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See-sawing Backwards and Forwards the Whole Time

In Egypt, Europeans perceived their Christian moral code and its cultural axioms pitted against the entrenched interests of an indigenous religious establishment they portrayed in their writing as both venal and reactionary.

At this moment there is no real justice in this country. What passes under that name is a mockery.…In ancient days the Cadi, an essentially religious functionary, took cognizance of all disputes and gave judgement according to his own lights, without reference to any procedure; though he occasionally invoked such a text from the Koran, or such a phrase from a commentator as appeared most applicable to the matter in hand. His real inspiration, however, was too often drawn from the money bags of one, or perhaps both parties to the case.[41]

The perceived venality of the ‘ulama (religious scholars)was just one manifestation of the pervading corruption of Egyptian officialdom. The mark distinguishing the “shaykh class” from other traditional elites was its possession of the qualities of “fanaticism and bigotry.” So powerful an effect did these qualities exercise, and so pervasive their influence on the population at large, that they formed a convenient hook on which to hang criticisms of the slow pace of Egyptian reforms and the occasional outbreaks of political or religious excitement. “The Egyptian,” recalled Alfred Milner, the former under secretary for finance in Egypt, “…is not by nature in the least fanatical. But he has been brought up in fanatical traditions, and he is greatly under the influence of religious teachers, who are fanatics by profession.” [42] To extirpate this imputed fanaticism and bigotry from the country therefore became essential, and reformers searched for their source like explorers seeking the headwaters of the Nile, finding it finally in the method and content of instruction in indigenous schools. Change these, and the conservatism of the Egyptian, as well as his incapacity for logical thought, would be replaced by those mental qualities necessary to national progress.[43]

Foreign visitors to kuttabs were struck by two things that distinguished them from the schools they knew at home: the single subject of instruction and the arrangements for its communication. (Some other features of the indigenous schools differed hardly at all from rural institutions in Britain.)[44] James Augustus St. John, writing of his 1832–33 journey in Egypt, gave a concise description of the “fanatic” Shaykh Ibrahim's kuttab in Alexandria:

In the appearance of the Medressy there was nothing remarkable, except that, instead of being seated on forms ranged regularly in the centre of the apartment, the boys were all squatted cross-legged upon a mat, with the pedagogue in the midst of them. In Egypt, Nubia, and, I believe, generally in Mohammedan countries, boys are taught to write upon a smooth thin tablet painted white, about the size of an ordinary ciphering-slate, with a handle at one end. From this the characters are easily effaced by washing. While studying, or rather learning to repeat, their lessons, each boy declaims his portion of the Koran aloud at the same time, rocking his body to and fro, in order, according to their theory, to assist the memory; and as every one seems desirous of drowning the voices of his companions, the din produced by so many shrill discordant notes reminds one of the “labourers of Babel.” [45]

The lack of furniture and the children's occasional involvement in economic pursuits (e.g., plaiting straw mats for the teacher's use, or for sale) during their lessons tended to upset foreign visitors, in whose mind education was a specialized task requiring its own set of equipment, trained professionals, and the full, uninterrupted attention of all parties.[46] Observers criticized the shabby appearance of kuttabs and, interpreting their physical organization as the result mainly of poverty, appealed for their provision with symbols of modern learning such as textbooks and blackboards. The European obsession with the physical setting and scheduling of formal socialization extended to discussions of Islamic higher education as well, where some descriptions of the system lapse into self-parody. Here is Amir Boktor, for example, an Armenian professor of education at the American University in Cairo, describing the traditional organization of instruction at al-Azhar:

Suffice it to say that it has remained as primitive as it was ten centuries ago. Imagine a group of student Sheikhs numbering from 11 to 15 thousand squatting on mats of the Azhar Mosque in small classes, each class listening to an old teacher Sheikh, sitting on a wooden form, with legs crossed in oriental fashion, swinging his head left and right, as he lectures on the controversial dogmas of religion and Arabic rhetoric.…Picture also hundreds of individual students scattered all over the place, noisily reciting their studies, with the inevitable constant swinging of the head, their shoes placed beside them. Some students attend the very early morning lectures soon after the morning prayers from 3:30 a.m. Others attend the evening lectures after the evening prayers. In other words, it is sort of a Platoon system starting from 3:30 a.m. and ending at 9:30 p.m., but with no blackboards, seats, equipment, swimming pool, or cafeteria.[47]

For Boktor (citing an 1872 Swiss evaluation of Egyptian schools as his authority), al-Azhar's lack of swimming pool and cafeteria discredited it as an educational institution just as the lack of “forms ranged regularly in the centre of the apartment” had discredited the kuttab. But the rocking behavior of student and teacher in the kuttab was more remarkable still, drawing comments from nearly all travelers. Bowring's description of a school in Qena told his readers that “the mode of instruction is the same as is adopted throughout the Ottoman empire. While the lesson is giving [sic], the master's head is in a state of perpetual vibration backwards and forwards, in which he is imitated by all the children.” [48] In Alexandria, Nightingale wrote of the children “learning the Koran (see-sawing backwards and forwards the whole time)”;[49] in al-Mahalla al-Kubra, Worsfold said that education “consisted, so far as the children were concerned, in the recital of passages from the Kuran, accompanied by a more or less energetic swaying of their bodies from the hips backwards and forwards.” [50] Sachot emphasized the movement's lasting influence on students and its identification with social class: “This sort of invariable sing-song, produced in a loud voice and accompanied by a rocking back and forth of the body, soon develops into a tic preserved in adulthood by most natives of the lower classes.” [51] And Milner, with characteristic venom, turned the practice into a reverse metaphor for the learning process itself:

…to sit on the ground swinging your body backwards and forwards, and continually repeating, in a monotonous chant, a quantity of matter which you are taught to regard with religious reverence, but never taught to understand, is, if anything, an anti-educational process. If the object of true education be intellectual gymnastic, if it be to exercise and render supple the joints of the mind, then this system is its very opposite, for it tends to stiffen them. It is not calculated to enlighten, but to obfuscate.[52]

Milner's polemic highlights two important features of the Victorian perception of the kuttab: that it violated reasonable standards of religious and moral instruction (“repeating…a quantity of matter which you are taught to regard with religious reverence, but never taught to understand”); and that it violated reasonable standards of instruction in general (“If the object of true education…be to exercise and render supple the joints of the mind, then this system is its very opposite”). The kuttab's exotic setting and the constant, disconcerting physical motion of its tenants marked it as something sensual and primitive. This perception found its intellectual charter in contemporary anthropological theory, which held that, while higher religions (like philosophy itself) were systems of pure thought, primitive religions had significant physical and sensual components. Durkheim, for example, while admitting that all religions were true after their own fashion, nevertheless held that some could be rated superior to others “in the sense that they call into play higher mental functions, that they are richer in ideas and sentiments, [and] that they contain more concepts with fewer sensations and images.” [53] And Oxford's R. R. Marett claimed even more plainly that “savage religion is something not so much thought out as danced out;…in other words, it develops under conditions, psychological and social, which favour emotional and motor processes, whereas ideation remains relatively in abeyance.” [54] On this classification, not only the physical rocking during lessons, but the ritual prostrations during Muslim worship itself, appeared as backward as the unreasoning dance of the savage or the mystical abandon “of dervishes during certain religious festivals.” [55] The civilized individual could accord such an undertaking no more respect than the serious adult could accord to children's play. Along with the reliance on memorization of an obscure text, the sensuality of study disqualified the indigenous system of learning as rational.[56]

Kuttab learning resulted ideally in the student's literal incorporation of the text of the Qur’an, and accordingly the practice of its inculcation “was ordered around the meaning and the power of words.” [57] Significantly, kuttab practice was primarily oral. The skills of reading and writing were always secondary to the acquisition of the skill of exactly reproducing the recited word of God. Through daily exposure to and repetition of sacred verse, a young boy could within the space of a few years gain the ability to repeat the text by himself (a skill often lost and then sometimes refreshed once he left the kuttab). Students who showed a talent for learning and continued to study at teaching mosques (madrasas) like al-Azhar would later be taught the meaning of the text they had memorized in the kuttab, along with the sciences of grammar and interpretation, which had historically resulted in particular readings. Throughout the Muslim world madrasa study was based on the memorization of a set corpus, but the particular texts as well as the style of learning and the attitude toward scholarly authority differed from one place to another. While Iranian madrasas, for example, featured lively talmudic-style interchanges between scholar and teacher, questioning of the corpus was actively discouraged in Morocco. A young man who had studied with a particular shaykh, and who acquired the ability to recite the texts and commentaries on which the latter was an authority, could earn a written declaration of competence to transmit those same texts to others. Creating and maintaining this genealogy of recitation, memorization, and transmission is what ensured the authority of “texts in the world of the Text,” the divine word of God.[58]

For the British, on the other hand, religious instruction meant the inculcation not of recited truth, but of behavioral guidelines, whether of a straightforwardly religious character or popular wisdom cloaked with post-hoc scriptural or patriotic authority.[59] Even after doctrinal formulations were shut out of the curriculum of publicly funded schools, to the chagrin of the clergy,[60] Bible reading was retained, forming part of “the rapid growth of an unsectarian religion, in which the moral element reigns supreme, and in which, if the dogmatic element is not wholly suppressed, it is at least regarded as doubtful, subordinate, and unimportant.” [61] Early in the century, Joseph Lancaster's popular school movement had brought literacy to hundreds of thousands of children as preparation for moral instruction. Lancaster, a Quaker, commented on the role of Scripture in the school by saying that

there is no important head under which the Scriptures can be arranged, but it is likely to point the mind to some virtue, to prevent some practical error, or arm it against some vice.…I do not approve of boys being required to learn whole chapters, or long portions of Scripture by rote, unless united with emulation; and then they should be concise, and connected with some subject that has been recently, or is intended to be introduced particularly to their notice.[62]

True moral instruction lay in the study and understanding of “lessons” drawn from Scripture. The text itself, aside from refining literary taste, was secondary to the conveyance of such lessons, and in any case the text had to be understood in order to be useful. Some Europeans hoped to encourage such “moral” study in the kuttab, replacing the memorization of text with the formulation and inculcation of abstract ethical guidelines. In this way “the Koran might be made, like the Bible, a means of imparting moral truth combined with instructive history. This is not done, the poor little children's nascent powers are warped and stunted, and the results appear when their higher education is attempted.” [63]

With a population so ethically stunted, moral enlightenment could hardly be expected in Egyptian institutes of higher study, either. Bowring commented upon “the most worthless character” of such teaching as it stood in Egypt in the 1830s, long before the doctrinal element in English Christianity had come to be “regarded as doubtful, subordinate, and unimportant.”

It turns principally upon the religious observances required by the Koran, and degenerates into extreme frivolity. Rarely is any lesson of morality given, and the passages of the Koran, which teach the cultivation of the virtues, are much less introduced and commented on than those which bear upon the ceremonials of the Mussulman faith. Inquiries as to the quantity of adulteration, which makes water improper for ablution—into the grammatical turn of the language of prayer—into the cases in which the obligations to fast may be modified—into the gestures in adoration most acceptable to Allah—into the comparative sanctity of different localities, and similar points—are the controversies which are deemed of the highest importance, and the settlement of which is supposed to confer a paramount reputation upon the Ulema.[64]

The differences Europeans saw between their own “moral” approach to religion and the merely “ritual” concern of Egyptians formed an important part both of European self-definition and of their strategic intervention in Egyptian religious socialization. Half a century after Bowring, Milner denounced such education as “a blight upon the religious and intellectual life of the country,” in which the “ideals…permeating the whole body…are narrow and perverted,” and the “ignorant population looks up with superstitious reverence…[to] the men most remarkable for the vehemence of their bigotry and of their immersion in antiquated formulae and barren traditions.” [65] But what, in a practical sense, would a new manner of moral education accomplish in Egypt? The answer lies on the long road from the rolling English countryside to the urban factory, the world of Adam Smith and the classical doctrines of political economy that popularized the notion that education was an ideal tool for crowd control.

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