|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 February 2002
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photo: Mohamed Mos'ad
Consolations of philosophy
Music is his passion, but he ended up playing philosophy instead
Profile by Nesmahar Sayed
Over a decade ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Cairo University's faculty of mass communications, Hassan Hanafi lectured my class in philosophy. It was a general course intended for non-specialists to round out their education. Some of us loved his course, others hated it. Later I realised that he was well aware of this fact, and indeed had tailored the course to produce such an effect. Indifference is one thing he despises.
His lecturing style resembled that of a high priest performing a sacred ceremony: God was a revered presence throughout. It was unlike any of the religious sermons we had heard before, however. True, he quoted verses from the Qur'an to substantiate his arguments, but he also borrowed freely from the Bible. At that time, we knew nothing of Hanafi's endeavour to develop a liberation theology pertinent to Arab-Islamic culture, and he was keen not to intimidate us with labels. He concentrated on such basic notions as freedom and necessity, suggesting correlations but never imposing a given view. When questions were asked, he would phrase his reply in the form of another question, always emphasising that the aim of his course was to make us think, rather than provide ready-made answers. This is what philosophy is all about, he would tell us.
Born in 1935, Hanafi witnessed all the political upheavals that shaped Egypt's history in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1948 Palestine War, he presented himself as a volunteer at the headquarters of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, but was rejected. He dreamt of a victorious nation, its unity represented by the Palestinian flag that stands proudly on his desk. "Homelands are as sacred as God, and the will of the people is also sacred," he says. Of all the political forces active during that period, the Muslim Brothers had the greatest influence on his formative years. "I first encountered members of the Brotherhood at the school's debate club, then watched them dispersing and hiding after demonstrations, then regrouping in the mosque to pray for the martyrs.
Hanafi believes that his personal itinerary resembles the Brotherhood's with respect to its relation with the regime. "I am part of the Islamic revivalist movement, and the way I interacted with the 1952 Revolution was influenced by the intricate relations between it and the Brotherhood. Even now, this relation plays an important role in my life. I have followed the intellectual path mapped out by Sayed Qutb, whom I consider one of the early Islamist leftists," Hanafi says.
As readers may have guessed from his opinion of Qutb as a pioneer of the Islamic left, Hanafi has always been fond of controversial ideas, and is a very difficult person to classify ideologically: a communist for the Muslim Brothers, a Muslim Brother among the communists, he is described in the security files dating from the period of his political activism as a "communist Muslim Brother," an expression he always uses in introducing himself to his new students.
Nor does Hanafi see any contradiction between the two. "Revolution and religion blend very well," he says, "and together they have been at the core of my career as a university professor. It is the culture of supermarkets, where similar items are grouped together, that makes people think in 'either/or' terms. Aristotle was both an idealist and a realist." It is the end that matters; and in achieving that end -- consciousness oriented toward resistance -- one should use all suitable means, he emphasises.
Hanafi's political awareness was first forged during the Second World War, when he was still a child, and simple Egyptians who hated the British wished to see Germany emerge triumphant. "Since the Germans were the enemies of the British and the British were our enemies, it was a matter of my enemy's enemy being my friend," he recalls. As he grew older, and became interested in philosophy, he looked once more to Germany. He studied the language, fell in love with a German girl and dreamt of pursuing his philosophy studies there. Cairo University's philosophy department, where Hanafi obtained his BA with flying colours in 1955, had stronger ties with France, though.
On 11 October 1956, Hanafi boarded a ship from Alexandria bound for Marseilles. He had a narrow escape: two weeks later the Suez War broke out and diplomatic relations between Egypt and France were severed. He found himself without funding in a strange country as a first-year graduate student; to pay his bills, he began giving private lessons to Algerians who needed to improve their Arabic. They extended a helping hand to him in return, arranging lodgings in a cheap hotel in the 20th arrondissement where they lived, "ten per room, two to a bed."
After two months, he took lodging with a French family, and was eventually able to secure a chambre de bonne in the 13th. He did not enjoy his solitude for long, however: the landlord's brother had been deported from Egypt following the nationalisation of foreign companies, and he took his revenge by evicting Hanafi. This time he managed to find a more permanent dwelling, a room in a 16th arrondissement basement, where he spent two years.
In 1958, over a year after he had started his studies at the Sorbonne, his supervisor wrote to the French foreign ministry's cultural department recommending that financial aid be granted to this "serious student." Thus did Hanafi obtain half the Egyptian scholarship of which the Suez War had deprived him, and was able to secure a room in the Cité Universitaire. There he stayed until 1965, when he was completing his dissertation for a doctorat d'état.
In 1960, Egypt and France restored relations and the long-awaited government scholarship arrived. By that time, Hanafi was already working part time in the Bibliothèque Nationale's periodicals section, helping to catalogue Arabic periodicals and making headway in his dissertation on "the phenomenology of exegesis: an essay in existential hermeneutics on the basis of the New Testament." While writing his doctorate proposal, he attempted to synthesise a comprehensive Islamic methodology of social and individual life. His supervisor expressed astonishment at "a young man in his 20s thinking like someone in his 80s," and advised him to study the Islamic heritage first. This is why he added fundamentals of jurisprudence to the research programme at Cairo University after his return from Paris. As he never tires of saying, he owes much of his initiation in philosophy to Jean Guitton, his supervisor at the Sorbonne. Hanafi referred to him simply as Christ, while Guitton called him "beloved disciple" in reference to St John.
Paris was Hanafi's gate to Europe and Western culture. In summer he would take his bicycle and head to Germany, the Netherlands or Italy where he would cycle across country in search of museums, lectures and concerts. The son of a musical family whose father was a professional musician, Hanafi used to play the violin. In Paris he attended a private conservatoire to pursue his musical studies, with an eye on composing. But the hardships of his first two years took their toll on his health; suspected of having contracted tuberculosis, he was admitted to a hospital. The doctors advised him to choose between music and philosophy. Often he regrets having chosen philosophy, but usually he is satisfied with his choice. "Why be miserable? After all, I am playing philosophy," he smiles.
Paris, too, was a place to discover both self and Other. His political vision matured there; thus, when Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser's second-in- command, visited in 1965, Hanafi was the only one of the Egyptian students who met the field- marshal to voice any criticism. When he asked Amer about the alleged torture of Muslim Brothers in Egyptian concentration camps, the hall erupted, with many students chiming in to ask about disturbing news they were receiving from Egypt.
During his doctorate viva, one of the professors, irritated by Hanafi's hypothesis about the beginning of the West's demise and the East's ascendance, asked him whether a dissertation arguing the opposite would be accepted at an Egyptian university. Hanafi did not respond, but he knew that much hard work would be necessary to meet the implied challenge after his return home.
He returned to Cairo in August 1966, eager to teach philosophy and fulfil his dream of the East's awakening, with Egypt at its centre. The 1967 defeat shattered that dream, and he began writing monthly articles in Al-Fikr Al-Mu'asser and Al-Kateb about the role of intellectuals in developing countries, the reasons for the Arab defeat and the conditions necessary for its reversal. He embarked on translating and reviewing major Western philosophical works, which he felt were an essential weapon in the struggle for liberation: Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus and Thomas Aquinas's writings on being and essence are just some of the texts he worked to popularise during this period.
In 1971, Hanafi, afraid of repeating himself, stopped writing his monthly article and decided it was time to replenish. He obtained the post of visiting professor at Philadelphia University, where he stayed until 1975, immersing himself in liberation theology.
His four years in America initiated a shift in his academic interest toward what he calls "revolutionary religion," a concept that acquired impetus after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Between 1979 and '80, Hanafi supervised the publication in Arabic of two books by Imam Khomeini: The Islamic Government and Jihad Al-Nafs, as well as writing an introduction and lengthy footnotes. "I wanted people to judge the revolution fairly," he says. The following year, he issued the first and only issue of Al-Yassar Al- Islami (Islamic Left) magazine, which he hoped would become a melting pot for the popular national movement. His target was the kind of audience to whom Sayed Qutb and Sheikh El- Sha'rawi appealed. Later, he realised that he did not speak their language; and so he concentrated on his students, through whom he believes he can experience life twice.
In 1982, he felt the need to go away for some time again, and took a job as professor of philosophy in Morocco. That move ended the time of his direct political action; he felt he had digressed from his initial intellectual project of revitalizing the Arab-Islamic heritage by investigating its radical roots. In 1988, this project bore fruit, with the publication of his five-volume magnum opus Min Al-Aqida Ila Al-Thawra, Muhawala Li I'adat Bina' Ilm Usul Al-Din (From Doctrine to Revolution: An Attempt at Reformulating Usul Al-Din Science). Throughout the 1980s, he also published a series of smaller books on different topics, all bound by a common theme -- Islam, in relation to culture, the national struggle, development and fundamentalism.
Another of his books caused a sensation when it appeared in 1989: Introduction to Occidentalism, a study of how Easterners perceived the West. The second volume of this book has not yet been published, but Hanafi has much to say about it. "A development of Rifa'a El-Tahtawi's description of France, it aims to change the way people here look at the West. Instead of Orientals being the passive objects of the Western gaze, we must study the West. The way Orientals saw it must be a subject for deep investigation. Occidentalism is the other side of Orientalism," he explains.
But when will relations between West and East move from conflict to dialogue? We are still in the stage of reaction, between the strong and the weak, he replies. According to Hanafi, a dialogue can only take place between equals. For example, no dialogue is possible between Amina and El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel-Gawwad in Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy. Once the East shakes off the West's hegemony, then a dialogue can develop, he argues. The moment the self reaches the same level as the other, then the self can create while the other consumes the products of that creation, and vice versa. That is why there is no dialogue between Israel and Palestine. Regarding the Arabs, "we lack a culture of dialogue."
He believes that Islam today is "confronting imperialism outside and resisting oppression within." He shares this belief with other religious reformers: the names of Jamaleddin Al-Afghani, Ahmed Orabi, Abdallah El-Nadim, Qasim Amin, Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Al-Aqqad spring to mind. He believes such reform consists in "taking from the old what you need and leaving what you do not." The choice between what we take and what we leave should emerge from a vision -- "an Islamic ideology capable of giving Muslims freedom, social justice and of interacting with other religions, cultures and ideologies."
He wishes humans could live twice: once to write scholarly works, the second to dedicate to the public.
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