Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 12: The Giant
Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad stood alone, apart from most of the thinkers who have shaped modern Egyptian culture.
The primary thread that connected the key figures of Egyptian culture from the early nineteenth to early twentieth century was addressing the dichotomy between the modernisation that had begun with Napoleon’s campaign on Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century and the role of accumulated traditions - and of course religion (Islam and Christianity) - in society. The vast majority of these figures took modernisation as a given. For them, modernisation was a compelling reality that neither could nor ought to be stopped. Cultures and their foundations - including religions - must adapt to modernisation.
Al-Akkad disagreed. For him, modernisation - in the way Western societies were developing in the first half of the twentieth century, in the way philosophy had progressed in the modern age, and in the way modernisation forced religions to be on the defensive and often to reinvent themselves in ways that effectively stripped them of their founding ideas and meanings let alone of their role in society - was misguided and problematic.
Al-Akkad acknowledged the immense contributions of modern science, which he - an encyclopaedic reader in history and philosophy as well as in science and mathematics - fully understood was based on the Western civilisation’s abandonment of dogmatic, narrow theology for critical thinking, questioning, and pursuance of rational answers. What he utterly rejected and considered modernisation’s descent into disaster was its moving away from the conception of divinity, the sacredness of nature, and humanity’s unique position in relation to the two.
Al-Akkad saw the human mind - in the evolution of its thinking post European Renaissance - as a giant in its scientific prowess, but a child in its interpretations of the physical and mathematical realities it had discovered. He dissected Western civilisation’s key steps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slowly putting forward the case that some of these steps were sparks of genius, but that many were bursts of hubris.
No Egyptian author in the first half of the twentieth century, with a serious oeuvre, had al-Akkad’s confidence to embark on an assessment of the trajectory of Western modernisation. Importantly his objective was not to determine what Egypt (and the East) ought to take or reject from Western modernisation, but 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 universal salafist. He believed that the “salaf” (the predecessors, here denoting ancient and medieval schools of human thought - in the West and the East - and their expressions in philosophy and therefore in culture and art) had been, in many respects, superior to the streams of thoughts that Western modernisation was generating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His project was to reveal both, what he considered the weaknesses in modern philosophies, and the greatness in these old 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 pure Classical Arabic with hardly any simplifications, made him a difficult thinker to engage with, and for many a difficult person to interact with.
He was also 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, had been highly critical, and so he was neither celebrated by the media nor feted by the state.
He worked privately, without collaborations, and without any official or academic affiliations. In dozens of small booklets, al-Akkad presented his views on what and whom he considered 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 a thread of genius throughout human history, invariably originating from and leading to the Divine.
His writings on Christianity, from a view on the genius of Jesus Christ to commentaries on the careers of several of the apostles, to assessments of the thought of figures ranging from Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther and John Calvin, were serious dives into the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilisation.
But it was al-Akkad’s writings on the genius in the Islamic civilisation that earned him a vast following in twentieth century Egypt. Al-Akkad presented the most leading figures in early Islamic history in concise but serious studies of their characters and careers. Importantly he linked Islam to that universal thread of genius originating from and leading to the Divine. In al-Akkad’s universal order, Islam was the latest node in that celestial thread that al-Akkad weaved from his reading of human history.
For many, al-Akkad was not merely a chronicler of genius, particularly within Islamic thought; he was a genius chronicling the development of Islam as a faith, as a socio-political structure, and as a societal frame of reference. Some go further, seeing al-Akkad as a philosopher of what he believed was the genius of monotheism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Yet al-Akkad’s legacy proved highly problematic. Al-Akkad’s strong attacks on modernity and buttressing of Salafism might have been built on subtle philosophical foundations. But al-Akkad’s thought, quite quickly after his death, became a tool in the hands of narrow-minded literalists, particularly in the Islamist movement in Egypt and different parts of the East. The literalists found in him a giant thinker with a superb understanding of the ideas upon which Western modernisation was built, and importantly a star of Egyptian culture, who - like them - rejected modernisation and supported the supremacy of a socio-cultural framework anchored on religion.
That al-Akkad’s conception of religion and his religious socio-cultural framework were far more sophisticated than these of the literalists, did not matter much. The vast majority of the masses to whom the literalists addressed their message hardly read al-Akkad’s work, nor were capable of truly understanding his multi-layered thought, particularly that his writings were peppered with historical and cultural references that were quite demanding on most readers. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, as literal Islamism was on a meteoric rise in Egypt and the region, al-Akkad posthumously became a hero of a litany of Islamists most of whom highly likely did not read him.
Al-Akkad’s legacy became the victim of his chosen detachment from Egypt’s modernisation. He might not have cared. The aloof giant would probably have lifted his eyes to the heavens seeing in his conception of the Divine’s approval the gain he had sought. Yet, this detachment is a loss - for even if al-Akkad’s writings ultimately proved to be a headwind that faced the modernisation of Egypt, his oeuvre is seriously rich in the breadth of its coverage and the depth of its analyses. It deserves detailed and patient reading, for despite major disagreements, al-Akkad’s work remains one of the most serious and rigorous intellectual projects in modern Egyptian culture.