Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2005
Issue No. 757
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

We use the word nahda to denote "enlightenment", albeit with reference to our own enlightenment, as distinct from but related to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. The siécle de lumiéres, as it is called, is the age of questioning, and of the celebration of reason. Europe's Enlightenment was committed, above all else, to espousing a rational, sceptical outlook on religion, Christianity in this case. Much had prepared the ground for this assault, of course, not least the legacies of humanism, the Renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther.

In Egypt, and in the Arab world more broadly, we have borrowed the word "enlightenment" to describe a certain phase in our history of thought. But the word has acquired a different meaning in that it has marked, from the beginning, a two-way process: modernisation, and rational interpretation of Islam and the ideas that it encompasses. The process of nahda here has different starting points depending on the kind of historiography you are reading. In traditional historiography, nahda begins with the 1798 French expedition to Egypt; it is claimed to have been reinvented by Mohamed Ali and further invigorated by Khedive Ismail. And Rifa' Rafi' El-Tahtawi is regarded as one of the first implementers of this process after his return from Paris.

El-Tahtawi was an Azharite who was sent by Mohamed Ali to Paris to act as an Imam for the army cadets who were to study military science in France, and who documented this intellectual encounter in his book Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz. Yet again, there are other individuals who constitute the figureheads of our enlightenment, primarily Sheikh Mohamed Abdou and Jamaleddin El-Afghani.

El-Afghani is known as a religious reformer, a wise philosopher, and a political leader. He thus combined, in the words of El-Tahtawi, "spiritual, intellectual, and political leadership". He was undoubtedly responsible for a good part of the intellectual and political renaissance during Khedive Ismail's reign. Details about his life are usually taken from his biography written by his disciple Mohamed Abdou, although a certain amount of mystery surrounds him nevertheless. El-Afghani led a tumultuous life, travelling to India, Constantinople, and finally arriving in Egypt where he settled in the early 1870s and was given a monthly salary.

During his stay in Egypt, he created his centre of Hikma (Wisdom), where knowledge-seekers came to listen to him discoursing on wisdom, linguistics, astrology, and Sufism, among other topics. El-Tahtawi considers this to be the reasons for Khedive Ismail's invitation to El-Afghani, in spite of the latter's political stand against the tyranny of rulers and his rather revolutionary nature. El-Tahtawi believes that it was Ismail's love of knowledge and his desire for its propagation among his people that underwrote his policy to encourage the activation of intellectual life through figures like El-Afghani.

In his biography of El-Afghani, Mohamed Abdou describes his influence, and how he was indefatigable in upholding a vibrant atmosphere of intellectual inquiry. It was due to El-Afghani's influence that a number of political newspapers appeared and a spirit of opposition gained strength. Due to his revolutionary ideas, El-Afghani was exiled from Egypt during the reign of Khedive Tawfiq later. He was exiled to India and was compelled by the British to remain there until the Orabi revolt in Egypt was over.

Later, El-Afghani chose to go to Europe, staying for a few days in London, then moving to Paris where he was to remain for some years. On his arrival, he asked his disciple Mohamed Abdou to join him in Paris. There, together, they began to publish the newspaper Al-'Urwa Al-Wuthqa.

But this is another story, better kept for my next column.

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