Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 May 2001
Issue No.535
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A Diwan of contemporary life (391)

On Jahiliyya Poetry, written by university professor Taha Hussein, never had a chance. Published in 1926, it was condemned by Al-Azhar and several academicians as a heretical work, one that offended Islam and deviated from its precepts. While inevitable comparisons were made with another controversial work, Islam and the Principles of Government, written by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq the previous year, critics pounced on On Jahiliyya Poetry, with its strong religious overtones. So venomous were the attacks that charges were eventually brought against. Hussein won a judicial acquittal and the public prosecutor said it was up to his university to discipline him, if necessary. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram

Taha Hussein's ordeal

Taha HusseinThe year 1925 witnessed the trial of Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq for his publication of Islam and the Principles of Government. The case led to the fall of the government coalition between the Liberal Constitutionalists and the Ittihad Party. The following year saw the publication of Taha Hussein's On Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) Poetry, a book that stirred controversy no less acrimonious than that of the previous year, even though the two works were different.

Islam and the Principles of Government had a distinct political agenda. King Fouad was making a bid for the seat of the caliphate, which fell vacant when Ataturk abolished it in Istanbul in 1924. It was generally perceived that the king's ambitions stemmed, not from a religious fervour to defend the faith, but from an avid desire to augment his worldly power. Taha Hussein's work, by contrast, was the scholastic endeavour of a university professor who sought to apply skepticism to a literary study that had strong religious overtones. As he wrote in the introduction to On Jahiliyya Poetry: "I want to apply to literature that philosophical school founded by Descartes for the inquiry into the true nature of things. As all are aware, the fundamental rule in this approach is for the researcher to discard everything he knew about the subject in advance so as to approach it with an entirely free and unencumbered mind."

In addition, the two authors differed markedly in several ways. Sheikh Abdel-Razeq was an Al-Azhar scholar who, at the time of the publication of his book, was a magistrate in Al-Mansoura Religious Court. He was from a prestigious upper class background. His father was a prominent notable as well as one of the founders of the Liberal Constitutional Party. Taha Hussein, on the other hand, was a professor of Arabic literature at The Egyptian University which had become a state university the previous year. Of a much more modest social stratum, Hussein was always self-dependent. He began his career as an Al-Azhar scholar, joining the university after obtaining his doctorate in the Sorbonne. Yet, he was to acquire far greater fame than Abdel-Razeq due to his frequent contributions to the press -- whether Al-Ahram or Al-Siyasa, the Liberal Constitutionalist mouthpiece -- and due to his outspokenness that won him many admires as well as detractors.

Thus, while Abdel-Razeq had the backing of a powerful family and a political party that was in power at the time, Hussein had only the force of his argument and his professional reputation, weapons that counted for little then. British High Commissioner George Lloyd summed up Hussein's position in a report to the Foreign Office in London: "The Liberal Constitutionalists were not prepared to back him after having their fingers burnt last year over Islam and the Principles of Rule, particularly after he incurred their displeasure for writing in the Ittihad Party newspaper. In addition, Saad Zaghlul's followers saw in the controversy an opportunity to avenge themselves, not only because of a series of fiery articles against their leader that he had written for Al-Siyasa when it first appeared, but also because they believe he enjoys the patronage of the Deputy Chief of the Royal Cabinet Hassan Nashat Pasha. Al-Azhar, too, jealous of the nascent Egyptian University, seized the opportunity to put the infidels to chase."

Thus exposed and vulnerable, On Jahiliyya Poetry was assailed from all sides following it publication in April 1926. However, religious criticisms levelled at the book were the most serious. Epitomising this phalanx of assaults was an article by Mohamed Abdel-Muttalib, a professor at Dar Al-Ulum ( an Islamic and Arabic language college), in Al-Ahram of 2 May 1926 in response to Taha Hussein's commentary on the story of Ibrahim and Ismail (Abraham and Ishmael). Hussein wrote: "In ancient times, there was a war between the Arabs and the Jews that ended in a truce, after which the two sides sought to create a bond of kinship between them, towards which end this story was invented. The story appealed to the Quraish tribe who felt it in their interests to establish that Mecca had a glory such as that of ancient Rome and because it relates that the Ka'ba was constructed by Ibrahim and Ismail... When Islam arrived and was resisted by the pagans, it took advantage of this story to establish the bond between Islam and the two ancient religions, Christianity and Judaism, thereby fortifying its power to overcome Arab paganism."

Hussein concludes: "Thus, the circumstances surrounding this story are clear. It is of relatively recent conception, appearing shortly before the emergence of Islam, and was used by Islam for a religious purpose and accepted by Mecca for a religious as well as a political purpose. Consequently, literary and linguistic history can disregard it in order to determine the origins of classical Arabic."

The barrage of criticism against the Arabic literature professor was overwhelming. In addition to Abdel-Muttalib who fired the opening salvo, Al-Azhar scholar Abd-Rabbuh Muftah vented his anger under the headline "Al-Azhar ulema hunt down heresy." Abdel-Mutal El-Saidi of Al-Ahmedi Mosque charged that the author of On Jahiliyya Poetry lifted his ideas from a British orientalist, and Abdel-Baqi Surur Naim wrote an open letter "To Doctor Taha Hussein" in Al-Ahram.

That Al-Ahram lent itself so readily as a forum for this campaign is curious, all the more so when we consider that it also featured the lampoons written by a certain "Wahid" throughout the crisis. Mohamed Bek Wahid, founder of the Al-Ahrar Party in 1907, was the most outspoken supporter of the British colonial presence in Egypt, more so than any Egyptian politician before him. Indeed, he celebrated the anniversary of 14 September 1882, the date on which British forces entered Cairo, declaring that it marked "the beginning of one of the most joyful and radiant eras in Egyptian history." Wahid referred to Taha Hussein in several ways: "the man who knows not himself," "the laughing-stock of The Egyptian University," and "the blunderer of the Arabic language at The Egyptian University."

Not only did a newspaper of such widely acknowledged respectability descend to printing the slurs of a man with such a spurious past, it joined in the attack against Taha Hussein. In its editorial of 30 September it described On Jahiliyya Poetry as "a wretched little book copied from our orientalist" and "a trivial work that does not merit mention."

But it still had the decency to publish Hussein's response to the editorial, and the response was not kind. He asks Al-Ahram's Editor-in-Chief Daoud Barakat: "Would you please care to inform me what is the connection between those slurs and the book? Could you tell me the relationship between those words and your dignity and the purity and decency of language you should strive to maintain? Why else would you need to resort to those slights and slanders were it not that you, too, seek to gratify the emotions of the common majority, to play up to that reprehensible thirst for malice, provocation and vengeance?" At the end of the letter Hussein observes that the law permits those that come under attack in the press to defend themselves and that "in view of your considerable lack of restraint I would like to take advantage of this right." Perhaps this threat was what prompted Barakat to print Hussein's letter in full. One suspects a strong element of personal acrimony in the exchange between Barakat and Hussein, for the latter suddenly stopped writing for Al-Ahram towards the end of 1922.

If both Islam and the Principles of Government and On Jahiliyya Poetry were condemned by Al-Azhar, the levels of intensity differed. Hardly had the latter work appeared than Al-Ahram announced that some 200 Al-Azhar scholars assembled in the Secretariat of Religious Institutes "and from there headed to Abdeen Palace with the rector and senior staff of Al-Azhar in the lead. At the palace they met Chief of the Royal Cabinet Tawfiq Nasim Pasha and explained to him the nature of the infamous assertions in the book. Nasim expressed his grave displeasure at the author's effrontery and declared his solidarity with the ulema in the defence of the faith."

The Al-Azhar scholars then formed two commissions to study On Jahiliyya Poetry and, on 10 May, they submitted their findings to the prime minister. The report alleged that the author had deliberately offended Islam, deviated from its precepts and was teaching heresy at the university. Two days later, Taha Hussein wrote to the university director protesting against the charges. "I could not possibly have done as alleged, for I am a Muslim who believes in God, His angels, His Prophet Mohamed and His other prophets and the Day of Judgement. I, who have striven to the best of my ability to enhance religious instruction under the Ministry of Education when I served on the ministry's Committee of Religious Education, maintain that my lectures at the university have never treated religious issues in any manner since I am fully aware that the university was not established for this purpose."

Hussein's denials did not win over the Al-Azhar scholars, one of whom wrote to Al-Ahram to suggest that the Arabic literature professor was only trying to save his job. A fellow Al-Azharite observed that from beginning to end, the book did not once mention the name of God or His Prophet. "Tell me, Dr Hussein, what faith do you have left in the Qur'an of the Muslims?" he asked rhetorically.

At the time Islam and the Principles of Government appeared, there was no Egyptian parliament to protest. In March 1925 the elected assembly was dissolved by royal decree and the Ziwar government busily came up with fresh excuses to defer new elections. In addition, if Abdel-Razeq's book, however contentious, played a part in the collapse of the government coalition, that played only too well with the overwhelming Wafdist majority of the dismissed parliament. When On Jahiliyya Poetry appeared a year later circumstances could not have been more different. Elections in May 1926 returned a majority Wafdist parliament which greeted Taha Hussein's study with hostility. There was nothing to indicate that an element of the 1926 parliament's assault on this work of literary criticism was orchestrated by the Wafd Party leadership. However, the fact that the leadership remained silent throughout ultimately led to a confrontation with the government, then headed by Prime Minister Adli Yakan.

The offensive began when Sheikh Mustafa El-Qayati stood up and fired several heated questions at the minister of education. After outlining what he held were heretical attitudes in the book, attitudes, moreover, that Taha Hussein taught to his students, the parliamentary member asked, "Is it true that when this matter was brought before the board of directors of the university, it maintained that the professor should be free in what he teaches to his students? Does the minister believe that this blatant rejection of a book held sacred by all Muslim people is part of the freedom that should be granted to a teacher most of whose students are Muslims from Islamic countries? Finally, does his excellency think it proper to retain this man as a professor of Arabic literature in the Faculty of Letters given his baseless attack against religion, science and history?"

El-Qayati's comments were published in Al-Ahram on 9 September. Five days later the newspaper carried the minutes of the parliamentary session of the previous day, a session devoted almost entirely to Taha Hussein and his controversial book.

The first to raise the subject was Member of Parliament Abdel-Khaleq Attiya who discussed the constitutional guarantee of freedom of education. This freedom, Attiya said, should be absolute "unless it disrupts public order or contravenes public morals. 'Disrupt' here means that a declaration of opinion will result or threaten to result in civil strife. In such an eventuality, the law establishes a formidable boundary, for the public welfare reigns supreme over individual desire."

But the issue also entailed an element of propriety. "Taha Hussein is a professor in The Egyptian University," Attiya said. "This is a public institution that subsists on funds from the government which represents the people and Taha Hussein receives his salary from this body which follows the Islamic faith. It is incomprehensible, irrational and even indecent that this individual should spit in the face of the government, from which he receives his salary, by attacking the religion of its subjects, whether that of the majority or the minority. We put our children in the hands of the government so that they may acquire instruction in its educational institutions. In so doing, we put our faith in an implicit contract between the government and ourselves ensuring that religious beliefs are respected."

Minister of Education Ali El-Shamsi had no bones to pick with this well thoughtout argument. His ministry, he said, was dedicated to upholding the university "as an unrestricted institute for sound academic research." However, "this does not imply that professorial seats should be pulpits for the denigration of any religion." Of course, the minister was quick to point out that Taha Hussein's book appeared during the tenure of the previous cabinet and that he had discussed the issue with the president of the university, who informed him that the university had bought all copies of the book in order to prevent its dissemination and had taken all necessary measures to prevent its reissuance. On the other hand, the university president denied the widely held view that Taha Hussein taught the book in his classes.

El-Qayati, like Attiya, was not to be mollified. "The author should be shown no mercy," he said. "Scriptures ordain death by stoning for perpetrators of certain criminal offenses. How then should we treat someone who claims that God and His Prophet lied and that the faithful do not know how to distinguish between right and wrong?"

If the future looked grim for Taha Hussein, what would bring parliament to loggerheads with the government was the proposal put forward by MP Abdel-Hamid El-Banan, the representative of Al-Gamaliya district. El-Banan made three demands: All copies of the book be confiscated and burned; the public prosecution bring charges against its author; and the university abolish his post. Prime Minister Yakan believed the parliament had now overstepped its bounds. "It has adopted a resolution that conflicts with the measures that the government has adopted and seeks to lead the government on a certain course of action beyond the one it has already taken," he said, adding: "This constitutes a criticism of the measures the government has undertaken on the matter and brings into question confidence in the current government."

According to the report by the British high commissioner on the session, a sharp exchange ensued between the prime minister and Speaker of the House Saad Zaghlul "during which both lost their tempers." Zaghlul stormed out of the assembly hall shouting he would not remain as a speaker who had had his rights violated. He was followed by several Wafdist ministers who tried to calm him down.

The crisis was soon resolved. Later that day, Yakan, Hussein Rushdi, Fathallah Barakat and Mohamed Mahmoud met in Zaghlul's home and, following lengthy discussions that lasted until midnight, agreed to leave the entire affair in the hands of the Wafdist minister of education. That, however, did not prevent El-Banan from filing a written deposition against Taha Hussein with the public prosecutor. From this point on, the spotlight shifted from the chambers of parliament to the chambers of the courts.

Published in Al-Ahram on 15 September, El-Banan's deposition read: "Taha Hussein, a professor at The Egyptian University, has undertaken to publish, distribute, sell and display in stores and public forums a book entitled On Jahiliyya Poetry, in which the author defames and denigrates the Islamic religion -- the state religion. As this is a crime falling under Articles 30, 139 and 148 of the Penal Code, it is my duty to bring it to your attention and demand an investigation so that the public prosecutor may determine the validity of the allegation and file suit." He appended a copy of Hussein's book with the deposition.

As though in a concerted attempt to goad the public prosecutor into action, the campaign against the book intensified. Within days after El-Banan lodged his complaint there appeared a spate of publications rejecting Taha Hussein's contentions. Mohamed Farid Wagdi, a noted Islamic scholar, argued that Hussein's inquiry into the lore of pre-Islamic Arabian peoples was ill-informed and that, consequently, "the book contains so many sociological, psychological and philosophical errors that it is impossible to remain silent." Other scholars to criticise the book included Sheikh Mohamed El-Khidr, "known for his academic precision and his scientific and literary erudition," and Mohamed Hussein Effendi of the Royal Agricultural Society, "whose valuable historical, literary and religious studies testify to the author's expertise and the cogency of his arguments."

On Jahiliyya Poetry also galvanised a number of Al-Azhar staff into forming the Society for the Defence of the Rights of Ulema which, following Friday prayers in the famous mosque on 12 November, met "to discuss the issue of the heretic Taha Hussein and to demand that the government dismiss him from The Egyptian University."

At the same time, attempts were made to intimidate Hussein's lawyer, Kamel El-Bindari. Writing to Al-Ahram, an Al-Azhar scholar who was a relative of El-Bindari, declared that he had distanced himself from the lawyer "because he remains determined to defend Sheikh Taha Hussein who seeks to deny the veracity of the Holy Qur'an and attribute falsehoods to the Prophet in an arrogant attempt to make wrong prevail over right. This cannot be permitted to stand uncontested." Al-Ahram was quick to intervene. Lawyers should never be prevented from performing their duties nor should they be considered accomplices in the charges brought against a defendant, it argued.

Against the backdrop of this charged climate, the prosecution began its investigations into the case of On Jahiliyya Poetry. They would not last long. The prosecution opened with a summary of the four protests citizens lodged against Taha Hussein: the author denied the probity of the Qur'an in his account of the origins of the story of Ibrahim and Ismail; he disputed the accepted seven readings of the Qur'an and claimed that they belonged to the pre-Islamic Arabs and not divinely revealed to the Prophet Mohamed; he denigrated the lineage of the Prophet through the assertion that Islam appropriated pre-Islamic legends to enhance the status of the Prophet and the Quraish tribe; and he denied that Islam was the religion of Abraham.

The prosecution then detailed the results of its own deliberations on these allegations. Hussein's accusers, Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Nur said, had taken the author's words entirely out of context in an academic study whose primary subject matter and intent had no bearing on religious issues. It is true, he said, that the author spoke of Quraish in less than reverential terms. However, this was not the product of malicious intent but rather "a very poor way of expressing himself."

In sum, Nur concluded, there was no evidence that Taha Hussein deliberately maligned or denigrated Islam. From the academic perspective, on the other hand, "the professor, as is the case with professors in other universities, has a duty to publish the findings of his research which, in turn, should be subjected to criticism only by specialists and the university board of directors in its capacity as the university's disciplinary body. Only the board is entitled to take Taha Hussein to task." So saying, the prosecution closed the case on Taha Hussein, to the disappointment of his many detractors, from Abdel-Hamid El-Banan to Al-Ahram.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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