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 a historic change. Egypt, and the entire Muslim-majority East, had remained effectively under purely religious education for circa seven centuries (since the end of the Islamic exploration of ancient philosophy, the development within the Islamic civilisation’s major centres of schools of wisdom inspired by the Egyptian, Greek, and Persian heritages, and later the marginalisation of these schools).

Mohamed Ali and several of his advisors saw that, in its manifestations throughout the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, religious education was based on memorisation. For key educationalists that Mohamed Ali had employed - such as Edme Francois Jenard, who proved highly influential on evolving Egyptian education at the time - this form of learning was not conducive to catching up quickly with Western advances. Mohamed Ali’s advisors wanted to move education in Egypt away from memorisation to analytical thinking. The objective was to endow young minds, not yet doctrinally disposed to rigid refusal of innovative thought, into ones trained to question, critique, select what they deemed worthy and reject what was not, and that had the intellectual courage to innovate.

Interestingly, some of those European modernisers had fascinating interactions with leading sheikhs from al-Azhar, most notably Hassan al-Attar, the mentor of Rifaa al-Tahtawy (the Parisian Sheikh) that the previous article in this series was about. Al-Attar tried to convince some of Mohamed Ali’s advisors that the problem was not in religious - or Islamic - education per se, but in the modes of that education in the previous centuries. His arguments centred on the extreme value of “al-mantiq” (logic) and “usul al-fiqh (sources of Koranic legal interpretation) - central educational disciplines in al-Azhar for many centuries - versus “al-badee” (figurative speech, particularly in poetry) and “al-uroudh” (prosody), which took prominence in the centuries of Mameluke and Ottoman supremacy. However, for the new educationists in Egypt, al-Attar and other sheikhs like him might have been theoretically correct, but 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 the educationists deemed crucial for modernising the country.

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

The efforts bore fruit. In around a quarter century, higher education in Egypt was significantly expanded and totally transformed. And although a significant part of it was catering to Mohamed Ali’s (and his son, Ibrahim’s) key priority: the army, the much larger part of Egypt’s higher education at the time was civilian as much as it was secular. For many, even acute orientalists with condescending views about Egypt (and the entire East), Egyptian higher education was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, not far behind that in Europe’s most advanced educational centres.

The problem, however, was that as modern education spread, its alienness from the society was becoming 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; and it was a European education in a society that was then still almost totally Eastern in its sense of identity and frames of reference.

Several Egyptian thinkers tried to address that problem in the second half of the nineteenth century. The most significant contribution, however, was that by Ali Mubarak Pasha.

Ali Mubarak was one of the most senior Egyptians in Khedive Ismail’s reign. He became the first Egyptian minister of education in the country, and was one of those doers Mohamed Ali and the enlightened in his dynasty - such as Ismail - had surrounded themselves with. Ali Mubarak launched “Dar al-Oloum” (House of Sciences), a higher education institution intended to bring modern systems of learning along with classical Islamic-based disciplines in an Egyptian, rather than Western, curricula for aspiring young teachers. He also launched “Dar al-Kotoub” (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 was seeping the ideas behind the past half century’s modernisation into traditional Egyptian education, bringing old disciplines of study into new forms of learning, and situating the teaching of Islamic sciences into the channels of the new educational system.

This was the first attempt at Egyptianising the transformation of education that had been taking place in the country in the previous half century. This Egyptianisation saved that modernisation of education from becoming, for most Egyptians, a mere spectacle they might have gotten exposed to, but that most of them would have had no sense of connection to.

This empowered traditional Egyptian culture with a sense that it can interact with the changes that were being imposed on it from the top. A then newly-found confidence began to seep into the circles of Egyptian educationalists that they could innovate on the new systems of learning they were receiving from Europe.

And indeed, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Egyptian educationists - 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, innovations that owed a lot to the major wave of modernisation of the previous half-century, and yet that were emerging from within Egyptian environments by 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 the Egyptian society and beyond.