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REFORMATIVE YOUNG ADULTHOOD: EMERGENT FOUNDATION

ADOPTING NATURE AND RELIGION

Ibrahim Abouleish was born into a typical, though well off, extended family in Egypt, with homes in both the city and countryside.

My grandfather listened to all my childlike questions and found comprehensive answers for me, which were deeply satisfying. He sat down beside the bright white flower with the dancing butterfly, and took me on his knee. I leaned back against him, enjoying his gentleness. The butterfly opened its colourful wings, and flew from the white blossom up into the sky. We both followed its flight for a long time.

Alongside the Islamic faith, from a cultural perspective, it becomes apparent, from an early stage, that young Abouleish had a deep affinity for nature. He was also introduced, when very young, to business and to morality:

I was nine when my father established a business and I started becoming interested in industry. Every day after school I changed my clothes and went to the factory. I was greeted by the smell of soapsuds boiling in huge vats. Shortly before establishing his business, in fact, there was a terrible attack in our local area, which was heavily populated by Jews. An ice-cream van was blown up by a bomb planted by extremists, just as the van was surrounded by children. So my father built his factory on the exact spot where the bomb had left its devastation to show that such things could never be tolerated.

ADOLESCENCE – TURBULENT TIMES

My Willpower and Endurance

The years between 1952 and 1956, when Ibrahim was in his late teens, were of great importance for the political future of Egypt, and were accompanied by unrest. In 1954 a Republic was founded by Abdel Nasser, after two years of unrest, during which he and his fellow pupils were given time off school to take part in demonstrations. He had a few close friends who were interested in social and cultural topics. They would go rowing on the Nile when they were off school, and took many bicycling trips across the whole of Egypt. Such excursions tested his willpower and endurance.

He always spent the summer in the countryside, at the family home in the village of Mashtul, in the Nile delta 50 miles from Cairo. He talked to the workers about their way of life, took note of their unmet needs, and brought back with him, on a subsequent visit, such things of which they were in need.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD – INNER AND OUTER DEVELOPMENT

Initial Fusing of Horizons

One of Abouleish's uncles, named Mohammad, was a university professor and had a huge library in his house. None of his friends could understand what drew Ibrahim to him, and led the young man to engage in deep discussions with him. Sometimes Mohammad would give Ibrahim a book out of his library, and one day he came across Goethe's Young Werther written in Arabic. He avidly absorbed this work, which made him want to get to know more about the German people and their writers. Art and science, economic life, citizens' rights – he deeply admired all these European attributes. The closer he got to finishing school, the more seriously he considered going to Germany to study at university. Having eventually convinced his parents to support him, and having a friend who had moved to Graz, in Austria, he applied and was accepted at university there. He wrote the following farewell to his father:

Peace and greeting be with you ... When I get back, if God wills, I will go to Mashtul, the village I have always loved and where I spent the best time of my childhood. I will build factories where the people can work, different work than they are used to from farming. I will build workshops for women and girls, where they can make clothes and carpets and household goods and everything that the people need. I know that transport and communication is very important, so I will get the roads tarred and plant trees to right and left of it. I will build a large theatre on your grounds, where renowned artists can give performances for the people of my village. I will build a hospital near the main road and schools for children. I will bring together the men and women of higher learning form the village to help establish the idea, so that the village of Mashtul can become a shining centre in Egypt ... Peace be with you.

As it happened, while studying in Austria, and reaching out to another culture, Ibrahim fell in love with his Austrian wife-to-be Gudrun. Their two children would be mixed Catholic and Muslim in their background, if not their faith.

Practising His Inner Faith

When Ibrahim got to the university in Graz he joined the foreign visitors' club. During the early years, though, he felt quite lonely. So while he put a lot of energy into his studies of technical chemistry, the Qur'an accompanied him through his daily meditations, the same ones he had undertaken throughout his childhood. While Islam is a monotheistic religion, Allah has 99 different names which the Muslim can meditate upon.

For one, "Allah is the patient one", so I practised patience. Because of this, these were years of inner exercise, which had led me to believe, throughout my life, that I am a "practising person". Through such inner exercises I tried to establish a relationship with Allah. I do not want to be known as a religious person, but as a striving, practising one. I had a goal, an ideal, Allah's ninety nine qualities. When a situation becomes unbelievably difficult for me I could see how small I was in relation to those names, which made things bearable. In fact, the names are divided into three sets of thirty-three, in terms of: the One (for example creator, wise, evolver, initiator), the Light (for instance watching, destroyer, expander, compassionate), and the Judge (for example strong, just, loving, forgiveness). To BE, meanwhile, is the highest ideal.

Ibrahim's approach to education, given all the experiences of his life beforehand, inwardly and outwardly, was very different to that of his fellow students.

Where the Occident and the Orient Meet

Technical chemistry consisted of many different subjects, each one of which would have been an entire subject of its own. Abouleish was inspired by everything. He noticed fellow students, whom he came to teach, had a completely different approach to understanding. They learnt everything by heart. He wondered how one could learn a subject by heart without understanding it properly.

During his studies, moreover, Ibrahim noticed inner changes taking place within himself. He became thoroughly involved with European culture, getting to know its music, studying its poetry and philosophy. Somebody looking into his soul would have seen that anything "Egyptian" had been completely left behind, so he could absorb everything new. Because of his childhood and adolescent grounding, though, in Egyptian culture, and in Islam, he could not leave it all entirely behind. He now existed in two worlds, both of which were essentially different: the Oriental, spiritual stream he was born into and the European, which he felt was his chosen course. But he was neither Egyptian nor European.

Ibrahim realized this particularly when he was experiencing art. For example, he started hearing Handel's Messiah with Muslim ears as praise to Allah. The two differing worlds within him gradually began to dissolve and merge into a third entity, so he was neither completely one nor the other. What he experienced was not a cheap compromise, but an elevation, a real uniting of the two cultures within himself. But now he wanted more – he wanted to achieve this state of being a "third" state, in religion too, to transcend to a higher level of being. At the same time he felt reminded of the Golden Era of Islam and the flourishing culture in Egypt at the time.

Meeting Sadat and Steiner

Shortly before the outbreak of the first Egyptian-Israeli war, Nasser asked Egyptian embassies to invite representative Egyptians from around the world to a conference in Alexandria. Ibrahim knew Sadat, Nasser's Deputy, from the days of his youth. One after the other people got up to speak in favour of war with Israel. After a short introduction he said "I am in favour of peace. Even the thought of war is harmful". He heard words like "traitor". So he told people that "if Israel and Egypt keep the peace, then the money and energy saved from supporting the war could be used for establishing a functioning economy and a cultural life for both countries". After the conference Sadat took him aside and said: "What you said was excellent". Ever since, Ibrahim has been true to his vision. War is much easier than peace!

In 1972, still in Austria, Ibrahim was again asked to give a talk on the Egyptian-Israeli conflict. He tried to illuminate his inner thoughts on the subject:

Without thinking, people let themselves be roused and sacrificed for emotions like national pride, dogmatisms and territorial claims. A justification for fighting can only come from a perception of complex connections. I don't believe my contemporary politicians in the Middle East have this thinking ability. The problems underlying this conflict cannot be solved by war, only by education. People need to be educated to understand that their lives do not depend on material objects, whether they can own a piece of land. Neither Nasser nor the Israelis are acting out of an overview of higher ideas, but out of their emotions. I would put, instead, all the money and energy into establishing schools infrastructure and creating jobs. Cultural exchange and research should be promoted, not themes that can divide people.

Abouleish noticed a dignified old lady in the front row, listening intensely. She asked him whether he had heard of Rudolph Steiner. Her name was Martha Werth. Ibrahim said no. She then asked whether he would like to find out more, which he did. After that Ibrahim went to her house almost every second day. She gave him Steiner's (3) Philosophy of Freedom, and asked him to read it. She then interrupted him after every paragraph and asked him to repeat it, in his own words. He began to experience the act of thinking through this enormous mental effort. He also began to develop a deep love towards this anthroposophy which in Greek means "the knowledge of the nature of man". Through it he grasped a tiny part of the whole world, and humanity as well as nature were revealed to him in a new light. He wanted to work though the Qur'an, using anthroposophy to achieve a deeper understanding. What sounds so easy in retrospect was attained gradually with great internal struggle, a daily observation of his relationship with Christianity, with which anthroposophy was closely aligned, and with European culture. Meanwhile his life had taken a new turn, with Martha Werth playing a major part.

 
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