Prayers Held for Egyptian Writer Mahfouz

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 31, 2006; 10:50 AM

CAIRO, Egypt -- The country's leading Muslim clerics led mourners in special prayers Thursday for Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, some of whose work was condemned by Islamic extremists as sacrilegious.

President Hosni Mubarak joined a military funeral for Mahfouz at the al-Rashdan mosque in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood. Mahfouz, the only Arab to have won a Nobel Prize for literature, died Wednesday at age 94.

Earlier, the author's coffin was wrapped in a green shroud with the words "There is no god but God" in gold letters as it was driven to the Hussein mosque accompanied by a crowd of friends and admirers.

"With the clear faith we see between the lines of Mahfouz's books, he managed to reach all hearts in the world, not only Arabs or Muslims," said Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, as he spoke before the coffin.

Leading the prayer service was Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik at Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's most important seat of learning. The presence of the two leading clerics was seen as an attempt to rebut allegations that Mahfouz was not a devout Muslim.

Mahfouz stirred controversy among conservatives with his calls for religious tolerance.

The 1959 "Children of Gebelawi" _ or "Children of Our Alley" by its Arabic title _ told the story of a family patriarch and his sons. The father represents God and the sons represent the series of prophets that Islam believes includes Jesus and Moses and culminates in Muhammad. The book was banned in Egypt.

Islam frowns on any literary depiction of Muhammad, except for straightforward biography or poems of praise. But even more rankling to conservatives is that Mahfouz added a final son who represents science, suggesting he was a prophet after Muhammad.

A fatwa was issued in 1989 by Egyptian radical Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. He said Mahfouz deserved to die for his novel, and in 1994 an Islamic militant stabbed the author, saying "Children of Gebelaya" was blasphemous.

A reporter Thursday asked Gomaa whether it was appropriate to pray before the body of Mahfouz since he is seen by Islamic extremists as an atheist. "These are myths," he said. "We want to prove the opposite."

A militant Islamist Web site posted a page that mockingly offered condolences for Mahfouz's death. "We pray to God to give him the worst punishment ... to be thrown in the deepest parts of hell," it said.

However, in an apparent acknowledgment of the writer's broad appeal across Egyptian society, two senior figures and five lawmakers from the Muslim Brotherhood attended the funeral. The group is the largest opposition group in parliament but remains formally banned. It had issued a statement Wednesday saying "Children of Gebelawi" was a "violation" of Islamic tenets.

Mohammed Abdel Qudous, one of the group's senior figures, described Mahfouz as "a great, modest and devout Muslim man," in an interview with Egyptian state-run television.

The state accorded the acclaimed author full honors. A military band of drummers and trumpet players marched as six horses pulled the coffin to the al-Rashdan mosque, where the funeral was held.

After the military funeral, Mahfouz was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Nobel prize, which Mahfouz won in 1988, introduced to the world a man who is seen by many as the Middle East's greatest writer, with 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, dozens of movie scripts and five plays over a 70-year career.

Mahfouz's novels depicted modern life in his beloved neighborhood of Islamic Cairo, a teeming district of millennium-old mosques and winding alleyways.

Egyptian director Yousri Nasrallah paid tribute to Mahfouz at the Venice Film Festival. "Mahfouz was for us a guide, fighting until the end the close-mindedness of a certain Arab world," he said.

Mahfouz, in his will, wanted his funeral to stop first by Hussein Shrine, located at the heart of Islamic Cairo, and just a few yards from his birth place in the Gamaliya district. It is the mosque where his mother used to take him as a child to pray.

The mosque, built in 1154, is believed to contain the head of one of Muhammad's grandsons, who was killed in a 7th century battle for leadership of the Islamic faith.

© 2006 The Associated Press