Refaa El-Tahtawi

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 Source: Egyptian State Information Service      

    One of the most distinguished and outstanding literary figures of his time, Refa'ah Rafie' Al Tahtawi was born in Tahta, Upper Egypt, on 15 October 1801. Tahtawi is a man of noble birth. His ancestors assumed positions of authority and responsibility. While a child, Tahtawi enjoyed aristocratic privileges including financial allocations.

    When Mohammed Ali came to power, he denied noblemen financial privileges in implementation of his economic reform program. Consequently, Tahtawi's family lived in straitened circumstances. At the age of 12, Tahtawi accompanying his family moved from Tahta to Gerga, Qena and Farshoot.

    Meanwhile, Tahtawi successfully learned how to read and write and committed the Koran to memory. When Tahtawi's father died, Tahtawi returned to Tahta and lived with his maternal uncles.

    Tahtawi's intellectual talents soon manifested themselves when he joined Al-Azhar University in 1817. Tahtawi studied under and was deeply influenced by Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Al-Attar, the son of a poor tradesman who wanted his son to work with him. The boy went to Al-Azhar secretly and attended lessons given by Sheikh Al-Amir. When the French occupied Egypt, Al-Attar fled to Upper Egypt. He was of the opinion that Muslim countries should benefit from the knowledge, sciences and educational methods of the West. He was a poet and wrote also on medicine and anatomy.

    In 1823, Tahtawi graduated. Immediately after graduation, he worked as a teacher in Al-Azhar for two years. Tahtawi spent most of his time in Al-Attar's house reading Western books which were not available and allowed at those times. Thanks to Al-Attar, Tahtawi was appointed imam (religious head of a Muslim community) of an Egyptian battalion till 1826 and later imam of the educational mission Mohammed Ali sent to Paris.

    As of the moment Tahtawi trod in Marseille, he decided to be more than an imam. He started learning French as a means of translating Western sciences into Arabic. It took him a month to master the rules of spelling. Tahtawi believed in the necessity of opening channels of contact between the cultures of both the West and the East. As a result, Mohammed Ali decreed that Tahtawi be a member of the mission. Besides his post as an imam, Tahtawi studied translation. On 19 October 1830, he submitted to a panel of French professors 12 translations of French masterpieces in different fields, some of which were sent to the Cairo-based Bolaque printing house, and the manuscript of the book he wrote during his stay in Paris which is entitled 'Takhlees Al-Ibrees fi Talkhees Paris' (A Paris Profile).

    Tahtawi finally received his degree. In 1831, he returned back to Egypt. Pre to his return, reports on his excellence and unchallenged supremacy telling how promising he is were sent to Mohammed Ali. On his return, Tahtawi worked as a translator in Medicine School for two years. He was the first Egyptian holding such a position for it was completely dominated by Moroccans, Syrians and Americans. Meanwhile, Tahtawi managed to translate many books such as "Explaining Anatomy Terminology." Besides his work at Medicine School, Tahtawi took the responsibility of supervising the Preparatory Medicine School.

    In 1833, Tahtawi moved to Tobigia School (Artillery School) in Tora where he worked as a translator of engineering and military sciences. There, he took the first step towards his dream of establishing an Egyptian university patterned on the Eastern Languages' School. His plan was to establish, step by step, a number of separate high schools to be incorporated into a university at a later stage. As a start, Tahtawi set up History and Geography School in 1833.

    In 1834, plague broke out and Tahtawi had to move to his village Tahta where he stayed for six months spending two of them translating one volume of "Maltibron Geography." When he returned to Cairo, he submitted his translation to Mohammed Ali who awarded and promoted him. Tahtawi then made the suggestion of establishing a translation school which was inaugurated in 1835 and was later named Al-Alsun School. Tahtawi's post in Al-Alsun was technical and managerial supervision, teaching literature and Islamic and Western laws, choosing the books to be translated , reviewing and rectifying translated works as well. Al-Alsun School gradually began to assume the structural form and educational content of modern universities.

    Tahtawi, not only was the first to establish an Arab civilized university but was also the first to establish a museum of Egypt's antiquities. In 1835, he submitted to Mohammed Ali a plan to preserve Egypt's antiquities. The plan which was published in Al-Waqa'i newspaper (The Official Egyptian Gazette) stipulated that any antiquities found by individuals should be handed over to Tahtawi in his capacity as Principal of Al-Alsun School. Consequently, Al-Alsun's courtyard became the nucleus of the first antiquities' museum in Egypt.

    Tahtawi's interest in Egypt's antiquities was not for artistic reasons only but originally stems from absolute patriotism. He criticized Mohammed Ali when he offered the Obelisk, now standing in the Concord square, to France as a symbol of friendship.

    Tahtawi is also considered the founder of the first Egyptian newspaper entitled "Al-Waqa'i Al-Misrea." He is indeed the father of Egyptian journalism. Tahtawi also supervised editing the Military Magazine in both French and Arabic.

    In 1841, Tahtawi established the Translation Department as a specialized institution mainly dealing with four branches of knowledge: mathematics, medicine and physics, social sciences and Turkish writings. In 1843, Tahtawi was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two years later, he translated the second volume of "Maltibron Geography." Again, Mohammed Ali awarded and promoted him to the rank of brigadier general. Since that date, Tahtawi became known as Refa'ah Bey instead of Sheikh Refa'ah. Then, Tahtawi finished translating that bulky book in four volumes.

    After Mohammed Ali's death, Khedive Abbas I came to power with his backward thoughts. He insinuated to the Private Council in a bid to abort Tahtawi's enlightened achievements that Tahtawi should be exiled. Tahtawi was well aware that he is in their power and knew that it was pointless to resist.

    Khedive Said came to power after Abbas I in 1854. He declared an amnesty for those exiled to Sudan. Determined to revive the intellectual, cultural achievements of Mohammed Ali reign, Khedive Said appointed Tahtawi member and translator in the Municipal Council. In 1855, Tahtawi was also appointed vice president of the Military School in Al-Haud Al-Marsoud district.

    Tahtawi's ambition lie behind the establishment of the Accounting School in Al-Qala'a district in 1856. He was also appointed principal of the Royal Engineering and Architecture School and manager of the Educational Buildings' Authority.

    During that period, he not only finalized the first project of reviving Islamic heritage but also succeeded in issuing a large number of Arabic books.

    As of 1863 to 1873, Tahtawi regained his enthusiasm. His production in the fields of education, translation and writing significantly increased. Under Khedive Ismail's reign, "Diwan Al-Madares"(the Schools' Department) was re-established and Tahtawi was chosen member of such a department.

    In 1867, he was authorized to outline the statute for organizing national bureaux and was later appointed head of National Bureaux Council. He supervised Arabic language teaching, interviewed teachers so as to choose the best and taught them new teaching methods. He also headed a lot of examination committees in Egyptian and foreign schools as well.

    In 1863, he established a translation department devoted to translating new laws. He was appointed director of such a department. As of 1866 to 1868, Tahtawi and his fellows translated the French law, the Ottoman constitution, the civil law and the commercial law as well.

    In 1870, the Schools' Department issued a cultural magazine entitled "Rawdat Al-Madares"(The Schools' Garden) and Tahtawi was appointed editor-in-chief. He held such a position publishing 6 issues till his death in 1873.

Traits of Tahtawi's educational philosophy:

    According to Tahtawi, education was the only way for development. He spent his life in learning, teaching and translating. It seems that from the moment he realized what he could give his own nation, he prepared himself to be a teacher. He believed that the way to civilization starts with education which help people to fathom the significance of life. The traits of his educational philosophy are as follows:

Education is a prelude to progress.

    Tahtawi believed that education is a necessity, that man cannot do without it. Man's mind which distinguishes him from all other creatures is the only device that can save mankind. On the contrary, animals can protect themselves only by physical power. Tahtawi asserted the importance of the mind as a power governing man's life. He, following suit of the philosophers of enlightenment, believed in man's ability to change reality so as to meet the needs of the modern age.

Education is essential for youth.

    Youth may be exposed to writings against their own culture and moral norms. Only education can save them from falling into the trap of deviation. In this respect, Tahtawi echoed exponents of realism who believe that the key to virtue is education. According to him, girls' education is important for the following reasons:
1- It helps a girl get a suitable husband.
2- It helps women bring up their children.
3- It takes them away from gossiping and pointless chat.

Tahtawi, a pioneer of women emancipation Al-Tahtawi is undoubtedly the Middle East pioneer of women emancipation movement, the movement Qasem Amin later devoted his life to. He took precedence over all other advocates. However, Qasem Amin's name has always been associated with accomplishments in this regard. This is in part due to the fact that the public opinion at that time was not crystallized enough to fathom Tahtawi's thoughts. Moreover, Tahtawi's writings were mostly directed to and available for government employees and educators.

    In 1836, Tahtawi in his capacity as a member of the Education Planning Committee moved that certain measures be taken towards women education. The Committee's move was not implemented but gained currency among families of powerful social and economic class. Affluent families hired qualified teachers for their daughters at home. In 1872, Tahtawi wrote "Al-Murshid Al-Amin" (The Honest Guide) where he advocated building schools for girls and stressed that an educated women has a happier family, rears polite well-behaved children and has better job opportunities if necessity demands. Tahtawi's efforts were finally crowned with success when the first school for girls was established in 1873.

Tahtawi's death

    At the age of 72, sickness attacked Tahtawi. On 27 May 1873, Tahtawi passed away. His funeral procession headed by Al-Azhar Sheikh made its way through the crowded streets. Tahtawi is buried in Bab Al-Wazir cemetery, Boustan Al-Ulma, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district near Al-Azhar mosque.


   A selection of his works are : 

Tahtawi's writings

  • "A Paris Profile," written during Tahtawi's stay in France.
  • "The methodology of Egyptians minds with regard to the marvels of modern literature," published in 1869 crystallizing Tahtawi's opinions on modernization.
  • "The honest guide for education of girls and boys," published in 1873 and reflecting the main precepts of Tahtawi's educational thoughts.
  • "Tawfik Al-Galil insights into Egypt's and Ismail descendants' history," the first part of the History Encyclopedia published in 1868 and tracing the history of ancient Egypt till the dawn of Islam.
  • "A thorough summary of the biography of Mohammed" published after Tahtawi's death, recording a comprehensive account of the life of Prophet Mohammed and the political, legal and administrative foundations of the first Islamic state.
  • "Towards a simpler Arabic grammar," published in 1869.
  • "Grammatical sentences," published in 1863.
  • "Egyptian patriotic lyrics," written in praise of Khedive Said and published in 1855.
  • "The luminous stars in the moonlit nights of Al-Aziz," a collection of congratulatory writings to some princes, published in 1872.

Tahtawi's translations

  • " The history of ancient Egyptians," published in 1838.
  • "The Arabization of trade law," published in 1868.
  • "The Arabization of the French civil law," published in 1866.
  • "The unequivocal Arabization approach to geography," published in 1835.
  • "Small-scale geography," published in 1830.
  • "Metals and their use," published in 1867.
  • "Ancient philosophers," published in 1836.
  • "Principals of engineering," published in1854.
  • "Useful metals," published in1832.
  • "Logic," published in1838.
  • "Sasure's engineering," published in 1874.
  • "General geography."
  • "The French constitution."
  • "On health policies."
  • " On Greek mythology."

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