Sheikh Mustafa al-Shaka, from Al-Azhar's Center on Islamic Research, accused Hanafi of being a "Marxist" for "uttering such nonsense totally divorced from Islam.Even if Hanafi's argument could have been phrased in a more diplomatic way, I hope other Muslim thinkers will quickly rise to defend him. The concept of ijtihad is hardly something new in Islamic theology, as is the idea that there are different interpretations of the Holy Book (after all there are four official schools of Sunni theology) and it was basically the point Hanafi was making. It is also one that some ideologically radical Islamist groups, such as al-Adl wal Ihsan in Morocco, are making.
"If apostasy is proven, he who becomes an ex-Muslim should be executed," Shaka said. In Hanafi's case, however, "he deserves medical treatment, because he has a psychiatric problem."
Hanafi, who received his doctorate from the Sorbonne and has taught in Europe and the United States, was close to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in his youth. After passing through a phase of leftist leanings, he became one of the leading thinkers in the contemporary movement that posits a revolutionary political activism rooted in study of the Muslim scriptures.
Rarely do other thinkers publicly side with him, but one of them is Gamal al-Banna, a Muslim reformist and, ironically, younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.
"I have to say it wasn't very intelligent comparing the Koran with a supermarket but, in the end he's not wrong," said Banna, asserting that "one finds different opinions in the Koran."
Some of the holy book's verses are "very dense and confusing expressions" that require interpretation, he said, calling for a "return to the Koran," interpreting it where necessary in the light of the whole corpus of Islamic theological writing.
Banna himself has been at the receiving end of criticism by traditional Muslim scholars.
His book "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State in the Modern Age," in which he suggests ways for Muslim communities in non-Islamic societies to merge better with their environment, was banned in Egypt. In his book, he said that if a woman feels uncomfortable wearing a traditional veil in Europe, then a hat would be permissible.
He recently came under fire for suggesting that smoking during the holy month of Ramadan is permissible.