reposting “Consider the Mu’tazilah”

On post-revolutionary Egypt: Youssef Rakha rereads three of the tenets of Mu’tazili Islam

1. Unity: The way Mu’tazili or – roughly speaking – rationalist (as opposed to Ash’ari or, equally roughly, literalist) theology affirmed the oneness of God was to say that His human and temporal attributes are not distinct from His essence. This means that when we talk about God speaking, we are either professing shirk (polytheism) or talking metaphorically. According to the Judge Abduljabbar ibn Ahmad (d. 1025), “it is not possible for Him to get up or down, move about, change, be composite, have a form.”

The Ash’aris, who were to predominate in Sunni Islam and whose approach is thought by many – the late scholar Nassr Abu Zayd (1943-2010), for example – to be the reason Muslims have lagged behind for seven centuries, are rather more tolerant of  anthropomorphism. Still, the most contentious formulation of Mu’tazili tawheed (monotheism) is that the Quran is not eternal. The Quran was created at a certain point in time, it was created in human language, while God (whose word it is) remains beyond both time and language. For a moment under the Abbassi caliph Al-Ma’moun (813-833), Mu’tazili tawheed became state creed and Ash’arites, notably Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), were persecuted. That was the height of Muslim glory.

Now, notwisthstanding the reported death of renegade CIA agent Osama Bin Laden at what is arguably the lowest point on the temporal graph of Muslim civilisation, some 12 years after Abu Zayd, by exposing the atavistic idiocy to which Islamic discourse had descended, was forced to leave the country – a state-condoned court verdict ruled, ludicrously, that he should be separated from his wife, an unofficial fatwa that he should be killed – what could the ulta-Ash’ari discourses that have swamped the surface of public conscioussness since January, 2011 (Salafi, Jihadi, quasi-fascist or, indeed, moderate) be doing to the future of Islam?


2. Justice: In the Mu’tazili account of the problem of evil, it is the human mind that determines right and wrong; the actions of human beings are not determined by God, otherwise there would be no sense to reward and punishment. God manifests, all good (the kind of evil in which human will plays no part – natural disasters, for example – either exists by way of a test or a hidden prize or it does not emanate from God) and it is up to human beings to respond to Him. For the average Ash’ari, the average “moderate Muslim”, right and wrong consists of a divinely ordained set of dos and donts to be followed regardless of what one thinks of them.

Consider the idea, current in Muslim consciousness as early as the 9th century, that it is because of its appeal to the mind that we accept the faith, that within that faith the law develops out of divinely inspired language according to the mind’s response to it – in the words of the Mu’tazilah, what the mind finds beautiful is good, what it finds ugly is evil. If it is human, if it is in language, and therefore by default historical, part of a particular time and place and a particular framework of meaning, however divinely ordained – and we know that the divine is beyond all such conditions – then it is to be judged by the mind.

Consider the revolution and how it happened. Consider the fact that concepts like the modern state – as much as the automobile, the mobile phone, Facebook – have absolutely no reference in anything divinely ordained. Consider the fact that the mind finds theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran profoundly ugly. Then ask again whether, when they raise the slogan “Islam is the answer”, Islamists are being just.


3. The intermediate position: It is recounted that Wassil ibn ‘Ataa (d. 748), widely regarded as the founder of ‘ilm al kalam, the principal hermeneutical tradition in Islam, walked out of a lesson by his teacher Hassan Al-Bassri (d. 728) and started his own class after the latter failed to answer a question about the Muslim who commits one of the grave sins – al kaba’ir, which incidentally include drinking alcohol and non-marital sex – and dies without repentance.

There were two current views at the time, corresponding to two sects: the Khawarij saw the Muslim in question as a kafir (an apostate), a non-Muslim in effect, whether or not he denied the existence of God; the Murji’ah saw him as a mu’min (a believer), who may require punishment but has not lost his faith so long as he affirms the existence of God. The Ash’ari position on this question, which using the term fasiq (a wrongdoer) is typically neither here nor there, was to develop much later.

Ibn ‘Ataa, by contrast, took the sensible ontological route and developed the concept of al manzilah bayna al manzilatayn (literally, the state between the two states): the Muslim who commits a grave sin is neither a mu’min nor a kafir; he is something else to be judged on its own terms by God. Had this debate been taking place at present, why do I suspect that the state in question – the intermediate position – would have been designated “secular”.

While everyone is clamering to “rebuild Egypt”, ignoring the military as well as the theocratic threat, it is well to remember that – considering irreconcilable contradictions between the original formulation of some kaba’ir and the modern way of life – for two centuries at least all of humanity has been in the intermediate position.

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Download ebook on Egyptian revolution

… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…


Messages of the Revolution-رسائل الثورة

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Patriotism galore

‘Uyoun Ra’at ath-Thawrah (Eyes that Saw the Revolution), Ibrahim Eissa, Abulela Madi, Ahmad Mekki, et al, Cairo: Dar Dawwin, May 2011
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The first relatively comprehensive, in-the-eyes-of-style compendium of responses to the Egyptian revolution (25 Jan-11 Feb) makes for a surprisingly dated read. One wonders whether this has to do simply with timing or with being too emotionally invested in subsequent events without having a break from discourses by now not only reiterated ad nauseum but also, and depressingly, as separate from everyday reality as politics has been for as long as anyone remembers.
This not unexpectedly rough-and-tumble paperback features 43 relatively well-known authors from all kinds of backgrounds, arranged alphabetically by name, who each give an account of their experience in Tahrir Square and surrounds or, more precisely, their take on events that happened there. It proceeds without the benefit of any editorial intervention, the preface or introduction presumably deemed superfluous as text since the factual and circumstantial background to the writing must exist in the first-hand, still flustered consciousness of the reader. Contributors include media figures, activists, politicians, judges, academics, bloggers (note that the name of the press, dawwin, is the imperative form of the verb to chronicle or to blog), artists, poets and members of the intellectual constituency — many of them brought together for the first and perhaps the last time.
All through the book there is a degree of honesty, a drive to give definitive testimony with an eye on History or posterity, but little spontaneity or verve and, perhaps as a result of the rhetorical straightjacket, surprisingly little dynamic engagement with ongoing history itself. Perhaps the greatest value of this book will be as window onto the mental processes of a nukhbah (elite or intelligentsia) too enthusiastic about the idea of change to truly contribute to its unfolding on the ground. But perhaps this is too preemptory a remark or too harsh a judgement. Part of the problem with the book, as with so much else that has been written about the revolution, is that it seems to have been completed a little two early, prior to the April referendum on constitutional amendments, prior to the brief but horrid return of Central Security to Tahrir on 28 June, and certainly prior to the “second revolution” of 8 July.
In the opening piece by one of the best-known oppositional (press and TV) journalists to have spoken out against the Mubarak regime in the last decade, Ibrahim Eissa, the principal protagonist or subject is “Egypt”, whose 18 days of insurgency not only “shook the world” but, more significantly, reclaimed “seven thousand years of civilisation” — a discourse alarmingly like that of the former regime itself, since, while very late Islamic Egypt under the British may indeed be relevant to what is happening now, the Pharaohs really have nothing to do with it — part of the bite-size, free-for-all patriotism that traditionally covers up self-hatred and inferiority while promoting tourism having always been, in official and oppositional discourse alike, to refer in self-aggrandising terms to the glories of a past further removed from reality than even the least convincing fantasy. The blood of her children was the price Egypt paid for freedom — never mind that no such freedom actually happened, much.
Eissa concedes that society, at the time of writing, is still in the process of dealing with the shock, comparing Egypt to a patient who has just undergone a difficult surgery and is slowly recuperating, but the joyful incredulity he speaks of, a true enough facet of the period directly after Mubarak stepping down, conceals the fact that true change was a more or less false promise in the light not so much of the military take-over as of the global balance of relations it has been safeguarding. Then again, oppositional figures like Eissa have seldom sought anything but the most superficial and convenient truth or presented it with any depth.
For his part the seasoned, high-brow political commentator Salama Ahmad Salama, having worked more cautiously and often far more meaningfully within the framework of the establishment, writes a celebratory if not a congratulatory piece. He stresses the nature of the instigators and the means they employed, their youth, their familiarity with Facebook and their ability to transcend a status quo, including an oppositional status quo, that had remained “hostage to the 20th century” well into the 21st. Unlike the so called revolution of July 1952, this, Salama is quick to note, is no coup d’etat; it is a “white revolution” of the people, the Internet-savvy and the young, and it is in this capacity that it made “the sun of freedom” shine on Egypt, with the middle class and then other social sectors rallying behind the young online activists who sparked it, having shed “the shackles of subservience, humiliation and corruption”.
Salama also stresses that the ambition of the revolution was to bring down the regime, not merely its personages or techniques, making what seems an increasingly contentious point. The truth is that, while the slogan “The people want to bring down the regime” had arrived safe and sound from Tunis, it is clear that few people initially understood it or took full stock of what it actually entailed. The instigators had targeted the Ministry of Interior, whose systematic abuses (backed by the former regime and evidently also by the military establishment) have yet to be seriously dealt with — even now.
For the Islamicly oriented political commentator Fahmi Howedi, for the celebrated oppositional 1970s vernacular poet and lyricist Ahmad Fouad Negm (the partner of the late blind composer Imam Eissa, many of whose lines were chanted during the revolution), for the pragmatic leader of Al Ghadd Party Ayman Nour as much as for Salama, the revolution is, justly enough, a vindication and a moment for tear-jerking patriotism. It is well to ask, however, what else the revolution might be, and whether this is the extent of the discourse it can be expected to generate.
Bringing down the regime in reality has two very serious implications that neither the revolution nor the authors of this book seem to recognise: that it would mean controlling or subduing a good half of the population; and that it would require either opposition to the global order or the admission by an overwhelming majority that Egypt remains dependent. While the population remains largely oblivious of the latter fact, while the forces of change fail to recognise how the interests of far too many people including indeed themselves are bound up with the former power structure, the regime in its deeper sense must live on.
Still, the oppositional “Islamic” writer Safinaz Kazem — a scholar as well as journalist whose perspective is always original, and the once wife of Negm whose daughter, Nawwara Negm, a blogger and activist and another contributor to the book widely seen as one of the leaders of the revolution — describes the revolution as “a vote” to bring down “Mr Serial Killer and his cronies”, a fair and persuasive assessment, and as such points to the more interesting and lasting value of events: a relatively radical change in the political consciousness of the people. Even if “stupid evil” manages to harm the revolution, she says, we will have nonetheless opposed that evil and exposed it, solving — as she puts it — the mystery of murder and church bombing alike.
Nawwara Negm feels that the Egyptian revolution happened “by the hand of God” — a statement, as she points out, also made by an Israeli official — referring to the fateful evening of 28 January when unarmed civilians truly defeated Egypt’s brutal and well-equipped riot police and were the divinely fearless receptacles of martyrdom.
The novelist Mohammad El-Mansi Qandil writes entertainingly on the difference between a very thin young woman protester and a frighteningly corpulent pro-Mubarak political commentator who both appeared on television at more or less the same time.
The columnist and screenwriter Bilal Fadl tells of his family’s response to the news that Mubarak stepped down: how his little daughter, for the longest time deprived of her cartoons on television, made her own demand following the news, “Can we watch the cartoons now?”; and how her elder sister, though a committed revolutionary in her own right, wondered, “I feel sorry for Mubarak, though; what job will he have now?”
The journalist Mohammad Abdel-Quddouss recalls being brutalised by Central Security at the Press Syndicate on the outbreak of the revolution, and how he recognised the events for a revolution, no mere intifada, while under arrest.
The scholar and novelist Youssef Zaydan reminisces about a conversation he had with the Nobel laureate Ahmad Zuwail, in which he described the essential problem of Egypt is that social relations are structured on the principle of one party despising another, identifying the value of the revolution in protesting the endless humiliation.
The novelist Bahaa Taher distinguishes between the true agents of the revolution — the young, killed and injured, and its beneficiaries, whom he links with his own older generation, pointing up one of the most significant difficulties posed by a white revolution: those who, riding the wave of events, have shed their pro-regime skin like snakes.
The economist Galal Amin contends that this “wonderful development” that beset young Egyptians almost unseen requires an explanation. He suggests a range of reasons from greater access to other parts of the world to the genius of the fellah.
The writer Khaled El-Khamissi produces a moving account of the mythological vision of armageddon during what came to be known as Black Wednesday, the Camel Battle, when thugs hired by the regime attacked the Tahrir sit-in.
The legal scholar and judge Tarek El-Bishri proposes a definition of revolution in the kind of “structural change” to which it gives way, concluding that what has happened is a revolution by any standard…
It is hardly surprising that no one has anything vaguely negative to say about the events. What is interesting and perhaps indicative of the time of writing is that no one attempts to place them in the wider perspective of a society and a population that did not unanimously contribute to or even support them. It would be a cliche to say that momentous and historic moments produce negligible writing — and a lot of what is in this book truly is not negligible — but the more interesting question is how much of the enthusiasm of these authors has survived and how what they say about the revolution measures up to political and especially social reality today.
Many points that did not seem at all obvious or relevant while events unfolded now look completely self-evident, and foremost among these is the question — touched on by almost everyone but never tackled — of how a white revolution is to survive not only in the socio-political sphere but even also in the minds of its instigators and supporters, considering that, so long as it remains white, so long as it disrupts neither everyday life as we have known it in Egypt nor the global political-economic order, its only victims will be the young and more or less apolitical revolutionaries themselves.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha