Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Education and the Management of Populations

Furnishing Children for the Schools

In 1801, after the British had routed Napoleon Bonaparte's three-year army of occupation from Egypt, the Ottoman sultan Selim III sought to reestablish control of his territory by dispatching troops led by Albanian-born Muhammad ‘Ali, to the province. But within a few years Muhammad ‘Ali had consolidated power on his own behalf and established a dynasty that lasted nominally until Egypt's 1952 Revolution. It was his effort to consolidate control over Egypt and gain military parity with Europe that motivated the initial importation of the European-style school to Egypt.

Military parity with Europe—which comprised every feature of modern armies up to and including the indispensable regimental brass band—required industrial parity, which in turn presupposed technological parity, which finally demanded a system by which people could be recruited and trained in those techniques and manufactures that would sustain a new type of armed forces. By the 1820s, Muhammad ‘Ali had already begun to use Egypt's rural kuttabs (pl. katatib; small local institutions for the memorization of the Qur’an) as the recruiting grounds for his newly established preparatory and technical schools. Needing students with basic reading and writing skills, he requisitioned provincial commissioners for healthy and literate boys between the ages of ten and twenty to study at these new military facilities.[13] One of the unexpected consequences of this system of recruitment was that enrollment in kuttabs plummeted. Parents refused to send their children to study at local kuttabs, which, by making them literate, would now subject them to impression into distant technical schools that were little more than auxiliary branches of the military. “The antipathy that the Egyptian feels against military conscription,” wrote a future Egyptian minister of education, “extends to scholarly conscription.” [14]

Because of this, by 1833 the deterioration of the kuttabs was so advanced that the government was forced to establish several new state- run primary schools in the provinces of Girga and Asyut, and to extend control over a number of existing kuttabs to increase the number of boys eligible for recruitment. Students in these new schools received uniforms, rations, supplies, and stipends, and though the content and method of instruction were similar to indigenous madrasas (pl. madaris; institutions for more advanced study of classical Islamic texts), the students—drawn from poor families attracted by the financial support of their children—were subject to strict military discipline.[15]

The literate culture of both the kuttab and the madrasa depended on oral instruction and only secondarily on the use of writing, either the child's copying on slates or the more advanced scholar's perusal of manuscript copies of important works.[16] The first printed book used in Egypt's government schools was the Alfiyya of Ibn Malik (with a commentary by Ibn ‘Aqil), an eighth-century Muslim legal text distributed by Muhammad ‘Ali to the new provincial schools in December of 1834.[17] Unlike neighboring kuttabs in which children attended irregularly at the pleasure of their elders and masters, Muhammad ‘Ali's newly systematized primary schools were rigidly scheduled for up to nine hours a day. By 1835 an ideal syllabus for the primary school at Cairo outlined a three- year program of study that resembled that of the mosque-university al-Azhar in miniature, stressing Qur’an memorization and the use of classical theological texts for memory training and penmanship practice.[18] By the following decade some interest was shown in using more contemporary works, and the government's agent in London sent to Egypt books of stories, geographies, and arithmetic texts suitable for children. Though some of these works were translated and used in schools, the authorities failed to distribute notebooks in which the children could write, leaving them with the old slates which they had used to copy passages from their Islamic texts.[19]

With support from an expatriate community of French St. Simonist utopians, Muhammad ‘Ali developed further plans for expanding the system of government primary schools through the late 1830s, planning to scatter fifty throughout the country (four in Cairo, one in Alexandria, and the rest in the provinces), which together would enroll some five thousand students. The three- to four-year primary program, covering Arabic, arithmetic and religious studies, would feed students to the two four-year preparatory schools in Cairo and Alexandria, which would in turn send pupils to the higher technical institutes. The preparatory curriculum covered geometry, algebra, history, geography, drawing, calligraphy, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish; together these two schools could accommodate two thousand pupils.[20] Muhammad ‘Ali's schools, like his factories, were not only intended to supply military needs, but were supplied with students by the same system of conscription. The British diplomat John Bowring described in 1840 how the district shaykhs of Cairo “are charged with the collection of the Ferdeh–with furnishing children for the schools, and workpeople for the fabrics.” [21]

During the first four months of 1837 alone, nearly fifty new primary schools were opened, each staffed by principals and teachers recruited from the ranks of the mosque-university of al-Azhar. But the political considerations that had prompted the explosive expansion of schools soon changed. In mid-July 1841, Muhammad ‘Ali was forced by joint Ottoman and European pressure to end a long-running military incursion into the Ottoman province of Syria, and reduced his army from over a quarter-million troops to fewer than a tenth that number. Without the army's need for the same level of technical support the new school system collapsed. Even before the disengagement treaty had been signed, sixteen of the new primary schools closed. More than two dozen were shut down the following October, and five in November, leaving, according to James Heyworth-Dunne, only three government-sponsored primary schools left in the country, and plans afoot to cut the educational budget by a further 50 percent.[22] It was not until 1863, with the accession of Muhammad ‘Ali's son Isma‘il, that royal interest in education began to rebound, but even then the foundation of significant national education projects proved nearly impossible for financial and logistical reasons. Efforts in 1868, 1871, and 1880 to extend modern primary schools widely into the provinces and to integrate the rural kuttabs into a national system of schools failed to produce much result.[23] The five thousand or so local kuttabs that were estimated to exist in 1878 remained the country's only formal source of entrée into the literate tradition.[24] The number of kuttab students represented between 2 and 4 percent of children between the ages of five and fifteen in Egypt's approximately nine million population at that time.

Along with the remaining technical schools, there were also schools run by the indigenous Christian and Jewish communities, and by the many foreign communities in Egypt, although most students still attended indigenous religious schools, both elementary (the kuttab) and advanced (the mosque schools of al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Ahmadi in Tanta, and Ibrahim Pasha in Alexandria). Given Europe's accelerating interest in educational extension, reform, and centralization during the course of the century, the maintenance of such a complex and unregulated conglomeration of schools usually struck members of the foreign community as a hindrance to national progress, but inevitable given the “innate defects” of oriental character. M. Octave Sachot, for example, an officer of the Académie Française, visited Egypt in the late 1860s to report on the status of education there, and to make recommendations to Victor Duruy, the French minister of education. Commenting on Muhammad ‘Ali's effort to look toward “the social organization of the West, and in particular that of France” for his inspiration, Sachot wrote,

The task is arduous, for each people has its innate qualities and defects, the results of ancient and often inaccessible causes which cannot be modified overnight by the importation of foreign institutions. And in the same way that in architecture it is much easier to construct an assemblage of parts upon a bare terrain, than it is to graft a new style onto an existing monument, so it is with civilization: it is perhaps much easier to operate on the terrain of complete barbarism, than on a soil encumbered by a social state it has propped up for a long time, and upon the immutable doctrines of a religion hostile to the introduction of any new idea or custom.[25]

Lacking barren ground in which to set the foundations of a new civilization, the task before Egypt's foreign and domestic reformers was to build on the irregular foundations already in place. Meanwhile, a few model institutions like the Tawfiqiyya, Khidiwiyya, and Ra’s al-Tin secondary schools opened during Isma‘il's reign, and Victoria College in Alexandria (largely for the use of local elites and foreigners) would illustrate the advantages of European education.[26]

Education and the Management of Populations

Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.