Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ayyad al-Tantawi’s Journey to Tsarist Russia (1840-1850)

By Suha Kudsieh
Submitted to Session P4359 (From Arab-Russian to Arab-Soviet Cultural Encounters: Are There Continuities?, 2016 Annual Meeting
Middle East/Near East Studies;
Upon graduating from al-Azhar, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ayyad al-Tantawi (1810-1861) joined the ranks of teachers and manuscript-verifiers employed by Muhammad ‘Ali in Cairo. In 1840, and upon the request of the Russian Consul to Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali agreed to dispatch the shaykh to St. Petersburg to teach Arabic at the Institute of Oriental Languages at St. Petersburg University.

Al-Tantawi wrote a fascinating account entitled Tuhfat al-adhkiya’ bi-akhhar bilad al-Rusiya [The Precious Gift of the Sharp-Witted in the News about the Russian Land] based on the first ten years of his stay in Russia (1840-1850). The account provides detailed information about Tsarist Russia, the history of the empire, its culture, and the habits of the people. Although the account appeared in Print in 1930, it did not receive the scholarly attention it merits. In this paper, I will bridge this gap by shedding light on al-Tantawi’s education and his close ties with European Orientalists (e.g., Georg August Wallin and Edward Lane) while he was in Egypt. I will also examine the account and the information he shares with his readers about the Russians and their habits.

The account stands out for two reasons. First, al-Tantawi does not look down upon Russian culture or express reservations about living in a country where people observe a religion different from his. Bearing in mind that the Ottomans and the Russians were engaged in a series of wars since the sixteenth century, the positive portrayal of the Russians stands out, particularly when it is compared with the well-known account written by Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi about the French (1831).

Second, al-Tantawi’s ability to fully appreciate the cultural differences that existed between the Russians and the Ottomans/Egyptians is a testimony that not all Muslim travelers viewed the world through a binary lens (i.e., us/them, or Muslims/non-Muslims) as some scholars contend (cf. Bernard Lewis). Unlike al-Tahtawi, who was sometimes wary of the French, al-Tantawi was fully immersed in Russian culture. His role as a teacher of Arabic to foreign students and his long stay in Russia helped him appreciate better the culture of his host country.

My analysis demonstrates that although Egyptians and Ottomans understood that France posed as much threat to their country as Russia did, they considered revolutionary French culture and secularism a more serious threat to their way of life. In contrast, Russians and Muslims shared similar values, namely, high regard for religion and a class-based society.