It was a beautiful winter day in Egypt. The air was cool, and the sun was shining brightly. I had just finished breakfast at my home where I lived with my mother, father, brothers, sister, grandfather, and uncle. I was five years old at the time, but I remember the day clearly.
My uncle said to me, “We are going to read the Quran together. Do you have your copy?” Eagerly I went to get a slim book that my uncle had given me earlier. It was not the entire Quran, but it was one of the thirty parts.
My uncle had just graduated from the most prestigious Islamic university in the world, Al-Azhar in Cairo. Only in his thirties, he was now the imam of the largest mosque for our area and a man who was revered by all devout Muslims.
We walked hand-in-hand across the street to our family’s orchard, which was planted with grapes, figs, and orange trees. The orchard was next to a canal, and when we sat on the bank we could see fishermen, rowboats, and farmers bringing their water buffalo to drink and bathe.
My uncle started reading. The words were familiar because I had heard them all my life—in the mosque, on the radio, and from the Quran reciter that we paid to come to our home. My uncle read the first verse of the last chapter of the Quran. Then he asked me to repeat it back to him. I did so. Then he corrected my pronunciation of the classical Arabic and told me to repeat it to him again. I did so. We did this many times until I had memorized this verse perfectly. Then we started on verse 2.
We went through three or four verses this way. Then we were interrupted. People always wanted to ask my uncle questions about faith and Islamic law because he was one of the few scholars who lived in our area. While I waited for him, I played down at the edge of the water. Then he called me: “Go back to your mom and ask her to help you get ready to go to the mosque.”
I ran back to my house, and when I got inside the front door I heard my grandfather calling, “Come, come,” from his room. My grandfather was in his eighties and had gone blind. I was very fond of him, and I ran into his room and kissed his hand as he lay on his bed. Then I jumped up on the bed and gave him a hug. He said, “Tell me: did you read the Quran?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Recite to me,” and I did.
He was so happy to hear me. “Boy,” he said, “I thank Allah for you. You are going to memorize the whole Quran. You are going to be a candle in our home.”
I nodded and then slipped out of the room to prepare to go to the mosque. This was Friday, the holy day in Islam when the sermon is preached at the mosque. My mom helped me put on the white robe and skull cap—our traditional clothing for going to the mosque. After my uncle was ready, we walked the half mile to
the mosque together as a family. My uncle gave the sermon, and my father, brothers, and I sat in the front line of men. My mother, sister, and other female relatives sat in the back in the women’s section.
This is how I remember the day that I began my memorization of the Quran.
From that day forward, my uncle became my mentor. He worked with me almost on a daily basis.
When I turned six, he enrolled me in an Al-Azhar primary school. There were fifty secular primary schools in our province, but there was only one Al-Azhar primary school. This elite school focused on a religious Islamic education. None of my brothers or sister went to this school, but there was no jealousy or anger about this. They just were proud and celebrated what I was accomplishing. People began to call me “Little Sheikh.”
I did more than meet the school requirements for memorization. Steadily, my uncle was working with me to finish memorizing the entire Quran (which is about the length of the New Testament) at a very early age.
Most mornings I would go with my father and uncle to the morning prayers at the mosque, which started around 3:30 a.m. and finished around 4:30 a.m. (depending on the time of the year). After the prayers, my father and uncle usually went home to sleep two more hours before getting up for work. I usually stayed in the mosque with my copy of the Quran. Before I started memorizing the new verses, I tested myself on the verses I memorized on the two previous days. After I made sure my memorization was OK, I started the new material.
I read the first verse of the passage. Then I closed my Quran and repeated the verse as I walked from corner to corner to corner of the mosque. When I finished the first verse, I opened my Quran and read the second verse. I continued this way until my memorizing was done.
I was very careful to retain what I had learned, so I spent two or three days a month in review. If you asked me about something I had memorized months earlier, it was there in my mind.
Not only did my uncle help me memorize, but he also made sure I understood the classical Arabic—the language of the Quran. The average Arabic speaker cannot read or understand this type of Arabic very well, and learning this language was a crucial part of a religious education.
For seven years my uncle worked with me, verse by verse and chapter by chapter. The year I turned twelve, I completed memorizing the Quran. According to the Al-Azhar educational system, I was not required to finish memorizing the Quran until I had completed my four-year bachelor’s degree at the university, so I was very young.
Needless to say, my family was delighted. They threw a huge celebration for our entire clan in a large hall that was built for our clan’s special events. I will never forget my blind grandfather there, calling out for me, “My son, where is my son?” I ran to him, and he just hugged me, tears running down his face.
Having learned the Quran put me in a position to have an unusual amount of respect as a child. People treated me like a holy person because I carried the holy book in my mind.
From that time on, I would systematically read and review the Quran to make sure I did not forget what I had learned.
When I entered the Al-Azhar high school, one of our main duties was to memorize the most important passages of hadith.
Most westerners do not know what hadith are, so let me explain. The hadith, pronounced ha-DEETH, are the accounts of the teachings and actions of Muhammad. These accounts were recorded by his closest followers, his servants, and even his wives. For example, a hadith may describe how Muhammad prayed, how he settled a dispute between two Muslims, or an event that occurred during a battle. Some hadith are only one sentence long, while others are one to two pages. The usual length is about three paragraphs.
Muhammad’s followers were very dedicated to keeping the records of what he did and said. There are more than half a million hadith! (For more information, see Appendix A.)
Of course, none of us were going to memorize all of the hadith. But the school had a certain selection of hadith to memorize each semester. On the first day of hadith class, the teacher would pass out the book with the hadith that we were supposed to memorize for that semester. There were several hundred hadith in each book.
We memorized one to three hadith per day during the school year. My uncle also worked with me to memorize additional hadith, and I memorized some extra on my own as well. My uncle was training me to preach in the mosque, which I began doing occasionally even while I was in high school. Upon completing high school I estimate that I had memorized between five thousand and six thousand hadith.
Needless to say, the religious education in high school was very thorough. When students graduated from Al-Azhar high school at the age of eighteen, they were qualified to lead prayers and teach in mosques without any further education.
I was a devout Muslim at this time. My heart was to follow the example of Muhammad in everything I did.
After my high school graduation, one of my brothers suggested that I attend pharmaceutical school. But the rest of my family urged me to continue my religious study. So I enrolled at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and chose to study in the College of Arabic Language, just as my uncle, who was my mentor, did before me.
Any person from a Muslim background is familiar with Al-Azhar University because it is the most powerful school in the Islamic world. Its influence is difficult to describe to westerners because there is no university in the Western world with an equivalent status. It is amazingly large—up to ninety thousand students at campuses throughout Egypt. It is surprisingly old—the Great Mosque at Al-Azhar was completed in A.D. 972, and academic lectures began three and one-half years later.1 It is unanimously respected—described in Islamic media as “Sunni Islam’s highest authority.”
I always enjoyed studying history, so I chose to major in Islamic history and culture. I wanted to learn more about the patience, courage, and commitment of Muhammad and his companions that I admired so much.
On my first day of classes, I received a surprise introduction to the type of education I was about to receive. The sheikh who taught the first lecture of the day was a short man with dark skin, a small moustache, and very thick glasses. He told us: “What I tell you should be accepted as truth. I will not allow any form of class discussion. What I do not say is not worth knowing. Listen and obey, and do not ask any questions.”
I was disturbed by this philosophy, and I stood up to speak. The sheikh noticed me right away because I was sitting in the second row. I said, “O master sheikh, how can there be teaching without questions?”
“Where are you from, boy?” he demanded.
“From Egypt,” I replied, forgetting that it was obvious that I was Egyptian.
“I know—but from where in Egypt?”
I told him the name of my region, and he retorted, “So, then, you are an ignorant jackass!” He said that because people from my region were looked down on.
I replied, “Yes, I must be a donkey to leave my home and come here and be insulted!”
The class was silent. I slid out of my row of seats and headed toward the door to leave. The sheikh shouted at me, “Stop, you animal! What is your name?”
“It’s no honor for me to tell you,” I said coldly.
At this the sheikh became enraged and began ranting about crossing my name off the university list and throwing me out on the streets. I left the room and went directly to the dean of the faculty. I told him what happened. After the sheikh was finished with his class, the dean called him into the office.
The dean skillfully convinced the sheikh to forgive me, and he also persuaded me to be more tolerant of him. “Take him to be a father figure,” he said, “who only wishes to correct you, not insult you.”
This incident introduced me to the way of silence and submission that was demanded at the university. Our method of study was to read the books written by the greatest scholars of Islam, both modern and ancient. Then we would make a list of the key points in each book and memorize the list. We would take written tests for each class, and some teachers would ask for reports. I also read additional Arabic literature and poetry for my own enjoyment.
Even though I knew better, many times I asked questions my professors didn’t like.
For example, I asked one professor, “Why did Muhammad tell us first to get along with Christians, and then he said to kill them?”
The professor replied, “What the prophet tells you to do, take it as is. What he prohibits, you prohibit. What he allows, you allow. You are not a true Muslim if you do not submit to the words of Muhammad.”
I asked another professor, “Why was the prophet Muhammad permitted to marry thirteen women, and we are commanded not to marry more than four? The Quran says Muhammad was just a human being. So why did he have extra rights?”
My professor replied, “No. If you look carefully, you will see Allah gave you more rights than the prophet himself. Allah requires you not to marry more than four. But you have the ability to divorce. So you can marry four today, and divorce them tomorrow, and marry another four. So you can have an unlimited number of wives.”
To me, this wasn’t a logical answer, especially because Islamic history indicates that Muhammad also had the right to divorce. Muhammad had so much trouble with his wives that one time he threatened to divorce them all.
I even questioned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, well known for being the mastermind behind the bomb attack against the World Trade Centers in 1993. When I was at Al-Azhar, he was the professor for my class in Quranic interpretation.
He gave us a chance to ask questions, so I stood up in front of five hundred students and asked: “Why is it that you teach us all the time about jihad? What about the other verses in the Quran that talk about peace, love, and forgiveness?”
Immediately his face turned red. I could see his anger, but I could also see that he chose to control it. Instead of yelling at me, he took the chance to reinforce his position. “My brother,” he said, “there is a whole surah [chapter] called ‘Spoils of War.’ There is no surah called ‘Peace.’ Jihad and killing are the head of Islam. If you take them out, you cut off the head of Islam.” The answers I received from him and other professors did not satisfy me.
Some people labeled me a troublemaker, but others were tolerant, believing that I sincerely wanted to learn.
At the same time, I excelled in my studies. After four years I graduated second out of a class of six thousand students. This ranking was based on the scores from the oral and written exams that were given at the end of each year of study. The oral exam focused on memorization of the Quran and hadith, and the written exams covered the subjects that we studied in class. Each year you could earn a maximum of fifteen hundred points.
Before I could begin my master’s degree, I spent a mandatory year in the armed forces. After I was finished, I returned to Al-Azhar. I decided at this point that no professor or sheikh was going to help me answer my questions. I would have to find the answers for myself. Doing the research for my master’s thesis was a perfect opportunity for this.
I had no one telling me what I was required to read, so I looked at a wide variety of material about Islamic history. Instead of finding answers, however, I became further disillusioned with Islam. Without exaggerating in any way, I can say that Islamic history is a story of violence and bloodshed from the time of Muhammad to this present day. When I looked at the teachings of the Quran and Muhammad, I could see why Islamic history developed this way. I thought, What God would condone such destruction of human life? But I kept this kind of question to myself.
My master’s thesis created quite a stir. I restrained myself from questioning Islam, but I touched on the controversial issue of what kind of government an Islamic nation should have. The Egyptian government liked my ideas and arranged for a live broadcast of my thesis defense by the Holy Quran national radio station.
From the outside, I appeared very successful. The university asked me to begin lecturing in my area of expertise—Islamic history and culture. At twenty-eight years old, I was one of the youngest lecturers they had ever had. I also led prayers and preached at a mosque in a suburb of Cairo. However, on the inside, I was still looking for truth.
At this point, I was not really in control of my life any more. I couldn’t stop and look for another job. The university, my family, my community would ask, Why are you doing this? It would not be logical to leave behind all this education. I had no way to go but continue walking this road. I began to work on my doctorate degree.