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 nineteenth century was: why did we fall so much far behind Europe, that was few hundred years earlier a backwater lurking under ignorance and crudeness compared to our learned, sumptuous cultures?
That we were shockingly lagging was uncontested. Defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s conquering army at the very end of the eighteenth century, and a glaring European superiority in sciences and arts and living standards (which were conspicuously clear throughout Napoleon’s short campaign on Egypt) left no room for debates.
The most fundamental problem in attempting to answer that question was that Egypt did not know Europe. Egypt got a glimpse of Europe through what she had gleamed from the lives and manners of the soldiers, scientists, and artists who had come with Napoleon. But the whole behind these fragments of observations was unknown.
Up until the early nineteenth century, Europe was neither a stirring notion for Egyptians nor an interesting destination for travellers from the country or from its neighbouring region. There were scattered accounts of Levantine administrators during the Crusades who had collaborated with the European armies, and who fearing deaths at the hands of the victorious Mamelukes, fled to Europe. The accounts talked of hardship in cold weather, dense forests, and poor towns. But it is highly likely that these accounts entailed a lot of fabrication. In the Levant, some warlords in the fifteenth century had sought refuge from the Ottomans in Europe, particularly in Tuscany in Italy. Stories of their lives in the courts of rich Italian families reached the region and were quite popularised in the Levant, and so scholars in Egypt were aware of them. Then there were few travels by Ottoman ambassadors to European capitals, most notably to London and Paris in the eighteenth century. These ambassadors’ memoirs had found a good reception back home in Istanbul, but primarily in elite circles, and we do not know if the stories crossed the Mediterranean and reached Egypt at the time.
This is why Europe remained until the early nineteenth century a terra incognita in Egypt. To the Egyptian mind then, Europe lacked the cultural and material richness of India and Iran; it lacked the mystery that surrounded China’s old civilisation; and it even lacked the mythical factor that had for centuries encompassed Egyptian thought about sub-Saharan Africa and the lands beyond the Atlantic.
For some Egyptians in the early nineteenth 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, which Egypt had played a key role in developing, protecting, and spreading. In the Egyptian worldview of that time - of both Christians and Muslims - Egypt was the land in which Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary had found refuge, and it was the land of founding fathers of eastern Christian thought whose ideas had sculpted true Christianity. In this worldview, true Christianity - the theology believed correct, the veneration deemed right, and the way of life reckoned blessed - was from and of the East, with Egypt at the very core of that East.
In this worldview, Europe was different. Apart from politics and laws, Europe was essentially societies that had adopted a different Christianity that most Egyptians at the time (including Christian Egyptians) deemed a deviation from true religion (that in the East).
This explains why Egyptian Christians, and not only Muslims, were hardly drawn to visit Europe before the nineteenth century, and why Christian and Muslim Egyptians had the same question at that time: why did that (erroneous) Europe advance so much ahead of us (possessors of the truth)?
This framing gave rise to a corresponding answer which ignored the advances Europe had made in the few centuries before, and assertively attributed Egypt’s (and the East’s) lagging behind to having abandoned the truth.
Truth here meant religion. For a large cohort of scholars of Islam - at the time, the most notable community leaders in Egypt - true Islam entailed strict interpretations of the religion. It was not overly concerned with theology and its philosophical dimensions, but rather highly focused on the role of religion in society. In this view, Egypt (and the entire East) regressed and were conquered because they had abandoned the norms of living and of organising society according to (in this view) divine will.
This narrative essentially blamed the powers that had ruled Egypt before (the Ottomans and the Mamelukes) for having lost their compass, having forgotten the religious tenets upon which Islamic states must be built, and at the same time - and in this view consequently - for having grown weak and succumbed to the lethargy of luxury.
This answer called 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 early Muslim communities whose successes, especially on battlefields extending from Iran to Southern Europe, were among the most impressive in human history). “Jihad” here was seen, in its correct definition, as self-control and strict discipline in thought and behaviour, much more than any calls for violence.
This answer entailed two new ideas. First, in blatantly blaming the powers that were (the Ottomans and Mamelukes), it was a bottom-up resuscitation of “true religion”. And this resuscitation was not expected from the Caliphate in Istanbul nor from any Mameluke prince. It was the duty of society. It was the most notable sense of agency, of taking control of the fate of society, in Egypt and in vast parts of the region since many centuries before.
Second, this answer effectively called for a revolution in Egyptian politics - for if the old regime of the Ottomans and Mamelukes had led to defeat and regress, a new regime must come to power.
And indeed, as the next article in this series will show, a revolution took place, led by al-Azhar (the most famous seat of learning in Sunni Islam and the world’s oldest university).