The premier practitioner of academic critical thought in present day Egypt passed away. He departed too early, too prematurely, leaving behind a black hole in the hearts and minds of his admirers, students, colleagues, readers, friends and all critical intellectuals and free spirits in the Arab World and beyond. He certainly left an even bigger black hole at the heart of the currently depressed and depressing cultural, intellectual and academic Arab scene. We all mourn him and offer the warmest solace and sincerest condolences to his family and folks but above all to his admirable and grief-stricken wife Prof. Dr. Ebtehal Younes. As we all know, her endurance and determination during the couple’s ordeal were masterly and her fortitude and perseverance in the face of this grave loss remain exemplary.
Nasr is the very up to date descendant of the long line of courageous, bold, outspoken and critical Arab intellectuals, dating back to Qassim Amin from the end of the 19th century, who adopted and vehemently defended the most enlightened, progressive and advanced positions of their times on the major issues vexing Arab and Muslim societies to this very moment, such as progress, renewal, development, education, women’s emancipation, secularism, democracy, human rights, heritage, Islam, modernity, science, rationality and so on. It is certainly a sign of the times, so to speak, when in 1992, an academic committee at Cairo University, instead of rendering a judgment about Nasr’s promotion and scholarly publications, rendered an indictment accusing him of plain apostasy. As is well-known some of the Islamist Mullah-type professors hounded Nasr to the point of obtaining a court order forcibly divorcing him from his wife on the grounds that a Muslim woman may not marry an apostate. Of course, no one bothered to seek the opinion of the “woman” in all that.
In his ensuing Netherlands sojourn, Nasr sublimated the drama into a jem of a book and of a ryming title that ironically captures and exposes the tragi-comic condition that critical Arab thinkers find themselves in at present: “Al Tafkeer Fi Zaman Al-Takfeer” which when freely translated says: Trying to Think in the Age of Apostatizing. In his “Critique of Religious Discourse”, Nasr had already reached the telling and dramatic conclusion that there is no real or substantive difference between what is known as the moderate and mainstream Islamic discourses, on the one hand, and the so called extremist and violent Islamic discourses, on the other. And whatever differences exist between these two types of discourses are, in effect, only differences in degree and not in kind. This was sufficient to bring on him the blind wrath and animosity of Egypt’s Islamic institutions and forces, both moderate and immoderate.
As a Damascene, I am proud to say that Damascus was the first city in the Arab and Islamic Worlds to have the audacity of openly and publicly hosting Nasr Hamed Abou-Zeid on the slow trip back to his natural milieu and, eventually, to his city proper, Cairo. Nasr arrived in Damascus in May 1999, as the guest of Al-Mada Publishing House and of the Department of Philosophy at Damascus University, for a first face-to-face encounter with his Arab audiences, admirers, critics and readers. On that unusually hot spring evening, educated and semi-educated Damascus, cultured and semi-cultured Damascus, literally stormed the large hall where Nasr was lecturing. All monitor television sets had to be activated and loud speakers carried the proceedings out to the crowds congregating in the open air at the entrance to the Mezzeh Cultural Center. The encounter, discussions, dialogues, questions and answers went on for four intensive and illuminating hours. I had the honor of acting as master of ceremonies,moderator and interlocutor to Nasr Hamed Abou-Zeid on that unforgettable occasion. Actually, the whole affair remains to this day engraved in the collective cultural memory of Damascus.
Nasr dealt with the concept of “discourse” without inflating discourse to the point of everything becoming “discourse”. He dealt with the concept of the “text” and particularly religious texts, without either forgetting that there is a world outside the “text” or somehow dissolving all “reality” into texts that seem to endlessly engender more texts and nothing else. His hermeneutics, multiple interpretations and alternative readings of texts – both religious and otherwise – never led him to the nihilisms of “the end of all meaning” and of “the death of all authorial intent”. He certainly was worldly and serious enough not to be contaminated by the professional deformation that appears to prevent many from making sense of the world except in terms of rising and / or declining research programs.