Modern Egypt — (XII) The lonely giant

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 3 Jan 2023

Tarek Osman continues his series of articles on the thinkers who have shaped modern Egyptian culture with the singular figure of Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad


The primary thread that connected the key figures of Egyptian culture from the early 19th to the early 20th century was the dichotomy between the modernisation that had begun with Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century and the role of accumulated traditions and, of course, also the religions of Islam and Christianity in society. 

The vast majority of these figures took modernisation as a given. For them, it was a compelling reality that neither could nor ought to be stopped. The culture and its foundations, including its religions, would have to adapt to it. 

Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad disagreed. For him, modernisation, meaning the way Western societies had been developing in the first half of the 20th century, the way philosophy had progressed in the modern age, and the way religions had been put on the defensive and had often been forced to reinvent themselves in a fashion that effectively stripped them of their founding ideas and meanings let alone of their role in society, was misguided and problematic. 

He acknowledged the immense contributions of modern science, which he — an encyclopaedic reader of history and philosophy as well as of science and mathematics — fully understood was based on Western civilisation’s abandonment of dogmatic theology for critical thinking, questioning, and the pursuit of rational answers. What he utterly rejected and considered to be modernisation’s descent into disaster was its moving away from the conception of the divine and the sacredness of nature and from humanity’s unique position in relation to the two. 

Al-Akkad saw the human mind, in the evolution of its thinking after the European Renaissance, as a giant in terms of its scientific prowess, but a child in terms of its interpretations of the physical and mathematical realities it had discovered. He dissected Western civilisation’s key steps in the 18th and 19th centuries, slowly putting forward the case that some of these had been sparks of genius, but others had been bursts of hubris.

No other Egyptian author in the first half of the 20th century who produced a major body of work had Al-Akkad’s confidence in embarking on an assessment of the trajectory of Western modernisation. His objective was not to determine what Egypt (and the East) ought to take or reject from Western modernisation, but instead to argue that the destination that that modernisation had arrived at was neither admirable nor desirable for Egypt (or the East).

Al-Akkad was a Salafist. In other words, he believed that the salaf, meaning the “predecessors” and here denoting ancient and mediaeval schools of thought in both the East and the West and their expressions in philosophy and therefore also in culture and art, had in many respects been superior to the streams of thoughts that Western modernisation had been generating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

His project was to reveal both what he considered to be the weaknesses of modern philosophies and the greatness of older Western and Eastern schools of thought.

He was often presented as a radical thinker bent on rejecting progress. His aloofness, haughtiness, and, often, gruffness, in addition to his insistence on writing in classical Arabic with hardly any concessions to his readers, made him a difficult thinker to engage with and also, for many, a difficult person to interact with. 

He was a man of exacting integrity and pride. His writings about the politics of Egypt, whether before or after the fall of the monarchy in 1952, were highly critical, and so he was neither celebrated by the media nor feted by the state.

He worked privately without collaboration or any official or academic affiliations. In dozens of short books, he presented his views on what and whom he considered to be the foundational ideas and key characters of both the Western and Islamic civilisations, before, in his view, the descent of both. He traced what he deemed to be a thread of genius throughout human history, invariably originating from and leading to the divine. 

His writings on Christianity, from his account of Jesus Christ to his commentaries on the careers of the apostles and his assessments of the thought of figures ranging from St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and St Francis of Assisi to the Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, were serious investigations into the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilisation.

But it was Al-Akkad’s writings on the genius of Islamic civilisation that earned him a vast following in 20th-century Egypt. He presented the leading figures of early Islamic history in a series of concise but serious studies of their characters and careers. He linked Islam to that universal thread of genius originating from and leading to the divine. In his universal order, Islam was the last point on a celestial thread that he wove from his reading of human history.

For many, Al-Akkad was not merely a chronicler of genius, particularly of Islamic thought, but also a genius chronicling the development of Islam as a faith, a socio-political structure, and a societal frame of reference. Some would go even further and see him as a philosopher of what he said was the genius of the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Yet, Al-Akkad’s legacy has proved highly problematic. His attacks on modernity and his buttressing of Salafism might have been built on subtle philosophical foundations, but quite quickly after his death his thought became a tool in the hands of narrow-minded literalists, particularly in the Islamist movement in Egypt and other parts of the East. 

The literalists found in Al-Akkad a giant thinker who had a superb understanding of the ideas upon which Western modernisation was built and one who, more importantly, was also a leading figure of Egyptian culture and who, like them, rejected modernisation and supported the supremacy of a socio-cultural framework anchored in religion. 

The fact that Al-Akkad’s conception of religion and his socio-cultural religious framework was far more sophisticated than that of the literalists did not matter much. The vast majority of those to whom the literalists addressed their message had hardly read any of Al-Akkad’s work and nor were they capable of truly understanding his multi-layered thought, particularly since his writings were peppered with historical and cultural references that were quite demanding for most readers. 

By the last quarter of the 20th century, and as literal-minded Islamism was on the rise in Egypt and the region, Al-Akkad posthumously became a hero of a whole litany of Islamists, most of whom had probably not read him. 

His legacy became the victim of his chosen detachment from Egypt’s modernisation. But he might not have cared: this aloof giant would probably have lifted his eyes to the heavens and seen in his conception of the divine the approval he sought. 

Yet, such detachment is also a loss, for even if Al-Akkad’s writings ultimately contributed to a headwind resisting the modernisation of Egypt, they are rich in the breadth of their coverage and the depth of their analyses. His work deserves detailed and patient reading, for despite the major disagreements one might have, it remains one of the most serious and rigorous intellectual projects in modern Egyptian culture. 

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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