Tarek Heggy

Over the last half a century during which my life, my experiences, my thoughts and dealings have been associated with all the colours of the cultural spectrum, some facets of major flaws in the intellectual and cultural education of the overwhelming majority of the leadership – at all levels – of the currents of political Islam have become clear to me. To cast some light on these egregious flaws I should first clarify what constitutes a modern, balanced intellectual training before turning to unbalanced intellectual training.

  Training should include human intellectual creativity from all fields of knowledge  

It is generally assumed that the building of a balanced, modern intellectual training should include examples of human intellectual creativity from all fields of knowledge, be they ancient or modern, since the contemporary intellectual is one who has exposed his mind to the fields and arenas of the following subjects: the general history of humanity, political thought, philosophy, psychology, literature, the arts ancient and modern, social studies, modern management sciences and so on. These might (or might not) be in addition to specific areas of specialisation, be these in the field of the natural sciences or in the social and human sciences.

Diderot: Preparing the ground for modernity

In the light of this, it is inconceivable that the intellectual training of a prominent individual in modern society should remain unacquainted, for example, with the achievements of ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Greek civilisation or that it should lack any recognition of the achievements of human creativity in the age of the Nahda, or be unaware of the historical role played by French Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and Montesquieu in preparing the ground for the rise of modern political and constitutional systems and institutions in civilised societies. Similarly, one cannot imagine that they should be intellectually unaware of any of the fruits of human creativity in any of the other fields of applied, social and human sciences as have occurred over the last two centuries.

By this I do not mean that the intellectual education of contemporary leaders should be at the level of specialists’ training in most of these fields I have mentioned. Rather, that they should at least become conversant enough in the progress of human knowledge as evidenced both in the ancient and modern eras. My five-decade experience of dealing at close hand with the mentalities of the leadership of Islamic trends has shown me that, in the main, these mentalities are one-dimensional in their education. They may well have studied to a greater or lesser degree the literature of Islamic studies in its various fields, but their intellectual formation, as I have indicated, lacks balance. For the leadership of these trends and the literature in which they have brought themselves up, clearly demonstrate the phenomenon of a one-dimensional intellectual training, as I have described.

  Their intellectual formation lacks balance ... a one-dimensional intellectual training  

For they are acquainted (to varying degrees) with Qur’ānic studies, and the study of the sīra and fiqh, and are aware (again to varying degrees) of the major works of reference in these fields. But the education of the vast majority of them is (almost entirely) devoid of the intellectual elements that go to build up the mind of a modern intellectual. Indeed, my personal experience of hundreds of these figures has shown me that there is a ‘strategic direction’ within the groups of political Islam that actively seeks a ‘non-interference’ of non-Islamic writings into their adherents’ mindset! I have heard from the mouths of most Islamists with whom I have had dealings and exchanged conversation that they have barred their adherents from reading, for instance, works of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, or the writings of the Enlightenment intellectuals who prepared the ground for the French Revolution, or any of the works of the humanistic philosophers from the fifth century BC until the present-day. This is the educational ‘foundation policy’ of the Islamic propagandist leadership. I would advise the reader to peruse the work of the dissident Muslim Brotherhood leader Professor Tharwat el-Kherbawi[1] to get an idea of this Brotherhood education.

Tharwat el-Kherbawi: Internal critic of the Brotherhood's education policies

One of the major and most patent results of this dearth in the intellectual training of most Islamists of elements representing other strata in the progress of human knowledge, is the fact that most of the Islamists are unable to distinguish between ‘religious truth’ and ‘scientific truth’. Religious truth relies solely upon the religious text for proof and it is from this that its religious truth emerges. Scientific proof, however – ever since the consensus of progressive men to the definition given by the philosopher Auguste Comte[2] (the founder of the objective school) – differs from religious truth in its acceptance of substantiation exclusively by means of (scientific) objective proofs. While religious truth is respected by those who believe in its foundational text and the like, it necessarily remains in the arena purely of individual opinion. Scientific truth, on the other hand, is subjected to the rules of scientific demonstration, and even then remains subject to critical evaluation.

One of the results of a one-dimensional intellectual education, and the lack of a clear distinction being made between ‘religious truth’ and ‘scientific truth,’ is the ‘perennial stasis’ of the Islamists’ standpoint vis-à-vis a large number of issues such as: womankind, the arts, the freedom of intellectual, literary and artistic expression – and indeed religious expression, and so on. There is not a single Islamist leader who is able to consider an art form such as ballet permissible. There is not a single Islamist leader who recognises the right of anyone in his society to be a Buddhist or a Bahā’ī. There is not a single Islamist leader who permits music, singing, acting, painting or sculpture without first hedging it with conditions that only strangle any spirit of art and creativity. There is, in fact, no difference of opinion among the Islamist leadership concerning personalities such as Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman[3] or Khalid al-Islambouli[4] and the like.

Auguste Comte: Definer of objective scientific proof

I do not think that we will be able to talk of a ‘moderate political Islam’ before the currents of political Islam undergo a shock akin to the trauma which the Christian church underwent in Europe in the centuries following the age of Enlightenment. This age saw the efforts of enlightened thinkers spreading the value systems of a brilliant human culture whose suns began to illuminate the globe after such time as they had reined in the exponents of unbalanced intellectual education and prevented them from wielding their influence over society. For these were exponents of a mentality that was incapable of understanding the methodologies of truth since they were intellectually trained in a deformed, deficient education, one that was purely one-dimensional in the way that it faced the new reality. For this was a reality whose problems, difficulties and all its issues demanded the formation of ranks of people with an intellectual training characterised by equilibrium, pluralism and the knowledge of the facts of contemporary life, and who took the latest applied and social sciences as their starting point.

It is patent to all who study European history that the moment one-dimensional intellects were removed from the control of society was the same moment that the creative mind in all European societies was set free to offer humanity, within the space of a mere four centuries, scientific progress, achievements and a unique amelioration in human life. These things surpassed what humanity had managed to achieve over the course of dozens of centuries that preceded this decisive moment in its history. The one-dimensional mind cannot allow the setting free of creativity in any of its various fields since it is continually occupied by elements of deep backwardness and intellectual decadence.


[1] A well-known lawyer and one of the most vocal retirees from the Muslim Brotherhood who has written memoirs exposing the movement’s secrets. In a recent interview he stated that: “The syllabus in my time used to be rather moderate, which was at odds with the Salafi way of thinking. Then Salafi educational ideas were introduced to the Brotherhood. The Wahhabi way of thinking has become very prominent inside the group.” (Sara Abou Bakr, ‘Inside the Ikhwan’, Egypt Daily News, November 20, 2012. (Ed.)

[2] For more on the role of Auguste Comte see the Almuslih article: Arab Islamic society and the metaphysical phase . (Ed.)

[3] Commonly referred in the United States to ‘The Blind Sheikh’, is a former leader of Al-Gamāʽa al-Islamiyya who is currently serving a life sentence having been convicted of seditious conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. (Ed.)

[4] Khālid al-Islāmboulī (1955 – 1982) was an Egyptian army officer who planned and participated in the assassination of Egypt’s third president, Anwar Sadat, during the annual 6th October victory parade in 1981. (Ed.)