Motaz Atalla

Thoughts Before and Beyond Activism


Most Egyptians of my generation grew up knowing about activism, through stories of both the men and women who helped shape the country’s modern history and through the accounts of friends and relatives who’d dabbled in politics. More recently, with the ‘re-politicization’ of Egyptian youth (with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, the American-led invasion of Iraq and the increasing brutality of the now twenty-six year-old ruling Hosni Mubarak regime), activism has resumed its place in daily conversations. Many of my own friends are card-carrying activists, present at every street protest and sit in, and sometimes I join them. But despite having been invested in social justice issues since I was a teenager, I was never really interested in activism as such, and I’m coming to understand why.


It surprised me recently to hear one very articulate leftist critic of the current regime’s privatization schemes coolly respond to criticisms of state-owned industry by saying that he’d never said the state was any better and that the real problem was that there weren’t any alternatives in sight. This brought to light what I had sensed for some time, namely, that the vast majority of activists did not have a frame of reference beyond the confines of the modern nation state paradigm, with all its technological and institutional trappings. I had been fortunate over the years to come across enough profound and penetrating critique of this paradigm (Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Heidegger, Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault, Seyyed Hosein Nasr, Paul Virilio, among others) that I easily saw it as one possible framework among others. I believe this was one reason behind my lack of interest in the sort of activism I saw around me.


Another reason behind my ambivalence was the absence of contemporary activists whose personalities really inspired me, however incisive I found many of them to be. Their various partisan frameworks always struck me as too exclusionary and somehow unbalanced. Activists in Egypt can roughly be divided into two groups, secular vs. religious (Islamist). The seculars, while divided into leftist and neo-liberal, share a common contempt for the encroachment of religious fanaticism into public life. They argue capitalism versus communism and while some hold outright that religion is an artifact of humanity’s moral and intellectual infancy, many are themselves observant practitioners of a faith – the common general sentiment being that religion and politics should be separate. Given what we have seen of so-called ‘political Islam’, both in Egypt and worldwide, it is not hard to see why such views have their adherents. That said, I have personally never found these distinctions between secular and religious reflected in my life as I live it. Instead, these distinctions seemed to reflect that same two century-old Eurocentric nation-state discourse.


Religious activists, on the other hand, see society as being ‘too secular’ and their solution has generally been for people to do more, promoting the religion (and here I speak of Islam) as a set of rules and actions required for entry into paradise. Like many others, I found this deeds-oriented understanding of faith rather dry, and far less profound than the Islam practiced by regular people like my grandmother, for example, who intuitively understood Islam to be, as Abd al-Hakim Murad puts it, “a package of social, intellectual, and spiritual technology whose purpose is to cleanse the human heart.” This means that being Muslim does not simply entail doing certain things and abstaining from others, but also attaining particular virtues or states of the heart. In his essay “Islamic spirituality: The Forgotten Revolution”, Murad alerts us to the dangers of this reactionary, ‘politicized’ activist interpretation of Islam that has grown over the past century and half. He explains that it is this very distilling of the question of being (of how to be) from Islam that allows for such monstrous transgressions as the events of 9/11 and other instances of the taking of innocent life, which he describes ironically as being “the hallmark of the most extreme and secular utilitarian ethic”. I’ve found it very easy to not be inspired by any of the self-titled ‘Islamic activists’ or proponents of ‘Islamism’ I have known.


I understand ‘activism’ to mean resisting injustice and engaging critically with the world, and while I salute and continue to support the myriad micro-struggles against tyranny in Egypt and elsewhere, my gaze seeks to settle somewhere beyond the street protests, blogs, petitions and courtrooms that have become the arena of much contemporary activism. While I can’t imagine how someone could disagree with the claim that everything is political, I can somehow understand that there is a discrete realm we call politics, and that there are those who consciously engage it (activists) and those who don’t. I think this confused state of affairs is partly a crisis of names, names whose very existence helps lend credence to categories that are quasi-fictional. Politics, activism, the religious, the secular — these categories frame one’s reality as much as they reflect it. I believe that looking beneath and beyond them is central to the healing and regeneration processes required in today’s world.


As an Egyptian I try to do this primarily by seeking positive, new understandings of what it might mean to be Egyptian and of what I share with other Egyptians, in an attempt to shake off, for myself at least, some of the constructions with which, over the past century and half, we have been engineered into a very particular sort of nation. I try to tell the stories of an Egypt I find more inspiring than the one we’re often told (by the media, history teachers and even each other).


It is more as a Muslim, though, than as an Egyptian that I speak here of revisiting the notion of activism. I cannot say what activism means to me as a Muslim (my life does not provide the general answers for such general questions) but I can say that it is as a Muslim that I’ve been most inspired to conceive of critical engagement in new and more meaningful ways. I will refer here one source of inspiration, the life of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, who passed away in Damascus, Syria in June 2004.


In Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman’s obituary, written by Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, who spent 22 years with him, we read of a man who was both thoroughly engaged with this world and profoundly aloof from it. An orphan, he had come to Damascus when he was very young,

“working as a stableboy, then as an errand boy, then as a weaver, then as a foreman, then as a supervisor of textile mills. When the textile industry was nationalized under socialism, he was but two years away from retiring and receiving his pension, and was now asked to head the industry. He told the government that ‘nationalization is theft’, and he would have nothing to do with it, for which he was fired and forfeited his pension.”


Having never attended school, he taught himself to read and write. Encouraged by a fellow weaver who heard him “sing his own rustic religious compositions to popular tunes, keeping time to the loom he worked at,” he studied Classical Arabic under a sheikh who also taught him Arabic grammar and the jurisprudence of the Shafi’i school. He went on to study other traditional subjects, and in his late twenties joined the Shadhili Sufi order, in which he then became a Murshid (spiritual guide). It is important to note here that Sufism is not a sect, it is the name given to that traditional Islamic science that concerns the states of the heart and the methods with which to cleanse it (TJW).


After leaving his job as supervisor in the textile mills, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman worked as a teacher of tenets of faith at a religious academy, which he continued to do until he was no longer able to walk to work. In keeping with the teachings of Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili, to whose order he belonged, the Sheikh would stress the importance of having a craft with which to earn a living by one’s hands. He was also a labor activist, serving both on the committee that led the Syrian Textile Workers’ Union on a forty-day strike for workmen’s compensation, and representing Syria in the United Arab Worker’s Union. A gifted vocalist, he was also a lead singer at public dhikr (remembrance) ceremonies and throughout his life produced a formidable volume of poetry, for which he received considerable formal recognition throughout the Muslim Umma.


Sheikh Abd al-Rahman was an accomplished mystic, a spiritual guide, a teacher, worker, labor leader, vocalist and poet, a husband and a father of five daughters and five sons. He defended the interests of fellow workers and when matters took a turn with which he disagreed he did not consider changing the system from within, deciding that the best way to deal with the fault at its core was through renunciation rather than negotiation and compromise. He was scholar who had lived by the work of his hands. He attended no formal learning institutions, his legitimacy was based instead on the unbroken silsila (chain) linking him through scholars and spiritual teachers back to the early Muslims and to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I am most inspired by Sheikh Abd al-Rahman as an exemplar of spiritual refinement and my appreciation for his various other roles proceeds from that. For to me his life, while rich and varied, does not seem to have been a ‘busy’ one, even though it would seem that doing all the things he did would leave one exhausted and in a constant rush. As Muslims we consider such a life to have been made possible primarily by God’s blessings. And in such a life we see the possible fullness and depth with which we can engage all that is of significance in our lives (internally and externally) if freed from the distractions that clutter contemporary life.


I do not conceive of spiritual practice as serving activism or even supporting it (even though I believe it can do so), because that would be missing its point. Instead I look to the life of Sheikh Abd al-Rahman and see the blurring of such a distinction, demonstrating instead the outward manifestations of integrity and engagement as being part of, if not incidental to the deeper forces that move spiritual seekers.


The five short prayers of every day provide us with an opportunity for reviving our connection (the root of the word salaat, prayer, is to connect) with Allah who is absolute,   and for realigning ourselves and providing a respite from this world which we consider transient and contingent. There is nothing I can say that would do justice to the matter of prayer, but I mention it here because I have found it, as have many of my friends, to provide perspective, in ways that undercut many of the afflictions of this era. Each prayer requires that one drop everything for it, a seeming hassle at first, but really a path to cultivating freedom from fixation on time and one’s tasks. Our prayers include supplications, in which we request God’s mercy and blessings and assistance in our lives. In our requests we seek sincerity, and the power of this sincerity is partly that it helps clarifies the roots of those fears and desires that bind our hearts to this lesser world, many of which are inflamed and construed by the pace of contemporary life and its barrage of distractions like television and advertising. These are horizontal aspects of prayer, meaning they concern this world, and they are incidental to prayer. While it can benefit us in worldly ways, it is not a self-help exercise but an act of worshipping God, in which there is inherent value. And it is only by God’s blessings, Muslims believe, that a thing we do may benefit us at all.


I don’t really consider myself an activist and I certainly don’t feel like I have particularly clear answers, as a Muslim or otherwise, for the crises facing today’s world. Rather, learning about the systemic roots of these crises inspires in me questions that I continually share with those in my community locally and internationally. Here are questions that interest me particularly as a Muslim and an Egyptian:


The traditional Islamic concept of wealth involves the automatic assignment of a portion of one’s possessions, belongings or goods to those who might need it. A person’s value is also not to be determined by his wealth (indeed, if there is a link then wealth is seen as more of burden than a blessing). Given this framework, along with the traditional institution of endowments, how might Muslims engage the systems by which poverty is manufactured in the contemporary era? Does it suffice to simply redistribute wealth that has been created through systems that concentrate more and more of the resources required for basic sustenance in the hands of the few?


How do we realize our duty towards other created beings in a time of such environmental degradation? Do the questionable practices and systemic implications of meat production in many Muslim societies not require that we rethink our consumption patterns? In what ways did Muslim ‘scientists’ throughout history conceive of nature and rationality? How do the implications of traditional scientific inquiry differ from those of contemporary science?


What alternatives to factory-schooling can our traditions help us generate? Is it not important to interrogate the co-option of traditional learning systems into modern Eurocentric institutional forms (like the Al-Azhar schools in Egypt)? There was a time when mosques were not only for worship but also dialogue, collective inquiry and the exploration of new ideas. How can we revive such spaces and encourage traditional modes of participation in questions over which various legitimate and illegitimate experts argue?


Sheikh Nuh recounts an anecdote in Sheikh Abd al-Rahman’s obituary. May we come to engage our lives he did, with such grace in matters in big and small.

“I watched for a moment as he stopped to buy some apples from a cart in front of the mosque. He took the bag from the seller and filled it with the worst apples he could find—nicked, bruised and worm-holed—which he chose as carefully as most people choose good ones, then paid for them and with a smile shook hands before we went up the hill to the sheikh’s home… When I reflected on his strange ‘shopping’, I realized that it had been to save the apple man from having to throw any out.”




“Shaykh ‘Abd Al al Rahman al Shaghouri: Light Upon Light in Damascus” by Nuh Ha Mim Keller ISLAMICA Magazine

“Islamic Spirituality: The Forgotten Revolution” by Abd al-Hakim Murad <>