Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A freethinker’s legacy

Few people epitomise the cultural turbulence of the region more than Saudi-born writer Abdallah Al-Qusaymi, writes Samir Sobhi

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Saudi-born writer Abdallah Al-Qusaymi, a Salafist turned freethinker, was one of the most prolific writers in the region between 1940 and 1960, when he lived primarily in Egypt and Lebanon. Despite the banning of most of his books, Al-Qusaymi commanded the respect, admiration and sometimes even emulation of some of the Arab world’s best-known authors.

Earlier this year, Beirut-based Dar Jadawel publishers released a book by a friend of Al-Qusaymi, the Egyptian lawyer Ibrahim Abdel-Rahman. The book, Khamsuna aman ma’a Abdallah Al-Qusaymi (Fifty Years with Abdallah Al-Qusaymi), goes into great detail in its discussion of Al-Qusaymi’s ideas and immense insight into Arab culture.

In reading the book, one has to consider the fact that despite the attempts of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna and others to silence him, Al-Qusaymi created not only important works but also buzzwords that will perhaps live forever in intellectual debate in the region.

Many will already be familiar with at least the title of Al-Qusaymi’s 1977 work Al-‘Arab, Zahirah Sawtiyah (The Arabs: An Acoustic Phenomenon). Published in Paris, the book, which was banned in most Arab countries, is often cited, even by those who have not read it, as a condemnation of the excessive rhetoric that can wreak havoc on the Arab intellectual and political scene.

Al-Qusaymi enrolled at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1927, but was expelled a few years later because of his book Al-Buruq Al-Nagdiya fi Iktisah Al-Zulmazt Al-Digwiyah (The Nagd Lightening Conquers the Digwi Darkness), in which Al-Qusaymi defended Wahhabism against one of its critics, the Azharite scholar Youssef Al-Digwi.

Ironically, Al-Qusaymi later changed his mind, and dramatically so. In the 1940s he unleashed a steady stream of critical writings dismissive not only of Islamist thinking, but also of many mainstream ideas as well. His writings, which angered fundamentalists, brought him death threats and forced him to change residence repeatedly.

In one of his most important works, a 1946 book entitled Hazi Hiya Al-Aghlal (Those are the Shackles), Al-Qusaymi refuted not only religious dogma but also the lack of freedom in Arab culture in general. Because of his writings, Al-Qasaymi reportedly received death threats in Egypt and Lebanon and was briefly imprisoned in Egypt, presumably to prevent him from influencing young Yemeni exchange students with his revolutionary ideas.

Despite the uproar from fundamentalist groups, including the Egypt-based Muslim Young Men Society, or Al-Shubban Al-Muslimun, against Al-Qusaymi, the author earned the endorsement and respect of many liberal writers.

The magazine Al-Risalah, run by Ahmad Hassan Al-Zayyat, reviewed the book in an editorial and writer-politician Abbas Al-Aqqad wrote an article defending it. Author Ismail Mazhar published an article in the magazine Al-Muqattaf in which he showered Al-Qusaymi with praise.

Writer and politician Ahmad Hussein wrote an article in the magazine Masr Al-Fatah defending Al-Qusaymi. Reformist writer Salama Mousa said of him: “Abdallah Al-Qusaymi is the greatest thinker in the Arab world,” and the Syrian poet Adonis said that Al-Qusaymi’s writings combine insight with “prophecy.”

In the first and second chapters of his new book, Ibrahim Abdel-Rahman recounts the early life of Al-Qusaymi, along with his education and relationship with his family. In the third and fourth, he focuses on his pro-salafist and anti-salafist writings. In the fifth and sixth, he reviews Al-Qusaymi’s writings and interviews, while in the seventh he describes Al-Qusaymi’s last years. The book also includes photographs of Al-Qusaymi and a bibliography of his works.

I would like to see the publisher translate this book into English so that the world as a whole, now wondering why we are not renewing our cultural and religious heritage, may read about at least one example of a man who tried to do just that.

Born in the village of Khab Al-Hulwah in Saudi Arabia in 1907, Al-Qusaymi died in the Palestine Hospital in Heliopolis in Cairo on 9 January 1996. He was buried in the Bab Al-Wazir Cemetery in Cairo.

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