Controversial Egyptian scholar, polemicist and novelist Youssef Ziedan (1958) is one of the most prolific intellectuals of his generation. He has written some 60 books, the majority of which cover Islamic philosophy and Arabic manuscripts. The bulk of his academic work focuses on editing, cataloguing and publishing medieval manuscripts, a task he once described as one of the most difficult and least glamourous.
Indeed, it was not historical research that brought him fame. In 2009, he won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (popularly known as the Arabic Booker) for his second novel Azazeel, which has been translated into English and several other languages.
It is a unique work in Arabic fiction because of its narrative and setting. In it, Ziedan demonstrates a thorough knowledge of early Christian history and dogma, which is rare for a Muslim author.
Set in fifth century Egypt, it depicts a three-way struggle between early Christianity and pre-Abrahamic faiths on the one hand, and the early conflict within Christianity itself, which centred on the nature of Christ, on the other. The novel is also an allegory for the struggle between good and evil – both in the main character (Egyptian monk Hypa) and in society at large – offering the reader a tragic illustration of the link between religious fanaticism and violence, a theme he returns to in later polemical work.
Ziedan was born in Upper Egypt, in the city of Sohag, then moved as a child to Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. He went to school and university there, obtaining a PhD in Islamic philosophy in 1989.
It was in Alexandria, too, that he pursued one of his most important achievements as a scholar of Islamic tradition. In 1994, he founded the centre for manuscripts at the prestigious Library of Alexandria. He was dismissed as the head of the centre in 2012 after an acrimonious and public row with the director general.
Much of Ziedan’s academic life has been spent focusing on Islam’s great Sufi thinkers Ibn Arabi and Abdul Karim al-Jili. He is said to have sought to identify the purely Arabic Islamic elements in their philosophy that has not been influenced by Hellenistic ideas.
As a scholar of medieval Arabic manuscripts, he has produced hundreds of annotated documents. His greatest contribution is the one dedicated to the huge body of manuscripts left by the Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafis. Ziedan edited and published Ibn al-Nafis’ grand medical encyclopedia of 30 volumes known as al-Shamil fil Sinaa al-Tibbiyya.
Since winning the Arabic Booker in 2009, Ziedan has become a regular fixture on Egyptian talk shows, using his new-found celebrity to expound his controversial views about Islamic tradition and Arab history, which, predictably, has earned him a few enemies.
He has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of religious extremism and cultural decline in Egypt. On his Facebook page, next to his profile picture, he has emblazoned the following words: ‘Liberating the minds is among the most difficult tasks.’
With these words, Ziedan encapsulates his objective as a progressive intellectual who takes on one of the most difficult challenges facing Arab Muslim culture: encouraging independent thinking free from the shackles of tradition.
In a series of recent articles published in the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm, he has sought to diagnose the reasons for Egypt’s decline and its failure to live up to its promise as the standard-bearer of progress and modernity in the Arab world. These reasons, he believes, are migration and the resulting brain drain, the rampant spread of superficial religiosity, and despotism that deters creativity and critical thinking.
An example of his intellectual audacity is his public deconstruction of one of the deeply held beliefs of Muslims: the story of the Prophet Muhammad travelling by night on the back of a winged horse (an Arab version of Pegasus) to Jerusalem from where he ascended to heaven and back to central Arabia at daybreak. Using linguistic and historical evidence provided by Islamic tradition itself, he concludes that the story is apocryphal and was added much later than the time of the revelation for political reasons.
Given the centrality of this religious narrative to Palestinians’ (and the wider Muslim world’s) claim to Jerusalem, one can understand why such views have drawn so much fire from religious scholars and Arab nationalists. Yet Ziedan was quick to point out that the Palestinians’ claim should be based not on religion but on historical evidence that they were the inhabitants of that land centuries before the arrival of the Zionist vanguards. He is vilified on social media as a Zionist agent.
His voice is one among a growing number in Egypt calling for cultural change, change that can only happen if Egyptians begin to question dearly held beliefs, especially religious ones. These voices are a still in the minority, however, making it all the harder for such change to occur.