Rifa‘a Al-Tahtawi, Egyptian Education, and the Making of the Modern

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Archana G. Prakash, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This poster presentation examines the career and work of Rifa‘a Rafi‘i al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), a translator and celebrated figure in the development of secular education in Egypt. Using his example as a case study, I investigate the role of Egyptian experts engaged in the transmission and translation of “useful” European knowledge to Egypt through education in the mid-nineteenth century.

A graduate of Al-Azhar University, the premier religious school in Egypt, al-Tahtawi served as imam or pastor to the first student mission to Paris in 1826, where he was singled out for his talent in languages and trained in the French academy in the art of translation. Al-Tahtawi returned to Egypt to serve as the director of the School of Languages, a translation bureau and school that translated the European texts necessary for the new system of technical schools founded during Muhammad Ali Pasha's (r. 1805-48) reign. This indigenization of this necessary knowledge was essential to the modernizing reforms advanced by the Pasha and his successors.  I argue that the educational philosophy and inclusion of useful European knowledge al-Tahtawi eventually championed was predicated on a reconciliation of his classical Muslim education with his French training in translation, as well as an engagement with the ongoing debates over education and pedagogy in Europe and Egypt as he developed as a bureaucrat and a scholar. The poster will show how exactly he brought these seemingly disparate paradigms together and how his views changed over his lifetime, helping elucidate the intellectual field in this time of rapid change.

This presentation will summarize al-Tahtawi’s experiences as a member of the first student mission and detail his career trajectory in becoming director of the School of Languages. The poster will concentrate on demonstrating the ways in which he negotiated the inclusion of useful European knowledge, both within his purview and in the education system at large.  To do so, I draw upon al-Tahtawi’s educational writings in his book al-Murshid al-Amin li-l-Banat wa al-Banin (The Trusted Guide for Girls and Boys) and articles in Rawdat al-Madaris (The Garden of Schools), personal correspondence, the library of French and English volumes he acquired during his time in France, as well as a survey of his collection of manuscripts held at the municipal Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi Library located in Sohag, Egypt. This presentation is part of a larger project focusing on the foundational institutions of Muhammad Ali’s education system to trace the nature of negotiations between French and Egyptian scholars, and elucidate what Egyptians understood as “modern” in the nineteenth century.

See more of: Poster Session #2
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