Intellectual in Action: Taha Hussein (1889-1973) Drawing the Mission of the Faculty of Arts and the Arabic Language Academy

By Hussam Eldin Raafat Ahmed
Submitted to Session P4779 ("Arab Arabists:" Public Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge About the Arab World, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
When questioned about his motives for writing on “Islamic” topics in the 1930s, the intellectual Taha Hussein refuted popular interpretations that the shift was due to his generation’s disillusionment with “liberalism.” Instead, he argued that all history, including Islamic history, should be subjected to critical scrutiny. “Orientalists were already doing this, so should we have let them monopolize the study of our heritage?” he asked. Likewise, to face colonial attempts to undermine classical Arabic in favour of the colloquial, he called for making the language more accessible by simplifying grammar rules, creating modern dictionaries, and developing new teaching methods.

Drawing on primary sources from the Egyptian National Archives, Cairo University, Hussein’s private papers, and the Arabic Language Academy, I will argue that Hussein had internalized one of the Arab Nahda’s central tenets – to face the colonial challenge by “reviving” the classical Arab-Islamic thought while forging strong ties with modern Europe. Unlike earlier nahdawis, however, he believed that only state-funded institutions, like the Faculty of Arts and the Arabic Language Academy, were capable of using the modern research and teaching methods necessary to engage critically with the tradition and take the Nahda project forward.

In many of his known public debates, books and lectures, Hussein contributed to this body of “new” scholarship, most notably in his controversial work On Pre-Islamic Poetry (1926). Moreover, as Dean of Arts (1930-2, 1936-9), a civil servant (1939-44) and Minister of Education (1950-2), he played a major role in building these two institutions for the specialized study of adab and the Arabic language. Turning to Hussein the policymaker, I will show the ways in which he tried to diversify authority over the classical tradition and break al-Azhar’s monopoly over it. I will then turn to the organizational measures he took to ensure the stable operation of these institutions within the volatile partisan politics that undermined Egypt’s parliamentary system (1924-1953).

While the usual classification of Arab intellectuals into traditionalists and modernists casts Hussein as content to forgo tradition and willing to follow Europe in all paths of life, such binaries fail to explain his serious engagement with classical adab and his dedication to preserving classical Arabic. I will argue that a careful analysis of Hussein’s lifelong engagement with the Faculty of Arts and the Arabic Language Academy could better help us understand not only the history of these institutions, but also the complexity of his intellectual outlook.