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Ahmed Shahawi
and the Challenge to Fanaticism

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Norddine Zouitni
Poetry International - December 2003

The fatwa condemning Egyptian poet Ahmed Shahawi’s latest book as obscene is a cultural event worthy of consideration, argues our Moroccan editor Norddine Zouitni. The Al-Azhar academy that issued the fatwa has revealed a profound ignorance of Islamic mystical tradition, in which femininity is celebrated as a powerful manifestation of the divine. “Are we then to prepare ourselves, any time now, for a wave of literary cleansing targetting the whole of the Islamic literary heritage, in which love, the adoration of femininity, and mystic traditions play such an important part?”

An itinerary
When the renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Shahawi published his latest book of poetry The Commandments on How to Adore Women (or: The Commandments on the Love of Women) earlier this year, no one expected anything like the recent, strongly fanatical reaction to it, and the ensuing controversy over the issue of freedom of expression in Egypt and other Islamic countries. Shahawi’s present book is the eighth in a series of books he has published since the beginning of his poetic career, most of which touch deeply on the theme of passion and love. The first book in this series was published in 1988, significantly titled Two Prostrations in Love. It represented a kind of poetic manifesto which set out the major lines of the poet’s later work, in which feminine adoration, and the elevation of such adoration to mystical heights, is the central theme. Other titles by Shahawi are The Book of Love (1992), The States of The Lover (1996) and Say: She Is (2000).*

Readers familiar with the poet’s itinerary know the intellectual and spiritual depth of his vision: Shahawi treats feminine adoration as a mystical experience in which femininity becomes synonymous to the divine. In this respect the poet draws a great deal on the Islamic mystical tradition represented by great mystical figures such as Mansour Hallaj (10th century AD), Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (13th century AD), Rabia El’adawiyyah (the 8th century AD), and others in whose writings it is sometimes difficult for the ordinary, or intellectually unequipped, reader to draw a line between the sensuous and the divine.

The book
The Commandments on How to Adore Women is one of those books which by dint of a huge innovative effort, and by the extent of poetic research invested in them, acquire unmistakable originality and uniqueness. The book delves deep into Islamic literary tradition, and tries, on the level of content, to revive an almost obsolete Islamic literary genre called al-wasaya, "the commandments". Shahawi succeeds in reinvigorating this abandoned genre without betraying his modernist premises. He assumes the role of a mature experieced female (a magna mater), instructing young, inexperienced women on the mysteries of love, not as a banal physical experience, but as the supreme act of self-fulfillment: "Become yourself. Do not follow anyone’s example. Rid yourself of your anxiety. Empty yourself of the world. Go with him, normal but for him." The book also weaves clear intertextual relations with great Islamic literary texts such as Ibn Hazm’s The Pigeon’s Ring, Tawhidi’s Enjoyment and Geniality, and others.

On the levels of form and vision the poet makes creative, and extensive, use of the Islamic mystical discourse in its celebration of femininity as a powerful manifestation of the divine. It suffices in this respect to evoke the great mystical figure whose shadow hovers strongly over Shahawi’s experience in The Commandments, the great sufi sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi who himself was compelled to write an exegesis to his own book The Interpreter of Desires, because it was at the time considered a sensuous book by some orthodox religious scholars. However, this never resulted in a condemnation, as has now been issued on The Commandments by the Al-Azhar scholars. By and large, one can say that Shahawi’s book is a successful modernist rendering of a mystical experience concerning the self and the other, in which femininity represents the central archetype. This becomes clear in its opening lines:

You are my most ancient book
My journey into proverbs
My journey onto the wind
And in my mothertongue
You the mother

The edict
The edict or "fatwa" condemning Shahawi’s book as obscene is itself a cultural event worthy of consideration. It reveals a certain kind of fear that still haunts the mind of the ordinary traditional Muslim, and makes him a prey to fanatical tendencies. For what exactly would have provoked the Egyptian member of parliament to proclaim this book against Islamic principles, last September? Is it the bold adoration of femininity? The intertextual references to the Quran in the context of love? The mystical tone? For each of these, there are numerous precedents in Islamic literature. It is reported that the MP is an individual with muyulat islamia, "islamist tendencies". His religious convictions, then, set the underlying general terms of condemnation and prepared the ground for the ensuing fatwa (edict), thus robbing it of all claims to objectivity. If we asked this MP about his specific criteria for deciding that the book goes against Islamic principles, we would probably find that these do not exceed the layman’s criteria of judgement of art or literature. His protest against the book in parliament unmistakably betrays his ignorance of Islamic literary heritage, an ignorance reminiscent of the layman who falls miserably short of grasping the high spirituality of a biblical text like The Song of Songs.

Things could have stopped at the level of mere protest if the University of Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, had not adopted the complaint, and confirmed its content by declaring the book obscene from a religious point of view. As such, this fatwa shows the predicament of traditional religious thinking when impacted and framed by fundamentalist thought, and the degree by which Islam nowadays risks being hijacked by particular institutions or groups. The history of religious censorship in Egypt is well known to any Arab intellectual, and many times it stood on clear theological and ideological grounds, but recently, and unprecedentedly, it has taken on a fanatical tone verging on the absurd and irrational. Indeed, it makes one wonder how the people who issued the edict against Shahawi’s book could possibly have been serious. Are we then to prepare ourselves, any time now, for a wave of literary cleansing targetting the whole of the Islamic literary heritage, in which love, the adoration of femininity, and mystic traditions play such an important part? What will remain of our identity, if we do nothing to stop this dark wave of fanaticism which, in the name of a particular conception of Islam, turns our present into a nightmare and our past into an absurd, dying shout?

Another absurd aspect of the affair has to do with the constitution of the Islamic research academy which issued the edict. This academy consists of 28 members, presided by the great sheikh of Al-Azhar. All of these members are specialised in disciplines relating to religious sciences and law. They do not posses the academic background in criticism or literature that would allow them to approach a modern, sophisticated work like The Commandments. No member of the academy has ever shown any interest in literature, or contributed anything to the field at all. In an interview, moreover, Shahawi stated that of these 28 members, only 2 have read his book. By all accounts, the others did not deign to touch it, because of the supposed abomination it contained.

A commitee of Egyptian literary scholars who were assigned the task of evaluating the book has come out with an opinion totally opposed to that of the Azhar academy. It declared the book a piece of serious literature, that contains nothing against Islamic principles, but rather, draws on Islamic mystical tradition in its celebration of femininity. Al-Azhar refuses to abide by this opinion, and keeps clinging to its absurd edict.

The sign of blood
Perhaps it is interesting here to have another look at Shahawi’s first book Two Prostrations in Love. Its title refers to a saying by Muslim mystic Mansour Hallaj, pronounced on the eve of his execution: "Two prostrations in love require blood as the right means of ablutions for their performance." What Hallaj meant is simply that devotion to love requires a supreme sacrifice. Ironically, Shahawi thus seems to have placed his poetic journey under the sign of blood, or sacrifice, already from its very beginning, as if he knew he was bound to encounter some demons on the way.

* The title Say: She Is is a reference to the opening verse of Sura 112 in the Quran, which is a central Sura proclaiming the oneness of God. The quranic verse reads: "Say: He is Allah the one." Shahawi replaces the masculine pronoun with a feminine one, without continuing with the name.



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