Taha Hussein… the last man of the renaissance
Hossam Ahmed presents a new biography of him in English issued by Stanford University
Tuesday – 16 Shawwal 1443 AH – 17 May 2022 AD Issue No. [
The name of the writer, critic and thinker Taha Hussein (1889 – 1973) is still very present in Egypt and the Arab world, and his published works have turned with the passage of time into indispensable classics for every researcher in issues of Arabic literature and cultural issues in the twentieth century, especially his most famous book “In Pre-Islamic Poetry”. – 1926”, which sparked fierce intellectual battles, and is still the subject of controversy and response to this day. However, Hossam Ahmed, Associate Professor of History at Maynooth University (Republic of Ireland) and author of the new book published in English by Stanford University Press “The Last Ennahda: Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt – 2022”* believes that this constant circulation of his name feeds a kind of misleading feeling The deceptive thing is that we know the man or understand his prominent role in the Egyptian cultural scene, the period between the two world wars and until the July Revolution of 1952, which overthrew the monarchy there. His contributions, biography, and influence in the social context of Egypt before Gamal Abdel Nasser are still not clear in the West in general, with the exception of perhaps a direct biography written by Pierre Cascia, published in 1956.
In this new biography, Hossam Ahmed tries to bridge that fog and that gap together by presenting a different reading of the man’s thought and exploring his project not by examining his many published works, but by an in-depth analysis of his roles before July 1952 in the Egyptian cultural institutions that he led in the first half of the twentieth century – Cairo University, the Arabic Language Institute, and the Ministry of Culture – and the formulas he adopted in those institutions to put his ideas into practice. Therefore; It is as if it were a social biography of Egypt during a historical period rich in civilizational transformations and challenges in which the individual and the private retreated in the interest of the group and the public. It always places Taha Hussein at the heart of what the author considered an exciting liberal moment that the largest Arab country experienced before its subsequent transition to a completely different path politically, socially and culturally.
His point of view is that Taha Hussein was not only one of the drivers of changing the existing situation at the time, but that, and most importantly, he was able to put forward specific alternatives and try to implement them on the ground under conditions that generally remained unfavorable. Accordingly, the recovery of Taha Hussein – according to the author always – is almost more urgent and relevant today than ever in the wake of the transformations that Egypt has experienced since the January 2011 uprising, and that it provides an inspiring model for dealing with many crucial questions that It is still raised, and perhaps it has not been answered until now: such as the issue of dealing with Western culture while keeping a distance from its imperial content, the relationship between heritage and modernity, the position of religion, women and education in contemporary societies, the role of the intellectual in the overall framework of politics, and others.
Taha Hussein was indeed an exceptional man by every measure. Having lost his sight at an early age, he devoted himself to knowledge and the study of literature. He studied at first at Al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, then joined the Egyptian University (later called Cairo University) when it opened in 1908 and obtained his doctorate from it in 1914 on a thesis entitled “Abu Al-Ala’s Memory”, then was sent to France, where he obtained a doctorate from the University of The Sorbonne in Paris with a thesis on “The Social Philosophy of Ibn Khaldun”. When he returned to his country, he worked as a professor of history, then as a professor of the Arabic language, then was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, then Director of the University of Alexandria before being appointed Minister of Education. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Taha Hussein was also active in his professional career: as a writer, he revolutionized the field of writing memoirs in Arabic through his autobiographical trilogy, Al-Ayyam – 1926, and as a translator, he completed the first Arabic versions of many classic Greek tragedies, In addition to transposing modern intellectual works by French writers such as André Gide and Jean Paul Sartre, and as a researcher, he produced reference works on some of the great classical Arabic literature, and as a thinker, he formulated polemical proposals regarding the historicalness of the so-called pre-Islamic poetry “in pre-Islamic poetry – 1926”, and about “the future of culture” In Egypt – 1938».
Taha Hussein’s intellectual strength and professional influence, which has always aroused admiration, also aroused the discontent of many intellectuals who found him a great hand in everything that occurred on the cultural scene in Egypt. But the author of “The Last Ennahda” wants us to move beyond those details and the bitter professional struggles of academics, and to look at Taha Hussein as an embodiment of intellectual life in what he called the “liberal era” in Egypt, a period of turbulent parliamentary democracy between the country’s formal independence in 1922 until the Free Officers Revolution in 1952 that eventually brought President Abdel Nasser to power. This was a period fraught with risks and fluctuations at the global level, but it was also an Egyptian time of rich political and cultural in particular, as it was a natural extension of the period of precursors of what was called the Arab “Renaissance”, which questioned many inherited assumptions and traditional values, and raised new issues such as socialism and socialism public debate.
Taha Hussein’s contributions to building and managing Egypt’s liberal institutions – a national university, parliamentary democracy, and free and inclusive school education – were undoubtedly visible and tangible. But the author’s endeavor to polish that stage and maximizing the role of Taha Hussein in it should not necessarily mean that these institutions were free from imbalances or defects, some of which were chronic and incurable, especially in light of the heavy British influence on the Egyptian will at that period, and the spread of corruption, and favoritism. The author does not deny that, and perhaps his point of view here is that Taha Hussein – agreed with him or not – was inspiring when, unlike other intellectuals, he had the courage to work in the field in the face of the central questions posed to the Egyptian culture at the time, something that seems to be unparalleled today At a time when the role of the Egyptian intellectual – and the Arab in general – has retreated to the status of extras and the implementation of directives.
The Free Officers Revolution in July 1952 ended that liberal moment in the history of Egypt and dispersed its pillars. Of course, the fall of Taha Hussein was expected and inevitable. Indeed, in his place, a new class of intellectuals rose to the fore in cultural work, who considered his liberal views on “global culture” to be naive and romantic, and saw his attachment to high culture as elitist and arrogant, unworthy of the era of the masses and the socialist propositions that the new regime began to explore.
Although the author’s methodology appears to be a great celebration of Taha Hussein and his intellectual achievement in an almost non-critical form, and that following up on some aspects of his presentation requires knowledge of the man and his history that is not usually available to non-specialist readers, especially Western ones, but “The Last Renaissance” is the first biography of Taha Hussein to be taken. His intellectual contributions, his public professional life, and his complex relations with the Egyptian state and the religious institution – as well as with the French government – together on an equal footing, thus contributing to recording part of the cultural influence of modern Egypt in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and capturing the pattern on which the relationship of cultural institutions with the Egyptian state was formed in the era of modernity. .
* «The Last Nahdawi:
Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt»
Hussam R. Ahmad
Stanford University Press 2021.