al-Aqqad, Abbas Mahmud

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Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad

Egyptian Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad (1889–1964) was a largely self-educated writer, historian, poet, philosopher, translator, and journalist. Known for his patriotism toward the country of his birth, he used his writing to spread his pro-democratic beliefs and was known as a leading innovator in 20th-century Arabic criticism and poetry. His biographies of 14 religious figures are perhaps his most famous works.

Born on June 28, 1889, in Aswan, Upper Egypt, al-Aqqad was the son of an archivist. He began attending the village kuttab, a religious preschool where the principal subjects were the Qu'ran and Arabic, at age six. Al-Aqqad advanced to a nearby elementary school in 1899, where he spent just four years; whether because of economic pressures or other factors, he then ended his formal education. That he went on to become an important figure in 20th-century intellectual life is testimony to his ambition, discipline, and natural talent. Historical records report that al-Aqqad was an avid reader in numerous fields.

Quit Government Work to Write Full

Al-Aqqad was hired, while still in his teens, to work in a government office, but resigned in 1906, at age 17, to dedicate himself to a writing career. He is said to have settled permanently in Cairo at that point, having until now lived and worked in various cities throughout Egypt. His first professional writing work was reportedly as a journalist; he became an editor with the newspapers Al Doustour (The Constitution) in 1907 and Al Bayan (The Clarification) in 1911 and in 1908 became the first Egyptian journalist to interview Saad Zaghloul, a nationalist leader who would one day become the country's prime minister. Al-Aqqad also wrote critical essays for a magazine called Oukaz in 1912.

First Literary Works Published

Al-Aqqad was perhaps driven to writing as a primary method of intellectual self-expression. One of the earliest themes of his written works was freedom of thought and expression, which were under constant threat from political and religious repressive forces in Egypt in the early 1900s. Although he worked as a writer for a living, he wrote during his spare time as well, and in 1915 he published his first diwans, or collections of poems, titled Bits and Pieces and Shazarat. The following year the 37-year-old al-Aqqad published Yaqazat al-Sabah (The Morning Awakening), a political commentary in poetic form, and A Compound of the Living, which discusses the issue of good versus evil. Also, as a philosopher, al-Aqqad crystallized his own strain of existentialism, which he would come to call "Universal Consciousness." According to al-Aqqad, this comprises the integration of the senses, reason, and spirituality.

During the 1920s al-Aqqad wrote a book called A Daily Resume, which was an autobiographical account of his experiences. He tried his hand at script writing in 1931, producing The Song of the Heart, which became the fourteenth film to be produced in Egypt. He began writing biographies of great thinkers and religious leaders, the work for which he remains best known, in 1932. In these biographical accounts al-Aqqad sought to identify the "key to greatness" within each of his subjects, among who were included Benjamin Franklin, Ibn Rushd, Saad Zaghlool, and Francis Bacon.


As the repressive Egyptian political regime sought to tighten control, al-Aqqad was jailed for several months in 1930–1931 for defending parliamentary democracy in interviews he gave as a member of the House of Representatives. Also that year, he was appointed to the Arabic Language Academy. In 1938 al-Aqqad wrote the novel Sarah, in which he related his experience with a woman—reportedly the only woman he ever loved. Mainly, however, the writer concentrated his efforts on poetry, believing that it was the best medium through which to express his emotions and broadcast his message about the importance of free speech.

In 1942 al-Aqqad began his famous 14-volume "geniuses" series on great historical religious figures, publishing The Ingenuity of Christ, The Ingenuity of Abraham, and The Ingenuity of Mohamed in quick succession. Next to his biographical series, these would be the most popular of all his publications. In addition, al-Aqqad completed a critical biography of the Arab poet ibn el Roumy that offers insight into that author's life, personality, and works. Also in 1942, he released one of his several studies on Islam, The Arab Impact on European Civilization.

Al-Aqqad's outspokenness in support of freedom of expression and his strong pro-democratic views extended also to his condemnation of German Chancellor Adolph Hitler as the Nazis expanded their control over Europe and the Middle East. In fact, the writer fled Egypt in 1942 as German troops advanced on his homeland, moving temporarily to Sudan to escape any retribution for his repeated criticism. His books on the subject include Hitler in the Balance and Nazism and Religions.

Historical documentation on al-Aqqad's life refers to "literary troubles" that began for him in 1944 and which reportedly center on his poetic works and perhaps refer to government efforts to silence the writer. The "troubles" were no doubt caused by his liberal views on literary criticism and freedom of speech. No doubt contributing to the strife was al-Aqqad's publication of his controversial Allah or God in 1947.

An Icon of Arab Culture

Beginning in the early 1950s, al-Aqqad established a salon in his home that met every Friday. Its participants, who included some of the leading Egyptian intellectuals and artists of the day, discussed literature, philosophy, science, history, and other subjects. One of the most contentious topics of the salon was the role of Muslim women in society. Al-Aqqad, who reportedly had great respect for women, wrote three books on the subject, insisting in each of them that women should have the right to participate fully in society, as opposed to the severely restricted role they were relegated to orthodox Islam. He argued that women should enjoy freedom of thought as well.

In 1954 al-Aqqad published a two-volume collection of his translations of world literature, including what he considered to be the best American short stories of the period. Two years later, he was appointed to the Egyptian Higher Council of Literature and the Arts. He released one of his 11 books of literary criticism, An Introduction to Shakespeare, in 1958, along with works titled Eblees or the Devil and Poetic Language.

Near the end of his life, critics hailed al-Aqqad as a "human encyclopedia" of modern Arab culture. He received the prestigious State Recognition Award in 1960 and published one of his last works, The Diaries, in 1963. Al-Aqqad died at age 85 on March 12, 1964, in Cairo, Egypt. In more recent years, many scholars have made his life and works the subject of in-depth study.


"Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad," Egyptian State Information Service Web site, (January 2, 2004).