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Book review: Backwardness a Western invention, confirms grandson of Sheikh El-Seedy

Sheikh Abdel-Motaal El-Saeedy was a great advocate of reforming Al-Azhar to bolster the freedoms required to lift up Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 13 Oct 2011
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Treekh al eslah fi al Azhar (History of Al-Azhar Reform) by Sheikh Abdel-Motaal El-Saeedy, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 2011. pp.382

The first edition of this book dates back to 1943, and its author presents the best eras of Al-Azhar history as an institution for education and science, not only educating students, but also defending the nation through involvement in political work, not only thought.

The importance of this book stems from the fact that its author belonged to Al-Azhar and then earned a degree in 1918 and wrote a number of books related to Sharia and faith. He also worked in education at the institutions under Al-Azhar and established Al-Azhar magazine.

Indeed, in the second section of the book the reader finds that El-Saeedy was in fact active in defending Al-Azhar throughout the 1920s and 1930s; however, the Azhar he defended was quite different from the one we know today. In one incident, he published an article in Al-Ahram newspaper in 1926, replying to earlier claims that the books taught to Al-Azhar students weren’t suitable, and requesting mathematics be added to the curriculum, an untraditional step at the time though taught at public schools. He goes as far as to describe the attempts as regressive and bound by a narrow scope.

A significant portion of the book is dedicated to a description of proposed reforms. He requests the formation of a committee “to overcome scientific and religious narrowness" so "we can implement the freedom of thought in our constitution, so every individual can search freely ... without someone blocking their path and doubting their faith if their opinions conflicted, but rather each accepting the other.” These lines were published in Al-Balagh newspaper in 1927, indicating a highly advanced thought, even back then.

In another article published in Al-Akhbar in 1926, the Sheikh wrote: “Many of the anti-reformists doubt the use of natural and mathematical sciences, even stating that they’re not necessary, thinking that the task of Al-Azhar is only to graduate students that can teach people ablution, prayers and such ... before this age, Al-Azhar was teaching the old books of mathematics, translated by our ancestors from Greek.”

It is known that the translations encouraged by the early Muslim Khalifat is what saved the treasures of Greek thought after the originals were lost in wars. These Arabic translations were later retranslated back to Greek.

In the same context, the Sheikh discusses the origins of the weakness of Al-Azhar, that it dates back to the Ottoman invasion of Egypt, and that new winds came after the French Revolution. The author goes back to show that Al-Azhar led the first revolt for freedom in 1805 when chaos gripped Egypt following the departure of the French. At the time, Ottomans with their rulers oppressed Egyptians to the utmost, until Al-Azhar revolted against this injustice, raising slogans of freedom against Ottoman rule and the choice of a new leader for all Egyptians. At the time, they chose Mohamed Ali and appointed him ruler, in place of Ottoman rule. The same thing happened during the Orabi Revolution in 1881; Orabi himself was brought up in Al-Azhar before joining the army; the same was true for Sheikh Mohamed Abdo, Abdalla El-Nadim and Saad Zaghloul, who received his education at Al-Azhar and was appointed judge for local courts before the 1919 Revolution.

The truth is that Sheikh El-Saeedy was well ahead of his generation, demanding reform early on, and underlining the need for a change of the methods of education as well as the content of education, and linking the Egyptian national movement at its infancy with Al-Azhar as an educational institution.

It is interesting to note that the introduction to this edition was written by Wael El-Saeedy, grandson of the Sheikh and a software programmer who lived most of his life in the West. He indicated in his introduction that the Sheikh himself stressed many times the importance of catching up with the West by learning empirical and advanced sciences.

The grandson requests reform to Al-Azhar in the same way as his grandfather, adding that the money in the hands of Wahabis who call for backwardness has played a great role in spreading this call, pushed mainly by the West, particularly Britain, known to have supported the Saudi kingdom to control its oil supply.

Although we may agree that the backwardness and narrowness we suffer could be a Western attempt to control the region, the reality as described by Wael adds to what the Sheikh presented: Who is really standing in the face of Al-Azhar reform today, and who is spreading other strains of thought in society and financing extremist movements? It cannot be the oppressive regimes only, but must be blessed by the West whose interests are fully aligned with these regimes.

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