Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi: An Early Egyptian Reformer (1801-1873)

Humble Beginnings

The small market town of Tahta lies on the West Bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, some 430 km south of Cairo, at mid-distance between the district capitals Asyut and Sohag. Once the site of a temple dedicated to the god Horus, the town never occupied a prominent place in history. However, it was here that on 14 October 1801, as the last French soldiers were leaving Egyptian soil in defeat, a young baby boy was born into a noble and wealthy family of sharifs, whose branches could be found all over Upper Egypt.

The proud parents named their only child Rifa’a, after one of his mother’s ancestors, Rifa’a b. Abd al-Salam al-Khatib (‘the Preacher’) al-Ansar, whose tomb is still today a popular pilgrimage site. The family enjoyed great respect and standing within the community, with several members being judges and scholars.

Like so many rural families, the Abu ‘l-Qasim witnessed a dramatic reversal of fortunes with the introduction of Muhammad Ali’s land reforms, which included the abolition of the iltizam (tax farming) system. Rifa’a’s father was one of those tax farmers whose property was expropriated, as a result of which he was reduced to poverty overnight. So, after a relatively carefree childhood, during which Rifa’a got much of his early education from his uncles, he in 1813 left ­Tahta with his parents as his father desperately sought means to provide for his family. Eventually, they returned to their native town and moved in with the mother’s family. Rifa’a’s father died soon afterwards. It was during those three years on the road that Rifa’a, whose intellectual ability had already manifested itself, learned the entire Qur’an by heart under the supervision of his father, whereas he had also started studying some of the texts in use at the al-Azhar mosque with the help of his uncles.

The First Exile

In 1817, after a two-week boat journey on the Nile, mother and son arrived in Cairo, where Rifa’a enrolled at al-Azhar, the undisputed centre of learning in the Near East. Here, he received a classical training in the religious sciences and Arabic (grammar and rhetoric) from some of the most eminent scholars of his day. However, the one who would have the greatest influence on the young man was shaykh Hassan al-Attar who instilled in his protégé a love of learning, a passion for poetry, while arousing his interest in medicine, astronomy, history and geography, as well as in the new European sciences that he had witnessed first-hand during his visits at the Institut d’Égypte.

While still a student, al-Tahtawi regularly returned to the south, where he did some teaching at the Yusufi mosque in the West Bank town of Mallawi (ca 50km south of al-Minya) and that named after his ancestor in his native Tahta. During his stay at al-Azhar, al-Tahtawi impressed his teachers with his insight and grasp of his readings and after four years at al-Azhar, he received several ijazas, i.e. permissions from shaykhs to teach their courses, and as from 1821 he, too, became a lecturer at al-Azhar. It seems that he had a natural talent for teaching, and soon made a name for himself, specializing in hadith, logic, rhetoric, poetry, and prosody. During his student days he already wrote several treatises and commentaries of classical works of Islamic law (fiqh), whereas he is known to have composed at least two other didactic poems during his early teaching years; one on geometry and one on hadith.

However, life for a young scholar like shaykh Rifa’a, as he was now known, was not exactly a bed of roses, not in the least because of the paltry salary. In order to supplement his meagre income and support his mother, he, like so many of his colleagues, was compelled to seek remunerated employment elsewhere. It is worth pointing out that even established shaykhshad a number of sidelines, and were not, provided the price was right, averse to teaching private classes or performing religious ceremonies for private individuals. In al-Tahtawi’s case, the obvious thing was, of course, teaching, and in addition to private classes to the sons of the Turkish elite of Cairo, he also taught a few hours a week at a private school for Mamluks. It was his former mentor al-At­tar who came to the rescue and intervened on his behalf to secure a post as a preacher (wa’i­z) in one of the units of Muhammad Ali’s New Army (nizam jadid). This marked a milestone in the young man’s life as it for the first time brought him into close contact with Europeans (mostly Frenchmen), who had been employed by the viceroy to train his army. Secondly, it was while in the military that al-Tahtawi was able to see first-hand some of the effects of Muhammad Ali’s modernization programme. And when two years later, it was decided to send a student contingent to France, al-Attar quite naturally thought this would be a great opportunity for his former pupil and had him appointed imam to provide the group with religious guidance during their stay in the heathen Europe. In the end, al-Tahtawi stayed in Paris for five years, whereas the experiences, know how, and skills acquired during his Paris days would have a decisive and lasting impact on the cultural and scientific development of his native country.

Teacher, Trainer, Translator

In late spring of 1831, al-Tahtawi returned to his native land, secure in the belief that his benefactor was pleased with him and that great things lay ahead. However, things did not immediately pan out as one would have expected. Though it was encouraging that he was at least given a chance to work in his chosen profession, his first position, as a translator and French teacher at the School of Medicine (madrasat al-­tibb) at Abu Za’bal, was not exactly abrim with career opportunities. Al-Tahtawi’s literary output during this early period consisted of a translation of Cyprien-Prosper Brard’s Minéralogie populaire (1832) and of Georges-Bernard Depping’s Aperçu historique sur les moeurs et coutumes des nations (1833), both of which had been completed during his Paris stay. In addition, he revised a translations produced by some of his colleagues.. Besides his teaching and translation duties, al-Tahtawi also headed the ‘preparatory’ school (madrasa tajhiziyya) attached to the Medical School.

His new career and the increased financial security also allowed him to start thinking about starting a family, and married one of his cousins. The couple would have several children, including two sons, Ali Fahmi and Badawi Bey, the former of whom followed in their father’s footsteps and rose to high office in the public service.

In 1833, al-Tahtawi was transferred to the military school (madrasat al-­tobjiyya) at ­Tura, a few miles south of Cairo, where he replaced the French Orientalist Koenig Bey as Chief Translator. His duties included the translation, as well as the supervision and revision of translations of works related to geometry and military science.

His second year at the school marked a turning point in his career, with the release of Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz aw al-diwan al-nafis bi-iwan Baris’ (‘The extraction of pure gold in the abridgement of Paris, or the precious diwan in the iwan of Paris’), which recorded his experiences during his stay in Paris.

In early autumn of the same year (1834), Egypt was once again struck by the plague, which entered the country by sea (allegedly through a Greek vessel), just as it had done during the first epidemic of the century (1813-25), with Alexandria being the first victim. Despite frantic attempts by the authorities to confine the deadly disease to the port, it quickly spread inland. In February 1835, it reached Cairo, whence it continued to Upper Egypt, with Luxor and the Fayum oasis recording their first casualties as early as May. Shortly after the first deaths were reported in Cairo, al-Tahtawi left his post, and returned to his native ­Tahta where he stayed for six months in an attempt to protect himself against the disease, though the difficult working conditions at the School may have played a role as well. It was during this unauthorized ‘sabbatical’ that he completed the translation of the first volume of Conrad Malte-Brun’s Précis de géographie universelle, which he had started towards the end of his Paris stay.

Al-Tahtawi’s travelogue, to which his mentor al-Attar had written the preface, had also found much favour with the ruler (though less so with the average population), who ordered a translation into Turkish, the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of government officials. Mu­hammad Ali was so taken with the book that he had it distributed to all of his high officials and students at the new schools, and even sent copies to Constantinople, where it attracted much interest from the Sublime Porte. Then, Muhammad Ali appointed al-Tahtawi librarian at the Qa­sr al-Ayni school. It was during his time at the school that he put some of his ideas regarding education on paper in the form of a report which he submitted to the ruler and in which he called for the creation of a school for translators. The proposal was accepted and al-Tahtawi was put in charge of carrying it out. Translating and the training of translators thenceforth became his main activity in a career which was to span four decades.

The venue of the Language School (madrasat al-alsun), which is the direct precursor to the modern Faculty of Languages of the University of ‘Ayn Shams in Cairo (Abbasiyya), was the splendid palace once owned by the Mamluk ruler Muhammad al-Alfi Bey in the sophisticated Ezbekiyya quarter. Al-Tahtawi wasted no time in shaping the establishment to his own ideas and aspirations. The set-up was in many ways rather exceptional for the time. Firstly, there was the fact that al-Tahtawi was the only native Egyptian director within the ‘modern’ Egyptian educational system; other schools (at least those preparing students for a career in government of the military) were headed by Turks, who were often seconded by Europeans. Secondly, and more importantly, all of the students at the school were native Egyptians, as opposed to Turks (or Circassians, etc.) who made up the student population in other government schools. Initially, the number of students was limited to fifty, and later on to 150, with the course of study being set at four years, after which time graduates were automatically awarded the rank of army lieutenant. Although the original idea seems to have been to select an equal number from both Lower and Upper Egypt, the composition reveals that most of them came, like their principal, from the south. The students were recruited from the ‘preparatory’ schools. Their ages varied between fourteen and eighteen. Al-Tahtawi was determined to provide a broad education and in addition to languages (French, English, Italian, Turkish, Arabic), the curriculum contained subjects like geography, mathematics, history, as well as French and Islamic law. As a result, it was the only school at that time which offered a truly general education, without a direct link with military affairs. Naturally, all depended on the quality of the teaching and al-Tahtawi took great pains in putting together a faculty that was up to the task.

Al-Tahtawi displayed the same zeal and unflagging commitment and enthusiasm to his new task as he had done during his Paris student days. In addition to his duties as director (na­zir) and as a member of the newly created (1836) Schools Council (diwan al-madaris), he launched himself headlong into his teaching, with classes sometimes lasting up to three or four hours, whereas he would sometimes teach late in the evening, or before dawn. His other line of activity centred on translation, his own and the revision of those of others, whereas the responsibility of producing manuals for the school also fell on his shoulders. In 1841, a translation adjunct (qalam al-tarjama) was added to the School, which was naturally also headed by al-Tahtawi, whereas its fifty-strong faculty consisted mainly of graduates from the Language School. His enthusiasm and the overall quality of the teaching at the Language School meant that very soon after its foundation, students began publishing their translations, albeit under the careful supervision of al-Tahtawi. In total, the school would produce 2,000 translations of foreign (European and Turkish) works. The choice of books clearly reflected both the latter’s predilections (with a clear dominance of historical works) and French training inasmuch as it involved works he had read in Paris.

As the topics moved away from the purely scientific (and military), Egypt witnessed the emergence of a veritable translation movement – the second in Arab history (the first being that of mediaeval Greek translations)-, encompassing all arts and sciences and in which al-Tahtawi was both the formidable driving force and one of the principal contributors.

Naturally, his exacting schedule at the school left little time for his own translations in the early period. Between 1837 and 1841, his output in this field was restricted to the publication of his translation of Malte-Brun’s geography, and of Legendre’s Eléments de géométrie – which he had also started in Paris. Judging by the high-flying careers of the alumni of the Language School and the Translation Section, the school was clearly a success.

The long-term vision of al-Tahtawi also manifested itself in the fact that many of the graduates tended to join the faculty, before setting off on their careers in the country’s administration.

There is little doubt that the organization and curriculum of the Language School were a direct result of al-Tahtawi’s stay in France and constituted the first attempt at realizing his vision of an education that would combine (local Muslim) tradition and a modern European approach, even though it would take a few more decades before he would express these views within the framework of a more comprehensive cultural reformist thought.

The reputation of the school soon extended across the borders of Egypt, and attracted the attention of the Tunisian ruler Ahmad Bey, who shared Muhammad Ali’s dream of becoming a modern (Europeanized) industrialized state. In March 1840, the Bey set up a military school ((maktab harbi). It was first located within the walls of the beylical Bardo palace before moving to its own premises in former army barracks. It was the Regency’s very first government-run secular school, and as such its foundation marked the first step towards the creation of a European‑style educational system. The Bardo school was organized on the principle of a French École Polytechnique and modelled on the Istanbul School of Military Sciences and Muhammad Ali’s Artillery School. Like the Egyptian schools, the Bardo Military school was headed by Europeans, who also made up the teaching staff.

The curriculum was patterned on that of contemporary European military academies (particularly St Cyr’s), and included engineering, mathematics, and surveying, whereas French was a core subject, and, like in Egypt and Constantinople, ‘became not only the symbol, but virtually the content of cultural modernity.’ Apart from instruction, the school had to provide translations (especially of European military manuals) and, of course, train students for this purpose.

In the 1840s, al-Tahtawi’s star continued to rise, with several other adjuncts being added to the Language School, among them a ‘preparatory’ school (1841), a Faculty of Islamic Law (Madrasat al-shari’a al-Islamiyya, 1847), a Faculty of Accountancy (1845), and a Faculty of Land Management (1846). And if this was not enough, Mu­hammad Ali in 1841 put his brightest star in charge of the European library (kutubkhana) of Qa­sr al-Ayni, whereas the following year al-Tahtawi was appointed editor-in-chief of the Official Gazette, al-Waqa’i’ al-Mi­sriyya, in order to modernize what was essentially a poorly edited rag. And so, once more, al-Tahtawi followed in the footsteps of his mentor, al-Attar, who had been the first editor.

As the reign of Muhammad Ali drew to a close, dire times lay ahead of Rifa’a Bey, who would fall victim of the vicissitudes of political life. In the last years of his rule, Muhammad Ali’s increasingly failing physical and mental health caused him to withdraw from the day-to-day business of government, and in 1848, his son Ibrahim Pasha took over the reins of power, but unfortunately died in November of that year – nine months before the demise of his father. The great viceroy was succeeded by his grandson (the son of the late Tusun), Abbas I, who would hold the throne until 1854. The irony of history is such that the last endeavour in this most fertile period of al-Tahtawi’s life should have been the revision of the Takhli­s, the book which had brought him fame and recognition. The second edition appeared in 1849, just a few months before the death of his benefactor.

The new vali – as the rulers of Egypt were known in the Ottoman hierarchical nomenclature – did not share his grandfather’s interest and belief in European inventions and his reign has traditionally been associated with a reversal of his predecessor’s policies.

The Second Exile

That a new wind was blowing at the court became clear almost from the start of Abbas’ rule, with the closure (as was the case for al-Tahtawi’s Language School) or merger of the modern schools set up by his grandfather. Unfortunately, for al-Tahtawi this was only the beginning. Indeed, shortly afterwards, he was sent to the Sudan, ostensibly to set up and head a primary school in Khartoum for the offspring of Egyptian officials resident in the region. One may suspect that the publication of the second edition of the Takhli­s may also have played a part as its author’s attention for the French parliamentary system must have left a less than favourable impression on the Khedive.

Al-Tahtawi arrived in the Sudan in 1850 for a stay that was to last for four years. The Sudan was Egypt’s equivalent of the Gulag and many a dissenter found himself struggling to survive in the disease-infested swamp that was Khartoum. The death toll tended to be astronomical, and al-Tahtawi, himself, reported that half of the Egyptians that shared his exile died as a result of some epidemic or other.

During his exile, he translated Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque, under the title of Mawaqi’ al-aflak fi waqa’i’ Tilimak (‘The orbits of the celestial bodies in the adventures of Telemachus’). This was the very first story of Greek mythology to be translated into Arabic. However, in view of the circumstances one may speculate that it was not this aspect which attracted al-Tahtawi to this classic of French literature (1699). Originally written by the French archbishop and theologian François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715) for his pupil, the grandson (and heir-apparent) of Louis XIV, the book is much more than a mere account of the adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Composed in the then popular tradition of ‘Mirrors for Princes’, Les Aventures de Télémaque was above all intended to serve as a guide for good – i.e. just and wise – government for the future king. One should hasten to add, however, that this literary genre was by no means unknown in Arabic literature, with its long tradition of ‘wisdom’ literature. The earliest mirrors for princes were translations from Pahlavi or Indian tales, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Kalila wa Dimna, adapted by the Persian-born Ibn Muqaffa’ (d. 757). In his book, Fénelon expressed the core of his political ideas, criticizing despotism and praising rulers who encourage justice, education and trade. Indeed, it is not difficult to see how Fénelon’s admonitions struck a chord with one who was the victim of an absolutist decision.

Fénelon’s thought left a lasting impact on al-Tahtawi, in whose later, more philosophical, works many of the ideas and recommendations of the 17th-century French theologian resurfaced. Finally, one may point to the fact that Fénelon’s other major work, Traité de l’éducation des filles (1687) may have been a direct inspiration for al-Tahtawi’s own al-Murshid al-amin li ‘l-banat wa ‘l-banin (‘The trustworthy guide for girls and boys’). The humiliation of exile was clearly heavy to bear, and al-Tahtawi on several occasions requested he be allowed to return to Cairo.

For obvious reasons, al-Tahtawi thought it politic to shelve his Tilimaq, at least for the time being, and it took until 1867 before the book was finally published (in Beirut!), but even then it caused quite a stir at the court.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

On 14 July 1854, Abbas I was assassinated by two of his eunuchs. His successor was his uncle, Sa’id (I) Pasha, the last surviving son of the great Muhammad Ali. Unlike his nephew, the new ruler was an enthusiastic Francophile, who immediately surrounded himself with European advisers like Linant de Bellefonds, Clot Bey, and Ferdinand de Lesseps (who had even briefly been his tutor). And so al-Tahtawi once again entered upon the scene. His first appointment was as Director of the European Department of the Cairo Governorate, after which he went on to become deputy-head of the Military School.

In the 1850s, al-Tahtawi was also at the basis of a new literary genre, the patriotic poem (wataniyyat), of which he published he published five in 1856, and which were patterned on French models he had encountered during his stay in Paris. Later on, patriotism would appear as a key factor for progress and prosperity in a country. It is this view which later earned him the title of ‘the Father of Arab Nationalism’, though, as one observer pointed out, a more apt sobriquet would be ‘the Father of Egyptian Nationalism’.

In the same year, in yet another example of Khedivial whim, al-Tahtawi‘s lack of military training did not prevent him from being put in charge of the newly-founded military school (madrasat al-­harbiyya) at the Citadel, to which a translation section was added. Thanks to the former imam’s educationalist and administrative skills, the school’s popularity soared, whereas al-­Tahtawi’s son Badawi Fathi Bey would later be one of its students. In addition to his directorial duties at the Military School, al-Tahtawi was also responsible for three other establishments (Accounting, Civil Engineering, and Architecture), which were subsequently annexed. An even more incongruous appointment came in the shape of an inspectorship in the Cairo building and construction department. In 1861, the momentum of al-Tahtawi’s career was again broken when the ruler pulled the plug on the entire college, and a depressing two years of inactivity followed.

The reign of Isma’il ushered in a period of tremendous activity for al-Tahtawi. Once again, he was allowed to ply his translation trade as head of a new translation office, specializing in European legal texts. It was during this period that he translated the Code Napoléon (together with some of his former pupils), which appeared in 1866. Two years later, he also published his translation of the French commercial codex, Qanun al-tijara. In the field of education, he was as busy as ever, as a member of the diwan al-madaris, and as the author in 1869 of what has subsequently been called the first modern Arabic grammar schoolbook, al-Tuhfa al-maktabiyya li-taqib al-lugha al-‘Arabiyya (‘Present for schools for the clarification of the Arabic language’). The following year, at the age of seventy, al-Tahtawi would even pick up his journalistic pen as the editor-in-chief of Rawdat al-Madaris.

The late 1860s were also the most prolific in terms of literary output with major ‘philosophical’ works like Manahij al-albab al-Misriyya fi mabahij al-adab al-‘asriyya (‘The roads of Egyptian hearts in the joys of the contemporary arts‘) and the already-mentioned al-Murshid al-amin li ‘l-banat wa ‘l-banin (which was completed not long before his death). These must be considered the culmination of, respectively, al-Tahtawi’s social, political and educational thought. The latter book addresses all aspects of education, while its emphasis on equal education for boys and girls resulted in its author being called a pioneer of women’s emancipation. The Manahij, on the other hand, provides a unique insight into the development of his views of politics and government. In the field of history, he embarked upon a monumental history of Egypt, finishing the first two volumes, of which unfortunately only one was published during his lifetime, i.e. Anwar tawfiq al-jalil fi akhbar Mi­sr wa tawtiq bani Isma’il (‘The lights of the great success in events about Egypt and the strengthening of Isma’il’sdynasty’). The book deals with pharaonic Egypt up to the Muslim conquest and may indeed have been the very first book on the country’s ancient past to be written by an Egyptian. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the author used both Arabic and European sources. The second volume, a biography of the Prophet entitled Nihayat al-ijaz fi sirat sakin al-Hijaz (‘Ultimate abridgement of the life of an inhabitant from the Hijaz’), was published posthumously, edited by the author’s son Ali Fahmi.

Rifa’a Bey died on 27 May 1873, and was buried the following day, with the shaykh al-Azhar, Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Abbasi leading the prayers. His body was committed to the soil in the Cairo cemetery al-Qarafa al-Kubra, at the foot of the Muwattam hills, in the ‘Scholars’ Garden’ (Bustan al-‘Ulama’). In January of that year, the very first Muslim girls’ school had opened its doors in Cairo.

Source: This is an abridgement and adaptation of a number of chapters in An Imam in Paris (Saqi Books, London).

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