I watched an offensive diatribe the other day on a private sector satellite channel – typically – that shed considerable doubt on certain religious and historical tenants. As luck would have it, I had an intellectual run-in with the guest on the show so I knew what the deal was but it is still important to debunk and deconstruct what the man said for the sake of the public good.
A historian friend, Dennis Patrick Walker from New Zealand, once told me that Saad Zaghloul was worried about the famous book on Islam and the Origins of Rulership, lest the youth lose their faith in the caliphate. Zaghloul of course wanted Egypt to be independent of Ottoman rule but he did not want to do away with Muslim unity all together. My academic friend, who specialises in Arab nationalism “prior” to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, explained that Zaghloul – among others –wanted to transform the caliphate into a giant free market and build a civilian naval fleet to connect Egypt to Indonesia through commerce. That is the kind of wisdom that should guide us – intellectuals and common folk – when it comes to how to read the history books and how to discuss these matters in public. Consequently, I am not mentioning the guest’s name so as not to get him targeted by fanatics.
Now to get to the debunking; the man had the audacity to deny the “Israa and Miraj” (the night journey of the Prophet Muhammad on the buraq to Jerusalem and beyond), saying the word Miraj didn’t show up in the Quran. So what? Prayer is mentioned in the Quran, but not how many prayers or the motions that you go through. The Quran is not a textbook, or a history book for that matter, but we got taught that at school. Many battles are mentioned in the Quran but without their names or when they occurred, forcing you to rely on historical sources to figure it out all by yourself.
Then he said something ridiculous: from Medina, Jerusalem is North and Mecca South. He used this as proof that the Muslims in Medina did not pray towards Jerusalem, to put an end once and for all – in his mind – to the Muslim attachment to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Concerning north and south, how did people in the jahiliya know that? Did they have access to modern maps and satellite photos? No they did not and nobody else did either. Why else would ancient Egyptians call the south “Upper” Egypt? Moreover, there is a Hadith that describes Yemen as being in the East, which would mean (through simple deduction) that the Arabs in Mecca would have considered Jerusalem to be in the West. Hence, the verse in the Quran dealing with the qibla saying that whether you pray to the East or the West, thereof you will find the face of God.
He also made a whopper by claiming that certain suras in the Quran are classic in the Meccan or Medinan period. He does not realise that Quran exegesis (tafsir) developed independently of Hadith literature, which means Quran scholars in the past – not today, thank heavens – did not use the sanad (genealogy) system. They had no way of authenticating the reports they came across, which they used to guess at the timing of verses.
If you read Sheikh Tantawi’s tafsir, he highlights how interpreters of the Quran – and Muslim historians – were obsessed with writing down myths and legends from other non-Muslim beliefs just because they wanted to catalogue everything they heard. The more sexy and blasphemous, the better.
As for deconstructing, the man was clearly angry at Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers, comparing them to the Mamlukes, forgetting that as undemocratic as the Mamlukes were, they at the very least defeated formidable enemies. They vanquished the Tartar invasions (more on this another time) and the Crusaders. He also made a contemporary historical error, believing the Israeli claim that Abdel Nasser wanted to throw the Jews into the sea. That expression only entered into common use after the 1967 war at the Khartoum Arab League Summit. Most say it was the Sudanese president at the time who said that, not Abdel Nasser.
This intellectual wants to rewrite history, based on airy fairy speculation and an angry mindset to facilitate peace with the Israelis. The PLO is made up of staunch secularists but it did not do them any good in the end when it came to the Oslo Peace Accords. It takes two to tango. The man also let slip his disdain for a Palestinian intellectual, just because he was an artist and not a scholar of Islamic manuscripts. If you wanted to get historical details on the battle of Stalingrad, would you talk to a concert pianist living in Russia at the time or an expert on Hellenistic history living somewhere else? Being a historian is like being a medical doctor. Just because you’re a degree holder in dentistry, does not mean you know anything about neurology or eye sockets.
Non-specialists with general knowledge are actually a safer bet, on contemporary events at least. A background in philosophy helps too. The whole “controversy” about the Israa-Miraj was a concoction of the Mutazilla, the so-called rationalist philosophers because of the “Fifth Element”, following ancient Greek science. They did not have a notion of a vacuum or outer space, making it impossible to drive upwards into the night sky to be among the stars. There’s a verse in the Quran about travelling in outer space, by the graces of God. They were so stuck in their ways they could not imagine that God himself could break the laws of (Aristotelian) physics.
They even had the “audacity” to discount a verse in the Quran that said that on the Day of Judgment, God brings back the bad things you have done in your life. In Greek philosophy when something happens and is over and done with, it disappears forever and so cannot be brought back. The Mutazilla insisted that what the verse meant was the memory of things done and gone, not the actual things themselves.
Other groups in Muslim history, even in the present, discounted the baath (resurrection) because bodies cannot travel to heaven, only souls, again because of the Fifth Element. History writing, in Muslim history, began under the Abassids, which is why their history books attacked everybody before them, while also taking on a distinct theological character over such issues as the miraculous journey of the Prophet (PBUH). You would think modern-day historians with all their scepticism and scientific method would know that already. But that is what happens when emotions cloud reason and people insist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater, hating all things in the past just because they are in the past. Seems you have to move in a South-Easterly direction to New Zealand to get the real deal!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas