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July 28, 2014 / 1 Av, 5774
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The Holders of Absolute Truth

Al-Azhar University in Cairo

Al-Azhar University in Cairo
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, en route to the south of Italy, where the cultural climate is less influenced by Europe than it is by the Mediterranean, there was a row even before the plane took off, a heated exchange between the Italian chief steward and two Egyptian sheikhs wearing the robes of Egypt’s premier religious university, Al-Azhar. The dispute had erupted over where the two sheikhs were to sit: the steward insisted they sit in their assigned seats in the economy class, while they insisted on moving to business class seats. When, as the conscripted interpreter of last resort, I explained that they had to sit on the seats specified on their tickets, they expressed their extreme displeasure at what they called European arrogance and inflexibility. There was eventually no choice but to point out that as they had paid for economy class tickets, they had no right to business class seats. This seemed to incense them even further; their anti-European tirade grew even more ferocious. The situation was finally resolved by the captain, who explained to his enraged passengers that they had only two options: either to sit in their assigned seats or to get off the plane. Acknowledging defeat, the Azharites accepted the first, and settled into the economy class seats they had paid for.

Returning to my seat, I recalled another Azharite sheikh who had travelled to Europe in 1826 as an escort and mentor of a group of young Egyptians sent by Mohamed Ali to study in a number of French institutes of learning. A luminary of Egypt’s intellectual regeneration in the nineteenth century, Sheikh Rifaa Rafii al-Tahtawi [1801-1873] lived in France for five years. After his return in 1831, he wrote a number of books introducing Egyptian readers to the civilization and culture he had known during his five-year sojourn in Paris, the most impressive of which areTakhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis bariz, Al-murshid al amin fi tarbiyat al-banat wa al-banin and Manahij al-albab al-misriyya fi manahij al-adab al-casriyya. In addition to his own writings, Tahtawi translated more than twenty-five books from French into Arabic. This great Azharite, despite going to France not as a student but as the spiritual preceptor, orimam, of the mission, used his time to delve deeply into a variety of subjects. Blessed with a curious and contemplative mind, as well as with a wholesome personality, Tahtawi was a great admirer of the achievements of Western civilization, not only in the field of applied sciences but also in the cultural, intellectual and moral fields. He was apparently particularly impressed with the importance accorded to modern education in Europe; the respect in which men held women; the plans and cleanliness of the towns; the integrity of Europeans, and their solid work ethic. The incident on the Cairo to Rome flight underscored a serious flaw in the cultural foundation of the two Azharite sheikhs. Although apparently living in Rome for five years, neither spoke any language other than Arabic. Moreover, they could see none of the merits of Western civilization. In direct contrast to their insularity, Tahtawi learned to speak French fluently even though he could not speak a word of it before 1826. In fact, he learned the French alphabet on the ship taking the mission from Alexandria to Marseilles. What he admired most in France, he said, was democracy, respect for the individual, respect for women and the great importance accorded to education and learning. The two Azharite sheikhs on the plane, who refused to observe the rules of civilized behavior, were the antithesis of their great precursor, Rifaa Rafii al-Tahtawi, a man able to appreciate and celebrate not only his own great civilization, but also the achievements and contributions of other great civilizations, from the time of the earliest, whether it was on the banks of the Nile, or on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates in the land now known as Iraq.

In southern Italy, at the extreme southern tip, stands the town of Brindisi (the name in Latin means the “deer’s antlers”), which overlooks the Adriatic. There you can see a portrait of the outstanding Italian scientist Galileo Galilei that should cause a pang in your heart if you compare the debased cultural environment we are living under in Egypt today and that in which the great scientist [1564-1642] lived. Known in advanced societies as the father of modern science, Galileo, in his 70s, was put on trial on charges of heresy for saying that the Earth goes around the sun — a “crime” for which his predecessor, Giordano Bruno, a few years earlier, had been burned alive at the stake. Galileo was taken to a dungeon where he was shown the instruments of torture that would be used on him unless he recanted; and spent the rest of his life not allowed to leave his house. Bruno’s and his findings had run counter to Scripture at a time when a culture of strict religious orthodoxy held sway, when not only society but scientific truths were subordinated to what the religious establishment believed to be religious truths.

About the Author: Tarek Heggy is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, and is both a leading liberal political thinker in the Arab world and International Petroleum Strategist.


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