Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (594)
Relying on Al-Azhar
In part six of this nine-part series celebrating the bicentennial of Mohamed Ali's accession to the throne, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk illustrates the extent to which Al-Azhar contributed to the Egyptian political and intellectual revival. He also focuses on the part Mohamed Ali played in the development of Egypt's modern educational system
There has been an ongoing debate over Egypt's transition from a medieval religious culture, as epitomised in Al-Azhar and its clerical hierarchy, to a modern civil culture. Certainly, the issue was as much a concern to the editors of Al-Ahram 's 1949 commemorative edition on Mohamed Ali as it is today.
The controversy was initially triggered by the claim that had Mohamed Ali not pushed his modernisation drive so rapidly and intensively, successive generations of Egyptians, perhaps until the present day, would have been spared a certain cultural schizophrenia. The proponents of this claim point in particular to the sudden and sharp break from religious education. In Europe, they argue, such illustrious universities as Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne made the transition from medieval academies run and staffed by clergymen to modern institutions run and staffed by civilians of diverse specialties over an extended period of time. Egypt was not given a similar luxury.
Others, on the other hand, have argued that Egypt experienced no such rupture between religious and secular education. On the contrary, they hold, the latter was built upon the former. This was the position taken by an Al-Azhar professor in an article that appeared in Al-Ahram 's Mohamed Ali edition of 1949. But, true to their desire to present a balanced picture on all issues, the Al- Ahram editors juxtaposed it with a second article written by a person involved in secular education at the time. The two articles follow.
ON "MOHAMED ALI AND AL-AZHAR" Abul Wafa El- Maraghi wrote, "Over its long history, Egypt passed through bright and splendid eras and through dark and gloomy ones. If Egypt flourished in the first and declined in the second, at all times it withstood the trials and tribulations that confronted it with the eternal steadfastness of the pyramids. One of the darkest epochs that Egypt experienced was that of the Mamelukes, especially the latter part of this epoch. In Manahij Al-Albab (Systems of the Mind), the eminent scholar Rifaa El-Tahtawi offers a succinct portrait of the times: 'Most of them (the Mamelukes) had not the slightest fortune in the attributes of the civilised mind. They turned profit to loss, preferred destruction to construction and sowed fear instead of faith until government collapsed and chaos reigned. The French now saw the opportunity to annex Egypt to their possessions and render its government subordinate to theirs. They came and conquered and commanded as they willed, but God willed otherwise. Still, Mameluke rule remained a predominant force, clinging black talons that tore into their subjects, until God Almighty delivered the people from this scourge through that valiant prince from Macedonia, Mohamed Ali who with his astounding genius eliminated the tormentors and lifted Egypt to a prestigious rank among nations'.
"Such was the state of Egypt at the time Mohamed Ali assumed power. Rifaa El-Tahtawi clearly understood the weight that had been cast upon his shoulders when he was chosen to assume the reigns of power. Such a condition would have caused any ordinary man to despair of ever being able to raise Egypt from its fall and cure it of its ailments. After all, what hope does one have of curing a patient in whom decrepitude decay has infested every bone of his body? However, Mohamed Ali with all the skills at his disposal, was a brilliant surgeon and he was armed with strong will and determination. The miracle thus came to pass. Egypt arose and its regained vigour astounded the world, for which reason Mohamed Ali has assumed his place among the immortals of history", says El-Maraghi.
"There was not a limb that Mohamed Ali did not have to treat. He had to reform every aspect of life, but in his wisdom and foresight he realised that the foundation of the advancement of the nation lay in education -- education in its broadest sense and in all areas. He did not give precedence to one science or branch of knowledge over another. He wanted Egypt to be a strong emerging nation and a strong emerging nation is that which possesses all the means to knowledge and all the means of power. His first successful steps towards the advancement of education in Egypt was to found new kinds of schools to suit his diverse purposes and to send study missions to European nations which excelled in the sciences and the arts so as to equip its members to take the place of the foreigners he had to rely on temporarily in the implementation of his extensive reform projects.
"However, before he embarked upon this educational drive he required people with the appropriate qualities. His thoughts turned to Al-Azhar and realised that this would meet his needs. It alone was the font of culture and education in Egypt, a beacon of knowledge and thought. Also, there were strong bonds of affection and allegiance between him and Al-Azhar dating from the events preparatory to his assumption of the throne. It was the sheikhs of Al-Azhar who, because of their powerful influence among the people, proved the crucial determinant in the clash between Mohamed Ali and the Mamelukes, for they advised the people to choose Mohamed Ali and the people responded.
"Historians report that when Mohamed Ali fell out with Khurshid Pasha, then viceroy of Egypt, the ulama (religious scholars) of Al-Azhar were the first to declare their support for him as ruler. A delegation of ulama and sheikhs went to Mohamed Ali's residence and cried out in unison, 'We do not want Khurshid as our ruler'. 'Who would you prefer, then?' Mohamed Ali asked. They responded, 'We want no one but you'. Mohamed Ali feigned to decline at first and counseled them to remain calm and obedient. However, the more he repeated this advice the more insistent they became until he was finally forced to accept. They then brought him the ceremonial robes of office, put them on him and sent a message to Khurshid to leave the citadel.
"Out of his great appreciation for the initiative of these sheikhs, Mohamed Ali strengthened his ties with them, showed them all possible kindness, and sought them out for advice. They, in turn, reciprocated his affection and loyalty. Perhaps herein lies the secret as to why Al-Azhar has always enjoyed the favour of the princes, sultans and kings descended from the House of Mohamed Ali. That event had demonstrated the influence of Al-Azhar in the nation and the contribution it could make to the efforts to promote the development and progress of Egypt, enabling it to raise its head proudly among nations.
"Mohamed Ali went to Al-Azhar and selected from among its students those with the highest aptitudes to fill the various schools he founded and he also selected an elite of young scholars to send on study missions abroad so that upon their return they would be his instrument for implementing his plan for educational advancement as the key to national advancement. Those students, whether those who enrolled in the new government schools or those who travelled to Europe, succeeded in the tasks to which they were deputed and fulfilled Mohamed Ali's highest expectations", explains El-Maraghi.
"The eminent Amin Sami Pasha, who was one of those chosen to join the new Egyptian schools, wrote: 'The first to have had the fortune to be chosen were Al-Azhar students of science who were enrolled in the schools of medicine and engineering. Among the graduates of these schools were Kabios Ramadan, author of Descriptive Engineering; Mohamed Ali El- Baqli, the author of many medical works; and Ahmed El- Rashidi, author of a work on medicinal substances and other works, and charged with testing the Red Sea coast for mineral substances for which purpose he was placed in charge of a scientific delegation that went to Mexico'.
"The members of the Al-Azhar study missions abroad were no less successful than their peers enrolled in the Egyptian schools. Indeed, during their stay in Europe and after their return they were a source of pride for Al-Azhar and a model of Egyptian intelligence and moral rectitude. Mohamed Ali was ever vigilant over the conduct of students abroad. He furnished the means to ensure that they would live comfortably, but he also inquired constantly after their welfare and their progress in their studies. Concerning the degree of care and attention Mohamed Ali accorded to them, a former member of one of these study missions recalls:
'Mohamed Ali drafted a 14-point code and charged their supervisors with ensuring that this code was implemented to the letter. The fourth point stated that 'All students shall be examined at the end of each month to ascertain the progress they had made during that month. They are to be given all the books and equipment they need for study and at the end of every month a report for each student will accurately detail his achievements and activities'. The seventh point stated, 'In a public establishment or in the street, no student shall comport himself in any dishonorable manner. This is the most important point and the strongest prohibition'.
"The students adhered closely to these instructions and points of advice and they achieved the aims of their benefactor in a short period of time. Rifaa El-Tahtawi recalls, 'As it was our benefactors wish that we learn quickly so that we can return to our country quickly, we commenced our lessons in French as soon as we arrived in Marseilles. Within the space of 30 days we learned the language. Then we went to Paris'.
"Several study missions were sent from Al-Azhar one decade after the other. Imams were attached to these missions and such was their eagerness to learn that they considered themselves members as well, as they followed the courses and succeeded in obtaining high academic degrees. Al-Azhar had members in three study missions, the first in 1826, in which there were three Al- Azhar students one of whom was El-Tahtawi who specialised in translation; the second in 1832, which was a medical study mission and in which there were 12 Al-Azhar students; and the third in 1847, the purpose of which was the study of law or science of representation in litigation, and in which there were five Al- Azhar students. The majority of these excelled in their studies after which they returned to Egypt to assume tasks and responsibilities assigned to them. It was these people who spearheaded the educational awakening in Egypt, realising the hopes that their benefactor had placed in them. In their various capacities as translators, administrators, judges and physicians they became luminaries in modern Egyptian history.
"Among the most illustrious was El-Tahtawi, dubbed in the annals of Egyptian history as the Imam of the National Awakening and the Sheikh of Translators. El-Tahtawi excelled in his studies of geography, history and translation. While in France he translated many documents and books into Arabic. He also authored numerous educational and scholastic works and occupied a number of high-level governmental positions.
"Another member of those study missions who rose to prominence was Dr Sheikh Abul Wafa, who was selected to replace the foreigner Ferbai as chief physician of the Naval Hospital. Among the other famous Al-Azharites from those study missions were Dr Sheikh Ibrahim, Ahmed Hussein El-Rashidi and Ibrahim El-Nabarawi.
"The foregoing historical overview illustrates the extent to which Al-Azhar contributed to the Egyptian political and intellectual revival and the extent to which Mohamed Ali relied on it for that purpose. Mohamed Ali demonstrated his gratitude to Al-Azhar's efforts through the care and attention he bestowed upon it, as did all who succeeded him". Thus ended El-Maraghi's article.
THE SECOND ARTICLE, BY AHMED ATALLAH, director of the Museum of Education, discusses the part Mohamed Ali played, wittingly or unwittingly, in the development of the modern educational system in Egypt. It is impossible to know whether it was the author himself or the Al-Ahram page editors who gave the article its title. What is certain, however, is its implicit critique of the conclusions drawn by Abul Wafa El-Maraghi. The title reads: "The light of knowledge beams from the heart of the capital: The pasha lays the cornerstones of educational revival on crumbling ruins". The pasha, of course, was Mohamed Ali; the "crumbling ruins" was the religious educational system headed by Al- Azhar. The body of the article was as follows:
"When, in the afternoon of 13 May 1805, the people of Cairo rallied in Ezbekiyya Square calling for Mohamed Ali to become ruler of Egypt, the Mameluke capital was a wasteland, weighed down by rubble asphyxiated by stagnant ponds. It was a forlorn city whose inhabitants were in constant terror. A mere rumour was sufficient for people to race out of their homes and fall prey to theft and plunder. The only voice to be heard was that emanating from Al-Azhar Mosque, the city's political forum and the hall of spiritual counsel. But even that voice was sporadic, for frequently its doors would quake upon the disruption of order outside, and on these occasions study circles would scatter as students raced back to their homes or villages while the sheikhs remained behind.
"Al-Azhar was Egypt's great school and its only school. Beneath it were the many kuttabs (religious elementary schools) attached to sabils (public fountain houses), mausoleums and mosques and which would feed it with aspirants for knowledge. The kuttabs were dimly lit rooms in which the voice or the instructor would reverberate from morning to nightfall as he droned out the past tense for students to copy on their slates or drilled them on the rules of penmanship for which there were no rules for he himself was barely literate. As for the other subjects, such as arithmetic and the like which students learn today, they were esoteric arts in those distant days.
"If a graduate from those kuttabs wanted to continue his studies, he had no choice but Al-Azhar. However, Al-Azhar would prove a disappointment if he wanted training in anything but the religious sciences and certain arts of language and literature. Neither public education nor specialised education in medicine, engineering, industry, trade or agriculture had a place in that society.
"Such was the face of Cairo and such was the state of education when Mohamed Ali the Great assumed power. The pasha had to make the city safe so as to put people's minds at ease and he had to spread development and education in order to open their hearts. In these he succeeded", states Atallah.
"How did Cairo appear to its visitors at the beginning of the 19th century? They would have alighted on the bank at Boulaq and found themselves before a small village standing by itself apart from the city. There would have been small Nilotic boats and fallukas anchored at the wharfs and the port itself would have been fronted by silos and storage houses and local workshops. Boulaq was at once a suburb and Cairo's port. To get to the capital, one had to pass through a stretch of wilderness that was not without its highway robbers until one reached the city's southern most edge at Ezbekiyya Pond. In summer, this body of water would nearly dry up. But in the winter the water level would rise and it would become a playground for small pleasure boats. The lake was surrounded by the vestiges of Mameluke palaces. To the northeast, there was another small lake -- Elephant Pond -- which was connected to the canal which cut through Cairo from the east to west. Between the two lakes was a network of hundreds of small streets, lanes and alleyways, and these had doorways that would be bolted at night for fear of villainous attacks on the inhabitants. The lanterns that Napoleon had ordered to be affixed at the head of the alleyways had fallen into neglect. It was not until Mohamed Ali came that they were repaired and lit again. It was he, too, who ordered the streets and alleyways cleaned and had derelict buildings vacated so that they could be torn down and replaced by modern ones with wide new streets to serve them.
"This urban development process extended throughout the city. The piles of rubble along the Nile to the east of Boulaq were removed and splendid gardens were built and in their centre the palace of Ibrahim Pasha. Similarly, Mohamed Ali had the land levelled in the area that is now Shobra to the west of what is now the train station, and had his palace built there. As for Ezbekiyya and Elephant ponds, they were filled in and the Mameluke palaces around them either restored as princely residences or transformed into government offices. However, it was the citadel itself that underwent the greatest development. This Mohamed Ali had transformed into a major city remote from the din of the rest of the capital.
"Nor was it long before there was a modern school in every Cairean quarter, from Tura in the south to Abu Zaabel in the north. Many of these schools were established in old homes and palaces, with modern annexes added to serve such functions as dormitories, assembly halls and storerooms. If it transpired that existing premises were too small to accommodate growing levels of enrolment the Pasha would order the appropriation of adjacent homes, but would compensate their owners 10 times their value.
"The citadel was the first site for the modern educational revival. That was where the first public library was established and the first seeds of the industrial training schools sewn. But the activity quickly spread to Qasr El-Aini, now the site of our School of Medicine but then a Mameluke palace. There, Cairo's first primary school was built and this evolved into a preparatory school.
"The first fully fledged elementary school was Mobtadian in Sayyida Zeinab. Still located there today long after Mohamed Ali's death, Mobtadian, Cairo's first true public elementary school, accommodated both borders and daytime students. Boarders were given three full meals a day, linen uniforms and their own beds and bed clothing. Egypt's first School of Accounting and Trade was also born in Sayyida Zeinab. Sharing some of Mobtadian's buildings, its purpose was to produce clerks for government departments and army units.
"The Qasr El-Aini preparatory school was a square, two-story building with a plethora of rooms for classes, dining and sleeping. Other buildings were added to it to serve as the kitchen, library and mosque. The entire complex was located in the midst of a vast garden. After Mohamed Ali promulgated the Education Law, this school became filled with students from Cairo and the provinces who were graduates of Mobtadian. Such was his care for the welfare of this school and its students that Mohamed Ali arranged to supply its students with complete sets of winter and summer clothing, large meals with plenty of meat, fruit and vegetables, and resident physician and a resident pharmacist to tend to their physical health. Eventually, however, Mohamed Ali decided to relocate this school to Abu Zaabel in order to free its premises for the School of Medicine.
"Boulaq had three schools. The first was the School of Engineering. Originally founded in the citadel at the beginning of Mohamed Ali's rule, it was relocated to his son Ismail's palace following his death in Sudan. Like today's colleges of engineering, the school offered instruction in maths, medicine, chemistry, geology and various types of draftsmanship. But Mohamed Ali also strongly believed in practical training, for which reason the school's students were required to serve a year's apprenticeship after graduation.
"Alongside the School of Engineering, Mohamed Ali established the School of Applied Processes, which later became known as the School of Crafts and Industries. Its purpose was to train its students in such craft as carpentry, lathing and all the crafts associated with the arts of war such as the construction of fortifications. Instruction was more practical than theoretical, because it was also used to supply government departments with their necessary furniture and equipment.
"Next to the School of Engineering was Boulaq's third school: the Observatory, established for the study of astronomy and meteorology. Soon after it was founded, it was annexed to the School of Engineering", continues Atallah.
In Abu Zaabel, Mohamed Ali founded the first School of Medicine, which was housed in modern building the construction of which he spent thousands of pounds. Set in the midst of a vast botanical garden, the school also contained spacious lecture halls and autopsy rooms. Credit for the design and equipment of this school is due to the efforts of Clot Bek, who recalled it with great pride and affection in his memoirs on Mohamed Ali.
"As we mentioned above, however, the School of Medicine soon traded places with the preparatory school in Qasr El-Aini. The move was dictated by the fact that the School of Medicine was located too far from the centre of town, rendering it difficult for patients to visit its hospital. Also, the military barracks that had formerly been located in Abu Zaabel were dismantled, depriving the hospital of its military patients. On the other hand, through its move the School of Medicine lost some of its former advantages. In its remote location, it was akin to a monastery, enabling students of medicine to focus on their studies with the reverent dedication of monks, not distracted by the lure of the bright lights of the city. In addition, the school lost its botanical gardens, which had been an important resource for students of pharmacology.
"In Abu Zaabel, too, there was the Infantry Academy, one of the major military academies founded by Mohamed Ali. Its purpose was to produce the officers for some of the army's most important regiments at that time. It had an average enrolment of about 400 students.
"Tura was the location of another important military school, the Artillery Academy. Its modern buildings overlooked the Nile between Helwan and Old Cairo and behind them were the open spaces below Muqattam Hills which were used for training. The school trained personnel for both the army and the navy. It had its own hospital as well as its own printing press for publishing works translated from foreign languages.
"Not far away, Old Cairo was honoured by Egypt's first School of Mineralogy and Chemistry. However, this source of prestige did not last long, for these branches of instruction were soon brought under the School of Engineering.
"Giza's share was represented by two schools. The Cavalry Academy was housed in the palace of Murad Bek and remained their until after Mohamed Ali's death. Modelled on an academy in France, its approximately 400 students were trained in the arts of mounted warfare, duelling and military manoeuvres. The second school was the Military Music Academy. Although an older school had existed, with the comprehensive modernisation of the Egyptian army it was deemed necessary to relocate and upgrade the school so as to supply each of the many new regiments with military bands. The academy proved highly successful in meeting its objectives.
"But it was Ezbekiyya, which Mohamed Ali had transformed into the new heart of the capital city complete with verdant gardens, in which one found the Divan of Schools -- the Ministry of Education of those days. The Divan was the headquarters of the director of education and his deputy and technical assistants. Attached to it was a warehouse from which would be distributed all the various pedagogical tools and instruments the schools needed. The Divan of Schools was housed in the former Daftardar Palace (land registry bureau) together with the School of Languages which was founded at the same time. In addition to performing the functions of the faculties of letters and law today, Al-Alson, as it was called, also supervised the translation of foreign works into Arabic, for which purpose it taught Turkish, Persian, French, Italian and English.
"In Mohamed Ali's time, Shobra was pure countryside. This he connected to the city with a broad tree-shaded thoroughfare which ended at a vast garden containing various rare fruit trees, flowers and other plants that he had imported from Asia and Europe. And in the centre of this paradise he constructed a splendid palace for himself. It was here, too, that he founded the School of Agriculture which he initially staffed with European instructors. At about the time when the School of Medicine was relocated to Qasr El-Aini, the School of Veterinary Medicine was relocated to Shobra so as to be near the government stables. Students for this school were selected from among the students of the School of Medicine", concludes Atallah.
From the foregoing, it is clear that apart from the military academies, the preparatory school in Alexandria and some elementary schools in the provinces, Cairo in the age of Mohamed Ali was the birthplace of Egypt's modern school system.