Soyinka, Mahfouz, Zuglool, and the hazards of critical scholarship in African Literature

“You seem upset about what is going to happen to him, not upset about what he has done to you,” Salmawy said, before Mahfouz replied: “They did this to our youth; they set them up and convinced them with extreme ideas and turned them into killers. I forgive him, but I can’t pardon him. It is not in my hands anymore.”  Mohammed Nagi, who stabbed Mahfouz, did it because he was ordered to kill him from the emir of his group, who told him that Mahfouz was an infidel. “I was amazed that Mahfouz forgave the man who stabbed him, so I decided I will go meet [the man] in prison and confront him. I was sure that will change his heart. I went to him and I told him, ‘Do you know he forgave you?’ But he answered saying that he doesn’t care and if there’s anything that he regrets it is not succeeding to kill Mahfouz as he was ordered, and he would do it again if he had the chance,” Salmawy said. “I asked him why. He said because he was an infidel and wrote his blasphemy in Awlad Haritna (Children of the Alley), which was not published in Egypt. I asked him, ‘Did you read it or read any work by Mahfouz?’ He answered, no but the emir told them so,” Salmawy added.

Aside the various assassination attempts, there were various other means of silencing or clamping down upon creative writers or literary critics.  Mahfouz grew up among numerous immensely talented young literary critics. The unbearable nature of the hazards of literary criticism probably accounted for the change of literary foci by many of them who later ventured into other areas of scholarship. For instance, Mustapha Abdur-Razzaq turned to Islamic philosophy, Adil Kamil, to the study of Law, and Sayyid Qutb to Islamic work and Qur’anic scholarship. In a generation that was probably a very close sequel to that of Taha Hussain, Mustapha Rafi’, Mahmoud Aqqad, literary critics were brazenly persecuted and horrendously suppressed.   Both Mahfouz and Adil wrote their first novels in 1943 and the works were subjected to criticism by Sayyid Qutb which left indelible marks in the consciousness of the readers. But political powers were  also deployed in the critical engagement between Aqqad and Rafi’, both of whom were, with Taha Hussain “the three Egyptian literary musketeers”. Aqqad was politically connected but did not employ those connections in his literary wars. However, his own political regime ended and Rafi’ became politically powerful. He did not hesitate to “crush” his literary foe so ruthlessly. Aqqad lost his job as a Visiting Lecturer. He lost his job as a columnist to a government news outlet. He was harassed left right and centre and was even banned from making public presentations. He was almost extinguished on account of the incapability of his literary adversaries to match his intellectual strength. But, what does this really imply for literary criticism in Nigeria of today especially with regard to the Arabic scholarship of Mustapha Zuglool of Nigeria?

Zuglool successfully introduced literary ingredients in the area of historical scholarship. This was an area pioneered by Kole Omotoso in his Just Before Dawn. Doyen of African History, J.K. Ade-Ajayi once remarked that “the fiction entitled Just Before Dawn produced by a literary writer was more insightful as history than the 12volumes of compilation of archival material without adequate historical analysis  and evaluation by the National Commission.”  This is the meeting point between critical historical scholarship and African Literature. Were it that Ade-Ajayi was familiar with Zuglool’s critical literary historical scholarship as demonstrated in his magnum opus, Azhar al-Ruba, he would have applauded him like Omotoso  who also had its roots in Arabic Literature and was in the earliest generation of Arabic students at the University of Ibadan -and a good number of them were Christians and brilliant scholars! Before his doctorate in Arabic Drama from Edinburgh in 1970, he too was once under the sledge hammer of the intolerant Yoruba-speaking academic Arabicists who wondered why a non-Muslim could be so committed to Arabic scholarship.  Frustrated and feeling unsafe and insecure, Omotoso the promising Arabicist left the University of Ibadan for the University of Ife (as it then was). Today,  against all odds and vicissitudes, he is a world-famous Professor of African Literature, domiciled in South Africa and a potential leader of the generation succeeding that of the trio of Achebe-Soyinka-Okigbo-J.P. Clark! As for Zuglool, his Azhar al-Ruba like Omotoso’s Just Before Dawn, was unprecedented in content, language, and imagery. This certainly did not go down well with many and there were stigmatizations and name-callings. There were bashings and derogatory remarks by even minor and substandard scholars with poor grasp of Arabic. He was practically demonized and almost rendered unpopular in the race-course of Arabic scholars. 


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Yet, there were critical comments by eminent Arabic scholars who were either his younger ones or contemporaries. It was reliably reported, and widely too, that a notable and revered Arabic scholar described the work as a verbatim copy of the thirteenth century Muhammad Bn Masani’s Azhar- al-Ruba. This, to me, was a literary assassination attempt on Zuglool!      It is premature to name here examples of such literary assassins. I found such a declaration ridiculous especially where an elderly scholar is involved. There also were undeserved tongue-lashings and vituperations by Arabic scholars of a particular ancestry, in their public lectures. One of them, a relatively young and active writer, made bold to produce an appreciable literary criticism of Zuglool’s Al-Azhar, but was later rattled and committed to the literary dustbin alongside his numerous collaborators, by one of the students of Zuglool. It almost became a “literary civil war” between two camps. On one side was a group of promising Arabic scholars who though inspired by the spirit of clannishness, were not really of a poor level Arabic literary knowledge and skills, and on the other, a one-man literary battalion constituted by a university-based academic researcher who is a multi-lingual creative writer. He devoured them all like a carnivorous beast! 

That Arabic literary “civil war” of the twenty-first century Yorubaland confirmed Tony Afejuku’s words that  “Critics of conscience are giving way to critics of ethnic (or sectional) value, critics who encourage and father commercialism”. It also confirmed his observation that “the meaningful call and avid promotion of an African aesthetic which earlier critics and writers such as JP Clark championed are now being controversially abused as JP Clark’s “…traditional” literature and criticism is now being bastardized as ethnic bigotry worshipped as useful criticism in several quarters where critics of this sort and mind speak of the works of authors and writers from their ethnic, regional and “national” groups as texts that must be studied and interpreted from the traditions and elements that inspired and produced them”. “A critic outside the ethnic tradition is censored disingenuously and disadvantageously to the extent that he or she is accused of using strange, foreign elements and criteria to judge, say, a Yoruba or Igbo imaginative literature”, Afejuku remarks.  This characterization is as true in Nigeria of literary criticism in English  as it is therein of Arabic literary criticism where Zuglool was, at different times, a participant and a victim. 

Accordingly, Zuglool’s one-man literary squad student   was declared “a literary heretic” and “intellectual eccentric” for daring tp provide a presumably unprecedented sacrilegious analysis and sanctimonious criticism of certain giant Arabic scholars, especially where scholars like his teacher and his grand teacher, Al-Iluriyy, were involved.  It is recalled that Al-Iluriyy was extensively and unapologetically critical of Al-Adabiyy. Yet only thrice was his own scholarship subjected to critical evaluation outside the university setting.  The most remarkable of these three was Braimah Bari’s Adwa’ ‘ala Kitab al-Islam al-Yawm wa gadan fi Naijiria, published in 1986.  Although there were about three rejoinders by his students including a joint booklet by a team of five Arabic scholars, the most engaging response was offered by Al-Iluriyy himself under the title Ashi ‘aat al-‘Uqul wa al-Nuqul, almost instantaneously. Yet Braimah Bari’s work proved to be a lacerative and deeply incisive critique of Al-Iluriyy.  Yet, in the same literary clime, Zuglool received more bashing than his critic student. Why can he not call him to order? Why has he been silent about the criticisms? Is he pleased that his own student is picking holes in his teacher’s scholarship? It was a tough time for Mustapha Zuglool, especially in view of his place in the larger literary ideological society involved. His experience in this regard was part of the hazards of literary criticism and he would have really loved to intervene decisively, if, if, and if only…But, that was never to be and what really transpired is a subject for another piece.

Saheed Ahmad Rufai (Ph.D) is Dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University.



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