Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Writing history, making history

By Amina Elbendary

Although Egypt is arguably the country with the longest history in the world, history is not always a favourite subject with Egyptians. For many, it is dead and -- well, boring. For others, however, history is a very politicised field, as was demonstrated by the topic of this year's Egyptian Historical Society conference. From 28 to 30 March, over 100 historians of Egypt met at the Higher Council of Culture on the Opera grounds in Gezira to discuss "Egyptians and authority throughout history."

The topic is so broad and so ill-defined that it encouraged scholars to talk about Egyptians and authority in the absolute, a pitfall many failed to avoid. Unfortunately, the conference did not begin by any attempt to define just who the Egyptians they were talking about were. This point came up frequently in the discussions but not in any methodologically ordered manner. So, for example, fervent debates arose over whether dynasties of non-Egyptian origin or non-native born military rulers -- such as the Fatimids and the Mamelukes -- were "Egyptians." Some scholars relied on a racial (and racist) definition, others favoured one that considers whoever perceives his home base to be Egypt as an Egyptian. For that latter group, the Fatimid and Mameluke dynasties which were based in Egypt were Egyptians, whereas Ottoman governors, appointed by the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, were not. A third group declared that the discussion was totally anachronistic, since the nationalist concept of "Egyptian" was exceedingly modern, dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century at the earliest. Few of the speakers even bothered to start with an explanation of who they in particular defined to be an "Egyptian." Instead, they used the term in a very generic fashion, implying that they were talking about a mass of undifferentiated people more or less "like us."

Equally vague and undefined was the concept of "authority," so that, even though some speakers made an issue of differentiating between "authority" and "power," their definition of "authority" more often than not coincided with state and official authority. So this three-day conference totally ignored any discussion of patriarchal authority within the family, for example. Similarly absent were discussions of struggles for authority within institutions rather than among them.

Most papers presented more or less familiar viewpoints, albeit rehashed, while some presenters dared to question dominant paradigms. Among these interpretations is the pervasive and deeply entrenched assertion that those generic Egyptians -- throughout history -- have always been subservient to the powers that be, favouring passive submission rather than subversive resistance. These fall within the Oriental despot paradigm, which argues for the virtual inevitability of despotic rule in hydraulic societies and which sees a sharp dichotomy between the rulers and the ruled in these societies.

Cairo University professor Ubada Kuhayla's presentation on the concepts of authority and despotism in the writings of Gamal Hamdan spurred an interesting discussion on these issues. Kuhayla argued that Hamdan used the concept of the Asiatic mode of production to explain Egypt's tradition of despotic government. According to Kuhayla, Hamdan believed that, while Egypt had a historical experience of despotism, this experience was not preordained by geographical constraints. Egypt's hydraulic nature required a strong central government but did not necessitate a despotic one. For Hamdan, the solution lay in democracy.

Similarly, in his paper on the concept of authority in the Mameluke period, the mediaevalist historian Qasim Abdu Qasim argued that Mameluke rule was based on coercive power and a religious façade which engendered a paradox of religious loyalty and social and cultural alienation on the part of the population. Qasim referred to Ibn Khaldun's description of the political situation in Egypt as being "sultan [ruling authorities] and subjects." Qasim's interpretation of a sharp dichotomy between rulers and ruled -- and therefore, necessarily, powerful and powerless -- fails to differentiate both masses of the ruling elite and the subject population respectively. It is this dichotomy that he blames for the eventual decline and fall of the regime.

Rioters in Alexandria
Rioters in Alexandria: Illustrated London News, 1 July 1882, in An Egyptian Panorama, ed. Nicholas Warner (zeituna, 1994)
Among the revisionist attempts seeking to displace the Oriental despot paradigm was an interesting paper by Mahmoud El-Saadani, professor of ancient history, in which he discussed the various means through which Upper Egyptians resisted Ptolemaic injustice: through riots, seeking refuge in temples, and spreading rumours and prophecies that a certain local hero will appear from such and such a town to liberate them from their oppressive occupiers. Emad Abu Ghazi, professor of archival studies at Cairo University discussed Egyptian rebellions and riots throughout the early Islamic period. While the period following the Arab conquests was relatively quiet, he surveyed 16 rebellions in the second century AH alone; some were rebellions by Copts -- native Egyptians, that is -- others by Arabs settling in Egypt, and still others in which Copts and Arabs united. The peak of the rebellions came in the third century AH with the Bashmuri rebellion of 216-217 AH, which prompted the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun to suppress it himself by force. Abu Ghazi argued that while the most common motive for rebellion was opposition to high taxes set by Arab governors, the rebellion of the early third century aimed at achieving Egyptian independence from the Abbasid caliphate. Abu Ghazi's argument is part of his larger project of reinterpreting Egyptian history from an Egyptian nationalist perspective. Hence, he argues that rebellions and riots were less frequent in periods when Egypt enjoyed independence and was governed by locally based regimes such as the Fatimids and Ayyubids.

While Abu Ghazi surveyed rebellious resistance in particular, Mohamed Hakim, the researcher at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research and PhD candidate in sociology at Cairo University, referred to passive resistance or what he termed "resistance without rebellion" by peasants in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the subservient Egyptian/Oriental despot paradigm, peasants are presented as the most Egyptian of Egyptians, hence the most subservient and least likely to rebel. Thus Hakim's attempt to study peasant resistance is in itself revisionist. Unlike historians of mediaeval and early modern Europe, historians of Egypt have no documents written from the point of view of peasants at their disposal. Hakim's proposal, therefore, is to read official state documents against the grain, to question these sources so as to arrive at what they suppressed. This is the closest we can get to peasants' point of view. In defining what constituted rebellion and resistance, Hakim used decrees issued by Mohamed Ali Pasha (originally in Turkish and later summarised and translated to Arabic) to combat peasant rebellions and imprison the offenders. These decrees are the only remaining evidence of the peasants' resistance. He argued that the instances that authorities considered to be resistance were those that the resistance considered to be acts of enforcing authority. Therefore, the decrees that were more aggressive in tone and language referred to more violent resistance and hence to the issues and situations the peasants themselves considered more oppressive and threatening. Peasants are here presented as political and historical actors and not just reactors.

Sayed Ashmawi, professor of modern history at Cairo University presented a paper on the Egyptian peasant movement from 1945 to 1952 . The period following the Second World War and preceding the July 1952 Revolution is dominated in Egyptian nationalist narrative by the struggle for national independence. Thus official and orthodox historiography ignores and suppresses other societal struggles -- such as the movement for women's liberation or the labour and peasant movements -- that were taking place simultaneously. Ashmawi shed light on a strong peasant movement for social rights in this period. For peasants, the causes of national independence and social justice were linked. This struggle against state authorities and landlords took both violent and non-violent forms such as murder, vendettas, abandoning land, tax and rent evasion, burning crops, Sufism, monasticism, and humour.

The need to question historical sources and the issue of the subjectivity of any primary source came up in Anne Broadbridge's paper on the competition between three prominent scholars of the fifteenth century, Al-Ayni, Al-Maqrizi and Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani. Broadbridge, a PhD candidate in medieval Islamic history at Chicago, University demonstrated that the competition between these three scholars over reaching and maintaining senior official positions, such as that of muhtasib (market inspector) or qadi al-qudat (chief justice), deeply influenced their relationships with the ruling authorities and with each other. The echoes of these struggles could be heard in the scholars' writings, Broadbridge argued. Thus Al-Maqrizi was more critical of the successors of the sultan Al-Nasser Farag, whom he failed to impress and who did not assign him to official positions. In the same period, Al-Ayni, who mastered the Turkish language, was close to the sultan Al-Mu'ayyad Sheikh and wrote a panegyric of him. Broadbridge's argument deeply troubled some of the senior historians, one of whom questioned whether these undercurrents threw shadows over the histories these three scholars wrote and threatened "the historian's objectivity." Clearly, the notion of history as the objective account of what really happened is still deeply entrenched, as was evidenced in the opening remarks by the eminent medievalist Said Ashour to the first session. The issue is so troubling that it received timid discussion at the conference.

Several other papers also discussed the relationship between religious authorities and institutions and the ruling regimes. It is not the world's best kept secret that Arab-Islamic scholarship in the classical period had a tradition of elitism and conservatism. The logic of acquiescing to unjust rule and making it even a Muslim's duty to tolerate unjust government was the maxim "imam zalum khayr min fitna tadum" or "an unjust ruler is better than long-lasting strife." Yet, in a provocative paper, Mahmoud Ismail denounced the whole corpus of Islamic literature on siyasa shar`iyya (praxis of government). He argued that all Muslim jurists who wrote such texts -- including Al-Ghazali and Al-Mawardi to name but two -- were hypocrites who bootlicked rulers. Ismail was indeed bold in desanctifying those canonical texts that are still held as authoritative by Sunni Muslim jurists today. His analysis of these texts, however, was disappointingly simplistic and shallow. His framework was reminiscent of that used by early Orientalist scholars who studied classical Islam from a Western frame of reference, which differentiates between a state that is secular and a Church that dominates the religious sphere. It is this dichotomy that leads some, like Ismail, to assume that the ulama monopolise the religious sphere and are therefore irreligious when they reconcile their cause with that of the regimes of their time.

In a similar vein, Ottomanist Mohamed Sabri argued in his presentation on Muslim religious authorities in Ottoman Egypt, that ulama who occupied official positions were closer to the ruling authorities, while Sufi sheikhs were closer to the subject population. Thus, while ulama were always trying to win the favours of the rulers, it was the rulers who sought out Sufi sheikhs and strove to appease them because of their influence on the populations.

Magdi Girgis, PhD candidate in archival studies at the Bani Souief branch of Cairo University, discussed the relationship between Copts and the Coptic Church. He argued that the Arab conquests introduced new authorities who vied for influence. At certain points, the Muslim rulers had more authority over Copts than did their patriarchs, and what's more, Copts often resorted to these rulers to allow them benefits the church denied. A case in point is the phenomenon of polygynous marriages among Copts, an institution the church was forced to turn a blind eye to under early Muslim governors when patriarchs enjoyed less authority over the faithful. Coptic notables who allied with the Muslim rulers gained added authority within the community sometimes even superseding that of the popes. When the 54th patriarch was in conflict with the governor of Alexandria, two of the leading Coptic notables arranged a new residence for the pope, where he was sequestered. Alternatively, when the regime backed the patriarchs, they were able to reform the church and control religious transgressions by the Coptic community. In the Ayyubid period, the state sought to integrate the church into the state apparatus to contain it. This official recognition also increased the power of the church over Copts allowing the patriarchate to issue a set of laws in 1260 known as Al-Majmu' Al-Safawi which reformed the business of the church and which sanctioned -- among other things -- divorce in cases where couples were unable to remain married. In the Ottoman period, Coptic notables regained their eminence once more at the expense of the church, so that the leader of the notables even enjoyed a specific title. Girgis argued that the relationship between Copts and their church echoed the relationship between the subject population and the ruling authorities during various periods, so that in times of centralised rule the church enjoyed more power over the community of Coptic believers.

After three days, eight sessions, 32 papers and countless intense debates on crucial issues, one is grateful that the Egyptian Historical Society is alive and kicking once more. However, it would perhaps be worth the effort if such mega-conferences were preceded by smaller, more exclusive workshops in which participants could work out their hypotheses and define their theoretical frameworks at more leisure. As things stood, however, the most striking message coming from all participants regardless of their ideological and intellectual backgrounds was an active desire to promote the power of civil society vis-à-vis "the authorities." And despite the methodological confusion and almost total disregard for modern historiographical theories, this year's conference presented a new generation of historians whose scholarship is promising and challenging. By attempting to write "Egyptians" -- whoever they may be -- into history, they are also empowering themselves and modern Egyptians, and thus making history. Hence, they are proving that history is perhaps the most political of all discourse, and that, thankfully, it still matters.


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