to cancel Behery’s show by saying, “Freedom of thought and expression are constitutional rights for all citizens. However, protecting the country’s best interests is a greater goal.” Sadly, such actions will not protect Egypt; they will only allow regression, myths, and medievalism to spread in society. Contentious religious debate, not protectionism, is the only way forward in dealing with the various challenges facing Islam in the modern era.