The Narrative of Isa Ibn Hisham or A Period of Time by Muhammad Muwaylihi which was first serialized and then published in book form in 1907 is often one of the texts referred to when it comes to the origins of the Arabic novel because of its narrative quality and (semi)realism when it comes to depicting society, although the demands of serialization gives it an episodic disjointedness.
However, the influence of the maqama and medieval Arabic style on the narrative means it is set apart from “the Niqula Haddads, the Zaynab Fawwazes and the various Arab Grub Street writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” As Samah Selim notes:
Orientalist literary history keeps them as interesting examples of the native cultures’ sincere efforts to reproduce the greatest of European literary forms. Since orientalism always positions modern Arabic/Islamic culture within a Eurocentric teleology, these texts are important because they belong to an intermediate stage in the development of the novel in Arabic.
Muhammad’s father, Ibrahim Muwaylihi was a private secretary of the Khedive Ismail, and wrote several works including Ma Hunalik (What There is), translated as Spies, Scandals and Sultans, as well as Mir’at al-Alam aw Hadith Musa ibn Isam (Mirror of the World or Narrative of Musa Ibn Isam), which was serialized in Masbah Al-Sharq in 1899. His complete works have been collected in one book.
Ibrahim Muwaylihi’s Mirat al Alam imitates the maqama but it is more obviously a copy than the modified maqamas of Ibrahim’s son, who wrote Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham aw Fatra min al Zaman (The Narrative of Isa Ibn Hisham or A Time Period), its narrator having the same name as the narrator of Hamadani’s maqamat.
The differences in the title is interesting, in that the son’s narrative promises to tell us about a “time period” rather than encapsulate the world, promising a narrative which attempts to address the problems in Egyptian society. As Roger Allen notes “the principal purpose behind Fatra min al Zaman was to enable him to discuss issues of current interest through the characters in his story and to reflect the editorial policy of his newspaper on various subjects.”
So why employ the traditional maqama and give it modern content? Selim asks:
What exactly is a narrative fiction like Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s Hadith ‘Isa Ibn Hisham? If it is neither a “novel” nor a maqamah, then what is it? What are the formal criteria being used to make these judgments and from whence do they derive?
In The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, Matti Moosa notes that Muwaylihi was “a conservative by education and social upbringing in but liberal in thought” and so:
must have found it quite difficult to produce a modernized fictional world which would not enrage the Muslim conservative element but would at the same time not dissatisfy the modernists. He therefore chose to present liberal ideas in the rigid form of the maqama. The result was an interesting fictional narrative which was neither a medieval tale nor a full-fledged modern story.
There is at the beginning of each part in Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham an elaborate passage in rhymed prose (saj’) describing the place, setting the scene, before the narrative begins with a more natural prose, with the dialogue in particular often described as less artificial, often ranging across topics.
The maqama traditionally focuses on one event or story. Al Maqama al Dimashqiya (The Damascus Maqama) by Hariri for example, tells of a story where the rogue Abu Zaid pretends to be a pious guide and makes a group of pilgrims learn a very long prayer. Once they arrive at their destination however, the narrator finds Abu Zaid drinking and carousing merrily.
Hariri has two main characters “a roguish and peripatetic hero, Abu Zayd from Saruj, a town in northern Syria, as told by al-Harith, a sober and slightly gullible merchant travelling from place to place.” Muwaylihi’s narrative however as a social satire of life in Egypt is slightly wider in scope, with a cast of three or four main characters and a multitude of others. Ali al-Ra’i compares it to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in terms of the “painful yet humorous contrast between the world perceived by Don Quixote and that perceived by his society” which allows satirical commentary. The same contrast exists between the encounter of old and new in Ahmad Pasha as a resurrected figure set anachronistically in a modern society – although Egyptian scholar Ghali Shukri disagrees with al-Ra’i’s comparison, and sees as an anxiety to link Arab literature with “the classics” – Western classics, that is.
Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham begins with the tradition “Isa Ibn Hisham related to us” and then launches into a narrative where Isa is at a cemetery, pondering mortality and history and life and death. Suddenly, a figure appears out of the grave. The resurrected figure turns out to be Muhammad Ali’s minister Ahmad Pasha al-Manikli, and addresses Isa in a mixture of Turkish and Arabic.
The reborn Ahmad Pasha is dismayed by the changes in society, encountering various problems as he attempts to adapt, and searching for his property and descendents only to find that the only surviving relative has squandered it all. Of course, this device of the resurrected pasha from the previous era allows the narrator to express what he feels through the use of contrast about the changes in society and government in Egypt. Ahmad Pasha represents the old values of Egypt, while Isa explains the changes as a result of influence in Europe. But although they are symbolic, they are not entirely stock figures, Ahmad Pasha for example develops from his initial resistance to change and his arrogance, to a more accepting tolerance.
The narrator criticizes bourgeois characters such as the lawyer and physician but does not advocate any break away from a class which is depicted as more progressive than others, seeing in the middle class the hope for the future even as it struggles under the history of Turkish aristocracy and British imperialism. Similarly the jurists are criticized for their rigidity, but there is no call to abolish religious courts. Instead, there is a call for the reform of the courts and the establishment of civil courts to counterbalance them.
The narrative doesn’t remain in Egypt however. The first journey represent Egyptian society, but there is also the journey abroad, which attempts to look at the European impact on Egypt, following the model of other narratives which describe Europe for an Arab readership – Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi’s Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz (The Quintessence of Paris) or Faris Shidyaq’s Al Saq ‘ala al-Saq fi ma huwa al-Faryaq, with its untranslatable title, or Ali Mubarak’s Alaam al-Din (Mubarak also wrote the Khitat, which Jamal Ghitani references in his own Khitat, Khitat al-Ghitani.)
Al Muwaylihi himself went to Europe after the Muwaylihis lost their position due to supporting Urabi’s 1882 revolution. However, unlike many of the self-orientalising narratives of many of his predecessors, who saw civilization in Europe and backwardness in their own society, Muwaylihi casts a critical, analytical eye on both Cairo and Paris.
The three Egyptians – the pasha, Isa himself, and another character identified as a friend – each have an attitude. The pasha is the defender of tradition, amazed by many things, and repulsed by many things, Isa is the scene-setter and the admirer of Europe, and the friend is a hypercritical modern intellectual. The three wander around Paris, (a place where even the wise Luqman would find himself not so wise) until they decide they need a guide. They come across three Frenchmen – a writer, a businessman, and a philosopher. The writer and businessman are both enthusiastic about the notion of the civilizing mission, eager to export words and products to the non-Western world. The philosopher, who turns out to be an Orientalist, is less enthusiastic, explaining that China has an older civilization than France, and might not want to be “civilized”, citing the Boxer rebellion against Christian evangelism and Western imperialism.
The three Egyptians join up with the philosopher as their guide and the four visit the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. The pasha disapproves of such things as ballet and other forms of art, and then in a section entitled Al-iftira’ ala al-watan (slandering the homeland) they visit the Egyptian exhibition, where they encounter a bellydancer, a kutab (Quran school) complete with Egyptian boys and a teacher rapping their heads, as well as Syrian Maronites making a living writing out verses from the Quran, and putting on a pretend Egyptian “authentic Egyptian” wedding procession. The three Egyptians leave in disgust.
This might be compared to Ali Mubarak’s Alam Al-Din, which is entirely set in Europe and is intent to instruct the reader in a “superior civilization” with all the civilizing mission that implies, and other similar texts at the time: the translation by Ahmad Fathi Zaghloul of a book by a French author entitled “The Secret of the Achievements of the English Anglo-Saxons,” to which as a response the book “Contemporary Egyptian reality or The Reason for its Backwardness” appeared in 1902 by Mohamed Amr, who some suggest might have been a pen-name for Muhammad Muwaylihi.
In Muwaylihi’s narrative, the Egyptian visitors feel they should not to imitate everything about Western civilization, but to pick the good parts and forget the bad. When the friend asks the philosopher his opinion, he says he doesn’t want to give an opinion and prefers to lay things out and learn from their honest reactions.
Towards the end the pasha, acting as always as a prompter for further discussion, asks about the French republican system, and gets a description, complete with an extract translated from Herbert Spencer on the parliamentary system.There is a suggestion of seeing this form of politics in action, however this scene never materializes as the episodes become cut off at that point, perhaps to Muwaylihi’s retirement from public life following the incident immortalized as The Year of the Slap.
Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham had an impact on Egyptian life as it was included by the Ministry of Education in the curriculum for secondary schools in 1927, although some parts of it were removed. Al Muwaylifi also wrote Ilaj al Nafs (The Remedy of the Soul) meditations about life and morality, which reflects reading of both Eastern and Western and ancient and modern work.