Ana Belén Soage*

Secular activist and author Faraj Fawda was assassinated by Islamist militants in 1992 after al-Azhar accused him of blasphemy. His writings, in which he criticized the viability of the Islamist project and urged Muslims to reconsider their picture of the past, stand as a brave attempt to defy those who pretend to monopolize the interpretation of Islam and use religion to further their political aims.

The 1980s and early 1990s were an agitated period in the Muslim world, and political Islam--or Islamism, as it has come to be known--was behind much of that agitation. Fears that the Iranian Revolution would catch on contributed to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War and kept it raging for almost a decade. In Afghanistan, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Saudis supported the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets, thereby giving birth to a monster that would come back to haunt them. In October 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Islamic Jihad. Two months later, the Iraqi Da'wa Party carried out what was probably the first suicide attack perpetrated by Muslims, against the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. In 1982, Israel invaded a Lebanon already torn by civil war, which led to the creation of Hizballah; the following year, that organization's suicide bombers destroyed the barracks of the American and French troops stationed in Beirut, leaving hundreds dead. The year 1987 saw the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada and the establishment of Hamas. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. In 1991, the Algerian Islamists gained the first round of an election they had entered while openly declaring democracy an impious form of government; when the regime cancelled the second round, they embarked on an orgy of rape and murder that lasted throughout the better part of the 1990s. The Islamist wave seemed unstoppable, and Middle Eastern regimes, aware of their lack of legitimacy, hesitated between repression and appeasement.

One of the countries worst affected by militant Islamism was Egypt. That country saw a proliferation of radical groups that anathematized each other, attacked Coptic churches and homes, extorted jizya[1] (Islamic protection tax) from Coptic families and businesses, and targeted foreign tourists.[2] More moderate Islamists tended to look at them sympathetically; Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote in 1982:

We must be brave and admit that our behavior has been partially responsible for pushing the youth towards what we have dubbed "extremism": We call to Islam, but do not practice it. We read the Koran, but do not implement its rulings. We pretend to love the prophet (peace be upon him), but do not follow his Sunna.[3] We write in our constitutions that the religion of the state is Islam, but do not give it the place it deserves in government, legislation and guidance.... We should start by reforming our societies and ourselves according to what God has dictated, before we ask from our youth serenity, equanimity and moderation.[4]

As formerly Marxist intellectuals such as Muhammad Imara or Tariq al-Bishri jumped on the Islamist bandwagon, beards made a comeback after decades out of favor, and the hijab (headscarf) became the norm rather than the exception in universities and government offices; only a few dared raise their voices to defend suddenly reviled ideals such as secularism or "Western" human rights. Among them, the most outspoken was Faraj Fawda,[5] who was assassinated in 1992. With characteristic bluntness, he wrote that the turning of the tide that the Islamic world was witnessing was nothing short of "civilizational apostasy" (ridda hadariyya).[6]


Fawda was a fierce critic of those he called the "obscurantists" (zalamiyyun).[7] He distinguished three trends within the Islamist movement: the traditionalist (e.g. the Muslim Brothers), the revolutionary (e.g. Islamic Jihad), and the affluent (mainly nouveaux riches who made their fortunes in Saudi Arabia or as a result of Sadat's economic liberalization or infitah).[8] However, he saw overlaps between the three and made sweeping criticisms of all of them. He diagnosed as "religious delirium" the syndrome that made them see Egypt as an infidel state in which Islam was disgraced and the ulama (scholars) persecuted.[9] He dismissed their demands for the application of Shari'a (Islamic law) and asked them how they intended to deal with specific problems, such as the housing shortage.[10] Convinced that for them democracy was a means, not an end, he predicted that if they attained power they would turn out to be like the 1960s Arab revolutionary regimes that proclaimed freedom to the people but only included in that category their own supporters.[11] Moreover, he remorselessly derided their leading figures: He unearthed a 1965 book in which Islamist firebrand Anwar al-Jundi heaped praise on the Nasserist regime[12], and expressed surprise that Muslim Brother Muhammad al-Hayyawan, who had attributed the 1988 Armenian earthquake to God's wrath against the "atheist" Soviet Union, had not volunteered an explanation for the 1990 earthquake in Iran.[13] Furthermore, he wondered about those who looked forward to the advent of an Islamic state:

Where does that optimism come from?... From the experience of the [Islamic] investment companies?[14] From the bullets that targeted Abu Basha, al-Nabawi and Makram?[15] From the tolerance shown by the Islamists in Minya, Abu Qurqas and al-Fayyum?[16] From the terrific stances of the Islamists vis-à-vis art, music, acting and singing? From the fantastic yield of the Iranian experience? Or from the radiant results of the implementation of the Shari'a in Sudan?[17]

Irony was, in effect, his preferred weapon. When Farid Zakariyya exposed in the Islamist weekly al-Ahrar the "scandal" of young couples kissing by the Nile in an isolated spot of Cairo and demanded the intervention of the shaykh of al-Azhar, the mufti, and the interior minister, Fawda was prompt to answer. He mischievously pointed out that at the time of the righteous ancestors (al-salaf al-salih), on which the Islamists look back so yearningly, marriage was easy, polygamy the norm, concubinage widespread, and Muhammad did not forbid temporary, "pleasure marriage" (zawaj al-mut'a) until shortly before his death[18]--so, back then, boys had no reason to kiss girls in some side street of Medina.[19] When the Islamist monthly al-I'tisam published an article in which Abd al-Subur Shahin condemned as immoral the broadcast of the ballet Swan Lake on public television, he argued that the problem lay with the onlooker (mushahid) rather than the looked upon (mushahad) and regaled the reader with some passages from The Jurisprudence of Looking in Islam, a 1979 work that not only directs men to avoid looking at women but also advises them to do likewise with other males and, in particular, smooth-faced boys.[20] Moreover, when Muhammad Muru wrote in a book about Shaykh Hafiz Salama that, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, the shaykh had performed a prodigy not unlike Jesus' "feeding the multitude" miracle, he cheerfully announced that the question of Egypt's food self-sufficiency had finally been resolved.[21]

On the other hand, Fawda was very serious when it came to exposing the mistakes that the Islamists had been able to exploit to impose their discourse. President Sadat released them from prison, relied on them to fight the leftist opposition, and claimed the title of "the devout president" (al-ra'is al-mu'min); for these reasons, Fawda called his assassination "Sadat's suicide."[22] Pandering to popular religiosity, government ministries emptied the first floor of their offices so that their employees could assemble not only to pray but also to listen to the Koran before prayer and to the day's talk afterwards, "as if there were no laws stipulating working hours."[23] Islamist politicians who were elected to parliament were allowed to modify the oath of office at will, adding sentences such as "...whilst it does not contradict the Koran and the Sunna" or "...whilst it does not entail defiance to the Creator."[24] Worse still, some sectors of the media took advantage of the "democratic permissiveness" to undermine the fragile democracy;[25] even the semi-official broadsheet al-Ahram did not shy from describing Sadat's assassins as "martyrs,"[26] while some of its columnists applauded the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)[27] and launched vicious attacks on the secularists. Fawda denounced:

[A well-known author with a weekly page in al-Ahram] violently attacks those who defend secularism, calling them "the Secularist Jihad" and accusing them of being more dangerous than the real [Islamic] Jihad, because they act with premeditation and deliberation whereas the Jihadists had good intentions but inadvertently took the wrong way.[28]

One of Fawda's main concerns was inter-communal strife, chronic in Egypt in the late 1980s and for much of the 1990s. He rejected the arguments of those who pretended that the problem was caused by "the external enemies of Egypt and Islam" (the CIA, the Freemasons, the Mossad, etc.) and maintained it had primarily internal causes: the institutional discrimination of the Coptic minority; their being dubbed "infidels" by some shaykhs; a general climate of intolerance in which the conversion of Christians to Islam is celebrated with great fanfare but a single Muslim conversion to Christianity causes riots;[29] and, most significantly, the emergence of Islamism.[30]

He questioned the rosy picture presented by those who wanted the return of the "tolerant" Islamic state: In this, like in everything else, he wrote, Islamic history was characterized by ebbs and flows. He added that it was not uncommon for minorities--subject to the whims of the ruler--to be crushed by an extortionate jizya, forbidden to ride horses, or even forced to wear distinctive clothing.[31] In addition, he wondered how Christians could possibly agree to a system of government in which they would be second class citizens, relegated to menial jobs by the Islamic principle la wilaya lil-dhimmi, "no leadership for the non-Muslim (over Muslims)."[32] Furthermore, to those "moderates" who advocated forfeiting the jizya if minorities were prepared to serve in the army, he questioned whether Copts could be expected to fight and die to protect "the land of Islam and the Muslim creed." [33]


Fawda thought that the root of the Islamist question was a fundamental confusion between Islam and Muslims: "Islam is a religion and Muslims are human beings; religion is blameless, while humans make mistakes,"[34] he wrote. The failure to distinguish the faith from the believers has led to the quasi-divinization of Muslim historical figures. As a result, school manuals and television soap operas offer a sanitized, highly idealized version of the time of the caliphate.[35] Moreover, he added elsewhere, Egyptians are only shown one chapter of their history, one dimension of their identity, while the others are ignored.[36] After being subjected to such indoctrination, he argued, it was not surprising that young people wanted to resurrect that imaginary past of heroism and righteousness, which contrasts so dramatically with their miserable present and their dim prospects for the future, or that some parliamentarians considered the reestablishment of the caliphate the panacea to all problems.[37] He reflected:

Go ask any European student if he wishes a return to the time when the Church imposed its rule in Europe and you will find him rejecting the idea point-blank, and even refusing to discuss the matter. That is because he studied history with all its miseries... That is the difference between us and them. For them, history is what happened; for us, it is what we would have liked it to happen.[38]

He did his best to demystify that past, using for that purpose the classical sources, including the chronicles of al-Tabari, Ibn Sa'd, and al-Mas'udi, as well as the hadith collections of al-Bukhari, Muslim, and Ibn Hanbal. He wrote in al-Haqiqa al-Gha'iba[39] that even the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs had not been as idyllic as people imagine. The rule of the third caliph, Uthman, was so marred by corruption that his fellow Muslims demanded his resignation and, when he refused, decided to kill him. Uthman's family was not allowed to bury him for three days--against the Muslim custom, which requires a quick burial--and he finally had to be laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery.[40] The next caliph, Ali, was confronted by A'isha (Muhammad's favorite wife) and Talha and Zubayr (two of his Companions) in the Battle of the Camel.[41] Fawda invited readers to ponder the fact that those were the people closest to Muhammad, and that the four men (Uthman, Ali, Talha, and Zubayr) were among the mubasharun bil-janna--that is, the handful of people Muhammad had designated as going straight to heaven.[42] Completing his review with even less edifying episodes of Umayyad and Abbasid history, he concluded that the caliphate was a man-created system of government whose inadequacy has been shown; that Islam is a religion, not a state; and that, in fact, the state had been a burden on Islam.[43]

However, the growth of Islamism was not just the result of hankering after a glorified past, and Fawda acknowledged the role played by other factors. They included the crushing 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel, which had been interpreted as a punishment from God;[44] economic hardship, especially in some of Cairo's shantytowns, where people are in constant contact with more affluent areas through work or studies but struggle to meet their most basic needs;[45] generous financing of books, magazines, and newspapers by the affluent Islamists;[46] and the political ineffectiveness, when not collusion, alluded to above.

Fawda also stressed the responsibility of liberal intellectuals and urged them to challenge the Islamists.[47] He himself was not afraid of taking controversial stances, such as his denunciation of the fatwa against Rushdie, which, in his opinion, offered the world an image of Islam as a religion unable to confront its critics with anything other than the sword.[48] He personally believed Islam to be a tolerant religion that encouraged rationality and inquiry and felt that he was defending it against those trying to distort its message for their own purposes.[49] Furthermore, he did not think that Islam should be held responsible for the backwardness of the Muslim world any more than Japan's technological prowess should be attributed to Buddhism or Shinto.[50]


Fawda admitted that he was an irritant even to non-Islamists because, he said, he had chosen the truth over pleasing people.[51] In his writings he occasionally alluded to confrontations with the Islamists. For example, during a conference in Berlin, a youth told him that his blood was halal (i.e. it could lawfully be shed).[52] The Islamist newspaper al-Nur accused him of showing pornographic films to young people at Nawal al-Sa'dawi's NGO, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association.[53] In another incident, following the publication of his book Zawaj al-Mut'a (in which he discussed the different arguments around the contentious issue of "temporary marriage," practiced by the Shi'a, but not accepted by Sunni Muslims), one of the members of Hizb al-Ahrar publicly asked for the hand of his young daughter for a pleasure marriage.[54]

Fawda's detractors orchestrated a vicious character assassination campaign, accusing him of being on the payroll of the Israelis.[55] They also spread rumors that he had married his daughter to the son of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.[56] Fawda dismissed such attacks as a symptom of the Islamists' inability to respond to his arguments[57] and remained confident that the word was more powerful that the bullet.[58] He believed that, ultimately, those he called "the enemies of history" would be defeated by reason and progress.[59]

In 1992, a group of teachers from al-Azhar University formed a council to confront the "helpers of evil," "the secularists known for their enmity towards Islam"[60]--with Faraj Fawda at the head of their list. On June 3, 1992, the council issued a communiqué accusing him of blasphemy. Fawda's supporters would later describe that document as "an incitement to murder."[61] Five days later, two members of the Islamist militant group al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya entered Fawda's office and shot him dead. Fawda's son was seriously injured in the attack, together with several bystanders.

The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ma'mun al-Hudaybi, was among the first to welcome and justify the assassination[62] and, during the trial of the murderers, Azhari scholar and former Muslim Brother Muhammad al-Ghazali testified that when the state fails to punish apostates, somebody else has to do it.[63] In Secularists and Traitors, Muhammad Muru wrote that those who condemned Fawda's assassination should also condemn the execution of French collaborators in the hands of the resistance during the Second World War.[64] For his part, the head of the Azhari ulama council published Who Killed Faraj Fawda?. Its conclusion was that Fawda had brought about his own death.[65]

Ana B. Soage holds two degrees, in Politics and Translation, from the London Metropolitan University and the University of Granada. She has lived and worked in several Middle Eastern countries and is currently conducting Ph.D. research in Egypt with a grant from the Spanish government.


[1] A tax imposed on non-Muslims in exchange for the protection of the Islamist state, because they did not serve (in fact, were not allowed to serve) in the army.

[2] For an excellent account of this period, see Gilles Kepel, Le Prophète et Pharaon (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993), translated into English as Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh.

[3] The Sunna is the sum of the reports about Muhammad's words and actions as handed down by his Companions. Those reports are known as ahadith (plural of hadith).

[4] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya bayna al-Jumud wal-Tatarruf (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2001, 1982), p. 20.

[5] This is the more correct transcription of our author's name, although it is often spelled Farag Foda.

[6] Faraj Fawda in Faraj Fawda, Yunan Labib, and Khalim Abd al-Karim, al-Ta'ifiyya... ila Ayna? (Cairo: Dar al-Misri al-Jadid lil-Nashr, 1987), p. 20; Faraj Fawda, Hiwar hawla al-'Almaniyya (Cairo: Dar wa-Matabi al-Mustaqbal and Beirut: Dar al-Ma'arif, 2005), p. 9.

[7] Faraj Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya [Compilation of Press Articles] (Cairo: Al-Amal lil-taba'a wal-nashr, 1994), pp. 207, 315.

[8] Faraj Fawda, Qabla al-Suqut (Cairo: F. A. Fawda, 1985), pp. 159-65.

[9] Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-'Almaniyya, pp. 76-77.

[10] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, p. 312; Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-'Almaniyya, pp. 56-57.

[11] Faraj Fawda, al-Nadhir (Cairo: Dar Misr al-Jadida lil-Nashr wal-tawzi, 1983), p. 83; Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 227-29.

[12] Ibid., pp. 293-97.

[13] Ibid., pp. 302-03.

[14] Reference to the pyramid schemes established by Islamist investment companies in the 1980s, which left thousands of small investors without their savings. Fawda exposed their practices in al-Mal'ub (Dar Misr al-Jadida lil-Nashr wal-tawzi, 1988).

[15] Former Egyptian interior ministers Hasan Abu Basha and Isma'il al-Nabawi and journalist Makram Muhammad Ahmad, who were the targets of assassination attempts in 1987.

[16] Towns in Upper Egypt where Copts have often been the victims of Islamist violence. For an account of the tense inter-communal relations during this period, see Ami Ayalon, "Egypt's Coptic Pandora's Box," in Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor (ed.), Minorities and the State in the Arab World (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1999), pp. 63-67.

[17] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 319-20.

[18] According to the Sunni tradition, the Shi'a believe that zawaj al-mut'a was not forbidden by the prophet but by Umar, the second caliph, and it is still considered halal (legal).

[19] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 265-69.

[20] Ibid., pp. 287-91.

[21] Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-'Almaniyya, pp. 59-62.

[22] Fawda, Qabla al-Suqut, pp. 174-76.

[23] Faraj Fawda, al-Irhab (Cairo: Dar Misr al-Jadida lil-Nashr wal-tawzi, 1988), p. 91.

[24] Ibid., pp. 91-92.

[25] Fawda, Qabla al-Suqut, pp. 176-78; Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 243-48; Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, pp. 50-53.

[26] Fawda, al-Irhab, p. 103.

[27] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 315-16.

[28] Fawda, al-Irhab, p. 104.

[29] Faraj Fawda, Shahid ala al-Asr [Compilation of Press Articles] (Cairo: 1996), pp. 97-98.

[30] Fawda, in Fawda, Labib, and Abd al-Karim, al-Ta'ifiyya... ilà Ayna? pp. 13-16.

[31] Ibid., p. 16-19; see also Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, pp. 22-25.

[32] Fawda, in Fawda, Labib, and Abd al-Karim, al-Ta'ifiyya... ilà Ayna? pp. 20-21; see also Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, p. 82.

[33] Fawda, in Fawda, Labib, and Abd al-Karim, al-Ta'ifiyya... ilà Ayna? p. 21.

[34] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, p. 179; see also Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, pp. 29-30.

[35] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 180-81.

[36] Fawda, al-Irhab, p. 123.

[37] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, p. 182.

[38] Ibid., p. 181.

[39] The title of that book is a reference to al-Farida al-Gha'iba, an influential Islamist pamphlet that identified jihad as the "lost duty" of Islam, on a par with its five pillars: the shahada (proclamation of monotheism), prayer, fast, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Its author, Abd al-Salam Faraj, was executed in 1982 for his involvement in the assassination of Sadat.

[40] Faraj Fawda, al-Haqiqa al-Gha'iba (Cairo: Dar wa-matabi al-Mustaqbal and Beirut: Dar al-Ma'arif, 2003), pp. 25-26.

[41] Ibid., p. 23.

[42] Ibid., pp. 24, 58.

[43] Ibid., p. 149.

[44] Fawda, Qabla al-Suqut, pp. 168-69.

[45] Ibid., pp. 172-74.

[46] Ibid., p. 164.

[47] Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, pp. 20-21, 79-80; Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 188-89, 302.

[48] Fawda, Shahid ala al-Asr, p. 95.

[49] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 187, 221, 314; Fawda, Shahid 'ala al-'Asr, pp. 104-05; Fawda, al-Nadhir, p. 88.

[50] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 186, 304.

[51] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 220-21; Fawda, in Fawda, Labib, and Abd al-Karim, al-Ta'ifiyya... ilà Ayna? p. 12; Fawda, al-Irhab, p. 125.

[52] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, p. 206.

[53] Ibid., p. 262.

[54] Ibid., pp. 271-76.

[55] Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, p. 7.

[56] Amin al-Mahdi, "Muqaddimat al-Nashir fi Ritha Mufakkir Mata Wafiqan," in Faraj Fawda, Zawaj al-Mut'a, http://faragfouda.blogspot.com (last accessed April 2, 2005).

[57] Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-Almaniyya, p. 8.

[58] Fawda, Qabla al-Suqut, p. 189.

[59] Fawda, Faraj Fawda wa-Ma'ariku-hu al-Siyasiyya, pp. 231-37; see also Fawda, al-Nadhir, pp. 78-82, 88-91; Fawda, Hiwar Hawla al-'Almaniyya, p. 31; Fawda, al-Haqiqa al-Gha'iba, p. 152.

[60] Aziz, Abd al-Ghaffar, Man Qatala Faraj Fawda? (Cairo: Dar al-I'lam al-Duwali, 1992), pp. 10, 210.

[61] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[62] Al-Mahdi, "Muqaddimat al-Nashir fi Ritha Mufakkir Mata Wafiqan."

[63] Tamir Moustafa, "Conflict and Cooperation between the State and Religious Institutions in Contemporary Egypt," The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 32 (2000), p. 14. Moustafa has described the Azhari fatwa against Fawda and his subsequent assassination as "perhaps the clearest example of a 'division of labor' that may exist between radical Islamists and al-Azhar shaykhs." Ibid., p. 21, n. 64.

[64] Muhammad Muru, Almaniyyun wa-Khawana (Cairo: Dar Hira, 1996), pp. 31-32. This is the same Muru that Fawda mocked in one of his articles, as mentioned above.

[65] Aziz, Abd al-Ghaffar, Man Qatala Faraj Fawda? p. 211.

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