Forty years on his death, the thought of the foremost Egyptian enlightenment figure Taha Hussein (1898 – 1973) is still as fresh and down to earth—and controversial—as ever
“A new Egypt that enjoys freedom and prosperity … under an umbrella of education, knowledge, and a constitution built on a sublime culture.”
This was the dream Taha Hussein lived for, but he passed away some 40 years ago without seeing any of it fulfilled.
But why focus now on Taha Hussein? The answer is not that despite being blind and coming from modest rural origins, he rose to be the first Egyptian dean of the faculty of arts at Cairo University, the minister of education, and the most prominent enlightenment figure of the 20th century. Nor is it even for his stature as a man of letters who came to be known as the Doyen of Arabic literature. Today, Hussein warrants attention because of his singular intellectual prowess.
Wedding photo with Hussein
The last two months have seen many events throughout Egypt to commemorate Taha Hussein who was born on 15 November 1898 and died on 28 October 1973. Several of them were in his home province of Minya in Upper Egypt, where Hussein was feted on a grand scale.
Last February, while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime of the then president Muhammad Mursi was in power, the bust of Taha Hussein in the main town square in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, the capital town of Minya province, was found smashed and thrown to the ground. This aroused the wrath and aversion of non-Islamists in Egypt and especially in Minya where he is held in high esteem for his exceptional intellectual level and for breaking the social taboos of poverty and disability.
Minya honoured her son by having his bust placed on a pyramid-shaped pedestal in the most central and beautiful spot in town: flanked by the majestic Nile and the Minya governorate building. The spot is so loved by Minya townspeople that brides and grooms insist on having a wedding photo next to Hussein’s bust.
Fingers pointed at radical Islamists who argue that statues are idols that ought to be demolished, but no culprit was then caught. Minya town council swiftly commissioned and installed a new bust to replace the old one.
The General Egyptian Book Organisation held a series of seminars among them “Taha Hussein and his political battles”, “Taha Hussein and the social role”, “Taha Hussein and education” and “The novelist Taha Hussein”. Hussein’s books published by GEBO were on sale at 30 per cent discount.
The National Centre for Translation (NCT) also commemorated the 40th anniversary of Hussein’s death. “The project of translating 1000 books, one of the biggest translation projects in Egypt in the 20th century, was the brainchild of Taha Hussein when he was minister of education in the 1940s. He formed a team to translate the full works of global writers in philosophy, psychology, sociology, languages, fine arts, literature, history and geography. He believed that we are in urgent need for understanding foreign literature, and translation plays an important role in this regard. The first fruits of this project appeared in 1955. The NCT today carries on this mission,” said Rasha Ismail, head of the NCT.
Documents and photos
Hussein’s granddaughter, Maha Aon, opened a show held at the Beit al-Sennari in Sayeda Zeinab, Cairo; a splendid medieval Islamic house which is today a cultural centre affiliated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. On display were some of Hussein’s personal documents which Ms Aon offered the Bibliotheca to make a digital copy of.
The show included recitals of poems in praise of Hussein written by Sheikh Muhammad al-Shaarawi, Ibrahim Nagy, and Taha al-Tanahi whose poem congratulated Hussein on receiving the Order of the Nile. The documents on display included his passport, I in which Hussein spoke about himself, a number of critical reviews and some unpublished writings such as Democracy and World of the Qur’an. There were collections of letters, photographs of him and his family, and letters exchanged between Hussein and his counterparts including the luminaries Abbas al-Aqad, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Soheir al-Qalamawy, Tharwat Okasha, Yehia Haqqy and Ahmed Amin.
“Education is like air and water”
Hussein’s vision centred mainly on democracy, freedom, and making education accessible to every child and adult. The features of his project were that, “Education is like water and air; knowledge can set human beings free; a State may not be founded on religious bases.”
Hussein’s programme tackled objectively and boldly the many taboos which for centuries introduced a sanitised version of Arab history steeped in self-praise and superstition, and called for a wider cultural perspective that embraced opening up to the modern world. These thoughts and others were represented in his book Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (Future of Culture in Egypt) published in 1938. Not surprisingly, his vision was contrary to that of the Muslim Brothers (MB).
The Ministry of Culture recently reprinted Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr.
The book was first published in Cairo in 1938, and although it was one of Hussein’s shortest books, it remains one of the most important, all about the importance of education and culture in Egypt. He advocated the learning of foreign languages and recommended that more attention be given to the Arabic language and the improvement of curricula. He tackled the importance of universities including al-Azhar as a spiritual beacon that connected the civil and religious worlds for Muslims. He also wrote of the Coptic Church as a source of reformative culture.
Hussein wrote that Egyptians were not and would never be Arabs. Although Egypt was located in the midst of the ‘Arab’ region, it had its own culture and traditions which echoed, among others, Mediterranean cultures. Hussein warned against the religious fanaticism supported by foreign countries and by fundamentalists, and said it could lead Egypt into problems. He strongly recommended democracy and liberalism, which were in their golden age at his time. The book was reprinted by the State in the 1980s and 1990s, when Egypt was in the throes of extremism and terrorism.
The MB founder and its leader until his death, Hassan al-Banna (1906 – 1949) responded to Hussein’s Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (Future of Culture in Egypt) with an elaborated message under the title Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr Taht Hukm al-Ikhwan (Future of Culture in Egypt Under the Rule of the Brotherhood).
The message began as follows:
“From Hassan al-Banna to Taha Hussein
“The Future of Culture under the Brothers’ Rule
“Date: 16 Rabie al-Akhar 1357”
The reader must note that Banna ignored to cite the Gregorian date used all over the world, including Egypt, and opted for the Hijri date.
The letter continued:
“We, friend, [are] a united nation in everything except one, which is culture and way of thinking. That is why, when a case is discussed in Egyptian society, views seldom meet.”
This approach paved the way for Banna to introduce his vision on education, and hence the future of culture.
Separating the girls and boys
Sheikh Banna went on to explain that he was opposed to teaching foreign languages in schools before the secondary stage in order to allow students to focus on and be fluent in their mother tongue.
Girls and boys, according to Banna, should be separated at all stages of schooling. “They must be taught different curricula because the constitution of a girl is different from that of a boy and her mission in life different from his. We have already experienced the disadvantages of coeducation, and returning to uprightness is better than continuing with this wickedness.” Banna’s plan also insisted on the necessity of linking graduation to the study of the Qur’an by heart.
Banna’s message concluded by citing the MB’s preparedness to struggle against every ruling regime that attempts to wipe out Islamic manifestations. “We are an Islamic nation,” he wrote.
History of attacks
Hussein’s books led to countless intellectual skirmishes and conflicts with the Islamists. His book Fil-Shear al-Gahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry), published in 1926, was banned on recommendation of al-Azhar, because of what the Islamic scholars saw as the doubts he cast over the language of the Qur’an. To this day, it still provokes conservatives. They also dislike his Ala Hamish al-Sira (On the Prophet##s Life), 1933; and Al-Waad al-Haq (The True Promise), 1950 in which he wrote about the importance of reviewing Islamic history in a rational perspective.
During the heyday of the Islamist officials at the Ministry of Education they decided to cancel his autobiographical novel Al-Ayaam (The Days) from the secondary school curriculum. The Days was wildly attacked, whole sections were removed and others added; the ministry compiled the three parts of the novel into one book after removing nine of the 20 chapters. It excluded all parts related to intellectual battles that Taha Hussein had with al-Azhar. What remained of the book bore almost no resemblance to the original.
Yet the great poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi says that in fact Taha Hussein was far from opposed to Islam; he just desired a new Islamic ideology that clearly differentiated between religion and education.
15 December 2013