The Modesty of the Intellectual: Waiting For Abu Zayd

By MICHAEL TEAGUE
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd by Mamoun Sakkal for Al Jadid

Contemporary debates about the role of Islam in modern Middle-Eastern societies are often captive to the vocabulary of “moderate vs. extremist,” leaving little room for discussions that move beyond these black and white distinctions.  Fortunately, Mohammed Ali Atassi’s recently released documentary about the late Egyptian “liberal” Islamic intellectual Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd is a rare exception. Moving beyond the cacophony of forces trying to steer the debate in one direction or another, Atassi’s film provides an excellent window onto the many nuances of this debate that exist beneath its surface.

One of the virtues of this film is its commitment to reflecting the comprehensive nature of Abu Zayd. Clips of speaking engagements, casual dinner parties, and patient attempts to engage the press display the theologian’s more public face, while interviews with Abu Zayd, his family, and his close friends create a more intimate picture. From these many different sources, collected over the span of six years, the audience begins to understand Abu Zayd and his approach to Islam in a more holistic way.  Abu Zayd’s approach to Islam is focused on historical context and the “interaction between the people and their sacred texts,” rather than doctrinal disputes and the “divine qualities” of those sacred texts.  On the level of intellectual debate, the film does a good job of providing an expository of this point of view, especially in the choice of scenes from lectures and exchanges with the audience.

One of the prominent themes of the film is the controversy surrounding Abu Zayd’s work. This theme is developed throughout the film through interviews with his wife, Ibtihal Younes.  As is well known, Abu Zayd and Younes were the victims of a court divorce decree in 1995 after Abu Zayd was declared an apostate by the Egyptian religious establishment. Through the eyes of Younes, the film reveals the strain caused by the divorce and Abu Zayd’s subsequent exile, but also the story of a couple intensely devoted to one another.

The more dire circumstances of Abu Zayd’s life are counterbalanced by his charisma, and especially his joyfully mischievous sense of humor.  Nowhere in the film is this more apparent than in his dealings with various Arab media outlets.  One scene in particular, in which he is interviewed by Al Arabiya television in Beirut, illustrates this wonderfully.  Prior to the interview, Atassi warns Abu Zayd that the station is beholden to Saudi funding, and is thus indulgent towards the Kingdom’s various sensitivities, making the interview subject to censorial editing.  Less than 45 seconds into the interview, then, Abu Zayd, with incredible guile, turns the interviewer’s question about the veil controversy in France into a jab against a “rigid doctrine that does not evolve, just like Wahabism.”  Only moments after this pronouncement, the interviewer, obviously perturbed, hastily and awkwardly calls for a break in the interview, at which point Abu Zayd flashes a few subtle grins at the camera, surely in response to his previous conversation with Atassi.  Later on, Atassi asks: “How did you pass that comment about Wahabism?” to which Abu Zayd responds: “I told you, I was just waiting…”

As this example indicates, the film is not a simple documentary, where camera and narration are detached from the subject.  Instead, it is clear that Atassi and Abu Zayd are close friends who delight in each others’ company.  The result is a dialogue between the two that modulates between intellectual discussion and debate, strategic planning (especially before and after media appearances), and more jovial exchanges.  This aspect of the film is not only novel and gratifying, but also adds a layer of complexity to the portrait of Abu Zayd. The contrast  between Abu Zayd’s seemingly effortless poise and patience and Atassi’s obvious irritation with the various journalists they encounter is especially revealing.

Abu Zayd’s humor and impeccable comedic timing go hand in hand with his commitment to intellectual honesty.  Late in the film, during a talk at the American University of Beirut, he makes one of the most salient statements in a film that is replete with poignant dialogue when he underlines the necessity for modesty in the Arab intellectual: “It is time that he becomes modest and realizes that his role, if he performs it well, is equal to that of a janitor.”  His critique is of the tendency of the intellectual who overemphasizes his own importance and almost imagines himself as a leader or even a prophet.  For Abu Zayd, this intellectual immodesty puts the thinker on par with the common dictator, who claims to own the truth.

“Waiting for Abu Zayd” leaves the audience wondering how a man offering such utterly reasonable and essentially humanist ideas could be so persecuted.  With so much invested in the language of “moderates” and “reformers” in Islamic societies and elsewhere (consider the routine American outrage at the repression of Chinese artists and intellectuals), it is hard to imagine that Abu Zayd’s plight was overlooked for so long, yet nowhere in this film can he be seen pointing fingers at the West.  Instead, it seems that Abu Zayd’s understanding of the Islamic faith was based solely on the responsibility and devotion of the believer.  The fact that this upset so many people indicates just how dangerous such ideas still are, especially for those who are courageous enough to share them.

This film review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

 

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