Spiritualism Experienced Its Heyday in 20th-Century Egypt

How a rise in the movement and summoning of the dead became characteristic of an era’s seismic change

Spiritualism Experienced Its Heyday in 20th-Century Egypt
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In the late 1940s, a strange story filled Alexandria’s press. It first appeared in the French-language weekly, La Reforme, before finding its way into several Arabic newspapers in the Egyptian port city.

The reports began with a young man who had spent a night out in the city eating, drinking and dancing. Over the course of his evening, he met a young woman he had never seen before. They danced into the night, and as they prepared to leave, the young man ordered a taxi to take her home, chivalrously giving her his jacket for the ride. But on that journey, something weird and unexplainable happened. As the couple drove past one of Alexandria’s many cemeteries, the woman suddenly disappeared from the young man’s side. He was utterly flummoxed; his date had vanished before his eyes without a trace. He went back to the cemetery the next morning to look for her in the light of day. As he scoured the area, he could find no trace of her; all he saw was his jacket, hanging from one of the gravestones.

The story of the disappearing woman became big news, and for several weeks, people picked apart its details and debated its implications in minute detail. Many called for a police investigation, saying that the disappearance of a young woman was a serious matter. But others insisted strange powers were at work that went far beyond the abilities of the police to explain. One writer said this woman was not an ordinary mortal — she was a jinni: a spirit in human form. Specifically, she was a woman’s “qarin” (companion), created from fire in the world of the jinn to accompany the woman through their existence. Her human double had died, but the qarin had lived on after her death, haunting the world and, apparently, attracted to the raucous music of Alexandria’s dance parties.

One man dissected the supernatural implications of this encounter at length. He was Ahmed Fahmy Abu al-Khair, Egypt’s most prominent Spiritualist at the time, who had recently started his own monthly magazine, Alam al-Ruh (The Spirit World), dedicated to supernatural and spiritualist research. The world beyond our perception, he wrote in al-Muqattam newspaper, was vast and complex. Jinn were just one part of a much larger spectrum — like infrared light was just one part of a wider spectrum. The unexplained apparition could have been a jinni, but it could also be the spirit of a dead woman who had crossed over from the other side.

Abu al-Khair was a science teacher who had spent much of the previous decade as a member of staff at the Princess Fawzia Secondary School for girls. He had also written books on the history of mathematics, as well as short articles on popular science, contributing explainers about topics including the telephone, wireless communication and electric light for the Egyptian newspaper al-Jihad. In the late 1930s he discovered Spiritualism, reading books and conducting extensive research on the subject. Afterward, he became a public advocate, lecturing, writing articles and translating classic Spiritualist texts into Arabic. Particularly inspired by the British Spiritualists Oliver Lodge and Arthur Findlay, he was committed to researching unexplained phenomena and scientifically proving the continued existence of the soul after death.

The mysterious story of the disappearing woman in Alexandria gave Abu al-Khair a chance to tell people about many of the recent developments in Spiritualist science. This was not a one-off incident; it was a surprisingly common occurrence, of the sort that was the subject of scholarly research across the world. “The phenomenon of physical manifestations of the spirits of the dead has been established by scientific experiments,” he told them. He mentioned the wide range of people — from classical Arabic scholars to modern Western scientists — who believed in the existence of a spirit world inhabited by the shades of the dead and who were using a variety of methods to communicate with it. The University of London, Abu al-Khair wrote, had even awarded a doctorate degree to a scholar researching Spiritualist science; this was the cutting edge of modern science, he told readers. He also reassured them that religious authorities, including the sheik of al-Azhar and the mufti of Egypt, endorsed the existence of the spirit world, at least in principle.

Abu al-Khair managed to find a small but very receptive audience for his message in the Arab world. In the decades after World War II, he became the most prominent public Spiritualist in Egypt, perhaps the whole Arab world, fielding questions on the subject from far and wide. People from across the Middle East wrote to his magazine — from Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. On one occasion, he helped a family in Port Sudan who were being harassed by a mischievous poltergeist-like entity, just by holding a seance in Cairo.

Abu al-Khair set up his own society to “study Spiritualist phenomena, spread the message of modern Spiritualist science and cooperate with similar organizations abroad.” His magazine, The Spirit World, kept going throughout the decade, publishing translations, news articles, historical precedents for the modern Spiritualist wave, and more. In perhaps its most attention-grabbing coup, the magazine claimed to have contacted the spirit of legendary Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi from beyond the grave. The Spirit World published some of his posthumously composed works in their pages and, a few years later, published an entire book of these newly discovered works by Shawqi.

By the 1950s, everyone seemed to be talking about Spiritualism. From the Free Officer Khaled Muhyiddin, who was said to be a particular devotee, to the woman remembered as Egypt’s first female lawyer, Naima al-Ayyoubi. Rumors about prominent politicians across the region consulting the spirit world were prevalent. One of the biggest film stars of the age, Youssef Wahby, spoke publicly about his experiments with Spiritualist healing. In 1959, an article in an Egyptian newspaper said that communicating with the spirits had become “the new hobby for society women.”

Looking back, Spiritualism seems like an eccentric curiosity — the weird detritus of a forgotten age. It is easy to forget how popular, important and influential it was. And although Spiritualism is largely seen as a Western movement — the preserve of Victorian gentlemen with top hats, tailored suits and thick mustaches — its reach was truly global.

In the Arab world in particular, the story of Spiritualism opens a window onto some of the most important debates of the 20th century — modernity, religion, colonialism, the relationship between the East and West. It also shows that some of these debates are considerably more complex than they first appear, and that intellectual history does not always follow a linear path. Spiritualism had a long and winding journey in the Arab world, which began at the turn of the 20th century, several decades before Abu al-Khair discovered it. It is a story that involved some of the most prominent thinkers of their era.

Spiritualism’s first committed apostle was Mohammed Farid Wagdy. Far from a fringe ideologue, he was making a name for himself at the turn of the century as a prolific and original scholar, committed to the revival of Islam in harmony with modern science. His early books, such as “Civilization and Islam” and “The Garden of Thought and the Scientific Proof for the Existence of God” (published in 1899 and 1901 respectively), had taken up the cause of religious reformation. Wagdy was following the path marked out by pioneering reformers of the 19th century, like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh, who had argued that, in order for the Muslim world to advance, they had to reconcile Islam with modernity.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, Wagdy discovered Spiritualism. He read about the experiments that scientists in the West had been conducting to investigate the strange phenomena produced by the spirits of the dead — from spirit photography to mediumship. Their findings immediately struck him. Here was scientific proof of the existence of the soul and its survival after death. Science was entering the battle on religion’s side, using its methods to prove what religions had been saying for centuries. Wagdy believed‌ Spiritualism was a scientific way to confront the rising tide of materialism that was threatening religious belief and, at the same time, to revivify Islam.

Wagdy started to write from an Islamic angle about Spiritualism, reporting on seances and experiments he had read about. In the years after he began his work on the subject, many more followed. The most prominent and influential of them was Sheik Tantawi Jawhari, an eccentric schoolteacher, al-Azhar graduate and independent religious scholar. He is now best remembered for his colossal, multivolume, scientific commentary on the Quran. In 1919, though, he released the revolutionary book “Al-Arwah” (The Spirits), calling on his fellow Muslims to open their eyes to the spirit world. It was a landmark in the history of Arabic spiritualism, a book-length call to people in the Arab world to take up the study of this new science.

Like Wagdy, he had heard about Spiritualism by reading accounts of seances conducted by mediums in the West. But, unlike Wagdy, he became an active practitioner of the new science, claiming that as a Muslim who believed in the survival of the soul and the metaphysical world of the spirits, he had “more right to this knowledge than the Westerners.” By the early 1920s, he and a small circle of comrades began to make contact with the ghosts of great heroes from the past, including Joan of Arc and Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Spiritualism was first ushered into the Arab world by these religious scholars, who were exploring the world of modern science‌ to bolster some of the central tenets of Islam. The religious milieu of the early 20th century was a complicated place in which all kinds of new ideas were debated. In the 1920s, one of Jawhari’s fellow Spiritualists, Hussein Hassan, also published a book trying to explain the philosophies of yoga to a modern Arabic-speaking audience.

Politically, too, it was a fraught time. Jawhari, as well as being Egypt’s most prominent Spiritualist, was also an enthusiastic early member of the Muslim Brotherhood and editor of their official magazine for much of the 1930s. I am not sure what the official Muslim Brotherhood position on Spiritualism is now, but in the early 1930s, alongside their appeals to return to an Islamic golden age and to fight back against Western corruption, one of their most prominent members was actively spreading the doctrine in Egypt.

But this story of Islamic Spiritualism has many silences too — most noticeably from women. The 19th-century Spiritualist movement in America and Europe had given a prominent place to female mediums, turning many into celebrities. Jawhari and Wagdy, though, had conservative views about the place of women in society. Both men, at different stages in their careers, wrote warnings about giving too much license to women and failing to protect them from the dangers of the world. The early days of Spiritualism had no place for women.

Once it had arrived in the Middle East, Spiritualism quickly took off and developed. In the 1930s, politicians began to experiment with it, one man in Damascus published a short-lived journal on the subject, and different “Spiritualist scholars” advertised their services in the newspapers. As interest grew, Abu al-Khair found himself drawn into this world. In 1938, he gave a popular lecture on “Spiritualism and Modern Science” at the American University in Cairo. He also put out feelers for fellow enthusiasts, some of whom came to the small seances that he held in his house in Cairo.

By the 1950s, it was now unremarkable to see articles about it in the popular press and books dedicated to the subject. Abu al-Khair even dreamed of inaugurating programs for the study of Spiritualism at the major universities in Cairo and Alexandria, though he never realized this ambition. Women, too, were becoming active participants, as attendees at Spiritualist circles, as mediums and even as “Spiritualist singers” who channeled the power of the spirit world to put on exceptional performances.

Among the swirl of paranormal activity, one big question always remains about Spiritualism: What made it take off so much at certain times? Why did people suddenly flock to its message? Since the birth of the movement in the mid-19th century, its rise has been ‌a mystery. After all, fascination with ghosts and spirits had always existed; what made people turn to an organized movement that claimed to communicate with the dead?

Many scholars have puzzled over why there was a similar surge of interest in Spiritualism in Europe of the 1920s and 1930s. The simple reason has always been that people, desperate to contact their relatives who had died in World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, turned to Spiritualists for help. But I have always found this explanation unsatisfying. Not only did it mean very little to most self-professed Spiritualists at the time, but it also does not explain the global spread of Spiritualism in the early 20th century. Why were people across the world, whose lives had not been touched by the war in the same way as Europeans, taking up the study and practice of the paranormal? Jawhari, Wagdy and Abu al-Khair had different concerns.

Based on what Spiritualists at the time were writing and talking about, it is clear that a common desire to create new worlds united them across time and space. As well as attempting to contact the other side, every Spiritualist that I have come across was committed to at least one utopian project — often several. Exactly why this is so remains unknown, but it has been true since the early days of the Spiritualist movement in America, when a mix of socialists, feminists, abolitionists and others gathered under the flag of Spiritualism. One contemporary speculated: “The vision of a new heaven will perhaps be most gladly received by those whose eyes have been opened to the vision of a new earth.”

In the Arab world, this was also true. Jawhari, as well as writing on Spiritualism, published two books about the possibility of world peace and the improvement of humanity: “Where Is Humanity?” and “Dreams of Politics: How to Achieve World Peace.” Spiritualists, generally, were well represented in the peace movement in Egypt. Others found their way to different utopian philosophies. One of Abu al-Khair’s protégés, Nassif Isaac, published a book promoting both Spiritualism and the universal language Esperanto, which he called “The Two Aspirations of Humanity: One Universal Scientific Religion and One International Common Language.”

Spiritualism, I argue, always becomes popular ‌when a new world and a new order looks possible. Arab Spiritualists emerged ‌when new ways of existing in the world were being imagined.

The 1910s and 1920s in Egypt, where Jawhari and Wagdy promoted their Spiritualism, were times of huge political upheaval. Egyptians fought for and won their own nation-state, then went about developing their new country. Unsurprisingly, the nascent Spiritualists Wagdy and Jawhari were prominent advocates for the national cause. The Muslim Brotherhood, although it seems a long way from Spiritualism now, was also advocating for a fundamentally new society, founded on what they saw as traditional Islamic values.

In the 1950s, during the era of pan-Arabism and postcolonial liberation across the Middle East, Spiritualism became even more prevalent. Stories of seances held among the Egyptian and Syrian military lend further support to the argument that Spiritualism was enmeshed with the push for change.

This is also a more compelling explanation for the rise of Spiritualism in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe. It was not just the desire to contact departed relatives that energized Spiritualism, it was the desire to construct a new society on the rubble of a destroyed civilization.

In the late 1960s, the bottom fell out of the pan-Arab project, which had captured the imagination of so many intellectuals of the postcolonial era. In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem, and defeated the armies of Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The ramifications were felt far away from the battlefield. The feelings of national self-confidence that people in the Middle East had in the previous two decades melted away, along with the sense that they had the power to change anything. The late 1960s and early 1970s were an age of disillusion.

Of course, Spiritualism had always had its critics, those who accused mediums of being charlatans, exploiting the naïve and vulnerable. Others had bigger problems with the philosophy. In 1960, one professor of modern literature at Alexandria University, Mohammed Hussein, published a book called “Modern Spiritualism, Its Truth and Its Aims.” In it he accused Spiritualists of promoting everything from paganism to communism, claiming that Spiritualism was an arm of “international Jewry” and a plot to destroy both Islam and Christianity.

After 1967, critics became more vocal. Hussein rereleased his book in 1969 in an updated edition with the new title “Modern Spiritualism: A Destructive Call: The Summoning of Spirits and its Links to Global Zionism.” In 1971, Spiritualism was in the newspapers again but, this time, as a strange conspiracy. Journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal had gotten hold of a tape recording of some seances conducted by a former Egyptian defense minister, Gen. Hussein Fawzi, and two former high-ranking intelligence officials, Shaarawi Guma and Sami Sharaf. These men had recently fallen out of favor with President Anwar Sadat, and this exposé of their seance, in which they sought advice about the turbulent political waters where they found themselves, was plastered on the front page of al-Ahram in an obvious attempt to discredit them.

In the space of a little over two decades since that strange apparition had appeared in Alexandria, sparking so much debate, Spiritualism had changed from an unusual new craze into a massive political liability. Abu al-Khair, who died in 1960, did not live to see its full trajectory. Today, it has largely disappeared from the public sphere in the Middle East (as it has in most other places in the world). Many in Egypt, for instance, have fond memories of childhood experiments with Ouija boards or telling ghost stories, but there is little organized Spiritualist presence in the country.

After looking at this complicated and often unusual chapter of modern Arab history, one pressing question remains: Why should we be interested in the history of Spiritualism in the Arab world? My answer is simple. The history of Spiritualism is the history of the 20th century.

For Wagdy and Jawhari, Spiritualism offered one‌ way to reconcile Islam and modern science. It also allowed them to carve out a place for Islamic traditions in the ever-developing study of Spiritualism, showing that they were a legitimate part of this global conversation, which was important for many of these early Spiritualists. Jawhari sent his books to international conferences and wrote letters to fellow scholars across the world, seeing himself as a partner in a wider search for answers. Likewise, Abu al-Khair, who turned to Spiritualism for an explanation of mysteries that he previously thought unsolvable, began his work by translating international scholars into Arabic. They all saw themselves as part of a much larger whole.

Most of the people who read this article, I assume, will be at least skeptical about the claims of Spiritualists to ‌contact the dead; many will think them ridiculous. Intellectual history is full of movements that held enormous currency in their time but have since been forgotten. What makes Spiritualism such an important example is that it was emblematic of the desire for change and progress that defined the 20th century, an embodiment of the optimism of a world in flux. It put on offer, perhaps, something of a false utopia. And what is more quintessentially 20th century than that?

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