Shibli Shumayyil: Old ‘New-Atheist’

30 Nov


Shibli Shumayyil

               When you are doing research (or at least when I am and I’m assuming it happens to other people) there are occasionally names which come up with alarming frequency and for no obvious reason. Recently the name Shibli Shumayyil has been everywhere I look. Admittedly it is hard to overlook a name like Shibli Shumayyil!

He appeared for instance, in a description of the launch party of Sulayman al-Bustani’s Iliad. He appeared in Tawfiq al-Hakim’s memoirs of his life in the theatre. Perhaps most bizarrely he appears with incredible regularity (though not much consistency) in the pages of the Ahram newspaper in early 1915. In over half of every issue from January and February there is a very small article which runs:

Doctor Shibli Shumayyil

Has moved house, and recovery clinic, to the Khedival property in Emad al-Din Street, building ‘C’ behind the Abbas Theatre. Appointments with the sick man are until 11 in the morning and until 5 in the afternoon.

This is all that it says and the wording never changes whenever it appears but I find it amazing that in a big national newspaper they devoted a repeating article to advertise meetings with a sick intellectual. He died two years later in 1917.

So I had to find out who Shibli Shumayyil was and here is the answer. He was a Syrian Christian who had moved to Cairo in the late 19th Century. He is considered by some to be the founder of Arab Secularism. Shumayyil coupled a deep commitment to Darwinism with a deep hatred of religion in the public sphere. Albert Hourani said of him that “He proclaim[ed] his doctrine with all the fervour of a convert and a revolutionary” and that, for him, “The religion of science was a declaration of war on older religions”.

Essentially he is the Richard Dawkins of the 19th century Arab world. This quote which I picked more or less at random from a late 19th century book by Shumayyil could as easily be said by Dawkins or any of the ‘new-atheists’:

“The origin of all creeds since the beginning of civilization has been the human imagination. It rose in man and went with him. It developed as he developed from the lowest [intellectual state] to the highest.”

One might think that this would have made him unpopular in the early 20th century Arab World. No doubt it did in some circles but it appears that he was quite widely respected even among those who thought he was wrong. The fact that his visiting hours appeared so frequently in the newspaper is surely a sign of this. I will close with a short translation from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Sijn al-‘umr which talks about public views of his atheism at the time:

               “Then my conversations with my friends turned from acting to discussions and debates about philosophical ideas and intellectual issues. This discussion did not yet touch on religious creeds or ‘what lies behind nature’ but rather it revolved around emotional issues. Nothing at that time used to shake our convictions or make us believe that any deep thinking could shake religious conviction.

In fact we had heard about a man at the time called “Shibli Shumayyil” who talked about Darwin, progress, the Origin of the Species and the fact that man came from monkeys. He even denied the existence of God. But society at that time had an amazing level of understanding and tolerance, perhaps influenced by its trust in the strength of his belief. People knew that Shibli Shumayyil was an atheist and that he proudly declared his atheism but no-one did anything but smile, laugh, or make a joke.

There was a joke at the time about him and the poet Hafiz Ibrahim:

He was watching a singer in a nightclub and next to him was “Shibli Shumayyil”, the atheist who did not believe in anything except nature. When the singer sang particularly well Hafiz Ibrahim cried out, with everyone else, ‘Allah’. Then he turned to Shibli Shumayyil and said “How can you cry out when God doesn’t exist for you? Are you going to shout “Nature… Nature?”

It was this light-hearted tolerance which made believers think that atheism wasn’t a serious thing. So when our thinking turned towards philosophy we didn’t even think it possible that our thoughts would turn towards and investigation of the existence of God.”


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