Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Emily Drumsta

Brown University


Mahfouz’s Sufi Noir: Mysticism and Literary Form in Egypt Around 1960

The Egyptian author and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz is often credited with having ushered the Arabic novel into the modern era. Yet as Mahfouz has been gradually integrated into the secular pantheon of “world literature,” scant attention has been paid to the role that Sufi poetry, forms, and concepts play in his politically-disillusioned novels and short stories of the 1960s. Moreover, in a puzzling juxtaposition of forms, Mahfouz’s most daring experiments with Sufism are conducted within novels of crime, detection, and urban noir that would not be out of place alongside works by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Paul Auster. The short story “Suspect Unknown,” for example, features a police detective who spends his free time reading “poetry by Saʿdi, Ibn al-Farid, and Ibn ʿArabi, a rare hobby among police detectives.” This paper connects Mahfouzian noir with Mahfouzian mysticism, illustrating how the novels The Thief and the Dogs (1961), The Search (al-Tariq, 1964), and short stories from God’s World (1962) inflect the ratiocinative form of detective fiction with the Sufi trope of a never-ending search along a “path” or “way” (tariq) to enlightenment. My approach is simultaneously historical and comparative. That is, even as I locate, identify and re-contextualize Mahfouz’s direct citations from key Sufi texts, I also ask what the imagined concept of “Sufism”—as popular practice; as mystical way of seeing, seeking, and searching; as alternative or supplement to rationalism and science—enabled for Mahfouz as a literary experimentalist.