The middle of the Eighteenth century can be considered as starting point
in recounting the history of modern Egypt. The
following is an attempt to analyze the status quo of Modern Egypt in the context of her historical development. A major
motivation for this work is my concern regarding the gross distortion of modern Egyptian history. This distortion was mostly a
result of the policies of the 1952 revolution and may have resulted in producing generations of Egyptians who are ignorant of
their history. This lack of knowledge of Egypt Modern History in turn resulted in losing identity and being susceptible to
believing any historical claim without critically examining it.
An example of the above may be seen in the program "Sword of Islam"
where an Egyptian gentleman claimed that Egyptians
were living in an utopian society before the coming of the French Campaign.
What is written here is a result of an extensive review by Dr. T Omran
and Dr. A Barbour . The two major references on this
1) "Tarikh Al Jabarti" or the 'History of Egypt by Al-Jabarti'.
A book written by the Egyptian scholar and historian Al-Jabarti who lived during this period and died during the rule of
Mohammed Ali Pasha. He had the advantage of being a member of the Ulama class. He descended from a wealthy
family of scholars. His great-grandfather immigrated from Jabart in modern day Ethiopia to study in Al-Azhar University
and settled in Cairo. Al Jabarti had also access to the ruling class during his lifetime. While he had his own biases, he
maintained an objective look as best as he could. The book covers the Eighteenth century, the French Campaign, and
2) "Description De L'Egypte" or 'Description of Egypt'.
A book written by the scientists and scholars who accompanied the French Campaign. They tried to document and
study everything in Egypt from geology and plants to musical instruments. Deciphering the hieroglyphic language is a
result of their efforts. Several of its volumes were translated into Arabic by Zohair Al Shaib. A word is needed here to
commend the efforts of Zohair Al Shaib who single handedly embarked on translating this work that was shamefully
disregarded by the Egyptian intelligentsia for two centuries. While it is tragic that we know of our own past by reading
books written by others, it is more tragic not to know of our past at all.
The Jabarti book had a profound effect on me. I had to read twice in
a row to understand it. I knew that our school history
texts were distorted but I never understood the magnitude of distortion till I read an eyewitness account of these important
events that describe our introduction to the modern world. Description De L'Egypte is a different work. Some parts of it are
very dry while others are romantic or racially motivated. On the whole it shows a pre-colonial Western perspective of Egypt.
As pointed out by historians, the word history may mean:
narrating events that happened in the past;
reaching conclusions from these events.
I feel that both aspects of modern Egyptian history were abused and
misrepresented especially after 1952. While this distortion
may be true for most Arab countries, we in Egypt are lucky to have better documentation of these important historical events.
The remainder of this narrative will cover, Egypt and the major components
of the Egyptian society (mostly urban) before the
Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire. Its borders extended from Aswan
in the south to the Mediterranean Sea in the north.
The eastern and western borders were not clearly defined. However, Ghaza (modern Gaza) was not considered part of Egypt.
The same goes for Bani Ghazi (the eastern most district of modern day Libya) in the West. We can safely state that the borders
of Egypt then correspond to those of Egypt now.
A majority of the population were concentrated in the Nile valley and working as farmers. Egypt is practically arid and it was
dependent on the Nile. Al Jabarti stated that "Wafaa Al Neel" (Fulfillment of the Nile) was the most important annual event in
Egypt. If the Nile did not flood for two consecutive years, famine happened with devastating human and social effects. Al
Jabarti recounts how farmers had to leave their homes and migrate to larger cities like Cairo that had a store of grains. People
used to die of hunger on the streets of Cairo on such occasions ('like flies' in Al Jabarti's language). The lack of floods
previously weakened the Fatimid significantly. The famine was usually alleviated by importing grains from Turkey and Syria but
communications and transportation were not usually reliable.
Few cities existed and most of them, with the exception of Cairo, had
few inhabitants by modern standards. Cairo was the seat
of a centralized government that is needed in a country totally dependent on the River Nile and its maintenance. It had the
Al-Azhar which is the world's oldest university built by Fatimids c. 969 to teach Islamic theology and Shiite studies. Al Azhar
attracted students from all over Egypt, Africa, and the Levant . Rosetta and Damietta ports were centers of trade with the
Levant. Some cities in upper Egypt fulfilled the same function with the Red Sea and African trade (slaves and exotic
commodities such as ivory).
No industry that is geared for export existed in Egypt at this period.
Trade was active in coffee imported from Yemen and sold
to Europe and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Al Jabarti indicated that trade with India in spices and fabrics was still important
even though it was not on the same scale as before in the Mamluk days. This decline resulted in decrease in revenue from taxes
and tariffs which was partly due to the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope route to India. Near the end of the Eighteenth
century, selling grain to Europe was becoming important.
Egypt was also the staging center for the Hajj caravans coming from
Turkey by sea, Maghrib , and Africa. After meeting in
Cairo, the pilgrims go to Makkah either through Sinai and Arabia by land or south to Upper Egypt then across the Eastern
Desert and the Red Sea to Jeddah. The Egyptian Hajj caravan had the distinction of bringing "Kiswa" (an elaborate
embroidered piece of cloth used to cover the Kaaba and changed annually). The Hajj caravan was accompanied by an
important Mamluk whose tile is "Amir Al Hajj" (leader of the Hajj). The Mamluks brought with them gold in addition to guns.
They usually used to dispense to the Bedouin tribes of Arabia to ensure that they do not harass the pilgrims. This arrangement
was not always successful. Al Jabarti recorded several occasions when the tribes attacked the Egyptian or the Syrian Hajj
caravan. If they were successful, they used to kill men, rape women and collect the booty.
The population of Egypt was regularly decimated by epidemics such as
plague and smallpox. This was especially devastating in
cities. The system of quarantine was not known even though it had Islamic origins.
The inhabitants of Egypt had some sense of being Egyptian (in a modern
national sense). Cairo was usually described as "Om
Al Donya" (mother of the universe). Even the Mamluks tended to describe themselves as Egyptians. Most Egyptians hated
leaving Egypt to go to any other place. Immigrants tended to get absorbed quickly in the Egyptian society which can be, in
general, described as tolerant and docile. The national feeling did not included a sense of superiority over Egypt's neighbors.
This is partly due to Islam that teaches equality of all humans. Another reason was being occupied by foreign armies for
centuries weakened any aggressive spirit that may existed in the Egyptian people.
It does not look that there was any feeling of being Arab within the
Egyptians at this time. Al Jabarti used word Arab to
exclusively describe the Bedouin tribes. Egyptians had described their sense of belonging as one of the followings which can be
seen in the family names:
* Town, village, or tribe (e.g. Shabrawi, Tantawi, or Hawari).
* Country (e.g. Masri, Maghrabi, or Iraqi).
* Religious sect (e.g. Al Shazli)
3 Major powers in Egypt in the second half of the 18th century.
3.1 The Ottomans.
Egypt was ruled by the "Al Bab Al Alee" (High Porte) through a Pasha,
installed at the Cairo Citadel and supported by an
Ottoman garrison. The ultimate authority was the Sultan but as time went by the "Al Sadr Al Azam" (Grand Vizier) became
increasingly important. The Ottoman system was originally highly centralized and was designed to ensure that no one become
powerful enough to threaten the interests of the High Porte. This was achieved by limiting the Pasha's stay in Egypt to a
maximum of two years. However, as years passed by, the grip of the Sultans loosened all over their possessions including
Egypt. The garrison settled and gradually lost the traditions of a professional army and took regular professions.
The Mamluks, who were not completely eliminated after the Ottoman invasion,
gradually increased their influence and were
usually successful in getting rid of the Pashas they did not like. They also reduced the tribute paid by Egypt to Istanbul and in
some years they stopped paying it altogether (Al Jabarti).
These developments did not pass unnoticed by the Ottomans as Egypt was
one of the richest Ottoman provinces. The
Ottomans tried to interfere indirectly by playing some of the local powers against each other or directly as they did in 1790
when they sent an expeditionary force to Egypt. In general, their efforts were not successful as Egypt was distant from Istanbul
and the Ottomans resources were spread too thin all over their large domains.
The government of the Ottomans was in some ad-hoc fashion. While Sultan
Suliaman Al Qanuni (The Law-giver), tried to lay
laws for the whole empire that are based on the Hanafi school of Islamic thought, these laws were not necessarily followed in
the local level. The justice was conducted in an arbitrary fashion, especially during political struggle, and was not always in
accordance with the Shariah (Islamic Laws). Al Jabarti recounted numerous examples of summary execution without trial during the inter-Mamluk struggles and by Ottomans.
Was the Ottoman regime an Islamic One? This is a very controversial
question to say the least. My personal opinion is that the
last Islamic government was that of the fourth Caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib 657-661 CE. After his death, rulers were Muslims but
did not necessarily follow Islam as their ideology. They were better described by the Prophetic saying: "Molkan Adoo-dan" (A
Biting Kingship). These rulers sometimes fought against enemies of Islam but they usually did this to preserve their rule or to
expand their kingdoms. They never hesitated to eliminate whoever steps in their way if they felt that he threatened their grip on
the kingdom. The Ottomans were not different than Mamluks, Fatimids, or Abbasids. They did not even use the title Khalifa
(Caliph) seriously until the time of their twilight in the days of Sultan Abdel Hamied. Whenever an Ottoman Sultan became
ruler, he used to execute his brothers and male relatives to ensure his authority. The execution was done by a silk noose to
ensure that the royal blood was not spilled! The Ottoman empire was rive with corruption, bribery and purchase of official
positions especially in the long decline that followed the death of Sultan Suliaman Al Qanuni. Another revealing fact about the
Ottoman Sultans is the number of them who performed Hajj since they controlled Makkah in the beginning of the sixteen century till their demise in the 1920's. The answer is zero.
Muslim scholars developed a sophisticated theory of government that
most European countries before the 17th Century did not
have. The theory is known as "Al Siyasa Al Sharia" (The Lawful Politics). It states the rights and duties of both the ruler and the
ruled. However, this theory was never put into practice as most rulers (i.e. sultans) were not motivated in limiting the freedom of
action by the rules of Islamic Shariah. Exceptions to this was due to the pious nature of the sultan such as Omar Ibn Abd Al
Aziz or Saladin. This theory did not address issues such as the how to depose the ruler. The Siyasa Al Sharia assumes that the
"raii" (ruler) and the "rayia" (rulees) will work in harmony with each other. The theory is silent of how to handle such
disagreement without resorting to violence.
This problem was confounded by the edicts of the four Sunni schools
of thought that discourages open acts of rebellion against
the sultan especially after the experience with the Khawarej and Shia rebellions in the first two centuries of Islam against the
Omayyads and the Abbasids. Any political development after the first three centuries in the Islamic world can be considered
The European system developed from the middle ages. This evolution,
which was not smooth by any means, was in the
direction of more freedom to the nobility first then the general population later. The institutions developed on the basis of
mistrust and fear of power abuse.
3.2 The Mamluks.
The word Mamluk's (plural; Mamaleek) literal meaning in the Arabic language
is owned or property. This system started in the
Ayubids dynasty but had some origin from the Fatimid dynasty. It was the result of the dynastic failure, or lack of interest, in
having a native standing army.
Mamluks were mainly imported from the Transcaucasian region as its inhabitants
were famous for their war-like abilities
(doubts about the truth of this statement can be easily dispelled by looking at the current events in Chechnya). Mamluks came
to Egypt as children usually less than 10 years old. They were either abducted by slave traders or sold by their families due to
their extreme poverty.
Mamluks were given a brief Islamic education then trained in the arts
of war. Mamluks were formidable warriors by the
medieval times scale. They repulsed the Mongols and were instrumental in defeating the Crusaders and eventually succeeded in
eliminating their principalities in the Middle East. Once they were established, they decided to became Sultans themselves
instead of their masters, the Ayubids. Their empire comprised Egypt, Nubia, The Levant, and Hijaz. There were two Mamluks
periods: the Bahari Mamluks and the Burji Mamluks. Hereditary succession was uncommon. Whenever a Mamluk leader felt
that he was strong enough, he tried to kill or imprison the reigning Sultan and rule himself. A council of elders exercised some
control depending on the strength of the current Sultan. The Mamluk Empire reached a high level of civilization especially in the
days of Sultan Qalawoon and his sons when Egypt was a regional super power and center of international trade between the
Orient and Europe.
Mamluks were a self-perpetuating class. They had to depend on importing
more slaves as their offspring were susceptible to
the epidemics of Egypt more than the native population who seemed to posses a stronger immune system. This observation was
pointed out by the scientists of the French Campaign. The surviving sons of Mamluks were usually not welcomed into the
Mamluk class but they lived well as notables. In addition to slaves, adventurers sometimes attached themselves to the Mamluks
in search for fortune and glamorous life (for example Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar, the ruthless ruler of Acre, was a originally a
Bosnian free man).
They were never strongly absorbed in the Egyptian society. Most of them
spoke Turkish as a first language and did not speak
Arabic well. Al Jabarti mentioned that on one occasion a translator had to be brought for negotiation between them and the
Ulama. Their numbers were amazingly small. Their strength can be explained only by their superior military training and the lack
of any military tradition between the Egyptian people.
Mamluks were sluggish in catching with the new military developments
that was taking effect in the 15th century, namely the
gunpowder, and their empire fell easily to the superior Ottoman forces by 1517. The Ottomans did not exterminate Mamluks
but used them as agents for governing Egypt but under tight controls at the beginning. They were to manage the "Koshofiat"
(districts) of Egypt, collect taxes, preserve law and order, and maintain the Nile. The methods the Mamluks used to rule were
usually violent. For example, if a butcher is caught cheating on weight, the "Mohtasib" (a police officer specialized in maintaining
the public order) used to hang the meat by a hook from the butcher's nose or worse (see (Al Jabarti)). As the Ottomans
weakened, the Mamluk gained strength while maintaining their tradition of in-fighting to decide who would be their supreme
Into this vacuum of power stepped Ali Bek Al Kabeer ("Al Kabeer" meaning
The Great) who ruled from 1760 to 1766. He
was distinct from the other Mamluk leaders by the following:
He was more ruthless than any of them and he
was successful in exterminating his opponents without mercy.
He had historical sense that the other contemporary Mamluks were lacking. According to Al Jabarti, Ali Bek was fond
of reading history books and was not satisfied with the virtual autonomy of Egypt. Instead, he wanted to establish a new
Mamluk dynasty that would replace the Ottomans.
Ali Bek was almost successful in his endeavors. He tried to establish
alliances with the chief of Palestine, Dahir Al Omor. After
initial success in invading Syria, his efforts faltered since the Mamluks in whole were not in agreement with his goals. He was
succeeded by Mohammed Bek Abu Al Zahab ("Abu Al Zahab" meaning Father of the Gold!) who ruled Egypt from 1772 until
his death in 1775. Mohammed Bek intended on continuing his predecessor's policy of expansion into Syria but he was stopped
by his untimely death. No strong leader was ready to fill the void he left and Egypt fell into chaos as Murad Bek and Ibrahim
Bek were fighting for the dominance in Egypt. Their armies fought each other across Egypt spreading terror and misery in the
process. The fighting resulted in deterioration of the Egyptian economy.
The Ottomans tried to interfere and regain Egypt. They sent an expedition
to Egypt that succeeded in the beginning but the
Mamluks proved to be an elusive enemy. They mounted a hit-and-run war against the Ottomans that made it impossible for
them to govern Egypt without resorting to the Mamluks. The Ottomans withdrew and left Egypt to an uneasy alliance between
Murad Bek and Ibrahim Bek that governed Egypt till the coming of the French Campaign. Additionally, the Ottomans also tried
to limit the flow of the slave trade into Egypt in order to weaken the Mamluks.
The Mamluks showed in general unethical behavior that was in total disagreement
with Islam. I feel that this might be due to the
trauma they were subjected to in their childhood and the separation from their families. It gave them the lesson that physical
power is the only guarantee in life and that you could only trust yourself.
The Mamluk power in Egypt was largely due to the lack of strong completion
to them from the other forces in the Egyptian
society. Their intense in-fighting at the end of the 18th Century gave the opportunity to Ulama and other forces to become more
active in politics as we will see later.
3.3 The Bedouins (Arabs).
Egypt is a giant oasis in the middle of an almost infinite harsh desert.
The riches of Egypt always invited Bedouin tribes to come.
The Pharaoes were always concerned about securing Egypt's borders against the "sand dwellers". These efforts were not
always successful as when the Hyksos (the Shepherd Kings) invaded Egypt after the collapse of the Middle Kingdom.
With the triumph of Islam, a new wave of Arab tribes arrived at Egypt
and slowly melted in the population giving Egypt the
Arabic language and character. Not all the Arab tribes settled down; some of them maintained their nature and kept moving
around the edges of Egypt. In addition to those tribes, there were non-Arab tribes in the Eastern desert like Al Ababda and Al
Bisharia. These nomads were not of interest to this narrative since they were isolated and did not affect the Egyptian history
greatly. Dr. Omran reminded me that the old "Haganna" (Border Troops) where mainly recruited from these tribes and were
used in patrolling the borders and/or keeping order in case of any civil unrest.
The Eighteenth Century (perhaps earlier??) witnessed infiltration of
these Arab tribes into the proper of Egypt. The weakness of
the central authority may be the reason for it. This infiltration was along the classical lines laid by Ibn Khaldon in his History
Book. The Bedouins were physically stronger due to their harsh desert environment. They were also well versed in the "hit and
run" type of war. The Arabs were mobile as they possess few material things. They were not tied to the land as the "Fellahin"
(peasants). All these factors made defeating them decisively very expensive from the central authority point of view.
Bedouins infiltrated Lower Egypt is Sharqia and Behira provinces (eastern
and western edges of the Nile Delta). They settled in
Upper Egypt also. Some tribes like the Hawara were in the process of becoming fully settled when the French Campaign
arrived. The Fellahin mostly carried the burden of this movement as they were displaced by the Arabs and became landless
peasants or migrated to the cities where they lived in the lowest strata of the social ladder there. Description De L'Egypte
documented this phenomenon well. Al Jabarti told us about Sheikh Al Arab Hammam who was very powerful in Upper Egypt
and was fully autonomous within his domain. He controlled traffic on the Nile and imposed his own levies on the shipping. He
was also active in national politics of Egypt siding with some Mamluk faction against another.
In the end of the Eighteenth Century, Mamluks were divided and they
decided to reach some sort of accommodation with the
tribes. Mohammed Bek Al Alfi was especially popular with the Arab tribes who constituted his power base. As with the
Mamluks, the power of the Arabs was magnified by the absence of a strong government in Egypt. The quick demise of
Hammam and his family on the hands of Ali Bek Al Kabeer, was a reminder of the weakness that creeps into Bedouin tribes
once they settle down. Al Jabarti eventually saw the sons of Hammam begging for charity in the streets of Cairo during the rule
of Mohammed Ali Pasha.
Description De L'Egypte presents us with two pictures of the Bedouins
depending on the writer. One is that of a noble savage
roaming the desert with his beautiful horse and sword. The other is that of cynical rouge who exploits the Fellahin. I feel that the
truth is a mixture of both.
Centuries of conflict between Fellahins and Bedouins left bitter memories.
I can see these feelings when I read "Awdat Al
Rooh" ("Return of the Spirit") by the famous novelist Tawfeeq Al Hakeem or when I remember the stories my mother used to
tell me. Bedouins considered Fellahins as people with no dignity and not fit for inter-marriage. A saying I remember is, "nideeha
liltimsah wa la nideeha lilfalah" Translation: "We give her (a daughter) to the crocodile but we will not give her to a Fellah."
Fellahins considered Bedouins treacherous barbarians who do not observe
Islam faithfully. These differences tended to
disappear as the media, education, and politics fused both people into one in the Twentieth Century.
I think the controversy regarding the term Arabs can be clarified if
we look at how Al Jabarti used the term Arab. He used
exclusively to describe the Bedouins. This does not mean that mean that Egypt had no Arab identity at this time. Arabs are
those who speak Arabic language. They lived in area bounded by Iran in the east, Turkey and the Mediterranean in the north,
Sahara in the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. The inhabitants of this area had, and still have, common bondage that
cannot be denied by any fair observer. In the meantime, Arabs are diverse people. Glancing over these differences was a major
weakness by the Pan-Arab Nationalists of the 20th Century.
3.4.1 The Scholars (Ulama).
The Ulama represented the educated class of Egypt before the educational
reforms of Mohammed Ali Pasha. The duties of the
leading the prayers in the mosques;
disseminating Islamic knowledge to the general population as students in Kotaabs and in institutions of higher learning
such as Al Azhar;
administering the "Awqaf" (endowments, singular: waqf) which were usually left by rich people to maintain mosques and
similar institutions. Some of the scholars, such as Al Sheikh Al Sharqawi, became extremely wealthy from these
justice which involved mainly marital, inheritance, commercial disputes. Criminal justice seemed to be firmly in the hands
of the Ottomans and Mamluks.
Promising students usually went to a local learning center in their
area after they finish the Kotaab. Some of them went
eventually to Al Azhar in Cairo. Al Azhar was a mosque, a school, and a dorm simultaneously. There was no standard
curriculum. Students attended the "Halaqa" (study group) of the instructor they like. Student could stay there for as long as he
wished. An Ijaza (degree) was written by the instructor to the student to show that he was tested and found to be proficient in a
certain science. Additionally, big cities had their own centers of learning but none had the prestige of Al Azhar. Taha Hussien,
the modern Egyptian thinker, was an Azharite. His colorful description of Al Azhar in his autobiography "Al Ayaam" (The days)
is not very different from that of Al Jabarti a hundred years earlier.
The curriculum was purely religious by the end of the Eighteenth Century.
Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) was taught according to
the four Sunni schools of thought. However, Al Jabarti stated that the Hanbali school was extinct in Egypt in his days. Sciences
such as Arabic grammar and logic were also taught but as tools to serve Quranic explication and theology respectively.
Mathematics, biology, philosophy, and other secular topics used to be
taught earlier but scholars lost interest in these topics
which was a manifestation of the stagnant intellectual state in the Islamic world. Al Jabarti said that one time a Pasha came from
Istanbul who was interested in mathematics. He wanted to invite the prominent mathematicians of Cairo for debate. The
scholars informed him that non-religious sciences are dead in Egypt. According to Al Jabarti, his father was the only one
qualified to discuss this science with the Pasha. While Al Jabarti's story may be baised towards his father, it shows that
non-religious sciences were not very popular. This fact can be ascertained by looking through his biographies of the prominient
scholars in Egypt.
Scholars kept producing books but its quality was markedly down compared
to the Abbasid or even the early Mamluk periods.
The titles of the books listed by Al Jabarti usually started by the word "sharh" (explanation), "hashia" (appendix), or "ikhtisar"
(abbreviation) of earlier books. Innovative works seemed to be highly discouraged as the Islamic society was in a state that
considered the past as perfect that could be at best emulated.
Islam, as presented by many scholars, fully integrated Sufi concepts.
Sufism itself transformed into a rigid structure that was fully
ritualized. Masters of the Sufi sects wielded considerable powers over their followers. Scholars condoned, if not encouraged,
the practice of using awliaa (saints, singular: wali) for inter-cession to God. Almost every village had its own wali who was
usually entombed under a dome that may be attached to the local mosque. Each wali had a mawlid (birthday) celebration
where religious and secular entertainment freely mixed. Al Jabarti personally did not like this development. He was harshly
critical of those scholars who built large fortunes from leading Sufi sects or administering mawlids. One of the interesting stories
in his book is how the Mawlid of Imam Hussien (may Allah be pleased with him) was invented for economic gain. He also said
that the those who maintained Al Badawi mosque in Tanta were charging people of trades who benefited from the mawlid
The role of Sheikh Al Azhar evolved from the imam of the greatest mosque
in Cairo to become similar to that of
Sheikhu-Al-Islam in Istanbul. His fatwas (religious opinions) were usually highly respected by the powerful leaders of Egypt as
well as the general population. He was selected by the consensus of the important scholars till Mohamed Ali Pasha subjected
the position to the ruler's authority (which still is the case today).
The scholars assumed the role of the native population spokesmen. They
were also mediators with the ruling class ( Ottomans
and Mamluks). This role became increasingly important with the collapse of the civil order at the end of the Eighteenth Century.
Scholars usually inter-ceded on behalf of the native population asking for reduction of taxes or stopping the pillaging of the
towns by the warring factions.
Pursuing education was one of the few ways for upward social mobility
in the Egyptian society. Al Jabarti recorded that many
of the scholars were of humble origins who advanced based on their merits. On the other hand, many scholars, including Al
Jabarti, came from a family of scholars. Personally, three of my great grandparents were the last cycle of this tradition. Two of
them were educated and became friends at Al Azhar. They returned to their provincial towns, Rosetta and Fowa, and lived
carrying the title of Sheikh. All of them (may Allah bless their souls) knew that their way of life was vanishing and directed all
their male children to pursue secular education or become merchants. This decision can be explained if we know that the
process of modernization in Egypt did not work in favor of Ulama. They lost the right to administer Awqaf at the time of
Mohamed Ali Pasha. The legal system was secularized during the the reign of Khedive Ismail. From now on they were left with
the purely religious functions that did not necessarily come with prestige or material benefits.
Why non-religious subjects fell out of favor with Ulama? This is a very
difficult issue. It was not particular to Egypt but it was
universal throughout the Islamic World. Some explain it by the lack of interest of rulers in sponsoring scientists. I feel that this
was due to "cultural satisfaction". Gradually, the Ulama had the feeling that there is no important intellectual endeavor left to be
achieved. The door of "Ijtihad" (creative thinking) was closed. The word "bidaa" (innovation) was used liberally against anyone
who proposes different ideas than those already established e.g. Ibn Taimyia. This feeling was compounded by the isolation
imposed on the Arab World by the Ottomans.
As intellectuals, the Ulama were devoid of any interest in the monumental
developments that were taking place in Europe in the
Eighteenth Century. Al Jabarti recorded that while some were knowledgeable of the Turkish language, few knew Farsi, only
one person knew a European language (Italian). The ignorance can be partly blamed on the Ottomans who isolated their
domain and restricted the use of printing press. However, the Ulama themselves share the blame for neglecting the clear orders
of Islam to pursue knowledge regardless of its source. Disinterest in Europe preceded the Ottomans and can be seen during the
Crusaders period when we had only Osama Ibn Monqidh's book to show that a Muslim was interested in knowing anything
about the Europeans beyond the battlefield. A very insightful hadith that was mentioned by Dr. Barbour accurately describes the
state of the scholars of this period. This hadith which was narrated by Ibn Katheer in his explication of Quran is:
Ziad Ibn Lubied said: The Prophet ( PBUH )
mentioned something and then the Prophet said: "That will happen when
knowledge (Eilm) will disappear." I said: "O' messenger of Allah, how the knowledge will disappear among us (Muslims)
while we read the Quran and we teach it to our children and to our grandchildren and so on till the day of judgment?"
The Prophet replied: "Thakalatka omouka ya Lubied (may your mother lose you, O Lubied); I was thinking that you are
the wisest (afqah) man in the city of Madina before this. Do not you see the Jews and Christians. They are reading
Taurah and Bible and they do not benefit from them a bit!"
Those scholars preserved the sciences but they were not able to contribute to it significantly.
An example of the stagnation is the lack of the printing press in Egypt.
I feel that the High Porte and the Istanbul Ulama share
the blame equally for stopping the spread of the printing press. The High Porte was interested in stopping Shiite ideas from
spreading in its domain. Ulama had economic benefit of using scribes to write copies of the books. Similarly, Egyptian
government and Ulama showed no interest in the press. They could have imported printing presses if they needed since Egypt
was practically autonomous.
Finally, it would be mistake to believe the stories that the official
Nasser era historians used to write painting the scholars as
leaders of revolutionary movement. Al Jabarti mentions that one or two scholars publicly criticized the oppression of the rulers.
They were promptly quietened. However, scholars were mostly part of the establishment. Sometimes they tried to moderate
the injustices of the Ottomans and the Mamluks but they never called for an open rebellion or organized clandestine activities.
3.4.2 Ashraaf (Nobles).
The Ashraaf (nobles, singular: shareef) are those Egyptians who can
claim that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is their ancestor
through his grandsons Hassan or Hussien (may God have mercy on their souls). This institution was all over the Islamic world.
A member of it is called a Shareef or Sayed (Master). Ashraaf had the right to exclusively wear green turbans. They were
organized in some sort of guild (Niqabat al Ashraaf) headed by Naqeeb al Ashraaf. Each town had its own Niqabat.
The position did not seem to be of a significant political weight till
a young man became Naqeeb al Ashraaf near the end of the
Eighteenth Century. His name was Omar Makrram. Omar Makrram first showed in the political theater of Egypt when the
Ottomans tried to invade Egypt in 1790. The Mamluks fled to Upper Egypt and used him as an emissary to the Ottoman
leadership. When they returned back to Cairo, he came with them. At the death of Sheikh Al Bakri, who was Naqeeb al
Ashraaf, Omar Makrram was installed in this position.
He sensed the respect the Egyptian people had to his office and, as
circumstances evolved in this turbulent era, he decided it to
use to mobilize the masses of Cairo politically for the first time. This was not completely a new invention in the Islamic world of
his time. Makkah was ruled by the Shareefs (grandparents of the current King Hussien of Jordan). The Sultans of Morocco
depended, to a certain extent, on their claim of lineage the the Prophet ( pbuh)in establishing their authority over the cities and
tribes of Maghrib.
Wealthy merchants were working on the wholesale trade of agricultural
products as well as long-distance trade with Yemen in
coffee and India in spices and textile through agents in the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea (in modern Saudi Arabia). Many
merchants owned land in the countryside. Others participated in "Iltizam" (tax farming). Merchants participated in a guild
headed by the "Shah Bandar Al Tojjar" (head of the city's merchants). The position seemed to be of almost hereditary nature.
The Shah Bandar responsibilities included financing sudden requests of money by the government (i.e., Mamluks). He used to
allocate shares on each merchants according to his wealth.
At the end of the 18th Century, this office was occupied by Al Sayed
Ahmad Al Mahrooqee. Al Mahrooqee was a junior
partner of the Shah Bandar who died unexpectedly at a young age. On his death, the Mamluk leaders appointed Al
Mahrooqee in his place. He took over his fortune, house, stores, and wives!!
3.4.4 Middle Class.
Middle class in the Egyptian cities of the Eighteenth Century was comprised
of small merchants and craftsmen. Each craft had
its own guild and leader. The well-to-do of them lived in single-family houses. These houses were separated into "salamlek"
(men meeting rooms) and "haramlek" (women's quarters). The extended family lived together. Poorer people lived in
apartments each had one or two rooms. Middle class used to educate their sons at least till they finish Kotaab. Daughters were
not educated and illiteracy was high within females. The collapse of civil order at the end of the 18th Century resulted in a heavy
tax load on the Egyptian middle class in addition to the disruption of trade and agriculture.
The life of the middle class was not totally bleak and dull. Men were
usually members of one the Sufi sects that provided many
of them with inner peace and sense of belonging in the crowded urban setting. They could also find entertainment in
coffee-houses where they played many games such as chess which was very popular in Egypt, according to Description De
L'Egypte. Staying there, they spent evenings listening to the "shaaer" (poet) who recounted epics such as 'Al Seerah Al Hilaliah'
(an epic describing the Bedouin migration from Arabia to Tunisia)or 'Antara Ibn Shaddad' (adventures of a pre-Islam black
knight). Others might indulge in hasheesh or alcoholic drinks such as booza (native alcoholic drink made by fermenting bread).
The arrival of the Nile flood was a time of festivities where people used to go in boats in the shallow lakes that used to be
between Cairo and the Nile (e.g. Birkat Al Azbakiah). These outing was usually accompanied by music and singing. Al Jabarti
frowned on such practice but it seemed to be widespread.
Women had a much restricted range of activities. The "hammam" (public
Turkish bath) was one of the few places where they
could go to and socialize with their friends. Some of Naguib Mahfouz, the internationally renowned novelist, novels provide a
unique insight into the ancient ways of the traditional Egyptian middle class just before it disappeared with the modernization of
3.4.5 Low Class (Harafeesh).
The lowest class of the urban society was composed of those poor people
with no skills or fortune. They had to go through a
daily struggle depending only on their wits. Those people were looked down by educated people like Al Jabarti who repeatedly
considered them in his writings as hopeless wretches possessing little intelligence and sophistication. He had similar views of the
Fellahin (peasants). Government cared less for them as they were usually too poor to squeeze any meaningful taxes from.
The above description does not mean that harafeesh should be written
off. They constituted a sizable percentage of Egypt's
urban population. They needed daily food for themselves and their families. Famines or civil disturbances augmented their
numbers through migration to cities. If agitated, they could turn into a potent force.
Usually governments tried to maintain a steady supply of grain to keep
the harafeesh under control. What the harafeesh lacked
was a unifying cause and a leadership. The French Campaign and Omar Makrram provided both.
3.4.6 People of the Book (Zimmis).
The population of Egypt was classified according to religion up to the
19th Century. At the end of the 18th Century, Muslims
constituted the majority of the population of Egypt. According to the calculations of the French Campaign officials, the
percentage of Muslims at the end of the Eighteenth Century is roughly as it is today. Egypt was not transformed to Islam
overnight. This process was gradual in Egypt as it was throughout the Islamic World. A sizable majority of Muslims was there
by the Mamluk era. Arabic language became the spoken language of all Egyptians, regardless of religion, by the same period.
The word used by Islamic jurists to describe the People of the Book
is "zimmioon" (singular zimmi) which means 'protected'.
When Muslim armies originally invaded the Middle East, inhabitants were offered the choice of conversion or "jizyya" (head
tax). Most chose paying the jizyya. The jizyya was a collective tax and the rich members of the community were expected to
pay for the poor ones.
The process of Islamization was accompanied by certain reduction of
the status of the People of the Book. They were required
to only wear certain colors and belts, and not to ride horses or mules. There were restrictions on building new churches or
renovating existing ones. These restrictions started in the days of Al Hakim and increased in the Mamluk days. Some of these
restriction were direct or indirect result of the persecution of Muslims living under Christian rule and the Crusades. Al Jabarti
always considered liberalization of these rules as an ominous sign indicating the collapse of the established order. A book that
shows this point of view is that of Sheikh Al Damanhori  who called for demolishing all the churches that were built, or
renovated, in Egypt since its invasion by Amro Ibn Al Aas! As usual with books written in this period, the author did not
include a single Quranic verse or Prophetic tradition to substantiate his opinions. He only depended on the opinions of earlier
Al Jabarti recounts an incident when the leading Copts approached Sheikh
Al Shabrawi, who was Sheikh Al Azhar in the
second half of the Eighteenth Century, to ask for permission to organize a caravan for pilgrimage to Jerusalem in a fashion
similar to the Hajj caravan of Muslims. Al Shabrawi issued a "fatwa" (religious opinion) granting their request. Al Jabarti alluded
that he was bribed to issue this fatwa. The Copts accordingly organized a caravan that met outside Cairo. However, other
Ulama attacked the fatwa and encouraged the harafeesh to go and attack the caravan since it presented an affront to the
Islamic supremacy in Egypt. The harafeesh went to the caravan location and tore their banners and forced the pilgrims to leave
discreetly without fanfare.
On the other hand, it would be also a mistake to paint a picture of
persecution similar to that minorities of Europe were
subjected to. There was no Inquisition or forced conversion to Islam. No incident of massacres or mass deportation of
non-Muslims was ever recorded in the history of Egypt. Minorities were surely tolerated as long as they remained within certain
boundaries dictated by the majority.
The zimmi population of Egypt included:
Jewish presence in Egypt goes back to the Ptolemaic
days. Egypt was a center of Jewish intellectuals in the medieval
times. For example, Musa Ibn Maimoon (Maimonides), an imminent Jewish philosopher who may be compared to Ibn
Rushd (Averros), was the personal physician of Saladin. The Jewish quarters was in Misr Al Qadima and centered
around the Jewish synagogue.
In medieval times, Cairo was an important center
of international trade in spices between India and Europe. A sizable
percentage of this trade was controlled by Jewish merchants. Reference  presents a vivid image of this community that
we Egyptians are usually ignorant of. However, this activity was dead by the Renaissance.
Jews were active in the gold trade according
to Al Jabarti. He also mentioned the case of an overzealous Jewish tax
collector who apparently was so successful in his profession that he excited a riot. The government promptly lopped his
head off to quell the riot and satisfy the people!
They were few of them working as merchants. They also lived together in a quarter of Cairo.
Copts comprised the majority of non-Muslims
in Egypt. They were urban as well as rural population. Rural population
was concentrated in Upper Egypt. Some monasteries existed in Wadi Al Natroon. However, they were few and in state
of disrepair according to Description de L'Egypte. Copts, as other Egyptians, were religious people. It seems that the
leadership of the Coptic community rested with civilians instead of religious leaders since the Patriarch of Alexandria was
never mentioned in Al Jabarti's history.
Copts had a sort of monopoly on two important
professions: bookkeeping and land survey. Bookkeeping was necessary
for maintaining tax records. Surveying is crucial in Egypt where all farming areas were inundated with the Nile every year.
The land had to be re-surveyed to estimate the taxes properly.
The status of the Coptic population started
to improve under Mohamed Ali Bek Al Kabeer (perhaps earlier ??). His
secretary, Al Moalim Rizk (Al Moalim meaning Boss), was an influential person who left lot of endowments to the
Coptic church. He tried successfully to improve the conditions of Copts. This trend continued under Mohamed Bek Abu
AL Zahab whose Copt secretary, Al Moalim Ibrahim Al Jawhari was also important figure. If Al Jabarti can be
considered a representative of his class, these changes was resented by the scholars. Damanhuri's book might have been
a reaction to this improvement.
As pointed out by many authors, including Imams Mohamed Abdou and Hassan
Al Banna (may God bless their souls), jizyya
was a tax to cover the expenses of having a standing army. Some Christian Arabs fought with the Muslim armies in lieu of
jizyya. This interpretation explains the meaning of the name zimmi (protected).
I do not think it is a good idea to load all the responsibility of persecuting
the Zimmis on the scholars. It was shared by the
political authorities and the general population. Having a biased policy that favors the dominant religion was almost uniform
through the whole world (except China). The problem is that we refuse to face this past. Ignoring it results in the impression of
some Muslims that Christians were just living happily and they are trying to go beyond what is expected from them. Some
Copts also paint the picture that their grandfathers were living under horrible persecution for thousand of years. Both pictures
are inaccurate and should be critically studied to ensure mutual respect and civilized relationship between all Egyptians.
We can see common threads uniting all Egyptians even in this period.
Those common traits include: deep religious feeling and
attachment to the land of Egypt. In less than a hundred and fifty years from the events we recount, a full national feeling (in the
modern Western sense) unified the Egyptian people against the British occupation during the days of the 1919 revolution.
Muslim scholars and Coptic priests were the leaders of this movement. The Wafd party had strong Coptic representation in its
leadership including Makram Ebied and Wisa Wasif. This unity waned as the 20th Century proceeded. A full analysis of the
sectarian issues in Egypt is still lacking.
References on this section:
* Damanhuri, Ahmad Ibn Abd Al-Munim. Shaykh Damanhuri on the churches
of Cairo, 1739 / edited and translated with
introduction and notes by Moshe Perlmann. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975.
* Ghosh, Amitav. In an antique land / 1st American ed. A.A. Knopf: Distributed by Random House, New York, 1993,
The author of this survey is Dr. M Trabia of the University of Nevada Las Vagas , USA. It is based on an extensive review by Dr. T Omran of Texas A&M University, USA and Dr. A Barbour of Georgia Southern University, USA. The review first appeared as weekly installments on EgyptNet. The authors have kindly granted permission for publishing this review on the Internet. My sole contribution is to format the material for presentation through the CAD Centre Web Server.
The author of this survey is not a professional historian and has never had any formal training in this field. He is just sharing some of his personal conclusions with anyone who is interested. If this survey motivates a person to go and read and reach different conclusions, this presentation would have had a useful purpose.
The views and personal reflections expressed here are those of Dr. Trabia,
Dr. Omran and Dr. A Barbour. Any comments concerning the content should
be directed to them. Comments concerning the presentation should be directed
to Ayman Abbas.