A Reflection on Al-Ghazali- Mystic and Islamic Philosopher

أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي (Abu Hamid Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al-Ghazali), born in the Persian town of Ghazala, also known as the “proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), transgressed through an personal journey that very much is reflected by his intellectual journey as a philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. Perhaps he was one of the more honest philosophers and thinkers of his time, as he abandoned his posts in Baghdad in 1095, embarking on a solitary, spiritual journey for eleven years – where he, similarly to Al-Farabi, traveled around the Islamic world. Ghazali’s realization that he was going the “wrong way”, where this Doubt shook him to his core, as he saw the materialism and superficiality within which his life was rooted in, prompted him to embarked on a journey to find the “righteous path”. The first scholar to combine Sharia and Sufism, or, in other words, religion with Sufism, or theology with taste, he went against many of the thinkers of his time.

Ghazali’s intellectual journey may be divided into three stages. The first may be classified as “doubt”, during which he began to doubt the premise of defending or justifying religion as something that requires dogmatic defense. It was during this stage where he wrote the infamous “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, a rigorous rant on the issues and constraints of the الفلاسفة (“falasifa”, translates to “the Philosophers”). Doubt was the means to reach the Ultimate Truth, the second stage. Ghazali believed the Intellect was not enough to reach the Ultimate Truth, and, as such, trust is needed. Just as the Intellect aids our constrained senses, something was behind the Intellect, governing the Intellect. In this sense, the Intellect is similarly able to deceive, just as our senses are. This brings us to his third stage, the Final Truth. Here he emphasised the importance of trust in prophecy, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. It is a natural perception, he believed, beyond the Intellect, faith, or religion, and instead, should be understood as a spiritual experience of heart and ذاق (“douqh”, meaning taste).

Ghazali’s belief and argument that the Intellect has the ability to be impotent and deceiving, and therefore cannot be wholly trusted leads to the conclusion that trust in prophecy, instead, may aid intellect. Ghazali placed a heavy emphasis on prophecy. According to his writings, after the Prophet Muhammed died, there is now a need for trust in the prophecies, and from this will sprout inspiration, which is the extension of the revelation- almost as if the prophecy had been revived, in a way. The Final Truth is attained by believing in Prophecy first, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. This has a similar echo to Ibn Sina’s writings on prophecy, where he argued prophesizing is rational, and uses syllogisms. However, prophets merely state the conclusion without the premises, although this does not lead to the conclusion that it isn’t based on the premises. Ibn Sina believed that the prophet’s intellect was such that it didn’t need the premises. Here the revelation’s are seen to be above rationality and intellect, in a similar vein to Ghazali’s beliefs.

Ghazali’s influence is widespread and variant. He has had an effect on Islamic Fundamentalists, as they have exploited and used his writings to their own gains. This has, in turn, caused a widespread misconception of Ghazali as having closed the doors to philosophy in the Islamic World, and opened the doors to Islamic Fundamentalism, as some blame him for the decline of science in the Islamic world. However, this Western theory is privy to being reductionist to Ghazali himself and his writings. Furthermore, the belief that the phenomena of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism may be attributed to one person, thing, or entity, is an oversimplification and therefore faulty.

His writings also largely effected Western philosophers, including the well-known René Descartes. Descartes’ “basket of apples” philosophy argues that one must inspect each apple in the basket, carefully, and only putting back the sound ones. This is a metaphor for one’s mind, to inspect each thought within his or her mind, and in this sense, not taking anything for granted. To turn over each belief and determine which are true. This is strongly reminiscent of Ghazali on Doubt. This doubt echoes throughout various philosophers. One cannot help but think of Plato’s cave allegory in comparison to Ghazali’s work. Both men were plagued by doubt (as was Plato’s mentor, Socrates), however they diverged in where this skeptical journey led them. While Plato believed one could achieve truth and infallible knowledge by emerging out of the dark cave and into the world, Ghazali believed that only by looking within, into the soul and by trusting in God and the revelations, would one be able to truly attain Ultimate Truth. The two great philosophers have interesting overlaps, with Ghazali being almost confused as to how there can be so many different sects that men tended to believe merely because he was brought up in this way, while Plato depicting the falsehood of data that men tend to be bound by – symbolized by the shadows of the Cave.

In  المنقذ من الضلال (“al-Munqidh min al-dalal”, translates to “Deliverance from Error”), an autobiographical account of Ghazali, one can understand his approach and thoughts towards skepticism and doubt, which was what led him to initially leave his teaching position, and is essential to search for the Unshakable Truth (حقيقة). His quest for certainty led him to question uncritically accepted religious beliefs, and instead search for a kind of عِلم الْيَقين (“‘ilm al-yaqin”). This diverges from Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Ghazali experienced two personal crises, with the second leading him to look within in, and resulting in his conclusion that only through a life of trust or تَوَكُّل (“tawakkul”) would the seeker be able find the Unshakable Truth, which he called the Ultimate Truth. In this way, one could remove the veil- a common Sufi concept in which knowledge of the heart surpasses that of the intellect, and by going through personal, spiritual, struggles, will one reach the truth, and the veil covering the spiritual realms will be unveiled.

In تهافت الفلاسفة (Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ghazali denounced Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. He refuted Aristotelian logic and the Falasifa’s certainty of rational logic being superior to knowledge derived from the revelation was incorrect. In particular, he saw theology as a dead body of rituals, with men blindly believing certain things without really understanding why. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions Ghazali perpetuated was the idea that Intellect, and rationalism, have constraints on understanding many of the main philosophical questions within Islamic Philosophy, such as Creation and God’s attributes.

Ghazali’s honesty, and lack of fear for political or social retaliation of consequence is admirable, and is reminiscent of less fortunate philosophers and thinkers like Socrates and the Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. If we are to understand Islamic Philosophy within four groups- المعتزلة  (“Mu’tazila”), الأشعرية (Ash’arites), الْتَّصَوُّف (the Sufis) and those of أصول الفقه (Islamic Jurisprudence), Ghazali is not able to be easily classified into any one of these, as he explored them all throughout the course of his life. Many would classify him as a philosopher, a mystic, a theologian and a Muslim jurist. Various ideas of his fall under the Ash’rites predisposition of placing revelation over rationalization. Meanwhile, his spiritual journey led him to wholly follow the beliefs and ways of a Sufi, such as his emphasis on trust to attain absolute Truth, or, in other words, to be one with God. Ghazali began his journey as an al Kalaam, before going to the Philosophers, and then the Sufis.

 

An Anthropological Study of El Fishawy Cafe

Built in 1771 AD, and where Naguib Mahfouz, and many other famous socialites frequented much of their lives, El Fishawy Cafe is open 24/7, with people staying there through the night until morning, with smoke hanging from the mirrors and wafting from the ends of hookah pipes, coming out in bursts as laughter is, also, carried around. It is also known as the mirror cafe, as it is ordained with beautiful, old, mirrors, as well as chandeliers.

Groups of friends sit there, chatting merrily through the night, as do couples, lovers, and families. Unlike the nightlife of most of the developed Western world, it is not dominated by friend-oriented groups trooping to clubs or bars, but it holds groups of friends just as much as family with their children, lovers; all groups of people. We arrived at around 10PM and stayed until about 1AM, with little children no bigger than five years of age who’d be gazing around with their large, innocent eyes. Old, national, famous Egyptian songs would be played by various men with their various instruments – the oud, guitar, or just by strumming their fingers to a beat on the table tops, singing in groups or solo at tables, while the rest of the people listened. At one point, the entire cafe was singing and clapping along to an old Egyptian folk-song.

As the smoke of shisha wafts around, and trays of tea with mounds of sugar and mint leaves go around, I looked around- at the content, sun-kissed faces, and felt that this was truly a unique place. Perhaps an anthropological study would even be sufficient here, and no doubt would produce copious and interesting amounts of information. What are the norms in this cafe? If we see it as a meeting place of all sorts of people, what values and norms are suspended once you enter here, and which ones replace it?

It was an extremely chaotic place – with young boys coming through asking for money, or selling beads and the like, other slightly older boys would come through holding at least 15 books all piles up, carrying it with their hands linked underneath them and the books leaning on their chests, likewise trays of tea and hookah pipes would be swinging around by the very comfortable and obviously very-used-to-this waiters, with people dodging left and right. A waiter put down a drink on our table, and we mentioned to him this wasn’t ours and he said “I know.” After he was done fixing the fan on the wall behind us, he picked it up and swung off again to the drink’s destined table- and so, it was almost as if there was a new set of certain values and norms that had been set in place in this very place, with its mirrors, chandeliers, and laughter. Perhaps the study of human behavior in this segmented part of Egyptian social life could reflect certain values and ways-of-life of the Egyptian common man. There was some form of order to the chaos.

In this cafe, the people seemed drunk – but not on the alcohol that many Western societies drown themselves in after the sun disappears for the night, but on حياة (“haya”, Arabic for life), on friendship, on family. On hookah and sweetened mint tea, or drinks of رمان (“roman”, Arabic for pomegranate). A single policeman seemed to have been stationed there, in his smart, ironed-white uniform, and even he, had a lingering smile on his sun-kissed face, as he gazed around. One could sit there and let many hours slide by, just be observing the like. At least, that’s what I did. And so, this is a place of warmth, laughter, with its own customs and norms. One of the oldest cafes in el-Hussein area, one that has hosted kings, princes, movie stars, and the like.

As I was not able to capture a representative video that night, here is one on YouTube that captures much of the cafe’s essence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuGhtPvfWb0

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http://www.asherworldturns.com/cairo-bazaar-by-night/

 

 

 

We know Plato and Socrates, but who are Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd?

Islamic philosophy must be understood differently from the Greek philosophers. The Islamic philosophers, or المتكلمون (“speakers”), flourished during the Islamic Golden Age between the 9th and 13th centuries. They were influenced greatly by the Greek philosophers – employing the dialectic method (attempting to discover some form of truth by examining opposing statements on a subject), originally invented by Aristotle and infamously used by other Greek philosophers like Socrates – and also in examining similar topics, those within the subject of metaphysics. Some of the greatest thinkers within Islamic Philosophy are Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes). Unfortunately, in many Western classrooms on philosophy the chronological order begins with Greek philosophy and often entirely misses the Islamic philosophers. Today many discuss the relationship and compatibility between Islam and democracy, but also Islam and science. Here is a crucial movement that first began questioning things in Islam and is therefore necessary as a basis in understanding the background information to be able to coherently and aptly discuss relevant topics today, such as whether Islam is inherently incompatible with science (or democracy) – for the moment disregarding the problematic insinuations within the wording of these topics/questions.

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Islamic philosophy first began to flourish under Ma’mun’s rule during the Abbasid Caliphate, and under him the دار الحكمة (House of Wisdom) came to be, in Baghdad, as the capital of the caliphate was Baghdad then, during a time of open trade: a luxurious age witnessing massive trade in commerce, textiles, and a rise in knowledge centres where academics, scientists, philosophers, etc., would come and discuss certain matters that intrigued them. Their name depicts the method in which they examined these topics – orally, by using the dialectic method or by discussions, at the beginning and only later evolved to being written and recorded. The flourishing of this time led to the simultaneous increase in the translation of works, from Greek and Syriac to Arabic, which led to much original research in the Islamic world, and which aided in the influx of ideas from other cultures and languages into the Empire, as well as the flourishing in education. Under Al Ma’mun it was an open society that flourished, with a meeting of different religions, with those that converted to Islam having a different set of schemata.

There was also political conflict, which led to more thinking about certain topics related to human governance, such as- “who has the responsibility to command the good and bad?” For example, the Kharijites did not support Ali for arbitration, as they believed Ali should have fought. Political conflicts as such led to more discussions on questions like, “is he considered a sinner?” Therefore, both economical flourishment and political conflict led to the emergence of new thoughts through knowledge centres like the House of Wisdom. As the Abbasid empire grew, and experienced much more contact with surrounding people’s from differing backgrounds, cultures, etc., there was increased discussion on the Quran, and things that were considered normative for a Muslim (i.e. what is considered “good” and “bad”, or the aforementioned who has the responsibility to command the good and prevent the evil- us, or leave up to God?). Therefore, the questions the “Speakers” asked unique, despite discussing things mostly confined to faith, as they also pondered metaphysical questions (largely within the frame of Islam).

It was here المعتزلة (Mu’tazila), meaning “those that isolate”, indeed, isolated themselves from the the “speakers”. They were the “rational thinkers”, who placed reasoning as superior and above to the revelation, and were the main school of thought until 848 AD when a new caliphate (under Al-Mutawakkil) replaced Ma’Mun’s. Basra and Khufu became more important than Baghdad in thought due to the Mongol invasion of 1258 and the “Siege of Baghdad”. However, by this time, the Mu’tazilites had already spread beyond the Islamic empire, into lands including Persia and Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). The Mu’tazilites  were now considered heretical with the demise of their movement. In opposition was the الأشعرية‎ (Ash’arites) of Basra, who placed the revelation as superior and above reasoning. The Ash’arites still used the dialectic method, like the Mu’tazilites, however they insisted that reason was subordinate to revelation. These are the defenders, as they believed that because our intellect is created from God, therefore reasoning must not presuppose the revelation.

However, relatively speaking to أصول الفقه‎ (Islamic jurisprudence), both the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites were similar in that they both believed reasoning was necessary in answering, pondering and discussing these questions. The Islamic jurisprudence‎ diverged from the other two in their view of the extent to which this reasoning was to be used in relation to the revelation. The Islamic jurisprudence believed that reasoning had no place in these matters, and the revelation was the most important and only source necessary. Their process, known as اجتهاد (Ijtihad), involved the Quran acting as the primary text, then consultation of the Hadiths, then the scholars’ consensus, attempting to use analogies, before reaching a ruling (fatwa).

The fourth theological group, (the other three being المعتزلة, the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites and the Islamic Jurisprudence), are the mystical Sufis. This spiritual way of Islam focuses on the individual, and it is a practical way of reaching the Truth, in other words, God (everything else is a mirage). This attempt to reach One-ness requires the abandonment of materialism, through singing, dancing, chanting; Sufis put emphasis largely on personal experiences, and the idea of الذوق (taste). In this sense, the Sufis have their own language, and thus their own interpretations of the revelations. In contrast to the other three groups, the Sufis are not trying to reach the Lord through analyses but through practical means.

Regarding the topic of cosmology, the Mu’tazilites believed that God first created the atoms, and then He bestowed the attributes/characteristics upon them, therefore creation was able to differentiate. In this sense, the attributes are not static, and can change between states. Dirar Ibn Amr argued differently- he argued that although atoms were first created, and then with attributes bestowed upon them by the Lord, they did not change after this. According to, this is because if an atom has certain attributes, it cannot combine and thus cannot change its state. Al Nazzam and Abu Bark Al-Asamm argued the atoms as mathematical points. In line with this, then, they should be continually “indefinitely visible”, and then God bestowed the third dimension attributes- which is followed by combination and therefore changing states. The Mu’tazilites focused strongly on the topic God’s Unity, which includes and led to other questions – such as if the Quran is created or not.

If the Quran is created, that means there must be an end. This, then, leads to the discussion of God’s attributes. The Mu’tazilites believed that there is God’s Essence, and then there is God’s Attributes. The “Essence” (صفات الذات) cannot be separated from him, they argued, and this included knowledge, ability/power (قدره), life (حياه), and also existence. Therefore, these essences are identical to him, while the attributes (صفات الأفعال), are related to the acts and deeds (i.e. speaking, willing) He does, and so they have a time and place. Therefore, following this line of thought, they believed the Quran must be created, as speaking is an attribute that has a time and place. It must therefore be accidental, and also have a time and place.

The major issues discussed by these four theological groups were- the topic of Divine Will, توحيد (God’s Unity), the question of “who can commend the good and bad”, and “who will be a sinner?” The main discussion of the Mu’tazilites was God’s Unity, which they used to defend their faith against atheists. His attributes, according to them, are just different from us, so therefore even talking or comparing about his attributes makes one an atheist. This is supported by the aya (verses in the Quran) “God is unique/none is like him” which negates certain attributes are his to prove his One-ness. They believed the Quran is created, due to the aya “we have made in Arabic, the Quran” (italics mine). The word “made” is emphasised here because this means that it was created.

Personally, my beliefs and method of thinking would fall more along the lines of the Mu’tazilites, rather than the Al’asharites, as the defenders. The fact that they are defenders defines the epistemological issue I have with their perspective, in that they are aiming to defend the revelation first and foremost, whereas the Mu’tazilites do not have this “burden”, if you will, but rather can focus solely on pursuing the “unshakable Truth”. In this sense, the Al’asharites are therefore constrained in their ability to think, as all their lines of thought, ideas, discussions, must be based on and stem from the underlying assumption that the revelations are not to be questioned. After all, as Socrates famously quipped, “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”

The Boy Without a Future

Khan al-Khalili, a major historic center and one of the many beautiful aspects that collectively create what we know as Cairo. Located in Islamic Cairo, this سوق (pronounced “souq”; market in Arabic) is today largely focused on tourists, with overly repetitive mini pyramids, mini pharaonic gods, stores of chandeliers, stores of hookah’s, stores of papyrus paper posters, and so on. There are also stores with many lanterns, which is perhaps a more well-known characteristic of Khan al-Khalili. These have become almost iconic in its relation to Khan al-Khalili today.

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However, when Naguib Mahfouz published his book “Khan al-Khalili” in 1925 (and set in 1942), it was regarding how World War II was affecting the average citizen in Cairo, depicting the story of a young man from a middle class family, who had to move from a much more affluent neighborhood to the crammed, rowdy alleys of Khan al-Khalili under the belief they’d be safe from the bombs of the Germans due to the religious significance of the holy site and the mosque of Al-Husayn.

Living in Maadi, crammed with little alleys, children playing in the streets from 7 am-  disrupting what sleep I dreamt I could have – alongside the incessant honking of cars that does not cease to rest, I often think of Mahfouz’s “Khan al-Khalili”. Due to this, and because I had still not yet been to the actual area of Khan al-Khalili, I finally went.

As we were sitting in a cafe, enjoying some tea with mint and with too much sugar along with some hookah, a little boy came up to us, hands clad in سبحه (pronounced “sobhah”; prayer beads in Arabic), asking me if I wanted one in broken English. We decided to try teaching him how to say “please” because he was saying “bleeze.” He asked us how to say “do you want one” in English, and we taught him. Later on, we had switched cafes, after some roaming around and browsing the repetitive stores, and he appeared again. I was so delighted to see him I purchased a sobhah from him, and decidedly took a photo of him.

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He must have only been about 9 or 10, with golden-brown hair, and big, brown eyes. He was an adorable and polite child, and he most likely didn’t have a future in front of him. The streets of Cairo are largely cluttered with groups of young men, bored, restless; the economy is doing poorly (although Sisi is doing many things to improve it and tourism, crucial to the economy, is rapidly increasing, with Egypt experiencing a 35% increase in tourism in just 2017) and there is, unfortunately, a case of overwhelming supply and devastatingly little demand – many with the tools,  motivation, will, intellect, and education for certain jobs, but there are not enough jobs for them.

While I do not pretend to understand this little boy’s life in it’s entirety, I do understand the characteristics of his social class, and what this most likely entails – given the circumstances of the time and place. This little boy would most likely grow up and work blue collar jobs, taking in the dust of the streets, struggling to make ends meet, perhaps living a consistent life albeit in times of abnormal circumstances, such as if a caretaker passes away early or if there is a disease that plagues a member of his family or his own life that requires masses of medicinal bills, then he will struggle many of the days of his life.

But he is not one boy. He is the millions in Cairo. I wonder- does he know yet, that he most likely doesn’t have a future ahead of him?

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Alexandria, The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Cities are stories, telling tales of expansion, degradation, conflicts, riots, natural and man-made disasters, of leaders, of change, of persecuted people’s, of cultural, political, of socio-economic histories. Alexandria has many tales on her skin, that would take years to hear and understand wholly. Alexandria tells tales of the mixing and overtaking of different cultures, of fiercer leaders, of a deep well of culture, a trading center, and so much more. It reminded me of San Diego meets Santa Barbara meets Porto. But maybe this is because I make sense of things by drawing comparisons, as humans think and make sense of their world by drawing similarities and understandings. It is how we situate ourselves in the chaotic world, to give some order to the chaos.

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Pompey’s Pillar

I went to Alexandria on a little day trip with my SO, as they seem to be calling it nowadays. We started off in what was apparently the armpit of Alexandria – slummy, on the outskirts, poor roads, maybe not even working, and filled with potholes, etc. There we saw Pompey’s Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Pompey’s Pillar was as you would expect it – a tall pillar standing erect in the morning heat. Not very many tourists. The Catacombs, however, were much more interesting – there was a tragic backstory that we found out about from a guard who was stationed in the catacombs, 100 feet underground, who had become a sort of tourguide. Apparently a poor pottery maker fell down into the catacombs through a shaft with his donkey, dying on impact, and that’s how people found out about these catacombs that were used during the Greek period. After some research, I realise this may well be a folklore tale of myth, however, if so, it is a widespread one. The catacombs show the influence of multiple cultures of the 2nd century A.D. – Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.

We then had some hookah right by the sea. Ah yes, the sea part of Alexandria. The pace of life in Alexandria is exceedingly slow, but not in the same way as Cairo – which is a sort of slowness in the way that “we don’t care if you are here, we are a capital of a big, important country, and so we won’t be attentive or considerate to anyone else’ whereas the Alexandrian slowness was more of a “we live by the sea and we enjoy life here”. Quite c’est la vie-esque. We also dined at the Greek Club – filled with people from all walks of life, with fresh fish and the like and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. At night, families and children would all go into the sea, staying by the mouth of it, where dozens of plastic white chairs seemed to be almost stacked on top of each other.

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View from the Greek Club 

The Roman Ampitheatre and the Qait Fortbey didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps it was because both were closed, but also due to the amount of castles and ruins I have seen. Perhaps it was the lack of the story behind it that I got to know. We didn’t end up having time to see Montaza Palace, with its stretching gardens. No matter, next time.

I left the two most interesting parts of Alexandria until last – the cars/streets, and the Bibliotheca. We drove to Alexandria from Cairo and therefore had the car between each stop. At the end of the day, I was wondering if we should have taken the train there and hopped in cabs throughout the day from site to site. The traffic was the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. This is because Alexandria has recently experienced massive projects of expansion without consideration for how this would affect the congestion, traffic, housing, the local people’s, etc. The constant background hum of car’s honking in the streets reminded me of the chaotic streets in Shanghai. A few years ago, it was illegal for cars to honk in Alexandria. This struck me as particularly sad. Cars would often have to stop and wait for people to cross – this would happen maybe 5-6 times down one block. Parking was horrific, it was like in San Francisco. Anyone that has been to San Francisco in a car or tried to find parking there knows what this is like – almost impossible. We drove around 4 laps, doing u-turns, because we couldn’t find parking in any of the small streets in order to go walk by the quarry bay.

Finally, a young man had seen us desperately trying to squeeze our car in a space (only to find it didn’t fit, just as it had seemed, although desperation had taken over by this point hence the idiotic redundant attempt) and offered us to park on a slope, originally not meant for parking. There was a man who must have been about 100, holding a walking stick and the arm of a younger man who was chewing gum and had his earphones in, who were waiting patiently to cross a very narrow little street. We let him pass, only to have about 20 cars lining up behind us by the time the poor old man had passed. On the upside though, the abundance of interesting little old vintage cars was amazing. I’m not a car person myself, so I’m not able to name names but I could tell they were vintage, and “cool.” Some were pink, some old box-ish brownish red cars that you see in films like Greece. The buildings were colourful – many walls lightly pastel coloured, with trams plodding along slowly, countless people holding ice-creams in their hands, men sitting in big round wooden chairs on the pavements of cafes, one hand with tea, the other holding the pipe of a hookah.

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Hookah by the sea

Last, but not least, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It had the most beautiful architecture on the outside, and in the inside it was all modern, but still kept the qualities a library should have. Many libraries I’ve been to that have been modernised have lost the “library” feeling – with books not even seen in sight. This one was filled with lovely wooden walls, but with modernised tables and desktops. We stumbled across the Rare Books Collection room, with the help of a secretary who wrote us the number of a book (otherwise you couldn’t get in). On a whim, we said we’d like to see the oldest manuscript they had of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the influential physicians and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age for philosophy in the West and non-West and medicine across the world. We went into the absolutely freezing room and waited in a hushed silence for it. When we left, we saw rows and rows of digital archives in rooms that stretched on for what seemed like miles, alongside shelves and shelves of books, floor after floor. Standing there, it was overwhelming to think about the amount of knowledge compiled and unified together in that building. I strongly recommend visiting the Rare Books Collection for anyone going to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which used to the biggest library in the world – with much of it burned when the city was overtaken by different leaders and empires throughout the ages, including supposedly by Julius Caesar during his civil war. However it is often noted that historians may glorify and exaggerate, the extent to which the library has suffered destruction and fires.

So that was Alexandria. The second biggest city in Egypt. The old Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. The old cultural hub of the Mediterranean world.

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

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These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

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“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

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Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

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Egypt’s “McDonaldization”

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El-Moshir Tantawy Mosque in Cairo. Eloquently encapsulating religion’s meeting with modernity.

Those that waft between places gain the gift of being able to see the changes more clearly than those who are in that place everyday; the incremental changes steering clear from their attention. I want to focus on two points in this post, of things that are, by late 2018, quite prominent and relevant:

  1. China-Egypt Relations

It should be no news to many that China-Egypt relations have been improving and increasing in the past years. Sisi came back from China last week, to discuss the FOCAC cooperation (China-African cooperation). The bilateral partnership is being strengthened by many projects the Chinese fund in Egypt, including creating Chinese language schools in Cairo, the Northwest Suez Economic zone, indeed, the new capital of Egypt is being funded largely by China. From a more macro view, Africa-China economic relations is an increasingly beneficial relationship, with China often funding infrastructure projects in return for resources for their rapidly growing consumption.

Beyond the international relations, political discussion, culturally I have seen very interesting developments in regards to China-Egypt relations. However, the racism prevalent in both countries is both sky-high. As a biracial person with a Chinese mother, I have spent my middle school and high school years in Shanghai, and often return to see my mother. This last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I experienced horrible remarks regarding black people that I will not repeat here. In Egypt, I am constantly mistaken for Japanese (something that has never happened to me before). A cab driver once translated what he was trying to say (which was objectification) into Japanese and handed me his phone. I stared at the Japanese on his phone before stuttering out “I’m Chinese” in poor Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Political sensitivity, “PC culture” (Political Correctness) is not a luxury developing countries can afford. This is something that I believe developed countries should take into account. It almost seems as though once a country largely pulls itself out of masses of poverty and corruption, they forget the authenticity of humans – it becomes individualistic, the race to make the most money, get the best car, the best house, the most charming spouse, etc., seems to be the entire point of life. Not that I know what the point of life is, nor does anyone else for that matter, but I am as certain as I can be that that is not it.

In these developing countries, people are the most important. Human connection. Having clean water, some shelter, food, and health. In Egypt, bread is literally called “Aesh”, the word for “life”. This isn’t the case in the other Arab countries. Yet, paradoxically, developing countries like Egypt and China also experience higher rates of racism and oblivion to racial ideologies and thoughts. It is yin and yang- there must be a give and take for everything.

At the end of the day, I hope China-Egypt relations will continue to flourish and will not turn sour. I suppose China is Egypt’s new papasito, after Russia and the US. Let’s hope China will be a benevolent papasito.  I saw a few Chinese people walking near me yesterday in Ikea, precisely in the bedroom section (I knew they were Chinese because they were speaking Mandarin), and I thought, ah, they must be struggling with being in a country where they can’t speak the language. This, I’ll admit, was a presumptious thought on my part, because later on I saw them again, and one of them was yelling down the phone in rapid Arabic, with a strong Delta accent. I hope to see more of this, everywhere- one of the positive results of globalisation. Things brings me to my second point of focus.

2. “McDonaldization”

The second point of focus I’ve been pondering upon regarding Egypt today is its “McDonaldization”. Originally coined by sociologist George Ritzer, the term is rather self-explanatory, referring to the rapid spread of McDonaldization globally. However, more deeply, and more importantly, it refers to the homogenisation of cultures due to globalisation. Some would argue it isn’t the homogenisation of cultures, but the Westernisation of cultures. This is a point of contention many argue within academic circles and the public sphere. There has been, up until recently, largely a Westernisation of cultures. However I believe the rapid dispersion of things like China Town, Korea Town, Japan Town, and restaurants of all around the world popping up around the world might be showing a shift to the homogenisation of cultures. It is simply too early to say, although we must be aware of ideological simplifications, such as the clash of civilisations theory, or the theories of the Edward Said-ians (the “West vs the Rest” notion is oversimplified and arguably outdated in today’s post-modern society).

Being in Ikea, I forgot for those two, stressful hours, that I was still in Egypt. Indeed, being in the complex in New Cairo – Festival City Mall – surrounded by fast food restaurants, clothing stores like DeCathlon, Toys R Us, and TGIF (not to mention McDonald’s itself, KFC, Costa coffee, etc) – I could have been in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Shanghai.

If I were driving by in a car, it would just look like any of those cities, just with a few more covered women. Another experience I had that shows this “McDonaldization”, or homogenisation of cultures, or perhaps the intertwining of cultures, was the boy who took care of the camels in Giza, one of which I was riding, and who was wearing a galebeya* with a sports cap – this strange and awkward juxtaposition perfectly captures this sentiment. As more and more of these places pop up, completely derived from any cultural authenticity, perhaps this is creating a new culture – a global culture.

*traditional Egyptian dress wear.