Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity

For an introductory essay to this text, please click here.

On August 19, 2010 AWR interviewed Dr. Rafik Habib, an Egyptian Christian scholar who has devoted his research to the realm of Christianity and Islam contemplating on Muslim-Christian relations, Islamic civilization, and the role of the state in the Egyptian society.

Dr. Rafik Habib was born in 1959 in Minya, Upper Egypt, into the family of Samuel Habib, an evangelical pastor who later became the President of the Evangelical Denomination in Egypt (1980-1997). Dr. Habib refers to himself as an ordinary Christian who came to Cairo to attend ‘Ain Shams University after finishing his secondary education in his hometown. He obtained a masters degree in psychology (1985) and later a PhD in the same field (1988). During his studies Dr. Habib researched significant issues in the Christian community, and later published Psychology of Religiosity for Copts in Egypt. He has since published over twenty other titles. Despite this, though he sought work in a university or academic research center such as al-Ahram, he was never accepted. Many suggested that it was due to the fact that he is a Christian. But, Dr. Habib is of a contrary opinion:

I found it to be a matter of social relationships. To have someone support you in this kind of issue is more important, in many cases, than if I am a Christian or a Muslim.

Dr. Rafiq Habib has been influenced by his family, as he himself acknowledges, and his father was a leading evangelical personality in Egypt at that time. Nonetheless, he is well-known for his ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an entirely Muslim organization.

Dr. Habib has never attempted to join the organization, nor would he be able to, but his adherence to its ideas led him to join the Wasat Party, a political organization based on the moderate ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. As he points out, religious movements (be they Islamic or Christian) are exclusive to their denomination, but organizations working at the political or social level should be open for anyone.

Yet being a Christian and a scholar, he has sought out dialogue with the political Islamists. Dr. Habib has been interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, and other Muslim groups since 1989. His has primarily involved himself with the peaceful groups, but has also received criticism for engaging with violent entities. He is quick to distinguish nuances:

At that time, it is important to notice that this organization (Islamic Jihad) was violent, when they murdered Anwar Sadat. But after that, they continued to be a preaching organization with a militant wing, a very weak one. (…) You could meet a member in al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, who is not a militant. (…) In my opinion al-Jihad was a revolutionary organization from its basis, but al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia is in its basis a preaching group in its organization.

Nevertheless, Dr. Habib maintains that for a researcher is important to learn about the different groups, even those that are militant. Dialogue, however, is not possible with militant personalities, only with those who are peaceful within a militant organization. According to Dr. Habib, extremists reject dialogue altogether, making them inaccessible.

Who are the extremists? What is extremism for Dr. Habib?

Dr. Habib finds this difficult to answer as the term is drawn from western definition. Nevertheless, he asserts that extremism is not a permanent condition but a temporary phenomenon. In his opinion, most of the Islamic movements are becoming more moderate. But,

(Extremism is a) part of the Islamic project, where some make the most clear-cut points; all issues are white and black, even the values and variables. (…) Similarly some take a clear-cut position towards Christians, thinking the Islamic society is for Muslims only. For these, Christians can be present in an Islamic state, but only within their Christian community subsumed by Islamic society, not as a part of Islamic society.

How do Christians have a place in Islamic society? Dr. Habib offers his perspective based on his doctoral study of the national character of the Egyptian society. He maintains that Egypt is a part of Islamic culture and civilization, which is in fact a continuation of Pharaonic culture and civilization. Religion (first Christianity, later Islam) did not destroy the ancient culture, but rather reshaped it. Therefore, he argues that:

I think that the national character, culture, and values of the Christians in Egypt are similar to that of the Muslims, and I found that Christians themselves belong to the Islamic character and culture of Egypt. Muslims and Christians have the same national character and identity.

Based on the argument that Muslims and Christians in Egypt share the same national identity Dr. Habib believes that:

We can have a chance in the future for Christians and Muslims to discover their shared values and rebuild the Islamic culture together.

Nowadays, their mutual relations are negatively affected by developments of the 1970s. Dr. Habib argues that at the time of Anwar Sadat Egyptian society began to dissolve. Both communities began to develop separate religious identities leading to the enclosure of Christian community within the Church and to the establishment of numerous Islamic movements. These communities preferred their particular religious identity (Muslim or Christian) over the prior Islamic-Egyptian cultural identity. According to Dr. Habib, the separation of the communities happened because the state was unable to represent both Christians and Muslims in the same value system. Instead the state pushed a secular agenda foreign to both religious groups.

In order to restore the previous order – to bridge both communities again – Dr. Habib suggests a controversial idea:

The Egyptian society will continue to be an Islamic society and the Christians must return to their conservative identity and join it in one identity as happened before. If we go back 50 years, the whole society looked conservative and very Islamic, though the Christians were a little cautious of the Islamic identity. But if we go more than 100 years back, we find that Christians were unified with the Islamic society under Islamic Sharia and under the Islamic state and there was no problem.

Dr. Habib identifies the main obstacles to such a return as the secular nature of the state, the pressure from Western countries to secularize further, and the Christian community that wants to protect itself under secularization.

The core idea of Dr. Habib theory is that the revival of Islamic state would bridge the communities again. Originally, the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to restore the Islamic state following the end of Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of an imposed secular nation-state model. Dr. Habib argues that the secular state model did not reflect the religiosity of the society which rebelled against it. The Brotherhood rallied such opposition, but was double crossed:

The Nasserists came to the power with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. It turned out to be a historical mistake, when they supported Gamal Abdel Nasser. Because after he took power with their support, he said I am not building an Islamic state.

Nasser introduced instead his own nationalistic vision of Arabism that was, to some extent, related to Islamism, in that Arabic identity can shelter both Christian and Muslim identity. The development of Arabism was, however, stopped by the 1967 defeat to Israel. The Six Day War significantly challenged the existing societal and political order in Egypt, initiating deep consequences:

When you’re defeated you return back to your deep, deep identity, and try to protect yourself inside the protection-point: your identity and social consciousness. And, the strong protection-point in our society is the religion. Then both Christians and Muslims returned back to their religions.

Dr. Habib provides an example of the daily routine at the universities in the 1970s:

If you entered a classroom, there was a special place for Christians guarded by members of the “Coptic Family” and for Muslims guarded by the “Religious Group”. But there was no conflict or violence between them; it came spontaneously. The different societies wanted to feel secure, and they turned to religion.

Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that in order to bridge the communities again, it is necessary to return to the Islamic culture, value system, and civilization as the identity of the society, as both Christian and Muslim values in Egypt have been shaped by the same surroundings. Dr. Habib argues that these conservative religious values are embodied in the Egyptian society and therefore the existing project of the secular nation-state is failing. To succeed, the state must reflect the value system of the society which it is not the case in Egypt:

I think that this model (the secular nation-state) will not work in Egypt or in other Arabic countries, because it depends on the power of law, whereas society depends on the power of religion, which means the power of morals. If you want to organize society by the power of law, the society will not obey it. (…) All society thinks of the state as an enemy, because the state will not accept the societal identity; the state is meaning of law. (…) There is no reason for Egyptian Arab Muslims to obey the secular state, because the reason which is to be found in Western countries is not here. Western societies obey the state instead of the church. They obey the state, because it is the way of progression, and they think that if they obey the church, they will not progress.

Dr. Habib’s argument is based on the significant role religion plays in the societal order. He assumes that:

If the state obeys religion, then the people will obey the state. Because people will always obey the religion in their life, they will not obey anything other than religion, and if you want them to obey the state the state must obey the religion.

Conversely, if the state does not obey religion, the people do not find the justification to obey the laws imposed by the state. In Islam, people are to obey the ruler, even a corrupt one, as long as he applies Islamic Sharia. According to Dr. Habib, the Egyptian state fails to apply Islamic Sharia, even though it is embodied in Article 2 of the constitution.

If the present state applied Article 2 it would not be an issue, because Sharia as a basis can reshape the nation-state to Islamic state in 2 or 3 years if applied.

The proper application of Article 2 would enable the establishment of the Islamic state – an ideal type – restoring the harmony between society and the state. Dr. Habib goes further arguing that the society would be more free and powerful. The church, al-Azhar, and NGO’s would all be independent, as well as the fields of health care and education policy. There would be no interference of the state in civic society. The ideal form of the Islamic state would be a completely decentralized parliamentary system. In sum, it would mean less government in all sectors of society.

When society becomes powerful, it builds its frame of reference and it chooses its ultimate values, and then the state is obliged to behave according to these values.

Nonetheless, Dr. Habib notifies that there are several models of the Islamic state, e.g. the Iranian or Saudi models that are not desirable. He prefers the concept of the civil Islamic state where the authority is political, maintaining only the Islamic value frame of reference. Religious authority would be non-existent as there is no religious authority in Sunni Islam.  The state would be governed by the rules of religion, but no one would have religious authority. Islamic scholars would have the right to say their opinion, but the people would have the right to choose which opinion to follow. Once both scholars and society agree upon something, it would become enforced.

Understandably, the question what the position of religious minorities would be like in the Islamic state arises. Dr. Habib offers two rationales that would secure the position of Christians in the Islamic state scenario. First, the freedom of confession would be guaranteed:

Nowadays Christianity exists inside the church but is limited to the Christian community. Thus, secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under the Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.

Second, the majority of those significantly influencing the character of the state are moderate Muslims with moderate thoughts representing the underlying idea of the Islamic culture. Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that it is essential for Christians to interact with the moderate mainstream (implicitly meaning the Muslim Brotherhood):

I call on Christians to interact or just even dialogue with the mainstream, because if you are against the mainstream, you make the extremists more powerful. I have a problem here, because the state and the secular elite are always against the mainstream. By weakening the mainstream and having a powerful nation-state, the extremists will take the state.

Dr. Habib defeats the plea that dialogue between Christians and Islamists is difficult to achieve, utilizing a love-your-enemy argument:

Because of Christian values you must love all of Egyptian society, not only your neighbor or the persons you know. Within Christianity there is the fundamental idea that the Christian is to love his enemy. If we apply Christian values in that way with our traditions, which are very social, we can make bridges with the Muslim community, Islamic movements, and other trends. But, the political issue here is ruining the whole situation, especially when the church became in coalition with the state, as the role of the church should be societal.

Accordingly, the current linkage of the church and the secular state harms the reestablishment of harmony between the two religious communities. Dr. Habib claims that once the church accepted the coalition with the state, it became a part of a secular political agenda which completely contradicts the Islamist movements. Dr. Habib asserts that:

The state knows that if the Christian community agreed upon a project with the Islamic movement the secular state will end. This is because the secular discourse here in Egypt uses the existence of Christians as a reason why the Islamic state cannot be established, and the government uses Christianity to say that they are protecting it and therefore the West must support it.

By maintaining a relationship with the government the church adopts the position of a supporter of the secular nationalistic model of state. As such, the Christian community is now in a unique situation: It is separated from society, preaching and practicing Christian love inside its own community, implicitly or explicitly supporting western interference in its homeland. Finding a way out of this situation, according to Dr. Habib, is very difficult.

Dr. Rafik Habib is a unique Egyptian Christian scholar who has not been afraid to stand out and address sensitive issues in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. He has devoted his academic career to enhance the mutual understanding of both groups. Though his findings might be controversial, it should not be forgotten that all has been done in his best belief to contribute to a better and healthier atmosphere between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

 

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7 thoughts on “Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity

  1. Ummm! A very unique & controvertial perspective, coming from an Egyptian, Christian academic scholar. I need to read it over & over again & digest it before I can make further comments on it. As an Egyptian-American citizen, born in Alexandria, Egypt, early in the 50′s, I can relate to some historic facts stated there! Thank you Jasen v. much for such an articulate way of presenting it. May God’s blessing & protection be upon you & your family as you continue to live, learn & share with us such a rich & complicated/diverse way of life in Egypt! I love Egypt so much & will cherich my rich heritage till the day I go home to be with the LORD Who created, took refuge in, and redeemed its people, Christians, Moslims & anyone else in between, with His own precious blood! He has sustained over the ages past & His promise, prophesied by Isaiah, ” Blessed are My people, Egypt” shall not fail!!!!

  2. Hello Sir!

    I am a young 22-year-old French evangelical Christian, I’ve been interested in Rafiq Habib and his ideas for a long time now and am in fact writing an article on him on my blog (in French), which will be published as soon as the final results of the Egyptian legislative elections are known.

    Firstly I wanted to thank you for these two very interesting texts, I found them while searching on Google for information on Mr Habib and I actually inspired myself very much of what you wrote.

    Secondly I wish to ask you another question: in this article, you explain Mr Habib’s views about the role of the historical Christian community, the Copts, in an Islamic society. But do you have any idea about his views on Muslim Background Believers, like for example Mohamed Hegazy in Egypt? They could never join the Christian community as a whole in an Islamic state as according to shari’ah law they must be executed. The Muslim Brotherhood’s official view is to favour death penalty for apostates; as far as I know, all of the Brotherhood’s prominent members share this view. As a Christian, Rafiq Habib surely can’t agree to this, if he considers Muslim Background Believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ. Have you had the occasion to mention this topic in your interview with him? I would be very interested to know what he thinks.

    • Thanks for your comment Philip. No, I did not ask Habib this question, though it is a good one. I do not recall hearing senior MB members give their opinion on this, though whichever way they believe it is probably more astute for them to keep quiet now. Though no longer in the MB, the presidential candidate Abdel Munim Abul Futuh has stated there should be no apostasy punishment for conversion in any direction. He was kicked out of the group when he maintained his intention to run for president despite the MB decision they would not field a candidate. As for Habib, there are many other questions worthy to ask him as well, but this interview served as the basic introduction to a very unique thought, not held by many.

      • Thank you for your answer. I knew about Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, but he expressed this view for the first time when he was no longer member of the Brotherhood and already was presidential candidate. So to me it doesn’t seem very sincere, if he indeed believes this he would have stood to his position long before. Anyway, I know Yusuf Al-Qarawadi, who is one of the Brotherhood’s most prominent members and even was proposed twice to become its leader although he always refused, supports death penalty for apostates who make their apostasy known. I’ve read several others others who believe the same but I don’t remember names now.

        Another question, although you might not want to answer me openly but prefer doing so privately: do you have an e-mail adress or another way to contact Mr Habib, or does he have a blog or another way to get in touch with him from Europe?

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