In the first half of the 19th century, the founder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali Pacha, decided to send 40 Egyptian students to complete their education in France. Our Albanian ruler was so keen on these student missions and regarded them to be a major way of channeling European modernity to Egypt. Nevertheless, our great Pacha was also keen that his students won’t slip and adopt European traditions that were not welcomed in Egypt. A Muslim Sheikh used to accompany these student missions in order to make sure the kids prayed, maintained the tenants of their faith and stayed away from European beauties; and definitely European booze.
Before these 40 Egyptian knowledge seekers were allowed to leave Egypt, an Al Azhar Sheikh and guardian was assigned to them. We do not know much of what happened to the 40 students in France. But we do know a lot about what the Sheikh did. The Sheikh did not do his job. He wondered around Paris. He learned the French language. Instead of just reading the Quran to the kids, he read works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac and Bezout. Our Sheikh then wrote a book considered to be among the most prominent in Egypt’s modern history: The Extraction of Gold From Summarizing Paris. Our Sheikh is Rifa’a el-Tahtawi.
A few years after Rifa’a el-Tahtawi’s emergence, another Sheikh was born in 1849. Considered to be the founder of Islamic Modernism, Sheikh Mohamed Abdou was a jurist, religious scholar and liberal reformer. Upon visiting the West, Sheikh Abdou did not care much about what European ladies were dressed in. He did not care much about what Europeans were drinking and eating. He just cared about the work ethics and values he witnessed in Europe back then. Sheikh Abdou returned home and said: I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam. His main argument was that we could not just rely on the interpretations of medieval clerics, but we needed reason in order to keep up with a changing world. When the great emancipator of Egyptian women, Qassim Amin, wanted to emancipate women, he often depended on Sheikh Mohamed Abdou’s thoughts and writings.
The two Sheikhs, along with others, helped in ushering in a period that witnessed a renaissance in almost every aspect of life: politics, nationalism to counter British occupation, arts, women rights, minority rights and a golden era for the Al Azhar institution. It was the period of the early 20th century when we had a Jewish finance minister and a Christian president of parliament. It was a period when Al Azhar was a powerful independent institution that produced scholars who walked the same path as Mohamed Abdou and Rifa’a el-Tahtawi.
Unfortunately, after the 1952 coup, everything in the country, including Al Azhar, was nationalized and brought under the direct control of the country’s dictatorial government. Gamal Abdel Nasser annulled Al Azhar’s democratic process of electing a head and stripped the institution of its financial resources. In the 1970s, thousands of Egyptians went to work in the Gulf and returned back with a religious ideology that was quiet different from what Egyptians were used to in the first half of the 20th century. An ideology that knows nothing about Sheikh Mohamed Abdou’s call for reason and depend solely on the interpretations of clerics who never departed their desert dwelling.
Why am I giving you a history lesson? Because the example of Egypt in the first half of last century proves that we as a nation will not develop without religious reformation. We cannot excel in other forms of life without curing ourselves from the disease that struck us since the 70s.
Religious reformation was a prerequisite for development and advancement of other nations as well. Imagine Europe without the Protestant Reformation that forced the Catholic church to enter the furnace of reform. Imagine Judaism now without its own reform movement. We would have had only lunatic ultra-orthodox Jews running around in Israel and Brooklyn.
To sum up, we need our religion back! We need the Islam of Mohamed Abdou. The Islam of Sheikh Maraghy, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar from 1935 till 1945 who rivaled the power of the King Farouk’s throne.
I want to end with a little experiment. Look at the below picture. On the left I’ve put the picture of Sheikh Emad Effat, the Al Azhar Sheikh who was shot dead a few weeks ago while he was with protesters in Tahrir. On the right, I’ve put the pictures of so-called Salafi clerics who currently monopolize the religious discourse in Egypt and who’re currently sleeping with SCAF on the same blood stained bed. Whom do you want to represent Islam? Whom do you feel reflects the mercy, grace and holiness that a religion should reflect?
My prayer is that the blood of Sheikh Emad Effat will not be in vain. I pray that it will be the seed that will blossom bringing back what we have lost 40 years ago.