Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
The great voice
By Mohamed Salmawy
The bodyguard of Naguib Mahfouz was sitting near his bed, reading the Quran aloud for the benefit of the hospitalised author. The scene didn't astonish me, for Mahfouz needed someone to read to him because of his poor eyesight. I had once asked Mahfouz about his religious beliefs. Did he ever doubt the existence of God?
Mahfouz: When I was studying philosophy in college, I went through a time when I questioned God and religion. This was a crucial phase in my life, but I came out of it with solid faith.
Salmawy: With all the scientific progress humanity has made, do you still think religion has a place in our materialistic world?
Mahfouz: I'll tell you this, the need for religion is greater today than at anytime before. Progress has given us tremendous power, power that no one would have dared imagine. Now man has two choices. Either he uses this power within the humanitarian/ethical frameworks religions delineate, or uses it to promote his own interests. There is an inherent clash between interests and principles, as two world wars, both fought for the sake of interests, indicate. What we see at present, the crimes of violence and rape are the outcome of the separation of interests and principles. Only when we observe humanitarian and ethical principles will we be able to use our power for the benefit of the entire human race. Some philosophies are quite ethical, but those are often inspired by religion. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy wasn't that far removed from Christianity. Francis Bacon too. Men come up with ethical ideas, but these are not as effective as what people believe is divine inspiration. People who believe in ethics are good. But only people with religious faith are willing to die for their beliefs. All great sacrifices were inspired by a sense of faith, not just an intellectual inspiration. This is what prompted some philosophers to espouse religion. The French philosopher Victor Cousin, for example, used to say that we needed religion for the sake of religion.
Salmawy: You believe that the main difference between philosophy and religion is not about principles, but rather about belief in God.
Mahfouz: Is this a small difference? God is the one that gives existence meaning. The opposite of God is absurdity and the absence of meaning.
Salmawy: Have you studied other religions, apart from Islam?
Mahfouz: I read the major holy books, the Old Testament and the New Testament. I also read in Buddhism. And I turned the biblical story of Job into a film script. In The Thief and the Dogs and Echoes of an Autobiography, you'll see a trace of Islamic Sufism. The Quran is the only book that I read more than once. I only read books once. The Quran is the only exception. I go back to it almost every day.
Salmawy: What is your favourite chapter of the Quran?
Mahfouz: The Merciful. I heard this chapter for the first time when I was only a little boy. Sheikh Ali Mahmoud was reciting it at a pavilion in Al-Hussein area. I still remember his voice, a great voice.