Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

A Modernizing Regime:  Egypt

Steve Muhlberger

A great many Islamic countries were in a similar situation during the 19th century, that is, under intense European pressure. Some, however, managed to keep a certain amount of autonomy.   These countries are important because we see the efforts of Muslim governments and Muslim ruling classes, armed with some of the advantages of modern states, trying their best to come to terms with world-wide European domination.  Some of the most important modern movements associated with the Muslim world began in such places.

Two places are of particular interest.  One is the Ottoman Empire, the most important Muslim power remaining in the 19th century world.  The other is Egypt, which in some formal sense was still thought to be part of the Ottoman Empire, but which had achieved in reality a separate status.  In both places, big efforts were made to deal with the problems of  modernization.

This lecture concerns Egypt.

For reformers of the 19th century, it was not hard to see Egypt as a nation, or at least a nation in embryo.  There were, however, doubts about whether this nation was the Egyptian nation or the Arab nation.  In fact, Egypt’s interest for us in part is as one of the earliest homes of  Arab nationalism.

Recall that the first Egyptian modernizing ruler was  Mehmed Ali.   To expand his domains, apparently his chief goal, he was willing to forge strong connections—links of economic and technical dependence—with Europe.

I would like to point out that even though Mehmed Ali was not a dedicated modernizer or Europeanizer for the sake of abstract ideals, his efforts and the efforts of his successors did have an effect on the religious practices of Egyptians.  As in many other Islamic countries at many other times, local religious power, local wealth, and local political leadership tended to be concentrated in the same hands.  The ulama, the heads of sufi brotherhoods, and the local landowners and urban professionals tended to all be the same people.

The kind of revolutionary changes that Mehmed Ali was making had a major effect on this class.  For one thing, they were the big losers when he took control of the land.  Much property had been tied up in religious trusts, giving the religious leadership considerable independent resources.  Mehmed Ali wanted no such independent bodies.  He wanted local leadership to be in the hands of his relatives or of local officials who would do what he wanted them to do.  So not only the land was taken, but religious affairs were brought under central government control.  During the course of the century, both sufis and the ulama, the religious scholars, were regulated and regimented under a royally-appointed chief sufi and the chief shaykh of the al-Azhar school in Cairo.  This deprived the old local leadership of its independent voice, and diminished the prestige of religious institutions considerably.

Mehmed Ali died in 1848, and his immediate successor tried to disentangle Egypt from the Europeans.  But after his death,Said and Ismail,  the next two Khedives (as the Egyptian monarch was called), went back to the old policy and in fact extended it.  Ismail went to the extent of saying he wished to make Egypt a part of Europe.  As Marshal Hodgson says, “he introduced into Cairo (and Alexandria) all the modern conveniences of a European capital, waterworks, gasworks, even a grand opera house in which Italian troupes performed.”  Ismail felt that French culture was the most advanced of his times, and encouraged it among the upper classes.   European educational standards were also implemented, and schools in the Islamic tradition, even the prestigious al-Azhar, were restricted to teaching law and theology.

Said and Ismail took a daring step during the 1850s, in permitting the construction of the Suez Canal.  Both France and Britain were interested in the area, and eventually the French got the concession;  King Ismail himself ended up as a major stockholder, and most of the rest of the stock was held by French interests.

During the period when the canal was actually being built, 1859-1869, Ismail found himself getting into deep waters.  Despite a tremendous boom in cotton prices during the American Civil War, he found himself going deeper and deeper into debt.   In 1875, he had to sell his canal shares to Britain.  In 1876, he had to agree to have the public debt of Egypt, which was entirely in European hands, administered by a commission nominated by France, Britain, Austria, and Italy, while Britain and France took control of all other financial affairs of the Egyptian government.

These moves, however, began a reaction against European intervention.  The policy of the Egyptian kings since Mehmed Ali had created a new Egyptian political class, including army officers, western-looking intellectuals, and the richer peasants, from whom village headmen were chosen.  In 1866, Ismail had begun to strengthen his links with these people by creating an Assembly of Delegates, a sort of tame parliament chosen by indirect elections.  In the late 1870s, Ismail tried to use anti-foreigner feeling in the Assembly and in the army to get rid of ministers whom the European powers had forced on him.

The British and the French put pressure on the Sultan in Istanbul, still theoretically the Khedive’s superior, and in 1879, Ismail was declared deposed and his son Tawfiq put in his place.  The idea was that Tawfiq would be easier to deal with.
Tawfiq in fact allowed the British and the French to renew their economic control over the Egyptian state.

The arrogance with which Europeans in Egypt acted, whether as individuals or as the representatives of their countries or their countries’ financial institutions, continued to feed anti-foreign feelings.

As was usual in the colonial era, the Egyptians who felt the most resentment were the ones who had had the most contact with innovation.   Education in foreign languages, foreign technical disciplines, and foreign philosophies had touched perhaps only a small proportion of the population, but that small proportion was still, in absolute terms, quite numerous, and they occupied an important place in the Egyptian political scene.  And they were quite conscious of the possibilities and the problems before them.  For instance, the Assembly of Delegates, made up mostly of village headmen, had at the urging of Khedive Ismail voted for the institution of village schools on the European model.

One of the results of education on the European model was a keener appreciation of the Arab past.  This appreciation began, interestingly enough, not in Egypt, but in Lebanon (then just a district in Ottoman Syria), and not among Muslims but among Christians.  The alumni of French missionary schools in this largely Christian area found a source of pride in the literature and the culture of the Arab past.   Their French teachers respected the old culture, and to affirm their own worth, young Christian Arabs came to value it more highly.  For one thing, it set them apart from the ruling Turks.   Syrian or Lebanese immigrants to Egypt carried the attitude there, spreading it through the new newspapers that grew up as part of Egyptian modernization.  The message was simply that Arabs had a great intellectual and cultural past that even the foreigners had to respect.  That culture could form the foundation of modern greatness as well.

In Egypt this general Arab revivalism was transmuted into an Egyptian nationalism.  If Egyptians had a great past as Arabs, they also had a great past that was uniquely Egyptian.  If Egypt had astounded the world in the past with its technological and cultural achievements, it could do so again.  This sort of Egyptian nationalism was particularly welcome in some quarters because many of the Egyptians most involved in modernizing innovations were either Christians or Jews.

Egyptian nationalism, like the Arab nationalism pioneered in the Lebanon district, could be seen as the basis of a secular state, in which people of all religious backgrounds could be equal citizens.  This kind of nationalism had a great deal of prestige in the 19th century, especially in countries, like Egypt, which took their clues from France.

Of course, most Egyptians were not Christians or Jews, but Muslims.  And there was a Muslim reformism stirring, too.  Like Arab nationalism, there was an international element to this.  Muslim reformism’s biggest champion was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, “the Afghan,” one of the most interesting Muslims of the 19th century.

Al-Afghani was not really an Afghan, but an Iranian, who in early life became a religious skeptic.   At least he was skeptical of traditional Islam.  Al-Afghani was a restless, politically ambitious person, and had no interest in any merely backward-looking philosophy.    He showed up in Egypt in the last days of  Khedive Ismail’s rule, when things were very uncertain.  He tried to become a political power by denouncing Ismail in fiery sermons, and trying to attract Tawfiq’s interest.  However, when Tawfiq became king, al-Afghani was deported to India.  He never returned to Egypt, but spent the rest of his life traveling between Paris, Istanbul, Russia and Persia, publishing newspapers, making speeches, and looking for the main chance.

But in his short time in Egypt, al-Afghani made a big impact.  He was already preaching pan-Islamic revival.  In the renewal of Islam itself lay the secret of the reassertion of the Islamic peoples in the face of European power.  Al-Afghani took so much upon himself in his preaching that he was often viewed as a heretic.  But younger minds sometimes found him exciting.

In Egypt, al-Afghani inspired perhaps his most important disciple, Muhammed Abduh, who in the course of his life was one of the most influential Muslim reformers, not just in Egypt, but in the world.

Let me briefly outline Muhammed Abduh’s teachings.  A trained religious scholar, Muhammed Abduh was very much opposed to the retreat of pious Muslims into a complete and rigid traditionalism.  He argued instead that Muslim renewal was necessary.  Although Abduh was receptive to a loosening of many traditional restrictions, such as the ban on buying meat from Christian or Jewish butchers, it was not because he did not take Islam seriously.  He argued that many of the traditions now attached to Muslim practice were simply accumulations without special religious authority.

Looking back at the oldest Muslim scriptures with an open mind would reveal Islam as a religion quite adaptable to modern conditions.  In fact, as is only logical, he believed that Islam was superior to Christianity in its monotheism, its morals, and its “receptivity to science and civilization.”  [Encyclopaedia Britannica]  To put it simply, Muhammed Abduh believed a return to early, prisitine Islam was the answer to Egypt’s need for both moral and technical progress.  Following him, one could feel oneself both a pious Muslim and an enlightened participant in the best aspects of modern civilization.  You can see the potential of such a movement.

But most of this was in the future in 1879, when Ismail was deposed and replaced by his son Tawfiq.  The politics of Egypt were in an uproar.  Ismail’s corruption and mismanagement had lost him the respect of his own people, and weakened his government so that he could not resist foreign pressure.  Tawfiq gave into foreign pressure from the beginning.  Egyptian patriotic feeling had to look elsewhere for leadership.  They found it in one of the most nationalistic and Westernized groups in the country—the Egyptian officer corps that had been created over the previous generation or so.

By 1881, dissatisfaction with the new Khedive’s government and its subordination to European bondholders’ interests led to the formation of what called itself “the National Party.”   It combined elements from the army with some of the more assertive members of the Assembly of Delegates (which had been dissolved by Tawfiq).  The leading personality was an officer named Urabi Pasha.  He was from a rich peasant background; he had studied religion at al-Azhar; and he had been conscripted into the army and risen through the ranks.  By 1881 he had long been part of a group of officers of Egyptian background opposed to the dominance of Turks and Circassians in the higher ranks, and he had participated in an officer’s revolt against the unpopular Ismail in 1879.  In 1881, dissatisfaction with the military establishment and with foreign domination led Urabi and his collaborators to emerge at the head of a movement with the slogan “Egypt for the Egyptians.”

Khedive Tawfiq called in the British and French, who sailed their fleets past Alexandria.  The population of the city rioted in protests attacking foreign interests and killing many foreigners.  Then the British fleet bombarded the city.  Urabi then declared Tawfiq to be a traitor and took control of the government.  This did not last very long.  A British force, under Wolseley, the same man who had put down Riel in 1870, landed, beat Urabi’s force, and exiled him.

Following this chaotic and, to European eyes, dangerous episode, the British were moved to take a big step, one in fact that they were rather reluctant to take.  Without annexing the country, they put it under their protection.  A man named Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, a veteran of the Indian Civil Service, was put in charge of the country.  He was the effective ruler of Egypt for 24 years, from 1883 to 1907.

Baring, or Cromer, as he is better known as, had been part of earlier efforts to straighten out Egyptian finances for the benefit of the bondholders.  He was a Liberal in foreign policy, which means that he was a non-interventionist.  When he came to Egypt in 1882 he wanted to make Egypt’s government solvent again and then get out.  But he soon came to the conclusion that lasting reform in Egypt would be impossible to accomplish in any short time.  Cromer felt the White Man’s Burden as much as anyone in his time.

He saw Egypt as a backward country, where the people, even those of high rank, had a slipshod, illogical mentality, where the customs were irrational, and the consecrated methods of government were hopelessly inefficient.  There was something to these criticisms— Muhammed Abduh, for instance, approved of many of the reforms Cromer pushed through, and was content to have the British stay for a while—but there was an arrogance and insensitivity about Cromer that in retrospect seems very curious in such an intelligent and capable man.

For instance, to reform Egypt—a task he eventually thought would take many years—Cromer learned Turkish, the language of the Turkish and Circassians who were the old administrative and military class.  As we’ve seen in this lecture, resentment of this class among educated Egyptians was intense even before Cromer showed up.  The idea that they were an illegitimate foreign ruling class and that Egypt should be for the Egyptians was strong, at least in certain parts of the new middle class.  But these people, who spoke Arabic, Cromer could not communicate with.  Since he was a multi-lingual man, and Arabic is no more foreign to English than Turkish, I must conclude that he saw no point in learning the point of view of not just the peasants, but the teachers, doctors, clerks and army officers who were building a new Egyptian culture.

Cromer was there, and we were not, and we should not dismiss entirely his insight that this was a culture that needed new institutions, new habits, and new attitudes to take it into the modern world.  But from our point of view, it seems pretty clear that modern nationalism in Egypt, a native modernizing movement, was already in existence in the 1880s.  In the short term, Egypt, no less than Algeria and Indonesia, could not avoid European dominance of the most direct kind.  But in part because of its own efforts, and especially its greater unity and self-awareness as a community, Egypt was on the way to creating a new identity for itself.  The roots of Egypt’s importance as a leading Islamic country in the 20th century can already be seen.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.