The text printed here, an English translation, is constituted by two excerpts from the famous yet controversial Arabic book Mustaqbal al-thaqafa fi Misr (1938) [The Future of Culture in Egypt],by Taha Hussein (1889-1973).
Born in a village in Upper Egypt and blind from the age of three, Hussein was first educated in his village school. He went on to the famous Azhar Islamic university in Cairo, to the newly founded Egyptian (Cairo) University, where he received a doctorate in 1914, and to Montpellier and the Sorbonne, which in 1917 awarded him another doctorate. For one thing, Hussein was a powerful educational institution builder, as Hussam Ahmed’s The Last Nahdawi: Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt (2021) shows. Thus, he became a Cairo University professor in 1919, teaching Islamic history and Arabic literature, and he was the university’s Dean of Arts (1928, 1930-32 and 1936-39), a member and then president of the Arabic Language Academy (1940-73), and Egypt’s Minister of Culture (1950-52). For another thing, Hussein was a supremely influential intellectual and a specialist of premodern and modern Arabic literature. Thus, from 1926 to 1967 he published the three-volume autobiographical novel Al-Ayyam [The Days], and in 1926 wrote Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili [On Pre-Islamic Poetry (2016)], which he revised as Fi al-adab al-jahili [On Pre-Islamic Literature (1927)] after traditionalists (unsuccessfully) took him to court. And although helping to introduce thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre to Arabs as the 1945-1948 editor of the journal al-Katib al-Misri, he belonged to the Arab Renaissance (nahda) literati who were from the 1940s accused by many younger intellectuals for not supporting committed art; in turn, he defended the necessity of not delimiting what art should be or do.
His 1938 text The Future of Culture in Egypt, excerpted here in a 1975 English translation, was very detailed—it included dozens of suggestions about how to improve Egypt’s educational system—and quite complex. On the one side, Hussein confidently took Europe to task in the main body of the work, and emphasized the need to thoroughly know one’s own culture and history. But on the other side, he saw European empires as still very powerful; thus, a lagging Egypt should embrace European concepts—an approach internalizing (self-interested) European Orientalist views, as Stephen Sheehi has argued in The Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (2004). In a sense, both of these two sides were framed by his work’s immediate historical context: the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Maximizing Egypt’s sovereignty and allowing it to become a League of Nations member in 1937, this treaty showed strength—but also continued weakness vis-à-vis Britain, whose troops remained in the Suez Canal zone. In the same vein, the introduction’s argument about Egypt’s geo-civilizational position accepted the discourse of a dominant Europe—only to make Egypt its geographical and historical pioneer by giving it great weight vis-à-vis Ancient Greece, which was conventionally seen as the cradle of European civilization.