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On Literature and Philosophy

On Literature and Philosophy



Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1988, Mahfouz’s novels brought Arabic literature to an international readership. Far fewer people, however, know his non-fiction works – a gap that this book will fill. Bringing together Mahfouz’s early non-fiction writings (mostly penned during the 1930s) which have never before been available in English, this volume offers a rare glimpse into the early development of the renowned author. In a series of essays Mahfouz discusses the origins of philosophy, its development and contributions to the history of thought. He also presents a series of essays on literature, discussing European writers, such as Anton Chekov, as well as some of his own Arab contemporaries, for example Taha Hussein. Beyond this he explores some important, contemporary issues of the day: science and modernity, the growing movement for women’s rights in the Arab world, and emerging ideologies, such as socialism. Together, these essays give us a clear picture of the changing landscape of Egypt during the 1930s, but also explains how Mahfouz’s views and ideas came to shape the nature of his literary output. In On Literature and Philosophy we find all the nuances of Mahfouz’ thoughts concern­ing Islam, tradition and faith as he engages with modernity and the secular influences of the West.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006) was the greatest Arab writer of the twentieth century. Born in the old Islamic Quarter of Cairo in 1911, he began writing when he was seventeen before entering university to study as a student of philosophy in 1930. He is the author of over thirty novels – including a number of masterpieces, such as The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley. In 1988 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rasheed El-Enany is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Doha Institute for Gradu­ate Studies, as well as Professor Emeritus of Modern Arabic Literature, University of Exeter. He has authored several books on Naguib Mahfouz, including Naguib Mahfouz. His Life and Times.

Aran Byrne is an Arabic language graduate of SOAS (University of London) and Oxford University. He was co-translator of Democracy Is the Answer by the best-selling Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany.



Translator’s Preface

The Demise of old beliefs and the Emergence of New ones

Women and Public Office

The Development of Philosophy in the Pre-Socratic Era

The Philosophy of Socrates

Plato and his Philosophy

Anton Chekhov (The Russian author)

Three of our Writers

Love and the Sexual impulse

Philosophy according to the Philosophers

What is the Meaning of Philosophy?

Psychology: its Trends and Methods, ancient and Modern

Animal Life and Psychology

The Senses and Sensory Perception


Theories of the Mind


Art and Culture

I have Read (Part 1)

I have Read (Part 2)

Of art and History

Concerning the book Artistic Imagery in the Qur’an


The Demise of Old Beliefs and the Emergence of New Ones1

According to gustave Le bon, the ancient civilisations were built on foundations of firm beliefs, regardless of whether these were religious or political. furthermore, these civilisations were strong and enduring precisely because the beliefs upon which they had been founded were deeply rooted in people’s minds. occupying such a central position, these beliefs were never questioned or exposed to criticism; this would have bred scepticism and doubt. They comprised errors and superstitions that were entirely irrational, but which, for the most part, gave reassurance to those who adopted them. however, if doubts ever did emerge concerning a given belief – that is, a conviction upon which the civilisation was based – then this would inevitably lead to that civilisation’s demise. indeed, this is precisely what we are witnessing today in our own era: those beliefs that have been held for generations have been gradually eroded and slowly ripped out from underneath us.

Man, in his nature, and by virtue of the religious feeling which fills his being, always seeks to believe in that which will give him faith and deliverance. it is for this reason that he can be seen to embrace social movements and adopt certain political views. he throws himself into his cause just as his forebears did before him in the cause of god or that of an emperor. however, with regard to these modern views and movements, none of them have yet become established within us like those of old; they have not left their mark upon the sacred religious character, which, when questioned or criticised, causes unbelief and a loss of faith. We are now living through an era in which beliefs and convictions that have long been held are disappearing and dying out, while other views and beliefs – which are not yet fully established – are replacing them. in this sense, this is an era of commotion and indecision like no other in history. There is commotion in the clash of ideas, there is struggle for a certain way of life, for the victory and establishment of a given doctrine, and there is indecision regarding acceptance of the various doctrines, many of which are in opposition to one another. The stronger doctrines seek to eradicate the weaker, declining ones. in this way, we see how as soon as a book promoting some doctrine appears, another one is published in response, mocking the former’s ideas and attacking it in the harshest manner, then, in no time at all, another one is authored which proposes a third, middle way between the other two opposing views, and so on.

There is no doubt that a stable civilisation and way of life, in which matters run their natural course, is preferable to this alarming commotion.  Nevertheless, i do not grieve the approaching demise of obsolete beliefs, nor do i call upon intellectuals to cease questioning and criticising them so that the sacredness and prestige of these beliefs might be preserved, just so that we might live calm and untroubled lives. i adopt this course because i hold the view that this commotion is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon which advances civilisation, just as i also believe it to be an expression of intellectual development – something that occurs from time to time and which gives us a true gauge of our progress. When old convictions become unpalatable, the intellect will destroy them. This occurs when rationality reaches a point where its criticism of these convictions necessarily occurs. in this case, consideration no longer enters into it and there no choice in the matter. it is as inevitable as the appearance of grey hair on a man’s head when he grows old. one cannot resist the movement toward renewal anymore than one can defy the laws of nature.

Furthermore, i am not pessimistic concerning the loss of faith in old beliefs, nor do i accept this will lead to the destruction of the world, as many pessimists claim. Rather, i view this process as nothing more than the renewal of the foundation, or the construction of a solid, new one. i would not rush in building this. instead, i believe that we should let time and evolution take their course: they are the agents that will realise what we dream of on our behalf, without us resorting to revolutions in order to win what we desire. indeed, revolutions may appear to force time forward, but in reality they cause nothing but destruction and disorder – consequences that serve only put us back to the start.

This cursory depiction of how our beliefs have been challenged helps us to explain, to some extent, the alarming developments that can also be seen to have taken place in literature. in the past, when the old beliefs prevailed and held sway over people feelings and existence – whether they were from the upper classes or the lower ones – the litterateurs, with their books and narratives, gave truer expression to those beliefs that influenced them. To be persuaded of this point, all one has to do skim through some of the weighty volumes that have been composed since the advent of islam which were written to explain the meaning of religious texts, or to compile the sayings of the prophet and interpret them. indeed, it would be enough to read the collected works of certain poets who concerned themselves solely with composing verse about the wisdom found in religion, with praising the prophet, and with extolling the divine.

As with religion, the same holds true of politics and society; many books and narratives have been written in support of a doctrine, to promote a certain principle, or to spread a claim. When the old beliefs began to perish, and when the light of the rational mind began to assert power over them, it laid bare their flaws and revealed their disgraces which had lived and taken root within people’s minds over the generations as though they were self-evident truths that were beyond dispute. When doubt came to replace faith, the writers were influenced by the change. Writers have been the greatest supporters and propagators of the new. They compose books which attack that which is outdated and try to bring about its demise, freeing us from enthrallment and enslavement to it. a result of this is that there are now many books and narratives which, when read, cause us to have doubts about the past, and the opinions and beliefs that used to be held. Many promote new ideologies such as socialism, internationalism, and others.

We should observe here how all of these new ideologies aspire to the achievement of global unity and an end to national divisions. in this sense they are in agreement with the old faiths, such as Christianity and islam. however, some of these new doctrines go further: they call for an end to class divisions.

Now, if i had to offer a prediction about which doctrine will triumph over the others, i would say, or rather, i should like to say, that it will be socialism. This is because its promises appeal to the hearts of the disaffected, the discontented, and the poor, who represent the vast majority of the world’s human population. furthermore, socialism is appealing because it seeks to remedy the tangible gap which has arisen due to scientific progress, and the emergence of new inventions and machines, and because it presents a middle way between two systems about which the religious complain: communism and individualism. from these two doctrines socialism has taken the good parts, and rejected the apparent defects, of each. beyond this, there are many other reasons why i am almost certain that the future belongs to socialism, but i am not presently concerned with exploring them further here.

I should mention, however, that the bliss promised by socialism is a worldly one: it pertains to this life, not to a hereafter. This is one reason that it might be unable fulfil its promises in their entirety. In this case, its most enthusiastic and active supporters will be defeated. however, we must also not forget that perfection in this world is an impossibility, and that, even if socialism can’t lead us to a state of bliss, after which there will be no more search, nevertheless, it can still improve the conditions in which we live. Socialism does not represent the conclusion and the cessation of social evolution; the aspiration for something better will always drive us to seek whatever might give us comfort and happiness.

On this topic i would like to say that, if the hope i have in socialism turns out to be misplaced, to a greater or lesser extent, then that does not mean that i would seek to retreat back to the prior, bad state – by which i mean the present one. Rather, any setback would cause my faith in change and evolution to increase, because it is only through this process that ideas and beliefs, such as socialism itself, come into being.

1 article from al-Majalla al-Jadida october 1930


‘At this time in the 21st century when reactionary and fundamentalist religious currents are forcefully asserting themselves wherever one looks, it is wonderful to read these essays on art and culture, on love, on democracy, on Umm Kulthum, on Philosophy, on psychology, written when the Arab world’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature was a young man, and showing that the humanity and depth of his literary oeuvre was part and parcel of his tolerant, open-minded and secularist world view.’

— Margaret Obank, Banipal, Summer 2016