Modern Egypt – (IV): Enlightening minds

Tarek Osman
Wednesday 19 Oct 2022

Tarek Osman writes on the transformation of education under the 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali in his series of articles on the foundations of modern Egypt


One of the most transformative of Mohamed Ali’s many transformative initiatives was to move Egypt away from religious-based to secular education. 

This was an historic change. Egypt, and the entire Muslim-majority East, had effectively remained under purely religious education for around seven centuries since the end of the Islamic exploration of ancient philosophy, the development within Islamic civilisation of major centres inspired by the Egyptian, Greek, and Persian heritage, and later the marginalisation of them. 

Mohamed Ali and several of his advisers saw that religious education had been based on memorisation throughout the Mameluke and Ottoman periods. For the key educationalists that Mohamed Ali employed, among them Edme Francois Jenard, who proved highly influential in developing Egyptian education at the time, this form of learning was not conducive to catching up quickly with Western advances. 

Mohamed Ali’s advisers wanted to move education in Egypt away from memorisation towards analytical thinking. The objective was to endow young minds that were not yet doctrinally disposed towards a rigid refusal of innovative thought into ones that were trained to question, critique, select what they deemed worthy and reject what they did not, and had the intellectual courage to innovate. 

Some of those European modernisers had fascinating interactions with leading sheikhs from Al-Azhar, most notably Hassan Al-Attar, the mentor of Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, the “Parisian sheikh” described in the previous article in this series. Al-Attar tried to convince some of Mohamed Ali’s advisers that the problem did not lie in religious or Islamic education per se, but lay instead in the modes of that education in previous centuries. 

His arguments centred on the extreme value given to al-mantiq (logic) and usul al-fiqh (the sources of religious legal interpretation), central disciplines in Al-Azhar for many centuries, in contrast to al-badee (figurative speech, particularly in poetry) and al-uroudh (prosody), which had enjoyed some prominence in the centuries of Mameluke and Ottoman supremacy. However, for the new educationalists in Egypt even if Al-Attar and other sheikhs like him might have been theoretically correct, their views did not change the fact that the religious education that had been prevalent in the country for centuries was not yielding the knowledge that they deemed to be crucial in modernising it. 

Mohamed Ali and his modernisers sidelined Al-Azhar as a result, a move that had a lasting impact on the development of religious education and narrative in Egypt. In its place, they installed new professional schools of military studies, medicine, engineering, technical affairs, administration, midwifery, and, crucially, of languages, the one that Al-Tahtawi led. These schools brought a new form of education to Egypt and one that was not anchored on the knowledge of specific scholars but instead was based on continuously evolving disciplines of knowledge. The schools were designed to graduate practitioners rather than talking heads.   

The efforts bore fruit. In the space of around a quarter of a century higher education in Egypt was significantly expanded and totally transformed. Although a significant part of it catered to Mohamed Ali’s (and his son Ibrahim’s) key priority of the army, a much larger part of it was civilian and secular. For many, even for Western orientalists holding condescending views about Egypt (and the entire East), Egyptian higher education in the second half of the 19th century was not far behind that in Europe’s most advanced centres. 

The problem, however, was that as modern education spread, its alien character as far as much of the society was concerned became markedly clearer. This modern education was strictly secular in a society in which religion (Christianity and Islam) continued to play major roles in almost all aspects of life. It was a European education in a society that was at the time still almost totally eastern in its sense of identity and frames of reference. 

Several Egyptian thinkers tried to address this problem in the second half of the 19th century. The most significant contribution came from Ali Mubarak Pasha.

Ali Mubarak was one of the most senior Egyptians to achieve office under the khedive Ismail. He became the first Egyptian minister of education and was one of the kind of men that Mohamed Ali and the enlightened members of his dynasty, among them Ismail, surrounded themselves with. Ali Mubarak launched the “Dar Al-Oloum” (House of Science), a higher-education institution intended to bring modern systems of learning along with classical Islamic-based disciplines together in an Egyptian, rather than Western, curriculum for aspiring young teachers. He also launched the “Dar Al-Kotob” (House of Books), which later evolved into Egypt’s National Library and Archives.

These were colossal steps at the time. But the bigger impact of Ali Mubarak’s work lay in the way in which the ideas behind the past half century’s modernisation seeped into traditional Egyptian education, bringing old disciplines of study into new forms of learning and situating the teaching of Islamic sciences in the new educational system. 

This was the first attempt at Egyptianising the transformation of education that had taken place in the country in the previous half century. It saved the modernisation of education from becoming a mere spectacle for most Egyptians and one that while they might have been exposed to it they would have had no sense of connection to it. 

It empowered traditional Egyptian culture with the sense that it could interact with the changes that were being imposed on it from the top. A newfound confidence began to seep into the circles of Egyptian educationalists, leading to the understanding that they could innovate on the new systems of learning they were receiving from Europe.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Egyptian educationalists primarily from within Al-Azhar began to curate new curricula and different systems of learning and teaching that were innovations on the traditional religious-based education offered in the country. These innovations owed a lot to the major wave of modernisation that had taken place over the previous half century, but they had emerged from within the Egyptian environment and were the products of Egyptian minds.

This gave rise to a wave of breakthroughs in modern Egyptian thought, as well as to clashes of ideas that proved highly dangerous to Egyptian society and beyond.

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

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