Modern Egypt — (III) The Parisian sheikh

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 11 Oct 2022

Tarek Osman continues his series on figures that have shaped modern Egyptian culture with an account of Sheikh Rifaa Al-Tahtawi

 

There is gold here. Sheikh Rifaa Al-Tahtawi came to this conclusion when he was in Paris. He had been appointed the chaplain of one of the first educational missions (composed of a regiment of the Egyptian army) that Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha had sent to learn about and transfer knowledge and technologies from France to Egypt. 

Al-Tahtawi did not have a curriculum to follow. He was in France to guide the students in religious matters while they were studying in this Western land with its strange, and for many corrupting, traditions and ways of life. Quickly, however, Al-Tahtawi became a student not of any one discipline but of French culture and way of life in the early 19th century. 

He did not need to be convinced that Egypt (and with it the entire “East”) needed to learn from the West. That, as was discussed in the first article in this series, had already been a given since Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt at the very end of the 18th century. Al-Tahtawi’s main insight was that the Egyptian, and the entire Eastern, worldview at the time needed to be widened to include advancements that the West had developed and which, in his view, were crucially needed back home. 

He focused on his job, which was education. When he returned to Egypt and was later given the responsibility to establish the country’s first bureau of translation, he launched and directed one of the most impressive waves of Arabisation the region has ever seen. At least 2,000 books ranging from literature to military studies were translated (largely from French) into Arabic. 

The objective was not merely quantity, but also diversity. Al-Tahtawi’s approach was almost to replicate his own Parisian education and to present it to those who would benefit from the immense body of knowledge that his bureau of translation was making available. 

He had curated his own education in Paris in a process that was not dissimilar to Al-Azhar’s classic form of learning in which “the seeker of knowledge” was expected to acquaint himself with different disciplines and schools of thought without a rigid curriculum imposed on him, but through sailing into “the ocean of knowledge,” as Sheikh Hassan Al-Attar, Al-Tahtawi’s mentor at Al-Azhar, put it.

As a result, Al-Tahtawi presented his audience with 19th-century French military thought and technical engineering work as well as with the poetry of Racine and treatises on philosophy. He translated commentaries on French law as well as Voltaire’s satires. 

But his main focus was political philosophy. He was taken by Montesquieu and Rousseau. From the former, Al-Tahtawi emphasised, primarily in commentaries in the newspaper that he came to edit, the idea of a strong and secular state. This could not have been more timely, as Al-Tahtawi was working during the later period of Mohamed Ali Pasha’s reign in the 1830s and 1840s when the latter was cementing the new state he had begun building in Egypt three decades earlier. 

This state, though retaining Islam as an overarching civilisational frame of reference, was edging towards secularism in its laws, in equality between its citizens, and in minimising the role of religion in public affairs. The Pasha was also a foreigner who had come to rule Egypt without having any prior connection to the land or its people and with only a nominal allegiance to the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul whose armies Mohamed Ali’s son Ibrahim had also crushed. 

As a result, Mohamed Ali’s state needed its legitimacy to be continually buttressed, and at the core of that legitimacy, as Mohamed Ali himself saw it, was the modernisation project he was leading. Al-Tahtawi was not just a functionary in this project. He was a true believer. As a result, in translation after translation, and in article after article, and using Montesquieu’s thought, he propagated the idea that the state that Mohamed Ali was building entailed through the objective behind it – of becoming strong, modern, and secular – the basis of its legitimacy and why Egyptians must be loyal to it. 

Al-Tahtawi was not a classic example of a scholar subservient to a ruler, of which Arabic and Islamic history is full. He was awed by Mohamed Ali and his project and by that of his son, Ibrahim Pasha, who wanted to turn the nascent Egyptian state into an empire in the eastern Mediterranean. He was convinced that Mohamed Ali’s modernisation of the country was the sole means to give rise in Egypt to the strength and advancement and civilised ways of living he had known in Paris. He was also a strong believer in a unique Egyptian identity that was vastly different from any pan-Arabic or Islamic one. A side project he began but did not finish was a succinct history of Egypt anchoring its identity in the pharaonic period.

Yet, Al-Tahtawi was also a classic functionary for the regime in prioritising stability and the control of the masses over political freedom. Despite his commentaries on Rousseau’s “social contract,” the contract he believed in and promoted was one based on the ruler leading the country towards progress, improved living conditions, and instilling a vague sense of “glory”. In return, the people were expected to be docile, willing, and ready to be mobilised in war, as well as to endure acute economic difficulties. 

Al-Tahtawi was certainly an early adopter of the idea of Mohamed Ali Pasha as a “historic leader,” the “second great Macedonian” he called him, in reference to the first, in other words Alexander the Great. Al-Tahtawi entrenched the idea of “great men” among the first generation of Egyptians to be exposed to modern Western thought, with such great men being selected by the Divine to save their country. In the case of Mohamed Ali, the country was his by possession much more than by belonging. 

Al-Tahtawi’s adoption and promotion of the “great men” idea and the system of governing that flows from it also flew in the face of his fascination with liberal strands of French political philosophy, particularly Voltaire’s rejection of absolute authority and rigid systems of thought. Given the reverence that Egyptian society and cultural circles accorded to Al-Tahtawi in the middle of the 19th century, he doubtless contributed to entrenching in modern Egyptian culture the idea that the ruler is above the will of the people.  

But he also made another contribution and one that proved tremendously valuable to modern Egyptian culture. He saw and subtly argued that the Egyptian, and for that matter also Eastern and Islamic, consciousness would have to realise that its sense of self-sufficiency had led to acute problems over the centuries. Through his translations and his writings, Al-Tahtawi no doubt intentionally propagated the idea that the collective consciousness must be opened up to new horizons of thought. 

He sowed the notion that reference points dating back centuries were no longer enough and that frames of reference needed to be expanded to include what non-Egyptians and non-Muslims had achieved in centuries in which Egypt and the entire East had lagged behind. 

He educated his audience into understanding that there was a wealth of knowledge that could be gained from learning, thinking about, and assessing the West’s experiences and achievements and not only in the natural and military sciences, but also and equally importantly in the humanities and social sciences. He put this beautifully in the title of his most famous book “Extracting Gold from Summarising Paris” (a title which rhymes in Arabic). The gold was the knowledge, explicit and implicit, that Egyptians needed to open their eyes to, learn, and internalise. 

By pioneering the extraction of that gold, Al-Tahtawi earned his place in the history of Egypt’s modern culture as a true teacher and as a leader of thought and action whose work has had a lasting benefit to society.  


* 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 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: