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Revisiting Tāhā Husayn's Fī al-Shi'r al-Jāhilī and its sequel

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In 1926, Tāhā Husayn published Fī al-shi'r al-jāhilī, a book in which he analyzed the language and style of pre-Islamic poetry, and argued that some poems were written in the Islamic period. A few passages in the work questioning the historicity of the Qur'ān infuriated the religious establishment in Egypt. Accused of blasphemy and threatened to lose his professorship at the Egyptian University, Husayn was summoned before a court that charged and convicted him of apostasy and banned his book from circulation. A year later, he published a presumably softened version of the book under a different title, Fī al-adab al-jāhilī, and the clamor subsided. To date, intellectual historians of Egypt understand the second book as an attempt to appease the 'ulamā', and as part of a shift from western-inspired to Islamic-oriented scholarship that occurred among Egyptian intellectuals during the late 1920's. This article revisits Husayn's two books, and shows that Fī al-adab al-jāhilī was not a milder and slightly-amended version of the first book. Rather, it served as a platform for Husayn to reassert his message and get back at his rivals. Placed in the context of his scholarship at large, this article argues that Husayn remained a passionate advocate of western liberal ideas throughout his career.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton, NJ

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