Immediately after Egypt's Facebook revolution culminated in the resignation of President Mubarak, Rashid at the Arabic TV program Daring Question had this interview with a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is now a Christian. Ibrahim's demeanor and speech might correspond with his background as a simple Egyptian villager, but he is an intelligent man with the famous stubbornness and humor of Egypt's fellaheen. What I found interesting from a linguistic point of view is that, as is often the case in similar interviews, he started out speaking his best formal Arabic but quickly lapsed into his rural dialect as he excitedly became immersed in his subject.
As could be expected, Rashid's first question was what Ibrahim thought of recent events in Egypt. "What is happening in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world brings much joy to our hearts," replied Ibrahim. "Egyptians are revolting against political oppression as are other Latin American and non-Arab countries that have lived under oppression. Men and women are standing together for their human dignity, which makes me feel happy and proud as an Egyptian and an Arab. The true meaning of Arabism is when Arabs rise up for their honor and refuse dictatorship and repression. You only get one life. If you live it in freedom, you can truly be said to have lived a life of dignity."
When asked about his background, Ibrahim said he was a simple Egyptian villager surrounded by people struggling to make a living. His education began in the village Kuttab, where he learned to read by memorizing the Quran. "If I could meet today the Shaykh who taught us," said Ibrahim, "I would bow before him and kiss his hands. He taught me to read and write, and how to follow my conscience. He awakened in me the sense of right and wrong, and people rarely leave the life principles they learn as a child."
"I then began elementary school," continued Ibrahim, "Where we learned many beautiful Ayahs of the Quran that caused us to reflect upon God's creation, such as "In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, and in the ships sailing through the seas carrying cargo beneficial to mankind ....are signs for people of understanding (Quran 2:164)".
Rashid's next question whether his parents were ordinary or fervent Muslims led to Ibrahim's analysis of the word Mutashedid (definitions of this word range from "fervent" to "extreme"). "My parents were not extremists," said Ibrahim, "But actually to be Mutashedid is not a part of the Egyptian personality. The term Islamic extremist is a very fluid expression. We describe people as "extremists" or non-extremists".
"What I meant," interrupted Rashid, "Was your father fervent in the practices of Islam, such as growing his beard but shaving his moustache, wearing Islamic dress, saying the prayers five times a day including the Salat Fajr (dawn prayer), and regularly reading the Quran?"
Ibrahim replied that his parents were not fervent to that extent, but continued with his definition of Mutashedid. "We have limited the word "extremist" to particular Islamic organizations," he said, "But the fact is I can be a moderate Muslim but have attitudes that are extreme. I can simply hear the word Masihi (Christian), and feel a strong negative feeling rise within me. A Masihi? He is Najis (impure) and a Mushrik (unbeliever)! May God protect me from him! A Muslim can be moderate, without a beard and wearing Western clothes, but still have these automatic reactions when he hears the word Christian. He has been raised to believe the best people are Muslim."
"In high school," continued Ibrahim, "I met two young men at the mosque who were extremely polite, well-cultured, and deep thinkers as compared to the general public. They befriended me and invited me to some Quran memorization sessions. I still remember the first Sura we memorized. It was Al Mulk (Dominion) which begins, Blessed is the One in whose hand is dominion, who is able to do all things, who has created life and death to test which of you have the best deeds (Quran 67). Then we memorized Al Maarij (Quran 70), which describes the tortures of hell for all who do not believe in Muhammad. Surat Ya Sin (Quran 36) was our favorite, because it compares the joys of Paradise with the torment of those who reject Allah's Messenger.
"Did you know then," asked Rashid, "That they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood?"
"I had never heard of the Muslim Brotherhood," replied Ibrahim, "And they made no mention of the organization. It was only when some Sufis began to complain to my father that I had left them to associate with the Muslim Brotherhood that I learned who they were."
"I had gone a few times to Sufi meetings," continued Ibrahim, "Where we sat and practiced Dhikr (repeating aloud the names of God). I thought they were nice people, but shallow in comparison to my Muslim Brotherhood friends. We would sit and repeat again and again the names of God - Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, Allah al-Rahman ar-Rahim, Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim (God the Compassionate, the Merciful One). I thought, This is fine, but then what? I was also upset that they had gone behind my back to complain to my father."
When Rashid asked if his father was upset with him, Ibrahim replied, "Yes, indeed. He told me not to associate with the Brotherhood anymore, and I told him I would. He then beat me, which made me even more determined. I am very stubborn in everything."
"I can see that," commented Rashid.
"Well," countered Ibrahim, "If you are going to believe in something, then believe in it! I began to read the books of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the 18th century Saudi founder of Wahhabism) and really liked them. People say they are extreme, but they are only interested in going back to the Asl (source) of Islam. They argue that the Salaf (original) is better than Takleed (imitation). Isn't having the original of anything better than having the imitation?"
"So," asked Rashid, "You became more extreme?"
"You can call it Mutashedid," replied Ibrahim, "But I saw it as imitating the Prophet in everything he did. It all depends on how you see things. When I meet someone now who sees things differently than I do, I don't get upset. I realize he sees things from his Zawiah (perspective), which is different than mine"
"My father threatened to disown me if I continued to meet with the Muslim Brothers," continued Ibrahim. "But I did. This was the most severe thing - I couldn't see how my father could threaten to cut me off just because of my association with them."
"Then one of our neighbors, with my father's permission, took all my Salafist books and burned them. This was extremely difficult for me - to this day I feel sad when I think of how he burned those books (comment: like the day my brother burned my Elvis records). That was the greatest crime anyone has ever committed against me. Why? Because you don't end a person's thinking by burning his books. You give people freedom to spread their ideas, and if you don't like them you argue against them. I tell Salafists today I welcome their spreading their ideas. But how can ideas spread if you destroy the books of those who oppose you? At the same time I criticize Salafists who take copies of the New Testament and throw them in the garbage. Brother, accept the humanity of the other, and may he accept your humanity as well."
"But now you are a Christian," noted Rashid, "How did you first become interested in Christianity?"
"Even though I was with the Muslim Brotherhood," replied Ibrahim, "Something about Christianity attracted me from the inside. I would see the cross on churches, the smiles of the Copts, their humility and calm, their lack of shouting and fighting. They were hated and oppressed, but they were kind."
"Is that true of all Copts?" asked Rashid. "They aren't all like that, are they?"
"I'm talking about the Copts I saw in the villages," replied Ibrahim. "The Copts I knew among the fellaheen were like that. You felt you were with the Christians of the first century. Their quietness and inner beauty attracted me. When I first asked them what in their religion made them like that, they replied, "God is love." I was shocked - the idea that God is love does not exist in the Quran. The teaching about God in the Quran is completely different than that of the New Testament. The entire Injil can be summarized in one phrase - God is love. If you read only that one phrase, you have understood the entire New Testament."
"I wanted to convince Christians of the truth of Islam," continued Ibrahim. "I was eager to spread Islam. I began to correspond with Christians, and send them Islamic books. I wanted to turn Christians into Muslims, and have other Muslims more committed to Islam."
"Wait a minute," interrupted Rashid. "You just said you were attracted to Christians."
"It's not that simple," replied Ibrahim. "It's not black and white. Even though you like them, you feel you have to convert them. Your religion tells you it is the only religion accepted by God (Quran 3:19), and everyone else is condemned. You think, Ya Haram, (Oh my goodness) all those nice people are going to hell. I have to do something."
"I ordered a New Testament through the mail and began to read it to find its mistakes. I listened continuously to Anasheed (hymns) about Muhammad, as well as poems and lectures about him. I myself wrote poetry praising him. Then I began to listen to Christian radio programs and loved to mock them. Look at what they are saying...they say Jesus is the Son of God....hahaha!"
'I began to read the Old Testament as well, and made a list of all the contradictions I found. I soon had a list of 23 questions. I said, If they can answer all these questions to my satisfaction I will become a Christian, but if they can't they need to become Muslim."
"My questions weren't new question," continued Ibrahim. "They were the same questions Muslims have been asking for centuries, such as how could Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:24)? How could a mere human being wrestle with Almighty God?"
"But something unexpected happened. The more I read the Bible, the more I found myself confronted with the personality of Jesus. I felt as if I was in front of an indescribable light. It seemed as if I were reading a living book, with Jesus speaking to me face to face. I realized the purpose of the words I was reading was not merely to give me instruction, but to change my heart."
"Even the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi (1869-1932) experienced this," continued Ibrahim. "He wrote in one of his poems,
"Mercy began with the birth of Isa (Jesus),
Isa, your way was mercy, love, perfection and peace to the world,
You did not come to shed blood,
The weak and orphans were not insignificant to you,
You are the bearer of the sufferings of the world,
And yet sufferings are multiplied in your name.
You made the world into one family,
But in your name relationships are severed."
"I faced a great struggle," said Ibrahim. "The person of Jesus attracted me, but I did not want to be a Murtedd (apostate), a Kafir (unbeliever). I realized I had to choose, because the Jesus of the Gospel is much different than the Isa of the Quran. My religion told me that when I prayed with my face on the carpet, I was as close to God as I would ever be. I prayed in that position continuously, "God show me the truth. If it is in Muhammad, show me. If it is in Jesus, show me."
"After a week of intense prayer," continued Ibrahim, "Jesus appeared to me in a dream and said, "I love you" (comment: I commented on another ex-Muslim and his dream here). What shocked me was that this love was his initiative, not mine. Islam tells me what is Halal and what is Haram, what to do and what not to do, but the message of Christianity is, "This is my life and I offer it to you." I woke from the dream with tears on my face. Even today, years later, I consider this dream the turning point in my life."
"I realized I was no longer a Muslim," continued Ibrahim, "But I continued going to the mosque because I did not want people to consider me a Murtedd, an apostate. One day, however, a friend said to me, "What has happened to you? You have changed, and become like one of them." When I asked who was the "them" he was talking about, he replied, "The Christians. Your speech betrays you."
"I began to pray," said Ibrahim, "And it seemed as if God was answering many of my prayers. One person began to give me a really hard time, and I asked God to help me. Soon afterwards, he was transferred to another location. I began to write down my experiences and my answered prayers in a journal I kept in my room. One day someone took my journal, made copies of all I had written, and distributed it all around the village. The next Friday I was beaten up in front of the Mosque. National Security arrested me and tried to persuade me to return to Islam. They showed me the same problems in the Bible as if they thought I was seeing them for the first time. But I remembered the words of my Savior - what is said in darkness will be shouted from the rooftops. Now I am shouting my experience from the rooftop. They lost, but I won."
"So you left Egypt?" asked Rashid.
"I was forced to," replied Ibrahim. "I left Egypt, never to return."
"Was it difficult?"
"Of course it was," said Ibrahim. "A person is torn from his roots. I've discovered that no matter how much I master English, it will never be my language."
Comment: Egypt now stands at a crossroads. No one knows how many people, like Ibrahim, have been forced to leave simply for exercising a freedom of choice that we in the West take for granted. Will Egypt continue to oppress those who decide that Muhammad is not their flavor of choice, or will it continue to practice his 7th century dictate that those born Muslim have no choice but to follow him?