Doubt, faith, and knowledge: the reconfiguration of the intellectual field in post-Nasserist Cairo


St Antony's College, Oxford OX2 6JF, UK.

Università degli Studi di Napoli – L'Orientale, Department of Studies and Research on Africa and the Arab World, Palazzo Corigliano, Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 12, I-80134 Napoli, Italy.


The study of the Islamic Resurgence has underestimated the intellectual trials that some key personalities underwent at a crucial stage of the crisis of post-colonial societies. The intellectual leaders of the Resurgence faced the task to redefine the social value of faith and of its converse, doubt, as the insidious flip-side of processes of modernization. Their response to the challenge contributed to a reconfiguration of the intellectual field: in order to reach larger audiences they reinterpreted their cultural credentials and even life narratives in terms of the communicative standards suitable to new media. This paper analyses how the motives of doubt and faith in the trajectories of two personalities aspiring to the status of ‘Islamic intellectual’ (the Sufi scholar and Shaykh al-Azhar ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud and the media-savvy lay thinker Mustafa Mahmud) contributed to a reconfiguration of the intellectual field. We investigate how their legacy is presently discussed among educated audiences. Finally, we show how the ambivalence of the reception of their public teaching reflects the troubled search for a new ideological balance by the Egyptian middle classes.


L’étude de la Résurgence islamique a sous-estimé les épreuves intellectuelles par laquelle sont passés certains de ses grands noms à un stade crucial de la crise des sociétés postcoloniales. Les meneurs intellectuels de la Résurgence se sont trouvés confrontés à la tâche de redéfinir la valeur sociale de la foi et de son opposé, le doute, comme le revers insidieux des processus de modernisation. En relevant ce défi, ils ont contribuéà reconfigurer le champ intellectuel : pour atteindre un public plus large, ils ont réinterprété leurs références culturelles et même leurs récits de vies selon les standards de communication adaptés aux nouveaux médias. Les auteurs analysent ici la façon dont les motifs du doute et de la foi dans la trajectoire de deux personnalités aspirant au statut « d’intellectuel islamique », l’érudit soufi Shaykh al-Azhar ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud et le penseur laïque Mustafa Mahmud, fin connaisseur des média, ont contribuéà la reconfiguration du champ intellectuel. Les auteurs étudient le débat dont leur héritage fait aujourd'hui l’objet dans les cercles éduqués. Pour finir, ils montrent comment l’ambivalence de l’accueil fait à leur enseignement public reflète la difficile recherche d’un équilibre idéologique dans les classes moyennes égyptiennes.

The Naqshibandis suit me since I don't have much time.

Mustafa Mahmud

The pattern of ‘state Islam’ facing ‘radical Islam’, which has dominated socio-political and journalistic analyses since the late 1970s, has been matched since the 1990s by a growing socio-anthropological interest in examining shifts in media authority based on Islamic credentials and supported by Islamic discourses (Eickelman & Anderson 2003 [1999]; Hirschkind 2006). This approach has often opposed small and allegedly authentic to big and governmental media (Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi 1994). More generally, and often on the back of a wave of interest in civil society as the key to the opening of authoritarian systems, scholars have shifted their attention to emerging public-sphere dynamics (Burgat & Esposito 2003; Salvatore & Eickelman 2004).

These ways of framing the research question have supported – though mostly unintentionally – the view that Islam's intellectual framework is per se subject to a limited set of variations: Islamic ideas can surely nest in different places and institutions, inspire various and even new practices – yet the shared repertoires of argumentation, modes of piety, and patterns of life conduct that the message of Islam is able to instil in the faithful are taken as variations on basically fixed schemes. In the prevailing approach, what creates the new is the way of its communication or ‘staging’ (e.g. Salvatore 1998). While emphasis is given to the power of the media in ‘fragmenting’ the authority to define Islam, it seems that media might either help new types of intellectuals to participate in the Islamic discourse, or alter and curtail the traditional systems of knowledge (Eickelman & Piscatori 1996).

The study of Islamic Resurgence in the Muslim world has probably overestimated the media-mediated mechanisms of ‘public Islam’ and underestimated the importance of the intellectual trials and tribulations that some leading public personalities underwent at a crucial stage of post-colonial crisis. In particular, it has neglected markers of disorientation, factors of disappointment, and sources of individual imagination, all dismissed as the inevitable by-products of overwhelming processes of transformation that are largely outside the control of the intellectual elite themselves. Perhaps by reacting against an overly text-centred approach to the work on Muslim thinkers by an older generation of Western scholars, research has privileged the power of the media to the detriment of a detailed analysis of the relation between media scripts and the way these narratives are appropriated by larger, often heterogeneous, audiences.

Apart from this problem, even the most sophisticated type of political analysis has tended to explain the impetus of the Islamic Resurgence as the result of a plain disappointment with the capacity of Nasserist policies to deliver what they promised (see Wickham 2002: 21-62). The Nasserist momentum had been intimately wedded to the promise of producing and disseminating a type of knowledge facilitating not only communal welfare but also individual growth – if not of the entire population, at least among the expanding middle classes and especially their educated fractions. Nasser's reforms, including the nationalization in 1961 of the al-Azhar mosque-university complex (the historically most prominent centre of Islamic learning world-wide) of 1961, were framed by the rationale of diverting the social dimension of Islam from dependence either on a repetitive transmission of knowledge or on charitable activity, projecting it instead towards the goal of educating the masses. The revival of Islamic associational life during the 1970s, which represented the hard kernel of the Islamic Resurgence much more than did its overtly political manifestations, cannot be subsumed under the banner of a one-sided anti-Nasserist ethos (Ben Néfissa-Paris 1992). The thinkers of the Islamic Resurgence had to confront both the strengths and the limitations of the postcolonial state to capture the imagination, fulfil the normative legitimacy, and satisfy the welfare needs of the middle and popular classes.

The Islamic Resurgence did not reject the potentially democratic idea of an emancipating type of knowledge. It intended to reframe its rationale in terms of faith (iman). What is often neglected, as we will try to show in some detail, is that in the new context characterized by recurring frustrations and upcoming uncertainties about the future, faith was not only the engine of a new politics of piety based on the Islamic discourse (Mahmood 2005), but also depended on its purported opposite, that is, doubt (shakk), acting as the insidious yet ubiquitous flip-side of processes of change: shakk being itself an important key-word within the Islamic discourse and the theological corpus on which it ultimately relies. Earlier on, doubt in the progressive path of Nasserism was trivialized and equated with political subversion. In the new era, bridging faith and doubt required the imagination of the lonely thinker and a capacity to exploit the new media to convey a refreshed Islamic message. The tribulations and trials of the epoch became a potential resource to reconstruct a type of media authority investing in the resurging strength ‘faith’, while retrieving the unsuppressed potential of ‘doubt’.

How did doubt and imagination relate to the question of authority and guidance? Were they also connected to the power of creativity, originality, and criticism as alleged prerogatives of intellectuals and their public role? The Nasser regime had attempted to control Sufi orders as an important channel of transmission of authority: stigmatized as the bulwark of tradition by several generations of Muslim reformers, Sufism represented a significant source of consensus within the emerging mass politics of post-colonial societies. While the post-Nasserist state was no less eager to exploit this channel to pinpoint its vacillating legitimacy, in the new era mass-mediated Sufism penetrated the public sphere no longer as the backward-looking side of Islam, but as an alternative arena of self-disciplining for the politically disillusioned middle classes and as a reservoir of meaning that could be freely elaborated and put to use in public discourse.

Many of the key issues that characterized the reconfiguration of the intellectual field surrounding the Islamic Resurgence have been formulated in this climate of upheaval, via the activities of the myriad associations, media and public personalities, mainly located in Cairo. The fact that Cairo had not only been a major focal point of post-colonial hopes on a world scale but had also been for a millennium a centre of Islamic learning was reflected in the ways public knowledge was reconfigured, and contributed to the popularity of some of the leaders of the Islamic Resurgence.

We will analyse the combined role of doubt and faith in the public redefinition of Islamic knowledge on the basis of the trajectories of two intellectual leaders of the Islamic Resurgence of the 1970s, whose legacy continues to be eagerly discussed among educated and popular audiences alike within the current adjustments to a neoliberal global order. The Sufi scholar and Shaykh al-Azhar ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud (1910-78) and the media-savvy lay thinker Mustafa Mahmud (b. 1921) are two different personalities who equally impacted not only on the Egyptian public sphere but also on the realms of politics and civil society – while also enjoying a considerable degree of popularity outside of Egypt. The ambivalence of their public teaching and their intricate relationships with the Egyptian elite (including Sufi circles) reflect many of the quandaries of the post-Nasserist order and the troubled search for a new ideological balance by the shrinking Egyptian middle classes. In particular, we will show how educated members of these classes (muta‘allimun, muthaqqafun) contribute to the reconfiguration of the intellectual field by providing key words and ideas to wider public debates. This process also facilitates a redefinition of what it means to be an intellectual (mufakkir) in the Islamically influenced dimension of the public sphere. Clearly, being an intellectual can no longer reflect the vanguard idea of the middle-class radicalism of the Nasserist era, but has to fit into a much more complex picture fraught with ambiguities, anxieties, and the need to reposition Islam-based knowledge – also via the effects of doubt –vis-à-vis a variety of contradictory demands coming from the West as well as in relation to the aspirations of the educated middle classes of Cairo. The social strata who build the bulk of the audiences we are going to analyse have been in search for a rationale to defend their eagerly cultivated and often carefully displayed piety, while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle and an adequate class status.

As a generating source of the awakening, it cannot be disputed that faith occupied an important place in post-Nasserist public discourse. This change was also engineered by Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, who fabricated for himself the image of the ‘faithful president’. It was also because of this excess of public emphasis and overt political instrumentalization that faith appeared soon as a rather unmarked – and therefore discursively weak – source of consensus. Against this top-down view that intends to identify faith with an increasingly unpopular president, the narrative of the awakening depended on the challenge of recuperating iman after the secular hubris of the Nasserist era. The aspirations of the middle classes nurtured by Nasserism were left unsettled, and a space was opened for attempts to match such hopes via ideas more tightly fitting an Islamic discourse. This discourse was propped up by the spread of audiocassettes, but was also supported by radio programmes and then by a new style of edifying entertainment on TV screens. The narrative of the awakening needed not only conceptual markers but also charismatic signposts that could be recognized by the growing audiences of electronic media, the bulk of them consisting of the middle classes. The new forms of media authority facilitated sometimes reflexive, sometimes resentment-filled, reactive processes consisting in repositioning faith in the context of a society in which the discourse and the authority of science occupy an important place. It is by a public acknowledgement of the impact that public personalities such as ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud and Mustafa Mahmud had on these processes that they have managed to compete for the contested status of mufakkir (‘intellectual’) or for the even more problematic fame of mufakkir islami (‘Islamic intellectual’).

‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud: Ghazali of the twentieth century and radio pioneer

‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, as many other ‘ulama of his generation and rank, had been outraged by Nasser's policies that eroded the autonomy of al-Azhar. Yet he selectively appropriated the Nasserist rationale of reinvesting Islamic principles into an activist stance for the reform of society (see Zeghal 1996; 1999). Among a number of public personalities who taught Islam through mass media, ‘Abd al-Halim was one of the first actively to incorporate a consciously public role and the methods of self-presentation associated with it. In 1964 he contributed to founding the national radio station Idha‘at al-Qur'an al-Karim, which specializes in Islamic programmes.1 He spoke regularly on radio, including on the Morning Talk (Hadith al-Sabah), the first programme on the Noble Qur'an Radio. Although it was a daily talk show of only 5-7 minutes, it succeeded in having renowned scholars go on air to give simple lectures on Islamic subjects. The radio station staff selected the guest speakers and topics; scholars prepared their talks accordingly. In spite of such a restricted setting, the individuality of the speakers emerged through the style rather than the content of their speeches and thus allowed for the fashioning of radio ‘stars’.2 This was a steep learning process for the scholars themselves, who had to get accustomed to the studio recording and to acquiring a partly new language and performance skills in order to address larger audiences. ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud's appearance on radio broadcasts steadily increased and peaked as he became Shaykh al-Azhar, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque-university complex, in 1973. While occupying the pinnacle of the hierarchy of Islamic authority, he also instituted a committee for planning TV programmes specializing in teaching Islam to the general public (Shalabi 1982: 535-43).

Since ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud was a prolific writer on Sufism (Aishima 2005), the back covers of his books from the leading Cairo-based, public-sector publishing house Dar al-Ma‘arif introduce him as ‘a father of Sufism in the modern age’. In his publications and radio programmes ‘Abd al-Halim spoke openly about his Sufi experiences in order to provide knowledge on Sufism to the general public. He entwined a formal level of teaching with a rather informal reference to his personal experiences, thus earning the fame of being a unique ‘alim mutasawwif (Sufi scholar). While there were several leading Sufi shaykhs among government officials and high-ranking ‘ulama, they usually did not speak about their experiences to mass media. (‘Abd al-Halim was aware of the controversial images of Sufism within Egyptian society and in the wider Islamic world – often associated with stereotypes of superstition and ‘backwardness’– but he was also eager to take advantage of the newly developing media for transmitting Sufi knowledge, by taking into account the socio-cultural conditions and needs of his respective audiences.)

Decades after his death, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud continues to appear in popular magazines like Nisf al-Dunya, an Egyptian weekly targeting educated classes of female professionals, as ‘the Ghazali of the Twentieth Century’.3 Associating ‘Abd al-Halim with al-Ghazali4 is the combined result of ‘Abd al-Halim's endeavours at self-representation and of the mechanisms of mass-mediated image production. ‘Abd al-Halim's autobiography, Praise be to God, this is my life (2001 [1976]), is narrated in the same form as al-Ghazali's best-known work, Deliverance from error. In his autobiography ‘Abd al-Halim claimed to have been saved from an intellectual crisis threatening the edifice of his Islamic knowledge by discovering the intellectual tradition of Sufism, and thus regaining complete confidence in God. At the same time, the radio programmes featuring ‘Abd al-Halim contributed to create his image of a great ‘alim (scholar), up to the point that he could even be credited to be a wali (saint). These programmes opened with classical music (a sure marker of ‘high cultured’ standing), followed by an extended narration of ‘Abd al-Halim's brilliant academic career as a French-trained Azharite ‘alim. The elaborate introduction reminded listeners of the speaker's credentials. After that, ‘Abd al-Halim started speaking with a gentle voice in a type of fusha (the standard Arabic use in writing and official speeches) catering to an educated public, in the name of God the Merciful, thus producing the notion of him as an ‘alim salih (authentic scholar).5 His efforts to revitalize the Sufi tradition by popularizing the scholarly knowledge of tasawwuf (Sufism) were well accepted by his audiences because he re-narrated this intellectual tradition within the framework of – and vis-à-vis– Western modernity.

In the life narrative of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, ‘Western sciences’ played an important role. He single-handedly decided to go studying in France in 1932, after he received a first education at al-Azhar. He was soon enchanted with the cleanliness and the efficiency of French cities, like many other modern Egyptians who travelled to Europe for the first time. However, as time passed, doubts about the value system that underpinned Western civilization surfaced in his mind. He fell into a state of scepticism, torn between purportedly Western and Islamic values. These had appeared equally important to him upon his arrival in France, but now he feared that the spread of scepticism, materialism and atheism, which he regarded as the basis of Western sciences, might destroy the fundaments of social values.

Initially, after studying sociology, comparative religion and psychology for his licence at the Faculty of Letters, ‘Abd al-Halim wanted to specialize in psychology or aesthetics for his doctoral studies (A.H. Mahmud 2001 [1976]: 125). However, he was advised by his professors to change his topic because he was not qualified enough to write a doctoral dissertation in either of those fields. In the end, the French Orientalist Louis Massignon (1883-1962) took him under his wing. ‘Abd al-Halim recalled in some radio programmes how he felt relieved to meet Massignon and was able to overcome his sense of cultural alienation.

‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud presents Sufism as the only scientific method to reach the metaphysical truth. While other disciplines, including rational sciences, are bound to the sensory perceptions, which only lead to doubt and uncertainty, Sufism guides one's heart to the affirmation of faith and certainty (yaqin). However, although the scepticism inherent in the methods of Western sciences produces doubts without end, doubt complemented by faith can bring one to certainty. Surprisingly perhaps, ‘Abd al-Halim used the vocabulary of reformist Islam, such as ‘ilm, sharia, and jihad, in a Sufi context, in order to market his Sufism to audiences both inside and outside Sufi circles. His strategy to present the Sufi tradition as integral to the Sunna often consisted – also in radio programmes – in quoting verses of Qur'an and hadith that were familiar to non-scholarly audiences. For instance, he emphasized ‘ilm (knowledge of Islamic law) over ma‘rifa (mystical knowledge) in order to refute the stereotypical image of Sufism as a set of deviant practices performed by Muslims who are ignorant of the fundaments of Islam. Furthermore, in order to combat the perception of Sufi orders as puppets of authoritarian regimes and indifferent to socio-political affairs, he provided historical examples of jihad performed by great Sufis, such as ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (1807-83), who struggled in defence of Algeria against the French colonial occupation. In this sense, Sufis are distinguished from ‘mystics’– who live in seclusion and practise asceticism in order to attain unity with God.

Though ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud reached the status of a celebrity who appeared on TV with President Sadat, gave lectures on radio, and wrote articles in magazines and newspapers, he continued to live in a modest flat in Zaytun, a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Cairo. This choice contributed to promote his fame as an exemplarily ‘good Muslim’ committed not only to a pious lifestyle, but also to social values of modesty and solidarity with the less affluent segments of the population. Most importantly, his life conduct is contrasted with the widespread images of Azharites as opportunists who purchase expensive real estate while ignoring the social grievances that their fellow Muslims are facing. In this way, ‘Abd al-Halim is presented as an ideal model of how a learned man with public responsibilities ought to be.

The construction of this public image, which endures to the present day, becomes particularly relevant in the context of the thriving of a teach-yourself cultural market, which encourages Muslims privately to acquire a knowledge of their faith without having to rely directly on authority figures. ‘Abd al-Halim's success in expanding the market for Sufism to non-Sufi audiences stems from the channels through which he chose to communicate with them. By using mass media, he managed to generate the notion of ‘Sufism as culture’. This idea became a publishing project with the book series which ‘Abd al-Halim edited with the publisher al-Maktaba al-Misriyya during the 1960s and which was entitled al-Maktaba al-Thaqafiyya (‘the cultural library’). In the form of books, Sufism became a cultural commodity, which could be purchased and acquired independently from the mediations of spiritual masters with Sufi credentials.

There are several people in Egypt who claim to know about ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, though it is more rare to find individuals who had any personal interactions with him or even read his books. He was never the shaykh of a particular Sufi brotherhood and took only a handful of disciples (Schleifer 1991: 203). Although the memory of ‘Abd al-Halim has left sediments in wide sections of the Egyptian popular public and seems to be well rooted, it is much more difficult to locate those roots with precision. Conversations with his former students suggest that ‘Abd al-Halim was a celebrity to whom people were eager to claim connections. Most of them did not have more information about him than could be acquired from magazine articles, yet they often asserted that they recognized in him the original station of their own personal silsila (intellectual genealogy).

Replying to a question regarding the place of ‘Abd al-Halim in contemporary Egyptian society, a blind Azharite ‘alim who studied with him said: ‘Dr ‘Abd al-Halim was a social phenomenon, on a par with Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) and Shaykh al-Sha‘rawy (1911-1998)’.6 What these three men have in common is that they are leading public personalities whose fame is sustained by their constant presence in the mass media – quite apart from any concrete specialist knowledge or direct experience of them that a given individual might have. Yet while it would be difficult to find Egyptians who ascribe to al-Ghazali or al-Sha‘rawy the status of a mufakkir (intellectual), surprisingly perhaps the opposite can be true with ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud.

In a conversation with a young representative of an internet provider and with his in-laws, the young man stated that a mufakkir cannot be an ‘alim because the former is credited with thinking freely, whereas the latter's mind is entrapped in institutional knowledge. Thus Mustafa Mahmud or also Jamal al-Ghitani (b. 1945),7 two famous writers and public figures who studied Islam independently, are prime examples of a mufakkir islami, while ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, who came out of an establishment like al-Azhar, could be nothing more than an ‘alim. Yet according to the young man's brothers-in-law, who were Azharite preachers with beards grown in the Sunni way, a mufakkir islami had to be a professional scholar trained in Islamic sciences, such as Ibn Taymiyya (1258-1356). For them, while Mustafa Mahmud can be an ‘alim in medical sciences, he cannot be a mufakkir islami because his understanding of Islamic sources is necessarily limited. In any case, from their viewpoint, ‘Abd al-Halim's credentials as a mufakkir islami were diminished by his Sufi background.

‘Video killed the radio star’: a doctor goes on TV

During the period when ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud was first lecturing on radio and then became Shaykh al-Azhar – between the late 1960s and early 1970s – another character reached public fame through a path even less conventional and more enmeshed in the trials and tensions of the passage from the Nasserist epoch to the post-Nasserist ‘opening’. While ‘Abd al-Halim had tried to subdue the doubt that insinuated the consciousness of the Egyptian educated public through Western sciences and the upheavals of the era, Mustafa Mahmud, a medical doctor, put the same doubt squarely at the centre of his tribulations and made it the hard kernel of an elaborate script that became the key to his public success. It is symptomatic that in the single major instance when the trajectories of these two men crossed, ‘Abd al-Halim appeared much more supportive of Mustafa than were the rest of the establishment of Azharite scholars. ‘Abd al-Halim introduced the emir of Qatar to Mustafa Mahmud in 1974. The emir soon became the main funder of Mustafa Mahmud's ambitious project to build a mosque with an integrated markaz islami (Islamic centre) attached to it, providing a wide range of health and educational services; both intended to be based on ‘ilm (science), put at the service of social welfare and cultural progress (Salvatore 2000; 2001). The mosque and the centre were built in the upper-middle-class district of Muhandisin (engineers), which was built in the 1950s and 1960s in the Giza governorate, within Greater Cairo, with the great pride of the Nasserist elite, some of whom chose to take residence there (Abaza 2006: 98-9).

During a period when ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud managed to organize the supervision of al-Azhar on the production of TV programmes of Islamic teaching – at a time when TV was becoming ubiquitous in middle-class households – Mustafa Mahmud produced independently and broadcast a documentary programme of ‘edifying entertainment’ by purchasing foreign-produced documentaries and commenting on them in person. In the new programme, al-‘ilm wa-l-iman (Science and Faith), which he ran for more than two decades and which met with unexpected success, Mustafa Mahmud presented the wonders of the cosmos, awesome phenomena and peculiar creatures, whose existence and shape only the power of God the creator could help explain; the patterns of explanation came close to a diluted Aristotelianism, repackaged for a growing mass media audience.

The twin achievement of the TV programme and of the Islamic association was the smooth outcome of a tormented personal trajectory that was deeply ingrained in the potentials and contradictions of the Nasserist project and of its underlying promise of an emancipating knowledge. A medicine graduate, since the late 1940s Mustafa Mahmud had written short stories, novels, and plays as well as essays, many of which appeared in popular Egyptian weeklies and dailies, like Akhir Sa‘ah, al-Tahrir, Akhbar al-Yaum, and Ruz Al-Yusuf. After Egypt's defeat in the June War of 1967, at the end of an intellectual journey during which he studied and confronted a variety of philosophies, religions, and paths of spiritual liberation, Mustafa Mahmud proclaimed Islam the best of all religions and philosophies (M. Mahmud 1987 [1970]).

Between December 1969 and the beginning of 1970, during the last months of Nasser's era, Mustafa published a tafsir (commentary of the Qur'an), first in successive issues of a popular magazine (Sabah al-Khayr), and then in a book. Several critics questioned his knowledge credentials due to his insufficient skills in grammar, rhetoric, jurisprudence, and so on, traditionally considered requisite for commenting on the Qur'an. Yet, as later for his TV programme, he managed to reach a composite middle-class public via a smart combination of the vocabulary of natural sciences and the vernacular of everyday experience.

Unlike most other leftist intellectuals, who had to find some accommodation with Nasserism in the name of national interest, anti-colonialism, and development, Mustafa Mahmud had been uncompromising in his critique of Nasserist authoritarianism. He considered it not the cause but the reflex of the crisis of Egyptian society, of the impossibility to attain people's welfare via the production and dissemination of adequate knowledge or ‘science’ (‘ilm). Mustafa's approach was in tune, though not identical, with the viewpoint of the ‘ulama, such as ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, who had opposed Nasser's socialization of Islam, to the extent that they saw in the project a domestication of the teachings of Islam with the function of preserving the president's personal power.

Yet, at a deeper level the stake was knowledge itself more than Islam per se. In the crisis that preceded his redemption, Mustafa Mahmud's confrontation with religion overlapped with his frustration with the medical profession. He became disillusioned with materialist schemes of understanding society and healing humanity. Interestingly enough, his response to the crisis proved to be a practical failure: his association grew to a certain extent, but the dream of a multi-functional ‘Islamic centre’ based on a reformed idea of knowledge and science remained a chimera. Mustafa's public presence, though, has since made history and set standards for ‘public Islam’.

Three main axes have supported the script publicly enacted by Mustafa Mahmud: the first, and the main one, has been his own life, ‘journey’, and conversion, min al-shakk ila-l-iman (from doubt to faith: M. Mahmud 1987 [1970]); the second is his intellectual discourse and media message of reconciliation between al-‘ilm wa-l-iman (science and faith) inaugurated by his tafsir; the third is a social project of religious, educational, and medical services. There is no necessary coherence between these three elements, but the public does not see a contradiction. Mustafa has been able to suggest that the intellectual discourse and the social project are emanations of his personal life experience, revolving around the motif of doubt (shakk).

In conversations with some hundred people met in public spaces around Mustafa Mahmud's mosque in Muhandisin, the book kiosks of the ‘Azbikiyya gardens in central Cairo, and in other random places of Greater Cairo, it emerged that Mustafa's shakk was not perceived as a residue from a difficult past, and could therefore not be equated with error or derailment from the straight path (being an atheist), but was accepted as a permanent generating force of iman– as if in the burgeoning metropolis of Cairo the embattled members of the shrinking Egyptian middle classes would themselves make the journey from doubt to faith every day. The ubiquity of this media star allows virtually everybody in the Egyptian public to articulate a judgement about him.

Since reaching the shores of iman, Mustafa Mahmud has always thought of himself as an Islamic thinker (mufakkir islami). Publishing networks which supported his self narrative and shared in the underlying stakes, as well as the personnel working for his association, strongly support this self-identification. On the other hand, most interviewees belonging to his wider public were eager to stress that he is not a man of religion. In other words, the general public acclaims him for being a committed Muslim who spreads knowledge and helps people. Yet this view does not, in itself, accrue to his image as a leading mufakkir islami. People on the street who discussed the image and self narrative of Mustafa Mahmud were more interested to comment on the unpredictable elements of his personality and message and on the rifts created by his journey through doubt. They preferred to discuss the creative side of his intellectual production rather than to promote him as an ‘Islamic intellectual’.

For a larger part of his public, the foothold of Mustafa Mahmud's authority is doubtless ‘ilm, as distinguished from din (religion) or iman. Most of the people described him as a scientist who has been capable of making morally acceptable and socially viable his scientific knowledge and practice as a physician. The word for scientist, ‘alim, has become for Western Orientalists the epithet of certified religious personnel (the ‘ulama, plural of ‘alim). Yet from elementary school Egyptians learn that ‘ilm is primarily the science of nature and that the ‘alim is the ‘scientist’ who studies it. Religious personnel are mostly identified by the public through the designation of rijal al-din (men of religion). Their ‘ilm is also a highly specialized one.

‘An Islamic thinker and scientist who ties up science with religion, and has also a sound political position’. This type of characterization of Mustafa Mahmud occurred rarely among his audiences, though it is the only type of portrayal that neatly matches the image that he and the networks of production of his public image have tried to produce and spread. The promotion of his persona as a mufakkir islami would require a widespread acceptance, in Egyptian society, of the creation of an autonomous knowledge field based on the capacity of the purported ‘Islamic intellectual’ to communicate to wider audiences, the social dimension of the fundamental values inspired by Islam in isolation from Islamic institutions of learning. To date, this acceptance is probably not (or not yet) currency among educated Egyptian Muslims. Judging on the basis of the specific case of Mustafa Mahmud, the recognition of his status as a mufakkir islami by his public is cautiously approached when people are ready to acknowledge him as having shown, in practice and in theory, that science confirms faith, and that faith makes science socially accessible and vital, through turning it into public services. An explicit recognition of Mustafa Mahmud as an ‘Islamic thinker’ can be attained – though only seldomly – by deepening a conversation and reflection on his public impact. Yet it is not so much his status of mufakkir that seems to escape the public consensus, but its qualification as a mufakkir islami.

If we dig further into Mustafa Mahmud's networks, new elements emerge that complicate the picture, raising the question as to the type of authority underpinning his public charisma. For a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Helwan, Mustafa is primarily a mufakkir because in his novels, short stories, and plays – through which he gained some public fame long before the rihla (journey) and the markaz islami (Islamic centre) – he cares less for art and more for conveying key ideas drawn from his personal experience and from his own reading of social reality.8 A senior editor at Dar al-Ma‘arif who was Mustafa's main publishing contact said that his readership embraced all ages and that his complex and somewhat contradictory personality was a key to his success and status of a public intellectual.9

An employee at the weekly Uktubar, who claimed to have met Mustafa Mahmud several times, went as far as to recognize in him the charisma of one of awliya’ Allah, so basically naming him a ‘saint’, due to his modesty and a spirit of service informed by Sufism. For him, this was what made Mustafa a model for people of different ages and degrees of education. For Ahmad Kamal al-Jazzar, who wrote a book titled Dr Mustafa Mahmud and Sufism (al-Jazzar 1997), the sum of his combined skills made him capable of addressing a growing public not in order to entertain them, but to reconstruct their values. Al-Jazzar added that Mustafa Mahmud sharply refused to be called a Sufi and insisted that he was just an admirer and reader of Sufi authors. In spite of that, al-Jazzar remained convinced that Mustafa Mahmud belonged to ahl Allah al-salikin, the privileged people of God, that is, the Sufi elite of knowledge.

Although we have no particular reasons to question the sincerity of al-Jazzar in characterizing Mustafa Mahmud's charisma in this way, by the time the book was published, Mustafa had become a leading author of the daily newspaper, Akhbar al-Yawm. This was also the time when the dream of a comprehensive markaz islami had started to fade and the wave of success of subsequent cycles of the TV programme was on the wane. At that time, Mustafa's presence in public discussions could no longer rely on the combined solidity of his wider programme. He became more resolute in practising an approach to knowledge nurtured by doubt and in applying it to key issues of faith. In the late 1990s he argued in some newspaper articles against the principle of shafa‘a, according to which on the Day of Judgment the Prophet Muhammad can intercede on behalf of sinners. Based on some hadiths, Mustafa claimes, this article of faith contradicts the basic Qur'anic principle according to which sinners will be punished by God. This argument attracted the hostility of several people, both within the puritan/Islamist camp and among Sufi circles.

A tense conversation on the issue started when Khalid, at the time a 34-year-old worker in a car repair shop, and Hasan, 22, a shop seller,10 questioned Mustafa Mahmud's lucidity for daring to attack the Prophet Muhammad. They argued that in old age the once pious thinker had crossed a red line. Khalid stressed that while it is still admissible for a lay thinker like him to come up with a new tafsir of the Qur'an, questioning hadith that are considered authentic by the consensus of the ‘ulama is crazy. Ahmad, a 27-year-old state employee with a degree in administration, retorted that Mustafa Mahmud was not denying anything but just showing contradictions between some hadith and specific Qur'an verses. Khalid responded that the issue at stake was not limited to the issue of shafa‘a. He warned that by reading carefully one of the articles dedicated to the topic one could see that Mustafa Mahmud was denying the authority of hadith itself as a reliable source, and doubting hadith might soon spill over to some verses of Qur'an as well – God forbid.

Apparently the cultivation of shakk– which Mustafa Mahmud had turned into a methodological approach and even into an educational tool, and which he continued to see as integral to his personality even after embracing faith as a born-again Muslim – was stirring up sharp controversies among his audiences. Ahmad insisted that he had also read the article quite carefully and that there was some logic in it. ‘How can a sinner end up in heaven just because he invokes the Messenger of God's intercession by simply saying la ilah illa Allah wa Muhammad rasul Allah? [this is the Islamic profession of faith according to which “there is no god but God/Allah and Muhammad is God's messenger”]’. Khalid burst out: ‘Logic?? What logic are you talking about? Logic is fine at school or at the university, but not with the words of the Messenger, whom God mentioned as the one who speaks nothing but the truth’. Hassan interrupted with a smile: ‘Take it easy oh Shaykh Khalid, logic is from the Qur'an too’. At which point Khalid retorted: ‘OK I will talk to you about logic: if your son does something wrong, it is logical to punish him, yet if your wife intercedes and asks you, for her sake, not to punish him for once, isn't it logical to accept her intercession?’ Ahmad hesitated a bit, then said that they were not talking about ordinary situations but about Allah, who unequivocally stated in the Qur'an that sinners will go to hell and will never escape it. Then he added: ‘I did not say that I completely agree with what Mustafa Mahmud wrote, I just said there is some logic in what he said – that's it!’

Clearly, Mustafa Mahmud had been effective in insinuating doubts and triggering a collective reasoning via arguments and counter-arguments. At this point Samir, 29, a computer expert who aspired to a career in journalism, and whose immediate goal was to know more about what other people thought of Mustafa Mahmud, asked his companions: ‘So what do you think was the real motive for Mustafa Mahmud to write all this?’ Hasan, smiling, suggested that Mustafa was smart enough to realize that what he writes is eventually repeated by many people: ‘So he sat down and thought about a new topic that might be exciting’. Hasan ended the sentence with a loud laugh. At that point Khalid warned that if Mustafa Mahmud really did that, then he was not a true Muslim, since such topics are so serious and must not be used to provoke public excitement or to achieve fame. Ahmad asked then: ‘Do you think that Mustafa Mahmud is lacking fame or searching for it? He is one of the most famous and popular writers in Egypt. He is even more famous than Naguib Mahfuz, even if he did not get a Nobel prize’. Khalid answered that Mustafa Mahmud is only famous because of his TV programmes and newspaper articles; if it were for his books, he would not have been famous at all. Samir suggested that Khalid had forgotten to mention Mustafa Mahmud's association. Khalid retorted that it was unremarkable and did not make him famous at all. On the contrary, it was Mustafa's fame that had made the association successful and this eventually accrued to his fame. He concluded: ‘Look, you're taking this as a funny topic but it's a very serious one. It's very dangerous. Now you don't rely on hadith and later you'll forget about the sharia and finally goodbye[he said it in English] to Islam. They want Islam to be like Christianity in the West. Just a decoration’.

Three decades of Mustafa Mahmud's public deployment of doubt to inculcate a more self-conscious faith had resulted in a lively and critical, yet at times vicious, discussion on one of the most sensible topics of Islamic teaching, the status of the Qur'an and its relation to hadith. Clearly, such a critical discussion was also nourished by suspicions and clichés. The net result was, though, that the controversial image of Mustafa Mahmud was far from earning the status of an uncontroversial mufakkir islami, even for Ahmad and Samir who were quite sympathetic with his critical approach to the specific issue and more generally to his public role.

Conclusion: the status of mufakkir (‘intellectual’) between social commitment and originality in knowledge production

As Kate Zebiri mentions in her work on the former Shaykh al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut (1893-1963), one of the reasons why the value of studying the thought of an ‘alim used to be underestimated was the presupposition that ‘any original, creative thinking is far more likely to come from outside the ranks of the ‘ulama’ (Zebiri 1993: 2). More recently, this search for originality in the prevailing Western sense of the term has been linked to a key category of Islamic jurisprudence which featured prominently among Muslim reformers like Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935), namely ijtihad. Traditionally designating the faculty of exerting efforts in finding solutions to unprecedented legal issues, ijtihad was propagated by reformers no longer as a juridical skill of excellence or as a device for updating legal norms (Johansen 1993: 29-30), but as a largely super-legal method to channel the participation of all Muslims in discussions on issues of public interest. Rashid Rida went so far in the redefinition of ijtihad as to affirm that each Muslim should be a mujtahid, a practitioner of ijtihad (Rida 1988 [1922]: 115-16).

‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud tried to restore a traditional understanding of ijtihad. He admired the mujtahids as those who rendered distinguished services to Islamic history, but criticized Muslims who practise ijtihad without a proper qualification in the authentic Islamic sciences. Malika Zeghal reports that ‘in a letter sent to the president of Parliament in 1976, he claimed that “no ijtihad is allowed to any human if a shar‘i text (a legal text deriving from revelation) exists” ’ (Zeghal 1999: 383). Ijtihad was intended by him as a supplemental aid, reserved for the gifted people of knowledge, on the path first trod by the Prophet and his companions, representing the peak of the ceaseless endeavour to reach as far as they once had (Aishima 2005).

Significantly, on the back cover of several of his books, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud is not presented as a mujtahid but as a high-ranking scholar who performs discrete ijtihadat (in the plural) with rigour, providing answers to various questions related to Islam. The logic of this presentation seems to be that a confidence with scholarly established knowledge based on a solid understanding of core texts can bring flexibility, and so originality, to one's knowledge production. Commenting on this presentation of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, some readers observed that ‘originality’ which is not derived from scholarly established texts may turn out to be mere imagination (khayal). In this perception, ijtihad is an intellectual effort to illuminate the deeper meanings of the textual sources transmitted through scholarly chains. Surprisingly perhaps, from among the audience of Mustafa Mahmud it was sometimes asserted that he was a mujtahid (a qualification he rarely claimed for himself), but that being a mujtahid does not require specific qualifications in the sciences of religion or a deep knowledge of the foundational texts. Being a mujtahid is then contrasted to being an ‘alim.

Accordingly, performing discrete operations of ijtihad can be seen as a practice of individual reasoning conforming to the rules of tradition and so contributing to the progress of knowledge via a deep understanding of the sources, while, on the contrary, acquiring the identity of a fully fledged mujtahid might enfeeble the knowledge credentials of the speaker and make him into a sort of lay generalist, a commoner striving to do his best out of a basic lack of familiarity with fundamental knowledge tools (not to forget, the primary meaning of mujtahid in common parlance in Egypt is ‘diligent’, and is frequently used for schoolchildren).

This combined, and not fully coherent, notion of the merits of ijtihad and the shortcomings inherent in being a mujtahid might sound surprising, because of the customary praising of ijtihad as a tool of social development by Muslim reformers and as a symbol of intellectual creativity by Western observers. Yet the status of ijtihad cannot be isolated from more complex, ongoing processes of cultural production in contemporary Egypt. These processes seem to create a bifurcation between what is understood as general culture and what is appreciated as specialized knowledge. It is often the case that mass media, rather than school education, are regarded as the source of ‘culture’. Thus, the characters of the muthaqqaf (cultured) and of the muta‘allim (educated) may overlap, but are not necessarily synonymous. While some muta‘allimun are also muthaqqafun, there are muthaqqafun who did not attend school. Literacy acquired through schooling is certainly valued, but schools are not expected to provide thaqafa (‘culture’ intended as the cultivation of one's personality). Rather, ‘culture’ is something one actively seeks through reading books, listening to radio, or watching television. The above-mentioned dispute on Mustafa Mahmud's notion of shafa‘a is clearly a conversation among muthaqqafun, not all of whom are muta‘allimun, and who try hard not to disqualify their position by arguing as mere mujtahidun, intended in a slightly derogatory sense.

A popular definition of muthaqqaf met in our conversations is ‘somebody who knows something about everything’. Muta‘allim and muthaqqaf overlap but do not coincide, since there are many university graduates who are unaware of current affairs, having stopped reading after they left school. While the muthaqqafun build the public that the mufakkirun aim to reach and impact upon, a mufakkir does not have to be a muta‘allim either. Salwa, a 27-year-old Arabic teacher, nominated ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad (1889-1964), a leading Egyptian poet and writer, as an example of a self-educated intellectual. She stressed that al-‘Aqqad didn't even finish elementary school but trained his mind through intensive reading and produced a number of insightful books.

The status of a mufakkir is attained by a sustained effort at producing a type of knowledge that can be consumed as ‘culture’ by an audience of muthaqqafun– a public that is far from a merely passive receptor and, as we have seen, can be sharply critical. Unlike the public construction of a mufakkir, an ‘alim is trained in one discipline to produce works of ‘science’. In this sense, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud is an ‘alim in the field of religious sciences and Mustafa Mahmud is an ‘alim within the natural sciences. Some creations of a mufakkir can be as valuable as those produced by a trained ‘alim, but this depends not on the assessment of peers, but on the judgement of the public.

If being a mufakkir is associated with some degree of originality and innovation, Egyptians respect an ‘alim for his ability to illuminate the deeper meanings of his predecessors' works. The product of a mufakkir's activity does not exceed the realm of ‘personal opinion’, which can be correct or incorrect, while the work of an ‘alim pertains to the domain of truth because the origins of his knowledge can be identified with certainty. Referring to ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud's autobiography, Praise be to God, this is my life, some people called him a mufakkir islami because he starts with his own ideas and then develops his thoughts by relating them to the Qur'an and hadith. While his Sufi knowledge, which is communicated in a simplified fusha, addresses the sensibilities of a wider audience, his credibility as an ‘authentic’ scholar is questioned by some members of the scholarly community. However, when ‘Abd al-Halim chose the mass media as a channel to promote Sufism, his intended audiences were not experts on Sufism but members of the general public with a secular educational background. Thus, it might be safe to conclude that it was a wider public who attributed to him credibility as an ‘authentic’ scholar and – though less frequently – a mufakkir islami.

Mustafa Mahmud's public message and status as a mufakkir appeared quite uncontested as long as his public relied on the three main axes of his schema and more specifically on his prerogatives as an ‘alim who was successful in his field (medicine, or more generally the natural sciences). Yet it could create controversies in cases where he applied the motif of doubt as a key to shift the consensus in his society on controversial issues concerning Islam: a type of action that is usually associated with the authority of the modern critical intellectual in a Western context. The work and message of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud could be more reassuring in terms of truth value because his ideas are supported by unquestioned sources such as the Qur'an and hadith. For him, carrying the double insignia of being an ‘alim and a mufakkir was an easier task: paradoxically perhaps, his specifically religious legitimacy provided him a more solid footing for gaining recognition as an intellectual. In the context of the Cairo-centred Islamic Resurgence discussed here, the types of authority that we tend to associate with modernity and tradition, respectively, do not relate to each other in the expected way. The publicly accepted role of a mufakkir becomes problematic on issues related to Islam, because the raising of controversial issues clashing with established orthodoxy can be suspected of serving the goal not of enlightening the public but of attaining a facile, personal fame.

Moreover, the audience's reflection on the legacies of the two Mahmuds relativizes the hierarchy of importance of the electronic media (in the era during which TV overlapped with radio) and resuscitates the fame of the ‘killed’ radio star ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud as a kind of media authority more capable, in the longer term, of attaining the fame of a comprehensive mufakkir islami. Yet, the wider public's perception is partly contradicted by more educated people. While they easily agreed that ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud was an ‘alim, since he worked for al-Azhar, they differed greatly on whether he was a mufakkir. For more religious persons, an ‘alim of his rank ought to be a mufakkir, hence ‘Abd al-Halim was both; but for those who take some distance from religion, the mufakkir's place occupies a higher rank than a simple ‘alim. Here the TV star Mustafa Mahmud has a chance to regain a higher place in the hierarchy, yet always at the price of being exposed to the suspicion of aiming at self-promotion. The screen of tradition, even when it encompasses the ever-controversial teachings of Sufism, seems at times to provide a protection against this suspicion.


  • Our research data are based on several field research trips to Egypt that took place between 1998 and 2008. Our thanks go to Walter Armbrust for his comments on earlier drafts of the part on ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud and to our interlocutors in Egypt. Special thanks go to Dr Mani‘‘Abd al-Halim and his family for their support since 2001.

  • 1

    Mani‘‘Abd al-Halim, pers. comm., 26 September 2001. He is the son of ‘Abd al-Halim and professor at the College of Religious Fundaments, al-Azhar.

  • 2

    The Arabic word for ‘stars’, nujum, is ubiquitous in writing and talking about public personalities in Egypt well beyond show business.

  • 3

    This article appeared in January 2001, introducing ‘Abd al-Halim as a rare imam who reconciles Western sciences and Eastern cultures, religious sciences and philosophy.

  • 4

    In the history of Islamic thought, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is distinguished for theoretically bridging the gap between tasawwuf (Sufism) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as distinctive genres of knowledge.

  • 5

    While such a recognition of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud as an ‘alim with high-ranking knowledge is widespread among a mass audience, it appears much more problematic among Egyptian scholars. They are often suspicious of his public success and sometimes claim that his books are only suitable for a ‘popular’ audience and have no scholarly value.

  • 6

    Taha Habeyshi, pers. comm., 13 March 2007. He is the head of the Department of Philosophy and Dogmatics of the College of Religious Fundaments, al-Azhar.

  • 7

    Editor in chief of Akhbar al-Adab, writer. His latest novel, Kitab al-tajalliyat (The book of illumination) (1983-6), is an autobiography narrated through his spiritual interactions with Sufi celebrities.

  • 8

    Pers. comm., 18 May 1999.

  • 9

    Pers. comm., 15 May 1999.

  • 10

    All informants' names are pseudonyms.

Hatsuki Aishima is a social anthropologist reading Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, UK. Her doctoral thesis project, which studies Islamic knowledge and intellectuals in contemporary Egypt through the prism of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud, was awarded the Albert Hourani Graduate Studentship 2008-9 of St Antony's College.

Armando Salvatore is Associate Professor, Sociology of Culture and Communication, University of Naples – L'Orientale, and Heisenberg Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin, and Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, Essen. His latest book is The public sphere: liberal modernity, Catholicism, Islam (2007).