Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi

France as a Role Model

In the 19th century it was not only Europeans who were seized by the wanderlust to see the Orient. The number of people traveling in the opposite direction, from the Orient to Europe, also rose rapidly. Barbara Winckler reports

Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, photo: www.sis.gov.eg
Tahtawi admired the Europeans' scientific achievements. At the same time, he respected his own culture and believed that not all aspects of European culture should be adopted.

​​At the time, a trip to Europe generally meant a trip to Paris, then regarded as the "capital of the 19th century" by Arabs and Europeans alike. Both the aim and the circumstances of the journey could vary greatly. In Egypt, young men were initially sent on study missions, while others were invited as language teachers or translators.

Later people traveled to Europe to visit world expositions or Orientalist congresses. A number of these travelers recorded their experiences and impressions in writing.

Generally speaking, the purpose of these accounts was to share with their compatriots the knowledge they had acquired in Europe, encouraging imitation and that contribution to the development of their country. Probably the most famous, and author of the earliest published travel account, is the Egyptian Azhar-Sheikh Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi (1801-1873).

"A Muslim discovers Europe"

His book, with the virtually untranslatable title Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Baris (The Refinement of the Gold in a Comprehensive Depiction of Paris), couched in the rhyming prose typical of the time, appeared in 1834. Ein Muslim entdeckt Europa (A Muslim Discovers Europe), as the title of the German translation has it, describes Tahtawi's impressions of Paris, where he lived from 1826 to 1831 as the imam of the first study mission sent by Muhammad Ali.

At the time Egypt was going through a period of transition. Napoleon's Egyptian expedition of 1798 and the following three years of occupation confronted Egypt with Europe's glaring superiority, above all in the military and technological spheres; it became imperative to catch up. According to the strategy, those who had studied in Paris could replace the French experts who had been imported for the purpose.

In addition, the largely secularized France was regarded as less "risky" for Muslims. After centuries of disinterest in a supposedly backwards Europe, Tahtawi's book was the first modern Arabic description of a European country. Written in an objective tone, it was meant to function as a practical travel guide, educating, uplifting and encouraging imitation.

Idealized picture of the French educational system

Much taken by French learning, the educational system and scientific achievements, Tahtawi often conveys an idealized picture in which "all the French" can read and write, own a library, and are passionate scholars. The republican political system is described positively, but the author also comments that Islam provides good arrangements as well.

Tahtawi, born in Upper Egyptian Tahta as the scion of a prominent family, was one of the pioneers of the nahda, the Arab Renaissance. His studies at Cairo's Azhar University, with its traditionally religious curriculum would hardly have seemed to predestine him for this role, though he did study geography, history, astronomy and the natural sciences even at that time.

Doubtless crucial for the further course of Tahtawi's development was his participation in the study mission, which, as for the other participants, laid the foundation for a subsequent career in the army or the administration.

It also proved fortunate that Tahtawi – unlike the other participants – was not delegated to a technical specialization and could instead devote himself to translating and reading a broad range of literature.

Observing and recording all aspects of foreign culture

What is remarkable is the extraordinary thirst for knowledge and the observant eye with which he absorbed and recorded all conceivable aspects of the foreign culture, from details of everyday life to the educational and political system and the July Revolution of 1830. The enormous amount of work alone makes it unlikely that he had any closer contact with the French people.

Tahtawi read works by Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, among others, though it is unlikely that he had a complete grasp of them, either linguistically or intellectually. As an intellectual and a government official in a number of different positions, he later had a great deal of influence on Egypt’s (reform) policies.

He probably had his most lasting effect as the director of the language school, as a translator and as a sponsor of other translators. He himself translated many technical and historical works and even legal texts, including the Code Napoléon.

Like many of his contemporaries, Tahtawi still had an intact belief in progress and an admiration for the Europeans' (scientific) achievements which had to be emulated in the interest of development. At the same time, he respected his own culture and believed that not all aspects of European culture should be adopted.

However, he did argue for the establishment of a parliament and education for girls. Only later did the question of how Arabs can adopt European innovations without sacrificing their own cultural and religious identity acquire the explosiveness it has today.

Barbara Winckler

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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