Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rediscovering Al-'Attar

In reassessing the significance of the work of Hasan Al-'Attar, Peter Gran offers a cogent critique of the paradigm that has dominated -- and continues to dominate -- readings of modern Egyptian culture

Click to view caption
Egyptian recruits crossing the desert, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

The study of Sheikh Hasan, b. Muhammad Al-'Attar (1766-1835) has been caught up in a paradigm debate between the dominant paradigm we know as the enlightenment or " Nahdawi " and a new paradigm still in the process of formation, one I will term here Egypt-North and -South. The new paradigm is not yet worked out but the old one clearly can no longer be retained.

The study of modern Egyptian culture over the past couple of generations has for the most part been subject to the Nahda paradigm (see my article "The Popular Uses of Muhammad 'Ali," Al-Ahram Weekly, 10-16 November 2005) which organises the idea of Egyptian modernity around the adaptation of scientific and cultural forms found in Western Europe. Customarily, it begins from the study of the Muhammad 'Ali period, taken to be the beginning of modernity. According to the Nahda paradigm, the Nahda reaches its culmination in the early 20th century with the production of novels such as Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal. It continues through the career of Taha Husayn. By World War Two the Nahda collided with a deepening of the left and the right in Egyptian culture. The old top-down unity which characterised the Nahda began to break down. Ultimately, the use of the term Nahda would begin to fade during the Nasser period. But then, and even now, many of its features remain in place in the idea of Tanwir.

Given that the Nahdawi paradigm begins with Muhammad 'Ali it should come as no surprise that Al-'Attar's roots in the 18th century have been of little interest in Egyptian studies. The significance of his Maghrabi background for his literary formation and his attraction to Andalusian literature, as expressed in his writing on language and literature, are at best minor footnotes. His entrance into the Nahdawi narrative begins in the Napoleonic period and is based on his acceptance of the West.

Writers working within the Nahdawi paradigm emphasise that his Maqama came about as a result of his contact with the West. This fact is understood to be somehow more important than the fact that the Maqama was written in Arabic to a highly politicised city after an occupation and was never even noticed by the French. Dropping the Nahdawi paradigm means facing this complex internal situation and explaining the work accordingly.

Al-'Attar's relation to Rifa' Rafi' Al-Tahtawi has been the focus of a limited amount of scholarly attention in the Nahdawi paradigm, presumably because he facilitated Al-Tahtawi's trip to France. Sometimes it is emphasised that Al-'Attar was Al-Tahtawi's teacher as well, but an examination of Al-Tahtawi's formation looked at in its own terms would place more weight on the influence on Al-Tahtawi's education of his large family in Upper Egypt than on Cairo, the Azhar or Al-'Attar. Al-Tahtawi was more like a junior colleague than a student to Al-'Attar. Al-'Attar receives some minor notice as well from Clot Bey and other French reformers working in Egypt for his encouragement.

To understand the limited reception of Al-'Attar, an author of more than 50 books, one needs to look more closely at how the Nahda paradigm deals with its own origins and early development. Herein lies the explanation for the place allocated to Al-'Attar.

Cultural modernisation in Muhammad 'Ali's Egypt, i.e. in what is sometimes called the pre-Nahda or the early Nahda Period, has traditionally centered heavily on the record of the missions sent to France, the translation movement and the rise of the press and local education system. The development of the Arabic language as a vehicle flexible enough to receive a great deal of new technical vocabulary, to allow for journalism or for the easy spread of education, does not receive as much attention by the Nahda school. If it had one would be focusing on the cultural revival of the late 18th century, on the dictionary of Al-Zabidi and on the work of figures who transmitted this revival such as Al- 'Attar, since this is where the development of a modern type language seems to have begun.

What is defined as modern by the Nahdawi paradigm is what is foreign in origin -- and this is where a choice was made in the construction of the paradigm. If one thinks this a rather narrow approach to defining modernity one might note that acquisition is not everything -- a great deal of science and culture sits on library shelves in Europe and elsewhere because no one has been able to figure out how to integrate it into what existed. What is acquired is not necessarily used. The Nahdawi paradigm implies to the contrary that the adaptation dimension of cultural development could be taken for granted and that what is important is simply the acquisition dimension.

Thus it is that concerning the missions the point of interest for modern scholars has always been the outcome. It is assumed that the mission was the only way to achieve this outcome. However, by the time these missions took place Muhammad 'Ali could have bought copies of the relevant books, brought them to Cairo and had translators do the work of translating them so one must consider the likelihood of calculations on the part of the French that this was a chance to influence Egyptian culture and they put forth an attractive invitation. One must consider as well the likelihood of calculations on the part of Muhammad 'Ali that the mission gave him a link to France. If true this would explain not just the facilitation of the mission on the part of the French government but the time spent with Tahtawi by senior figures such as Jomard in Paris. It also suggests some problems with the Nahdawi paradigm.

From the point of view of the Nahdawi paradigm Egypt, as represented by Al-Tahtawi, was to be a blank slate. His trip to France was to be the dawn of modernity. The trouble is that the main document of the period, Al-Tahtawi's own account of the trip, cannot easily be made to fit the paradigm. Consider how it begins. The author recalls arriving in Marseilles and being greeted by one of his own family members from Upper Egypt who had been living in Marseilles for some years as a Muslim. This is not the way the book is supposed to begin; it is supposed to begin as if it was written by someone discovering a new world. If one reads it persuaded that Tahtawi is going to France to learn about parliaments and democracies, then perhaps one slips by this without noticing it. The book, however, presents a number of other such conundrums.

Still other conundrums appear when one considers how Muhammad 'Ali actually made use of culture. To begin with, Muhammad 'Ali needed the clerks of his new bureaucracy to communicate with each other in understandable ways. One might have expected the solution to this problem to be the translation of a French bureaucratic style manual. The solution adopted, however, was to make use of an adaptation by Al-'Attar of the medieval heritage of Insha'.

Muhammad 'Ali also needed the 'ulama to support and encourage students learning empirical anatomy so they could learn French medicine. Al-'Attar spoke about the importance of this new knowledge to the students and earned the praise of Clot Bey among others. Perhaps he told the students about his own experiences in Istanbul witnessing the teaching of empirical anatomy or about his discovery of the empiricism of figures such as Al-Razi as opposed to the logical deductive approach to the medicine of Ibn Sina. Again the issue was not merely one of access to new knowledge but the creative adaptation to make it fit.

Among the insights one might take away from a study of the period of Muhammad 'Ali would be the idea that what rigidifies a language most is not whether it has to make greater or lesser use of loan words, or other such manifestations of undigested borrowing, at a given point but how it conceives its own grammar. For language to progress there needs to be an ongoing reassessment of what it is about the tradition of grammar that should be dropped as unneeded and what should be emphasised. This was the centre point of Al-'Attar's teaching and much of his writing. Yet how many people today know of Al-'Attar's work in this area, the commentary on the text known as Al-Azhariya (1803)(Cairo, 1901)?

One would think if Al-'Attar is this central to Egyptian culture he would be very well-known but this overlooks the logic of how the Nahdawi paradigm works. The Nahdawi paradigm makes Egypt fit an oriental despotism model -- all that is new or relevant to modernity is foreign. Internal adaptations and developments are scarcely worth mentioning. All that ever happens internally is a reaction to what is foreign and modern. Such definitions of modernity make the work of figures like Al-'Attar invisible. They have other consequences as well. Because of the Nahdawi paradigm, the Nahda itself, i.e. the modern Renaissance, is defined as a group made up of writers employing Western forms such as the novel and/or the Nahda is what these writers produced. Emulation is what makes them modern. The Nahda, then, is the culmination of what Muhammad 'Ali began.

The question one might want to go back to is how much of virtually contemporary Egyptian culture gets explained by this paradigm? In the manuscript catalogues for 1250-1350 Hijri there are hundreds of writers listed. The oriental despotism/Nahda model seems able to explain only a handful of them.

Looking at Egypt in terms of a more capitalist Delta dominating a pre- capitalist Sa'id held together from above by a hegemonic culture evolving from the era of 'Ali Bey Kabir, it is not unreasonable to imagine that that culture, or the leading intellectuals, would represent a fusion or compromise between the priorities of the two main constituents of the country. In this paradigm Egyptian intellectual life would always be marked by a compromise between the secular fields, with their logic, and those of faith and tradition. The great intellectuals of modern Egyptian history, from Al-'Attar and Al-Tahtawi onward, are known -- or ought to be known -- for their ability to establish this balance. The Nahdawi paradigm, of course, sees matters differently. Modern culture is basically secular, basically-oriented toward the French enlightenment; religion is basically rational but personal.

Given the dominance of the Nahdawi paradigm in Egyptian studies many major figures have been looked at as if all they were secular when they were, in fact, more than that. Thus we find Tahtawi, Marsafi and Haykal taken as examples of secularists while a religious figure such as Muhammad 'Abduh is looked at as at the very least a rationalist. 'Abduh's association with Rashid Rida is regarded as an accident.

Following the paradigm into more recent years we find Taha Husayn is read in terms of volume one of his autobiography, his childhood representing a kind of parting with the Sa'idi village and folk culture. The more ambiguous volume two of his Azhar days is dealt with tentatively, and his later fights with the Azhar are played up more than his works with religious themes -- 'Uthman (Cairo, 1947) or 'Ala Hamish Al-Sira (Cairo, 1966).

Luwis Awad wrote many secular works but he also wrote Al-Masrah Al-Misri Bayna Al-Fann wa Al-Din: Wa Masrahiyat Muhakamat Izis ( Egyptian Theatre Between Art and Religion : The Trial of Isis Play, Cairo, 1994). Naguib Mahfouz produced Al-'A'ish fi Al-Haqiqah (1985). Were one to look at Egyptian cultural history as I am proposing one should, then Al-'Attar would stand out as part of the group of the most influential figures of the last two centuries, a group in which one finds reason and faith together, neither purely secular nor purely religious. He could represent the rationalist side of religion, as he did in supporting the study of anatomy, and could irritate many other sheikhs in so doing but he could also carry on the language studies of the past and teach their tradition, always looking for ways to make them useful to the present in a more or less secular fashion. Taking his life as a whole one can claim he attempted to maintain these balances and had, as a result, many important students.

My larger point is that the rediscovery of Al-'Attar will probably require a paradigm shift in Egyptian cultural history. It will involve dropping the Nahdawi paradigm, and with it the oriental despotism model, to make the contrary assumption that this country, like any other country, found its way into the modern world with its own resources. If it borrowed things -- as all countries did and do -- then it had to adapt what it borrowed and often this process of adaptation was a great achievement. Such assumptions open the door to the question of who developed the Arabic language in Egypt, who found the relevant models in past history and culture, who thought about the balance of new and old.

The above is an abridged English version of a paper presented at the conference on Muhammad 'Ali held by the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC)

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