Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (606)
Now and then
Wanting the old educational system to catch up with the new but loathe to tamper with tradition, Al-Azhar University and the Egyptian University organised a writing competition in 1936 on Al-Azhar's mission in the 20th century. As described by Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, the existence of a form of education dating back to the Middle Ages and another that was the product of the modern era placed educational officials in a quandary
Anyone who has studied the history of traditionally based institutions knows how difficult it is for them to let go of the past in order to attune themselves to the demands of the present. Their predicament is particularly severe at time of intense and rapid change, at which junctures they are forced either to make the appropriate adjustments or to engage in a head-on collision with the new, which can sometimes escalate into armed violence and bloodshed. Western Europe experienced such a crisis in the latter half of the 16th century when the Protestant movement led by Calvin engaged in bloody battle with the forces of the established order of the Catholic Church, led at the time by Catherine de Medici.
Fortunately Egypt, which had the occasional fanatical ruler who tried to impose his radical views, never experienced a conflict of such brutality. Egyptians have always been able to reach some sort of compromise between tradition and renovation. Perhaps the educational reforms instituted by Muhammad Ali during the first half of the 19th century while leaving the religious educational system intact best illustrate this phenomenon. On the other hand, one could argue that this bequeathed the problem of civil-religious duality in our educational system, one that has become particularly acute over the years with the spread of foreign educational institutes that are much more modern in organisational and academic design than government-run schools.
In all events, the existence of a form of education dating back to the Middle Ages and another that was the product of the modern era has placed educational officials in a quandary. On the one hand, they would like the old educational system to catch up with the new; on the other, they are loathe to tamper with traditions that the old institutions embody. Perhaps such considerations were what inspired officials of the ancient University of Al-Azhar and the modern Egyptian University to get together in the winter of 1936 to organise a writing competition around the theme: "Al-Azhar's mission in the 20th century". Long a champion of educational reform, Al-Ahram covered the contest closely and published what it regarded were the most important entries.
The first of these was by Professor Abbas El-Gamal, who opened his study with a historical overview of Al-Azhar and then proceeded to describe Al-Azhar's mission over the course of its 10 centuries of existence. The venerable religious establishment, he said, served the public through its preachers and teachers who led Muslims in their prayers and gave them moral guidance in their assemblies. It served the cause of knowledge having preserved for the Islamic world of the 19th century the long cumulative legacy of scholasticism in the sciences of language and religion. It served to safeguard the Arab language in the modern period: "Primary and secondary schools reach out to Al-Azhar for teachers to provide their pupils with proper instruction in their mother tongue." El-Gamal further hailed Al-Azhar as the institute that produced "the most eloquent Arabic rhetoricians". Most notable among these in recent times were Sheikh Mohamed Abdu and Saad Zaghloul. Al-Azhar continued to perform its multifold mission in the 20th century or, as El-Gamal put it, "it still forges a clearly demarcated path to a desired aim... It remains the largest religious and academic institute, the purpose of which is to preserve and disseminate Islamic law and the Arab language."
The second entry that Al-Ahram chose for publication was a prize-winner, albeit not first prize. Its author, Mohamed El-Hihyawi, offers several recommendations that if adopted would help Al-Azhar improve the performance of its mission in the 20th century. When students first enter Al-Azhar, he writes, they are much like delicate children at the outset of their lives. They should therefore be treated with great care and understanding and should not, for example, be subjected to arduous instruction their minds are not yet strong enough to absorb. Only later when students' minds are opened and their spirits willing does it become possible to introduce them to more complex books and challenging subjects, thereby gradually developing their skills of comprehension and discernment.
El-Hihyawi states that sons of Al-Azhar will not be able to carry out their mission unless they can express themselves clearly and effectively, orally and on paper. Arabic instruction in Al-Azhar should, therefore, not focus exclusively on grammar, morphology or such dry and rigid sciences that are called rhetorics. On the contrary, much greater emphasis should be given to the study of the history of the Arabic language and literature, and through a pedagogy that strives to hone students' sensitivity to and appreciation of the language rather than their skills at rote memorisation and repetition. Finally, he stresses that people will not be able to understand the Qur'an unless Al-Azhar understands it thoroughly first. Unfortunately, the university did not have sufficient works of exegesis to help it attain this essential goal.
One cannot help but observe that El-Hihyawi's contribution echoes the demands of the great religious reformers of the early 20th century, most notably Sheikh Mohamed Abdu.
The contest's judges panel was correct in awarding first prize to Ahmed Khaki. His entry was excellent in every respect, for which reason Al-Ahram published it in full over two editions: 16 May, in which the first part of the article took up a full page, and the next day in which the remainder took up more than a page.
Khaki was only 28 when he submitted his entry. In 1929 he graduated in history and English from the Higher Teachers College and two years later he received his BA in English from the University of Exeter. At the time of the contest he was a teacher in Prince Farouk Secondary School. He would go on to ascend the ladder of the educational system when, in 1966, he became deputy minister of education. Interestingly we note among his later published works The Mission of Al-Azhar in the 20th Century. Evidently, his award had encouraged him to develop his entry in the Al-Azhar University of Egypt contest on this theme into a full- length book.
Khaki opens his entry with a lengthy historical overview, part of which he devotes to "the principles of Islam". Al-Azhar, he writes, has always been dedicated to promoting these principles and, thus, the mission of Al-Azhar was to fulfill the mission of Islam. He continues: "We cannot appreciate the mission of Al-Azhar in the 20th century unless we understand the extent to which this institution had become a part of Egyptian life in the last century. Any worthy intellectual mission must be primarily founded upon the traditions of the age which produced it and grow with the traditions of the country in which it arose."
At the outset of the modern era, Al-Azhar established its intellectual and political leadership in Egypt in the confrontation against the injustices perpetuated by the Ottoman overlords. During his short stay in Egypt Napoleon realised how important it was to satisfy Al-Azhar officials in order to rule the country. The famous French commander "fully appreciated the political leverage of Islam, to the extent that it was said that he placed the Qur'an alongside his political books. He realised that Muslim political and social thought was derived essentially from their Holy Book. Later, when he assumed power in France he said that he was a Muslim in Egypt and a Catholic in France for the benefit of the peoples of these countries."
During "the period of political storms" that swept Egypt in the interim between the Napoleonic expedition and the rise of Muhammad Ali, it was the Azharites who established the right of the people, a principle they scrupulously supported with citations from holy scripture. Khaki relates that when the Ottoman envoy Khurshid Pasha met with the Egyptian leader Omar Makram and exhorted him to obey the pasha, the pasha cited the Prophetic saying, "Obey God, obey the Prophet and your rightful rulers." Omar Makram retorted, "Our rightful rulers are the ulema [Muslim clergy], the bearers of holy law and the just sultan."
Khaki then jumps to the end of the 19th century and what he referred to as "the comprehensive reform movements to confront the intrusive elements that have wrought harm to the nations of the east". The leaders of these movements were Sheikh Gamaleddin El-Afghani and Sheikh Mohamed Abdu. The great imam Mohamed Abdu was so familiar with Western philosophy that he could "meet argument with counter argument and proof with counter proof". Khaki was referring to the debate between the Egyptian theologian and reformist and Hantu, which was one facet of the intellectual confrontation between East and West. For his part, "the French historian invented any number of pretexts to justify the materialist policy that sanctioned every manner of action and behaviour prohibited by religion and law. In his response the Egyptian imam rose to the defence of Islam's foremost principles and in so doing he distinguished between what is authentic to Islam and what is not."
If Al-Ahram readers thought that the secondary school teacher would now address the topic of the day they were mistaken. Instead, he proceeded to discuss "Al-Azhar's traditions". In this context, he attempted to answer several questions: how could a single institute lead an entire nation during a century in which that nation was the object of foreign ambitions? How did it resist foreign aggression? With what forces did it arm itself in order to stand up against the influences of Western writers?
Khaki begins to answer these questions by quoting Herodotus' famous remark: "Egyptians are a very religious people." He noted that the same observation was made by Stanley Lane Paul who lived among the Egyptian people during the early part of the 19th century. He continues, "If religion in Ancient Egypt was a source for material progress, Islam proved the impetus, indeed, the very spirit of progress. The Muslim nations only reached the heights of civilisation they attained when their people fully embraced the new religion. Therefore, as Egyptians, religious fervour is virtually one of our innate instincts, and as Muslims we have inherited that vital force that has propelled the masses up the rungs of the human ladder."
Al-Azhar both embodied and spearheaded this drive. In addition, Khaki contends, this religious institute will not step down from its public leadership until it can rest assured that all obstacles to progress have been lifted and that the conviction of the Egyptian people in the principles for which it stands is strong enough to withstand the lure of the West. What he feared was that the Egyptian people take Western civilisation as their sole beacon and lose sight of the dictates of their religion and the benefits of the traditions of Islam.
As he turns now to Al-Azhar's mission in the 20th century he notes that over the previous two decades Egyptians had advanced at a far more rapid pace than Al-Azhar. "A force has been generated in every area of life that is propelling Egyptians forward. The Bank of Egypt and its companies have shouldered an enormous burden in promoting industrial progress. In agriculture, the Royal Agricultural Society has performed a momentous duty. In the field of education, the founding of the Egyptian University ushered in a bright new age. Yet, while all these institutions have hastened us along the road to material progress we fear that the relationship between Al-Azhar and the people has so weakened that many have come to regard it wrongly as an obstacle to progress."
The crucial problem was that material progress, if not attended by commensurate spiritual progress, must ultimately produce a condition more pernicious than underdevelopment. "Al-Azhar, thus, must participate in all areas of Egyptian life and remain a forward-driving force. For material progress unguided by higher morals becomes a voracious drive that like fire must ultimately consume itself."
In promoting the principles and values of Islam, therefore, Al-Azhar had a vital role to play in safeguarding the Egyptian people from the fate of European societies whose unmitigated thirst for material progress wrought internecine warfare and destruction. "I believe the most recent example of this comes from [the Bolshevik Revolution] in Russia."
In addition, Islam furnished the necessary spirit of universal unity and harmony that made it possible to reconcile competing desires and ambitions within and between societies. "Islam guarantees the freedom through its elevation of the stature of man and order through its provisions of law and rendering obedience to God, His Prophet and our rulers, duties that we undertake willingly... All of this has been brought by Islam and its revelation of constitutional principles that jurists can apply to their environments, thus ensuring that mankind can always progress."
In the second instalment of his article, on 17 May, Khaki addresses "Al-Azhar's public mission". In order to perform this mission, he writes, the ancient Islamic university had to take certain measures to bring itself closer to ordinary Egyptians. Prime among these measures was "the elimination of extraneous beliefs and practices that have found their way into the religion... In funerals, marriages, health and illness, in every aspect of life, people practice customs inherited from their earliest forefathers and beliefs the ignorant have injected into the body of the faith."
If Al-Azhar was to bring the people into the modern age it should avail itself of the means the sciences of that age had produced. "Perhaps the press, the radio and the cinema are the most effective and widespread media with which to reach out to the public. If Al-Azhar aspires to call the people to the true principles of religion, it should adopt these media as its channels of communications with the masses... It should supervise the editing of its newspaper, the substance of the religious lectures delivered over the airwaves and the production of creative films projected on the silver screen, thereby ensuring that the light of religion reaches into those dark corners that are the breeding grounds for crime and evil."
In so doing, too, it would sweep the carpet out from under those "mercenaries" who claim religious leadership and exploit the people by playing upon their gullible imagination. Such impostors were particularly prevalent in the countryside where they have acquired thousands of followers who follow their every command and heed their every injunction.
Khaki turns next to the relationship between Al-Azhar and the freedom of opinion. He cites several Qur'anic verses to establish that Islam provides a clear realm for freedom of belief, which "lofty principle fortified the Prophet and strengthened his resolve in his struggle against the Quraysh." Moreover, intellectual freedom expanded with the rise of the Islamic sciences and the expansion of the prolific jurisprudential culture radiating from the abundance of scholastic works on law.
In the course of its long history, Al-Azhar encouraged free thought and safeguarded freedom of opinion with a shield of veneration. "There was a time in Al-Azhar when aspirants to knowledge would sit in study circles with their elders taking turns to speak with no apparent restriction. Azharites, sheikhs and students alike, were fond of debate and as heated as their debates sometimes were they were always characterised by the precision in exposition and argument derived from the ancient tradition of scholastic logic."
Khaki acknowledges that in recent times Azharites had been accused of fanaticism for rejecting the products of modern science. He therefore exhorted Al-Azhar to work alongside other institutes in scientific research, for in so doing it would "make a worthy contribution to all facets of progress and win the confidence of society". Simultaneously, he cautioned that in an age in which "science rules our smallest to our largest needs", science should not be allowed to prevail over religion. "For science to rage out of control would produce the most appalling results." Al-Azhar, therefore, had the onerous task of keeping pace with science and keeping it in check at the same time. But if it could perform this task effectively it would become a centre of a lofty intellectual movement. "We cannot but imagine that this would lead to the rise of a school of thought that embraces religion and simultaneously breaks through that formal rigidity that has virtually made Al-Azhar a government academy."
In the final portion of his valuable study, Khaki suggests that to restrict Al-Azhar's role in the 20th century to Egypt would do it an injustice. He believes -- and rightfully so -- that by virtue of its religious character, the potential value of the ancient university extends beyond the borders of the nation in which it exists to reach the farthest horizons of the Islamic world. On the basis of this premise he addresses Al-Azhar's mission in modern civilisation and its role in international politics.
The world, he writes, stands at a dangerous crossroads in which "doubt has infected right and wrong and truth is trampled underfoot." Proof of this could be found in the new ideologies that have pervaded and divided Europe. To their proponents, theses ideologies are the model of perfection whereas to their opponents mere mention of them is anathema. The ideologies themselves, he continues, are the product of the upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. All European attempts to arrive at a new formula for coexistence under the new circumstances met with failure.
He goes on to relate that in 1815 Russian Tsar Alexander I proposed a holy alliance with the aim of defending the last remnants of European spiritual life. Europe refused to take him seriously, regarding him as a religious zealot and a mystic. In Khaki's opinion, the failure of this holy alliance was a setback for the whole of Christianity. "Afterwards, politicians went to the wildest extremes, distorting Darwinist theory to justify war and deception on the grounds of 'survival of the fittest' and arguing that war was a form of the natural struggle for survival." The excesses resulting from this negation of religion gave rise to a number of European reformers who heralded a Christian revival that would lead Europe to a rebirth. "Unfortunately, their reforms were largely superficial and the remedies they invented failed to penetrate the deeper spiritual problems."
Al-Azhar, Khaki continues, was fully equipped to play a fundamental role in today's troubled world. His proof of this resided in the fact that communism failed to make any inroads whatsoever in those parts of the world where Islam prevailed. "This is not because the governments blocked the encroachment of communism but because communism and Islam are two irreconcilable opposites and because Islam, since the moment of its revelation, possessed that unique spiritual vision that endeared it to the hearts of the people."
The Islamic university thus had the task of opening the eyes of others just as it had to open the eyes of Egyptians. " [Westerners] are averse to Islam because they are unfamiliar with it and because they have been taken in by the malicious propaganda produced by some of their writers out of ignorance... As a result, many Westerners believe that Muslims idolise Mohamed and many of them have read A Thousand and One Nights but not the Qur'an and therefore think that Muslims still own houses filled with concubines!"
He adds that it will only be possible to alter this image of Muslim society when Egyptian society itself becomes a model of piety and order. "If Al-Azhar can reshape itself as the centre of a school of thought aiming to transform Egyptians into a good and pious people this would prove the most powerful response to those false and tendentious claims circulated abroad... If we want to guide the people of the West to the true faith, we should begin with ourselves."
Some three quarters of a century down the line, it appears that Khaki's appeals remain unheeded. The West is still the West in all its materialism and pragmatism and the East remains the East with its spirituality and its occasional lack of practical approaches to life.