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EGYPT: Religion and a defiant author

March 15, 2009 |  8:29 am

Youssef_ziedan “Cut evil tongues, throw them with their sins into the sea. ... Know that our God, Jesus Christ, was addressing us, His children in all times, when He said: I did not come to bring peace to earth but a sword.”

With this incendiary sermon in his latest novel, Youssef Ziedan drew a portrait of St. Cyril, one of the 5th century's canonized popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. By projecting the image of a pope resistant to theological debate, and by shedding light on what the author contended were concealed moments of violence in the early centuries of the Coptic Church, Ziedan’s new novel, “Beelzebub,” has shocked the Coptic community. At first glance, some might conclude the novel targets the church exclusively. A deeper read, however, exposes a controversial Muslim author with  strikingly unconventional views on monotheistic religions in a society steeped in religious conservatism.

Ziedan, in an interview in Alexandria, said in a defiant tone that  his work aimed at challenging the monopoly claimed by different religious institutions over the truth of faith and history. “I don’t deconstruct the text, but I reexamine the religious institution and religious heritage,” said Ziedan. “I analyze religious knowledge and consciousness.”

Yet, this is not the crux of Ziedan’s views. His critique goes beyond the role of religious institutions to the essence of monotheistic religions: “The substance is the same; it is based on the superiority of oneself over others under the pretext of possessing a god who owns the truth. This element of superiority is the same in all three religions, which gives rise to violence. As long as religions last, violence will persist. ”

Azazel_cover The novel features a 5th century Egyptian monk in Alexandria and delves into the history of divisions among fathers of the church over the nature of Christ. The work sympathizes with sects that challenged the divine nature of Christ, and it quickly ignited fury within the Coptic Church, which has about 10 million followers in Egypt.

The book was dismissed by the church as the Arabic version of "The Da Vinci Code" and as an attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of the Coptic Church and destroy the Christian faith.

Aside from the church, some lay Copts decided to take the author to court in an attempt to ban the novel. The controversy has been good for sales. In almost a year, the book went into its fourth printing -- quite a breakthrough by Egyptian standards. The book also drew the attention of many literary critics at home and abroad. It recently has been  short-listed for an International Prize for Arabic Fiction, co-managed by the Booker Prize foundation in London. The winner is expected to be announced Monday (March 16).

Ziedan, an Islamic philosophy scholar who introduces himself as a Sufi thinker, has written more than 30 books. He serves as the director of manuscripts and acquisitions at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. "Beelzebub," published in January 2008, is his second work of historical fiction. His first, “Shadow of the Serpent,” came out in 2006 and glorified prehistoric pagan civilizations over Semitic monotheistic ones.

His new novel’s title is imbued with connotations that might be perceived as seriously dangerous by any religious leader. Unlike in classical religious thought, Beelzebub (Satan) is not cursed as the voice of evil but implicitly hailed as the voice of human reason, which pushes the protagonist throughout the novel to question the universe around him.  It is the voice of doubt, passion, rebellion, instinct and intuition. In a nutshell, Ziedan argued that Beelzebub is the reflection of real human nature rather than the “puritanical” Utopian version promoted by religion.

“Beelzebub is the isolated part of the human being,” said Ziedan. “This part or this real human being has been obscured by religious structures.  Religion provides us with a puritanical dream, which can never be realized because it goes against human nature.”

Ziedan is taking great risk in espousing such an outlook in this society. The 51-year-old author likely has earned enemies besides the church.  There are known instances when Egyptian intellectuals who challenged religious dogmas were killed, faced assassination attempts or became mired in legal chases by Islamic fundamentalists.

—Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photos: Top, Ziedan. Lower, "Beelzebub" cover. Credit: Youssef Ziedan   

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