Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

History is not past

Nehad Selaiha applauds a new production that joins in the battle for freedom of belief, thought and expression

Al-Ahram Weekly

For nearly a year now, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been calling for a renewal of the religious discourse to confront extremist ideology and meet the demands of the times, and pointedly voicing these calls on important religious occasions, such as Laylat Al-Qadr (Night of Degree) in the holy month of Ramadan last year, the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Mohamed on 1 January this year and the celebration, also this year, of the 51st anniversary of the Holy Quran Radio Station on 25 March. On that last occasion, he condemned all acts of violence committed in the name of Islam, seeing them as the cause of the “recent trend of atheism” in Egypt, emphasised that both the Quran and Sunna “call for reflection and contemplation” and urged intellectuals to “talk about the mercy, generosity and the core of Islam”, which, he clarified, “is that people worship God willingly” (

The response of Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the two major official religious institutions that control religious instruction in Egypt, to Al-Sisi’s call was quite disappointing (not unpredictably, perhaps) and has so far boiled down to no more than a promise to revise the curricula taught at Al-Azhar University and issuing a new law, the Preaching Regulation Law (Law 51/2014) to guarantee  “better control over the mosques, preachers and the content of the sermons” and “ensure that the religious discourse follows the Aharite method,” in the words of Sheikh Mohamed Ezzeddin Abdel-Sattar, deputy minister of endowments. According to this law, giving religious sermons or lessons in mosques without a license is punishable by one month to one year in prison, as well as a fine between LE20,000 and LE50,000. Justifying this law, which obviously targets Salafi sheikhs, most of whom have no Azharite certificate, the deputy minister of endowments said that it would help “to eradicate extremism and radicalism,” and “lead to a decreased possibility for political groups to use them (the mosques) to incite for violence or propagate hate speech”. (

 While one may understand and even sympathize with this justification in view of the fundamentalist discourse of the Salafis and the daily acts of violence against civilians and vital facilities, one can see the validity of such criticisms, as that of the Egyptian Initiative of Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights group who have no religious underpinnings to their work, who perceive Law51/2014 as “a continuation of the policies of restricting religion freedom and strengthening the legal monopoly of the religious establishment in stating Islamic views and opinions” (above reference). One also has to deplore the Azharites’ narrow, simplistic interpretation of the term “renewing the religious discourse” and what it really involves. They understood it to mean “changing the topics of the Friday sermons” without touching “the structure of the religious discourse”. As Nabil Abdel-Fattah, strategic expert at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has pointed out: “Renewing the religious discourse cannot be undertaken without renewing Islamic thought, schools of interpretation and comparative religions” and “the introduction of critical thinking in social sciences. Just restricting the Salafis, limiting the space for religious freedom, and empowering the religious establishment has its impact on freedom for artists and intellectuals”, he warns (above reference).

The reality of the threat Abdel-Fattah warned against was soon borne out by the fate of two intellectuals who, understanding what it really takes to renew the religious discourse, responded to Al-Sisi’s call with serious initiatives that were bound to enrage the clerics and for which they had to pay a heavy price. Gaber Asfour, the renowned critic and professor of Arabic who became minister of culture in July 2014, voiced his fears over the level of freedom of art by an empowered religious establishment, stressing that in matters of art and culture, “Al-Azhar should not rule us but we should resort to the Constitution,” and urged Al-Azhar to “hold a dialogue with the intellectuals who believe in freedom of thought and political neutrality.” Worse still in Al-Azhar’s view, he published an article in Al-Ahram in which he “named a few Al-Azhar sheikhs – including Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, Mohamed Abdou and the current Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb – as men who have formulated the basis for an enlightened religious discourse based on the separation of religion and state.”

Abbas Shouman, undersecretary of Al-Azhar reacted angrily, attacking Asfour’s belief that enlightened religious discourse must be based on the separation of religion and the state and vehemently denying “that any Al-Azhar scholars had any nuances of secularism in their thought, hinting that Asfour’s piece lacks intellectual honesty.” He also attacked what he called “a religious discourse of the Ministry of Culture,” stating that “some books published by the ministry contain elements of ‘anti-religious immorality’ paid for by taxpayers’ money” (above source).The end result of Asfour’s initiative to engage Al-Azhar scholars in a constructive dialogue was that on Thursday, 5 March 2015, he was removed from office and replaced by Abdel-Wahid Al-Nabawi, a professor of history at Al-Azhar University!

Within less than three months, another intellectual who launched an initiative to renew religious discourse through the media fell foul of Al-Azhar scholars and came to an even sadder end than Asfour’s. On 30 May, Islamic show host Islam Al-Beheiri was sentenced in absentia to five years with labour for contempt of religion. In his daily show, ‘With Islam’, broadcast on private TV channel Al-Qahira Wal-Nas (which suspended it on 22 April), he questioned the credibility of some historical writers of major works of documentation and explanation of the Hadith and Sunna (the teachings and practices of Prophet Mohamed) — the second basic reference for Islamic teachings after the Quran. Al-Beheiri faces two more trials for the same charge, one of which was filed before the Administrative Court by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar no less, accusing him of broadcasting ideas that affect “the fundamentals of religion. (

Al-Sisi’s call for renewing the religious discourse was presumably intended to carry the nation forward into the future. The recent punishments of Asfour and Al-Beheiri, however, point in a different direction, to the past, and revive ugly memories. They remind one of the attempt on the life of Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, in October 1994 by an illiterate Islamist who was incited to the deed by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a leader of the Jihad group who had pronounced Mahfouz an apostate in 1988 and issued a fatwa in the spring of 1989 condemning him and inviting his assassination; of radical feminist Nawal Al-Saadawi who was vilified, imprisoned, censored, accused of apostasy and forced into self-exile in 1993 for her iconoclastic views on Islam; of writer and thinker Farag Foda, one of Egypt’s leading secularists and an outspoken opponent of fundamentalism, who was gunned down in his office on 8 June 1992 by two Islamic fundamentalists and died the next day; and, naturally, of Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, the distinguished professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Cairo University, whose research and writings on Quranic exegesis offended Islamic radicals, with  the result that he was denounced in a mosque in 1993, persecuted and prosecuted, hunted and hounded, and finally driven out of home and byre in 1995 to take refuge in the Netherlands.

Theatre could not stay out of this battle. In March, director Nasser Abdel-Moneim unearthed a play published in 2002 and dedicated to Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. Laylat Al-Suhrawardi Al-Akhira (Suhrawardi’s Last Goodnight) by poet, novelist and playwright Farid Abu Seada, centers on the relationship between the 12th Century mystic, theologian, and philosopher Shehab El-Din Yehia Al-Surhrawardi (also called ‘Sheikh Al-Ishraq’, or Master of Illumination, perhaps on account of his best-known work, Hikmat Al-Ishraq, or The Wisdom of Illumination) and Al-Zahir, the governor of Aleppo and son of Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. Born in Suhraward, in Iran, in 1155, Al-Suhrawardi studied in Esfahan, a leading centre of Islamic scholarship, before travelling through Iran, Anatolia, and Syria, finally arriving in Aleppo the year Saladin conquered that city and handed it over to his son Al-Zahir.

Al-Suhrawardi soon made a name for himself among the city’s religious scholars and eventually managed to secure an audience at the palace, impressed Al-Zahir and became his tutor. Unfortunately, he also incurred the hostility of the powerful religious elite of Aleppo on whom the Ayyubids depended for the legitimacy of their rule over the city. Indeed, as a leading figure of the illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy, which attempts to create a synthesis between philosophy (Aristotelian logic and Islamic Neo-Platonism) and mysticism (Sufism), he was bound to arouse the opposition of the established, orthodox ulama; they found his teachings, particularly the pantheistic overtones of his mystical doctrines, offensive and heretical. More galling still was the intimacy between him and the ruler, which they feared would corrupt his mind and weaken their power over him.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us what happened next:  “A combination of religious and political factors led to Suhrawardi’s downfall. On the one hand, he was accused of holding heretical beliefs, a vague charge easily sustained with pre-Islamic Persian names and symbols that some of his works contain, his claim to divine-like inspiration, and his questioning, in light of God’s omnipotence, the logical finality of Prophethood. On the other hand, his earlier and close relationships with the rulers of the recently conquered Artuqids of southwest Anatolia or with al-Zahir, the Ayyubid ruler, may have been interpreted as political intrigue. In the end, Suhrawardi’s fate was sealed with accusations of heresy (rather than treason). Biographers and historians remain at odds over the exact charges and course of events that led to his execution at the end of 1191 (or early 1192)”.


Arab sources, however, mention that his books were burned and that Al-Zahir gave him the choice of how to die and that he chose to starve himself to death, which he did, dying at the age of thirty-eight.

Is it any wonder that Farid Abu Seada who had witnessed the persecution of his brilliant friend, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, by orthodox ulamas, as well as conservative colleagues, who accused him of heresy and howled for his blood, was attracted to the history of Al-Suhrawardi, finding in it striking parallels between the past and the present? He dedicated the play to Abu Zeid and had Nouran, a traveler who arrives in Aleppo at the beginning of the play and through whom the story of Al-Suhrawardi unfurls, display one of Abu Zeid’s famous books (to which the director in the current production at Al-Ghad theatre added a book bearing the name of Farag Foda in big letters). To drive his point further home, Abu Seada used as an epigraph for the play a quotation from Sigmund Freud, which says: “We have to remember the past in order to stop repeating it.” In the text itself, he took great pains (and often clumsy ones) to emphasise that history is repeating itself in the present by introducing contemporary characters alongside the historical ones and describing some of the historical characters as wearing modern dress.

Abu Seada kept to the known historical facts on the whole, using his imagination only to interpret actions, flesh out characters, intensify conflicts, add some colouring here and there and fill in the gaps left by history. In his hands, the relationship between mystic and ruler develops from friendship to one of holy sheikh and disciple; Saladin is presented as a military tyrant who hates philosophy, regarding it as religious subversion, intended to divide the nation and weaken it in the interest of its enemies, and his relationship with his son is pictured as one of domination and submission; Al-Suhrawardi is provided with a female disciple — a licentious, promiscuous woman called Warda (rose), who reforms under his influence — as well as a male one, aptly called Shams (sun)  to match Al-Suhrawardi’s first name, Shihab (meteor) and his wisdom of illumination; and Al-Suhrawardi is invested with superhuman powers, such as being able to climb up a rope and disappear into the sky, and performs several miracles at the end of his life, surviving being hurled to the ground from the top of the ruler’s citadel, being crucified on its gate and being left in prison to starve. When Al-Suhrawardi finally dies, it is by his choice and by the hand Al-Zahir, his friend and disciple.

Such rich material deserved a better craftsman to shape it. Though he is reported to have written a number of plays (I, myself have not read any), Abu Seada has not yet mastered the craft of playwriting. In print, the play, despite its rich, poetic language, topically relevant subject and the imaginative input of the author, strikes one as too loosely connected and not fit for the stage. It oscillates between different dramatic types — tragedy, comic satire, epic theatre, historical/documentary drama and the Passion play — borrowing aspects from all and sticking them together without attempting to merge them into a semblance of coherence. The result is abrupt shifts in mood and disconcerting changes of technique. With the exception of Al-Zahir, all the characters are types, with some, like Nouran, the narrator, appearing at the beginning, then completely disappearing, or making fitful appearances, and others, like Shams, or Al-Zahir’s wife, barging suddenly into the play near the end. Unlike Salah Abdel-Sabour and other dramatists who wrote plays about martyred mystics, and there are quite a few in Egypt and the Arab world, Abu Seada failed to humanise Al-Suhrawardi, who always seems supremely serene, at peace with himself and the world and free of all human fears, weaknesses and anxieties. Even Christ himself cried at the cross, just before he expired: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

The author was lucky to have Nasser Abdel-Moneim as director. Abdel-Moneim is not only a gifted, seasoned director with a rich visual imagination and a keen eye for what would have the most impact on the audience in terms of relevance, he is also a skilled dramaturge whose adaptations, like the one he made of Abul ‘Ela Al-Salamouni’s A Man in the Citadel, are often better than the original. Here, as elsewhere, he strove for dramatic tautness and intensity, pruning the text verbally, removing some scenes, rearranging and condensing others and throwing out all redundancies and superfluous characters (such as Shams, the playwright and director, as well as the policemen in modern dress who keep intruding upon the action). Abdel-Moneim also ignored the theatrical gimmicks mentioned in the stage directions, such as the use of modern technology, like television, video tapes and walkie-talkies, or showing footage of a mysterious girl at a window by the sea whom the mystic sees in a vision, or dream, while withering away in prison. Al-Suhrawardi’s display of superhuman powers and his miracles were also cut out, partly to humanize the character and partly because some of them would look quite ridiculous on stage, turning the mystic into a funny acrobat.

The result was a tighter, more focused play about the marriage of religion and politics, and the darkness it spreads around; about a man killed for his belief that the light of God can be better seen in the light of reason, and another man who betrays his mentor and his beliefs for the sake of worldly power. Though Al-Suhrawardi is not a tragic figure in either the original play or its stage version, in the latter, Al-Zahir emerges as one. The struggle within him between the power lust and the yearning for illumination tears him apart and leads him to a tragic fate. Though he gains the royal power he covets and does not die, his peace of mind is forever shattered. We leave him at the end, a tortured, frightened creature, burdened with remorse and haunted in sleep and waking by the image of the man he murdered and the light he quenched.

Abdel-Moneim’s direction of the play, like his adaptation, was clear, focused and uncluttered. Above all, he wanted the audience to concentrate on the conflict between the mystic and the orthodox ulamas, on the one hand, and between him and the political rulers, on the other. The beautiful, simple set, which he himself designed and lit, left most of the performance space completely free, except for a single wooden box, which serves as a bench. On both sides, the walls were decorated with Arabic calligraphy and all along the back wall, a narrow, raised platform which Al-Suhrawardi intermittently mounts represented a higher level of existence. At the back of the platform, a shadow screen, painted with a large, Islamic-style circle, was lighted up from the back in Saladin’s scenes, showing him as a large, eerie, menacing silhouette, symbolizing all military dictators and their blind might. Another screen, white and transparent hung in front of the platform, separating it from the main performance area and making the mystic look ethereal when he stood behind it. Abdel- Moneim realised that his concentrated version of the text, which he rechristened Sayed Al-Waqt (Master of Time), was a difficult, dry drama, with more philosophical and religious argumentation than action and no romantic interest. To soften it a bit and ease the audience’s passage through it, he suffused it with Sufi music and poetry and had a Mawlaweya (a Sufi sect) dancer, in his traditional garb, and a ballet dancer, in flowing white, symbolizing the flight of the soul toward heaven, dance to it behind the transparent screen. Featuring some very good acting by Al-Ghad company ensemble, Sayed Al-Waqt is an exquisite performance, painfully relevant and perfectly timed.

add comment

  • follow us on