The Saint’s Lamp: A Critique of the Liberal Experiment in Egypt (1940’s)

Yahya Haqqi, the author of The Saints Lamp and Other Stories, originally published in 1944, was an Egyptian who wrote a novella that can be interpreted as a symbolic criticism of the Liberal Experiment in Egypt that followed World War I and, a comparison-contrast of the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.[1] Haqqi presents the argument that the East and the West can and should be reconciled and he does this through his use of the less politically volatile examples of science and religion of an eye doctor in a small community, as oppose to political parties and Islamic religion at the level of the state and society. Furthermore, The Saint’s Lamp can be read as a criticism of the Liberal Experiment because Ismail, the protagonist of the story, struggles to reconcile the European education and values he brought back to Egypt after studying abroad with the Islamic traditions and values of his homeland.

It is difficult to place the exact time of the The Saint’s Lamp because many of the characteristics and patterns Haqqi notes existed in both the 19th and 20th Centuries, but the setting is not as important as its contextual meaning. It mentions that Ismail’s father, the narrator’s grandfather, moved to Cairo after the establishment of the Ministry of Public Works in the mid-late 19th Century, of trains and crowded ship yards, and mass migrations, which all point to a mid-20th Century setting. Thus, given the literary convention of utilizing similar events and symbols to provide commentary on contemporary circumstances, and given that The Saint’s Lamp was published in 1944, this suggests that Haqqi was critiquing the interwar period of Egypt wherein the Liberal Experiment was taking shape and both the Wafd Party (est. 1918-1924) and the Muslim Brotherhood (est. 1928) became primary actors in Egypt.[2]

The name of the protagonist, Ismail, is significant both because of its ties to Haqqi’s past and its relevance in 1944. Isma’il the Magnificent was a secular reformist in Egypt during the Tanzimat era of the mid-late 19th Century and his primary objective was the complete Europeanization of Egypt at the cost of subjugating Islamic traditions.[3] Similarly, Haqqi’s Ismail, after returning to Egypt from Europe to find it the victim of “ignorance, poverty, disease and age-long oppression,”[4] who saw Egyptians as a backward people who had forgotten their historical greatness, “was determined to deal to ignorance and superstition a mortal blow, even if that should cost him his life.”[5] However, the outcome of Isma’il the Magnificent’s reforms and infrastructural improvements led him to borrow substantial sums from foreign entities, then to a huge debt that led to the Urabi Revolt (1879-1882), and essentially to the British occupation of Egypt that utterly changed the state.[6] And Haqqi’s Ismail, returned to Egypt as an eye specialist to witness his mother treating his fiancé, Fatima’s diseased eyes in the (backward) traditional way with oil from the Saint, Umm Hashim’s Lamp.[7]  He exploded and revolted against both his family and the mosque that protected the lamp and was subsequently mauled by a mob for his revolt.[8] After which he decided to use the European method to fix her, but only succeeded in destroying her vision.[9] The name of the protagonist coupled with the historical relevance of Isma’il the Magnificent would potentially have had a resounding impact on the Egyptian people because it conveyed the conclusion Ismail draws; “There can be no science without faith,”[10] or more to the point that any Europeanization in Egypt without Islamic values guiding it was destined for failure. The name Ismail, had recent historical relevance that could have been seen to apply to the Liberal Experiment.

The prominent actor in Egypt in 1944 who exemplified the image of the destructive impact of Europeanization on Egyptian society is the Wafd Party. The leader of the Wafd Party, Sa’d Zaghlul, had a “European-style education” and the party was instrumental in the institution of an imported Western-style, secular democratic-parliamentary government, in 1924. [11] Because the Wafd Party championed the symbolic independence of Egypt the people voted them into office, but their support was short lived because they distanced themselves from the population by asserting that European civilization was superior to Egyptian civilization.[12] Reminiscent of Isma’il the Magnificent, the Wafd Party sought to supplant European Values for Islamic values, but instead of creating an independent and prosperous state, Egypt remained a pawn of Britain and furthered the divide between rich and poor. For these reasons, it seems probable that if Haqqi was a critiquing a contemporary actor, then it was the Wafd Party because they imported and set in juxtaposition the East and West as oppose to reconciling them.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a prominent actor in response to the secularization of the country, and operated on the premise that in order for there to be political and social regeneration Islam had to be restored.[13] However, for them that did not mean the dissolution of Western influence in Egypt, but rather, a fusion of the technological and scientific advancements of the West with Islamic values. Haqqi agreed with their assertion, as was evinced by the transition he brings Ismail through unto the point that “[h]e return[s] to his science and medicine, but this time fortified by faith,” who was not only successful in restoring Fatima’s eye sight, but in healing many others because “[h]e relied first upon God, and secondly on his learning and the skill of his hands.”[14] In stark contrast to the Wafd Party who is symbolized by the Ismail who is reminiscent of Isma’il the Magnificent; the Muslim Brotherhood is symbolized by the Ismail who reclaimed his traditional values. The Muslim Brotherhood advocated that God should be the director of Egypt’s development, while implementing what they thought was useful to their society from the West. Thus, it seems clear that Haqqi believed the Muslim Brotherhood would be the actor who would lead the Egyptian people to the future they sought and heal the nation.

The Saint’s Lamp shows that both religion and science have their purposes, and also that neither is sufficient for Egyptians alone, but rather, that they must be implemented together to achieve their greatest potential. Yet, Haqqi is also warning his fellow Egyptians that if they learn science and technical skills from Europeans, then they risk losing their faith and trust in Islam while being indoctrinated with European values. However, the significance of the The Saint’s Lamp, or rather, Islamic values for Haqqi, is that they provide an understanding, which allows the Egyptian people to perceive how to successfully employ and reconcile science with religion, and further to reconcile government with the goals of an Egyptian society while maintaining those values.

[1] Yahya Haqqi, “The Saint’s Lamp” (1944, English trans. 1973), 1-38.

[2] Cleveland, William L., and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 180-185.

[3] Cleveland, 88.

[4] Yahya Haqqi, 22.

[5] Yahya Haqqi, 27.

[6] Cleveland, 88-93.

[7] Yahya Haqqi, 25.

[8] Yahya Haqqi, 26-30.

[9] Yahya Haqqi, 31-32.

[10] Yahya Haqqi, 36.

[11] Cleveland, 180-182.

[12] Cleveland, 184.

[13] Cleveland, 185.

[14] Yahya Haqqi, 37.


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