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Religious and Political Developments in Modern Egypt

Session XII-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • MESA Abstract 2022 “Updates and Revisions in the Study of the Egyptian Reformer Shaykh Hasan Al-`Attar, d. 1835” This paper surveys some of the contributions to scholarship over the past 30 years which have added to an understanding of the life of Shaykh Hasan Al-`Attar and the period in which he lived. Arguably, the most important of these contributions involved an Albanian perspective on Al-`Attar. In addition, there were Turkish and German contributions amplifying earlier ideas about Al-`Attar’s views on medicine. Finally, there was an article or two from Nahdawi literary scholarship. While the paper is thus somewhat empirical it also raises a more theoretical question and provides one possible answer to it. The question raised is how do we explain the lack of concern with this figure, who played a recognized role in the Muhammad `Ali reform program given a context in which scholars are deeply concerned with many other such figures? To answer the question, I begin with a review of some of the new work, the most interesting of which I take to be that of Muhammad al-Arna’ut, a Jordanian professor familiar with the Albanian language sources for the study of the city of Scutari, in northern Albania. From this work, we learn not only something about the years which Al-`Attar spent there but something about the success of the local dynasty there over the preceding 20-30 years in modernizing the society, learning as well that Muhmmad `Ali Pasha and seemingly also Hasan Al-`Attar were both influenced by the achievements of the Bushati dynasty there. We also learn that, Egypt and Albania had long been in contact, that in fact a good deal of the ruling class of Egypt from the 18th into the 20th centuries derived from Albania. After discussing some other new scholarship on Al-`Attar and modern medicine in the Muhammad `Ali reform period, the paper returns to the question of why Al-`Attar has been ignored and or kept out of Nahda studies. The stock answer is one putting aside his achievements by simply noting he did not know French. The paper concludes that a more satisfactory answer would be one considering other factors as well among which would be how we identify the constituent elements of early modernity. Does cultural modernity exist without a connection to what went before? As regards Egypt, many make that claim so logically Al-`Attar would be marginal!
  • Everyone knew how the prime minister died but theories circulated about why he was assassinated. At one o’clock in the afternoon on February 20, 1910, pharmacology student Ibrahim Nassif al-Wardany shot Egypt’s first Christian Prime Minister Boutros Ghali as he mounted his carriage outside the Ministry of Justice. Five of the bullets only inflicted shallow wounds but the sixth punctured several critical organs as it lodged itself inside Ghali’s body. The prime minister died hours later at the hospital following a meticulous operation to save his life. Some said al-Wardany, freshly returned from Europe, had succumbed to degenerate western ideas that drove him to murder. Others swore he acted under the influence of insanity or fanaticism, citing his megalomania and anarchist reading habits. A zealous nationalist, Al-Wardany himself claimed that he killed for his country, accusing the prime minister of acquiescing to the British occupation for far too long. But whispers in the halls of power and among civil society revealed a much more glaring implication: sectarian motive. While Ghali’s assassination has traditionally been seen as an exclusively political event—one with implications for the British occupation in Egypt or for the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement—it has yet to receive equal attention for its role in generating public discourses about sectarianism and religious difference in Egypt. Sources from the period demonstrate a concerted effort from the British, the Khedivate, and members of the Egyptian nationalist movement to emphasize that Ghali’s assassination was a political, not religious, matter. Yet the death of the prime minister unleashed a national crisis not only over the specter of political violence but also on relations between the country’s Muslim majority and Christian minority during a time that grappled with the parameters of Egyptian nationality, identity, and belonging. This presentation examines sources from over two dozen archives to argue that Ghali’s death, the politics of his commemoration, and the ensuing inter-religious tensions form a crucial node in understanding the genealogy of sectarianism and religious difference in modern Egypt.
  • This paper presents the main findings from my current research project: a book length study of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s prison ordeals that is under contract with Oxford University Press. Entitled "Brothers Behind Bars: A History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, 1948-1975", my book builds on a collection of more than two-hundred prison memoirs written by Muslim Brothers and Sisters to tell the story of the Brotherhood’s long period of incarceration in Egypt. Although the significance of the Brotherhood’s prison ordeals has been widely recognized in current scholarship, no scholar has yet fully explored this eclipsed period in the history of the Brotherhood. My book endeavors to close this significant scholarly gap by – for the first time ever in a combined fashion – tell the history of the Brotherhood’s imprisonment from the Palestine War to the rise of Anwar al-Sadat. My main argument is that the prison experience was crucial for the social and intellectual formation of the Brotherhood. By acknowledging the institution of the prison as a crucial site for the formation of ideology, I claim that Egypt's state institutions played a significant role in shaping the competing ideologies within the Brotherhood. Yet, while the institution of the prison severely encroached on the freedom of the Brothers, prison also offered them time to reflect on their situation – not merely in conversation with each other, but in conversation with political prisoners of other ideological convictions as well, most notably Communists. Thus, by emphasizing not what state repression restricted the Brothers from doing, but rather what it allowed them to do, I wish to demonstrate how the ideology of the Brotherhood was shaped between 1948-75 not merely by debates internal to the Brotherhood, but by encounters with leftist intellectuals, professional clerics, and government agencies inside the prisons of Egypt. In this paper, I first want to give a brief overview of the book before I explore a critical methodological question that lays at the heart of this project: namely, how can we as historians get access to, let alone, claim to speak historically about events in one of the most restricted institutions in the Middle East – that is, the prison in modern autocratic Egypt?
  • The Malleability of Progressive Education: The early Nasser Years “…These are the accomplishments of our Madrasa Namuzajiyya (Model School) (…) May Allah lead us to a bright future under the guidance of the inspirational leader of Arab nationalism, our hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pioneer of educational Nahda in the country.” This paragraph appears in the introduction of a booklet published by the Qaliyub Model School in 1959. Any historian of the Nasser period will be unsurprised by its content. After all, the glorification of Nasser, the use of flowery language and the insistence that better days were ahead were hallmarks of the post-1956 regime’s public discourse. However, the content is quite surprising considering the context within which these words were published. This is because model schools, or ‘experimental schools’ as they were first called when they emerged in the early 1930s, were initially established in order to test out the principles of progressive education in real life classrooms. In other words, they were associated with a movement which called for democracy in the classroom, critical thinking and respect for children’s desires and needs. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how progressive education came to be coopted by the Nasser regime. The vast majority of the literature regards nationalism as the driving force of Egyptian education. While nationalism certainly motivated many educational decisions, Egyptian teachers’ fascination with progressive education bore equal if not more weight, especially during the interwar period. With the advent of the Nasser regime, one might have expected progressive education to recede to the background and to make room for other more attuned pedagogical discourses. Instead, as late as 1959, Model Schools were established, and practical activities were promoted. In other words, progressive education was in full force. The paper therefore seeks to answer two interrelated questions: How and in what ways did progressive education come to occupy such a central position in the early Nasser years? What role did progressive educators play in this transition? Through the use of the pedagogy press, school magazines, and ministerial documents, the paper will argue that progressive education’s malleability allowed the Nasser regime to pick and choose features which were more in line with its pedagogical ethos while silencing many of the movement’s ‘undesirable’ tenets. It will also demonstrate that certain progressive pedagogues were able to reinvent themselves as regime supporters thereby creating continuities in educational policy.
  • The concept of an Islamic “tradition,” as articulated by Talal Asad, is one of the most widely used methods of discussing Islam among scholars today. Despite being criticized from different angles, the concept has withstood the test of time. But is the concept useful when discussing change or novelty in Islam? This question is particularly significant for the study of modern Islam, where the problem of how to treat change, development, and newness in Islam frequently appears. This paper has two aims: First, it analyzes recent scholarship on Islam in the modern world to show that although the idea of Islam as a tradition does not, in principle, present obstacles to accounting for change and newness in Islam, it has nevertheless been used by many scholars in a way that construes novelty, change, and development in Islam as threats to the integrity of the Islamic tradition. This makes it seem as if the Islamic tradition is ossified in the past and cannot change without losing its Islamicness. Second, it analyzes twentieth-century Arabic writings by intellectuals affiliated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to show that there is no way to account for their particular form of Islam without also attending to the question of how Islam changes. To navigate around this dilemma, this paper argues that scholars of modern Islam can and should, with caution, employ the notion of Islam as a “religion” when accounting for change, despite the important critiques of the concept made by Asad and others. This is because the concept of religion is more readily comparative than the concept of tradition, and the comparative study of religion has, in turn, demonstrated that religions can and do change without losing their coherency.