The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East
Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh
The Islamic Struggle in Syria
Interpretations of Islam: Past and Present
The Political Language of Islam
After the arrest and trial of the members of the al-Jihad group who plotted and carried out the assassination of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981, Egyptian journals became the forum for an informal debate between the men in the dock in a Cairo courtroom and leading members of Egypt’s Muslim clergy. The case for the killers was made both in courtroom testimony and in a treatise, “The Neglected Duty,” by the Jihad’s ideologue, Abd al-Salam Faraj, who was sentenced to death and executed in 1982 along with the four assassins. Among those who argued the unofficial case for the prosecution in the press was Shaykh Ali Jadd al-Haqq, the Mufti, or chief religious dignitary, of Egypt. He issued a twenty-five-page refutation of Faraj’s treatise.
The Mufti’s text argued with Faraj over the conditions under which the Prophet had declared jihad, or holy war, in seventh-century Arabia. He took issue with Faraj’s readings of the rulings of the medieval Islamic jurist Ibn Taymiyya and of the “verse of sword” in the Koran (“Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, seize them, beset them, lie in ambush for them everywhere”). He seized on Faraj’s allegation that the Mongols, who established themselves as rulers over the Islamic lands in the thirteenth century, were infidels rather than Muslims. Like Faraj, the Mufti quoted copiously from the Koran and medieval Islamic jurists to support his views.
These arguments, about events and texts many centuries old, obviously addressed contemporary issues. Ibn Taymiyya had described the Mongols as unbelievers. Faraj cited this in order to imply that Sadat was another iniquitous ruler, governing a Mongol-like state where Islamic law no longer prevailed, and thus a fitting target for rebellion, or even holy war. The “neglected duty” that Faraj made the central point of his treatise was the duty to struggle against unbelievers, even if this meant carrying jihad into one’s own society. Not surprisingly, the Mufti of Egypt produced his own medieval texts and Koranic quotations to refute Faraj.
The battle over texts between Sadat’s assassins and their critics is the subject of Johannes Jansen’s book and also the subject of Gilles Kepel’s more broadly conceived and incisive study of the Islamic movement in Egypt. Both books illustrate, as Emmanuel Sivan puts it, “the subjective presence of the past in the minds of contemporary Muslims”—an inclination in Egypt, as in other Middle East countries, to invoke the language and symbolism of Islam to address broadly political purposes and to compete for the possession of the Islamic past in order more effectively to set the agenda for the present.
In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries opposition movements have used Islam, and the ideal of the early Islamic community, to try to discredit and delegitimize existing regimes, to satisfy longings for authenticity, to assert an Islamic/nationalist identity against what they conceived of as overwhelming Western influence and alien ways, and often to articulate the aspirations of upwardly mobile classes. The Islamic movement in Egypt…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.