Will Russell Crowe as Noah help Egypt Separate Religion and State?

(By Juan Cole)

Darren Aronofski’s biblical epic “Noah” is already provoking controversy in the Muslim world, and has been preemptively banned in three Gulf states.

Biblical figures, such as Abraham, Noah, David, and Jesus, also feature in the Qur’an, which sees sacred history as the serial dispatch by God to humans of messengers who remind them of the divine teachings. Some conservative Muslim clerics draw a line at depicting holy figures such as patriarchs and prophets mentioned in the Qur’an in paintings, statues, or in film and television.

So Egypt’s al-Azhar seminary, the foremost legal and intellectual religious center in the Sunni Muslim world, called for a ban on the film “Noah” in Egypt.

But a secular organization in Cairo, “The Front for Creativity,” has lambasted the al-Azhar ruling, arguing that the seminary overstepped its authority in asking for a national ban.

The background here is that in fall of 2012, the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt pushed through a constitution opposed by secularists, Coptic Christians, educated women and leftist youth. One of its objectionable articles, 219, gave the al-Azhar Seminary the authority to interpret those elements of Egyptian law which are rooted in Islamic law. Since arguably a lot of Egyptian law is so rooted, from the prohibition on murder to social welfare provisions, nationalist and secular Egyptians saw that article as a step toward an Iran-style theocracy. Ironically, hard line Salafis even tried to use the article against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi. When the latter was negotiating for a loan from the International Monetary Fund, the Salafis argued that loans on which interest is paid are a form of usury in Islamic law, and the IMF deal should be passed by al-Azhar for authorization by the president.

Interestingly, the al-Azhar seminary for the most part did not like article 219 of the Morsi constitution and did not want that sort of quasi-governmental role. Its leaders joined in the massive movement to overthrow Morsi in June, 2013. The new constitution, approved by national referendum in January, lacks this article 219 and is generally a much more secular document.

The Front for Creativity seems to me to be referring implicitly to this controversy in referring to the al-Azhar attempt to get Russell Crowe’s “Noah” banned. The group said that it is legitimate for al-Azhar to condemn the film or to warn that those who see it will be committing a sin, as long as in doing so al-Azhar is engaged in private Muslim “mission” (al-da`wah), not in an attempt to engage in rulership over the state (al-muhakamah).

The group makes three other objections. First, the prohibition on depicting prophets and holy figures is a matter of clerical interpretation on which there is not complete consensus, and for which no explicit Qur’an or other scriptural text exists. Moreover, we are past the days when such images can practically be banned, since the film will circulate on the internet in any case. (The second objection is the one discussed above, that al-Azhar doesn’t have the authority to ban a film for the nation).

Third, “we do not believe that in the 21st century any citizen in the street will see Russell Crowe as actually the person of Noah, in playing that role in the film, and any such citizen would belong in an insane asylum.”

Fourth and most important, they say, Noah is a figure of the Hebrew Bible or Torah, accepted by Islam but also by Christianity and Judaism. The latter two religions do not forbid depictions of prophets in artistic works. Will al-Azhar next demand a prohibition on Christian icons or Christian passion plays?

The subtext of the group’s statement seems to me to be that Egyptians generally believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, when they were in power last year, went way too far toward religious government and Muslim triumphalism that had a negative impact on Coptic Christians (ten percent of the Egyptian population of 83 million). The Front for Creativity is implicitly arguing that the al-Azhar statement on “Noah” recalls those excesses in unfortunate ways. It comes across as a blurring of the separation of religion and state, as an arbitrary clerical fiat, as a lack of faith in the modern citizen’s powers of discernment and individual responsibility, and as a potentially troubling Muslim-sectarian condemnation of a legitimate Christian practice.

Open talk about secularism and pushing back on decades of creeping theocracy in Egypt have been one outcome of the revolution against Morsi. The Front for Creativity is now using the public’s disgust with Brotherhood tactics to push back against al-Azhar’s attempt to intervene in what is shown in Egyptian cinema houses. The episode is a little window into the kinds of public debates newly authorized by the unfolding changes in Egyptian politics.

Even a decade ago, clerical attempts to get Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” banned in the Muslim world often failed. The anti-Brotherhood movement in today’s Arab world has two wings. It is being attacked from the right by Wahhabis and Salafis. But it is being attacked from the left by nationalists and secularists. In the latter wing of the movement, the chasing of the Brotherhood from the public scene (however invidiously) may be encouraging the growth of a public and frank secular discourse in Egypt, where that discourse has been rarer than in, say, Turkey or Tunisia.

So Russell Crowe may become a footnote to the Egyptian culture wars.

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Related video:

The Young Turks: “Christians Upset Over Noah’s Ark Russell Crowe Movie ”

6 Responses

  1. Yes, when liberals and fascists unite to overthrow a democratically elected President it can have lovely results. But, the coup-volution in Ukraine, alas, is a geo-political time bomb. Too bad the Ukraine government can’t just lock up all their opponents.

  2. I’ve never been a big fan of these religions who have bellicose sky gods and the usual fanatics on earth who worship wars against infidels, namely, all us poor mortals who are just trying to get on with our lives; and that includes not only Islam, Judaism and Christianity but also all those classic Greek and Roman gods who are used by the ruling elites to justify killing fellow human beings for imperial gain and plunder. I rejected my Roman Catholic faith way back when I returned to the world from my tour of duty in Vietnam and I’ve never gone to church since then. I already knew by then I was just another working class, blue-collar stiff, basically a garden-variety, passive-aggressive hypocrite, when it comes to any sense of morality. I enlisted in the Air Force because so many of my high school friends got drafted into the infantry and were used as cannon fodder and came back in coffins. But why should I attend the weekly meetings on Sundays and pay dues to be a member of the club? So a Biblical plague of locusts on all their houses.
    What really upsets me about this news item is, What the hell has happened to the film career of Darren Aronofski? He’s made some really interesting and quirky independent films. He could have been a genuine film auteur. But a commercial biopic about Noah starring Russell Crow? Give me a break. I saw the trailer for this movie on YouTube. It seems rather mediocre even when judged against the commercial crap Hollywood puts out for consumption like so many tubes of toothpaste. That’s what really upsets: another promising film auteur has sold his soul to Tinseltown to make big bucks. Oh well, everyone can’t be like Martin Scorsese has been in their film careers.

  3. At some point, somebody will surely point out the the Egyptians, who carved it in stone every-time Pharaoh pharted ,have no record of hebrews.
    The entire history of the region is (or used to be, oddly there’s been a massive amount of destruction since the 1960’s) astonishingly well documented.
    The biblical version, slapped together in the the second and third centuries AD is bullshit.

    That there are people walking around in America who believe, or get away with pretending to believe, is astonishing.

    • Actually, Bill, Hebrews are well-documented by archaeologists in the land of Israel. And the Hebrew Bible was compiled around the 4th century BC. The Greek Bible, of course, is much later, about the 4th century AD

  4. This article raised my curiosity about al-Azhar which dates back to the tenth century. and seems not to have moved forward in all this time Imagine Bob Jones University interpreting the laws here in the US.

    The description of Noah tells of Crowe breaking a floodgate killing “ungodly” men, women and children clamoring to get aboard the arc. This is the same message the authors of the Left Behind series shared with an audience. They gleefully told of how someday they will watch non believers being thrown into a burning pit. No thanks I think I’ll pass on this kind of believe or die kind of movie.

    On the other end of the spectrum here is Ricky Gervais hilariously recounting the Noah story. It’s worth the 15 minutes but does contain the F word.

    link to youtube.com

  5. Ah! if only the Monty Pythons had made a film about Noah and/or the Old Testament. It might have given conservative religious elements something more challenging to complain about, rather than this leaden Aronofski/Crowe effort.

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