Sufi 'prophet' lands in prison
The arrest of a 48-year-old man whom authorities claim assumed the mantel of a prophet has all the hallmarks of another government attempt to portray itself as the 'protector of true Islam', but it also highlights the confusing relationship between the state and religion in Egypt.
On May 14, court sources told news organizations that they had arrested Sayed Tolba Abu Ali along with 20 followers on March 24. They are scheduled to stand trial on May 29.
According to the same sources, quoted by news agency AFP, Abu Ali was arrested on charges of defaming Islam.
Four of those detained with him were women who have since been released on bail.
Abu Ali, an employee of the state Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, and the other detainees were remanded in custody. Among the others still held there are said to be a number of government employees, doctors, and businessmen.
Abu Ali himself is a resident of the middle-class Cairo suburb of Nasr City.
It has been reported that during interrogation Abu Ali described himself as "the prophet of our time," and claimed to have the ability to heal "incurable sickness."
Police said that during the arrest they confiscated 33 letters that were supposed to bear the signature of God, along with a videotape in which Abu Ali claims he is speaking with angels.
Muslim's make up around 90 percent of Egypt's population, and according to Islam the prophet Muhammad is regarded as the last prophet. Anyone claiming the mantel of prophet-hood is seen as a fake attempting to divide the Muslim community.
But not everyone is convinced that the government's charges are accurate and the man was actually claiming to be a prophet. "He didn't exactly say he was a prophet," said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "He is a Sufi and it's more complicated than that."
Sufism is a widely respected branch of Islam with many different trends, or tariqas, of its own. Sufis seek a higher level of attachment to God, and the history of Islam has seen some highly respected Sufi thinkers such as Omar Khayyam and Al Ghazali.
But Sufis have also been prosecuted for unorthodox beliefs. The most common charge stems from believers' assertions that once they have attained the highest level of attachment they have effectively become one with God.
Abu Seada says that Abu Ali was not proclaiming himself a prophet in the way the government has claimed.
Whatever Abu Ali's level of spiritual attainment, the question that still remains is, what connection does the government have with a purely religious matter in a country that is supposed to be secular.
The answer lies in the government's multi-faceted public relations campaign. Towards America and the West in general, Egypt presents itself as a secular democracy, but towards its religion-conscious citizens the government portrays itself as the upholder of traditional religious values.
"This is one of those cases where the government imprisons its Islamic opposition on the one hand and balances that by prosecuting those on the fringes of orthodox Islam on the other," says Abu Seada.
He adds that by coming down hard on both sides and portraying them both as religiously deviant, the government can make itself look like it "represents and upholds the correct version of Islam."
"The government uses an article in the second chapter of the penal code that makes it possible to prosecute anyone using religion to make money or those that publish articles which are taken to defame religion," says Abu Seada.
He goes on to explain that under the emergency law (in force for over 20 years), all crimes covered by the second chapter of the penal code are dealt with by the state security misdemeanors court and not the regular civil courts.
This is not the first case of its kind in Egypt. Last year, a woman known as Sheikha Manal was sentenced to five years in prison for "defaming religion." In March this year, in a case known as Matariya, eight people were arrested in connection with espousing an interpretation of Islam that the authorities didn't agree with.
Abu Seada also points out the difficulties that members of the Bahai religion have to put up with. "Bahais are prevented from entering the country and if an Egyptian insists on putting 'Bahai' on his identity card as his religion, then he may have a very hard time."
©Copyright 2002, The Middle East Times