Recasting Ignorance and Illiteracy in the Nineteenth Century

By Hoda Yousef
Submitted to Session P4323 (Rethinking the "Saddle Period:" Concept History and New Temporalities for Modern Middle Eastern History, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper will examine the concept of ummiyya (illiteracy) and its changing meanings over the course of the long nineteenth century. While the idea of ummiyya has a long pedigree in Egyptian and larger Muslim discourses, by the early twentieth century, ummiyya became nearly synonymous with the idea of jahl, or ignorance. What is interesting about this conflation is that both concepts were central to social and religious notions of education and enlightenment well before this period. However, they were quite distinct in their implications for education: illiteracy was a type of tabula rasa upon which true knowledge could emerge, whereas jahl had an indelibly negative connotation as the very antithesis of knowledge itself. This distinction begins to disappear in the nineteenth century with the emergence of nationwide censuses and new criteria for formal education that frame the ability to read and write as central barometers of social advancement. As this paper will argue, once literacy became central to reformist agendas, thinkers began drawing on older concepts of jahl and recasting ummiyya as a type of dangerous ignorance – one that needed to be fought and eliminated.
The seamless transition from ummiyya as a “natural state” to ummiyya as “dangerous deficiency” highlights the fact that older conceptions of social good were easily transposed onto new notions of what it meant to be an educated individual. The changing social structures of the late nineteenth century provided the ready ground for this transformation as schools and governments began privileging certain categories of knowledge over others. Ultimately, these structural changes helped expedite the emergence of a “new illiteracy”—as a site of necessary social reform. Yet, how “modern” was this development? The technological and educational changes of this era certainly played a central role in recasting illiteracy for the modern period. Yet, the fact remains that the new idea of ummiyya relied on remarkably established archetypes of what an educated or uneducated person represented. Even while the use of the word “illiterate” was changing, the underlying oppositions of the educated/uneducated, the enlightened/ignorant, and the moral/immoral provided the ready framework within which this new use could easily emerge. In other words, the concept itself – that the lack of a particular type of knowledge could be socially devastating –was much more stable over this period than the terms that came to designate it.