Nasr my teacher
Navid Kermani 17 August 2010

This article was originally published in German by Die Zeit (15 July 2010)

There are not many people – I notice after the death of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid – of whom we can say with certainty that our life would have taken a fundamentally different course without them. Most of those we mourn were always there or have shaped certain stages of our life; we associate them with our own daily life or decisive experiences. Perhaps, without realizing it, they happen to have pulled the switch setting our train on a new course. Abu Zaid placed me on a set of tracks. In my early twenties, I studied Arabic in Cairo and began to have an inkling of what the Koran is, or to begin with to have an inkling of what the Koran is not: that it is not a book or not only a book that one opens and reads to find guidance, understandable stories, or at any rate usable information.

Next to our apartment on tumultuous Opera Square in the middle of the city was a mosque, whose man-sized loudspeaker was mounted on my balcony. The mosque had a singer who often, and above all every day before the early morning prayer, i.e., practically at night, before sunrise, intoned the Koran at length. At first I woke up every time, was irritated or resolved to seek a new room, but gradually the Koran merged into my dreams and prepared for me, in my semiconscious state between sleep and wakefulness, what I will have to call a paradisiacal experience, as peaceful and enraptured as if on clouds. The mosque had a preacher who screeched every day at the highest possible pitch and with bloodcurdling drama from the same loudspeaker. Everything about Islam that made me uneasy or that I even found loathsome – aggression and the reduction of all of life to right and wrong, permitted and forbidden, heavenward or hellward – I associate with this voice, which kept me at odds with my room until the end of my year of study in Cairo.

Abu Zaid explained both to me, the singing and the screeching, and how they are connected. In the early 1990s, his book “The Concept of the Text” made the rounds among religiously interested intellectuals as a philological foundation for an enlightened science of the Koran. I saw a copy at my girlfriend’s and, still in her bed, began reading in it, although I could not yet read Arabic. With Abu Zaid, whose book I worked through page for page, I learned it, learned it so well that toward the end of my year of study I could dare to ask him for an interview.

I first entered the campus of the venerable Cairo University, with its huge palms and yellowish buildings in which – despite the overcrowding, the crumbling plaster, and the neglect into which the country seemed to have abandoned itself – the enthusiasm and curiosity of its founding period, Arabia’s departure into modernity, was still palpable. And I asked my way through the corridors and lecturers’ offices until I immediately recognized him among other, older colleagues: a short, at that time not quite so corpulent, smooth-shaven man with big, horn-rimmed glasses and short, kinky hair, a high forehead, and a broad mouth, a rural appearance among Cairo’s educated classes as I suspected and soon saw confirmed, grown up in a village in Lower Egypt, a half-orphan who knew the Koran by heart at the age of seven, and so forth, who had made a much longer journey than I had to arrive at Cairo University.

I had a tape recorder but no idea who might be interested in an interview with a Koran scholar whom, in the West, not even the Koran scholars knew. Perhaps I had it solely as an excuse or to make me seem important, and I placed it on a long conference table that almost filled the walk-through room with its bare, beige-gray, much-stained walls from which the paint peeled, of course, so that the chairs made of dark gray iron tubes with plastic seat cushions had been stacked on one side of the table so that people could pass through. I no longer know whether anyone passed through while I interviewed Abu Zaid, it is so long ago, almost exactly half my life ago; all I still know is that initially the room was full and I wondered how we could converse here in peace, and then it was completely empty, only Abu Zaid and I sat facing each other on two chairs, squeezed between the peeling wall and the conference table.

It was obvious that my questions pleased him; the Koran as an aesthetic event is in no way a familiar theme for Egyptian intellectuals for whom religion is only religion and no longer the melody of their daily life, or for whom religion is only religion and all melodies are the devil’s, and with them the entire tradition. Very far removed from each other, from the most disparate angles of view imaginable, we had both sensed the same thing – he before I, and he had already given it a philological name: God is beautiful. And very far removed from each other, from the most disparate angles of view imaginable, we feared the advance of the zealots – he before I, and he had already come into their sights.

When I returned to Germany, I had found the topic that reconciled me with my studies. Before Cairo and still for a long time after, I always wanted to work in theater and had been pushed into Oriental Studies as if into serf’s drudgery. With the mosque in my ear and Abu Zaid to open my eyes, I understood what task I and only I could carry out in Oriental Studies, after entering the discipline with the eyes of a theatergoer. Only I among all and especially all German Orientalists – so it seemed to me in what, it would turn out, was astonishingly little eccentricity – saw that the Koran wanted to be heard, experienced, and enjoyed, the way the mosque- goers next door and, all around, the taxi drivers, merchants, and tradesmen did, whom I asked why they pushed the word of God into their tape players instead of some music or other. Not because the message was so significant and the teachings so edifying, but because the Koran was so beautiful, they always answered.

But he, of all people, became one of the persecuted Muslims who make it to the front page of the New York Times; and our interview, which had interested no one, became an object of desire. He would merely have had to recite the profession of faith, as the attorneys urged him, two half-sentences, and the apostasy charges against him would have been dismissed. Abu Zaid refused to recognize apostasy as a punishable offense. At Bonn University, we founded a support committee with prominent members and events where we explained why Abu Zaid made a poor Salman Rushdie, who of course should not be killed either but was a completely different case. As I wrote in my first major article for a supraregional features page, Abu Zaid’s case showed that the conflict of cultures ran right through Islam. This sounds a little banal, but in 1993 in Germany it was definitely news and I propounded it with such verve that I was permitted to continue publishing articles, from which all kinds of things resulted, including my first book contract. Abu Zaid even played a role in my marriage, as my wife now reminds me: our eyes met in an advanced seminar while I presented my paper on his hermeneutics. I completed that presentation with much less verve.

I saw Abu Zaid again at the Cologne train station and the first thing I showed him was the Cathedral. Such a big church, and he had remained short, had grown even fatter due to distress or a glandular disease, and stood before the cathedral like someone from a Lower Egyptian village, not like a Koran scholar. At the events – especially when Muslims sat in the audience and proved their tolerance by not wanting to kill him – I experienced him as combative and sometimes irate. Away from the podiums, he was grateful for the affection he aroused in everyone, including our parents, neighbors, and fellow students, and he was undemanding, mixing the sauces of Persian rice dishes inappropriately, and, if time was pressing enough, eating even the last bite of the penne gorgonzola that can never have pleased his palette. When we visited a representative of the state or when he gave interviews, I stayed just far enough in the background to still always be there for him. Without being appointed or elected, I was the chairman, spokesman, and general secretary of the Nasr Abu Zaid support committee: my first public function and perhaps my most important one to this day.

I respected his learning, admired his courage, but above all I trusted him, trusted his pure heart, without, in the second half of my life so far, ever having to doubt his integrity even for a second – even though in life there are always seconds in which even those dearest to us arouse doubts. That he trusted me as well, like a son, as he said, was like a seal I could carry around to testify that I hadn’t become totally useless. Our story was only at its beginning; his wife Ibtihal Younes, Professor Ibtihal Younes, as he liked to emphasize, was so far only a name; the two of them were not yet in Dutch exile, where we wanted to visit them at least once each year. Still to come was also the book that contains a chapter of our story as it stood in 1998: for three or four days, Chérifa Magdi and I posed questions to him in the workroom of our apartment, which we had remodeled as a conference room and guest room. My daughter had just been born and often lay on her belly on my thigh while we recorded. Abu Zaid can testify that Neil Young helps against three-month colic.

He and Ibtihal could have had it so much easier if only he, like others, had come to an arrangement with circumstances; with two professors’ salaries, they could at least have had a mid-sized car and a vacation home on the Mediterranean, or with a second job in one of the Emirates easily a limousine and a villa. Instead, they drove every day in a compact from a satellite city an hour and a half away from Cairo, Ibtihal suddenly in panic because she was so slender and he so fat. What can I do, she called out, if someone shoots at you? I can throw myself in the way, but my body will cover only a strip of yours. On the other hand, you are so obese that your fat might stop the bullet. Then they laughed, related Abu Zaid in our remodeled workroom, and Chérifa and I laughed with him, as did my wife, whom we entertained at dinner with the most touching stories.

He, who had learned the Koran by heart already as a child and later conducted research on the Mu’tazilites, the mystics, the great rhetoricians, and the poetry of the Koran – he knew better what Islam was about than all those who persecuted him, defended him, or, in the West, appropriated him; and he clung to it while, in the name of this same Islam, the zealots called for his murder, forced his divorce from Ibtihal through three courts, and finally drove him out of the country. It seemed to me that he didn’t even have doubts. Without really understanding my question, he answered that, when the rug was pulled out from under him, he found strength precisely in prayer. No, he didn’t doubt his faith, but he doubted his country, which he loved as perhaps only someone can who began with the village Koran school, visited college-prep high school in a provincial city, moved to the capital to support his siblings as their older brother, and managed to become a professor at the venerable Cairo University, someone who knew his country from top to bottom and always regarded himself as its servant.

Religion – that was the scriptures, the Prophet, and the holy men, who were not to blame for what was done in their name. But the country – that was his fellow countrymen and colleagues, who resigned themselves to the circumstances, that was where one branded the other a heretic, not some terrorists or other, no, it was attorneys and high-ranking state officials who pressed divorce proceedings, the best-reputed journalists who branded him an enemy of Islam, often without ever having read a book by him, professors at the Al Azhar University who publicly called for his execution, a power structure that knew how to come to an arrangement with Islamists and the Americans at the same time but not with human rights. He felt deeply that his country had done him injustice and, as he said in our workroom, he didn’t want to return, even as a corpse, without being rehabilitated, by and through whomsoever.

A few weeks ago, after years, Chérifa was on our answering machine again and asked that we call her back. Already in sneakers and shorts, I was just about to go play tennis when I heard the message. The evil premonition that made me call back immediately was confirmed. Abu Zaid had returned to Egypt, not as a corpse, but unconscious from the virus he had caught in Indonesia. I didn’t know where else to go, so I went to play tennis anyway, and lost twice, 0:6. I was ready to fly after him, but Ibtihal said that, with this mind of inflammation, no one was allowed to visit him on the intensive care station, not even his siblings. I should have flown anyway and stayed just far enough in the background to still always be there for him.

I saw him for the last time – how shaming it is to note how long ago it was – at Christmas 2006, which we celebrated at my German mother-in-law’s, with a roast and a Christmas tree and all the works. Ibtihal was in Cairo, where she had taken up her lectures again so that she wouldn’t lose her pension rights as well. Besides, as he liked to underscore, she was, quite independently of him, Professor Ibtihal Younes and should remain it. As so often, he had been completely alone in Holland, in some suburb of Leiden, where he taught without any pension rights, living in a small apartment with Dutch furniture and, after decades in the most tumultuous of all cities, finally as tranquilly again as long ago in the village in Lower Egypt – thus he tried to paint his solitude in brighter colors, and he didn’t hesitate long when I invited him to Cologne. That is my last image of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid: the Koran scholar on the sofa in front of my mother-in-law’s Christmas tree, smiling gratefully.

And the singing and the screeching and how they are connected? For that there are the books – those of the master, those of the pupil, and the one they wrote together.

Translated by Mitch Cohen