Modern Egypt ­— (XI) The seer

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

Tarek Osman considers the contribution of the 20th-century thinker Taha Hussein to theorising cultural life in Egypt in his series on the makers of modern Egyptian culture


Taha Hussein made his name by revolutionising our reading of Arab history in the periods right before and after the emergence of Islam. He applied the techniques of modern literary analysis that he had learnt during his postgraduate studies in France to classical Arabic poetry, and his results cast doubts on the dating of texts supposedly written before the advent of Islam. 

Later, he examined the careers of the four immediate successors (or caliphs) of the Prophet Mohamed, as well as the period of roughly 40 years after the death of the Prophet that saw the first Civil War in the history of Islam. He presented these highly influential characters in the history of Islam as well as the struggle for power in the period as symbols of the forces that moulded Islam as a state and a worldview in its formative years.

Like that of Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Mohamed Abdou, Qassem Amin, and Ahmed Lutfi Al-Sayyed, all previously discussed in this series, Taha Hussein’s work was attacked by various scholars at the time, including from within Al-Azhar in Cairo. Islamic scholarship lost another opportunity to expand from the confines of narrow literalism towards the plains of wider symbolism as a result.   

Taha Hussein was fired from several prominent government positions; some of his books and essays were effectively banned, and no publishers were willing to incur the risk of publishing them; and his analyses of Islamic texts, characters, and periods were excluded for decades from the educational curriculum. 

However, his fight was just beginning. He did not stop at reflecting on history, but he also looked into the future.

In the late 1930s, Taha Hussein wrote a book called “The Future of Culture in Egypt,” a realist view of the trajectory of the key forces that shape modern Egyptian culture, as well as a manifesto of how to alter its future. The book and Taha Hussein’s subsequent writings over the next four decades were his key contributions to modern Egyptian culture.

Taha Hussein explained that the richness of Egypt’s history had made it subject to various cultural forces. Although he was a calm and soft-spoken man, he was a hard-nosed realist in his assessment of cultural interactions. He believed that human history had repeatedly seen cultural conflicts that had resulted in acute changes in societal psyches. Cultures do not necessarily seep into each other and merge and evolve into new forms, he thought. Some cultures are defeated and crushed. 

Taha Hussein thought that Egypt had seen both cultural evolution and cultural attrition. At the moment when he was writing – the transition from peace to blood and toil, from plenty to the alarming prospect of poverty, and from liberalism to fascism and uncompromising religiosity – there were strong winds that heralded not only change but also destruction. 

He understood that the cultural forces in Egyptian (and Eastern) history were not only contradictory and could push society in different directions, but that they could also fight each other.

One force, the most powerful because it had been the most pronounced in Egypt’s history before the onset of modernisation in the early 19th century, was Islam as it came to be understood and practised in Egypt. Here, a focus on the “Egyptianness” of Egyptian Islam was key. 

Taha Hussein was not the first person to analyse how the monotheistic faith that had emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century and had then been propagated in the following three centuries by warriors and traders settled in the land of the Nile Delta and over centuries had merged with its tranquil, agrarian way of life had produced a unique form and practice of the religion. 

But his elaboration of the Egyptianness of the local understanding and practice of Islam revealed how at heart Egypt’s Islam was as much Egyptian as it was the product of the belief system that had come from abroad. The mixing of the land’s own heritage with the tenets of the faith that the majority of Egyptians had adopted from abroad made Egypt’s Islam by far and for many centuries the most potent force in the Egyptian psyche. For Taha Hussein, this strength made Egyptian Islam an immense influence on the consciousness of all those who lived on its land, including Egyptian Christians. 

The other force was the modernisation that had started in Egypt in the early 19th century. Taha Hussein altered the scope of this, seeing it as Mediterranean rather than European. This was an important point, because unlike most other shapers of modern Egyptian culture, he had no illusions about Egypt’s becoming potentially Westernised in any major way. For him, that was never going to happen. 

Taha Hussein also had no illusions about the existence of a single European culture. But he thought that Mediterraneanism described the flow of civilisation from ancient Egypt to Greece and Rome and then on to influence the evolution of some but not all European cultures. He also thought that this flow took place both ways. Egypt had not been completely detached from Greece and Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean, including Turkey and northern parts of the Levant, before the 19th century. During those centuries, the flow had come back and connected with reservoirs of ideas that had always lurked deep in the Egyptian consciousness.

Taha Hussein was far from entertaining the sense of inferiority that tries vacuously to associate Egypt with elements from the West. His point was that the onset of modernisation in the early 19th century was not a completely novel wave. One implication was that in the same way that Egypt had Egyptianised the tenets of Islam it had received and out of them formed its own form of the religion, it was now also Egyptianising the modernisation that it had started to undergo since the early 19th century. 

He saw a chance that the two forces – Egyptianised Islam and Egyptianised modernity – would more than meet and coexist. Instead, Mediterraneanism would engage with the prevalent and dominant Egyptian version of Islam and over time seep into it. He did not expect the two strands to evolve into a new culture, however. Instead, he envisaged Mediterraneanism changing some of the features in the Egyptian environment and the core characteristics of Egyptian Islam.  

But there was also another scenario and one that Taha Hussein thought much more likely to happen. This was that Egypt’s Mediterraneanism would be weakened by the wave of struggle, poverty, and the dimming of liberalism that he sensed coming in the late 1930s. He also expected that the period after World War II would see heightened tension between the West and the rest of the world, including Egypt and other parts of the East, and that this would further weaken liberalism in the country and in the East in general. In this scenario, Egyptian Mediterraneanism would largely be isolated as thin strata in society.  

In this view, Egyptian Islam would continue to dominate the society and orchestrate its culture. But also entailed in this view, and despite the overall failure of Mediterraneanism in Egypt, there would remain in these thin strata – not necessarily confined to the top of society – strong elements of Mediterraneanism. These could then seep into Egyptian Islam, and the result would be a cultural fertilisation that would blossom in a limited way but still beautifully.

Taha Hussein proved highly prescient. But he did not predict that Mediterraneanism would fail on such a scale in Egypt and be isolated in such thin strata amid the ocean that is Egyptian society. Towering figures in modern Egyptian culture played a role in that, albeit unintentionally, as we will see in the next article in this series. 

* 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 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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