Ramadan talk show questions Salafi dogmas

Ahmed Abu Haiba, the host of a new talk show this Ramadan, has an ambitious agenda. He hopes that his daily show “To Reassure My Heart” can critically engage the current Islamist political discourse and deconstruct many of its most basic assumptions.

“We keep hearing expressions like ‘Islamic frame of reference,’ ‘hudud,’ ‘implementation of Islamic Sharia.’ But what do they mean?” Abu Haiba said in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“The citizen knows these slogans but doesn’t understand what they mean. Even groups that use those terms don’t understand what they mean.”

“To Reassure My Heart” hit the waves of the privately owned Al-Tahrir satellite channel on 1 August, the first day of holy month of Ramadan.

Every afternoon, Abu Haiba hosts a well-established scholar who specializes in Islamic Sharia to spend more than an hour delving into some of the most controversial and timely issues, including the meaning of an Islamic state, the obligations of a Muslim ruler, the rules of ijtihad (legal opinion making) and making fatwas, jihad, the rights of non-Muslim minorities, and the relevance of Islamic capital punishments known as hudud.

In many of the episodes, Abu Haiba’s guests challenge claims made by Salafi groups that have gained in prominence since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Salafis have recently become vocal in demanding the establishment of an Islamic state where the hudud should be enforced, all un-Islamic individual practices should be addressed, and the banking system allegedly based on usury should be abolished.

Abu Haiba has taken it upon himself to examine the validity of these claims in his show.

The issue of hudud provides a clear example.

While Salafis hold that a thief’s hand should be cut off, and those who commit adultery should be stoned to death, one of Abu Haiba’s guests downplayed the importance of such punishment, arguing that they are enforced in very rare cases. The guest, Saad Eddin al-Helaly, professor of Comparative Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, made it clear that capital punishments can only be imposed under exceptional circumstances.

Abu Haiba’s show challenged other Salafi dogmas by arguing that there is nothing un-Islamic about banks charging interest. One of his interviewees, a professor of Sharia law, condoned the current banking system, arguing that the reversal of banking rules might destabilize the economy and hence inflict harm, a risk that Islam would not endorse.

By examining these matters, the show touches on contentious issues that lie at the heart of the Islamist-secular divide opened up by the 25 January revolution.

In recent months, feuds over the identity of the state have intensified with ultra-conservative Salafis arguing that a religious political order should be instated and secular lobby for a separation between state and religion.

By offering a more complex understanding of Islam, his show can heel the rift between Islamists and secularists, the 43-year-old host argued.  

“The show can make both parties meet midway,” said Abu Haiba. He believes that, rather than seeking to remove Islam from Egyptian politics all together, secularists can realize that it does not bear the non-negotiable commandments that Salafis preach.

In the meantime, if Salafis understand their religion “properly,” they will give up some of their “exaggerated” views, said Abu Haiba.

In one of his most controversial episodes, Abu Haiba exposed some of these exaggerated views by asking potential Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail his definition of “Islamic State.”

With his sharply-phrased questions and soft-spoken tone, Abu Haiba made his interviewee unveil the truth of his political outlook, which infringes flagrantly on individual rights and liberties. The Salafi presidential hopeful made it clear that a Muslim ruler is required to force women, including non-Muslim ones, to wear headscarves and men to perform weekly congregational prayers.

“I believe [the current Islamist discourse] is more emotional than rational. It lacks a vision,” said Abu Haiba.

Abu Haiba’s show is different from most religious shows being aired during Ramadan. “To Reassure my Heart” deviates from broadcasts that either ponder the performance of religious rituals or narrate stories of Prophet Mohamed’s companions.

“For many years, we have been talking about the same issues,” said Abu Haiba. “We have been teaching people how to pray and perform ablutions, while they aren’t in need of that because they already learn these things at home or in schools.”

“Also, by talking about the [prophet’s] companions and followers, Islam appears like legendary stories comparable to bedtime tales, which takes religion away from its mundane aspects,” he said.

Drawing links between faith and life has been one of Abu Haiba’s priorities since he entered the world of televised religion. In the late 1990s, Abu Haiba, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, began his career as a television producer. He teamed up with friend Amr Khaled, who later became one of Egypt’s most prominent preachers. Together, they launched a series of religious shows modeled after Western tele-evengelical broadcasts. Their first stint was “Words From the Heart,” which sought to depart from the traditional religious discourse and to make religion more connected to people’s lives.

In 2008, he appeared as a host for the first time on the Saudi-funded 4Shabab satellite channel. He had hosted two shows named “In a Nutshell” and “Signs.”

Throughout his career, his unconventional religious discourse failed to please Saudi investors who own most religious satellite channels. Eventually, he decided to cofound Al-Tahrir channel, along with prominent dissident journalist Ibrahim Eissa, seeking to liberate himself from the control of conservative Saudi owners and to liberate his viewers from a religious discourse that sanctifies blind approval of what they hear.

“We are calling for the liberation of mindsets. Islam is a religion based on reason in the first place… As a Muslim, I should not put my reason aside,” said Abu Haiba.

However, “To Reassure my Heart” might fail to influence large segments of Egyptian viewers given the sophistication of the arguments presented and the language of the show’s guests, including terms coined centuries ago by early Muslim jurists. The show’s discourse makes it hard for it to connect with population, nearly one third of which is illiterate.

Abu Haiba acknowledges this problem, but explains that he targets educated and influential viewers who in turn can spread the word to the less educated.

“I know that the show is not necessarily a popular one but I’m confident that it will bring about serious changes,” said Abu Haiba.

After Ramadan ends, the show is expected to go weekly.

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