Modern Egypt – (2) Interpreting decline

Tarek Osman
Friday 7 Oct 2022

Tarek Osman continues his series of articles on key figures and ideas that have shaped modern Egyptian culture.


The most fundamental question that faced Egypt, and with it different parts of the Arab and Turkish and Persian-speaking orient at the beginning of the 19th century, was why have we fallen so far behind Europe? A few hundred years earlier Europe had been a backwater of ignorance and crudity when compared to our own learned and sumptuous cultures.

That we were shockingly lagging behind was uncontested. Defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s conquering army at the very end of the 18th century and the glaring European superiority in sciences and the arts and living standards – conspicuously clear throughout Napoleon’s short campaign in Egypt – left no room for debate. 

The most fundamental problem in attempting to answer the question then lay in the fact that Egypt did not know Europe. It only got a glimpse of it through what it had gleaned from the lives and manners of the soldiers, scientists, and artists who had come to Egypt with Napoleon. But the whole behind these fragments was unknown.

Up until the early 19th century, Europe was neither a stirring notion for Egyptians nor an interesting destination for travellers from the country or from the neighbouring region. There were scattered accounts of Levantine administrators during the mediaeval Crusades who had collaborated with the European armies, and who, fearing death at the hands of the victorious Mamelukes, had then fled to Europe. These accounts talked of hardship in cold weather, dense forests, and poor towns, but it is likely that they also contained a lot of fabrication. 

Some warlords from the Levant had also sought refuge in Europe from the Ottomans in the 15th century, particularly in Tuscany in Italy. Stories of their lives at the courts of rich Italian families reached the region and were quite popular in the Levant. Scholars in Egypt were also aware of them. Then there were the accounts of Ottoman ambassadors to European capitals, most notably to London and Paris in the 18th century. These found a good reception back home in Istanbul, but primarily in elite circles. We do not know if the stories they contained crossed the Mediterranean and reached Egypt at this time.

It was for these reasons that Europe remained terra incognita in Egypt until the early 19th century. To the Egyptian mind at the time, Europe lacked the cultural and material richness of India and Iran; it lacked the mystery that surrounded China’s ancient civilisation; and it even lacked the mythical factor that had for centuries informed Egyptian thought about Sub-Saharan Africa and the lands beyond the Atlantic. 

For some Egyptians in the early 19th century, Europe was perhaps Christendom, but that was vastly different from Christianity. For most Egyptians at the time, Christianity was an Eastern religion, philosophy, and way of life, and one in which Egypt had played a key role in developing, protecting, and spreading. In the Egyptian worldview of that time, that of both Christians and Muslims, Egypt was the land in which Jesus and the Virgin Mary had once found refuge, and it was the land of the founding fathers of Eastern Christian thought whose ideas had sculpted true Christianity. 

In this worldview, true Christianity – the theology that was believed to be correct, the veneration that was deemed right, and the way of life that was reckoned to be blessed – was from and of the East, with Egypt at the very core. In this worldview, Europe was also different in that apart from its politics and laws it was essentially made up of societies that had adopted a different Christianity than most Egyptians at the time and one that was deemed a deviation from the true religion, which was that of the East.

This explains why Egyptian Christians, and not only Muslims, were hardly drawn to visit Europe before the 19th century, and why Christian and Muslim Egyptians were asking the same question at that time of why had the (erroneous) Europe advanced so far ahead of us, the possessors of the truth? 

This was a way of framing the question gave rise to a corresponding answer that ignored the advances that Europe had made in the few centuries beforehand and attributed Egypt’s (and the East’s) lagging behind to its having abandoned the truth. 

Truth, here, meant religion, and for a large cohort of the scholars of Islam, at the time the most notable community leaders in Egypt, true Islam entailed a strict interpretation of the religion. This was one that was not overly concerned with theology in its philosophical dimensions, but was rather highly focused on the role of religion in society. In this view, Egypt (and the entire East) had regressed and had been conquered because it had abandoned the norms of living and organising society according (in this view) to the divine will. 

This narrative essentially blamed the authorities that had been ruling Egypt, in other words the Ottomans and the Mamelukes, for having lost their moral compass. They had forgotten the religious tenets upon which Islamic states must be built and at the same time, and in this view consequently, had grown weak and succumbed to the lethargy of luxury. 

In answer, there was a need for a return to the “purity” of Islam in its earliest phases and a resuscitation of the spirit of the early mujahideen – the companions of the Prophet Mohamed and of the early Muslim communities whose successes, especially on battlefields extending from Iran to Southern Europe, had been among the most impressive in human history. Jihad was seen, in its correct definition, as self-control and strict discipline of thought and behaviour much more than any calls for violence. 

It was an answer that entailed two new ideas. First, in blaming the authorities for the comparative backwardness of the East, it was a bottom-up resuscitation of “true religion.” This resuscitation was not expected from the Ottoman caliphate in Istanbul or from any Mameluke prince. Instead, it was the duty of society and was an expression of the sense of agency, of the taking control of the fate of society, in Egypt and in vast parts of the region that had been theirs many centuries before. 

Second, the answer effectively called for a revolution in Egyptian politics, for if the old regime of the Ottomans and Mamelukes had led to defeat and regression a new regime must come to power. 

As the next article in this series will show, a revolution did indeed take place, one led by Al-Azhar in Cairo, the most famous seat of learning in Sunni Islam and the world’s oldest university.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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