Egypt won three awards last week at the Dubai film festival and thank heavens it was not for those two annoyingly-titled movies that were showcased at the (bungled) Cairo International Film Festival. As luck would have it, I watched the trailer for one of those two movies and could not help but notice a scene where you have an attractive female actor in front of a wooden board for a circus knife-throwing type act.
That jogged a memory: Gangs of New York (2002), with Daniel Day-Lewis as the Butcher throwing knifes at Cameron Diaz to the delight of a bloodthirsty audience. You would think a movie celebrating Egyptian cultural particularity could do without imitating stock images from the historical cinematic imagination of the United States, bringing an American past back to life that does not match either the Egyptian past or present. There was once an Egyptian TV series, without naming names, which also celebrated Egyptian fortitude in the face of the British occupiers, and they modelled a scene in it from Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000)!
Just goes to show how deeply ingrained the uqdat al-khawaga (foreign inferiority complex) is. Either that or it is a form of intellectual and artistic laziness, where we do not bother to think up any solutions ourselves to a local problem and just rely on pre-packaged ideas and policies from elsewhere, from peoples with different circumstances and agendas. The same can be said, sadly, about much modern-day Arab historiography. A very distinguished Sheikh responded to that intellectual I mentioned in a previous article and they brought the intellectual a second time on TV and you could literally ‘see’ how embarrassed and nervous he was because he knew he could not mount a proper defence of his views. And as I suspected, he worry he found so nettlesome was of a political nature: the Arab-Israeli conflict. He wanted to find a way out of the so-called deadlock with the Jews, as he put it. Zionism is not the same thing as Judaism, and he frankly should know better.
Then he went over the whole anti-Israa-Miraaj issue again, even after having the actual historical text that he had used read out loud in a way that eliminated his alternate account of the miraculous night journey. As luck would have it, again, I had read up on Orientalism in my youthful days and quite a few memories were stimulated. As I understand it, the person who claimed the night journey was just a dream or a trip to a place close-by Mecca was Montgomery Watt.
To his credit Watt, at least in Muhammad at Mecca (1953), admitted that Quranic scholars always insisted Surat Al-Najm was Meccan and had lived at the end of the Meccan period, which corresponds to the historical time of the Night Journey. Watt and his generation of Orientalists did not agree with the Muslim classification and wanted to date it alternately – in a conniving way that served their missionary interests – but at least they acknowledged the fact that the original classification was a point of consensus in Islamic historiography.
I can take that a step further and bring Tabari into the fray, since Tabari – the favourite of historical revisionists – himself gave the most phantasmagorical account of the Night Journey and was the one who insisted, more than anybody else, that Surat Al-Najm was revealed just prior to the Hijra from Mecca to Yathrib/Madina. This was in his Tafsir (exegesis) though, and not his Tarikh (history), which is another reason why so-called progressives and Orientalists alike rely more on the history volumes than the book of interpretation. Somebody clearly has not been doing his homework and, just as bad, has fallen into the same khawaga trap that the above mentioned film and TV makers have fallen into repeatedly.
The whole phrasing of Islam in the early Meccan period as purely spiritualistic and moral, whereas the Medinan period was political and legal, is an Orientalist construction. The condemnation of female infanticide was in the Meccan period and was condemned very early on, even though the Muslims were a minority in hiding that could not even pray in public, let alone preach laws. There is also a verse in the Quran forbidding the marriage of Muslims to pagans, which comes from the Medinan period, but is in reference to the Muslims who were still trapped in Mecca, as well as new converts in hiding there.
As for Surat Al-Israa, I do not know if it was Meccan or Medinan, but it deals extensively with the Jews – which is why it is also known as Surat Bani Israil (Children of Israel) – which would indicate that the location of the Night Journey was Jerusalem. And there is a ‘masjid’ referred to there too in verse 7, so we are back where we started with the traditional story.
As for the intellectual’s repeated insistence that it was theologically impossible for the Prophet (PBUH) to go up into the sky, he said seeing God is a characteristic of others faiths, not Islam. He forgot that the reward for the believers who enter the top level of paradise in Islam is the pleasure of ‘seeing’ the face of God. Such theological restrictions were the concoction, again, of the Mutazillah and their debate with rival groups over anthropomorphism and shafa’a (intercession, according to come readings), problems that were grafted onto Islam from other religions and cultures. The Mutazillah, moreover, argued against the Night Journey being a ‘physical’ journey, citing Aishah, the wife of the Prophet (PBUH). But she only became the Prophet’s wife after Khadija died in the Year of Sorrow at the end of the Meccan period, confirming the conventional timing again.
I can add that the reason Islam does not have God coming down to us is for the same reason that God does not send angels in the place of human Prophets and Messengers – to test people’s faith, not giving us physical evidence of God’s existence. Hence, Imam Ali saying that if he saw God, he would not become a better Muslim because his beliefs were already absolute.
So, the evidence is all there in the history books, but if you let the Orientalists do the reading you will never see any of it, even if it is right under your nose. The great Iranian thinker Ali Shariati always said the Muslims needed to rephrase themselves by freeing themselves from the shackles of Orientalist historiography, using amnesia as an analogy. If the Orientalists had wiped out the Muslim memory they would actually have done us a great service, he said, because this would allow us to re-explore and rewrite our history from a scientific perspective. The trouble is the Orientalists did not leave us with blank slates, replacing our memories instead with false memories of their own, and we have yet to recover.
Since we brought up Shariati, it’s good to remember that the Islamic Republic of Iran not only has won the right to a peaceful nuclear programme from the US and the international community, but always beat the pants off the Arabs at every international film festival you can imagine. Do they have an Orientalist foreigner complex? When it comes to nuclear power and movies (at the Oscars), I think not!
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