Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists

By Masud, Muhammad Khalid | Islamic Studies, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists


Masud, Muhammad Khalid, Islamic Studies


Raymond William Baker. Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. 309 including Glossary and Index. Paperback. ISBN 0-674-01203-8. Price: US $ 29.95.

A small number of intellectuals in Egypt formed a group in early 1980. It included Kamal Abu Magd, Fahmy Huwaidy, Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazzaly (d. 1417/1996), Tareq al-Bishry, Muhammad Selim al-Awa, and Yusuf al- Qaradawy, mostly belonging to Muslim Brothers. Kamal Abu Magd wrote its manifesto which was published later in an expanded version as A Contemporary Islamic Vision: Declaration of Principles (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1991). Among others, this manifesto suggested the following principles: distinction between Islam and religion, distance from political Islam, comprehensive and substantive understanding of the higher principles of Islam, real renaissance based on Islam, and inclusive and open approach to the world.

The book was launched at a book fair in Cairo in 1992 and was widely circulated. It attracted criticism from several quarters but a real discourse began in the columns of al-Ahram in 1994 where the manifesto was questioned by secular liberal Egyptians. Sayyid Yassin dismissed the book as unrealistic and ideological and that it failed to respond to national needs. He contended that the book offered no vision, neither contemporary nor Islamic. Other critics also highlighted the connection of this group with Egyptian violent extremists. Abu Magd defended his views appealing to his critics to distinguish between the secular, moderate and violent extremist groups and consider them as representing different trends among Muslims. Baker notes this point particularly as a gesture of cooperation offered by Abu Magd to the secularist Muslims.

The formation of this intellectual group demonstrates the need as well as the potentials of public sphere in Muslim societies as well as the dynamism of the tradition of rational discourse in Egyptian society. Raymond Baker's book Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists documents the rise of this group and its positive impact on the public sphere. As suggested by the title, the point of reference for the book is the ongoing controversy about Islam. Return of religion in the Western societies in the second half of the 20th century challenged the theories of modernisation and secularity. Islamic awakening, which was a reformist trend within the Islamic tradition, was designated in the 19th century West as a movement for Pan-Islamism. In the twentieth century it was seen as a threat to the West. A sizeable section of world opinion today suffers increasingly from Islamophobia. This fear is generally based on the anxiety about the rising militancy and terrorism which are regarded as revolt of Islam against the West. Studying the emergence of the New Islamists in Egypt and their impact on public opinion led Baker to speak about the existence of mainstream Islam in Egypt that successfully resists violent tendencies among the extremists. "These important aspects of mainstream Islam that flow from New Islamist interpretation have been largely ignored in the West" (p. 4). He calls this interpretation "Islam without fear." The author is fully aware of the political violence in Egyptian environment as evidenced by his earlier publication1 that offered a detailed analysis of the groups and ideologies responsible for Sadat's assassination.

Baker tells the story of Adel Abdul Baqi, a "repentant terrorist," who had been a member of various militant Egyptian militant groups like Aljehad, Islamic Group and Takfir wa'l Hegra. Abdul Baqi confessed that he was misled to extremism and militancy by two books Four Terms and Landmarks on the Way written respectively by Sayyid Abu 'l A'la Mawdudi (d. 1399/1979) and Sayyid QuTb (d. 1386/1966). Both termed the present Muslim societies as Jahiliyyah (un-Islamic). QuTb argued that since current rulers are not real Muslims true believers are obliged to overthrow them. …

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