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December 12, 2015


Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (1801 – 1873)

Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (1801 – 1873) was an Arab, a descendent of Hussain, the cousin of Muhammad, who was born in Tahta, a town in Middle Egypt in the Governorate of Sohag, around 290 miles from Cairo – a town then that contained, as it is now, a considerable number of Coptic Christians.

Tahtawi grew in a traditional Muslim religious family and studies Islamic fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in al-Azhar, the main Sunni Islamic educational institution in Egypt and the Islamic world. A person who is graduated from Azhar is given the titles “sheikh” and “a’lim”. As a’lim, literally translated as “scientist” but has got nothing to do with the Western meaning of the word, one is a recognised Muslim scholar – and in this description, and undoubtedly due to his connection through blood to Muhammad’s own family, he was selected by Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848), the Albanian ruler of Egypt at the time, to be sent to Paris in 1826 with a group of Muslim students, who were sent to study Europe’s sciences, to be their religious chaplain. Tahtawi remained in France for five years, and when he returned to Egypt in 1831, he published his interesting book تخليص الإبريز فى تلخيص باريز (Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz),[1] in which he describes his findings and impressions about France. In 2004, Daniel L. Newman produced an excellent study of the book with translation “An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit to France (1826–31)”, which the reader can consult.[2]

Tahtawi is credited with encouraging the adoption of European sciences, social and political ideas, and their accommodation within Islam. He stated that the Principles of Islam are compatible with those of European Modernity. That was the policy of Muhammad Ali, and Tahtawi provided him with the religious sanctification for his great project to modernise Egypt and bring it closed to Europe at least as sciences are concerned. Tahtawi was doing the bidding of Muhammad Ali and the Alawite Dynasty.

But as we quite often find with Azharite Sheikhs, they never completely detach themselves from their original source of culture and way of thinking. Until this day, the Azharites continue to embody the most regressive ideas, and teach them to their students, despite the colourful words they sometimes use to mislead. What about Tahtawi? I don’t think he was deeply different, at least when it comes to his anti-Coptic feelings and prejudices that are endemic in al-Azhar. I herein introduce three of Tahtawi’s anti-Coptic quotes:

“You should know that the Parisians distinguish themselves from many Christians by their keen intelligence, profound perceptiveness and depth of mind when treating recondite issues. They are not like the Coptic Christians, who display a natural tendency towards ignorance and stupidity.”[3]

“Among the laudable qualities of the franks that distinguish them from other Christians is their love of external cleanliness. Indeed, all the dirt and filth with which [Allah][4] – may He be praised and exalted – has cursed the Copts of Egypt he gave to the franks as cleanliness, even when they are on the high seas.”[5]

“One must praise the French for the cleanliness of their houses, which are devoid of all dirt, even though this pales into oblivion next to the cleanliness of the houses of the Dutch, who surpass all nations in their attachment to exterior cleanliness, just as in ancient times the people of Egypt were known to be the cleanest people in the world. However, their descendants, the Copts, did not follow their example.”[6]

Tahtawi wants to stress to his Muslim readers, who are generally prejudiced against all Christians, that the French were intelligent and clean nation. That was good, for indeed the French had very good attributes. However, was there any need to use the Copts for comparison to illustrate this point? Was it right and fair for him to say that the Copts had “a natural tendency towards ignorance and stupidity;” that “Allah had cursed the Copts with dirt and filth”? Wouldn’t he have served his Muslim readers better by comparing their sorry situation of ignorance and social degradation to that of the French rather than use the opportunity to spit his venom against the Copts?

Didn’t Tahtawi know that Egypt was not ruled by the Copts but by Muslim rulers who had been running the country’s affairs for nearly thirteen centuries by then; and had been oppressing, exploiting and persecuting the peaceful Copts to the degree that the Copts were reduced to a very sorry state that wasn’t of their making of liking?

No, Tahtawi was a prejudiced, fanatic anti-Copt as indeed were all Azharites of the time and as most are still are today. I don’t want to use this to illustrate that the Copts, the “descendants of the Ancient Egyptians” as he admits, were, despite all the odds, actually considered more intelligent, industrial and cleaner than the Arabs by the overall majority of European travellers to Egypt in the 19th century – confident nations don’t talk much about their positives. However, I quote here the mocking note by Newman who was clearly appalled by Tahtawi’s “Allah’s curse on the Copts that made them dirty and filthy”:

It is important to add that the author’s home town counted a sizable Coptic community, in which connection it is interesting to compare these comments with those found in the entry for Tahta in Wallis Budge’s guide book (1895: 264): ‘…[it] is the home of a large number of Copts, in consequence of which, probably, the town is kept clean’. [7] [8]

[1] Can be translated as “The Extraction of Gold in the Overviewing of Paris”.

[2] Danier Newman, An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit to France (1826–31) (London, Saqi Books, 2004).

[3] Ibid, pp. 176-7.

[4] Newman uses the word ‘God’ but I prefer to use the word ‘Allah’ which is more specific.

[5] Ibid, p. 143.

[6] Ibid, pp. 221-2.

[7] Ibid, no.3, p. 143.

[8] Newman refers to Cook’s handbook for Egypt and the Sûdân by Budge, E. A. Wallis (Ernest Alfred Wallis), Sir, 1857-1934.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2015 7:39 pm

    Wow! What a bigot! The same insult he gave Copts, he seems to forget the Muslim majority were just as “dirty” as the poor and oppressed Copts as well. This comes to show Al Azhar has roots in hating the Coptic Church and perhaps needs more than “reformation”.

  2. Heba B permalink
    August 17, 2017 5:47 pm

    I agree, if you look at Cairo, its crowded and disgusting. While places like Assuit that are mostly Christian, the land is very well taken care of, no trash in the streets etc. There are some infrastructure failings but that is because the government does not pay attention to it because it is Christian.

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