Mas'adi, Mahmoud al- (1911–2004)

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Mas'adi, Mahmoud al-

Mahmoud al-Mas'adi (Mahmud Messad, Masadi) was an important Tunisian literary and political figure. As minister responsible for public education, he oversaw the creation of a public school system open to all in his newly independent country, and helped to establish the first Tunisian university. As a writer, Mas'adi was a member of a group of Tunisian writers with whom Tunisian literature moved into modernity. His best-known work, Haddatha Abu Hurayra, Qala (Abu Hurayra said, 1973), is considered a modern classic.


Mas'adi was born in Tazerka, Cap Bon, Tunisia, in 1911. He studied in the Sadiqiyya school, where he received a bilingual education. He studied in Paris in the 1930s and obtained his doctorate in Arabic literature from the Sorbonne in 1947. He taught in high schools from 1936 to 1948 before moving to the Institute of Higher Education in Tunis, where he held the post of professor of Arabic literature from 1948 to 1953.

Under the French Protectorate, he joined the pro-independence Neo-Destour Party in 1934 and later became secretary general of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (1948–1953). He was imprisoned by the French colonial authorities for almost a year (1952–1953), and was afterward placed under house arrest.

In independent Tunisia, after 1956, Mas'adi became minister for national education (1958–1968), inspector general of teaching (1969–1970), minister of cultural affairs (1973–1976), and finally, president (speaker) of Parliament (1981–1987; he had been a member since 1959). Mas'adi was named Tunisia's representative at UNESCO, where he was a member of the Executive Council (1974–1978 and 1980–1985). As minister of education Mas'adi reorganized and expanded public education in Tunisia, and presided over the foundation of the University of Tunis in 1960.


Name: Mahmoud al-Mas'adi (Mahmud Messadi, Masadi)

Birth: 1911, Tazerka, Cap Bon, Tunisia

Death: 2004

Family: Married

Nationality: Tunisian

Education: Ph.D., Arabic literature, Sorbonne, Paris, 1947


  • 1936–1948: High school teacher
  • 1944–1947: Editor of al-Mabahith
  • 1948–1953: Professor, Institute of Higher Education, Tunis; secretary general, General Union of Tunisian Workers
  • 1952–1953: Imprisoned by French colonial authorities for pro-independence political activity
  • 1958–1968: Minister for national education
  • 1969–1970: Inspector general of teaching
  • 1973–1976: Minister of cultural affairs
  • 1981–1987: President of Parliament
  • 1974–1978, 1980–1985: Member of Executive Council, UNESCO


Mas'adi had a deep command of both Arabic and French. In his literary writing he used only Arabic. His bilingual education allowed him to create a unique and what to many might appear an impossible hybrid style, a hermetic one that often defies easy comprehension, strongly influenced by Qur'anic Arabic, with a rigorous sentence structure and a vocabulary suitable for philosophical themes. This last is exemplified in his play Al-Sudd (The dam, 1955). In this work (which despite its intellectual depth has never been performed on stage), a couple, Maymuna and Ghaylan, land among a tribe living in an arid valley. When water comes out of an old spring, Ghaylan decides to build a dam to exploit the water. His wife is skeptical but he perseveres despite numerous failures, encouraged by an invisible force, Mayara. In the end both are swept away by a hurricane.

No one better represents than Mas'adi the trend toward modernism—in which the individual human being becomes the center of interest—in Arabic and specifically Tunisian literature. It is through his writings and the journal al-Mabahith (Investigations), founded by Muhammad al-Bachrouch and edited by Mas'adi from 1944 to 1947, that this entered Tunisia. The journal both gave Tunisia's writers access to literary modernism and provided them a literary venue for their work. The essays Mas'adi published in the journal, and his theoretical texts, appeared later in the book Ta'silan li-Kayan (1979; The grounding of the human being).

The philosophy embodied in his writings is an existential one of commitment of the individual to a search for significance in the shaping of his role in life. This is, in his view, the factor that determines a person's destiny. While Al-Sudd is set in a secular context, his other writings, Haddatha Abu Hurayra, Qala and Min Ayyam Imran wa Ta'ammulat Ukhra (From the days of Imran and other considerations, 2002) are strongly anchored in Islamic history and philosophy. The author returns to a more secular framework in Mawlad al-Nisyan (1974; The birth of forgetfulness) to portray a general theme that preoccupies all humanity, and is at the center of all religions, the struggle between good and evil experienced by every individual. He believes that "only the tragic is literature."

Mas'adi's writings are characterized by their unusual choice of language and style, reminiscent of classical Arabic religious texts such as the Hadith (sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad) and the use of Isnad (the chain of authorities for the verification of truth of the Hadiths) in his book Haddatha Abu Hurayra, Qala. The protagonist of this work, a companion of the Prophet in Islamic history, represents the writer. He is tormented by a fruitless effort to find a meaning for the human existence. He looked for it in adventures, love, and faith but finally finds it in the Truth.


Mas'adi achieved renown in his country as a man of letters, as a journalist, and as a politician. The quality of his writings and his superior culture and knowledge gave him throughout the years a distinction and a place in society that few intellectuals have attained.


She descended and asked,

"How can I meet you after my lean evenings?"

… They stood facing each other and she said,

"Where is the road that does not end in order to meet you there?"

He said,

"It might be to the right."

She said,

"Or it might be to the left."

He said,

"To the left for you and to the right for me, that is the place of encounter. Now, give me your hand before we lose the directions."

She offers her right hand and he offers his right hand, facing each other forward, but they do not reach.

God said,

"This is the tragedy of the impossible encounter between my creatures in life. There is no encounter except by me in the union of annihilation after death."


On the international level, through his position at UNESCO, Mas'adi was respected among his peers and in francophone literary circles. His choice to represent Tunisia in this United Nations cultural body was a happy one for his country; it placed him in a prominent spot where he was recognized and appreciated. Al-Sudd was translated into French and was first published in Canada in 1981, then in France in 1994. His short stories published in the journal al-Mabahith in 1939 were collected in Mawlid al-Nisyan (published in French as La genèse de l'oubli, 1993). As in his other writings the author uses known figures in Arabic literature to ponder the meaning of life. In "Sindbad and Purity," after a stormy night Sindbad says, "It lasted very long, this farcical struggle between two ogres, the ogre of death and the ogre of life. Won't one finally overcome the other? Won't they finally stop? I do not see spectators here, for whom do they continue to fight?" In search of purity, Sindbad takes his boat and rows alone in the fury of the storm and the darkness of the night. This was his last voyage. "Ever since, the purity of the depths has kept him in its bosom."


It is difficult to talk about Mas'adi's legacy because despite his modernity he stands apart in his country's cultural and literary arena. Critics find it difficult to classify him. His style recalls the language of the Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) period and the prose of the Qur'an, written in a pure Arabic without the use of foreign words, and his symbols do not often relate to the contemporary world. His message that the human being should assume responsibility for himself and his actions would suit any time period and should consequently have a profound echo in any in which the concept of the freedom of the individual is the ideal. It is possibly the style and the hermetic language used to convey the message that impedes its propagation. Moreover, al-Mas'adi's philosophy is embodied in fictional form; it lacks a plan of action, an indication of a path to follow.

Haddatha Abu Hurayra, Qala has been assigned reading in Tunisia's secondary schools, raising the question of whether one day the author will influence future writers or will remain forever unique in the history of modern Tunisian literature.


Baccar, Taoufik, and Salah Garmadi, eds. Ecrivains de Tunisie: anthologie de textes et poèmes. Paris: Sindbad, 1981.

Fontaine, Jean. Al-Adab al-Tunisi al-Mu'asir. Tunisia: al-Dar al-Tunisiyya lil-Nashr, 1989.

――――――. Histoire de la Littérature Tunisienne. Vol. 2, Du XIIIe siècle à l'indépendance. Tunis: Ceres, 1999.


Al-Sudd (1955; The dam)

Haddatha Abu Hurayra, Qala (1973; Abu Hurayra said)

Mawlid al-Nisyan (1974; The birth of forgetfulness)

Ta'silan li-Kayan (1979; The grounding of the human being)

Essai sur le rythme dans la prose rimée en arabe (1981; An essay on rhythm in Arabic rhymed prose)

Min Ayyam Imran wa Ta'ammulat Ukhra (2002; From the days of Imran and other Considerations)

                                      Aida A. Bamia

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Mas'adi, Mahmoud al- (1911–2004)

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