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Hasan Hanafi

The Classic Intellectual

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

Hasan Hanafi arrived in France in the middle of the Suez Crisis of 1956 with a bag of dry bread, a chunk of cheese, ten Egyptian pounds, and general dreams of returning home to Egypt as a philosopher and musician. For Hanafi, France was “the place of formation and the school for the beginners”1 Much of the biographical information in this chapter comes from an an autobiographical account that Hasan Hanafi included in one of his major works, al-din wa al-thawrah fi Masr, 1952–1981, vol. 6, al-usuliyyah al-islamiyyah (Cairo: Maktabah Madbuli, 1989), pp. 207–91. Because of the importance of nuances in parts of this work, Hanafi provided the authors with a personally prepared rough translation. We have done supplementary translation work for purposes of clarification of our understanding and also to provide specific quotations for this text. The reference to Hanafi's arrival to France is 6:226. where he was to explore the wide ranges of philosophy and establish foundations for his later work. When he returned to Egypt ten years later, he accepted a position in the faculty of the University of Cairo and became an important voice for articulating the new philosophical trends of the day.

Hanafi's position in Egyptian society is almost the pure example of the “intellectual” as defined in the scholarly literature. He did not create his own political organization, nor is he a direct leader in a political movement. His primary goal is to provide a reconstruction of the full range of Islamic thought as it relates to society and the world Islamic community. This would be the basis for a series of transformations of worldviews and social structures which would lead “from dogma to revolution,” establishing a proper relationship between “heritage and modernity.”2 These phrases are drawn from titles of books and addresses by Hanafi as well as his own self-descriptions in conversations about his goals. Such a position started with a strong critique of existing conditions and worked to develop a theology of revolution for Islam.

This mission placed Hanafi in the position of the intellectual critic of all existing power structures. However, his mode of operation was to speak and work publicly and “above ground” rather than to engage in secret revolutionary actions. He recognized that this shaped his work, and he defined his role in comparison with the leading revolutionary Islamic activist of his time, Sayyid Qutb: “I did not go to prison nor was my body tortured. If I had been imprisoned and tortured, I might have written ‘Signposts on the Road’ [the revolutionary tract written by Qutb while he was in prison in the early 1960s]. Instead, I continue to follow the path of the early Sayyid Qutb, who wrote Social Justice in Islam, The Struggle between Islam and Capitalism, and Islam and World Peace.3 Al-din, 6:208.

When Hanafi set out to provide a formal summary of his position in the early 1980s, he called it “the Islamic Left.”4 The most complete discussion by Hanafi of the Islamic Left appears in a journal he originated, only publishing one issue, which is widely known and cited. In it he worked to present the definition and positions of this mission: “Madha ya'ni al-yasar al-islami,” al-yasar al-islami 1 (1981): 5–48. He recognized that even the label would be controversial but noted the problems with any other label as well. The Islamic Left, in Hanafi's definition, was within the great tradition of modern Islamic reform, as a continuation of the Islamic project defined by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the late nineteenth century and extended by the work of Muhammad Abduh and the journal al-Manar. However, he saw the Islamic Left as going beyond that original project. Hanafi argued that the earlier tradition basically appealed to the elite rather than the whole of the Muslim community and that it idealistically emphasized the unity of Muslims within that community. In contrast, the Islamic Left “stresses the distinctions within the one Islamic community between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the oppressors and the oppressed.” The Islamic Left “speaks for the silent oppressed majority within the Muslim masses, supports the weak against the strong, considers people equal like the teeth of a comb, since no difference exists between Arab and Persian except in piety and doing good deeds.”5 “Madha,” p. 5.

Hanafi undertook this broadly conceived mission in the context of Egypt, and his life interacts with the great transformations taking place in his national homeland. Although Hanafi had important experiences both in the West and as a cosmopolitan public intellectual in the broader world of Islam, his identity remains rooted in his Egyptian homeland.

Notes:

1. Much of the biographical information in this chapter comes from an an autobiographical account that Hasan Hanafi included in one of his major works, al-din wa al-thawrah fi Masr, 1952–1981, vol. 6, al-usuliyyah al-islamiyyah (Cairo: Maktabah Madbuli, 1989), pp. 207–91. Because of the importance of nuances in parts of this work, Hanafi provided the authors with a personally prepared rough translation. We have done supplementary translation work for purposes of clarification of our understanding and also to provide specific quotations for this text. The reference to Hanafi's arrival to France is 6:226.

2. These phrases are drawn from titles of books and addresses by Hanafi as well as his own self-descriptions in conversations about his goals.

3. Al-din, 6:208.

4. The most complete discussion by Hanafi of the Islamic Left appears in a journal he originated, only publishing one issue, which is widely known and cited. In it he worked to present the definition and positions of this mission: “Madha ya'ni al-yasar al-islami,” al-yasar al-islami 1 (1981): 5–48.

5. “Madha,” p. 5.

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