A Journey to be remembered in Paris
By Siti Jamilah
The name of Imam Al-Tahtawi will be remembered in the history of Egypt, particularly for his ideas suggested for advancement of Egyptian society. He was a writer, teacher, translator and a great Egyptian intellectual. He was also appointed as a religious instructor in military service.
Al-Tahtawi was born in Tahta during the French colonialism in Egypt. He gained his first education in his hometown and later pursued his higher education at Al-Azhar University. When Muhammad Ali Pasha sent groups of students to Paris in 1826, he was chosen to lead the Egyptian students who went to Paris to obtain military training and education. But this journey to Paris transformed his level of thinking and worldview.
There is a wisdom behind every moment we encounter in our lives. The same had been experienced by Al-Tahtawi, as this journey gave a great lesson for him whereby he gained many ideas on how to improve the Egyptian society and administration to make it more advanced in terms of technological progress, economic development and labour productivity.
Al-Tahtawi was extremely impressed by French advancement in terms of their administration system, infrastructures, water storage system. He felt like that he came to the new satellite world. His excitement upon French modernity was recorded by himself in his work entitled, “Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz,” written in the port city of Merseilles, France.
His journey continued. When he reached Paris, he was even more fascinated with the development in Paris that was surrounded with factories, advanced infrastructure buildings, and the commercial activities conducted within the region. He was so astonished with the existence of scientific and academic institutions such as huge libraries, laboratories and schools as well. Later, when he came back to Egypt, he tried to share his precious experience with the Egyptians through his writings, where he compared Egypt with developed France.
Al-Tahtawi began his first step in the advancement of Egyptian society by translating French works into Arabic. He also tried his best to correct any bias statement recorded by the French writers based on his own understanding and objectively.
Al-Tahtawi’s book of “Manafi’ Umumiyah” (The Significance of Industry) was written to emphasize the significance of material aspects and industry for the development of country. He believed that agricultural, trading and manufacturing sectors are the main components in industry that can be effectively generated through the application of machines.
He also did not ignore the moral values in forming an excellent civilization. In addition, he classified the labours into two groups: productive and unproductive workers. The productive workers can be considered as the workers who can generate profit for the landowner. Whereas, unproductive workers refer to the workers who cannot give profit upon the landowner and cannot produce the commercialized goods.
Al-Tahtawi proposed that the ideas of justice, freedom and human brotherhood lead to the foundation of Economic Welfare. For him, the society cannot be called as civilized nation until it possess the quality of justice, because he believed that good qualities came from justice attributes.
He also suggested that there is no difference between human brotherhood and religious brotherhood by which all human beings, regardless of their race, religion, background and status, should be treated justly. Therefore, a good cooperation became an obligation for all citizens to develop the country together.
The next issue raised by Al-Tahtawi is related to the relationship between the landowner and farmers. He stated that farmers are the greatest contributors to cultivating the land. He therefore disagreed with some landowner attitudes who paid low – rate wages to the farmers. They does not realize that they indebted too much upon the farmers, said Al-Tahtawi, who constantly work hard to cultivate the land. Therefore, he emphasized that the farmers should receive just treatment and sufficient wages from the landowners.
Another aspect discussed by him is the emphasis on moderate attitude in spending the income. He condemned the attitude of lending money without intention and out of capability to pay it back. But he praised the attitude of lending money for business. At the same time, he was harshly condemning the begging act of the capable man who possess a good health condition. He stated that the government should provide them with a suitable job and give assistance for those who are not capable to work.
Al-Tahtawi supported the women’s participation in economic activities to help their husband in increasing family income. Through this activity and being busy, he said, it will save them from wasting their time for insignificant and negative activities such as gossiping. To strengthen his argument, he gave an example in his book, “Manahij Al- Albab,” the Prophet’s wife’s activities in business.
Last but not least, a record about the suitable crops for the Egyptian land such as cotton, silkworm, rice and sugarcane by including the full history of these crops origin could be found in the writings of Al-Tahtawi.
To summarize, Tahtawi provided an awareness that each society have an equal opportunity to be developed as long as they have high spirit of motivation to upgrade their status and are bold to try something new. Islam is not an extreme religion and it is not a problem for Muslims to make a non- Islamic country as a role model, particularly in generating of the ideas to upgrade the status of a Muslim country as long as it is in line with the Shariah principles. Allah has mentioned in Al-Quran: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of people until they change what is in themselves.” (Al-Ra’d, verse no. 11).
Abdul Azim Islahi, “Economic Ideas of Rifa‘ah al-Tahtawi,” https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/41009/1/Economic_Ideas_of_al-Tahtawi.pdf, accessed 6 March 2016.
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Writer is a final year student majoring in History and Civilization at International Islamic University Malaysia