On Taha Hussein’s Newly Re-discovered Novel, ‘The Sheikh’s Sermon’

At the end of March, there was a flurry of discussion (here, here, here) about a rediscovered novel by the “Dean of Arabic Letters,” Egyptian novelist and writer Taha Hussein (1889-1973):

The novel, The Sheikh’s Sermon, reportedly appeared in installments in the journal Al-Safour in 1916.

Although the announcement provoked interest, a number of commentators have reasonably suggested The Sheikh’s Sermon isn’t likely to be of interest beyond the scholarly community. The outline of its plot hints at didacticism and, others note, it was it was written before Hussein’s beloved novel Du’aa al-Karawan, often translated as The Nightingale’s Prayer. Also, if Hussein had wanted to see The Sheikh’s Sermon resurrected from the journal’s pages and published in book form, this was certainly within his powers.

The events of the newly rediscovered novel reportedly unfold through the device of 15 letters exchanged between a young woman who works as a teacher, her fiance, a friend, and her father, as well as a religious student and a civil judge. The letters apparently address a woman’s right to education, freedom of thought, life, and marriage.

The announcement unnecessarily re-opened a debate over the “emergence of the Arabic novel,” which has sometimes been pinned to Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1913), for reasons Elliott Colla addresses in “How Zaynab Became the First Arabic Novel.” Yet in 1916, a number of books consciously modeled after the European novel were being produced in Arabic. Moreover, we might more productively talk about a shift, whereby many elements of the European novel are incorporated into the Arabic literary tradition, rather than an emergence.

In any case, Hussein’s novel will be of certain interest to literary historians and scholars. After all, since the official list of Nobel nominations aren’t opened until 50 years after they’re made, Hussein is the only Arabic writer officially known to have been in Nobel consideration, outside of 1988 winner Naguib Mahfouz.


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