Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rifa'ah Rafi'a al-Tahtawi

The historians suggested that the era of westernization and reform started when Napoleon Bonaparte managed to invade Egypt and defeat the Mamluks. This occurred on the Egyptian Campaign, led by Napoleon in 1798-1799. This has been marked as one of the most important event occurred in history. The victory of the French army in the campaign, showed that the westerners could tear apart the most feared and strong government at that time, which is the Mamluks. This happened due to some weaknesses of the Mamluks itself, internally and externally chaotic.
In 1962, Albert Hourani[1] claimed that Napolean invasion in Egypt was the starting point of liberalism took place in the Muslim world. Here brought the mean that it was when Muslims realized to make an improvement towards the betterment of their civilizations. In European context, liberalism always being referred to renewal and reformation of a system; basically discussed on the issue of equality, modernization and to get the freedom of rights.
Hence, there were some earliest Muslims reformers came to known such as al-Tahtawi, al-Tunisi and al-Kawakibi. They brought the idea of reforming the people’s ways of life to match with the flourishing European powers at that time. They always emphasized on how to achieve the goal, and differentiate why did Muslims were living in such a backwardness state, to be compared with the westerners.
So, al-Tahtawi answered the question, by highlighting the issue of freedom or ‘hurriyyah’. He stated that the westerners could bring themselves to a better living standard due to the freedom they have unlike Muslims at that time who were lacking in the area of freedom. Muslims refused or either restricted to reflect on modernization that led them left behind in backwardness. 

Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi
Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi was generally known by his nickname, Rifa’ah Bey. His real name was Rifa’ah Bey Badawi al-Tahtawi. He was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w in line with the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah az-Zahra. He went back to Muhammad ibn Bakir ibn Ali Zain al-Abidin ibn al-Hassan, the son of Fatimah and Sayyidina Ali r.a. Al-Tahtawi was born in Tahta, Girga in the Upper Egypt in the year 1801. Besides, his family had a strong religious practiced which influenced him to learn and understand the Qur’anic teachings since small. In addition, his time was the time when Muhammad ‘Ali in reign.
Al-Tahtawi came from a good genealogy and his ancestors were reported living in a good condition though during his birth, his parents were not in such a good state financially. His parents were affected with the confiscations of properties done by Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. Thus, his parents went here and there to seek for hospitality. They also have to survive with the aid from his mother’s family due to the hardships. During this time, al-Tahtawi began to memorize the Qur’an and completed it at the mosque of al-Azhar, under guardianship of his maternal uncles.

Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi started his early education within his own family as his family practiced religious life. He started to memorize the Qur’an since he was small under his father’s supervision and managed to learn on various other subjects in the mosque of al-Azhar, with the help of his uncles. At the age of 16 years old, he went to al-Azhar to study.
In al-Azhar, he did take his studies seriously under famous scholars in his time like al-Faddali, al-Kuwaisni, Shaikh Ahmad al-Damhuji, Shaikh Ibrahim al-Baijuri, Shaikh Muhammad Hubaish, Abdul Ghani al-Dimyati and Shaikh al-Damanhuri. Besides, al-Tahtawi was really closed to another famous scholar, Shaikh Hassan al-Attar. Al-Tahtawi was said to be so much influenced by al-Attar due to their closeness. Who is al-Attar? Hassan al-Attar came from North African origin. It is said that when French came to Egypt, he did made contacts with them[2] but later on he fled away due to the prosecution of shaikhs and ulama’s conducted by French. He did not make his time as a waste, thus he gave lectures and taught people during his absence. Then, after some time, he came back to Egypt and turned out to be Muhammad Ali’s supporter. One of his interests with Muhammad Ali was the system of education and educational reforms promoted by him. Thus, many people claimed that was why Muhammad Ali appointed al-Attar as the Shaikh al-Azhar. There are also people stated that the appointment of Hasan al-Attar as the Shaikh al-Azhar was an illegal and unqualified action just to cover up the governor’s interest. [3]
Despite all this, while being close to al-Attar, he learnt so much in subjects that were not being taught in al-Azhar, including geography and history. Moreover, with his own hardwork and sharp thoughts, he was always being encouraged by al-Attar to attain more knowledge. Al-Tahtawi as a student had successfully being close and known by most of the teachers in al-Azhar, and he had established himself as a teacher (Dunne, 1939). He first learnt to give lectures in his grandfather’s mosque in his hometown before he tried to teach in al-Azhar. But, to be a teacher at al-Azhar was not a big problem for him as he had established himself there, as he had many ulama’s to know him as a good student before. His areas of specialties were hadith, literature and logics. In this period, al-Tahtawi faced a quite great pecuniary difficulty when his mother even had to sell her jewelries to support his studies. So, al-tahtawi with his own effort earned some money by teaching people and the people’s children, before being offered to teach at a madrasah.
After ‘graduating’ from al-Azhar, al-Tahtawi gave lectures in al-Azhar for about two years and was appointed to be the imam of newly formed Egyptian army force, under Turks control. This is the starting point when al-Tahtawi started to ‘leave’ his madrasah and school life and make a step on the other important field. During this period, the demand of trainings from the Europeans was very high so many European trainers were invited to come to Egypt. This resulted to the rising number of military schools to be established. Besides, the printing system also evolved as many books and other materials started to be printed in Turkish and Arabic. So, these new things really attracted al-Tahtawi. 
Two years later, Muhammad Ali planned to send a group of forty-four students to Paris. The student in this group was ordered to be sent in French schools to study subjects in agriculture, military sciences, engineering, medicine and administration. Al-Tahtawi was appointed to be an imam for the students’ group and of course he was sent together with them to Paris.
During his five years period in Paris, he learnt privately French language until he mastered it. Even though he never focused on the speaking skills of French, he managed to master how to read French as he purposely learnt the language to translate French books into Arabic. Five years in French made him translated about twelve books and documents, including those about geography, history, culture, law, mathematics, astronomy, vocational knowledge and many others. He also read and translated books on philosophy and French literature such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Racine and Montesquieu. To conclude, al-Tahtawi devoted his five years in Paris to read and translated many French books into Arabic.
Later on in 1832, after finishing his duties in Paris, he came back to Egypt. It is said that al-Tahtawi was really influenced by the French culture, but at the same time he still did not commit what was against Islam and he still performed the religious duties. His obsession in French culture and their disciplines was really influenced him that led him to write a book only after few months of his came back to Egypt. His book, Takhlis al-Ibriz ila Talkhis Bariz included his idea of reforming Egypt based on his knowledge that he learnt along his period in Paris.[4]
He was employed to be a translator at School of Medicine at Abu Za’bal. After some time, he was transferred to School of Artillery, to be the translator of geometry and military sciences as he was an expert of that area. In Cairo, he established a translation association, which he named the School of Language. The function of this association was likely the same with Dar al-Hikmah which was established in the time of Abbasiyah Empire. He employed teachers who taught French, English, Arabic, Italian, Turkish, mathematics, history and geography. Under this association, al-Tahtawi translated and edited about twenty French books, together with a number of other works he managed to complete. Those books he translated and edited consist of the ones of philosophy, history and military sciences. One of them was Considerations sur les Causes de la Grandeur des Romains et de leur Decadence, written by Montesquieu.
The main idea of al-Tahtawi’s works is usually touched on political issues. He always insisted that the reformation of the Egyptians is needed for the betterment of the country. He differentiated the condition of Egypt at that time with a modern lifestyle, or the condition of people living in Europe. Unfortunately, under Abbas Pasha (the grandson of Muhammad Ali), he was exiled to al-Khartoum under the charged of being heretic. His school was also ordered to be closed during this time. Until the reign was taken over by Sa’id Pasha, he then invited back al-Tahtawi to come back to Egypt. He then made al-Tahtawi as the Director of European Department of the Cairo Governate. Then, he became the director of a new Military School in Haud al-Marsud until it closure in 1860. After the reign turned to Ismail Pasha, he made al-Tahtawi as the manager at the Language Department in School of Administration until his death in 1873.

Ideas of reformation
            Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi also expressed his ideas on the development of Egypt, or generally the entire Muslim nation. His ideas were not merely based on either the tradition or his experiences alone, but rather it consisted both. He mentioned on the way the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w  ruled Madinah, and how the khulafa’ ar-rashidin or the companions controlled the government. They provided the best ruling system by giving the people their rights and justice (Gorman, 2003). He also claimed that the system of law is an important element in an administration.[5] Thus, every action must be justified by the rule of law, not just following the tradition or desires.
            According to him, the people in the country are divided into several groups; two groups are the groups of rulers or leaders, another two consist of the ruled. The first two groups later were divided into two specific groups, which were the nobles or the head of the country and the scholars or ulama’. And the other two included army forces or warriors and the peasants. The duty of the ruled is to obey the ruler, and follow what they ordered to, as long as the order did not against the shari’ah. Besides, the duty of a ruler is to obey the command of Allah while at the same time he must not abandon his people’s rights and well-being.[6] The ruled or the people must obey the rulers’ orders and at the same time should contribute themselves in the betterment of the country. For example, they could seek knowledge in various modern science fields and try to adapt them in the Muslim society. For al-Tahtawi, this could be one way to help the ruler to improve his nation’s building.

            In the issue of education, al-Tahtawi focused on two main perspectives. First he talked about the concept of universal education and also, the rights of women in education. He claimed that education should be given to all people regardless all their different backgrounds, especially based on gender. So, every each individual in the world, no matter if that person is a man or a woman, they should be given their education rights as education could improve people’s lives; which is against the norms of the Egyptians. This one he had mentioned in his book, al-Mursyid al-Amin fi Tarbiyah al-Banat wa al-Banin. Second, he focused on educating the spirit of patriotism among the people. He mentioned that the spirit of patriotism is also one of the important elements that should not be abandoned by the scholars.  This kind of spirit will help to risen the people’s love towards their own nation or land.
            Besides, al-Tahtawi expressed the importance of religion in education and its importance towards the nation’s building by dividing education into different sectors. These important sectors are divided into three sections: (1)basic knowledge, (2) tajhizi, and (3) ‘aliyah. The basic knowledge meant by al-Tahtawi referred to reading and writing skill, basically based on the Qur’an, the knowledge  on nahu, sarf, and other related subjects. The second phase is tajhizi, referred to the learning of more complicated fields such as geography, history, administration, chemistry, agriculture, languages and others. In the third phase, ‘aliyah highlighted the important skill subjects, like medical sciences, geography, astronomy and fiqh. [7]

            During those years, the economics of Egypt was very depended on agriculture. With the fortunate land, it rich soil could help people to produce various types of crops. Besides, the ruler at that time, Muhammad Ali was also very encouraging to help the people to get involved in the agriculture sector. He stressed that economics can help the improvement of the nation and one of its source is the agriculture.[8] Al-Tahtawi was impressed by his idea and supports. Some of the resources that were richly produced in Egypt at that time were cotton, grapes, olives and others. Muhammad Ali also helped in the improvement of water irrigation system, telecommunication system, provide enough facilities and expand more transportation linkage.

            To achieve the nation’s mission, the society themselves should contribute with all their effort. Al-Tahtawi mentioned that human beings are attached with two main purposes of life; to obey the command of Allah, and to maintain the achievements in the world. Especially for the Muslims, they should gain achievements in the world based on Islamic teachings, and not opposing it. Besides that, he stressed on the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. These two components must work with each other and create better relationship in order to achieve the goal. For example, to improve the nation’s economic system, the people should obey the ruler’s orders and do the chores needed in order to produce more materials. While at the same time, the ruler should support the people by providing enough facilities and whatever they need. Thus, according to al-Tahtawi, the development of a country refers to the people’s adaption to Islamic teachings and also the economics advancement.

Modern Sciences
            Al-Tahtawi in his work stressed that the understanding and practicing of Islamic teachings is very important besides keeping up-to-date with every new field that started to exist in the world. This is as a platform to not be lagging behind others, especially the European. He believed that people who understand religion will keep updating the new knowledge, as religion did not hinder development and always be suitable everyone, at anytime and anyplace. So, here he focused on the adaptation of some Islamic regulations into the new arousal issues due to the development that never occurred in previous times.
            He mentioned that two important elements that act as the rulers of a country are the head of the country and the second one is ulama’. What he meant here, the task of ulama’ is to assist and give advice to the state’s ruler in governing the country. So, an open-minded ulama’ with a good foresight, is really needed to accomplish this task, and to make an ijtihad in order to develop the country and to solve new arising problems. This was stated in his book, “Al-Qaul al-Sadid fi al-Ijtihad wa al-Taqlid”.[9] With such knowledge, ulama’ could be a good model and lead the ruler to adapt Islamic teachings to the new advanced fields (Badawi, 1950) that rising up to reach the standard of the other non-Islamic governments or perhaps, a better one.
            Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi tried to persuade people and al-Azhar teachers to accept his ideas on modern sciences. He explained that what the West invented was not really invented by them. Originally, it was the work of muslim scholars, but the Westerners developed their works. The Westerners referred to the books written by the muslim scholars in various fields like rmedicine, pharmacy, astronomy, chemistry, physics, architecture and others.
Some al-Tahtawi’s works
Tahtawi’s writing
11)      Takhlis al-Ibriz ila Talkhis Bariz
22)      Al-Mursyid al-Amin fi Tarbiyah al-Banat wa al-Banin
33)      Tawfik Al-Ghalil insights into Egypt’s and Ismai’l descendants’ history
44)      The methodology of Egyptians minds with regard to the marvels of modern literature
55)      A thourough summary of biography of the Prophet Muhammad
66)      Towards a simpler Arabic grammar
77)      Grammatical sentences
88)      Egyptian patriotic lyrics
99)      The luminous stars in the moonlit nights of al-Aziz
Tahtawi’s translation
11)      Small-scale geography
22)      Useful metals
33)      The unequivocal Arabization approach to geography
44)      Ancient philosophers
55)      The history of ancient Egyptians
66)      Logic
77)      Principals of engineering
88)      The French Constitution
99)      The health policies
110)   Greek mythology, and many others.

As a conlusion, the starting point of the era of modernisation in the Islamic world was when Napoleon Bonaparte came and invaded Egypt. For muslims, this event proved that a strong power occupied with more advanced technology could easily broke an Islamic centre, though it was known to be the strongest empire for a long time. For Europeans, they took this as a moral support to do better in the future, though they already knew with their new technology they could defeat a former strong Islamic empire.
      According to Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi, why the Islamic empire was lagging behind referred to its policy that did not welcome modernization. This could be seen not only during the time whenever Napoleon successfully invaded Egypt, but across the history, in 12th century and to 15th century. The same mistakes keep repeating to happen. Even until the 19th century, the Islamic empire still practicing the policy, to not welcome modernization and refused to accept ijtihad in various new field.
      Al-Tahtawi also stressed on the importance of education to be the source of the country’s development. Why? Using education, the knowledge on various fields like chemistry, medicine, military sciences, geography and others could be delivered to the people. These fields are really important especially to help develop the country to stand on the same standard with the European in modernization and to not be lagging behind them. This means he also prioritized the importance of technology to improve the nation’s well-being. Thus, as a muslim, we should try hard to not be lagging behind our enemies and try to contribute ourselves in the improvement of our nation and muslim brotherhood as a whole.

11.      Ahmad Ahmad Badawi. (1950). Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi. Cairo: Lajnat al-Bayan
22.      Al-Tahtawi. (n.d. reprint of 1870). Al-qaul al-sadid fi al-ijtihad wa al-taqlid. Cairo:
Matba’at Wadi an-Nil.
33.      Al-Tahtawi. (1905). Takhlis al-Ibriz ila talkhis Bariz. Cairo: publisher unknown.
44.      Dunne, J. H. (1939). Rifa’ah’s career. Rifa’ah Badawi Rafi’ at-Tahtawi: The Egyptian
 Revivalist, 9, 961-967. Retrieved from
55.      Gesink, I. F. (2009). Islamic reform and conservatism: Al-Azhar and the evolution  of
modern sunni Islam. New York: I.B. Tauris.
66.      Gorman, A. (2003). Historians, states and politics in twentieth century Egypt:
Contesting the nation. New York: Routledge Curzon.
77.      Hourani,A. (1962). Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. UK: Cambridge
University Press.
88.      bfy. (2010, February 06). Al-Tahtawi. Retrieved from
99.      Sameer Abu Hamdan. (1992). Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi: Ra’du al-tahdith al-Urubiy
fi Misr. Beirut: Al-Sharikat al-‘Alamiah li al-Kitab ش- م- ل.
110.  Shawki Abdelrehim (2013). Egypt: The split of an identity. Houston: Strategic Book

[1] Hourani, A. (1962) Arabic thought in the liberal age 1798-1939. Cambridge University Press: UK. p.344
[2] Shawki Abdelrehim (2013) Egypt: The split of an identity. Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co: Houston. P.28
[3] Gesink, I. F. (2009). Islamic reform and conservatism: Al-Azhar and the evolution  of modern  sunni Islam. I.B. Tauris: NY. P.xvi
[4] Al-Tahtawi(1905). Takhlis al-Ibriz ila talkhis Bariz. Cairo: publisher unknown. P.82
[5] Sameer Abu Hamdan. (1992). Rifa’ah Rafi’a al-Tahtawi: Ra’du al-tahdith al-Urubiy fi Misr. Al-Sharikat al-‘Alamiah li al-Kitab ش- م- ل. P. 57
[6] Ibid, 70-71

[7] Ibid, 171.
[8] Ibid, 144.
[9] Al-Tahtawi. (n.d. reprint of 1870). Al-qaul al-sadid fi al-ijtihad wa al-taqlid. Cairo: Matba’at Wadi an-Nil. Pp.1-24

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