About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.
Youssef Rakha takes refuge in the limpid prose of the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century
My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.
On losing his job at Cairo University, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) did accept the offer of a job in the Netherlands, but he never sought refuge outside his country of birth. He did not play victim or celebrity even after he was straitjacketed in both roles. With the humility of a true hero, he went on doing what he was doing. I am grateful for his scholarship, which added to my sense of identity as a secular Muslim. I am grateful because he showed me what is theologically wrong with the kind of religious discourse that I hate. But he is my hero because his books taught me, an unbeliever, that the creed into which I was born does not require the kind of stupidity I have always found so repulsive. Less than a year after his death I remain as agnostic as ever, but I know now that the sort of people who targeted Abu Zayd – fellow scholars backed by lawyers committed to political Islam – are, in the glorious scholarly traditions of the faith, closer to the idolater than the zealot.
Abu Zayd died suddenly of an obscure virus six months before revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo. Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the fundamentalist rigidity that gave Abu Zayd so much trouble has been more visible in the media. With Hassan Nasrallah supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Muslim Brothers boycotting demonstrations against military abuses in the new Egypt, however, the opportunism and the lies of political Islam are also clearer than ever. When they have infuriated or terrified me, I have taken refuge in Abu Zayd’s limpid prose. It is heavy stuff, not bed-time reading. But it is so lucid and convincing it allows me, with so much unrest at the doorstep, to relax in bed knowing not only where I stand but also that it makes sense to stand there as a Muslim, however agnostic, however disappointed in contemporary Islam.
Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian journalist and author. His latest novel is ‘Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars’