31 Oct. - 6 Nov. 2002
Issue No. 610
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (466)
Fast talkRenowned Sufi leader, Sheikh Mohamed El-Taftazani penned a daily column during Ramadan which dealt with a variety of religious, social and political issues. In this instalment of the Diwan, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* presents excerpts from these articles, published on the pages of Al-Ahram in 1930
In the 1920s and 1930s, Al-Ahram featured a daily column during Ramadan entitled "A thought for fasting". The column was written by Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghuneimi El-Taftazani, master of the Ghuneimiya order and one of the most prominent Sufi leaders at the time. Although most of his columns dealt with religious subjects, as befitted the occasion, yet a good many also treated social issues, historical figures and, sometimes even, political affairs. The sampling under these categories from Ramadan 1348 (January-February 1930) furnishes a panorama of an age through the lens of an erudite and enlightened religious figure.
Click to view caption
Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghuneimi El-Taftazani
Hats: "There has been considerable debate, recently, concerning the relationship between hats and Islamic Law. I took part in the discussions on this issue when the Oriental League Society invited a group of prominent thinkers, artists and physicians from Egypt to create a committee on dress, whose report was published in the press.
"The conclusion of the clergymen who took part in this discussion was that Islam does not prescribe a specific attire and that the Prophet himself wore a jubba cut in the Byzantine fashion. The advocates of the Western-style hat took this opinion as a victory and declared that Islam does not prohibit the wearing of hats. That the Prophet wore an item of clothing from Byzantium, they said, meant by analogy that we could adopt European clothes. Naturally, opponents to the hat decried these conclusions.
"What escaped both sides, however, was that there is a secret to the matter. Wearing hats is not a question of permission or prohibition, but rather of the impact it has upon Muslims and Orientals in general.
"The hat is an article that designated non-Muslims. Moreover, it was associated with people who sought to conquer and plunder the East, and as such it came to be feared and hated. As Islam strove to remain supreme, the Muslim people had to preserve their outward appearance -- their headgear was the most distinct aspect of their appearance. Thus, people sought to safeguard their identity against submersion into the identity of another. For this reason, too, many Islamic jurists prohibited the public from donning an emblem that suggested that its wearer was non-Muslim, unless circumstances present a grave threat to his person, honour or property, in which he must avert danger by adopting the lesser of two evils.
"However, before we think about changing our headgear, we must think about changing those ideas and illusions inside our heads that can be harder on us than such external matters. Those who do good in their lives will reap the rewards of their endeavours until the Day of Judgement and those who do evil will reap the punishments for their acts until the Day of Judgement. There is no doubt that good entails safeguarding identity through the display of authentic headgear while bad involves the submersion of identity into another until it becomes extinct."
School Girls' uniforms: "I have noticed that female attire at Ministry of Education schools and in foreign schools observe a considerable degree of modesty; they are not overly embellished in silk and brocade so as to dazzle the eyes and stir dubious thoughts in the beholder.
"Female students, among whom are grown women with fully developed bodies, those concerned with the affairs of their schools, and their parents and relatives, should not condone that despicable garb that many women sport, especially in trams and buses. Imagine, sir, a woman sitting with her legs crossed in a manner that displays half her naked thigh. Imagine, sir, that this woman must spend her entire time, from the moments she sits down in the tram, tugging at the hem of her dress in order to cover those parts she fears exposing to the passengers. Instead of all that effort, why does she not simply lengthen her dress 20 or even 10 centimetres?
"How much I am reminded of the chant: 'I can't complain to others because I'm blind and they are too. And I can't complain to God because he knows my plaint before I do.'
"So, above all we appeal to God. And, then to the Ministry of Education charged with supervising instruction and morals. Then, to every parent or guardian of a female student or pupil, to every father, wife and brother of a young woman. Spare your homes from falling prey to that false convention, from pollution by the filthy deceptions of a sinful city, and bring your families back if only a small step to the traditions of your country and the teachings of your religion.
"If you succeed at blocking that torrent from invading your homes you will safeguard your honour, protect your women and keep present-day women, of all dispositions, in touch with the pure and noble women of the past, who were the pride of the Orient and its people, the emblem of intellect, wisdom and competence, and the metal of sanctity and purity."
Mohamed Ali Pasha: "There is absolutely no disputing the fact that Mohammed Ali was a blessing from God to Egypt. He was a reformer in religion and in the secular world. Egypt, in his age, flourished until it became the paradise and the beacon of the Orient.
"The Egyptians nominated him as their ruler.God gave Mohamed Ali power on earth and stood by his side as he overcame many difficulties. The tyranny and destruction of the Mamelukes would have annihilated Egypt entirely were it not for the blessing of the arrival of Mohamed Ali, may God rest his soul.
"It would take too long here to recount all the great deeds Mohamed Ali performed towards the formation of an Egyptian kingdom from the sources of the Nile to its mouth, with rule over the Hijaz, Crete and the Levant. But, there is a painful aspect to this history. When the European powers observed that Mohamed Ali was using Egypt as the base for building a great empire in the East that would not be easily overcome, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia colluded to threaten him if he did not accept the peace conditions stipulated by Turkey. Yet, Mohamed Ali refused to be intimidated as it appeared to him that all these powers wanted was to deprive him of the fruits of his great victory.
"In 1841, the allies dictated their terms to Mohamed Ali in what they termed the Treaty of London. They informed him that if he refused they would be forced to bombard Alexandria, a threat that they were very eager to act on. Thus, our dear Mohamed Ali was compelled to sign that tyrannical treaty, which, although it conferred upon him and his descendants rule over Egypt and Sudan, forced him to reduce his army to 18,000 and prohibited him from manufacturing war ships and the like.
"But in spite of the calamity Britain wrought on Egypt in its lust for possessing it, it could not but recognise the noble services Mohamed Ali rendered to the world. It bestowed upon him a medallion bearing on one side the image of Mohamed Ali and, on the other, the following inscription:
"To the promoter of education, commerce and reform, the protector of foreign subjects and their property, and the restorer of the overland route to India.'
"If that was Britain's opinion of Mohamed Ali then how should the Egyptian people regard the man who rescued their nation from a plague that would have laid it to waste and replaced fear with security, hunger with satiety and aridity with fertility and abundance?"
Ismail:: "Yes, the rule of Ismail brought the oppressive tragedy of the foreign debt and the beginning of European despotism over the affairs of our country. Yet, regardless of the lengths some might go to portray the extravagance and improvidence that characterised the beginning of his reign and the chaos that prevailed in the collection of taxes and in other matters of domestic administration, Ismail must be unqualifiedly recognised for his fortitude and will. In all events, his sole thoughts were for the good of Egypt, which he aspired to see as part of Europe, which enthralled him with its manifestations of civilisation.
"Yes, Ismail did his utmost to restore to Egypt some of the advantages of autonomy from which it had been deprived under the Treaty of London. Ismail had full autonomy in domestic affairs and a measure of autonomy abroad. He was thus able to invest his influence towards furthering most of his ambitions for the country. Who can forget his reform of the Mixed Courts in 1875? Who can forget those bold steps that Egypt took towards the advancement of education, bringing Egypt within reach of the great nations of learning? In his era, schools for boys and girls proliferated throughout the country. We must also recall the higher institutes of education in Cairo.
"Ismail followed in his grandfather's footsteps in his conquests. The Egyptian empire was reborn as the Egyptian flag fluttered on the shores of Somalia, in the depth of Uganda and on the fleets that sailed the Red Sea.
"Who else could have brought an end to the slave trade in Egypt, indeed in all of Africa?
"Nor did his efforts stop there. Under Ismail, commerce thrived, public works proliferated and the area of land under cultivation increased by a million and a half feddans. He constructed 230 irrigation canals, 500 bridges and thousands of metres of riverbank fortifications in stone. He instituted massive repair and construction of agricultural roads and improved river transportation. He accorded special attention to the cultivation of sugarcane, founding 24 plants equipped with the latest machinery for processing this crop, as a result of which Egyptian sugar rose to the highest prominence in international markets. He also constructed 150 lighthouses on the Egyptian shores of the Red Sea and Mediterranean. Under his reign, too, Egyptian exports rose to LE22 million, more than four-fold of the volume in trade under Mohammed Ali. Ismail had created an armed force of 15,000 with which he was able to establish the cornerstones of the Egyptian empire.
"In short, the age of Ismail was an era of visible prosperity, fertility and growth, during which Egypt became linked with the great nations abroad through networks of telegraph lines and railways. Nor should we omit mention of the Opera House and the many other grand government buildings.
"As for government debts, the facts tell us that Ismail only gained access to 60 per cent of the total value of loans. At the same time, we should recall the royal celebrations he hosted in the interests of promoting the reputation of Egypt. The inauguration of the Suez Canal, alone, cost more than a million pounds. As a consequence of such expenditures, Egypt's debt rose from ten million to a hundred million pounds, which, in turn, led to foreign intervention in the management of government finances. Shortly afterwards, the British revealed their political ambitions by manoeuvring to have Ismail deposed and exiled from Egypt.
"Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the international status to which Ismail elevated Egypt equalled the sums he spent towards this end. It is thus not just that the commemoration of his name should be limited to his family sanctuary in Rafai Mosque. Rather, we should form a commemoration committee to ensure an event worthy of that great hero to take place in the Opera House, the Geographic Society or any of the many other institutions he founded in Egypt."
Mandate to negotiate: (On the occasion of the departure of the Nahass Pasha's delegation to negotiate with the British):
"A mandate occurs when the representatives of the people, who are charged with the advocacy of the people's cause, delegate to persons in power the task of entering into negotiations. Such are chosen on the hope that the nation's hopes are well vested in them, that they will speak in the name of the Egyptian people, that any lenience they display is against Egypt's grain and that all steadfastness they evince emanates from the depth of the heart of the people.
"We do not view the issue through the blinkers of partisanship, which has corrupted minds and morals, and sewn divisions among the sons of a single home. This fact is now incontrovertible, whereas once Egypt had amazed the world with the unity of its ranks and the solidarity of the fighters for its independence.
"A mandate was necessary. The Egyptian negotiator had to present to his British counterpart the documents testifying to his authentic right to speak in the name of Egypt. This way the British are made aware that what the Egyptian negotiator accepts will be accepted by the people and that what he refuses would be as adamantly ruled out in Egypt.
"However, I am a man who has belonged to a political party in his day, and I have loyal friends in all political parties. There should be no other criterion for favouring one Egyptian over another than the calibre of his sincerity and dedication to safeguarding dignity.
"I could tell every Egyptian negotiator to keep Sudan foremost in his mind. Sudan is the spirit and lifeblood of Egypt. Any solution that realises the unity of Egypt and Sudan in every aspect of life is the truly happy and appropriate solution. Conversely, any solution that wreaks division between Egypt and Sudan is a sentence of death on Egypt alone.
"The capitulations system, gentlemen, is a yoke around our necks; a humiliation of Egyptians in their own country. The British proposals on this issue do not remedy the source of the disease. Transferring the jurisdictions of the consular courts to the Mixed Courts, as they presently stand, will not come near to satisfying Egypt's need, so long as Egyptians do not have the prevailing say in these courts and as the presiding magistrate can only be a foreigner. The long and obscure processes of these courts and the woe they bring to Egyptian homes compel me to cry out to the Egyptian negotiator to remedy this ailment as would a skilful surgeon. It is shameful that capitulations should still loom over our heads in the 20th century, especially now that all other nations of the East as far as China have abolished this despotic, iniquitous system.
"We hope that the power of the mandate will be the bulwark that will fortify the Egyptian negotiator and ensure his success in procuring full independence for Egypt and its natural and legitimate rights in Sudan."
Russel Pasha's report: "Delegates of the world have heard Egypt's plaint from the ravages of the capitulations; indeed, from the shortcomings of its penal code, in general. They have heard its cry in the face of the hardness in European hearts so long as the ruination of the Egyptian people keeps gold flowing into their pockets and the sweat of the downtrodden Egyptian peasant can be converted into Swiss and French francs and German and Austrian marks.
"How it rent my heart to read page 40 in that great report which revealed that Egyptians spend more than 13 million pounds on drugs. The paragraph in which this information appeared gives further details:
"'I estimate that the hashish addict spends an average of five piastres on his habit. Estimating that there are 250,000 hashish users in Egypt, Egyptians spend LE12,500 a day on this drug, or LE4,562,500 a year. The heroin addict spends between five and 20 piastres a day, or an average of 12 piastres. But, even putting the figure at ten piastres, if there are 250,000 heroin addicts in Egypt, their daily spending on this drug comes to LE25,000 per day or LE9,125,000 per year. This brings the total amount of money spent on drugs per year to LE13.5 million. I repeat, I do not claim that these figures are accurate. But, even if we lowered these figures by half and then half again, the result would still be enormous in terms of the annual outlay on drugs, which would be three million pounds.'
"Everything in that report is correct, and it all stirs anguish from the depth of one's heart. It is a sorry declaration of the current moral state in Egypt, a palpable indication of the failure of the government in eliminating that savage beast that threatens the majority of youth upon whom we depend for production with certain death and inevitable misery.
"That Russell Pasha represented the Egyptian government on the League of Nation's opium addiction committee was fortunate. This great and dedicated man stood up in the defence of Egypt against that blight that seeks to devour it. It was also distressful, because the horrific image that was presented of Egypt as a victim of drugs shocked and saddened the international delegates who attended the meeting.
"However, Russell denounced drug merchants and exporters, he condemned the drug producing laboratories in Switzerland, France and Turkey, he decried everything connected to drug addiction. But, the capitulations? No mention was made of the capitulations because the opium committee was not the place to bring them up. Yet, the capitulations system is at the root of this scourge because if that yoke were removed from our necks we would be able to strike a lethal blow against every hand that attempts to harm our country.
"True, foreign consulates responded energetically to the Egyptian government's request to deport those subjects of theirs that imperil the country through drug smuggling and the associated trades in prostitution and vice. However, deportation only affects those who have already filled their pockets with Egyptian gold and sated their thirst on Egyptian blood, or, more precisely, those who have fallen into the grasp of the Egyptian police.
"As for those who are still at large -- and they are many -- the hands of the Egyptian police are tied, because they enjoy the immunities of the capitulations system, and because they are highly adept at pursuing their vile activities while out of reach of the police.
"This is only one side of this wretched coin. The other is familiar to those who protect Egyptian drug merchants and consumers. The threat of corporal punishment must be re-invoked against this criminal segment. They should be killed, crucified or amputated; or they must be banished from the country; or at the very least, they should be whipped -- both the trader and the consumer together. Prison, in their convention, is still something to brag about, iron fetters are ornaments to vaunt and they all subscribe to the maxim, 'Deter through force what cannot be deterred by the Qur'an.' "Therefore, first bring in harsh punitive and disciplinary measures to combat narcotic substances, then call in the preachers and spiritual guides. God bless Russell Pasha, above all."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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