Polish-born writer Piotr Ibrahim Kalwas lives in Alexandria, Egypt, together with his wife and son. He is a Muslim with a difference. His Islam incorporates humanism, openness, tolerance and free thinking. Kalwas explains his views in an interview published in a Polish online magazine, natemat.pl (the translation is mine).
You converted to Islam 13 years ago and emigrated to Egypt 5 years ago. What seduced you in Islam?
It is a very private question and the answer is lost a little in the past. It was certainly a quest for the meaning of life, religion, and for a point of support in life. I has always been interested in religions. At some point, I started to read various holy books, one after another, and I was captivated by the Qur’an. I started going to the mosque in Warsaw, attended “lessons” there, and somehow slowly it all began.
People make comments in social media that the Qur’an is not a pleasant book. There is a lot of killing in it, and cutting off heads, etc.
It depends on who reads it. As with any holy book, it is a matter of interpretation. We know how the Gospels were read by Inquisitors, Crusaders and all those who sowed violence in Christianity. The same can be done with Qur’an and that’s what jihadists and Islamists are doing.
But it is also true that in the Qur’an, which is the text written in the Arabian Desert fifteen centuries ago, we find fragments that from the perspective of cultural humanism seem threatening. I’m not trying to sweep them under the carpet, as it is done by many Muslims. There are controversial verses in Qur’an and worst of all, their interpretation has not changed for centuries.
With the exception of small modernist movements, these verses are treated literally by Muslims. They urge Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews, to kill unbelievers, to beat women and cut off the hands of thieves. This may give rise to fear. I agree that such passages should be re-interpreted and treated symbolically and metaphorically.
So Islam should adapt to the times?
Yes, because Islam is not developing intellectually. Any attempt to change the interpretation of the Qur’an is regarded by most Muslims with suspicion, if not with rage. Qur’an has ossified. It contains archaic messages that frighten people. This must change.
Except that in Islam – in Sunnism – there is no hierarchy, as in the Catholic Church. Therefore it’s more difficult to develop one interpretation.
It is true that theoretically the clergy exists only in Shia Islam where ayatollahs decide about everything. But Sunni Islam also has its institutions, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and universities in Mecca for example. This is also the Islamic clergy, which unfortunately has solidified into conservative and archaic thinking. All fatwas issued through the centuries by the clergy do not bring anything new. On the contrary, they move Islam backwards. When I sometimes listen to the arguments of various Arab sheikhs on TV, I feel like I’ve just listened to scholars from 100 or 200 years ago. This is a vicious circle of traditionalism.
On the other hand, the community of the faithful is also backward and cannot cope with the ever changing modern world. What does the large part of aggression of Muslims towards the West come from? From the lack of understanding, from envy, from powerlessness of the people who do not know which way to go. Should they choose the way of modernity? But that’s the West. Religiosity? But which form of it if fundamentalism lurks everywhere. It all adds up to the image of Islam. Islam is a poorer relative of other religions, not only intellectually, but also materially.
Do you think that the greatest error of Muslims is their literal interpretation of the words from fifteen centuries ago? Is this the root of all the problems?
Yes, I think this is the main root of backwardness of the Muslim world. Its centre is the religious perception of reality. This is visible in education which is of very low quality. Someone once said that Egypt is a country that invents the most significant ideas in the Muslim world – the worst and best. In Egypt, education is really bad. And yet a thousand years ago Egypt radiated education and knowledge. Arabs often mention the wonderful time of the Caliphate which extended from Spain to India.
Maybe you just want Islam in the European version?
What counts are the facts. There is no science here, no new ideas are being invented, no significant literature is being written, there is nothing happening here intellectually. But there is terrible poverty. Not only European Muslims but also some young people in Muslim countries ponder about what is happening, whether they will always be poor, copying everything from the West, or will they participate in creating the modern world?
There has been a slippery slope here for centuries. At the same time, it is difficult to find out what people really think because many of them have an inferiority complex towards the West. When asked about their world, they are reluctant to talk, often being suspicious of foreigners. It is a characteristic of closed societies – people suspect foreign interference, which will apparently make their lives even more difficult.
You’re talking about the reform of Islam. But how do you cope yourself with the most controversial passages of the Qur’an? By ignoring them?
Yes. I’m not saying that they are not true, I do not deny the holiness of the book. I conclude that God, in his wisdom, could reveal verses that are no longer valid if they are not interpreted anew. So I ignore some of them and I reinterpret other passages on my own. Take, for example, the cutting off the hands of thieves. When asked, an Egyptian will declare his strong opposition to such practices. On the other hand, surveys show that 80 per cent of Egyptian population supports this type of punishment. Where is the truth? It’s hidden and concealed.
There are verses in the Qur’an, like those about marriage for example, that refer to the concrete reality of fifteen centuries ago. They were revealed in the desert. How can they be presented to someone who, for example, adopts Islam in Greenland? After all, they are completely at odds with the modern world, culturally and even geographically. These verses require continuous interpretation. And when the Qur’an is not being interpreted, it dies – just like any other book. At the moment, certain verses or hadiths are dead, empty, because they cannot be adapted to other cultures. It’s wrong to understand them literally as some converts and neophytes do.
So you don’t agree with the position of women in Islam?
Of course not. I treat women the same way as any other creature. The vision of women’s role in the society from 1500 years ago cannot be transplated to our modern world. Everything was revealed in certain time and place. Even the Buddhists have interpreted and re-interpreted their religion or philosophy all the time through the centuries, and that’s why their religion is alive. The same happens in Christianity, although after centuries of stagnation.
You choose different things from Qur’an in such a way that really nothing is left of it.
This is only my vision, that’s just what I practice. I do not impose my vision on anyone. I am a devotee of individualism, which in Islam barely exists. Here, a community is everything, all follow the sheikh, the imam or ulema. I myself interpret Islam in my own way and as this religion has no pope or a central authority, I believe that every Muslim should act in a similar manner. Meanwhile, in Egypt 30 per cent of people cannot read or write, so what do you expect? Unfortunately, one cannot expect independent thinking and reflection.
What would be your general conclusion about Islam. Is it a good or bad religion, of peace or war?
Let’s be honest. Most Muslims follow the traditionalist and conservative interpretation of Islam. This does not mean that these people are bad. They are usually very hospitable, kind, and would not hurt even a fly. The overwhelming majority of Muslims also hate terrorism and do not want to have anything to do with it. At the same time, their thinking is traditionalist and sometimes fundamentalist.
There is also a small minority, a handful of people like me who want to change Islam. Because traditionalist thinking among Muslims will not move this world forward by even one step. The Muslim world does not need a revolution in the sense of overthrowing everything, it needs the enlightenment that can only come from Muslims themselves.
[What do you think about the critics of Islam?]
I do not pay any attention to those who write hateful comments about Islam. Mind you, some Muslims also use a similar language. One can often observe that both sides are barking at each other in social media. Often it is just hatred … but keep in mind that there are voices that criticise Islam from a legitimate position. They do not intend to offend but to stimulate a fruitful re-examination of Islam among Muslims. I read such comments with interest and often agree with them. I think that criticism and self-criticism are the basis of intellectual development.
… Islam is a religion that requires total engagement and refers to every aspect of life… It all requires deep reflection. Anyone can become either a monster with bombs in his pockets and boots, or he can follow the path of love and knowledge. For me, these are the two most important things.
(this is an abridged version of an interview which is available in Polish at http://michalgasior.natemat.pl/131929,polski-muzulmanin-z-egiptu-piotr-ibrahim-kalwas-polscy-konwertyci-przestaja-myslec-i-klepia-islamkie-pacierze)