Apostasy in Contemporary Egypt: The Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

By Jiou Park

As discussed in the previous posts, blasphemy and apostasy laws apply in contemporary Muslim majority societies. The application of such laws, in practice, can take differing forms depending on the legal system and surrounding circumstances. In the Egyptian context, the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd provides an excellent example of how prosecutors and courts can use apostasy laws even when that crime is not criminalized on the books. In particular, the Abu Zayd case illustrates the civil consequences and the non-legal or extra-legal ramifications of an apostasy decision.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was a prominent Egyptian thinker and professor who was known for his liberal theology and humanistic Qur’anic hermeneutics.[1] Born in 1943, he received a BA in Arabic Studies and an MA and PhD in Islamic Studies from Cairo University on his work on Qur’anic interpretation.[2] Abu Zayd joined the Department of Arabic Literature at Cairo University as a faculty member in 1982, where he taught until 1994.[3]

Following the apostasy charge in 1995, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad issued a death threat against Abu Zayd.[4] This resulted in Abu Zayd and his wife fleeing to the Netherlands, where he taught as the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics. In 2005, Abu Zayd received the Ibn Rushd prize for Freedom of Thought.[5] Abu Zayd passed away in 2010 due to a virus infection.

As mentioned, in contrast to blasphemy, apostasy in itself is not criminalized in Egyptian law. Although insult to religion is codified as a crime in article 98(f) of the Egyptian penal code (link to commentary 1 discussing the legislative history of blasphemy and apostasy laws in Egypt), changing or renouncing religion by a Muslim is not criminalized on the books under the current Egyptian legal regime.[6]

However, this lack of criminal legislation does not mean that the decision that a Muslim has changed or renounced her religion leads to no consequences. To the contrary, such a finding can result in various legal or non-legal sanctions. Legal sanctions in this case are imposed through the use of personal status law, particularly in the realm of marriage and inheritance.[7]

A decision by the highest civil court of Egypt, the Court of Cassation, stating that “[a]postasy is in a way equal to death” emblematizes the import an apostasy decision can have.[8] Due to the far-reaching consequences of apostasy decisions, apostasy accusations are often brought in order to settle disputes in matters of inheritance or custody disputes.[9] Such legal sanctions are largely established through case law, due to the absence of existing legal provisions.[10]

In addition, accusation or declaration of and individual as an apostate can result in significant non-legal or extra-legal consequences from the community or extremist groups.

In 1993, a group of lawyers brought suit against Aby Zayd at the Court of First Instance in Giza, Cairo.[11] Due to the lack of a provision explicitly criminalizing apostasy, the suit was brought as a demand for divorce between Abu Zayd and his wife, based on the claim that Abu Zayd had committed apostasy.[12] However, the court of first instance rejected the suit based on article 5 of the Code of Civil and Commercial Procedure, which stipulates that a plaintiff can only bring suit if she has an “existing interest which is legally recognized.”[13]

Following an appeal, the Court of Appeals of Cairo decided that due to the principle of hisba, which assigns an Islamic duty to each Muslim to protect the religion, the suit was indeed valid.[14] This decision by the Court of Appeals to accept the suit meant that in order to reach a decision, the Court would also need to determine whether Abu Zayd was an apostate based on the evidence submitted by the plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals examined the writings of Abu Zayd, and determined that Abu Zayd had indeed committed apostasy.[15] This ruling was based on the determination that Abu Zayd’s writings were heretical, because they contradicted the verses of the Qur’an and their “true” interpretation.[16]

The Court’s declaration of Abu Zayd as an apostate, although not in itself a criminal charge, nonetheless resulted in serious legal consequences. The relevance of the individual’s religious affiliation in matters of personal status, marriage, inheritance, among others, means that the individual declared to be an apostate and consequently a non-Muslim will face serious legal ramifications in all such areas.[17] Consequently, in June 1995, the Court of Appeal of Cairo decreed that Abu Zayd and his wife Dr. Ibtihal Mohammed Yunes be legally separated, since marriage with an apostate by a Muslim woman would be considered adultery.[18] This decree was in the complete absence of any desire from either Abu Zayd or Dr. Yunes, effectively amounting to a forced separation of a legally married couple. Although both Abu Zayd and the prosecution appealed the case, the Court of Cassation, the highest Egyptian civil court, upheld the order of dissolution of Abu Zayd and Dr. Yunes’s marriage in August 1996.[19]

Publicly denouncing an individual as an apostate or as having committed blasphemy can have serious non-legal and extra-legal consequences, with or without a court judgment.[20] Such consequences can range from rejection from immediate or extended family, ostracization and harassment by the community sometimes followed by expulsion, as well as threats to personal security sometimes resulting in deathly attacks.[21] In the case of Abu Zayd, the apostasy judgement led to a public death threat by the Egyptian Islamic Jihadist Group.[22] Such security threats, in addition to the annulment of Aby Zayd’s marriage, eventually led Abu Zayd and his wife to flee Egypt to the Netherlands by way of Spain.[23]

Unfortunately, Abu Zayd’s case was far from unique. During the 1990s, apostasy accusations were often used in order to regulate speech by liberal thinkers by fundamentalist individuals and groups.[24] For example, the film director Youssef Chahine,[25] Nobel Laureate and novelist Naguib Mahfouz,[26] writer Nawal El-Saadawi,[27] and university professor Atif al-Iraqi are among other liberal thinkers who were brought to court or received violent threats and attacks due to their works. Apostasy and blasphemy accusations continue to be relevant in Egypt after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, as can be seen in the recent cases that resulted in lawsuits and imprisonments of various authors and activists, as well as ordinary citizens.[28]


[1] Works of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd include: Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2006; Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics, Utrecht, Humanistic University Press, 2004; Voice of an Exile, Reflections on Islam, New York, Praeger Publishers, 2004.

[2] For more biographical information on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, see Reuters, Nasr Abu Zayd, Who Stirred Debate on Koran, Dies at 66, The New York Times, Jul. 6, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/world/middleeast/06zayd.html; Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Islamopedia Online, http://www.islamopediaonline.org/profile/nasr-hamid-abu-zayd; curriculum vitae available at http://www.ibn-rushd.org/English/CV.Abu-Zaid-E.htm

[3] Id.

[4] The Egyptian Islamic Jihad was a militant group advocating for the Islamicization of the Egyptian government and the overthrow of its secular regime. Although initially an independent organization, it has since been largely absorbed into the al Qaeda network. For more information on the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, see Holly Fletcher, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Council on Foreign Relations, May 30, 2008, available at http://www.cfr.org/egypt/egyptian-islamic-jihad/p16376.

[5] Ibn Rushd Organization, Press Release, To Whom does Islam really belong? The reformer of Islam Nasr Abu Zayd receives the Ibn-Rushd-Prize 2005, available at http://www.ibn-rushd.org/English/PM.E-05.Abu-Zayd.htm

[6] Maurit S. Berger, “Apostasy and Public Policy in Contemporary Egypt: An Evaluation of Recent Cases from Egypt’s Highest Courts,” Human Rights Quarterly 23 720-740, 2003, 721-23; Baber Johansen, “Apostasy as Objective and Depersonalized Fact: Two Recent Egyptian Court Judgments,” Social Research 70, no. 3 (2003), http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/ is_3_70/ai_110737774/pg_6/?tag=content;col1; Freedom House, Policing Belief, The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights, at 26.

[7] Berger, supra note 6.

[8] Court of Cassation, No. 20, Year 34, Mar. 30 1966; No. 162, Year 26, May 16 1995.

[9] Berger, supra note 6 at 723-24.

[10] Id.

[11] The full texts of legal documents related to the Abu Zayd case are available in French in Baudouin Dupret and M.S Berger trans., Jurisprudence Abu Zayd, http://ema.revues.org/1524.

[12] Court of First Instance Giza, case no. 591, Year 1993, Jan. 27, 1994.

[13] Code of Civil and Commercial Procedure, law no. 462, Art. 5 (1955).

[14] Appeal Court of Cairo, appeal no. 287, Year 111, Jun. 14, 1995.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. For a detailed discussion of the decision, see also Kilian Balz, “Submitting Faith to Judicial Scrutiny Through the Family Trial: The “Abu Zayd Case,”” Die Welt des Islams, 37(2), 135-155, 1997.

[17] For more information on the relevance of religion in Egypt’s legal system, see [link to Egypt country profile]

[18] Appeal Court of Cairo, appeal no. 287, Year 111, Jun. 14, 1995.

[19] Court of Cassation, appeals no. 475, 478, 481, year 65, Aug. 5, 1996.

[20] Such non-legal and extra-legal consequences are not unique to Egypt. For a detailed discussion of extra-legal violence directed towards individuals accused of apostasy or blasphemy, see Freedom House, Policing Belief, The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights.

[21] Id.

[22] Alistair Lyon, Dogma cloys debate in Arab world: Islamic scholar, Reuters, May 1, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/05/01/us-islam-scholar-idUSL0167412620080501.

[23] Id.

[24] For an analysis of the Abu Zayd case as a result of ideological differences between Abu Zayd and Islamists, and the relationship between civil society and the judiciary, see Mona Abaza, “Civil Society and Islam in Egypt: The Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Journal of Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, 2(2), 29-42, 1995.

[25] For more information on Youssef Chahine, see Official Website of Youssef Chahine, http://www.youssefchahine.us/index2.html; Lee Keath, Youssef Chahine, 82, Egyptian film director, boston.com, Aug. 1, 2008, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2008/08/01/youssef_chahine_82_egyptian_film_director/.

[26] See, e.g., Fauzi M. Najjar, “Islamic Fundamentalism and the Intellectuals: the Case of Naguib Mahfouz,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 25(1), 139-168 (1998); Trevor le Gassick, Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute, openDemocracy, Sep. 1, 2006, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Literature/mahfouz_3869.jsp.

[27] For more on the Nawal aAl Sadaawi case, see BBC New, Egypt apostasy trial adjourned, Jul. 9, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1430497.stm.

[28] See, e.g., Mariam Rizk, Egypt’s media regulator issues warnings to controversial show discussing Islam, Apr. 6 2015, ahramonline, available at http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/127052/Egypt/Politics-/Egypts-media-regulator-issues-warning-to-controver.aspx; Sarah Lynch, In Egypt, atheists considered a “dangerous development,” Feb. 1, 2015, USA TODAY, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/02/01/egypt-atheists/22038645/;  Michael Wahid Hanna, The Blasphemy Brigade, Jan. 12, 2015, Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/12/the-blasphemy-brigade-egypt-france-charlie-hebdo/; Mona Eltahawy, Egypt’s War on Atheism, Jan. 27, 2015, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/opinion/mona-eltahawy-egypts-war-on-atheism.html; Aswat Masriya, “Egyptian Arabic Booker winner faces blasphemy charges, February 24, 2013, http://en.aswatmasriya.com/news/view.aspx?id=2bf8ed19-abe1-43a1-9dcc-16df814b864e, last accessed March 22, 2015.

Leave a Reply