Heresy or Hermeneutics: The Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

The debate I shall discuss here arose following Cairo University's decision to refuse tenure to a professor of Arabic language and literature, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, in light of an unfavorable report by the tenure committee entrusted to review his scholarly work. Supporters of Abu Zayd quickly brought the case to national attention via the Egyptian press, thereby precipitating a storm of often shrill writing from all sides of the political spectrum, in both the journalistic and academic media. Subsequently, as an Islamist lawyer tried to have Abu Zayd forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that his writings revealed him to be an apostate, the foreign media also picked up the story and transformed the case into an international event.

In what follows, I will focus on one comer of this debate concerning contrastive notions of reason and history, issues which, I wish to argue, are implicated deeply in the forms of political contestation and mobilization occurring in Islamic countries today. Such topics seldom appear in discussions that take Islamic movements or Islamic revival as their object, an omission perhaps attributable to the conceptual frames informing these discussions.

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