The hostel at the corner of Rashad Pasha Street was an imposing fortress with an extensive, circular courtyard at its heart. Each of the building’s three stories was a circular series of suites of rooms that opened onto a narrow corridor overlooking the court. The three friends occupied adjoining rooms on the second floor. Ma’mun Radwan went to his cramped chamber and began to change clothes. His room was furnished with a small bed and a wardrobe on the opposite wall. Between these, beneath a little window, there was a medium-sized desk with books and reference works on it. The young man loved books passionately. Thus the moment his eyes fell on Lalande’s dictionary of philosophy, his lips relaxed into a delicate smile that revealed his love and enthusiasm. All the same, he lost no time. He performed his ablutions and then the afternoon prayer. Next he donned his best clothes and left his room for the street. He carried his trim body in an attractive military fashion as he set forth. He was slender without being emaciated and so light-skinned that his complexion was shot with red. His best feature was his large black eyes, which shone with a luminosity that bespoke insight, beauty, and intelligence. He marched forward, his focus distracted by nothing, his feet pounding the pavement smartly and his eyes directed toward a single goal.

Today that goal was his fiancée’s home in Heliopolis. Ma’mun approached affairs of the heart with the same integrity and propriety he observed in all his dealings. He had asked for the hand of the girl, the daughter of a relative who was a high-ranking army officer, after first consulting his father. An agreement had been reached for them to marry once he finished his studies. Then he began visiting her home every Thursday. He would sit with the entire family and spend a few hours in pleasant conversation. It never occurred to him to invite his girl to the movies or to devise some stratagem for being alone with her. He simply did not believe in such modern heresies—as he put it—and deprecated them. Thus his conduct was well viewed and highly esteemed by the girl’s family, which was socially conservative in their embrace of time-honored tradition.

None of this prevented his heart from beating faster when he followed his customary route. So he reached the Giza road in a few minutes and boarded the tram. When he took his customary seat—his gaze untroubled, his posture erect—his good looks and nobility were evident. Had he wished to be a lothario like Umar ibn Abi Rabi‘a, he could have succeeded, but he possessed a unique blend of chastity, rectitude, and purity. He had a clean conscience and his mind was at rest. He was a pure heart who enjoyed authentic religion, deep-rooted belief, and firm morals. He had grown up in Tanta, where his father—a man of religion and moral fiber—taught in a religious institute. So he was reared in an environment that was almost Bedouin in its simplicity, religious fervor, morals, and strength. When he was young, something happened that deeply influenced his later life. He became so ill he could not attend school until he was fourteen. Thus he tasted the bitterness of solitude, experienced pain, and was refined in the furnaces of a trying ordeal. He was, however, able to study religion with his father and thus became an Islamic jurisprudent while a boy. When he entered primary school, he was an adolescent with an enormous heart, vibrant spirit, and lively intelligence. Even so, he could be bigoted and rude. In fact, he suffered from episodes of wild cruelty. During these, his soul’s generosity was drained, and he would shoot up like a tongue of flame that engulfed everything it encountered and devoured anything that resisted. Then he would redouble his effort if working and plunge deeper into his devotions if praying. If he was debating something, his comments would become mean-spirited; he would be overwhelmed by despair and depression if he were alone.

In his simple life, the boy’s only outlet for self-fulfillment was his work. So he outstripped all his peers and was capable of worshiping for hours on end as his tongue praised God continually. During the last days of a school year he would study twenty hours a day. He earned top marks in the third year examinations and expected to take first place on the final-year exams. To beat out everyone else became one of his top priorities—along with Islam, Arab pride, and virtue. He would allow no one else to better his performance. This competitive streak, however, left no noxious residue in his breast thanks to his extraordinary strength, great self-confidence, and firmly rooted belief in God. He brought humanism to the highest degree, and for this reason did not allow his spirituality to degenerate into sterile asceticism or self-abnegation. He used to say, “Belief means being filled with divine power in order to implement God’s ideals on earth.”

He was a formidable young man, even if not universally liked, since his successes made him a target for the envious and his way of life was a silent rebuke to others. Moreover, he never outgrew his preference for solitude, which had been second nature for him since his illness. Additionally, his ignorance of the principles of sociability, his dislike for humor, and a passion for candor turned his comments at times into a painful whiplash. Thus his detractors occasionally called him “the university bumpkin” or “the unexpected mahdi.” A student once said of him, “Mr. Ma’mun Radwan is Islam’s imam for our age. In ancient times, Amr ibn al-‘As introduced Islam to Egypt, through his brilliance. Tomorrow, Ma’mun Radwan will extinguish Islam in Egypt thanks to his insensitivity.” The young man remained devoted to out-shining others even though he frequently feared and hated this proclivity. Yes, he feared this sense of superiority and excellence and would ask God to protect him from this evil. All the same, he failed to overcome it. Therefore he could never truly admire an important personage. So when the king opened the university he candidly announced his disdain for the government officials who attended the ceremony. For this reason too he shrugged his shoulders dismissively whenever he heard students speak enthusiastically about men they referred to as leaders. He rejected all the political parties and refused affiliation with the “Egyptian cause.” With customary zeal, he would say, “There is only one cause: the cause of Islam in general and of the Arabs in particular.”

What was truly amazing was that he was not influenced by the trend toward atheism, which was fashionable among students at the university when he was there. This can be attributed to his relatively advanced age at the time of his enrollment at the university; he was twenty-three. By that time, he had come to believe deeply in three things he never renounced to the end of his days: God, virtue, and the cause of Islam. His vision was not distracted by the university’s new light. His faith remained a boulder against which the waves of psychology, sociology, and metaphysics crashed. With his faith he defied science and philosophy in general, enlisting them as pretexts for and constituent elements of belief. How delighted he was to find preeminent philosophers under God’s sway: Plato, Descartes, Pascal, and Bergson. His sincere heart welcomed the synthesis that the twentieth century promised between science, religion, and philosophy. In contemporary thought, matter dissolved into electric charges more like the spirit than earlier concepts of matter. In contemporary thought, spirituality was reclaiming its hijacked throne. In contemporary thought, scientists were preoccupied with theology and men of religion drew inspiration from science and philosophy. So blessings on the devout young philosopher! The young man in Giza did, however, differ from the sick boy in Tanta. He had grown more open-minded and magnanimous. Thus it was possible for him to listen to Mahgub Abd al-Da’im’s buffoonery with a smile, to debate with Ali Taha about the relative merits of religion and atheism, and to accept the barbs of critics and scoffers—except when he became infuriated, his eyes flared, and that dread passion overwhelmed him.

Then his insight deserted him, and he might as well have been blind. The young man discovered sincere believers among his fellow students and did not feel isolated by his beliefs. Yet he never convinced anyone to share his enthusiasm for proselytizing on behalf of Islam and Arab pride. At the time, minds were full of many other concerns like the Egyptian cause, the 1923 constitution, and a boycott of foreign goods. The young man, however, never despaired at being a minority of one. It was impossible for despair to dominate a heart like his.

Great hopes excited him, but his heart was also able to embrace life and hastened to greet it with delight. Indeed, he began to gaze out of the tram window with something akin to anxiety. He wished the tram would make the trip to Heliopolis in the wink of an eye.

Cairo Modern