Over the past year, Youssef Ziedan has reinvented himself as a public intellectual. In spite of this achievement, he has not been duly appreciated and remains largely misunderstood. His admirable attempt to redefine the way we usually think about religion in Egypt is, so far, unsuccessful. Even worse, many consider him a Muslim polemicist who aims to discredit Christianity.
Ziedan has been a prolific writer and editor since the late 1980s. Over the last two decades he remained unknown save for a small circle of intellectuals. In March 2009, he won the prestigious Arabic Booker Prize for his historical novel ‘Azazil. Praise for the novel quickly filled the media and critics confirmed its literary worthiness. Over the course of a few weeks, he became a household name in Egypt and beyond.
But what boosted Ziedan’s fame and placed him at the center of a controversy was not the literary quality of his novel, but its subject matter.
‘Azazil is a work of historical fiction set in Egypt and the Levant in the fifth century. Its main protagonist, a Coptic Christian monk named Hypa, doubts his faith. He is unable to reconcile his Christian beliefs with what he witnesses of the Church’s brutality in crushing the followers of other sects. He is nostalgic about the religious cosmopolitanism that pre-dated Christianity. He chooses to join an unorthodox, heretical Christian sect over the Coptic orthodox mainstream. His religious convictions are shaped through conversations with his inner voice, ‘Azazil, one of the biblical names for Satan.
‘Azazil could have been read as rejecting the intolerance and oppression associated with religion in today’s world. In this reading, Ziedan, like Hypa, condemns religiously motivated violence, longs for a tolerant multi-religious society and considers all religions and sects as equally valid. Regrettably, this progressive message has failed to gain much of an audience.
Instead, the Coptic Church accused Ziedan of promoting heretical views as well as defaming Christianity and its sole legitimate representative, the Church itself. On the other end of the sectarian spectrum were the many Muslims who softly celebrated Ziedan. To them, he was the man who confirmed their own prejudices about Christianity as a corrupted and unauthentic religion.
What these positions, both disparaging and approving, share in common is their ignorance of what constitutes a historical novel. The ability to distinguish factual truth from the author’s imagination in the novel has seemed tremendously challenging to many commentators who publicly engaged with Ziedan’s work. This was quite surprising as many successful historical novels have been published in Egypt without generating this unwarranted obsession to tell apart fact from fiction. Moreover, in many instances in the novel this distinction was not difficult to make. But what was truly frustrating about this situation was that it highlighted the difficulty of having an intelligent public discussion about religion in Egypt.
In his own media appearances, Ziedan has insisted that the widespread interest in his novel owed nothing to the sectarianism that colors Muslim-Christian relations in today’s Egypt. And, of course, he stopped short of openly criticizing the intolerance of dominant contemporary understandings of both Christianity and Islam. His silence on this issue did not last long.
By the end of 2009, Ziedan reappeared, this time not as a novelist but as a historian of ideas. There would be no confusion about who was speaking in al-Lahut al-‘Arabi (Arabic Theology), his latest book. The voice decidedly belonged to Ziedan. The book advanced a bold thesis about Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not independent faiths but are manifestations of one religious tradition. The book went on to propose that any reasonable study of these religions must abandon the idea that they can be ranked in terms of superiority or nearness to the truth. Attempts to study Christianity from the point of view of Islam, or vice versa, are futile.
Ziedan’s ideas, while perhaps not original, invite the reader to rethink how religion should be approached in contemporary Egyptian society. They imply that scholars of history and philosophy are in a better position to discuss religion than are Muslim and Christian clerics. Anyone who follows the Egyptian media knows it is almost impossible to talk about religious matters credibly without the presence of a clerical representative. At the same time, educational institutions lack any meaningful programs or curricula that allow for the non-religious academic study of religion. To build on Ziedan’s contribution is to create a space for talking about religion outside the yoke of al-Azhar and the Church, Egypt’s two main religious establishments.
Eight months after its initial publication, al-Lahut is still the top bestseller in Egypt. But high sales have yet to stimulate much of a public debate. The book has not received half the media attention that accompanied ‘Azazil. This is not surprising given its inaccessibility. Al-Lahut is densely written, heavily footnoted and full of cumbersome terms such as kristuluijia (Christology) and al-munuthiliyya (Monothelitism). It is more likely the book is selling because of Ziedan’s unfortunate reputation as a scholar exposing the falsity of Christianity.
That the general public first knew Ziedan as someone interested in Christianity rather than Islam has saved him from the dreary fate of the late Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, and placed him in a better position to contribute to a genuine public conversation about religion. Talking more clearly about his propositions will require courage on his part. But the real test facing Egypt’s academic and intellectual circles is whether they will be able to put aside their usual ad hominem attacks and engage his ideas more seriously.
Omar Cheta is a doctoral student in the history and Middle Eastern studies departments at New York University.