Hussam R. Ahmed, “The Nahda in Parliament: Taha Husayn’s Career Building Knowledge Production Institutions, 1922-52,” Arab Studies Journal XVI, no. 1 (Spring 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Hussam R. Ahmed (HRA): There are many question marks over the impact of Taha Husayn’s works and intentions. Decades after his death, he continues to provoke heated reactions among many people, including Arab and Western scholars. Some glorify him as a first-class “enlightened” thinker, while others vilify him as a “collaborator” with Western orientalists who undermined the tradition. When I decided to write a social biography for my PhD, I wanted to use his life and work as a lens to understand the important social and cultural transformations that occurred in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. A social biography helps us gain a greater understanding of particular institutions and forms of social change by analyzing how they had been understood and negotiated by particular individuals, allowing us to work with and against the grand narratives that usually fail to match the experience of individuals on the ground. At the turn of the twentieth century, Egypt was witnessing many changes, such as the introduction of a new secular university, a burgeoning press, active literary salons, and intense public debates over nationalism, the role of religion, women, and education in making a modern nation. Husayn was a catalyst for all of these debates and experienced these transformations firsthand. I began to do some preliminary research and quickly became convinced that my work on Husayn’s understudied career in politics and the civil service would fill an important gap in existing scholarship. While Husayn is mentioned in most introductory courses on the Middle East and scholars continue to refer to him and his ideas, there are surprisingly few single studies of this controversial iconic figure in English or French. I wanted to see how his actions could change the way we read his published work, and how they can address some of the larger narratives that dominate our field, namely, colonialism, modernity, and nationalism.
So, I went after Husayn in the Egyptian National Archives, the archives of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in France, and the archives of Cairo University. I also met with his family, who generously allowed me to study his private papers. I immersed myself in these documents and what emerged was a very different Husayn from the one I thought I knew. Like most people, I thought of Husayn as an advocate for art for art’s sake who praised a “high” form of culture that transcended political agendas, especially after his debates with young committed writers in the 1950s. However, as I followed him in his meetings, and studied how he designed, negotiated, and implemented his projects, I began to view him as a clever bureaucrat and an astute politician. What I found in these documents was more than just material on Husayn’s career. They presented me with a moment in Egyptian history in which reformers like Husayn were confident they could make a tangible difference in Egyptian life and build a sophisticated system of knowledge production that was to put Egypt on par with Europe and achieve real independence. The dissertation became focused on this institutional aspect of Husayn’s career and how it could account for the important strides made in culture and education between the two revolutions of 1919 and 1952, despite all the problems and frustrations of this period.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
HRA: In this article, I talk about Husayn the institution builder and not the dean of Arabic literature. I provide a fuller and more complex understanding of his sociocultural project to which he devoted his adult life. Husayn wanted to build strong educational and cultural institutions that would develop a new national leadership and an increasingly educated, politically active, and modern citizenry, strengthen the country’s political independence, and open the way to a versatile and open culture deeply rooted in the Arab-Islamic tradition but also integrated with, and a contributor to, contemporary Western culture. The reader will see that Husayn tried to extend and deepen the Nahda project by insisting that it was no longer sufficient for intellectuals to write in journals and discuss in salons. Instead, he believed proper state-funded higher institutions, like the universities and the language academy, were to provide the modern teaching and research methods necessary for engaging critically with the tradition and designing sophisticated school curricula. Readers will follow Husayn as he tried to transform this vision into a coherent policy proposal and ensure the stable operation of these institutions in a volatile political system, crippled by partisan politics and Britain’s ongoing occupation. Readers, I hope, will also see that Husayn built these institutions with a parliamentary system in mind. While these institutions and many of his policies continued under the postcolonial state, the parliamentary checks and balances he had anticipated to keep the state accountable were gone.
The article is about Husayn’s project, as I said, and it builds on existing scholarship that has examined various reform efforts during Egypt’s parliamentary period (1922-1952), focusing on how women, the family, the peasantry, and education were to contribute to creating a modern nation. The article accounts for important achievements in culture and education, which scholarship has tended to overlook in favor of probing the problems Egypt’s democratic experiment faced. Regarding Husayn, the article shows that an intellectual history relying solely on his published work is not enough, and that it is essential to consider his long political career to produce new, contextually rich readings of ideas. This article neither tries to redeem Husayn and his generation nor claims that they did everything right. Rather, it is an attempt to understand them in their own context and not through the lens of all that has come since. As political events since Nasser’s time made their project of natural synthesis impossible, history was rewritten in Egypt itself in a way that lumped these intellectuals together on one side or the other, for example “culturally authentic” or “Westernized.” Taha Husayn is a prime example of such an intellectual who remains trapped in these binaries, which overlook the context in which he wrote and the bureaucratic and institutional constraints in which he made decisions—whether by Islamists who demonize him or equally by their opponents who worship him. This has also been paralleled by postcolonial literary scholars in the West who draw on select passages in public writings by Husayn and his generation to create an image of them as intellectuals who were “seduced” by European culture.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HRA: I am a social and cultural historian, and this article fits within my general interest in exploring the role of the humanities, or adab, in making modern Egypt, particularly in relation to the ways in which cultural and educational institutions developed both as state bureaucracies and as arbiters of political ideology. Through these institutions, which intellectuals and educators continue to negotiate with on a daily basis, the Egyptian state keeps a firm grip on culture and education in the country. My research focuses on the history of these institutions and the logic by which they articulate different visions for the state, religion, culture, and society.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HRA: I hope historians and other scholars working on Egypt and the Middle East will read my article. I also tried to make it accessible to non-specialist audiences in the hope that the mainstream reader will be in a position to understand the complex local context in which Husayn and his generation worked. I hope the reader will be able to learn about an Arab-Muslim encounter with modernity in which reformers like Husayn faced the challenge of the West with self-confidence and believed that embracing what these reformers saw as the new (the secular university, new kinds of knowledge, new research methods) did not mean giving up their own traditions and literary heritage, but was rather a natural continuation of that heritage. They were embarking on a project of natural synthesis based on an active critical appropriation rather than a passive reception of ideas coming from Europe.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HRA: I continue to pursue my research on Egyptian cultural and educational institutions in my postdoctoral work at KU Leuven, where I am part of a multidisciplinary ERC-funded project on Muslims in Europe. The project emphasizes the interconnections between Muslim political activism, religiosity, and modernity during the interwar period. I am examining Egypt’s cultural diplomacy and its attempts to create institutes of Arabic and Islamic studies in various European cities. Using state archives and personal memoirs, I focus on the mission and activities of these institutes to assess their impact on Muslims in Europe and the intellectual networks they engendered. I also explore the response of European governments to an expanding Egyptian cultural influence, and their fear of possible political repercussions on their colonies and protectorates. I am also in the process of converting my PhD dissertation into a book manuscript, something I plan to continue during my upcoming postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University.
J: Can you say something about the relevance of your work today?
HRA: Besides the continued absence of parliamentary checks and balances I have alluded to above, I was struck by the content and form of the famous “quality vs. quantity” debate in the 1940s and early 1950s, which contrasts heavily to the current discourse dismissing Egyptians as unfit for understanding their own affairs. On the surface, educational experts disagreed over what they thought was best for Egypt’s education system. However, as I explain in the article, contextualizing this debate shows that Husayn and other experts worked within a multiparty system and tried to win votes by convincing the public of the soundness of their projects. The debate was infused with ideas about democracy, proper governance, and accountability. Husayn, otherwise known for his sharp sarcastic critiques, addressed Egyptians as adults, imploring them to see ministers as their servants and the state as there to attend to their needs. When voters brought the Wafd back into power in 1950, Husayn felt vindicated. In his view, the majority of Egyptian voters knew what was good for them and chose the party they knew would respond to their demands. At that moment of victory, which allowed Husayn to make secondary education free, he was far from thinking that Egypt’s democratic experiment had failed.
Excerpt from the Article:
A Democratic Debate on Education
After making primary education free in 1944, Taha Husayn gave an optimistic speech. He claimed that the people’s enthusiasm for education indicated growing support for democracy because democracy had inspired the people to realize their need for education. Referring to the period between 1942 and 1944, when the Wafd was in power, he wrote:
I would like to point your attention to the last two years. As soon as Egyptian democracy returned to its normal life, the people’s conscience was revealed to them. They realized they needed an education, and they pushed their government to provide and expand this education, not infinitely, but to a great extent. I would have liked to say infinitely, for this is what we should aim for if we were to live a true democratic life.
These calls could be read as populist propaganda for his policies. But Husayn was speaking out of professional experience. His career in the Ministry of Public Instruction granted him a bird’s-eye view of school admissions. He had read the applications of children of poor parents who were turned away because of prohibitive tuition fees or lack of classrooms. In 1942, he wrote about “thousands” of rejected scholarship applications each year. In the ministry, he used these figures to illustrate the need to grant more scholarships and managed to increase the percentage of registered students receiving scholarships from one to three percent, and then to ten percent. He also used these figures to build a case for free primary education. Considering the details of Husayn’s project reveals that, unlike earlier nahdawis, he was not simply saying the intellectual class must educate the people. He mobilized figures and statistics to argue that “the people want to be educated [al-sha‘b yurid an yata‘allam],” as he wrote.
Husayn saw the growing numbers of Egyptians seeking education as a healthy sign, and he sought to persuade the government that providing free education was an important basis for proper governance. In a 1944 speech at the Royal Geographical Society, he cited Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and Arab philosophers such as Ibn Khaldun to argue that none of these thinkers could imagine any reform without adequate attention to education. Providing education to the people, Husayn insisted, was the duty of the state. He further argued three years later that the state was created to grant people their rights. He warned that if the state failed to deliver those rights, then “the state has no rights over the people and they no longer have to obey it.” He called on the Egyptian public to recognize, demand, and protect their rights: “Egyptians will not be qualified for freedom, independence, or dignity unless these priorities have become part of their hearts and minds.” Husayn was effectively calling for a new contract between state and people by urging Egyptians to see the state’s raison d’être as attending to their needs.
Husayn’s calls for free education did not go unchallenged. As is well-known, his nemesis in this debate was the pedagogue Isma‘il al-Qabbani, who feared that this policy’s rapid implementation would diminish educational standards. Their conflict in the 1940s and early 1950s came to be known as the “quality vs. quantity” debate. Qabbani based his position on a detailed analysis of the Ministry of Public Instruction’s existing capacities in terms of schools and qualified teachers. He opposed flooding the existing institutions with new students by citing pedagogical studies that advocated limited classroom sizes. He also opposed the rushed construction of new, substandard schools that did not meet the ministry’s requirements in terms of buildings, playgrounds, and laboratories. Qabbani published and lectured widely, and his positions won the support of non-Wafd officials, such as the Saadists. But Husayn refused to let the number of schools and instructors stall his project. To oppose Qabbani, Husayn expressed an idealistic grand vision and did not linger on its practical restrictions. In this debate, he composed his famous analogy, which continues to circulate to this day: “education is an absolute necessity, like water and air.” He advocated rejecting Qabbani’s “elegant pedagogy,” which demanded that everything proceed according to strict instructions, on the grounds that it contradicted what Husayn believed the “Egyptian life wanted.”
Several years later, in 1949 Husayn made a different case, drawing on his professional experience to resolve the funding problem. Rejecting elegant, expensive Western pedagogy, Husayn demanded that the Egyptian government adapt its budget to the people’s needs and not the other way around. He even questioned how the Ministry of Finance understood the term “budget.” If the problem was insufficient resources, Husayn proposed raising taxes. “The budget,” he argued, “should not be about the Ministry of Finance balancing figures every year, but it should be about balancing taxes and the facilities that people need.” He insisted that the government had sufficient resources, and that the question was how to manage these resources. Referring to the 1948 war in Palestine, he warned against designating millions of pounds for the army at the expense of education and other vital services: “What concerns me here is that the military does not overshadow other facilities.” To make his point, he raised the Ministry of Public Instruction’s request for a million pounds to address the needs of its teachers and schools. The government promised this funding to the ministry in installments over five years, while simultaneously promising tens of millions of pounds to the military. “Is this serious or a joke?” he exclaimed. Husayn demanded nothing less than complete transparency in budget allocation.
Husayn predicted the Wafd’s landslide victory in 1950, believing the people understood that the Wafd responded to their demands. His first decision as minister of public instruction was to make secondary and technical education free. For four hours, Husayn, a blind man, defended his budget before Parliament, reciting detailed figures without aid or error. At the beginning of the 1950-51 school year, Husayn was happy to report to the Council of Ministers that not a single applicant was turned away from secondary or technical schools. The council recorded its appreciation of “the incredible effort that his Excellency [Taha Husayn] has made concerning the admission of students into schools and universities and facilitating education to all Egyptians.”
In the summer of 1950, Husayn represented the Egyptian Ministry of Public Instruction before the Arab delegations to the second Arab Conference on Culture in Alexandria. Husayn was proud of the ministry’s accomplishments in democratizing education. Despite all the technical difficulties and political frustrations, these accomplishments were produced by a democratic process that, he believed, responded to popular needs. Rejecting the notion that free education was a European innovation, he argued that it was a return to practices that existed for centuries in the kuttab system and at al-Azhar:
Free education is not something we have learned from Europe, but it is a return to our past in the early days of Islam, or even to the early days of modern Egypt. We did not come to know paid education (al-ta‘lim al-ma’jur) until we came into contact with Europe.
Free education was a triumphant “Egyptian experiment,” as Husayn described it, and he hoped it would benefit other Arab countries in the common fight for freedom and independence.