CAIRO — Egypt in theory has no censorship law, but books published here come under the scrutiny of Al Azhar, the Muslim world's highest seat of Sunni learning. If texts are considered blasphemous to Islam, Al Azhar supposedly has the authority to have them confiscated. But Al Azhar's prerogative has been put to the test in recent months, highlighting the tensions between religion and government.
A Sufi-inspired book "Commandments for Loving Women," by Ahmad Al Shihawi, was drawn to the attention of Al Azhar in September by an Islamist member of parliament. The government-run publishing house, the General Egyptian Book Organization, banned the book initially, but the next day allowed it to be sold, calling Al Azhar's opinion merely "advisory."
The repercussions of this slight were felt in the heart of old Islamic Cairo. Al Azhar University, an imposing building with twin minarets, houses the Islamic Research Council, which reviews books the sheikhs deem related to Islam.
Sheikh Saber Thaalab, one of the 45-member council that banned Mr. Shihawi's book, defended Al Azhar's opinion. "The book includes the recommendation to women, advising them to fall deeply in love with their beloved. Not their husband!" he said, banging his fist on a pile of books.
Yet, despite Al Azhar's indignant report on the book, the government is taking no action. "The Egyptian government is caught between a domestic and international dilemma," says Adel Abdel Moneim, a scholar of Islamic literature. "[President Hosni] Mubarak wants to be for the people. He wants a government of good Muslims, but wants to sell a democratic image abroad."
A second controversy has pitted the government against Al Azhar this time over "Discourse and Interpretation" (2000). The author, Nasser Hamid Abu Zeid, is no stranger to Al Azhar's disapproval. In an earlier book, he argued that the Koran should be interpreted in light of the politics of the time - a view condemned by Islamists, who took him to court and won. He was declared an apostate and fled the country, although the ruling was later suspended. However, his case polarized intellectuals and Islamists in the 1990s.
In Abu Zeid's latest book, he discusses the way sheikhs present themselves, and the way they carry prayer beads to add weight to their words, for instance. Sheikh Mohammad Aymara, who initiated the ban, reportedly felt personally attacked in the book. The government has yet to declare its position.
Egypt's 300 publishers release about 15,000 new books a year, a tiny number compared with most Western countries. Al Azhar reviews about a thousand of those and bans perhaps 20 a year, according to the university.
The strength of Al Azhar's "recommendations" has always been influenced by the political climate. The first book to be censored in 1925 epitomized the struggle between religious and political power. "The Principles of Governing in Islam" argued that there were no fixed rules for governing in Islam.
Protective of its power, Al Azhar says it acts as a guardian of Sunni morality. And no one is exempt from its censure. In 1959, Naguib Mahfouz, later a Nobel Laureate, was reprimanded for his novel "Children of the Alley." Halfway through its newspaper serialization in Al Ahram, a report was sent to the sheikhs saying the story was irreverent. An agreement was reached with Al Azhar whereby the serialization was completed, but the book was never published in Egypt.
A postscript illustrates a present danger for authors whose books have been censured. Although there was no fatwa against Mr. Mahfouz, in 1994 a fundamentalist tried to assassinate him on the basis of the 1959 censure.
"The man who stabbed Mahfouz," says Hamdi El Sakkout, a professor of Arabic Studies at the American University, "never saw the book. If someone says this man is an infidel, [the people] just follow."
In the 1970s, the nature of Egyptian censorship changed. Under President Anwar Sadat, Al Azhar was mostly silent, and books were banned more on political than religious grounds.
During the late '80s and the '90s, as Islamists gained strength and politically clout, Al Azhar raised its voice again.
In 2000, the government published "The Banquet for Seaweed," by Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar. An Islamist member of Parliament attacked it, but on the basis of a misreading of some punctuation. "The event left a scar at the Ministry of Culture, which took the side of the people," says Mr. Moneim. In 2001, the government again bowed to Islamists and banned three novels.
In this present crisis, the Ministry of Culture has taken the unusual step of going against Al Azhar. Sheikh Thaalab is resigned but determined that Al Azhar still has relevance in modern times. "I would feel sad [if the government does nothing], but what can I do?" he says. "You have to bear in mind that the government is Islamic, too."