Epistemological Convergences: Exploring Hybridized Education in Egypt, 1825-82

By Archana Prakash
Submitted to Session P4994 (Schooling the Nation: the Politics of Education in Historical Perspective, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Education;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Before the introduction of government education in Egypt during the rule of Muhammad Ali (r. 1805-48), the term ilm signaled religious knowledge or knowledge from which one could derive spiritual benefit. As European knowledge was indigenized and circulated through the translation movement initiated at the School of Languages (1831-51), the definition of ilm began to shift. Intellectuals educated in some combination of the government schools, through student missions to Europe, and at al-Azhar began to advocate for a broadening of ilm to include a variety of new subjects, redefining the term to mean beneficial, rather than strictly religious knowledge. These reformers emphasized continuities and compatibilities between foreign technical expertise and local frameworks, hybridizing knowledge and imagining a further convergence of the already interdependent kuttab/madrasa and government systems. This campaign appeared in the pages of Egypt’s first educational journal Rawdat al-Madaris al-Misriyya (1870-77), marking a unique moment in the history of modern Egyptian education before the British occupation in 1882.

This paper will examine this discourse on knowledge and education in Rawdat al-Madaris, with a particular emphasis on historicizing the interdependence of the pre-existing religious educational system with its government counterpart from the latter’s inception. Azhari students were the first to graduate from the School of Medicine and made up the corresponding medical student mission to France (1832-38), becoming the first Egyptians to teach and direct medical education in their country. The Azhari Shaykh Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) who was trained in translation on the first student mission to Paris (1826-36) returned to Egypt to spearhead the translation movement as director of the School of Languages. As an educational reformer, al-Tahtawi championed the compatibility of European and Arab-Islamic epistemologies. The culmination of this interdependence of religious and government education came with the realization of the teacher’s training college Dar al-Ulum, which employed shaykhs and recruited Azhari students to be trained to teach in the expanded primary and secondary schools.

Using published educational records and documents housed at the National Archives of Egypt, as well as the published writings of reformers and intellectuals both within and outside the pages of Rawdat al-Madaris, this paper challenges the assumed bifurcation between the religious and government systems of education in this period. A closer look reveals how interconnected these institutions and the individuals participating in them remained up until the end of Ismail’s rule, both epistemologically and materially.