"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

Religion in Kierkegaard

The one word which seems to recur most frequently when the topic of Søren Kierkegaard’s views on religion are discussed is “passion,” along, of course, with its cogates. In Antony Aumann’s paper “Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy,” for instance, he characterizes Kierkegaard’s view of Christianity as “a passionate and unconditional commitment to following Christ” (2009, p. 233). Similarly, Paul Tillich, in his History of Christian Thought, says of Kierkegaard’s understanding of religion that religion is that “which produces infinite passion” (1968, p. 466). For Kierkegaard, religion is, as is demonstrated by this frequent focus on passion by those who describe it, an intense and intensely personal thing and far more an activity, or a “doing,” than an idea, or a “believing.”


 In understanding what all of this means to Kierkegaard, perhaps the first notion that must be gotten rid of is the idea of religion as a set of ideas to which one assents. Aumann states plainly that “Kierkegaard rejects the idea that faith involves simply assenting to certain propositions” (2009, p. 233). It is the common conception that a religion, especially a dogmatic, creedal religion like Christianity, is a set of doctrines and practices and that one is an adherent of that religion if one gives mental assent to those doctrines and engages in those practices. Kierkegaard, however, rejects this understanding of religion altogether. To merely “believe” in the sense of simply agreeing, but not actually feeling the truth of, those doctrines is not enough. Nor is it enough even to engage in the religious practices of a given religious community as David West points, saying that Kierkegaard noted “the emptiness of merely external observances within the established church” (2010, p. 142). Real religion, according to Kierkegaard, must be an overwhelming and overwhelmingly inward experience. To merely “go through the motions” and not to engage passionately is insufficient to true religion.

True religion, according to Kierkegaard, is “an inward renewal, a return to the original purity and ferocity of Christianity” (West, 2010, p. 142). This concept of an “inward renewal” means that it must be something that is deeply and passionately felt, not just thought, nodded in assent to, or even understood. In fact, one need not even have a great understanding of the historical circumstances of Christ or the intricacies of Christian thought and theology to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word. Rather, what is required is an existential commitment to living out the commands of Christ.

The paradox in Kierkegaard’s thought on this matter is that one must simultaneously acknowledge that one will never be able to actually live out those commandments fully. To live the Christian life in this passionate and complete kind of way is, in fact, impossible. It is, however, one’s unwavering dedication to doing so that is important. In short, one must make the Christian way of life into one’s own way of life, one’s ultimate and driving goal being the complete attainment to it.

In addition, for Kierkegaard, this overarching commitment must not be contingent on reason. Kierkegaard rebelled, in addition, against those who attempted to find a solid foundation for evidence in favor of the Christian faith in the historical record surrounding the gospels as well. In fact, as reasonable notions, including all of the philosophical proofs, theological arguments, and historical evidences, are insufficient guides in making a decision for or against religion, reason not only should not but cannot be the cause of one’s commitment. On the contrary, one must make a “leap of faith” in his commitment to follow out the way of Christianity.

In making this leap of faith, one must in a sense “jump” beyond reason and any attempt at objectivity to a purely subjective, personal dedication. This jump is the only way to overcome the estrangement inherent in the human condition, or what Kierkegaard referred to as the “sickness unto death” (Tillich, 1968, p. 463). This “sickness unto death,” according to Kierkegaard, is a state that all men hold in common. It is the state of feeling and even really being guilty but, possibly, possessing no knowledge of what it is one is guilty of. Ultimately, says Kierkegaard, it is the inherent knowledge, even if somewhat vague and incomprehensible, that one is separated from God. The only way to overcome this separation is through the existential commitment everyone is called to in Christianity, and the only way to make this commitment is via a leap of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard’s view of religion as a passionate experience was seen by him as a way of overcoming both the insufficiency of evidence for religion and the estrangement that he saw as the only alternative to a life of faith. His views led him to reject both intellectual assent to a set of doctrines and the outward rituals of a religious community as insufficient to true religion. True religion, for Kierkegaard, is a personal and passionate commitment to and a constant engagement in obediently following out the commands of Christ, even when these commands seem impossible to fulfill. It is only in this way, according to Kierkegaard, that religion becomes meaningful.



References
 
Aumann, A. (2009). Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy. Continental Philosophy Review, 42, 221–248. doi:10.1007/s11007-009-9104-2


West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.