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 modern literary analysis techniques he had learnt during his post graduate studies in France to old Arabic poetry; his results casted doubts on the dating of texts supposedly written before Islam. Later, he examined the careers of the four immediate successors (or caliphs) of the Prophet Mohammad, as well as the period roughly forty years after the death of the Prophet, which had witnessed the first civil war in the history of Islam. He presented those highly influential characters in the history of Islam as well as the struggle over power in that period as symbols of forces that had moulded Islam, as a state and as a worldview, in its formative years.
Like that of al-Afghani, Mohammad Abdou, Qassem Amin, and Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed, Taha Hussein’s work was aggressively attacked by various scholars including from within al-Azhar. Islamic scholarship again lost another opportunity for expanding from the confines of narrow literalism towards the plains of wide symbolism.
Taha Hussein lost several prominent government positions; some of his books and essays were effectively banned as no publishers were willing to incur the risks that came with publishing them; and his analyses of these texts, characters, and periods were excluded for decades from educational curricula.
However, Taha Hussein’s fight was just beginning. He did not stop at reflecting on the history. He looked onto the future.
In the late 1930s, Taha Hussein wrote a book called “The Future of Egyptian Culture”. It was a realist view of the trajectory of the key forces that shape modern Egyptian culture, as well as a manifesto of how to alter that future. The book and the subsequent follow ups that had come over the next four decades were Hussein’s key contribution to modern Egyptian culture.
Taha Hussein explained that the richness of Egypt’s history had made her subject to various cultural forces. Although he was a calm, soft-spoken man, he was a hard nosed realist in his assessments of cultural interactions. He believed that human history had repeatedly had cultural wars that often resulted in acute changes in societal psyches. Cultures do not necessarily seep into each other and merge and evolve into new forms. Often some cultures are defeated and crushed.
In Hussein’s assessment, Egypt had seen both: cultural evolution as well as attrition. And at the moment Hussein was writing at - a transition from the peace between the first and second world wars towards blood and toil, from plentifulness towards the alarming prospects of poverty, and when liberalism across the world was acutely threatened by aggressive fascism and assertive uncompromising religiosity – there were strong winds that heralded not only change but destruction.
Taha Hussein understood that the cultural forces in Egypt’s (and the East’s) history were not only contradictory and would push the society towards different destinations. They would fight.
One force, the most powerful because it had been the most pronounced in Egypt’s history for many centuries before the onset of modernisation in the early nineteenth, was Islam as it came to be understood and practiced in Egypt. The focus on the Egyptianness of Islam in Egypt was key. Taha Hussein was not the first to analyse how the monotheistic faith that had emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and had been propagated in the following three centuries by warriors and traders settled into the land of the Nile Delta and over centuries merged with its tranquil, agrarian way of living, and as a result produced a unique form and practice of the religion. But Hussein’s elaboration on this 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 with the tenets of the faith that the majority of Egyptians had adopted 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 of immense influence on the consciousness of all who lived on the land, including Egyptian Christians.
The other force was the modernisation that had started in the early nineteenth century. Taha Hussein altered its scoping, seeing it as Mediterranean rather than European. It was an important point, because unlike most other shapers of modern Egyptian culture, Taha Hussein had no illusions about Egypt potentially becoming Westernised in any major, serious way. For Taha Hussein, that was never going to happen. Interestingly, Taha Hussein also had no illusions about the existence of a single European culture. Mediterraneanism, however, was Hussein’s view of the flow of civilisation from Ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome and on to influencing the evolution of some but not all European cultures. For Hussein, this flow happened both ways. Egypt was not utterly detached from Greece and Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean, including Turkey and the northern parts of the Levant, for centuries before the nineteenth. Repeatedly in those centuries, the flow came back and connected with reservoirs of ideas that had always lurked deep in the Egyptian consciousness.
Taha Hussein was far from the infantilism or sense of inferiority of trying to vacuously associate Egypt with elements of the West. His point was that the onset of modernisation in the early nineteenth century was not an utterly novel wave. One implication was that, in the same way that Egypt Egyptianised the tenets of Islam it had received and out of them formed its own form of the religion, Egypt was also Egyptianising the modernisation that it had started to undergo since the early nineteenth century.
Taha Hussein saw a chance that the two forces – the Egyptianised Islam and Egyptianised modernity – would more than meet and coexist. He saw a scenario in which Mediterraneanism would engage with the prevalent and dominant Egyptian Islam and over time seep into it. Taha Hussein did not expect the two to evolve a new culture of the land. Rather, he envisaged Mediterraneanism to change some of the features and core characteristics of Egyptian Islam.
But there was another scenario, one that Taha Hussein gave much more likelihood of happening. In it, Egypt’s Mediterraneanism would be weakened by the wave of struggles, wars, poverty, and the dimming of liberalism that Hussein sensed in the late 1930s. Hussein also expected that the period after the Second World War would see heightened tension between the West and the rest, including Egypt and many 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 in thin strata of the society.
In this view, Egyptian Islam would continue to dominate the society and orchestrate its culture. But entailed in this view, and despite the failure of Mediterraneanism in Egypt, there would remain in these thin strata – not necessarily at the top of the society – strong elements of this Mediterraneanism and they would seep into Egyptian Islam, and the result would be a cultural fertilisation that would blossom limitedly but beautifully.
Taha Hussein proved highly prescient. But it was not foretold that Mediterraneanism would fail at such a scale and be isolated in thin strata and circles in the ocean that’s the 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.