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



In the chapter on “character” in his classic Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836, Edward Lane included a note on “religious pride” as one of “the leading features of [Egyptian] character.” “I am credibly informed,” he wrote, “that children in Egypt are often taught, at school, a regular set of curses to denounce upon the persons and property of Christians, Jews, and all other unbelievers in the religion of Mohammad.” [1] Noting that these curses were recited daily in some of Cairo's government schools (but not those held in mosques), he quoted from an Arabic transcription given to him by his friend Richard Burton:

O God, destroy the infidels and polytheists, thine enemies, the enemies of the religion. O God, make their children orphans, and defile their abodes, and cause their feet to slip, and give them and their families and their households and their women and their children and their relations by marriage and their brothers and their friends and their possessions and their race and their wealth and their lands as booty to the Muslims.[2]

Lane went to some trouble to deny that these maledictions represented a universal Egyptian sentiment toward Europeans. He implied instead that the Turkish overlords of the country bore responsibility for the reproduction of this traditional curse within the officially sanctioned arena of the school, which, as part of the governmental framework of the country, might be one of the factors that “altered, in a remarkable degree,” the innate characteristics of the Egyptians, “gradually lessen[ing] their mental energy,” and dulling the ready apprehension, wit, and memory that Egyptians possessed when young.[3]

A generation later in a radically altered political climate, another Englishman, Noel Temple Moore, wrote to Lord Dufferin, the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople and Her Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary to Egypt, with his observations on the public mood. The 1882 British bombardment of Alexandria had ended barely five months before, and the popular leader Colonel Ahmad ‘Urabi had been convicted for his leadership of a rebellion against the European powers who were assuming control over his country. ‘Urabi's death sentence had just been commuted to permanent exile, and Moore, asserting that the native population seemed grateful for this restraint of British policy, illustrated popular sentiment by writing that “A rhymed couplet is, I am informed, being sung by the children in the streets of Cairo, of which this is a translation:—`Oh, our Lord, Oh, Holy One/Grant success to the English.'” [4]

Whether or not either one of these contradictory reports was an accurate reflection of Egyptian character or opinion—Moore himself was unsure of the extent to which “a public opinion may be said to exist in an Oriental country” [5] —they do show that the content of children's minds has long interested ethnographers, officials, and visitors to Egypt. Perhaps this is because the outlook of children is thought to provide the clearest possible insight into a society's fundamental worldview, stripped of adult accretions of interest and calculation. In a way, this book is another attempt to approach the contents of the child's mind, but it does so from the opposite direction. Rather than asking first and foremost what children know or believe as a clue to some basic cultural knowledge, I have focused largely on what it is that adults want and expect children to know and believe; or, to add another complication, what adults want each other to think that children should know and believe.

The relevance of these questions for Americans is acute, as debates rage in our own country over the goal and content of schooling in a changing global economy, the importance of prayer and values education in public schools, and other issues. But the significance of this research reaches beyond school-based issues as well. It touches on historical changes in the nature of religion, on the relationship of Islam specifically to state bureaucracies and political interest groups, and the role of communications media in the construction of national identities and public spaces. It is not, strictly speaking, a school ethnography, and those who read it with the expectation of one will be disappointed. Instead of focusing attention on activities and interactions within a particular school or sample of schools, I have chosen instead to explore the way that education, and religious education in particular, has been used by Egyptians (and Europeans) as a way to talk about and to address fundamental political issues, and how formal schooling is related to a range of other cultural institutions.

In examining this question, I have used several kinds of information: historical, ethnographic, and textual. I have spent fifteen months in Egypt, mostly in Cairo, first in June and July of 1987, studying at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad; again from October through September, 1988–89, and most recently during July 1993. During the middle period of fieldwork I interviewed and observed Egyptian teachers and students in two schools; talked with civil servants, writers, journalists, and intellectuals representing many political perspectives; routinely monitored the Egyptian press and television; and scouted street stalls and bookstores in all parts of the city, collecting a substantial library of books, pamphlets, periodicals, and other materials on the subject of Islam—particularly children's books, works on Islamic education, Islam and medicine, and Islam and the family.

Interviews were conducted both in Arabic and in English. In all cases I took notes during the interview or immediately afterward, using these to reconstruct as nearly as possible the details of the conversation. Aside from isolated words and short phrases, I usually remembered and recorded the Arabic interviews in English. Most of the people with whom I spoke did not relish the thought of speaking into a tape recorder (I realized later that most of the journalists I interviewed had spent time in jail as political prisoners, and feared the thought of having their opinions paired with their voices). In only one case did I even try to tape-record an interview; it turned out to be one of the least satisfactory ones I did. Except for the names of government officials and those drawn from published accounts, all names of individuals have been changed, and other details of their lives have been altered slightly.

Most of the period between January and July 1990 was spent doing historical research at the library and archives of the Hoover Institution, taking advantage of the James Heyworth-Dunne collections; and at the Jonsson Government Documents Library at Stanford University, reading the reports and correspondence concerning Egypt that are contained in the Sessional Papers of the British House of Commons (referred to in citations as the Parliamentary Papers [Parl. Pap.]), from the late 1870s until 1922. I had not originally planned to make so much of the historical background of religious education in Egypt; I had merely wanted to find a basic summary of the development of the school system. Several such summaries already exist, but as I looked through the material in the parliamentary records, I began to realize what a rich source of information they were, and what a different light they shed on the subject than did most of the secondary sources that had used these documents previously. The result is that fully a third of the present work deals with the historical development of religious education in the Egyptian public schools. Although my summary covers, in part, the broad historical outline of previous work, it is largely different in emphasis and detail, and offers substantially new interpretations of the subject. It also constitutes an important part of the intellectual framework on which the rest of the book is based.

My preference has been to quote frequently and extensively from printed sources and from my interviews. In addition to providing the reader with some of the data on which discussion of the issues is based, I think this simply makes the work more interesting to read. When quoting interviews, I cite the date and the page from my fieldnotes on which the quotation appears.


1. Edward W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1860; rpt., J. W. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1963), p. 283.

2. Lane, Manners and Customs, p. 582.

3. Lane, Manners and Customs, p. 283.

4. House of Commons, “Correspondence Respecting Reorganization in Egypt,” Parliamentary Papers (hereafter Parl. Pap.), 1883, vol. 83, p. 26.

5. “Correspondence,” Parl. Pap., 1883, p. 26.


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