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Friday, April 03, 2009

Gamal El-Banna: A lifetime of Islamic call -Interview by Sahar El-Bahr

Of the thousands of passers-by who walk past an old building on Al-Geish Street, near Bab Al-Sheariya Square in Downtown Cairo, very few can realise that on the fifth floor there is a huge flat that acts both as a library and a home. It contains 15,000 books in Arabic and 3,000 others in English, among them hundreds of rare books and reference works. The flat is also home to Gamal El-Banna, who has read the majority of the books his library contains.
El-Banna is almost 90 years old now, and he tells Al-Ahram Weekly that ever since he was 15 he has made a habit of reading two books in Arabic a day and one book in English every two days. He started collecting the treasured contents of his library in 1940, adding to the books his father and his brother had already gathered.

In Gamal El-Banna's view, for example, the veil, or hejab, cannot be considered as compulsory for women in Islam, because it is not mentioned in the Quran . Furthermore, he says, the hejab is not exclusive to Islam and is an institution that predates it. El-Banna also says that a Muslim woman can marry a Christian or a Jewish man, and he is also on record as allowing "marriages of pleasure" for members of Muslim minorities in foreign countries, while stating that such relationships are not permissible for Muslims living in Muslim countries.

El-Banna has stated that properly trained women can lead daily prayers, and so act as imams. Further, he says, marriages can only be religiously sanctioned, or halal, if both partners accept them: other common procedures, such as producing two witnesses, paying a dowry, or ensuring the acceptance of the bride's father, are all regulatory social procedures used to maintain the rights of couples, but, in El-Banna's view, they have nothing to do with Islam. In another fatwa, El-Banna has said that so long as a marriage has taken place by mutual consent, divorce cannot take place except if both the husband and the wife agree. Divorce, in other words, cannot be decided by the husband alone.


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