‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri

cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī (*1938)

Dr. cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī  is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University, Egypt and an author of numerous books and studies about theoretical, political, literary and cultural issues. Since January 2007, he is also known as a general coordinator of the Kifāyah movement which participants expressed their discontent with the contemporary political situation in Egypt. (Note: Kifāyah means ‘enough’).



Education and his Academic Career

Dr. cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī was born in 1938 in Damanhūr governorate, Egypt and  graduated with honors from the English Department of Alexandria University, Egypt, in 1959. Afterwards, he went on to pursue an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, New York, the USA from which he graduated in 1964. Five years later (1969) he finished his PhD in the same field from Rutgers University, New Jersey, the USA.

From 1971-1975 Dr. al-Masīrī was an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo. In the same period, he functioned as an advisor to the semi-governmental al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt.

In 1975 he took up a position as Advisor of Cultural Affairs to the Permanent Delegation of the Arab League to the United Nations in New York, which he held until 1979.

Upon returning to Egypt in 1979, he resumed his teaching position in English and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University. However, he was not able to resume his earlier position as governmental advisor, as his critical stance against Zionism and Israel had become politically inappropriate after the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978.

Dr. al-Masīrī's feelings about the political change were described in an article in al-Ahram:

"He had left Egypt as a famous man in 1975 and, upon his return in 1979, there were those who would not even bother to return his calls. He was no longer invited to give talks on the radio, or appear on television. Employing him at this time was to court political suicide, he was told by an erstwhile good friend: ‘In some cases, suicide is the more honorable course’, he had retorted angrily."(1)

Dr. Al-Masīrī taught in Ain Shams University until 1983, then at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1983-88) and in Kuwait University (1988-89).

Since 1990, he has been a visiting professor at Ain Shams University and the Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, Dr. al-Masīrī is a very active freelance writer and lecturer on politics, religion, culture and literature.

Deconstruction of Zionism and Functional Group

Dr. cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī has written extensively on Judaism and Zionism and is seen as perhaps the most knowledgeable Arab scholar on the subject.(2) His first publication on this topic was called ‘The End of History: An Introduction to the Study on the Structure of Zionist Thought’ published in Cairo in 1973. Two years later (1975) he published his first encyclopedic work ‘Encyclopedia of Zionist Concepts and Terminology: A Critical View’ and already the next year he started working on an updated version which came out in 1998 under the name of ‘Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism: A New Explanatory Paradigm’.(3)


As the title of the latter implies, Dr. al-Masīrī deconstructs the concepts underpinning Zionism and tries to build a new theoretical paradigm for analyzing Zionism. In a series of four articles brought in al-Ahrām newspaper in 1999 his theory was outlined.(4)

Since Jews, throughout European history, have been excluded from society and restricted to certain professions, they are what al-Masīrī terms a functional group. The functional group is a group imported from outside or recruited within and then excluded from society. Their task is to perform jobs that members of a ‘traditional’, pre-modern society cannot perform themselves due to moral mores (prostitution, garbage men, executioner) or because it would bring them too close to the privileges of the ruling class (fighting and espionage, supervising domestic affairs or guarding concubines). To perform any of these tasks, ‘one must be emotionally and morally detached, characterized by as much neutrality as possible, and without a power base in the society. In other words, one should be a rootless outsider, beyond the pale of normal human considerations.’(5)

Dr. al-Masīrī claims that:

‘[since] the functional group has no roots in society, and no power base, it must rely on the ruling classes for its very survival, gradually becoming, in many cases, a tool in their hands to exploit the masses.’(6)

This in turn, leads the masses to hate and envy the functional group, and thus the functional group comes to rely ever more on the ruling elite for security. The relationship between the functional group and their host society therefore, develops into one characterized of pure utility and instrumentalization instead of the sacred and ‘fully human’ relationship that exists between members of the organic community.

The functional group is kept at a distance by isolating them either physically in a ghetto or symbolically by special clothes or language. This mechanism goes both ways, as:

‘[m]embers of the functional group, in turn, internalize their isolation and even promote it. They insist on preserving their special dress, ghetto, or dialect and resist any attempt at de-ghettoisation, seeing it as a threat to their identity (which indeed it is).’(7)

Because of their isolation, the functional group develops double standards for how to treat members of their own community and how to treat outsiders. The host society develops equal double standards.

According to Dr. al-Masīrī, it is a common trait that the functional group develops a myth of a hypothetical, sacred origin from which they have come and to which they will return someday. This lends the members of the functional group a great freedom and mobility in the face of the host society but ‘precisely because he is exiled from his country, unattached to any time, place, or code of values, his humanity is not completely fulfilled.’(8)


Jews as an Example of Functional Group

Dr. al-Masīrī mentions a number of historically and geographically diverse examples of functional groups. However, he perceives the history of Jews as a textbook example of this phenomenon. In their case, he claims that, ‘complete fulfillment [of their humanity] is contingent on the return to Palestine or Eretz Israel at the end of time.’(9)

He argues that with nationalism sweeping the European continent in the 19th century, Jews also began to organize themselves to become a ‘people like any other’ with their own country. Moreover, with modernization, the sacred, human bonds that had existed between members of pre-modern communities vanished. Instead, the entire society was split up into separate groups with separate functions. Thus, the Jewish community became superfluous, and were, along with other groups, described as ‘human surplus’ that was to be disposed of.

The solution became the resettlement of the Jewish population in what al-Masīrī terms a functional state. Thus, he perceives the Israeli state as a military vanguard of Western imperialism.

‘The instrumentalisation of the Zionist functional state manifests itself in the various alliances if forms with Western states and the generous financial subsidies it receives.’(10)

According to Dr. al-Masīrī, the state ideology of Israel bears many resemblances to the characteristics of any other functional group. One example is the double standards applied to members of the group and outsiders. As he asserts:

‘The same double standards are manifested in every facet of Israeli life. The Law of Return, for instance, gives any Jew anywhere the right to ‘return’ to Palestine, after a ‘temporary’ absence of 2,000 years, whereas a Palestinian who was expelled from his homeland some 50 years ago has no such rights.’(11)


Criticism of al-Masīrī's Paradigm of Zionism

Al-Masīrī's paradigm has been criticized for being anti-Semitic and for having as its underlying goal the de-humanization of Jews.(12) This criticism was made by Aaron Mannes, director of research at the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). In his article, Mannes went on to say that

[al-Masīrī's] work could be particularly effective since he uses neologisms and academic jargon to help indoctrinate the next generation of educated Egyptians for a continued enmity towards Jews, Zionism, and Israel.’(13)

This criticism leaves out of consideration that al-Masīrī in his four articles in al-Ahrām explicitly explains that the concept of functional group is an analytical concept and thus not a description of how Jews or other groups may view themselves. Furthermore, al-Masīrī himself is anxious to differentiate between criticizing Zionism and being anti-Semitic. He has suggested that Arabs should start by formulating a clear definition of anti-Semitism, in order to avoid confusion between terms such as 'Judaism', 'Zionism' and 'Israel’ claiming:

‘If we make the distinction clear, then we will be able to define resistance and terrorism. But that mix has made our political discourse sound anti-Semitic.’(14)


Critique of Modernity

Along with his specific criticism of Zionism, al-Masīrī has also developed a deep criticism of modernity. He views the Western ideal of value-free sciences(15) as a dangerous idea which has distorted the original humanism of the enlightenment and instead developed into an anti-humanistic ideology which eventually will lead to destruction through nuclear waste, genetic pollution or never-ending consumerism that over-exploits natural resources.(16)

He maintains that modern science is based on an erroneous assumption of simple, Newtonian causality and a perception of the researcher as completely detached from and not influencing his experiments. Al-Masīrī sees that this assumption is increasingly being challenged by new discoveries in natural sciences such as the Relativity Theory, the Quantum Theory and the question of whether to perceive light as waves or photons.(17) He maintains that biases are inevitable to human perception since:

‘culture is the very essence of the human. It is not something added to the human as enlightenment sees it.’(18)

In opposition to this paradigm, al-Masīrī calls for a humanization of knowledge(19) by subjecting research to some outer value-laden criteria. Al-Masīrī himself finds these values in Islam but is not rejecting other systems of belief.

‘I call myself an Islamist humanist - the focus is on Man because he is not part of nature, and he refers to God.’(20)

Some excerpts from an article published in the Egyptian newspaper, al-Ahrām in 2006 illustrates further his point:

‘Western (Darwinian) modernity expostulated the idea of infinite progress as being humanity's ultimate aim. But from the actual implementation we now know that the driving force for such progress has been the subjugation of the globe itself in the interest of the West and its inhabitants. The most important indicator of this progress has now become an ever-increasing consumerism.

What is at stake then is not a clash of civilizations, then, but the discrepancy in the manner in which two world cultures perceive the individual or human being. The first sees man as useful matter and an instrument while the second regards him as unique and distinct from material things, an end unto himself.

It has become inevitable that those who defend humanity and humankind should stand up to the Darwinist, value-free modernity that thrives on conflict, strife and never-ending consumerism.’(21)

Furthermore, he perceives this scientific paradigm as being an underpinning for Western colonialism which has destroyed alternative visions of modernity:

‘[C]olonialist armies came, and killed the Arab and Islamic countries, and plagued their peoples with all sorts of colonialist patterns. It was a colonialism that collaborated with society's traditional and reactionary forces and in the process tried to obstruct the Arab world's modernization. It aborted the experiment of Mohamed Ali and quelled Ahmed Orabi's popular revolt. Modern Western armies, in contrast, supported the khedive and ended up with inhabiting our countries, which now know nothing of modernity except its repressive security apparatuses.’(21)


Involvement in the Kifāyah Movement

Dr. cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī was also elected general coordinator of the Kifāyah movement in Egypt in January 2007. He has been an active member of the movement since its start in 2003.


Kifāyah started with mass-demonstrations in Cairo directed against the Egyptian support for the U.S-led war against Iraq in 2003. This unprecedented, popular outlet of protest soon led to internal protest against the government in Egypt and a call for democratic reform. Subsequently, a great number of leading figures of the movement have been arrested and allegedly have been subjected to torture. The official name of the movement is ‘al-Harakah al-Misrīyah min ajal al-Taghayyur’ (The Egyptian Movement for Change).(22)


Note: This biography has been read and approved by Dr. cAbd al-Wahhāb al-Masīrī.




1 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/415/people.htm
2 Wikipedia.com, Arabic section: http://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki/
3 http://www.elmessiri.com/en/modules.php?name=Analytic_List
4 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/435/op2.htm
5 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/435/op2.htm
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/437/op5.htm
9 Ibid.
10 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/438/op5.htm
11 Ibid.
12 http://christianactionforisrael.org/antiholo/memri2.html
13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_East_Media_Research_Institute
14 http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/asw2005/arab.htm
15 This critique of the idea of a science detached from values is not particular to al-Masīrī or to Islamic culture. It has also been expressed by numerous voices in the West, recently by Pope Benedict XVI in his infamous speech in his speech given at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, when he criticized the strict rationality of modern science. A more theoretical treatment is found in works of the Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977).
16 http://www.islamonline.net/english/Contemporary/2003/12/Article02.shtml
17 Ibid.
18 Interview with author, conducted in Cairo, February 12, 2007.
19 Interview with author, conducted in Cairo, February 12, 2007.
20 Ibid.
21 All three following quotes: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/788/op33.htm

22 http://harakamasria.org/

 Selected works:

(for a comprehensive list of publications see Dr. al-Masīrī's own website: http://www.elmessiri.com )

The End of History: An Introduction to the Study of the Structure of Zionist Thought (Cairo, 1973; Beirut, 1979)

Encyclopedia of Zionist Concepts and Terminology: A Critical View (Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Center; Cairo, 1975)

Selections of English Romantic Poetry: The Main Texts and Some Historical and Critical Studies. (Co-author), (Beirut, 1979). Translation and Study, (co-author).

 The Palestinian Intifada and the Zionist Crisis: A Study in Perception and Dignity. (Tunisia, 1987; Cairo, 1988)

The Problematic of Bias: An Epistemological View and an Invitation to a New "Ijtihad" (Interpretation). Two Volumes. (Cairo, 1993; Washington, 1995); Seven Volumes. (Cairo, 1998).

Encyclopedia of the Jews, Judaism, and Zionism: A New Explanatory Paradigm. Eight Volumes. (Cairo, 1998).

Partial and Comprehensive Secularism. Two Volumes. (Cairo, 2002, Second edition 2005)

Epistemological Bias in the Physical and Social Sciences, (International Institute of Islamic Thought, London & Washington, 2006)