SALAMAH MUSA (1887-1958)
A writer who was one of the most influential Egyptian intellectuals in modern Egypt. For half a century, he was known as a popularizer of ideas in the fields of evolution, socialism, and sociology of religion. He left an enduring impact on his generation, whom he awakened to the significance of social criticism.
Born to a Coptic family in a small village near the city of Zagazig (al-Zaqaziq) in the Sharqiyyah province in 1887, he received his primary and secondary education in local schools. In 1908 he began his higher education at first in Paris, where he attended courses in humanities, law, and literature at the University, and then in London, where he spent four years attending varied courses.
During that period, he joined the Fabian society, where he became acquainted with the ideas of evolution, socialism, and Russian literature. In 1912, he returned to Egypt and started a career of journalism by launching his first Egyptian weekly Al-Mustaqbal (The Future). In the 1920s, he edited a monthly periodical (Al- Hilal), and in November 1929, he inaugurated his own monthly journal entitled Al-Majallah al-Jadidah (The New Magazine), which he filled with his progressive ideas. In the meantime, he continued to publish a total of forty-six books and treatises of a novel character on issues of modernization and social change.
In his early youth, his writings betrayed an unreserved admiration for Western culture, in some instances bordering on extremism. In his first book, Muqadimmat al-Subarman, published in 1910, he recommended the sterilization of the mentally retarded and encouraged younger males to marry Europeans to improve the quality of their offspring. He objected to religious traditions as a potential source of change for improvement. To him, Eastern culture was defunct and could no longer be revived. Although his basic ideas remained unchanged in later years, he tended to become less provocative in the expression of his principles. However, he aimed at the establishment of a new language, new literature, and a new perspective of life and society.
Salamah Musa advocated religious tolerance and believed that the essence of all religions was the same. In fact, religions reflected human progress in the sense that a given religion always represented an advance on the ethical and social levels beyond the other religion preceding it. As a secularist, he was prone to reject all sorts of theocracies and firmly promoted the doctrine of separation of religion and state on the political scene.
Under the influence of Darwin and George Bernard Shaw, he espoused the doctrine of evolution, which dubbed religion with a tint of mysticism aimed principally at the creation of a happy world. According to him, there was no real difference between the prophets and the philosophers, and consequently, books of revelation became equivalent to important philosophical treatises such as Plato’s Republic and G. B. Shaw’s Superman or other works by Rousseau and Tolstoy.
Salamah Musa pleaded for a secular culture based on scientific and artistic achievements of human civilization. In his zeal for European culture, he wanted to see a new Arabic language and literature capable of expressing the real feelings and aspirations of modern Egyptians. In 1939, he went so far as to advance the idea of the Latinization of the Arabic script. The Latin alphabet, he believed, was easier to learn and would further bring Egypt within the pale of European thought and civilization. Symbolically the Egyptians would automatically begin to feel that they are part of the West and weaken their consciousness of being a part of a retrogressive African and Asiatic group of nations.
Turning to the field of economic relations, he became preoccupied with the problem of the underdevelopment of Egypt, ascribing this to the lack of democracy and freedom of thought as well as to the absence of socialist principles. Here he was influenced by Fabian thought, which aimed at the establishment of an egalitarian socialistic system of taxation and equal opportunities for all citizens. From the year 1930 onward he was further influenced by Marxist thought, though he was never an avowed communist.
In the realm of politics, Salamah Musa considered freedom of thought to be the real basis of a new renaissance. He ascribed all the evils of Eastern nations to the degraded status of women in society, taking the freedom of women and their total equality with men to be the keystone of progress in society. Women should have full political rights and also the right to work, which would inevitably increase the productivity of the whole country.
Salamah Musa’s views brought about a confrontation with the British occupation of Egypt. British colonists were participants in the preservation of an underdeveloped agricultural society and the rejection of industrial progress.
Salamah Musa was an innovative and controversial writer and thinker whose ideas constituted a serious challenge to the prevailing Egyptian system, sometimes exercising extremism. This led to his incarceration in 1946 as a communist enemy of the reigning monarchy.
- Abu Jaber, K. S. “Salamah Musa: Precursor of Arab Socialism.” Middle East Journal 20 (1966):196-206.
- Dessouki, A. E. H. “The Views of Salama Musa on Religion and Secularism.” Islam in the Modern Age 4 (1973):23-24.
- Egger, V. A Fabian in Egypt, Salamah Musa and the Rise of the Professional Classes in Egypt: 1900-1939. Lanham, 1986.
- Haim, S. “Salama Musa: An Appreciation of His Autobiography.” Die Welt des Islams 2 (1953):10-24.
- Hanna, S. A., and G. H. Gardner. “Salama Musa, 1887-1958—A Pioneer of Arab Socialism.” In Arab Socialism, A Documentary Survey, pp. 64-79. Leiden, 1969.
- Ibrahim, I. I. “Salamah Musa, An Essay in Cultural Alienation.” Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1979):346-57.
- Perlman, M. “The Education of Salama Musa”. Middle Eastern Affairs 2 (1951):279-85.
- Salamah Musa. The Education of Salama Musa, trans. L. O. Schuman. Leiden, 1961.
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