"Destiny" - A film to be remembered today. Chahine and Averroes as relevant as ever.
I visited Cordoba, Spain this year for the first time, attending the 9th African Film Festival Cordoba as a panellist and international guest. Here I came across the statue of an Arabic scholar born 1126 in Cordoba, and died in 1198 in Marrakesh. Abū l-Walīd Muammad bin ʾAhmad bin RuŇ°d (Arabic: أبو الوليد محمد بن احمد بن رشد), commonly known as Ibn Rushd (Arabic: ابن رشد) or by his latinized name Averro√ęs.
Averroes, the philosopher, astronomer, medical scientist, religious interpreter, and at one point Grand Judge of Cordoba, is most famous for his commentaries of Aristotle's works, which had been mostly forgotten in the West. It was in part through the Latin translations of Averroes's work beginning in the 12th century that the legacy of Aristotle was recovered in the Latin West.
Famous scholastics such as Aquinas believed Averro√ęs to be so important they did not refer to him by name, simply calling him "The Commentator" and calling Aristotle "The Philosopher". Averro√ęs tried to reconcile Aristotle's system of thought with Islam. According to him, there is no conflict between religion and philosophy, rather that they are different ways of reaching the same truth. As Averro√ęs was purely a rationalist, his work Fasl al-Maqāl stresses the importance of analytical thinking as a prerequisite to interpret the Qur'an.
Having been to Cairo during the most recent political confrontations in Egypt, as judge at the 35th Cairo International Film Festival, I was able to witness firsthand the feelings on the streets and the tensions between political forces in the country, on the one hand secular liberal forces, and on the other hand the Egyptian President Dr. Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The situation reminded me of Averro√ęs statue in Cordoba and an Egyptian film, which I believe, is worthwhile to reconsider and screen as widely as possible to the Egyptian public: Youssef Chahine's "Destiny".
Averro√ęs_le Destin par Abal_hassan
Not only is it a great film, and not only did it win Chahine the 1997 Cannes' Fiftieth Anniversary Palme d'Or, it is today more relevant than ever for Egyptian society and the Arab world at large. "Destiny" at the time challenged religious fanaticism which was affecting the way the Arab world looked at politics, how Muslims looked at their own personal lives, their social relations, their history, and their cultural practices.
As Malek Khouri stated: "Chahine's contribution marked a watershed in intellectual and filmmaking circles in their refusal of the fundamentalist revisionism that was hegemonizing Arab culture and politics." The film can be interpreted as a modernist thematic and stylistic attempt to counter religious extremism. And as people on the streets might not necessarily read the writings of intellectuals, the film offers a tool to address the complexity of a phenomenon called religious fundamentalism.
Chahine's "Destiny" then and today overwhelms the viewer by its popular description of the rising religious ideologies and the struggles, the Arab world was facing at the times. "The film supersedes a thousand symposia and lectures that try to deal with the ideas and practices of religious extremism" commented Ra'uf Tawfiq back in 1997.
"Destiny" takes place in 12th century Spain, but could take place today. It is an odd, brave film, part impassioned melodrama, part musical, taking a broad popular approach to questions of religious belief. As we all know, the film involves the real-life philosopher Averroes/Ibn Rushd, who believed that the Koran was open to interpretation.
Yes, he taught, the book is the word of God, but God gave us intelligence so that we might reason about his words and not blindly follow their literal meanings. After all, to assume that the mind of God can be reduced to ordinary human language and contained in mere words is itself a kind of heresy. And those who oppose the interpretation of the Koran are of course imposing their own interpretation upon it.
As the film opens, a follower of Averroes is being burned at the stake, the bonfire fed by his writings. The burning man calls out to his son to seek out the philosopher, and the main story takes place in Andalusia, where Averroes has gathered a group of disciples who study his books and copy them by hand. Andalusia is ruled by a Caliph, who has two sons, one a follower of Averroes, the other a party animal who is lured into the camp of fundamentalists. One feels of these fundamentalists, that they're driven not so much by what they believe, as by their fear or envy of those who do not agree. The movie argues that a belief that cannot stand up to free debate is not a belief worth holding.
Political intrigue is rife in the area. The Caliph supports Averroes, but is opposed by a sect that hopes to overthrow him. Meanwhile, his oldest son is concealing a forbidden love with a gypsy woman, and his trusted adviser is working both sides of the street. A secret project is set in motion to copy the writings of Averroes and spirit them far away, in case the tide turns and his books are burned again.
Largely constructed as a passionate melodrama, the film's interest comes from historical details. It is a historical epic: We hear of the great Arabic contributions to mathematics, and we see a fascinating invention, a telescope that uses the magnifying power of water in order to work. We see a society that is part European, part Arabic, in which Islam is as much a political movement as a religious one. And the film explicitly alludes to the role played by European leaders in fomenting support for fundamentalist cults in Arab-occupied Spain.
European monarchs broadly opposed the then social, cultural and national heterogeneity, scientific progress, and intellectual freedom and openness of Muslim-Arab Andalusia, and Chahine refers to the colonial politics of divide and conquer, by highlighting the collaboration between European leaders and Islamic fundamentalism, forces opposed to a modernist renewal.
"Destiny" reintegrates modernity and the struggle for modernist renewal in the Arab world into the broader struggle against religious fundamentalism. Beneath the films story is a conflict between rationalism and fundamentalism that is as fraught today as it ever was. And I wonder, if the current Egyptian Government would do a promotional tour throughout all governorates, showing the film to government officials, to teachers, to school kids, the youth, the elders, the clerics, social and political movements and the academia. Would this be possible? Would the government of the day agree that Chahine's wisdom was on par with Averroes?
As I write these words, the referendum in Egypt has been approved. And as one is observing the developments in the forthcoming days, the evolution and effects of the current polarisation, and the dynamics of the Mursi Government, the reactions by the National Salvation Front and the Egyptian street, one question prevails.
At the end of "Destiny" Chahine quotes Averroes: "Ideas have wings. No one can stop their flight." Encouraging words. But are the ideas flying or fleeing? In times like this, let us hope, that reason prevails and that the ideas of social progress and justice, intellectual discourse, and human freedoms reclaim the political arena.
By Hans-Christian Mahnke, Windhoek, Namibia
Windhoek, 30 December 2012