The importance of Egypt

When I first started teaching Middle Eastern history, I didn’t understand how important Egypt was to the region. But with recent events there drawing attention to Egyptian tradition of leadership, it made me think about some of Egypt’s firsts in the modern period:

  • Egypt had the first successful Westernizing ruler (Mehmet Ali in Turkish, or Muhammad Ali in Arabic) who decided to imitate European militaries and sent a group of students to learn Western knowledge in France in the 1800s
  • This led to the beginnings of Islamic modernism, the attempt to reconcile modern European thought with Islam. Egyptian thinkers like Rifa`a Badawi  Rafi` al-Tahtawi and Muhammad `Abduh argued that Islam was a religion of reason that could truly make use of modern European sciences. They tried to express modern European ideas in Islamic terms and recast Islamic terms to fit with modern European thought. This strain of thought has influenced both today’s liberal Muslims and today’s Islamists.
  • Egypt was the first Middle Eastern country to develop nationalism in the European sense that Egyptians were a nation who had a unique history and should be united and independent. There was something of a secular, modernist, nationalist scene in some of the cities in the early 20th century while Egypt was in the orbit of Britain.
  • Egypt had the first modern Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, that taught that for all the problems of the modern world “Islam is the solution,” very much against the secular cultural scene that had developed. Islamic law could be applied to contemporary society. Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories (Hamas is the Palestinian MB) all have branches of the MB, as do other countries, I believe.
  • The first secular nationalist government under Nasser, Sadat, and finally Mubarak was also Egyptian. Nasser was one of the most influential Arab leaders, promoting pan-Arab nationalism, and he also was an outspoken pan-African and postcolonial leader. The sworn enemy of Nasser’s secular dictatorshipwas the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before the modern world, of course, there was the al-Azhar university in Cairo.

Some books that helped me sort this out are:

  • Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History
  • Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East
  • Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939

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