A new look at Taha Hussein

David Tresilian , Tuesday 5 Jul 2022

A new biography of Egyptian writer Taha Hussein emphasises his role in building the cultural institutions of modern Egypt, writes David Tresilian

For many readers, the name of the Egyptian writer and intellectual Taha Hussein will likely be synonymous with the three volumes of autobiography that he published at various times during his lifetime and that were eventually bound together under the collective title of The Days.

The first volume, appearing in the 1920s and recording Taha Hussein’s early life in a village in Upper Egypt, was well received on its publication in Egypt and swiftly appeared in translation abroad. The second and third volumes, taking the story through his experiences as a student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and then in France during the First World War, appeared at the same time and later and had to wait longer for foreign translations to appear.

An omnibus edition of all three books in English translation is readily available today, meaning that non-Arabic-speaking readers have the opportunity to read one of the best-known autobiographies in modern Arabic literature by a man who during his lifetime was described as the “dean of Arabic letters” and whose literary, critical, and historical works are still widely read not only in Egypt but also throughout the Arab world.

However, while most readers will be able to name at least these three works by Taha Hussein, those wanting to fill out their picture of him have by no means been spoiled for choice. As Egyptian academic Hussam R. Ahmed explains in his The Last Nahdawi, a new biography of Taha Hussein, while English-speaking readers have been able to turn to Pierre Cachia’s biography first published in the 1950s, Arabic-speaking readers may have been less well served.

Writers on Taha Hussein have sometimes taken partisan views of the issues he engaged with in his lifetime, Ahmed says, and too often his writing has either not been completely understood or has been hitched to particular agendas. It is against this background that he has produced his own new biography, probably the best-researched in any language, which concentrates not only on Taha Hussein as a leading member of the Arab Renaissance (nahda) whose writing encapsulated many of its characteristic concerns, but also as a public figure who wanted to implement them in practice.

One idea still sometimes heard about Taha Hussein, Ahmed says, is that he was an ivory tower intellectual, content to survey the controversies of his time, but not deigning to participate in them. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues, since Taha Hussein was always committed to finding ways to give his ideas concrete form in the shape of enduring institutions, including when he was Egypt’s minister of education in the middle of the last century.

He had many significant obstacles to overcome in achieving his later position as one of the Arab’s world’s most important writers and as an intellectual involved in public affairs. He was from a poor background, and his early poverty is an important theme of his writing. The same thing is true of his blindness, a result of a lack of medical treatment when he was a boy, and all readers of his autobiography will likely remember his descriptions of searching for readers ready to read to him and writers able to write out the books that he first composed in his head and then dictated.

Few if any of the books Taha Hussein consulted in his scholarly work would have been available in Braille, in any case not widely used for Arabic texts at the time, and of course during the formative part of his career at least there was no recording technology.

While many readers will likely associate Taha Hussein with his volumes of autobiography, others will remember his many novels, short stories, and other literary works. There are his various works of criticism, including on the mediaeval poet Abu al-Ala al-Maari, also blind, on whom he wrote his doctoral thesis in Egypt, and on poetry in Arabic before the advent of Islam that gave rise to much controversy when it first appeared. There are his works on the history of Islam and his many works on modern Egypt, including his journalism, his books on education, and his works of cultural criticism.

Taken together, all this amounts to an immense body of work, essential for understanding the cultural life of Egypt in particularly the first half of the last century. When the late Anglo-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani composed his famous Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, a picture of intellectual life in the Arab world in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, he gave an important place to Taha Hussein. It would be difficult to imagine any account of the Arab Renaissance that does not similarly celebrate him.


REVALUATION: Hussam R. Ahmed does not employ a life and works approach in his biography of Taha Hussein, but instead demonstrates how over the course of his long career certain characteristic emphases can be discerned.

He begins by examining Taha Hussein’s relationship to France during the 1950s when successive French governments were doing their best to retain a foothold in the North African Arab countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, then under French colonial rule, including, in the latter, by fighting a bloody independence war.

Taha Hussein, at home in both Arab and French culture, saw clearly from the beginning that France would have to withdraw from North Africa and that Egypt had an important role to play not only in helping to rebuild connections between the east and west of the Arab world, disrupted by European colonialism, but also in reinforcing Arabic literacy in the North African countries, neglected or discouraged under French colonial rule.

While minister of education immediately before Egypt’s July 1952 Revolution, Taha Hussein set up Egyptian cultural institutes across the Mediterranean, also wanting to establish institutes for Arabic and Islamic studies in Tangiers and Rabat in Morocco, as well as in Tunis and Algiers. In doing so, he came up against the hostility of the French authorities, fearful of what they described as the “Arabisation of North Africa and the spreading of traditional Islamic culture,” and as a result he was forced to suspend permits for French cultural missions in Egypt and halt the issuing of Egyptian visas.

Ahmed says that Taha Hussein’s belief in Egypt’s cultural mission throughout the Arab world, designed to reinforce Arab culture and combat European colonialism, establishes a link with the priorities of the post-1952 regime. He sees this belief in the importance given to setting up institutions that would promote such ideas and says that it was part and parcel not only of a desire to renew and reinvigorate the Arab linguistic and cultural heritage, while bringing it into contact with contemporary ideas – a characteristic feature of the cultural programme of the generation to which Taha Hussein belonged – but also of a desire to show how these things could be achieved in practice while reaching the largest possible audience.

The renewal and reinvigoration of education was a significant part of Taha Hussein’s institutional programme, shown in activities like his support for the new Egyptian University, now Cairo University, when it was set up in the early decades of the last century. He worked hard to improve standards of Arabic expression, shown in his work in primary and secondary education and in his serving on and often chairing the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo.

Taha Hussein himself described his own education at length in his autobiography, both in the traditional Arab heritage at Al-Azhar and in European literature at the Egyptian University and at the Sorbonne University in Paris. When he was later in a position to implement his ideas in practice, first as an advisor to the ministry of education and later as the minister himself, he underlined what he saw as the importance of the then recently established Egyptian Faculty of Arts.

The limited education available to most Egyptians under particularly British colonial rule was to be replaced by access to a new “institution that offered students a new kind of knowledge that opened horizons for them,” Ahmed says, with this directly contributing not only to the awakening of a new spirit of intellectual freedom, but also to the formation of a “new generation of Egyptians, who, with the 1919 Revolution, became responsible for… an intellectual awakening Egypt had never experienced before.”

In line with the overall cultural programme of many other intellectuals of his generation, Taha Hussein “insisted that new cultural contributions,” whether in the novel, poetry, or the other arts, “must be made in classical Arabic in order to build on and enrich the existing centuries-old heritage,” Ahmed says. “He refused to endorse any artistic or literary expression in colloquial Arabic… Engaging with classical Arab-Islamic thought was at the heart of his oeuvre, [and] keeping Arabic alive was essential for engaging with that tradition.”

What this meant in practice was “democratising” the language, bringing it closer to everyday concerns, simplifying grammatical rules if necessary, and above all coining new words, creating new educational tools and methods, and producing better dictionaries. When Taha Hussein was appointed to the Arabic Language Academy in 1940, he swiftly set about revising its tasks with a view to the modernisation of education and the encouragement of contemporary literary production. He saw a key role being played by the state and state institutions, not necessarily in competition with the language’s traditional custodians, but certainly in performing tasks that he felt they could not do.

“The Arabic language that I want taught in schools is the classical language and nothing else,” Taha Hussein said, his public role as minister of education complementing his convictions as an intellectual. “It is the language of the Holy Qur’an and the venerable hadith. It is the language of what the ancients have left us in poetry and prose, science, literature and philosophy.” Democratisation, for Taha Hussein, could not mean the use of the colloquial language in written expression, since it could neither serve as a “means to accomplish what our intellectual life needs” nor further the transmission of “the great heritage that the classical Arabic language has preserved for us.”

Ahmed’s book aims to correct many misconceptions about Taha Hussein. He was neither an ivory tower intellectual nor an elitist, he says. His views on Egypt’s role in reinforcing Arab culture in the face of European colonialism prefigured the later emphases of the 1952 Revolution, and his welcome for it was based on a belief that it would further such aims.

While Taha Hussein later expressed serious misgivings about the post-1952 regime and was excluded from playing any significant role in it as a result, this was because he could not agree that the role of intellectuals was to act as cheerleaders, Ahmed says. In that sense, he always took longer and broader views than those encouraged by the imperatives of the moment, with this important new biography revealing their internal coherence.

Hussam R. Ahmed, The Last Nahdawi: Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021, pp287.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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