Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 3: The Parisian Sheikh
There is gold here. Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawy came to this conclusion when he was in Paris. He had been appointed as the chaplain of one of the first educational missions (composed of a regiment of the Egyptian army) that Mohamed Ali Pasha had sent to learn and transfer knowledge and technologies from France to Egypt.
Al-Tahtawy 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 strange, and for many, corrupting traditions and ways of life.
Quickly, however, al-Tahtawy became a student, not of any one discipline, but of French culture and way of life in the early nineteenth century.
Rifaa al-Tahtawy did not need to be convinced that Egypt (and with it the entire “East”) needed to learn from the West. That, as we discussed in the first article in this series, had already been a given since Napoleon’s campaign on Egypt at the very end of the eighteenth century.
Al-Tahtawy’s main insight, however, was that the Egyptian - and the entire East’s - worldview at the time needed to be widened to include advancements the West had developed and which, in his view, were crucially needed back home.
He focused on his job, education. When Rifaa returned to Egypt, and was later given the responsibility to establish Egypt’s first bureau of translation, he launched and directed one of the most impressive waves of Arabisation the region has ever seen. At least two thousand books, ranging from literature to military studies, were translated (largely from French) into Arabic.
His objective was not merely quantity, but diversity. Al-Tahtawy’s approach was almost to replicate his own Parisian education and present it to those who would benefit from the immense body of knowledge that his bureau of translations was making available.
Al-Tahtawy curated his own education in Paris. This 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 a sailing into “the ocean of knowledge” (as Sheikh Hassan al-Attar, al-Tahtawy’s mentor in al-Azhar, put it).
And so al-Tahtawy presented his audience with nineteenth century French military thought and technical engineering work as well as with the poetry of Racine and treatises on classic philosophy; he translated commentaries on French law as well as Voltaire’s satires.
Al-Tahtawy’s main focus, however, was on political philosophy. He was taken by Montesquieu and Rousseau. From the former, al-Tahtawy emphasised - primarily in commentaries in the newspaper that he had come to edit - the idea of a modern, strong, and secular state. This could not have been more timely. Al-Tahtawy was working during the later era of Mohamed Ali Pasha’s reign in the 1830s and 1840s. The Pasha 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 the equality between its citizens, and in minimising the role of religion in public affairs. Also the Pasha was a foreigner who had come to control and rule Egypt without any prior connection to the land or its people, and with a nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul whose armies Mohamed Ali’s son Ibrahim had crushed. And so, Mohamed Ali’s state needed continued buttressing of its legitimacy. And at the core of its legitimacy - as Mohamed Ali himself had seen it - was the modernisation project he was leading. Al-Tahtawy was not just a functionary in this project; he was a true believer. And so, in a translation after translation, and in an article after article, using Montesquieu’s thought, Sheikh Rifaa propagated the idea that the state that Mohamed Ali was building entailed in the objective behind it (to be strong, modern, secular, and prosperous) the basis of its legitimacy and the rationale why Egyptians must be loyal to it.
Al-Tahtawy was not a classic example of a scholar subservient to the ruler, of which Arabic and Islamic history is full. He was awed by Mohamed Ali and his project (and that of his son, Ibrahim Pasha to evolve the nascent Egyptian modern state into an empire in the eastern Mediterranean). He was convinced that Mohamed Ali’s modernisations were the sole route to give rise in Egypt to the strength and advancements and civilised ways of living he had known in Paris. Sheikh Rifaa was also a strong believer in a unique Egyptian identity, vastly different from any pan-Arabic or Islamic ones. A side project he had begun but did not finish was a succinct history of Egypt anchoring its identity in its pharaonic period.
But al-Tahtawy was a classic functionary of the regime in prioritising stability and 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 in the country a vague sense of “glory”. In return, the citizens were expected to be docile, willing and ready to be mobilised in wars, as well as to endure acute economic difficulties.
Al-Tahtawy was certainly an early adopter of the notion of Mohamed Ali Pasha being a “historical leader” - the “second great Macedonian” as he called him, in reference to the first, Alexander. Al-Tahtawy entrenched among the first generation of Egyptians to get exposed to modern Western thought, the idea of “great men” selected by the Divine to save their countries. And in the case of Mohamed Ali, the country (Egypt) was his by possession much more than by belonging.
Al-Tahtawy’s adoption and promotion of the “great man” idea - and the system of governing that ensues from it - flew in the face of his fascination with the liberal strands of modern French political philosophy, particularly of Voltaire’s rejection of absolute authority and rigid systems of thought. Given the reverence that Egyptian society and cultural circles accorded Sheikh Rifaa in the middle of the nineteenth century, he doubtless contributed to entrenching in modern Egyptian culture the idea that the ruler is above the will of the people.
Yet al-Tahtawy had another contribution - one that proved tremendously valuable to modern Egyptian culture. He saw and subtly argued that the Egyptian - and for that matter, Eastern and Islamic - consciousness must realise that its sense of self-sufficiency, over many centuries, had led to acute problems. Through his translations and writings, al-Tahtawy, no doubt intentionally, propagated the idea that our collective consciousness must be opened up to new horizons of thought. He sowed widely the notion that our reference points of centuries old were not enough, and that our 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 far behind.
He educated his audience that there was a wealth of knowledge to be gained from learning, thinking about, and assessing the West’s modern experiences and achievements - crucially not only in natural and military sciences, but equally important in the humanities and social sciences. He put it beautifully in the title of his most famous book: “Extracting gold from summarising Paris” (which rhymes harmoniously in Arabic). The gold was the knowledge - explicit and implicit - that we had to open eyes to, learn, and internalise.
By pioneering the extraction of that gold, al-Tahtawy earned his place in the history of Egypt’s modern culture as a true teacher: a leader in thought and action whose work has had a lasting benefit to his society.