Mahfouz seeks clerical blessing for 'blasphemous' novel

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt's Nobel prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz is seeking the endorsement of Sunni Islam's highest authority before re-releasing a novel that was condemned as blasphemous when first serialized nearly half a century ago, friends said.

The 94-year-old author is about to finally release in Egypt "Children of Gebelawi", a hotly controversial chronicle drenched in religious symbolism of a man who casts out his children and puts a curse on his family.

At the time of its serialization in 1959, the book upset Muslim scholars who read it as blasphemous, while the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser argued the book was directed against the former leader.

"Mahfouz wants Al-Azhar to give its green light and wants the preface to be written by a Muslim Brother," friend and author Yusef al-Qaid told AFP.

Al-Azhar university in Cairo is the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam and regularly issues decrees on banning publications it deems offensive to Islam.

The Muslim Brothers are the largest opposition force in Egypt and made substantial gains in parliamentary elections late last year. They have frequently campaigned in parliament against "un-Islamic" publications.

Mahfouz's desire to submit his novel to the approval of the country's religious authorities has shocked even his entourage.

"This creates a dangerous precedent because it gives power of censorship to Al-Azhar, which goes against the principles upheld by Egyptian intellectuals," Qaid said.

Writer Mohammad al-Boussaty agreed that Mahfouz should have neglected to seek Al-Azhar's endorsement. "He has his own opinion and he should convey it to the public without any outside intervention," he said.

Author Ezzat al-Qamhawi went further, suggesting that the move was a stain on the glorious literary achievements of Egypt's most acclaimed writer.

"By adopting this position, Mahfouz has betrayed his writing. He is giving Al-Azhar a totally illegitimate authority by granting it a right of veto on literary production," he told AFP.

The elderly Mahfouz, who survived an assassination attempt by Islamist fanatics in 1994, lives secluded in his Cairo home under tight police protection.

The Children of Gebelawi was first published in serialized form in Egypt's top-selling state-owned daily Al-Ahram.

It was published in book form in Beirut in 1967 and the controversy surrounding it was rekindled in 1989 when Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was a day after the fifth anniversary of his prize that Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his home.

The Children of Gebelawi is set in an imaginary Cairo alley and follows the hardships of Egyptian suburban life. But it is also a deeply symbolic recreation of the history of monotheistic religions, with each of the major characters symbolising a religious figure.

When it was serialized, the Al-Azhar called for the novel to be banned on account of its "blasphemous content" and conservatives protested vociferously against the work.

It is only now that the novel is to be published in book form in Mahfouz's home country, having only been released abroad before.