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  • Robbert A.F.L. Woltering (a1)

Despite the weight of his work and his prominence in Arabic public debate, the Egyptian public intellectual ʿAbd al-Wahhab Elmessiri (1938–2008) has not been the subject of much serious study. In this article, I show that Elmessiri's oeuvre offers a rich and creative perspective on both Judaism and Zionism. Studying Elmessiri from the perspective of identity/alterity studies, I argue that his representation of Judaism qualifies as what Gerd Baumann and André Gingrich call “encompassment by hierarchical subsumption.” The article offers an analysis of the discursive logic behind this image of Judaism and its connection to Elmessiri's anti-Zionist agenda, rejection of anti-Semitism, and critique of Western modernity.

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1 Stein, Ewan, Representing Israel in Modern Egypt: Ideas, Intellectuals and Foreign Policy from Nasser to Mubarak (London: I.B.Tauris, 2012), 150; Nordbruch, Götz, “Rationalizing the Hidden Hand: ʿAbd al-Wahhab al-Missiri's Theory of a ‘Judaisation’ of Society,” in The Global Impact of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A Century Old Myth, ed. Webman, Esther (New York: Routledge, 2011), 229–38; Abu-Rabiʿ, Ibrahim M., Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 54. Hirschkind, Charles sees Elmessiri as a leading intellectual in more general terms; Hirschkind, “Beyond Secular and Religious: An Intellectual Genealogy of Tahrir Square,” American Ethnologist 39 (2012): 4953.

2 al-Masiri, ʿAbd al-Wahhab, Mawsuʿat al-Mafahim wa-l-Mustalahat al-Sahyuniyya: Ruʾya Naqdiyya (Cairo: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Siyasiyya wa l-Istratijiyya bi-l-Ahram, 1975).

3 Elmessiri's Facebook page, accessed 30 November 2017,; Elmessiri's website, accessed 30 November 2017,

4 Nordbruch, “Rationalising the Hidden Hand”; Schmolke, O., “Eine Antword auf Abdelwahab el-Massiri,” Die Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte 43 (1996): 422–25; Fähndrich, Hartmut, “Moderne mit Transzendenz: zur Gedankenwelt des Ägypters Abdalwahhâb Messîri,” SGMOIK/SSMOCI Bulletin 6 (1998): 1516.

5 Ali, Haggag, Mapping the Secular Mind: Modernity's Quest for a Godless Utopia (London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2013).

6 Ibid., 159. Corresponding with Ali, Elmessiri eventually wrote: “I believe now that you know my ideas more than I.”

7 Helen E. Mesard, “Abdelwahab Elmessiri's Critique of Western Modernity and the Development of an Islamic Humanism” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2013). The dissertation can be accessed through the university's dissertation repository. A commercial edition is due to be published in 2019 by Routledge under the title Islamic Humanism and Abdelwahab Elmessiri: Critique, Ethics, Activism. I have benefited enormously from e-mail correspondence with Mesard, from whom I have taken the translation of the term ḥulūliya as “immanentism.”

8 Lewis, Bernard, Semites & Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1986); El-Aswad, El-Sayed, review of Islamic Attitudes to Israel, ed. Efraim Karsch and P.R. Kumaraswamy, Digest of Middle Eastern Studies 18 (2009): 107–10; Ajouaou, Mohamed, “Islamitisch antisemitisme onzuiver belicht,” ZemZem 2 (2006): 133–35; Taji-Farouki, Suha, “Thinking on the Jews,” in Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, ed. Taji-Farouki, Suha and Nafi, Basheer M. (London: I.B.Tauris, 2004): 338–39.

9 Litvak, Meir and Webman, Esther, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (London: Hurst, 2009), 227–36.

10 Baumann, Gerd and Gingrich, André, Grammars of Identity/Alterity: A Structural Approach (Oxford: Berghahn, 2004).

11 Said, Edward, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003).

12 Baumann and Gingrich, Grammars, 19–21.

13 Ibid., x.

14 Ibid., x–xi.

15 Ibid., 25.

16 al-Masiri, ʿAbd al-Wahhab, Rihlati al-Fikriyya: Fi al-Budhur wa-l-Judhur wa-l-Thamar: Sira Ghayra Dhatiyya Ghayra Mawduʿiyya (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2006); al-Masiri, Mawsuʿat al-Yahud wa-l-Yahudiya wa-l-Sahyuniya: al-Mawsuʿa al-Mujaza fi Juzʾayn (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2003).

17 Ibid., 11.

18 Ibid., 24.

19 Ibid., 130.

20 Abdelwahab M. Elmessiri, “Critical Writings of Wordsworth and Whitman: A Study of the Historical and Anti-Historical Imaginations” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 1969).

21 Masiri, Rihlati, 24–25.

22 Ibid., 142.

23 Ibid., 212.

24 Ibid., 218.

25 Ibid., 227.

26 Ibid., 226.

27 Ibid., 281.

28 Ibid., 283.

29 Ibid., 284.

30 Ibid., 305.

31 Because Elmessiri hardly published in English, Bauman was not aware of Elmessiri's work until he was alerted to it by Ali. See Ali, Mapping, 150.

32 These two concepts were coined by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (d. 1936) and developed into ideal types by Max Weber (d. 1920).

33 Al-Masiri, Rihlati, 130. Of course, this description is anachronous; it would be some time before Elmessiri would think in terms of this binarism.

34 Ibid., 29–32, 56–57. Incidentally, Damanhur is famous for containing the burial place of the 19th-century rabbi Abu Hasira, whose mulid attracts many Jewish devotees.

35 Ibid., 35. This accusation is repeated on p. 165.

36 See especially Amin, Jalal, Khurafat al-Taqaddum wa-l-Takhalluf: al-ʿArab wa-l-Hadara al-Gharbiyya fi Mustahall al-Qarn al-Wahid wa-l-ʿAshrin (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2005).

37 Hassan, Fayza, “Abdelwahab Elmessiri: A Scholar and Three Wolves,” Al-Ahram Weekly 415 (1999), accessed 27 August 2016,

38 Al-Masiri, Mawsuʿa, 1:41–42.

39 Ibid., 43.

40 al-Masiri, ʿAbd al-Wahab M., “al-Haqiqa wa-l-Wahm . . fi Qissat Brutukulat Hukamaʾ Sahyun,” al-Manar al-Jadid 21 (2003): 2038; al-Amir, Bahaʾ, “Brutukulat Hukamaʾ Sahyun . . . al-Raʾi al-Akhar,” al-Manar al-Jadid 22 (2004): 120–36. See also al-Masiri, ʿAbd al-Wahab M., al-Brutukulat wa-l-Yahudiyya wa-l-Sahyuniyya (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2003). Already in 1977 Elmessiri engaged in a discussion over The Protocols and the need to reject them as a forgery, in a polemic with Bernard Lewis who had stated that no Arab writer had ever called into question the authenticity of The Protocols. See Lewis, Bernard and Elmessiri, Abdelwahab M.Arab Views on ‘the Protocols,’” Foreign Affairs 55 (April 1977): 641–43.

41 Al-Masiri, Rihlati, 627.

42 Stein, Representing Israel, 84–85, 95–96, 194.

43 Achcar, Gilbert, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab–Israeli War of Narratives (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009), 40, 47.

44 Al-Masiri, Mawsuʿa, 2:21–22.

45 Ibid., 1:343–44.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., 2:124.

49 Here Elmessiri seems to confuse Maimonides with Maimonides's son, Abraham Maimonides. See Fenton, Paul B.The Jewish Pietist Movement,” in Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, ed. Meri, Josef W. (London: Routledge, 2005), 546–48.

50 Al-Masiri, Mawsuʿa, 2:124.

51 Ibid., 2:271.

52 Ibid., 2:273.

53 Ibid., 1:211–12.

54 See Levi, Primo, If This Is a Man (London: Folio Society, 2000), 103; and Reshef, Yehuda and Berenbaum, Michael, “Muselmann,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Berenbaum, Michael and Skolnik, Fred, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 14:623. Litvak and Webman also discuss this fragment, though they draw on Elmessiri's al-Sahyuniya wa-l-Naziya wa-Nihayat al-Tarikh (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1997), which offers an identical text on pp. 22–228. However, they fail to point out Elmessiri's misunderstanding of the context. See Litvak and Webman, Empathy to Denial, 232.

55 Baumann and Gingrich, Grammars, 25.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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