Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (531)
With parliament in recess and most politicians away on holiday, newspapers tended to be short of fodder in the politics department. In the lull of the summer of 1933, Al-Ahram decided to compensate with a new column, something akin to a variety page which dealt in particular with publications of the time. Yunan Labib Rizk* compiled a review
One of the major concerns of Al-Ahram's 1933 column, "Literature, Science and Arts", was to cover recent publications, especially those it felt were the most thought-provoking or bizarre -- anything that would take readers' mind off the scorching heat. It must have succeeded in its task because the column proved quite popular and remained anchored on page two long after the summer had ended.
Although the publications that were reviewed merit an episode of the Chronicle of their own, what concerns us here is that they cast into relief the vibrant intellectual life of that period. This vibrancy is epitomised in several minor battles -- "intellectual skirmishes" if you will -- that were narrow in scope but significant in their ramifications.
On 17 September 1933, the Literature, Science and Arts column announced the "banning of a scientific book in support of polytheism!" The book, The Vitality of the Earth, attempted to prove, scientifically, that the earth was a living being that grew, moved, breathed and reproduced like other living creatures. The author was left unnamed.
The article goes on to relate that the Ministry of Interior submitted the book to authorities at Al-Azhar for a theological judgement. Al-Azhar authorities, in turn, formed two committees "to study the book from the scientific and theological standpoints". Upon receiving the findings of these committees, they stated, "The author has propounded extremely grave and dangerous views. The most conspicuous is that which holds that there are as many gods as there are planets. He has suggested that every planet has its own god, which eats, drinks and reproduces. That god, which he calls "the heart of the planet", resides in the centre of the planet from where it pumps blood and other life-giving sustenance to all other parts of the planet through such conduits as arteries, veins and nerves. Furthermore, the author delves into astrology. He claims that planets are divided into male and female genders and that these couple and breed little planets just as humans reproduce and create children."
But perhaps what most disturbed Al-Azhar officials was that "the author attempted to use Qur'anic verses to support his argument for the vitality of the earth and the existence of a god in its centre, and appealed to religious scholars to embrace his beliefs." On the basis of these findings, the rector of Al-Azhar asked the Ministry of Interior to ban the book "on the grounds of its flagrant heresy and attempt to lead people's minds into error".
The issue might have ended there had not the author wrote to Al-Ahram to defend himself. His letter was published four days later and signed: "Mohamed El-Nuweihi, teacher, Prince Farouq Primary School, Minya." El-Nuweihi did not forget to mention that he was "a former student of medicine", perhaps by way of presenting his credentials for authoring a book on a scientific subject.
El-Nuweihi denied categorically that he had propounded anything in the nature of a polytheistic doctrine. On the contrary, his book stated explicitly that mankind had one God who ruled the "living earth" and that "there is no other God but Him." His sole purpose in the book was to prove that the planet earth was a living entity, like any human being, animal or plant. Towards this end, he had demonstrated that the earth possessed the seven manifestations of life: nourishment, respiration, excretion, growth, movement, sensation and reproduction. He had further argued that as all living entities had a "vital director" that supervises and controls their vital functions, so too must the earth, for without one it would cease to exist. "This director," he stressed, "is God, the one and only who is worshipped by all people."
One of the main objections of Al-Azhar officials was that the book claimed that the god of earth lived inside rather than above the earth. El-Nuweihi, in his letter, added what he called "corroborative evidence". Firstly, he argued, the vital director of any living creature could not possibly exist outside that creature for only from within could that director control the intake and processing of the food and oxygen necessary to sustain life. "It is axiomatic that nourishment can only be derived from food through metabolism and that a continual supply of oxygen is needed for this process."
The second reason was that the earth was round. "Let us suppose that our God exists outside the earth. Then if all people on the planet looked heavenward in supplication at the same time their supplications would not reach Him for they would be dispersed in all directions and dissipate in the infinite bounds of space. Conversely, were we to suppose that He lived inside the earth, then it would always be possible for all people, whether collectively or not, to focus directly on God, or the vital director of the earth."
El-Nuweihi must have realised that the Qur'anic verses he had cited did little to substantiate his argument, for he acknowledges the validity of the question that some had asked him: "If every planet has a god, why did God not inform us of this?" His answer was, "God ordered his Prophet to speak to the people at their level of intelligence because He did not want to tax our minds with more than they could fathom." Finally, with regard to Al-Azhar's ruling, he laments, "I am not nearly as sorrowed by the banning of my book as I am by having been branded a heretic, even though I have declared that there is no god but God and have attempted to prove scientifically that Mohamed is the Prophet of God."
Al-Ahram did not pursue this "battle" further, conscious as it was of the storms this sensitive subject could trigger. However, the very fact that it lent itself as a forum for El-Nuweihi to defend himself testifies to its commitment to the freedom of opinion, even when such a formidable religious authority as Al-Azhar had put its weight against that opinion. The intellectual skirmish itself is also testimony to the margin of freedom that was then available in the discussion of such thorny issues.
Interestingly, the combatants in the intellectual skirmish on social chaos were all women: Nahed Mohamed Fahmi, Victoria College graduate; Saniya Zoheir, from Dessouq; and Souad Hamdan, student in the Saniya Secondary School for Girls.
Chaos was running rampant in Egyptian society and it was getting worse by the day, while people remained silent, Nahed Fahmi lamented. This chaos manifested itself in many ways. One she phrased in the form of a question: "When will we create headgear appropriate to the climate of Egypt and the extreme heat of its summers, and that conforms to the rules of hygiene?" The second was the confusion that had beset personal names. Lost in Egypt was the custom of the cognomen or patronymic, as was still applied in the West. Because the forename of a child was added before the name of his or her father and then grandfather, ancestral names were forgotten. "What is the purpose of progeny and genealogy if not to preserve the family name?"
Fahmi held certain developments in the press accountable for other forms of chaos. The recent proliferation of magazines "does not bode well", she portended. This was because they were owned and operated by "pretenders to literary and journalistic merit" who instead of producing quality journalism were generating "social confusion" and "moral catastrophe". She even implicated certain writers as particularly culpable. One was an Al-Ahram columnist who sought to impress women by ridiculing those young men who dressed carefully and parted their hair, "as though cleanliness and attention to one's attire were contemptible". Another was a university professor who, in a biweekly periodical, had condemned romantic literature as weak and insubstantial. She countered that the writer was an old man whose heart had stopped beating, as a result of which his writings were "devoid of passion" and "austere". She then proclaims, "You call austerity and emotional aridity strong but be fair. Yours is a geriatric literature whereas ours is the literature of youth!"
Finally, chaos also manifested itself in the arena of politics and political party life. Political parties were formed for a sole purpose, "and this purpose is not to work towards national independence but rather to get into power so as to satisfy personal wants and ambitions". Fahmi continues, "Because this is the purpose, political parties are destroying themselves and they are destroying us and the nation with them. 'Leadership! Patriotism!' they cry. The joke is on us!"
Al-Ahram made no comment other than to take issue with Fahmi's contention with regard to naming offspring. It maintained that the Arabs were more vigilant than other peoples in preserving and commemorating family lineage and that if anyone was to be held responsible for the recent tendency to neglect family lines it was the Turks. Apart from this reservation, its tactic was to hand its pages over to other readers to respond.
Saniya Zoheir readily admitted that she was not a university graduate like Fahmi. Indeed, she was proud to have received no more than a traditional elementary education in a rural kuttab, or Qur'anic school. Zoheir rose to the defence of that Al- Ahram columnist whom Fahmi had spoken out against. The writer, she said, had lamented the state of Egyptian music which was only proper. "Do you approve of that shameless depravity that oozes from those mindless songs that are composed in the name of patriotic feelings and popular sentiment? His criticism is correct because we have erred from the righteous path, even through our attempt to convey our feelings in songs and anthems."
Zoheir also supported the columnist's criticism of male vanity as expressed in outward appearances. Is a man's beauty to be found in an elegant suit, meticulously styled hair and an entrancing voice, she asks, "or in his masculinity and that toughness that a woman senses in everything connected with him, that toughness that exudes strength and the ability to protect her, compassionately and tenderly?"
The response from Souad Hamdan was more exhaustive. Taking the points in turn, she charges that Fahmi had taken too bleak and limited an approach to clothes, particularly headgear. What one wore on one's head was a question of personal freedom, within the confines of morals and traditions, she argued. "However, if you [Nahed Fahmi] are referring to that old debate over the tarboush versus the Western style hat, experts have already dealt with that issue, and have championed the tarboush which has become one of our indispensable national emblems."
On the question of names, she noted that family names were kept alive through the use of an agnomen or cognomen. "Were you to take stock of prominent Egyptian families, you would find many long-standing names, such as Abaza, El- Shari'i, El-Gazzar and innumerable others."
Given her stance on the freedom that people should have with regard to personal attire, it is not surprising that she would also disagree with Fahmi's sweeping assessment of the press. She writes, "Every nation has good publications and bad, solid and weak, substantial and meagre. What is important is that we do not allow the bad to destroy our judgement of and pleasure in the good."
Nor were all political parties formed to further the interests of power-hungry individuals. "We have political parties that have persevered in the face of adversity and withstood the bludgeons of the occupation. We have hearts that have been bled drop by drop but have never weakened and will remain firm." Hamdan concludes with an exhortation not to be so harsh on the people of Egypt who, "no sooner do they see the light of day than they are thrown into darkness and stabbed in the back".
In late July 1933, Ali Ibrahim Hassan, then a student but later to become a professor of Islamic history, began a series on "Egypt's Islamic capitals". Readers received his first two instalments covering Fustat, Askar and Qata'i' enthusiastically. However, his third instalment on Cairo triggered another intellectual skirmish.
Hassan opens with the well-known fact that the fourth Islamic capital of Egypt was founded in 969, following the conquest of Egypt by the forces of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Moezz Liddinallah and the overthrow of the Ikhshidi dynasty. After the conquest, Gawhar Al-Siqali, the commander of the Fatimid forces that had camped to the north of Fustat and Askar, laid the foundations of the city he planned to create as the capital of the Fatimid state and the foundations of the palace of his master Al-Moezz. "Then, around the palace, each of the Berber tribes staked out a portion of land that took the name of the tribe, giving rise for example to Burqa and Rom Alleys."
The new city was to serve as a centre for promulgating the Fatimid doctrine as well as an impenetrable fortification against the Karmathians who had occupied Damascus and were now threatening Egypt's northern borders. After completing the construction of the caliph's palace and the city walls, Al-Siqali, named the city Al-Mansuriya, in commemoration of Al-Mansur, the father of Al-Moezz. But after his arrival to Egypt, Al-Moezz changed the name to Al- Qahira (Cairo).
Mediaeval historians differed over the reasons the caliph chose that name, Hassan tells us. Ibn Daqmaq held that when the foundations of the city were being laid, Mars (Al-Qahir) was in the ascendancy. Al-Maqrizi, on the other hand, relates that Al-Siqali had summoned a group of astrologers and asked them to choose a name that would bring good fortune. "The astrologers set up wooden posts on the site where the wall was to be constructed and connected the posts with some ropes with bells attached to them. Al-Siqali then ordered the workers to start laying the foundations the moment they heard the bells ring. It so happened that a crow landed on one of the ropes, setting off the bells. The workers thought that the astrologers had rung the bells, while the astrologers proclaimed, 'Mars is in the ascendancy.' And thus the city was named Al-Qahira." According to Al-Maqrizi, the Caliph Al- Moezz was obsessed with astrology and would consult his astrologers from everything pertaining to his personal affairs to the affairs of state.
Youssef Ahmed, a former antiquities inspector, held that Al-Maqrizi's account was open to doubt. Under the headline, "Egypt's Islamic capitals: for the sake of truth and history", he points out that Al-Maqrizi, in his history, had written, "It is said that the reason the city was named Cairo was because... etc. This indicates that the historian was not certain of the accuracy of his information, which is implied whenever an account is preceded by, 'It is said that...'"
More significantly, Ahmed points out that Al-Masoudi, "the great historian who died in 950 and who completed his historical work in 947, which is to say 22 years before the founding of Cairo," related a very similar story, but pertaining to the founding of Alexandria:
"Alexander ordered the workers and craftsmen to station themselves around the lines that demarcated where the city walls would be built. He then had them erect posts, then connected them with ropes. These structures, in turn, were connected to a granite column, over which was suspended a huge bell. He then told the craftsman and workers that as soon as that bell rang and the ropes moved, they were to begin laying the foundations all together at one go. Then, a crow landed on the rope over the column and set off the bell. When the workers saw the ropes move and heard the ringing, they laid the foundations in one go and voices resounded in praise and blessing."
Youssef Ahmed surmised that Al-Maqrizi took this story and applied it to Cairo. Although a reasonable deduction, Al- Maqrizi's account is still the most widely accepted among historians.
In a letter to Al-Ahram, Mohamed El-Ghandour, a student in Khedival Secondary School, attempted to distinguish between two terms, Africa and African, citing Arab and Western sources on the origin of the names. In "Literature, Science and Arts", the prominent historian Ahmed Zaki took issue, although here the result of the battle was a foregone conclusion given the intellectual brawn that was pitted against the secondary school stripling.
According to the "Sheikh of Arabism", as Zaki was dubbed, Westerners held that "Africa" was derived from the Latin prefix, "a", meaning "non", affixed to "frica", the Latin for cold, to yield a term for "the land that was never cold". That etymology, he said, was absurd.
The more likely origin was that the people who had settled in that land named it after their forefather Africus. After all, that was a common custom in the ancient world, where Misr (Egypt) was derived from King Misraim and Kush was named after the Ethiopian king.
Those settlers, he continues, were Arabs from Yemen who had migrated to that area on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. "They are a Berber tribe descended from Africus, who is said to be descended from Ham, the son of Noah. When they received the light of monotheism, they retained their former name to refer to the kingdom of Tunis. That kingdom sometimes extended beyond its borders to the west and east, depending on its power. However, the Arab name remained the same, although it is pronounced 'Ifriqya'."
And so that name continued to be used to refer to that area until modern geographers divided the world into continents and applied "Africa" to that continent that traverses the equator. Zaki thus concludes, "If we want to refer to the larger continent, we must use the word Africa rather than Ifriqya in order to avoid the confusion that often occurs when the part and the whole share the same name."
Evidently few have heeded Zaki's lecture for the confusion persists.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.