Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

July was always a month rich in revolution. Two recent books shed new light on key actors in the making of modern Egypt

The missing bust
Awraq Youssef Seddiq (The Papers of Youssef Seddiq), ed. Abdel-Azim Ramadan, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp308

The limits of allegiance
Shahadati lil-Ajyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp271

Playing the British at their own game
Fayed -- The Unauthorised Biography, Tom Bower. Macmillan, 1998. pp496

Discrepancies of doctrine
Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F A Meinardus, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp344 + 24 b/w photographs

From Ottomans to Officers
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 vols.), volume 2, Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. M W Daly, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp464

Functionalising religion
Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt, Gregory Starrett, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. pp308

Recovered memories
Zaman al-nisaa wal zhakira al-badila (Women's Time and Alternative Memory), eds. Hoda El-Sadda, Somaya Ramadan and Omayma Abu Bakr, Cairo: Dar Al-Kutub, 1998. pp382

The illusion of the journey
Travellers in Egypt, eds. Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998. pp318

Soon to appear, Stokely Carmichael's memoirs are themselves a part of history. Al-Ahram Weekly previews the manuscript and talks to the co-author
Rendezvous with history
Michael Thelwell helped Stokely Carmichael write his death-bed memoirs. Visiting Cairo recently, Gamal Nkrumah sounded him out on the political legacy of the Black Power movement
At a glance:

* Tahawulat A'isha (A'isha's Transformations), Abdel-Wahab El-Bayyati, Beirut: Dar Al-Kunouz Al-Adabiya

* Qissas Bihagm Rahat Al-Yadd (Stories the Size of the Palm of the Hand), Yasunari Kawabata, tr. Kamel Youssef Hussein, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat

* Al-Wusoul illa'l-Bidaya fi'l-Fann wa fi'l-Haya (Arriving at the Beginning in Art and Life), Adli Rizkallah, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation

* Al-Mantiq Al-Ishraqi 'ind Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi (The Illumination of Logic in Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi), Mahmoud Mohamed Ali, Cairo: Dar Misr Al-Arabiya

* Al-Kutub: Wugahit Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), a monthly review, Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publications

Al-Hilal, a monthly magazine, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, July 1999

* Ibdaa' (Creativity), a monthly magazine, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, June 1999

* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), a monthly magazine, Cairo: Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party Publication, June 1999




Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Functionalising religion

Reviewed by Linda Herrera

Islam Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt, Gregory Starrett, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. pp308

Putting Islam to Work joins a growing corpus of scholarly works on social change in Egypt and the Middle East which shun those modernisation paradigms which inaccurately polarise Muslim societies and their educational institutions into false dichotomies of modern versus traditional, secular versus religious, or progressive versus backward. Starrett, an anthropologist by training, argues that throughout the century the Egyptian state, in its race to 'progress', has sought to centralise the administration of both economic and moral development. He deftly demonstrates how the state's ministries of education and, to a lesser extent, information have attempted to manage public morality through controlling religious discourse -- the former by incorporating Islam as an academic subject in the school curriculum, the latter by putting out its own Islamic publications for public consumption. Instead of homogenising Islam, however, these policies have contributed to the rise of fragmented and contested Islamic discourses in the public sphere. One result of this has been the growth of new types of (Islamist) political opposition groups and a burgeoning market for Islamic goods and services such as CD-Roms, cassettes, children's books, religious magazines and pamphlets, private Qur'an classes, Islamic schools, religious posters, Islamic health clinics and so on.

The present situation, according to Starrett, has come about largely due to an historical process which he labels the "functionalisation" of religion, or the state's "putting [Islam]... consciously to work for various types of social and political projects" (p.10). Mass schooling which is centrally organised and administered by the state, thus representing a break with the old locally-run religious schools, which were historically the domain of the religious establishment, has been paramount in this process. From the period of the British occupation of Egypt to the present, educational planners have sought to ensure that religion is packaged and delivered to the public in a way that reinforces national planning and state policies. This has occurred through the novel use of the school textbook which "objectifies" religion, or limits religious knowledge to "a defined set of beliefs" (p.9).

Starrett does with school textbooks what Brinkley Messick, a leading anthropologist of Yemen and Islam, does with legal documents in his acclaimed work The Calligraphic State (Berkeley: UC Press, 1993), and that is to show the causal relationship between new textual representations of Islam and vast social change. Messick documents how, with nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms, Islamic law (shari'a) was transformed from "a flexible and multivocal tradition of Islamic legal scholarship... into a closed, self-contained, and relatively rigid set of 'modern' legal codes" (p.127), and the implications of that for social institutions such as schools and the courts. Similarly, as Egypt adopted the European-style textbook which simplifies and delimits fields of knowledge such as Islam, the newly-schooled public began to encroach on the role of the religious establishment by participating in religious debates and producing religious tomes.

"Functionalisation" and "objectification" of religion are the prevalent tropes throughout the work. It is through these concepts that Starrett makes his contribution to the theories of knowledge/power and schooling as articulated by Gramsci, Marx, Althusser and Foucault. It was the latter who notably provided Timothy Mitchell with the basis for his important work Colonising Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Starrett argues that while the school may indeed be an instrument for the propagation of state power and cultural and social reproduction, as well as an institution which orders and controls populations, it is also "an engine of tension and contradiction... [with] ambiguous and unpredictable influence" (p.24). For however hard it may try, the state can never control or predict the outcomes of its educational policies; examples abound of anti-colonial resistance movements led by the educated elites. Social movements, however, in this post-metanarrative age, are often subtle, fragmented and include forms of discursive struggles where citizens "quietly and privately [use] the social and intellectual technologies of the modern state to create an alternative to it" (p.13). The Islamisation of Egyptian civil society is a case in point.

On a theoretical level, this study provides us with exciting and original concepts for understanding the links between schooling and Islamisation. However the field research component, particularly in schools and among educators and students, is surprisingly weak. Though the author is concerned with the history of government (public) schooling and its role in the process of 'functionalisation' and 'objectification' of religion, he conducts only limited field research at a small private English language school in Cairo. Not only is there no discussion of why, out of the 23,000 public and nearly 3,000 private schools in the country, he selected this particular school as the only educational institution in which to observe a religion class, but he fails to problematise the fact that a religion class with only 15 students -- in a city where class sizes often reach 70-80 -- is highly atypical. Uniformity of textbooks, as Starrett would no doubt acknowledge, in no way translates into uniformity of classroom practices, methodology or interactions. Similarly, chapter 6, entitled "Growing Up: Four Stories" (pp. 154-190), which provides some theoretically relevant material about four Egyptians, lacks any discussion or context as to why these four subjects were selected. Do they represent certain life patterns? How can we know that their experiences and insights are not completely idiosyncratic? In addition, while Starrett provides rich and textured content analyses of religion textbooks over time, he disregards or minimises the role played by three critical processes: textbook production; transmission; and reception. The paucity of gritty data of everyday school practice, haphazard life histories and inattention to the ways in which texts are constructed and received means that notions of the functionalisation and objectification of religion remain only a semi-substantiated theory, albeit a plausible one.

Despite the above shortcomings, this book makes a number of important and wide-ranging contributions. It elaborates on the nuanced, complex and cryptic social impact of schooling, fills in important gaps in the history of formal mass schooling in Egypt, particularly during the years of the British occupation, and adds to an already-rich literature on the process and causes of Islamisation. Most importantly, Putting Islam to Work provides a new language and new conceptual tools for critically interpreting how religion, when it is incorporated into state policy, can alter public discourses and contribute to vast social change. In the case of Egypt, the "functionalisation" and "objectification" of religion have had the unintended consequence of unleashing fragmented and contested notions of Islam into the public space, a phenomenon which is beyond the control of the government or any single force. The future consequences of these processes remain to be seen.

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