On Fiction and the Caliphate
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to thepostcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.
The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:
My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.
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 (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion
At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.
Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.
Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.
فَلَمَّا سَمِعَتْ بِمَكْرِهِنَّ أَرْسَلَتْ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَعْتَدَتْ لَهُنَّ مُتَّكَأً وَآتَتْ كُلَّ وَاحِدَةٍ مِنْهُنَّ سِكِّينًا وَقَالَتِ اخْرُجْ عَلَيْهِنَّ فَلَمَّا رَأَيْنَهُ أَكْبَرْنَهُ وَقَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ
Chapter and verse
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
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.
The formalist: a ramble
Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007
Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009
The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self).
The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, Kristina Nelson, Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001. pp246
Some three weeks ago, at the Sidi Abul-Ela Mosque in Bulaq, while devotees of the saint solicited his intercession at the shrine, a large group of people gathered in clusters all across the main courtyard, listening to the sound emanating from half a dozen or more ancient-looking speakers positioned at convenient spots throughout. Although the sound was far from excellent, many had brought along recording equipment. There was something almost surreal about the scene.
Where there’s a will…
When I still lived in Cairo, I went to apply for a visa to visit Uzbekistan, and ended up talking to the resident consul about religious culture in Egypt. Something was perplexing the Uzbek diplomat. “The other day,” he told me, “I phoned an official called Mohammad. And I said, ‘Is this Mr Mohammad?’ But the voice at the other end, instead of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘How can I help you’, replied, ‘Insha’allah’!”
God willing, I thought, giggling, my name is Youssef Rakha. “It is very strange. There are no insha’allahs about it. How could God will or not will that? It has already been willed. No one would dream of saying that in Uzbekistan.”
I was not about to disagree with the consul – and not only because I needed the visa. He had cited a particularly amusing variation on a common complaint of non-Egyptians. He was bemoaning the Insha’allah Syndrome. Even to a deeply religious mind, his incredulity would be easy to understand.