Almost all Egyptian historians and commentators consider Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century to be the beginning of the country’s modern history.
However, Louis Awad took his readers a few years earlier before the arrival of Napoleon, when large numbers of Egyptians, particularly in Al-Saeid (Upper Egypt) revolted against Turkish-Ottoman rule in 1795. The revolt was put down by the then ruling Mamelukes.
For Awad, the feelings of injustice that the revolt gave rise to and the desire to put an end to its causes led to a moment of inflection in the Egyptian psyche. A decade later, this met with the ambitions of an Ottoman soldier, Mohamed Ali, and led to the break with Istanbul and the creation of a modern state in Egypt.
Awad did not argue that the revolt marked the true beginning of Egypt’s modern history. But for him understanding that moment of uprising and the political economy of Egypt in the later Ottoman-Mameluke period in the 17th and 18th centuries was a prerequisite for any serious account of modern Egypt.
The focus on the interaction between political economy and culture was a telling one, as Awad was one of modern Egypt’s most rigorous and encyclopaedic commentators.
Many see him as being the inheritor of the cultural project of Taha Hussein, introduced in a previous article in this series. In this view, Awad, a disciple of Hussein, continued his mentor’s work on the origins and trajectory of Egyptian culture. Awad’s magnum opus, entitled A History of Modern Egyptian Thought, was certainly inspired by Hussein’s The Future of Culture in Egypt. However, Awad went much farther than Hussein in his work.
In addition to his analysis of Egypt’s political economy in the later Ottoman-Mameluke period, Awad gave his readers a meticulous account of modern Egypt’s formative century from Napoleon’s campaign to the fall of the Khedive Ismail towards the end of the 19th century. This was accompanied by comprehensive and innovative readings of the key socio-political and geo-strategic changes affecting 19th-century Egypt, leading to detailed assessments of the most consequential intellectual trends in that period in the country’s history.
Like Hussein, Awad was also far from being a detached observer. His mission was to convince his readers that Egyptianness was a unique cultural identity, not only vastly different from the identities that had emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, but also one that had helped to shape them. The other side of this mission was to anchor his conviction in the Egyptian psyche that Egypt’s future must lie in cultural links with the shores of the Mediterranean rather than in socio-political connections to the Arab World.
Also like Hussein, he resorted to linguistics to substantiate his argument. Hussein’s book on Pre-Islamic Poetry had used rhetorical and grammatical analyses to present his view on the development of the Arabic language. Awad’s Introduction to the Jurisprudence of the Arabic Language used etymology and phonology to put forward his view about Egypt’s central role in the history of the tribes of northern Arabia while at the same time showing the vastly different historical development of Egypt when compared to the Arabian Peninsula.
Awad situated his project about the Mediterranean character of Egyptian identity in works written much earlier than Hussein’s. He considered Rifaa Al-Tahtawi’s seminal book Extracting Gold from Paris, an account of Al-Tahtawi’s years in France in the 1820s, to be a manifesto of Egypt’s unique cultural identity. (It was described in an earlier article in the present series.) Awad showed how Al-Tahtawi, one of Al-Azhar’s most brilliant scholars, had realised that Egypt had for centuries looked across the Mediterranean for cultural complementarity.
Awad was also one of very few cultural commentators in 20th-century Egypt to dig into Al-Tahtawi’s later works, presenting his Minhaj Al-Bab, which can be translated as “A Doctrine for the Future,” for example, in which Al-Tahtawi describes the principles of political economy that he wanted to see prevailing in Egypt. The vast majority of these were strongly influenced by the intellectual underpinnings of European liberal thought, going beyond the French thinkers Al-Tahtawi had written about in the years immediately after his return from France and including the ideas of the Scottish political economist Adam Smith.
In Awad’s reading of this book, Al-Tahtawi had arrived towards the end of his life at a solid conclusion – that Egypt must transcend mere cultural exposure to Europe and realise that it is, by a proper understanding of its history and compelling expectations about its future, a Mediterranean country.
Awad wrote his most important books, including A History of Modern Egyptian Thought, between the 1960s and his death in 1990, a period in which the Islamist current was rising in Egypt and large parts of the Arab world. Awad was at the forefront of the decades-long intellectual struggle between Islamism and secular nationalism, and he wrote numerous articles on what he considered to be acute weaknesses in the thought, rhetoric, and experiences of Political Islam.
His real forte appeared, however, when he situated this struggle within his life-long project of identifying, explaining, and substantiating the uniqueness of Egyptian identity. An important theme he wrote about extensively from historical, theological, and philosophical angles was that ancient Egyptian ideas about the divine, the universe, and the human had been a source, or at least an inspiration, for the major philosophies and understandings of the divine that had emerged in the East and spread throughout the world.
Unsurprisingly, Awad was subjected to successive waves of attacks. Several of his books were banned, and some three decades after his death he remains largely ignored in some Egyptian cultural quarters. Perhaps Awad, assertive, confident, and often pugnacious, would not have bothered to insist that his work be recognised. Perhaps he would have understood that most of his arguments transcend the mediocrity that sadly often prevails in some of these quarters.
But behind the sometimes assertive exterior there lay a compassionate observer and thinker. Awad opposed the conservative and Islamist thought of Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, a writer presented earlier in this series, but he nevertheless saw in Al-Akkad’s journey, thought, and oeuvre material of immense value and lessons that even his intellectual opponents would benefit from. This intelligent, respectful, and wise approach made Awad’s books wells of true knowledge and journeys of real learning.
Some of Awad’s readers find his arguments compelling and persuasive. Others set out to refute many of his causal connections and conclusions. He remains, however, a brilliant contributor to modern Egyptian culture.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly