Reflecting on the Arab Enlightenment's fundamental contradictions

May 04, 2004 12:00 AM

ARAB HISTORY AND IDENTITY

One of the simple facts of language and physics that we learned in elementary school was the difference between the two Arabic words, nour and daw. Both words are translated into English as "light," yet, while the former means spontaneous, or original light, like that of the sun, the latter refers only to reflected light, like that of the moon.

Despite the fact that they were great linguists, many of the founding fathers of the so-called Arab Enlightenment in the 19th and early 20th century never referred to such a difference. They called their movement Tanweer, assuming that the "light" of their enlightenment was original. Given the darkness of the past 150 years; however, I think we should start thinking of their movement as having no original light, only a reflection.

One of the most prominent of those founding fathers of the Arab Enlightenment was Egyptian scholar Rifaa Rafi al-Tahtawi. Born in 1801, the year the French expedition was driven out of Egypt, Tahtawi grew up in an atmosphere of emergency. Egypt under the rule of Mohammed Ali was obsessed with catching up. The trauma of the French invasion, seen by most Egyptians at the time as just another Crusade, made it clear that the old ways of the Ottoman Empire could no longer protect Egypt, the empire or Islam.

Mohammed Ali sent students to France in order to study engineering and medicine. He wanted to build a strong state; nevertheless, at heart he was still an Ottoman. He did not develop Egyptian nationalism or secularism. Seemingly, that was his crime in the eyes of the colonial powers. His attempt to expand his power in the Middle East was crushed in 1840 by the treaty of London. The treaty that was the beginning of British colonization of Egypt also created Egyptian nationalism. It was an attempt to sever Egypt from her Arab and Islamic connections, and for the first time, Egypt was recognized as a hereditary entity, which could not annex, or be annexed by, any other.

The geographic severance of Egypt from Asia implied a cultural severance from Arabism and Islam. African Egypt, Pharaonic and Greco-Roman Egypt were recent European inventions, part of an orientalist discourse that often invoked biblical images for colonial use. This discourse was adopted by a nascent elite of landowners, who came to existence once land was privatized after the treaty of London destroyed Mohammed Ali's system of state monopoly and military production. The new image of Pharaonic Egypt, now politically embodied in the boundaries set in the treaty, served them well, for Islamism was the legitimizing discourse of the previous Ottoman ruling elite.

Tahtawi was the first to use Pharaonic symbols and a semi-nationalist discourse. He had studied at Al-Azhar University and was sent as an Islamic preacher to accompany one of Mohammed Ali's early student delegations to Paris. Tahtawi, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, learned French and later recorded his experience of European culture in his book "Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz," The Extraction of Gold in Summarizing Paris, which was first published in 1834.

Nevertheless, Tahtawi was obsessed with showing, at every turn, that the things he described and favored were in accordance with Islam. In his description, he talks about how the French see Egypt, and slowly, he starts seeing Egypt in a similar light, as a country that had a great past (not the Islamic one of course, but the Pharaonic one). It is interesting that his adoption of a semi-nationalist discourse toward Egypt was part of his adoption of the colonial discourse in general, where he mentions England's efforts to bring civilization to India, and the efforts of the white Arabs (here meaning the Egyptians, the Albanians and Turkish soldiers of Mohammed Ali) to civilize the barbaric, black Sudanese.

Moreover, in his book "Manahij Al-Albab al-Misriyya fi Mabahij al-Adab al-Asriyya," The Guide of Egyptian Hearts to the Joys of Contemporary Arts, he describes the bravery of the French conquest of Algeria with favor. Both northern India (Pakistan) and Algeria were Muslim societies. Other scholars from Al-Azhar University, who led two rebellions against Napoleon earlier in the 19th century, would have referred to the French and English invasions as Crusades, which would cause resistance to become a form of jihad for the protection of Islam and the Muslims. Tahtawi, however, calls the invasion fateh, or conquest, a favorable medieval word only used to describe the wars whereby Muslims acquired land from non-Muslims. With some twist, similar to that described by Fanon about Caribbean children reading comics glorifying cowboys, Tahtawi identifies with the French officer's helmet despite his own turban and gown, notwithstanding that a short time ago he was just in the shoes of the Algerians when Napoleon was invading Cairo.

One could trace such contradictions throughout Tahtawi's work. The fact that he is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Arab Enlightenment reveals a fundamental contradiction in the movement from the very beginning.

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