Ibn Fattouma and the Perfect Society

by Nate Reak

            This paper will be analyzing the notable Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's The Journey of Ibn Fattouma and comparing the ideas to Karl Marx's stages of development.  Born in 1911 in Egypt, Mahfouz wrote thirty-four novels and over three hundred short stories along with movie scripts and plays. After winning the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, many of his works were published across the world and some were censored in Arab countries for their political and social ideas. Mahfouz said, "In all my writings, you will find politics," and most of his work was, indeed, influenced by socialist and democratic ideals (el-Enany, 23). Opposing radical Islam, he received many death threats and even survived an assassination attempt by an Islamic extremist. He died, eventually, in 2006 after a seventy-year writing career.

            First published in 1983, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma was written during global turmoil and political questioning; the Cold War. This was a period of testing for the communist socialism of the Soviet Union and a trial for the democratic capitalism of the USA and NATO in the West. Both sides of this war of influence and ideals seemed to be equally strong in military and economic might. Marxist literature was extremely influential during this time and was globally known. Mahfouz was influenced by Marx's theories and The Journey of Ibn Fattouma reflects his perspective on the growing communist and socialist movement and his understanding of Marx's theory on historical development.


Karl Marx's Stages of Development

The Marxist idea of stages or forms of development is a revision of Hegel's dialectic theory where life is in a constant cycle of struggle and conflict. Marx thought that there was an end to this cycle, a society where there was no need for conflict; the perfect society; the communist society. Society must, however, work through certain stages to achieve this perfection. The stages start with a tribal, or slave society. This becomes, through the change of property ownership, a feudal and monarchal society. Industrialization and an increase in private property and materialism result in the capitalist and democratic society. Class conflict is inevitable in the capitalist society, according to Marx, and the final revolution will lead to a socialist and communist society of equality and communal ownership.

            Naguib Mahfouz would have been well versed in Marxism and the theory of historical development and while his book reflects Marx's ideas, it also critiques them. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma is about Ibn Fattouma, a man who resides in the Lands of Islam. Having heard stories about Gebel, the perfect city, and becoming disillusioned with his own land, Fattouma begins a quest to find the land of Gebel. The journey requires his passing through the lands of Mashriq, Haria, Habla, and Aman, with a quick stay in Ghuroub, before the final stretch to Gebel. Fattouma analyzes each of the four lands he passes through with both criticisms and praises for their system of governance.


The first stages in Marx's theory are the tribal and slave societies. In The German Ideology, Marx describes the first form as "tribal ownership" with production on "a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land" (McLellan, 5). The second form involves "the union of several tribes into a city" and "communal ownership," where the chieftains distribute supplies and protect the people (McLellan, 5).  Christopher T. Altman describes it as a "primal society" and explains that, "thought and realization do not enter into the process until basic survival is guaranteed: freedom and individual will are concepts that have yet to be established" (2). The first steps in forming a society are natural and primitive, according to Marx, and Mahfouz correlates these ideas with the first land traveled by Ibn Fattouma.

            Arriving in Mashriq, Ibn Fattouma's caravan is greeted "by a man naked but for a loincloth," and is shown to rooms in an inn he deems "primitive" (20). The next day, his exploration of the town reveals that "the people, women and men alike, were as naked as the day they were born...Their bodies are bronze-colored and thin, not gracefully so but apparently from undernourishment, though they mostly looked contented, even cheerful" (23). In his sightseeing, he also notices that there is "nothing but open ground," a necessity for the tribal production in Marx's first stage (23). Ibn Fattouma asks his innkeeper, Fam, for information about Mashriq:

            "'Mashriq consists of a capital and four towns. Each town has an overlord who is            its owner; he owns the pastures, the cattle, and the herdsmen. The people are his         slaves, they submit to his will in exchange for a sufficiency of subsistence and           security.'" (27)


The political and economic dynamics in Mashriq coincide with Marx's first two stages in development. There is a union of "four towns," in which all ownership is given to the chiefs, or "overlords," in return for security.

            The religion in Mashriq consists of the worship of the moon and Ibn Fattouma is fortunate enough to witness the ceremonies of the new moon. He notes that "there burst forth in a single moment from the people's throats a single hymn; it burst forth, strong and universal, as though the earth and the sky and everything between them had joined forces...a tune distinguished by barbaric crudeness..." (31). This passage shows that the people in Mashriq have no individuality; no freedom of expression aside from nature. They are still connected to a sense of natural order and have not fully developed their own humanity. Furthermore, the Moon Priest tells Fattouma that their god "says one word to us: that nothing lasts in life and that it is heading for annihilation. Thus he has pointed to the way in silence, that we might make of our lives a game and exist in contentment" (39). Just as the people in Marx's tribal society only strive for basic survival, the people in Mashriq are content merely to live and, as such, live merely to contentedness. Ibn Fattouma stays many years in Mashriq and founds a family, but he is unable to acquire or accept the people's apathy. Eventually, he is deported to Haira for trying to raise his children as Muslims against the overlord’s wishes.


In The German Ideology, Marx describes the third stage as "feudal or state property"  with an "enserfed small peasantry" (McLellan, 6). He writes that "the hierarchical structure of landownership and the armed bodies of retainers associated with it, gave the nobility power of the serfs" (McLellan, 6). Altman states that in this stage, "the development of means of production is accomplished through the direct exploitation of the majority" (2). It is clear that, for Marx, there is very little difference between the slaves of the first and second stages and the peasants in this third stage. He also notes that "feudal kingdoms" are important to the hierarchy and that "the nobility, had, therefore, everywhere a monarch at its head" (McLellan, 7). With a supportive military and nobility, the third stage has a monarch standing on the shoulders of the serfs and peasants.

            Ibn Fattouma, being banished from Mashriq, joins a caravan to the lands of Haira. They are greeted by "a military man" who says, "'Everywhere here you will find policemen... " (52). His rooms, however, are comfortable and his first impression is that "Civilization was, no doubt, to be found here. What a difference between this a Mashriq!" (53). Ham, Ibn Fattouma's new innkeeper, informs him that in Haira, "‘our god is the king'" (54). He notices the huge difference between the rich and poor quarters in the city and the abundance of police, and the caravan owner explains that "'security is assured, they are protecting the state'" (57). War is declared on the slave owners of Mashriq and Ibn Fattouma questions the legitimacy of this war. "'They claim that the war was started in order to free the slaves in Mashriq. Why don't they free the slaves of Haira?'" (57). Just as Marx sees little difference between slaves and serfs, Ibn Fattouma questions the freedom of Haira.

            Seeking more information, Ibn Fattouma meets with a sage of Haira. He explains how the people "possess no sanctity and have no talents," so it is only just and natural for the nobility to rule over them (60-61). He describes the two "philosophies" in Haira: strength in power, control, and growth for the elite; and "obedience, compliance, and contentment" for the "others" (61). Ibn Fattouma questions the ownership in Haira:

            "'Who owns the land and the factories?' 'The god, who is the creator and the king.'         'And the elite?' 'They are the owners by proxy, the income being divided equally            between them and the god.' 'How is the god's wealth spent?'...'Is a god to be asked            about what he does?'" (61)


The sage's explanation of the society of Haira correlates with the third stage of development, with a monarch whose military might and supporting nobility exploits the people. Ibn Fattouma's disapproval of the exploitation is clear, and though he sees the wealth, he also sees the disparity between the rich and poor.

            Haira successfully defeats the Mashriq and, at the selling of the prisoners of war, Ibn Fattouma finds his wife from Mashriq. However, a member of the nobility also sees his wife and throws Ibn Fattouma in prison in order to have her as his own. Twenty years are spent in this prison before an insurrection puts a new king on the throne and Ibn Fattouma is set free to continue his journey.


With industrialization, a stronger middle class, and a change in ownership; the monarch and feudal society morphs into a capitalist democracy. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx describes some aspects of capitalism. He notes that "the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women" (62). He also states that "in bourgeois society [capitalist], living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour... In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality" (69). Marx is trying to explain how in a capitalist society the worker is still enslaved, but to his wages and material consumerism. The wages and the goods, however, are controlled by the elite. Mahfouz reflects Marx's idea of the capitalist exploitation while praising democratic ideology, with Ibn Fattouma's continued journey.

            The land of Habla greets Ibn Fattouma claiming to be "'the land of freedom'" (80). His rooms are "without a doubt very many degrees superior to that of Haira" and, though the expense is high, he "was astonished by both the quality and quantity of the food..." (81). These initial reactions reflect his first impressions of Habla as a whole. There are grand and exquisite buildings, many gardens and parks, and streets bustling with "the rich and the great, and the poor too, though these were several degrees better off than the poor of Haira and Mashriq..." (82). Finding a Mosque, Fattouma participates in the noon prayer for the first time in all of his travels and talks with Sheikh Hamada al-Sabki. Astounded that followers of all faiths reside in Habla, he asks how they are “reconciled” (85). "'All are treated on the basis of complete equality,' [the Scheikh] said simply…'I would inform you that our present [state] head is heathen” (85). Fattouma's amazement leads to further questions about the state and government in Habla. Al-Sabki describes an elected head-of-state with checks and balances in place and an “assembly of experts in all fields, whose opinion is of assistance to [the head of state]” (87). Expressing praise for “a good system” and “what an excellent system,”  Ibn Fattouma approves of the democratic government (87).

 However, not all is perfect. Al-Sabki admits that "religious differences are not always resolved peacefully,” and that the system is fragile; even a victorious battle could spell decline (88-89). Perhaps the most astonishing thing Ibn Fattouma witnesses in Habla is the working women who, just like the men, participate in frank and political conversations (91). Women’s active role in Habla society is similar to Marx’s understanding of women in capitalist societies. The sage Marham al-Halabi gives insight into the dynamics in Habla. Al-Halabi states that freedom “‘is a responsibility which only the competent can be conversant with. Not everyone who belongs to Halba is equal to it. There is no place for the weak amongst us… As for me, I find no meaning for such words as mercy or justice - we must first of all agree as to who deserves mercy and who deserves justice’” (97). The workers of Halba are individuals, but are then at the mercy of their labor. The sage makes it clear that the system is not to benefit the people, but that the people exist to benefit the system; coinciding with Marx’s thoughts on capitalism. Ibn Fattouma soon becomes disenchanted with the freedom of Halba. He compares it to anarchy and exclaims, “I thought you were a happy people...but you are torn apart by invisible conflicts” (107). Deciding to leave yet another family in Halba, Ibn Fattouma continues his journey seeking the truly perfect city of Gebel.


            The final stage in Marx's theory is communism, where the ownership is switched to the workers and there is class equality. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that the communist society emerges after the workers overthrow the bourgeois and control the political power (67). He then writes that " the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property" (68). Overthrowing the elite and eliminating private property allows for the "labour...to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer" whereas, under capitalism, the worker was enslaved to the labour (Marx, 69). He also writes that the communist society would "replace home education by social..." in order to save children "from the influence of the ruling class" (71). As far as religion goes, Marx states:

            "... Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality,            instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all   past historical experience."... "The Communist revolution is the most radical     rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development   involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas." (73-74)

In these ways, society is supposed to end conflict. According to Marx, the perfect society allows the majority to rule; creates uniformity and equality; prioritizes the worker, not the product; has un-biased education; and turns away from tradition. According to Marx, these are some of the steps to the perfect society. With the last city Ibn Fattouma sees, Mahfouz examines the perfection of such a society.

            Ibn Fattouma's greetings to Aman include being given a "constant companion," Fluka, to provide answers and direction on the working of "the land of total justice" (114). Fluka's description of Aman points to the uniformity of buildings and people; he says that "the smallest wage is sufficient to satisfy what a respectable person requires in the way of lodging, food, clothing, education, culture, and also entertainment" (118). Just as with communism, Aman stresses uniformity and assures that the labour benefits the worker. Fluka shows him the parks for children where they receive social education while their parents are working, similar to Marx's social education plan (120). Ibn Fattouma admits that he "thought it was a good system" and that the infrastructure in Aman was "in truth in no way inferior to similar ones in Habla in size, order or discipline..." (119, 121-122).

            The system and infrastructure were established only after "the final battle" where "the landowners, factory owners, and despotic rulers" were executed (122). Aman, again, parallels Marx's communist society's need for a revolution against the exploiting elite. Fluka further discusses how Aman "is the only [land] in which you will not come across the illusions of superstitions," just as Marx's communism is without religious traditions (124). Ibn Fattouma begins to be disillusioned, however, when he hears that the president is elected for life and "has the last word" in policy making (123-124). The faux equality is confirmed when he sees the "excessively fat" president and is "convinced that the president and his men enjoyed a regime of food which deviated from that to which the people were accustomed" (127). Fluka did say that "all are equal other than those whose work sets them aside," but the gap between the president and his aids and the workers is rather large (118). Another aspect of Aman that appears displeasing to Ibn Fattouma is the suppression of freedom: "I realized that personal freedom had execution for its punishment in this land, and this caused me great sadness" (129). Mahfouz appreciates some aspects of a communist society—a system where capital is used to better the workers—but he uses Ibn Fattouma's disillusionment to recognize the shortcomings of Marx's idealized society.

            Ibn Fattouma continues his journey through Ghuroub, a land meant to prepare him for the rest of the journey into Gebel. Knowing that he might not survive, he sends his journals back with the caravan in hopes of later returning to his homeland.

Conclusion and Gebel

            Mahfouz's book is an attempt to explore the possibilities of social structures using Ibn Fattouma's journeys through the stages of development described by Marx. Ibn Fattouma sees the happiness and contentment in Mashriq, the sense of security in Haira, the freedom of individual expression and reason in Habla, and the complete justice of Aman. He acknowledges, however, the flaws and hypocrisies in each of these societies. The old man who helps prepare Ibn Fattouma for the last leg of his journey in Ghuroub says, "'Over there, in the land of Gebel...with mind and hidden powers they discover truths, till the land, construct factories, and bring about justice, liberty, and universal purity'" (142). Gebel's perfection encompasses the positive aspects of all the lands without their problems.

             The end of the journey is non-conclusive. Throughout the book, Mahfouz alludes that Gebel is only a dream (104, 122-123) and questions its existence (62, 104, 130). Ibn Fattouma's quest ends with questions: "Did he complete his journey or did he perish on the way? Did he enter the land of Gebel? How did he fare there?" (148). Mahfouz agrees with most of Marx's theory on the development of society, but he pushes it farther; Mahfouz does not accept that communism is the perfect society. Instead, he questions what a perfect society would be, and even if it could be.


Works Cited

Altman, Christopher T. "Hegel and Marx: Alternative Conceptions of HIstory." University of Missouri, Fall 2000. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Lenin, V. I. The Teachings of Karl Marx. New York: International, 1972. Print.

Lichtheim, George. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. 2nd ed. New York: Praeger, 1965. Print.

Mahfouz, Naguib. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma. New York: Anchor, 1993. Print.

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Frederic L. Bender. Colorado Springs: Norton Critical, 1988. Print.

McLellan, David. Marxism: Essential Writings. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.