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?

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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.

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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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Lost in affirmation: artists, Islamists and politicians

Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
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The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
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So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
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It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.

Watermelon republic

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Watermelon republic
Ensconced online, Youssef Rakha plays sportscaster
In the last few weeks cyber politicising has of course centred on the presidential elections. Apart from a few smallish boycott campaigns on Facebook, few have discussed the significance of what—were it not for the Washington-blessed military-and-Islamist pincers holding political reality in place—would have been the most significant event in Egyptian history since 1953. No one has brought up such issues as the absurdity of running in the absence of a constitution (i.e., on a programme that may prove impracticable once the constitution is drafted), the fact that democratic process is untenable under the hegemony of a military junta, or the lack of any difference between rigging and obtaining votes by distributing sacs of rice or bottles of cooking oil or indeed gas cylinders a la Muslim Brotherhood campaign strategy. The politicising has centred, rather, on who to vote for—and activists as much as analysts, both professional and amateur, have displayed disturbing levels of hysteria in championing the cause of their candidate of choice, fuelled either by supposed loyalty to the revolution and its martyrs or by concern for the future of security and economic stability—with the result that the scene looks like a football match in which the players are substandard and the two teams on the field (the Islamists and the Fuloul or “Remnants of the Fallen Regime”) are vying for supporters of a third (the Revolutionaries) that has been disqualified from competing.
Of the 13 candidates, four (2, 3, 7 and 11) remain more or less completely unknown. Three (the Islamist intellectual Mohammed Selim El Awwa-8, the oppositional judge Hisham El Bastawisi-6 and the leftist MP Abul Ezz El Hariri-1) are generally believed to have little or no chance. And one would seem to be running more to demonstrate that he can than to actually win: the young lawyer and activist Khalid Ali (12), perceived by the writers-and-artists ghetto as the revolution’s candidate—”the romantic dreamers’ choice,” as it has been put—comes across as an unintelligent parody of the populist orator, barely adequate for the presidency of the Youth Centre at the working-class neighbourhood-cum-shanty town of Habbaneyya. Five candidates remain, only one of whom—the well-known Nasserist politician Hamdin Sabbahi (10)—remains outside the Islamist-Fuloul polarity. Despite Arab nationalist and centralist hangovers, reported affinities with Saddam and Gaddafi, and occasional statements in support of Al Qaeda, Sabbahi’s programme would seem to be the pragmatic-progressive path of least resistance under the circumstances; and those relatively sensible tweeps and Facebookers who are cured of spasticity have switched to his side. But it is regarding the four polar candidates that most of the cockfights have taken place: the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed (Spare Tyre) Morsi-13, who ran in place of Khairat El Shater when the latter was legally blocked from running; the reformist Muslim Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim (Retired Terrorist) Abul Fetouh-5, who had to resign from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to run; the former air force commander, civil aviation minister and last prime minister under Mubarak Ahmad (George W.) Shafik-9; and the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary Amr (Cigar Bey) Moussa-4.
Not to suggest that they are any less likely to win than the other three, Spare Tyre and George W. have elicited more mockery than critique, as they are patently empty dummies of what they stand for: respectively, corrupt quasi-theocracy whose principal achievement thus far has been organising mass female-genital-mutilation bonanzas in the provinces, and the pre-25 Jan status quo. Apart from the latter’s often hilarious verbal blunders (“Unfortunately the revolution succeeded”, or “I fought for my country: I killed and I was killed”), they have done nothing to induce any strong feelings—or change anyone’s mind about anything. So it is to (especially liberal) supporters of Retired Terrorist and their cigar-lighting detractors that much of the frenzied pecking has fallen; who will draw blood first remains to be seen. As it has been repeatedly pointed out, however, the pro-revolution, conscientious and “enlightened” face of the Brotherhood is as fanatical as the best of them: suffice to say that, on air, he broke down in tears over his differences with his comrades in arms more often than over anything else; he expressed respect for the assassins of president Sadat, and never repented being a founding member of the Jamaa Islamiya (who are responsible for the bulk of tourist bombings and assassinations of secular figures during the 1990s), so even if he has renounced violence, Abul Fetouh’s loyalties are clear. Drinkers, unmarried couples, creative people and other believers in personal freedom can look forward to various forms of elimination or refugee status abroad. Amr Bey, on the other hand—though infinitely more sophisticated and articulate than Shafik—is a self-acknowledged pillar of the post-9/11 world order; he tries to curry favour by pretending to have championed the Palestinian cause when in fact he is among the architects of the defunct peace process; he is old and arrogant and unlikely to shy away from heavy-handed suppression of the opposition, probably by now more interested in his cigars and other pleasures than anything else indeed.
Still, when all is said and done, the action is only just beginning. Now that it is watermelon season, watching while we make obscene squishy noises and drip red liquid everywhere should be fun. Needless to say, this writer is boycotting the presidential elections.