Baha'i News -- Sufi 'prophet' lands in prison
Sufi 'prophet' lands in prison
By Amil Khan, Cairo Middle East Times staff
The arrest of a 48-year-old man whom authorities claim assumed the mantel of a prophet has all the hallmarks of another
government attempt to portray itself as the 'protector of true Islam', but it also highlights the confusing relationship
between the state and religion in Egypt.
On May 14, court sources told news organizations that they had arrested Sayed Tolba Abu Ali along with 20 followers on
March 24. They are scheduled to stand trial on May 29.
According to the same sources, quoted by news agency AFP, Abu Ali was arrested on charges of defaming Islam.
Four of those detained with him were women who have since been released on bail.
Abu Ali, an employee of the state Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, and the other detainees were remanded in custody. Among
the others still held there are said to be a number of government employees, doctors, and businessmen.
Abu Ali himself is a resident of the middle-class Cairo suburb of Nasr City.
It has been reported that during interrogation
Abu Ali described himself as "the prophet of our time," and claimed to have the ability to heal
Police said that during the arrest they confiscated 33 letters that were supposed to bear the
signature of God, along with a videotape in which Abu Ali claims he is speaking with angels.
Muslim's make up around 90
percent of Egypt's population, and according to Islam the prophet Muhammad is regarded as the last prophet. Anyone claiming
the mantel of prophet-hood is seen as a fake attempting to divide the Muslim community.
But not everyone is convinced
that the government's charges are accurate and the man was actually claiming to be a prophet. "He didn't exactly say he was
a prophet," said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "He is a Sufi and it's
more complicated than that."
Sufism is a widely respected branch of Islam with many different trends, or tariqas, of its
own. Sufis seek a higher level of attachment to God, and the history of Islam has seen some highly respected Sufi thinkers
such as Omar Khayyam and Al Ghazali.
But Sufis have also been prosecuted for unorthodox beliefs. The most common charge
stems from believers' assertions that once they have attained the highest level of attachment they have effectively become
one with God.
Abu Seada says that Abu Ali was not proclaiming himself a prophet in the way the government has claimed.
Whatever Abu Ali's level of spiritual attainment, the question that still remains is, what connection does the government
have with a purely religious matter in a country that is supposed to be secular.
The answer lies in the government's
multi-faceted public relations campaign. Towards America and the West in general, Egypt presents itself as a secular
democracy, but towards its religion-conscious citizens the government portrays itself as the upholder of traditional
"This is one of those cases where the government imprisons its Islamic opposition on the one hand and
balances that by prosecuting those on the fringes of orthodox Islam on the other," says Abu Seada.
He adds that by coming
down hard on both sides and portraying them both as religiously deviant, the government can make itself look like it
"represents and upholds the correct version of Islam."
"The government uses an article in the second chapter of the penal
code that makes it possible to prosecute anyone using religion to make money or those that publish articles which are taken
to defame religion," says Abu Seada.
He goes on to explain that under the emergency law (in force for over 20 years), all
crimes covered by the second chapter of the penal code are dealt with by the state security misdemeanors court and not the
regular civil courts.
This is not the first case of its kind in Egypt. Last year, a woman known as Sheikha Manal was
sentenced to five years in prison for "defaming religion." In March this year, in a case known as Matariya, eight people
were arrested in connection with espousing an interpretation of Islam that the authorities didn't agree with.
also points out the difficulties that members of the Bahai religion have to put up with. "Bahais are prevented from entering
the country and if an Egyptian insists on putting 'Bahai' on his identity card as his religion, then he may have a very hard
©Copyright 2002, The Middle East Times
Page last updated/revised 020708
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page