Dostoevsky’s Philosophical Justice and Moral Dilemma in the Egyptian Novel

by Jihan Zakarriya

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.

In their analysis of the close relationship between Arabic literature and the historical Arab struggle for justice and democracy, critics have traced Fyodor Dostoevsky’s permanent impact.  The author and his work have influenced writers such as Lebanese author Tewfik Yusuf Awwad, Palestinian writer Najati Sidqi, and Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.[1] In this essay, I specifically trace how Dostoevsky’s works, particularly his renowned novel Crime and Punishment, have influenced three famous Egyptian novelists of different ages, writing at different historical periods. I argue that Egyptain novelists, like Dostoevsky, are  concerned over political and religious patriarchy and hierarchy and their role in reproducing psychological, social and gender categorical distinctions, discriminations, and violence.

In the 1930, and 1940s, as Arab countries fought European imperialism and despotism, short story writers and novelists, including Egyptian Maḥmūd Ṭāhir Lāshīn engaged with Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky’s works, through translation. These writers were inspired by Dostoevsky’s realist ideas, his emphasis on the exchange between politics, religion and culture in modern societies, and the influence of such exchanges on human beliefs and morals. For example, in The Talk of the Village (1929), seen as marking the birth of the indigenous realistic short story in the Arab tradition, Lāshīn investigated how religious patriarchy and the state’s cultural marginalisation subjugated rural majorities in Egypt, maintaining old hierarchies and to repressing anti-imperialist struggles. Like Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who professes ‘his religious temper led him in the end to accept every suffering with resignation’ (3), the anonymous main character and narrator in The Talk of the Village notes how the Sheikh subjugates peasants with fabrications and lies: ‘an abundance of sins is the result of an excess of hope, which in turn is the product of a love of the material world’ (264). Lāshīn, like the majority of Arab writers of his time, sought salvation from prevalent inequality and repression in Dostoevsky. The narrator, advocating the pre-1952 socialist revolution in Egypt, addresses the peasants: ‘I spoke openly to them about their miserable situation and their harsh way of life, mentioned their children, their wives, their primitive housing. I elaborated in the subject of free will combined with action’ (264). Inspired by Dostoevsky’s realistic examination of the complex relationships between politics, culture and religion and his aptitude for the analysis of inner feeling, M. M. Badawi argues, Lashin ‘makes a profound analysis of the clash between two distinct cultures in rural and urban early 20th-century Egypt’. [2]

After the 1952 socialist revolution in Egypt, however, famous novelists and short story writers such as Yusuf Idris, Abdel-Rahman al-Sharqawi and Naguib Mahfouz experimented with and developed Dostoevsky’s philosophical readings of human crime and moral conflicts as a critical means of analysing new historical realities in Egypt. Mahfouz (1911-2006), one of the most influential Arab novelists — and the only Arab novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature — made particular use of Dostoevsky’s commitment to social justice and moral philosophy. Mahfouz professes that ‘Russian literature is the most beautiful of all literature, because it is the closest to us in terms of horizon, subject and philosophy.’ [3] In “al-Riwaya al-misriyya bacd al-sittiniyy,’ Russian scholar, translator and researcher Valeria Kirpichenko traces how Mahfouz is influenced by Dostoevsky’s ideas, particularly when he tackles women’s problems and causes.  Mahfouz and Dostoevsky are preoccupied with complex human relationships and circumstances and consequently are not just writing back to people in power or oppressors in Egypt and Russia, but also address the oppressed or marginalized classes and individuals as well. They are more concerned with human contact and moral insight, rather than recording facts about historical and contemporary oppression. In this stance, the personal experiences of female characters in Mahfouz’s works, like in Dostoevsky’s, relate to the real historical conditions within which the selected novels were produced. In two of his most famous novels, The Thief and the Dog (1961) and The Search (1964), Mahfouz represented two of the most striking female characters in the modern Arabic literature. Nur in The Thief and the Dog and Basyma in The Search are prostitutes, like Sonya in Crime and Punishment and Liza in The Underground Man. Nur and Basyma are placed at the margins of power and economy in socialist Egypt still dominated by class and gender discriminations, corruption and inequality. Nonetheless, Nur and Basyma show virtues such as caretaking, compassion, human sympathy and innocence lacked by powerful and rich men and women in the novel. Nur supports and helps Said Mahran, the antihero thief betrayed and imprisoned by his wife, Nabawiyya, and his close friend, Ilish. For Nur, selling her body is ‘her destiny and part of life’ (96). Nur advises Said to ‘forgive and forget the past’ and claims he is ‘are dearer to me than my heart and breath’ (129). Yet, internalizing her inferior degraded position, Nur allows Said to use her in avenging his wife and friend. Likewise, Basyma is an old prostitute but the kind mother of her only son, Sabir. Basyma is deceived and abandoned by her rich husband and has to ‘sell her body to support herself and her son’ (23).  Basyma is imprisoned for her immoral actions, but the society refuses to forgive her: ‘I am defamed forever, and I am too old to work’ (54).

The degraded lives of the Nur and Basyma, like Sonya,  expose how the society judges the morality of Muslim women and denies them the right to have a family and lead a normal public life, ignoring their denied economic rights and opportunities that force them to sell their bodies for money. Yet, the integrity and guiltlessness of these victimized female characters are acts of political defiance. The integrity and guiltlessness, then, are a sign of either an inability or a refusal to engage with the corrupt and hypocrite social and moral structures. They are voluble and challenge their enforced exile, alienation and marginalization through integrating themselves within societies and through telling stories. Mahfouz, like Dostoevsky, reads his characters psychologically. Nur, Basyma, and Sonya are the products of their sexist cultures and discriminatory sociopolitical structures.

Sabir and Said, defamed and denied redemption for being the son of a prostitute and a poor, previous prisoner respectively, turn into murderers and criminals. After being released from prison, Said is denied the help of his opportunist friend Rauf Ilwan, who has played a major role in justifying crime as getting back to ‘the corrupt and unfair society’ (69). Rauf becomes a famous and rich journalist, and so regards Said as ‘just a deviant criminal’ (109). Feeling desperate and helpless, Said turns to murder: ‘with this revolver I can awake those who are asleep. They’re the root of the trouble. They’re the ones who’ve made creatures like Nabawiyya, Ilish, and Rauf Ilwan possible’ (84). Like Said, Sabir in The Search confesses ‘I must either work or kill’ (88). Like Nur, Basyma, and Sonya, Sabir’s, Said’s, and Raskolnikov’s psychic and social journeys are seen as a manufacturer and a product of their society and culture. Unlike Nur, Basyma, and Sonya, however, Sabir, Said, and Raskolnikov represent corrupt consciousness and violence. Before committing the killings, Said, Sabir and Raskolnikov thought the money could buy them respect, security, and justice. However, the three men find out that they have killed innocent people, while their real oppressors survive.

The Thief and the Dog and The Search were adopted into two successful films. As the female characters of Nur and Basema gained the audience’s sympathy and pity, the two novels not only challenged the stereotypical images of Muslim women and mothers as sexually chaste and moral, but also shocked the Egyptian society by revealing its double standards and hypocritical morals. Mahfouz repeatedly exposes the hypocrisy, corruption and double standards of Arab societies and leadership, and acknowledges women’s, even prostitutes’, honorable resistance to oppression. The two writers share a similar concern over gender stereotypes and violence against women in Egypt and Russia.[4]

I trace Dostoevsky’s influence on contemporary Egyptian writers struggling to envision a different reality of their corrupt, deprived and unjust society is similarly evident. Novelists such as Ahmed Mourad and Karim Alrawi are particularly influenced by Dostoevsky’s investigations of the complex relationships between concepts of crime, moral justice, psyche and punishment. In Diamond Dust (2010), Mourad examines how political patriarchy in post-independence Egypt produces and utilises corrupt economic and social paradigms. In such a polarizing political and social atmosphere, characters are bewildered by the ambiguities between right and the wrong, good and the evil, and the ongoing project of a national liberation riddled with injustices, contradictions, and struggles. In Diamond Dust, a pharmacist who discovers that his murdered wheelchair-bound father Hussein has been a serial killer. He committed a series of murders motivated largely by ideological and intellectual principles.[5]

Hussein, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, experiences mental anguish and moral torment, since his murders neither achieve justice nor liberate him from his feelings of fear, impotence and guilt. He professes his anger at the consecutive military Presidents in Egypt including Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who failed the Egyptian people: ‘we replaced one corrupt king with thousands of corrupt kings’ (209). Still, Hussein is disgusted by his actions, and passively surrenders to Al-Servees, a criminal sent by the corrupt lieutenant colonel and drug dealer Walid Sultan to kill him. Hussein’s crimes are politically motivated and target corrupt and immoral individuals who ‘have been oppressing, humiliating and impoverishing Egyptian people’ (57). Yet, while Raskolnikov asks, ‘would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? (792), Hussein confesses that his ‘heart is dead, and deserves hell’ (176). In a country of intense political and religious struggle like Egypt, murder is an unredeemable moral guilt. Hussein, like Sabir in the Search and Said in the Thief and the Dog, is denied salvation, and expected death at the hands of ‘the degraded criminal Al-Servees‘(187). Hussein’s double position as a victim to injustice and as a cruel murderer shows how individuals’ internal exile results in their identity being undercut and their moral conscience emasculated. Hussein carries the burden of national and individual failure. He is a product of a culture dominated by phallocentrism, corruption and guilt.

Published one year before the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Mourad predicts the upcoming revolution against President Hosni Mubarak. Hussein’s son Taha inherited his father’s moral guilt, alienation, and sense national failure. He is forced to use the diamond dust to kill Al-Servees and Walid Sultan to escape their harassment and violence. Unlike Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dog and Sabir in The Search, however, Taha gets the emotional support and love of the beautiful journalist, producer and activist Sarah. Unlike professional prostitutes like Nur, Basyma, Sonya or Liza, Sarah is an independent, highly educated and politically active young woman. Yet, Sarah, like Nur and Basyma, is objectified as a sexual tool. She is sexually abused and raped by the powerful media figure Sheriff Mourad. Growing up and living in a patriarchal society and a phallocentric culture, where oppressive, sexist systems that hinder her pursuit of legal justice against her rapist, Sarah, now Taha’s friend, shares his secrets and uses the diamond dust to kill Sheriff. Both Taha and Sarah, unlike Hussein, kill in self-defense against their state-protected abusers. They, through their pain, suffering and vulnerability, gain the right to a new Egyptian identity, and public role. Sarah and Taha, like Sonya and Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, support and strengthen each other. In the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky remarks positively that Sonya and Raskolnikov’s ‘sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love (858). Likewise, Taha and Sarah unite seeking a new beginning after ‘the eye-opening experiences and difficult situations they have gone through’ (389).

Although Lashin, Mahfouz, and Mourad have engaged with Dostoevsky’s ideas and works differently, the three writers position themselves within the public debates and concerns of justice, morality and collective responsibility in Egypt. Their works are seen as psychoanalytic allegories of realities in Modern Egypt.

Jihan Zakarriya is Assistant Professor at Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies, Denmark. Her research interests are comparative literature, feminist studies and environmental literature.  


Kirpichenko, Valeriya. 1993. “al-Riw?ya al-misriyya bacd al-sittiniyy?t,” Fus?l 12:1 (1993) 159-68.

. . .,  1992. Naguib Mahfouz, Emir of the Arabian Novel. Nauka

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1856.  Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett with an Introduction by Nathan B. Fagin. Publishing, 2017.

Hafez, Sabry. 1992. “The Modern Arabic Short Story”, in Muhammad Mustafa Badawi (ed.), The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature Modern Arabic literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992, 270-328.

Lāšīn, Maḥmūd Ṭāhir. 1929. “Ḥadīṯh al-qarya, The Talk of the Village”. Translated by Sabry Hafiz, “Appendix. Village Small Talk an English translation of ‘Ḥadīṯ al-qarya’”, in Sabry Hafez, The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse: A Study in the Sociology of Modern Arabic Literature, London: Saqi Books, 1993, 262-268.

Mahfouz, Naguib. 1961. The Thief and the Dog. Translated by Trevor LeGassick. Anchor; Reissue edition. 1989.

. . ., 1964. The Search. Translated by Magdi Wahba and Mohamed Islam. Anchor Books. 1991.

Mourad, Ahmed. 2010. Diamond Dust. Cairo: Sharouq Publishing house.

Matich, Olga. 2016. ‘Time and Memory in Dostoevsky’s Novels, or Nastasya Filippovna in Absentia.’ The Slavic and East European Journal , Vol. 60, No. 3, pp.397-421

Gheith, Jehanne. 1996. ‘The Superfluous Man and the Necessary Woman: A Re-Vision.’ The Russian Review. Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 226-244.

Abdel Rahman, Mohamed. 2020. The Great Writers of the Russian Novel: Was Naguib Mahfouz influenced by novels Dostoevsky? Al-Youm7, 9 February.


[1] Badawi, M. M. 1993. Short History of Modern Arabic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[2] Badawi, M. M. 1993. Short History of Modern Arabic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 288, and 304.

[3] Abdel Rahman, Mohamed. 2020. The Great Writers of the Russian Novel: Was Naguib Mahfouz influenced by novels Dostoevsky? Al-Youm7, 9 February.

[4] Matich, Olga. 2016. ‘Time and Memory in Dostoevsky’s Novels, or Nastasya Filippovna in Absentia.’ The Slavic and East European Journal , Vol. 60, No. 3, pp.397-421; Gheith, Jehanne. 1996. ‘The Superfluous Man and the Necessary Woman: A Re-Vision.’ The Russian Review. Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 226-244.

[5] Fascinated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his socialist-nationalist struggle for equality and liberation, the then-10-year-old orphan apprentice first decided to kill his Jewish master, Leito, for informing on Egyptian army and police during the 1956-Israeli-British attacks on Egypt. For Hussein, Leito has committed high treason, and deserved punishment. Yet, Hussein could not report Leito to the police, for Leito offered him a job after the sudden death of his father. Struggling between his love-hate relationship with Leito, Hussein decides to use a unique poison, diamond dust, to kill him. Yet injustices and corruption continue. Hussein fails to join the police academy for being poor. He is paralyzed during a surgical operation, and loses his wife and the wealth he collected working in the Gulf. Using diamond dust, Hussein targets different archetypes of corruption, killing millionaire and unscrupulous parliamentarian Machrus Berga, the corrupt businessman Helmy Ashoush, and his friend and drug dealer Suleiman el-Lord.

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