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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

How about some “good news” from the Islamic world?

In his story “Zaabalawi,” Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize winning novelist from Egypt, probes what he sees as a major shortcoming of modern western civilization, depicting

1) how much we need contact with a spiritual realm, but

2) how little attention western civilization pays to that realm and our need for it.

Mahfouz even suggests that western civilization may shape us and our worldviews in ways that make it nearly impossible to fully contact the spiritual.

In “Zaabalawi” he sends the central character on a search through realistic modern, western-influenced Cairo, Egypt, seeking the mystical holy man and healer named Zaabalawi.

The central character is nameless, making him a modern Everyman. He needs to find the holy man Zaabalawi because he has a nameless chronic sickness that modern medicine has not cured. Like his father, whom Zaabalawi one cured, Everyman is spiritually sick, and only spiritual means can heal him.

Desperate after unsuccessfully trying modern western civilization’s medicines, Everyman uses typical means provided by modern western-influenced civilization to try to find the elusive spiritual healer Zaabalawi.

He tries other professions when he goes to the Chamber of Commerce building to visit the office of a powerful lawyer. But just as the professional physicians have failed him, so too does the professional lawyer.

Everyman tries study and learning, going to a seller of old books on theology and mysticism, also to no avail. He then turns to government, to the sheikh of the district, like an American alderman or ward boss, but like the professions, the government fails to connect Everyman to the help he needs.

Still desperate, Everyman turns to the arts, sometimes identified as the place the soul goes when it loses faith in God. But the arts, like the rest of modern civilization, have lost contact with the holy healer.

In fact, Zaabalawi is now pursued by the police of modern civilization as a charlatan.

Everyman comes closest to Zaabalawi when he visits the man least likely to have contact with him—Wanas al-Damanhouri, a sinful drunkard in an Islamic country where alcohol is taboo.

When Everyman discovers that he was in Zaabalawi’s presence after Wanas got him so drunk he passed out, Mahfouz suggests that we may come closest to the spiritual realm when we block out modern civilization as fully as we can.

At the end of the story Everyman continues to search for the holy man whose contact with the spiritual realm is his only hope after modern western-influenced civilization has so utterly failed to cure his illness.

This story is “good news” from Islam because Mahfouz, a Muslim, challenges us to reconsider our exclusion of the spiritual from our schools, government programs, professions, commerce, arts, and media.

Is Everyman spiritually sick in modern America and Europe? Does Everyman need spiritual healing from our holy one?

Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in English at Lyon College. He can be reached at