Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary email@example.com or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalment: Muhammad Ali: A view from the new world by Roger Owen
Muhammad Ali: the family man
Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot*
revisits the pasha's relationship with his children
Click to view caption|
Al-Ahram Weekly continues the Muhammad Ali series to be published fortnightly until 10 November, date of the international symposium to be held in Egypt commemorating the bicentennial of the Pasha's ascendancy to power
Muhammad Ali is a renowned reformer and a man who was ahead of his time in his thinking on political, economic and social matters. Indeed he was ahead of his time even in his relationship with his children, especially his daughters, and with women in general.
Unlike many men of his era Muhammad Ali had only one wife, Amina, whom he had married while in Kavala. He treated her with fondness and respect and never married another woman although he did acquire several concubines who all together gave him a total of 30 children, many of whom died young. Amina's portrait reveals a good looking woman with beetling brows, as was the fashion of the age, and a somewhat forbidding expression. For all we know she may have been a battle axe or a gentle woman, for we know little about her. Yet it is telling that the Wali never married another woman. He seemed to have treated all his women with kindness.
The archives contain many letters from the father to his children and it is from them that we can deduce something about their relationships. While the Wali had no illusions about human nature he was determined to mould his sons' characters in what he considered the proper fashion, hence the constant flow of advice, peppered with threats and warnings urging them to behave correctly. Unlike parents of the day he never punished any of his sons for disobeying him. Although he did threaten them with various punishments, they were seldom, if ever, carried out. The type of weapon he used against disobedience was refusing to grant a request for a horse, a boat, clothing etc, or threatening to send the son in question to live in a modest hut. He expected to be obeyed and indeed he was, most often, but he also accepted wayward behaviour with equanimity. His affection for his children did not blind him to their defects, which he clearly saw and tried to correct, often without success. Though the Wali was known to address his administrators with insulting terms when they displeased him -- Egyptians were khanzir ibn khanzir (pig, son of pig), and Ottomans eshek (donkey) -- he never used such insulting terms with his children.
Consequently we note the tone of affection as well as respect in his letters to his children. The boys were treated as adults from the age of 12, given positions of responsibility in the administration, and were accompanied by two older men who were mentors or advisers, to teach them the ropes, so to speak. In a letter to the Sultan, Muhammad Ali wrote: "God has given me three sons who are as dear to me as my life or my sight...separation from my two sons tears my heart." The two sons mentioned were his oldest, Ibrahim and Tussun, who had gone off to war. These words may have been pour la forme expressions, but the rest of his correspondence with his children is full of terms of affection that lead us to believe he genuinely loved his children. He addressed them frequently as canim (my soul), or as faldhat kabidi (sliver of my liver), or as flesh of my blood. In a letter to Ibrahim he wrote: "My son, I love you, you and your brother...are the soul in my body and the light in my eyes...Though our bodies are separated and far apart yet our hearts are united and that spiritual communion gives us joy." In a letter to Said he addressed him as "apple of my eye, qurrat aini ".
The tone of affection could easily turn to terms of rebuke when his sons behaved badly or went against his wishes. When Ismail was sent to fight the Shaiqiyya in the Sudan and sent his father 300 ears to show his valour, the father was incensed at his son's brutality, but also at the stupidity of such actions and wrote: "It was your duty to gain the trust of the Shaiqiyya by kindness and just treatment...instead you have alienated them...Have you not heard how people behave in times of war?" He then mentioned how the French and the British had treated their enemies with kindness. Ismail did not heed his father's words and received a letter warning him: "If you choose to love yourself above your love of your men, I will not love you...If you will not heed my words, I swear to drag you back and imprison you in a small hut, for shame cannot be tolerated."
According to the Wali shame was ill behaviour towards people, brutality, injustice, arrogance, indolence. Muhammad Ali's grandson, Abbas, seemed to have received the brunt of harsh words. He was told: "you have dashed my hopes in you...Truly your indolence has pained me exceedingly. Abbas you must pull yourself together and set aside indulgence in favour of earnest work." When these remarks did not change Abbas's behaviour and he acted in a cruel manner towards his men, the Wali wrote to him: "to act like a lion befits savages and does not befit someone in your position." Worse than his cruelty and indolence Abbas lost his grandfather's favour through his incompetence, but the Wali continued to give him administrative functions because he was a family member, but he despaired that his grandson would change, and referred to him as happa, indolent.
Arrogant behaviour received its share of rebuke. The Wali was said to have exquisite manners -- save when angered by his men's actions -- and exhorted his sons not to behave in a lordly manner with their entourage. When Said was appointed an ensign on board a war vessel he was adjoined to behave modestly, "So long as you remain on board a vessel remember that you are nothing but an ensign... obey your senior officers...my son, apple of my eye, I have sent you to the navy... and while you are there you are to behave like an ensign should, you are nothing but a junior officer on board and should be so treated. Off ship you are Muhammad Ali's son and all owe you deference and respect." Thus he enjoined on his family pride in family and name, repeatedly telling them that all his deeds were to ensure them the succession and rule over the kingdom, but he would not condone brutality towards his people or arrogance on the part of his family members. In a letter to Said he insisted, "My son...your father was well brought up from his youth and in time polite manners became second nature...If a youth does not acquire good manners when young...he is devoid of human characteristics and can best be described as bestial...duty impresses upon you the task of consorting with learned people...you are cursed with that damnable trait of arrogance...beware my son...acquire traits of modesty."
It was rumoured that Tussun, who seemed to have been a favourite with his father who perhaps allowed him more leeway than he did the others, once wore extravagant clothing which displeased his father who rebuked him for such a display. Muhammad Ali always dressed plainly and modestly with no show of medals or decorations. Tussun blithely ignored his father's rebuke with the simple answer, "I dress as befits the son of Muhammad Ali."
While Muhammad Ali had beaten all odds to succeed and become ruler of an empire, thereby achieving the impossible while lacking any form of social backing or indeed of education, he was determined his sons acquire an education to enable them to hold on to what he had acquired and to better it. It is not strange that love of knowledge was paramount in the roster of values the ruler held. He had been an illiterate for 40 years of his life, and valued the chance to acquire an education. Indeed he envied his sons that opportunity when he sent them to study in Paris, the "city of light", as he termed it. To Halim, one of the younger sons, who manifested home sickness, he wrote: "My love of the arts and sciences and my profound desire to educate you and make you cultured overcame my repugnance at being separated from you...acquire reason...learn that you are a pupil like all the others and obey those above you and treat every individual well and train yourself day and night to become modest, diligent and so gain good repute and my joy and favour, and become respectable among men."
Muhammad Ali considered himself an Ottoman gentleman and tried to turn his sons into refined gentlemen who had acquired discipline, self- control and, more importantly, learned how to rule men and guide an empire successfully and keep what he had struggled to acquire. All that he hoped they would learn through education.
Muhammad Ali's sons were not the only ones in the family to earn his attention. While he spent more time training them and exhorting them to proper behaviour because they would be the future rulers and administrators of his empire, he did not neglect his daughters, and showered the same affection on them and showed the same desire for their education. At a time when few women of the elite were taught anything more than the ability to recite suras of the Qur'an in order to perform their prayers, the royal daughters were assigned tutors and an extensive education. Unfortunately, only the timetables of the sons' studies survive and not the daughters'. However we know they were taught the three major languages of the area, Arabic, Ottoman and Persian. The Wali also kept a keen eye on their progress and requested he be kept informed of their advances in learning. A letter to his daughter Zaynab praised her skill at the various scripts, examples of which she had sent him at his request. "My fondest hope is to see you show zeal at reading and writing. Send me from time to time reports of your progress in learning."
The Wali thus valued education per se for his family members. It is said that he educated the Egyptians to serve as successful cogs in his administration but we can see a desire for education itself among the members of his family. A letter to his wife expressed the ruler's pleasure at learning that his youngest daughter was devoted to reading, something to which few parents of the time paid any attention. In England, women who were interested in learning were regarded negatively as "bluestockings", yet the illiterate ruler prized that ability in his daughters.
Daughters were sometimes at the receiving end of scolding and advice as well as sons, though for different reasons. When the Wali felt the daughters asked for too much money for clothes, he, being parsimonious, wrote: "If the mothers say 'are these clothes too much to ask for the offspring of the great? Then answer, 'The great in the eyes of the shari'a is the one who constantly serves the people'...accustom yourself to be satisfied with little and learn economy for the day when you will have to be responsible for your own expenses."
There was both a desire for modesty on the part of his offspring, but perhaps also a reverse arrogance. While he believed excessive luxury was unworthy of the children of the great, there was also a belief that they did not need finery to show their greatness, they were great in themselves.
Furthermore he wanted his daughters to learn good management of their own property for he made them very wealthy women giving them large tracts of land, and he wanted them to learn economy or else that wealth would be disbursed and lost. Women were to be educated and were to learn how to manage wealth and to keep what they had.
The largest landowners in the land were the Wali and his family. They owned 18.8 per cent of all land when it became private property. There was logic in the ruler's giving land to his family. Sultans invariably gave their families grants of land, so the Wali was in a way following custom. He also wanted to ensure that his family would not be impoverished in case they were ever ousted from power. Land grants of which the grantee enjoyed usufruct would have been confiscated by different authorities; but private property, the Wali believed, would be safe from confiscation if ever the family lost power.
Only two of his daughters survived the Wali 's death, but during his lifetime we can deduce his closeness and affection to them from two events. His daughters were married to men in the administration, as was normal at the time. When one of them found her husband in bed with her maid, she promptly divorced him. This tells us that she had the right to divorce her husband written into the marriage contract, and that she was not averse to showing power when the need arose; that she was used to exercising power.
One of his daughters gave Muhammad Ali a slave, a concubine, as a gift. This led to the rumour that he had taken an aphrodisiac which caused him to go mad, as some of the Europeans claimed, a claim that was utter nonsense. The ruler's so-called madness was the result of his European doctors giving him silver nitrate to cure his dysentery which eroded his brain cells. When the economy was in bad shape and neither Ibrahim nor the minister of finance, Sherif Pasha, were brave enough to tell the ruler the real state of affairs, it was his daughter who approached him and told him the news. Both the gift and telling her father the truth were acts of affection on the part of the daughters, but they also show us that the daughters had inside knowledge of the administration and also the ear of their father and trusted his indulgence when telling him news the men feared to reveal.
* The writer is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali (Cambridge, 1984) and Women and Men in Late Eighteenth Century Egypt (Austin, 1995).