Source: Orientalism Versus Occidentalism
Western religious missions in Syria and Egypt in the early nineteenth century brought direct foreign influences to the regions. Among the missionary activities, setting up schools and offering education opportunities opened a trajectory of series of interactions between the Westerners and the locals. Foreign schools transformed in purposes and curriculums along the historical timeline, so did the reactions among Arab intellectuals and indigenous communities. Concerning religious, cultural, and political aspects, historical accounts recorded diverse and complex views toward foreign education. Some accounts detailed the views toward certain incidents took place around foreign schools; some expressed concerns over the subjects they taught and their influences to local populations. Some viewpoints remain controversial till today under the fact that many Western educational institutions are still present today and continue to exert influences over local communities. However, the historical accounts of local opinions have been neglected under the fierce criticism over Orientalism and Western imperialism.
This paper examines two aspects of thoughts in which education was an important component of the causes. The first aspect is Muslim reformists’ views toward missionary schools. Additional to the records of their reactions, the section discusses how their attitudes differed and shifted according to the circumstances. The second aspect is from the writings of the feminists in Egypt and Syria in the turn of the century. The section sorts out the diverse views toward the influences brought by foreign education—secular or religious—to local women. The attitudes varied across space and time and differed according to the writers’ educational backgrounds and social classes.
Foreign Schools in Syria
In the early 19th century, American missions already had firm stations in Beirut and Jerusalem. In spite of the resistance and refusal from eastern ecclesiastics, Catholic missions, and the Ottoman government, American missionaries began receiving male and female pupils and teaching them foreign languages such as Italian, the demanded commerce language in Beirut at the time. They gradually formed formal schools for local youth for their religious cause. Protestant schools in the 1830s became coexistent with the native Christian, Muslim and Roman Catholic missionary schools, which had been present for nearly two centuries prior to American missions (Tibawi, 1966).
Among different sectarian missions, the Jesuits set an example which attracted local students by offering a more liberal curriculum, including bookkeeping and foreign languages. The Jesuits moved to Beirut in 1875 in order to compete with the Syrian Protestant College, which was established in 1866 to maintain the Protestant missions from withering (Tibawi, 1966; Womack, 2012). The two institutions, the Jesuit school which turned into Universite Saint-Joseph in 1881, and the Syrian Protestant College, which later became the American University of Beirut, both gradually moved away from their original evangelical intention and became increasingly secular (Makdisi, 1997).
The languages of instruction in the two schools were also discussed in many literatures. The Jesuit seminary, supported financially by the French government, had emphasized the instruction of French language. As Spagnolo (1974) and Womack (2012) argued, insisting in the usage of French language symboled the school’s espousing of Catholic faith and its support for French political interests. In comparison to the Catholic school, the Syrian Protestant College adopted vernacular Arabic as the language of instruction in the first two decades, but eventually shifted to English in 1878. The announcement of Daniel Bliss (the president of the College from 1866-1902) explained that English could provide students material to write about and to teach on the subjects of philosophy and history. However, Tibawi argued that it was due to that some English-speaking teachers were unable to keep up with increasing demands of Arabic textbooks.
At the same historical period, Ottoman began a top-down educational reform, trying to gain control over local school curricula, teachers and educational taxes. Aware of foreign missions’ expansion on educational institutions, especially those of French, Ottoman officials considered the “re-Islamization of Muslims by teaching” was necessary (Evered, 2012, p. 115). However, the accounts from local Muslim intellectuals who were also alarmed by increasing foreign influences showed their strong criticism of the Ottoman authorities’ failure to support indigenous Islamic schools. Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) criticized the authorities for “giving credence to Christian insinuations that the Maqasid [Islamic society for benevolent purposes which provided Islamic education in Beirut] had pursued political goals” (Strohmeier, 1993, p. 216), while Rashid Rida (1865-1935) denounced the government’s “stupidity and ignorance” to close the Madrasa wataniya founded by Shaykh Husayn al-Jisr (1845-1909) in 1880 in Tripoli to provide an alternative to foreign schools (as cited in Strohmeier, p. 215).
Muslim Reformists’ Attitudes toward Foreign Schools
Among the Muslim reformists, three Arab intellectuals had ample writings on their views toward foreign education: Mohammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), his colleague and successor Rashid Rida (1865-1935), as well as the Syrian scholar active in the later period, Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali (1876-1953). Vigilant about the threats posed by missionary schools and foreign education, the three scholars were concerned over issues ranging from impacts on Islam to the crisis of Arab identity. Their views, although confined within the framework of Islamic modernization, were diverse on subjects that concerned them the most, and changed over time according to the different incidents.
The Egyptian Mohammad Abduh in Rida, his follower’s eyes, he “was the first to realize the danger of the foreign schools in Egypt”, and thus brought influences over his students to be concerned about Western education in the regions (as cited in Gilliam, 2000, p.14). Abduh’s criticism of missionary education were mostly associated with his religious ideas. He wrote in 1866,
We have no need to seek benefits from those who are foreign to us. Rather, it is sufficient for us to return to what we have abandoned and to purify what we have corrupted. This consists of our religious and humanistic books, which contain more than enough of what we seek, and there is nothing in books other than ours (as cited in Dawn, 1961, p.389)
He described that the missionaries were “foreign evils”, and that their “satanical whisperings [had] deceived a number which is not small” (as cited in Dawn, p. 389). His idea of reconciliation between Islam and modernity was also reflected in his view on Egyptian education. Hourani (1983) described his thoughts that there were two systems which produced two extreme groups of Egyptians: one was the graduates who had studied in traditional Islamic schools that were stagnant and fell into “slavish imitation”; the other was those who chased behind all the European ideas without any filter (p.137). His middle course accepted neither the encroachment of European education nor the old traditional Islamic doctrine.
Compared to Abduh who had experienced life under the control of the British in Egypt, Rashid Rida and Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali both spent their early stages of lives in Syria, where the engagement with Western powers at the time was more peaceful. Hatem (1989) mentioned that this fact led to the less-anti-Western nationalism in Syria. However, their solid theological knowledge and strong stances on Islam revival rendered them confident with the attitudes varying from tolerant to hostile toward foreign schools.
Rashid Rida, influenced by Abduh and having faced the seizure of his education in the Madrasa wataniya, put emphasis on the issues of education, especially in his journal Al-Manar. Initially, he gave credits to missionary schools such as the Syrian Protestant College, praising their contribution to education in the region. Although he was aware of the local concerns about religious threats to Islam, he wrote in 1903, “the American College in Beirut is better for Muslims than the schools of Egypt, Syria, Istanbul, and Europe, and it is a college that raised up and still raises up men, and is even better now for the Muslims than it was before” (as cited in Gilliam, 2000, p. 16). However, after the 1909 incident in which the College threatened to expel Muslim students due to their unwillingness to attend chapels, Rida’s criticism became less reserved. At the same period, as WWI drew closer, he began associating missionary education to Western political agendas, and harshly criticized missionaries as a “foreign army” and the Muslims who were “Westernized” as “an army from within” (p. 24).
By the year of 1925, Rida wrote about the differentiation between the two types of foreign schools: missionary schools and secular schools. For him, it was the later which posed more threats to the Muslim societies, because they “destroy beliefs and morals” by spreading “material thinking, and love of prestige, outward appearance, and carnal appetites” (p.49) For Rida, the missionaries’ intention to convert Muslims to Christians was not successful because he believed in Islam’s perfection: “due to the strength of Islam’s truth, the glory of its teachings, and its innate rationality, no one would ever choose another religion in its place […] a Muslim can never became a Christian because Islam is Christian and more”, as he recalled al-Afghani’s idea on conversion (p. 45).
Rida’s changing and ambivalent view toward missionary education resembled that of Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali, who had received his education in classic Islamic studies as well as modern secular subjects (Seikaly, 1981). In his memoirs, when he criticized a wrong doing by a local Maronite patriarch, he stated,
Had mercy found its way to his heart, he would at least have followed the example of President Dodge of the American University of Beirut, who mortgaged university property in order to feed the poor. The American president understood Christianity better than the Arab patriarch (Kurd ‘Ali, 1954, p. 82).
Although he had little animosity toward foreign Christianity, he was fully aware of foreign powers increasingly intervening in the region. Being especially concerned about the diminishing usage of Arabic, he questioned the purpose behind the change of the language of instruction in the Syrian Protestant College and bemoaned the refusal of the Jesuits to use Arabic to teach. According to Seikaly (1981), he wrote in his magazine al-Muqtabs in which he said that the service of the foreign school system was “converted into disservice”, and that “the purity of purpose and dedication to service had declined alarmingly” (p. 143-144). He furthered that the renounce of the use of Arabic was a means of “cultural alienation”, and that the students in the foreign schools became “untouched by patriotic sentiment, derisive of their cultural patrimony and indifferent to the needs of their society. They were set to repudiate their country in favor of the West to which they were already sentimentally and spiritually bound” (p. 144). For Kurd ‘Ali, the use of Arabic was the national essence that he would never make concessions on. As he concluded in the memoirs: “language is a sign of nationalism and those who are willfully deficient in their native tongue are on a par with barbarians” (Kurd ‘Ali, p. 170).
Rida and Kurd ‘Ali’s arguments about foreign schools showed how complex and diverse the opinions were. Not only their fields of interests influenced the views, but also the circumstances and historical events at their time. Alike the thoughts of Islamic reformists mentioned above, several feminist writers at the same period were also concerned about the influences of foreign education posed on their women as well as their nations.
Feminists’ Attitudes toward Foreign Education for Women
Egypt nurtured many precursors advocating female education. Tahtawi (1801-1873), writing in 1872 in mushid al-amin lil-binat wal-banin (Guiding Truth for Girls and Youths), argued that female education did not violate Islam convention. In addition, he reasoned that female education would bring harmonious marriages and benefit families, which were the crucial element for the improvement of a nation (Hourani, 1983). Qasim Amin (1863-1908), who published the Liberation of Women in 1899, expressed the same view.
While French and American missions were the most influential in terms of their establishments of schools, British Church Missionary Society (CMS) was the earliest in Egypt putting efforts in education in which its girls’ school was more successful than boys’ (Russell, 2004). Along with other religious schools, Qur’anic, private Copt and Jewish schools, the missionary institutions preceded state schools to provide education for girls in the early 19th century (Kholoussy, 2010). According to Russell, some Muslim daughters attended the CMS school despite its use of the Bible to teach Arabic. Under Khedive Ismail (reign 1863-1879), the state educational system began to grow. However, after 1882, the British cut down the budget on education dramatically, slowing the process (Yousef, 2011). At the turn of the century, the majority of females either received private lessons in seclusion, or none. Upper-class girls may have opportunities to be taught by the means of tutors.
Female education, closely linked to the issue of veiling and seclusion, thus became one of the main causes in the indigenous feminist movement. The feminism in Egypt not only advocated rights and freedom for women, but also intertwined with nationalism. As Badran (1988) argued, Egyptians created the movement out of their own needs and concerns, rather than being passed on by the West. In fact, the very presence of Westerners and their institutions was the source of uneasiness for many of the feminists.
Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918), a productive writer, had been educated through a variety of means: at home, a French school, a state school, and finally graduated from the Saniyya School, becoming a trained teacher herself. Her father, a disciple of Muhannad ‘Abduh, supported his daughter’s education (Kurzman, 2002). Many of her works advocated national schools for females, and criticized Westernization and lack of genuine education for women. Her articles were collected into a book in 1910 named al-Nisa’iyat (the Feminist Discourses). In an article Nasif denounced the fact that enrollment in foreign schools outnumbered government schools. As she condemned missionary schools that ignored Arabic and Eastern history, she wrote:
The most ignorant of girls are the graduates of the missionary schools and many of the private schools. …They learn by rote, without any measurable amount of explanation or discussion. If you ask them about French history, they are undoubtedly quick to answer. However, ask them about Umar ibn al-Khattab or Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi or Muhammad the Conqueror, or others from Islamic history, and they say: “I don’t know” (as cited in Yousef, 2011, p.84)
Appealing to the British to allow Egyptian have more control on an expanded government educational system, she indicated that a national school system would bring “better education than that given by foreign schools whose only goal is to spread their particular religion or to benefit their own population” (p.84).
Nadif’s opposition to foreign schools was not without reason. She was conscious of the trend that more and more Egyptian women imitated Western women: learning dance and Western instruments, copying how they dressed and behaved, but “not imitate the Western woman when it comes to her education in useful matters” (as cited in Yousef, p.78). She distained such tendencies in one of her routine Friday lectures:
I have heard that some of our high officials are teaching their girls European dancing and acting. I consider both despicable—a detestable crossing of boundaries and a blind imitation of Europeans. Customs should not be abandoned except when they are harmful. European customs should not be taken up by Egyptians except when they are appropriate and practical. What good is there for us in women and men holding each other's waists dancing, or daughters appearing on stage before audiences acting with bare bosoms in love scenes? This is contrary to Islam, and a moral threat we must fight as much as we can. We must show our disdain for the few Muslim women who do these things, who otherwise would be encouraged by our silence to contaminate others (Bahithat al-Badiya [Nasif], in Kruzman, 2002, p.74).
In addition to the “moral threat” in terms of religion, she associated the imitation as a menace to the national and cultural identity: “If we pursue everything Western we shall destroy our own civilization, and a nation that has lost its civilization grows weak and vanishes” (p. 75).
Warda al-Yazjin (1838-1925) in Lebanon echoed Nasif’s view. She portrayed the psychology behind the Westernization: “Some have interpreted civilization to mean Western modes of dress and learning European languages. Those Westernized women show contempt for their Eastern origins and customs in favor of Western habits…” Like Nasif, she also blamed the tendency to foreign education: “If one traces the origin of this particular social malady, one discovers that foreign schools, their principals and teachers are the responsible parties.” Reasoning the motive of them teaching Western habits, she stated,
They are largely contemptuous of the East, its people, culture and languages. As a result, they educate their Eastern students to adopt their views, their dress, language and mannerisms. These Eastern women think that their Westernization earns them the respect of the Westerners when, in fact, it only breeds them more contempt (as cited in Hatem, 1989, p.190).
The strong objection to foreign schools and education was not shared by all the feminists at the time. Huda Sha’rawi (1879-1947), a contemporary who later replaced Nasif to become the leading role in the Egyptian feminist movement, was brought up in a wealthy family and received home education. While Nasif criticized the learning of piano that “it is after all a cacophonous instrument meant for dancehalls and churches, not Muslim homes” (as cited in Yousef, p.79), Sha’rawi learned the piano since her childhood, teaching by a French teacher. In her memoirs Harem Years, she noted her affection for her French teacher:
Through our father we also came to know a Frenchwoman, Mme Richard, … Her charm and refinement, however, surpassed even her beauty. A woman of loyalty and integrity, she showered us with love, giving me the greatest measure which I also returned in abundance… Umm Kabira once asked me, “Why do you love this Christian so much?” to which I replied, that she wasn’t a Christian. “Is she a Muslim then?” “No,” I responded, “she’s Mme Richard” (Sha’rawi, 1987, p. 50)
Despite that Sha’rawi, Nasif and al-Yazjin were all strong advocates for national female education, differing in their educational backgrounds, their attitudes toward foreign influences on education widely diverged.
Another view offered by Nazira Zain al-Din (1905-?) in Lebanon explained the diversity. She published her book Unveiling and Veiling in 1928, which attracted harsh criticism. Shaikh Mustafa al-Ghalami claimed that her book was written by missionaries. In response, she wrote in an article al-Fatah wa al-Shuyukh (the Young Woman and the Shaikhs):
But we did not see in the missionaries in our midst—whether they be Americans or English, monks or nuns, French or non-French—anything except fine instruction to young Arabs, girls and boys. Yes, it was they who established schools in our country and the largest institute of learning. They educated us. Our noble Arab virtues, especially sincerity, necessitate that we grateful to them (al-Din, 1928, in Badran 2004, p. 278).
Born in Lebanon, al-Din was familiar to the presence of missionary schools and the opportunities they offered for local students. Contrary to the British presence in Egypt, where there was more hostility between the British and the locals, the Levant experienced more actual benefits brought by evangelical missions. The fact may render a more tolerant view toward missionary education. In the same period of feminist movement, their attitudes varied according to spaces, classes, and different circumstances they were facing.
During the upsurge of nationalist/feminist movements, debate about the presence and influences of foreign schools was inevitable. The selection of the writings in this paper depends on the availability of material in English. It is not sufficient to categorize the views at the time, or to argue certain causes that rendered to their attitudes to foreign schools. Nevertheless, it is clear that the opinions and stances in the issue of education varied according to gender, religions, spaces, and personal upbringing and encounter. Each author’s responses were not stagnant either. They were fluid and changing across the time period.
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Sources in Arabic (Referred in the English References)
In Strohmeier (1993):
p. 215: Shakib Arslan (1937). Rashid Rida aw ikha’ arba’in sana, 35.
In Gilliam (2000):
p. 14: Rida, Rashid (1933). Missionary work and conversion to Christianity in Egypt: its past and present and government assistance to it. Al Manar Journal 33, 233.
p. 16: --------------- (1903). The American College in Beirut. Al Manar Journal 6, 566.
p. 24: --------------- (1914). The dirty tricks of the westernized in social and religious matters. Al Manar Journal 17, 156.
p. 45: --------------- (1909). Message from the publisher of al-Manar to the Muslim students at the American College in Beirut. Al Manar Journal 12, 20.
---------------- (1906). Muslims convert to Christianity in Cyprus. Al Manar Journal 9, 233.
p. 49: --------------- (1925). Religion, politics and the westernized Arab apostates. Al Manar Journal 26, 47-48.
In Hatem (1989):
p. 190: al-Yazji, Warda (1984). Hadiqat al-Ward. Beirut: Dar Maron Abboud, 95, 97.
In Hourani (1983):
p. 78: al-Tahtawi, Rifa’a Rafi’ (1872). Mushid al-amin lil-binat wal-banin 4, 62, 66, 104, 128, 148.
In Seikaly (1981):
p. 143: Kurd ‘Ali (1912). Ba’d ma’ahid Bayrut. Al Muqtabas VII, I, 54-56.
p. 144:-------------(1910). Al-Ta’lim al-watani. Al Muqtabas V, 4, 237-241. -------------(1910). Nahdat Suriyya. Al Muqtabas V, 8, 511-515.
In Yousef (2011):
p. 78-79, 84: Nasif, Malak Hifni (1998). Al-Nisa’iyat: Majmu‘at maqalat nasharat fi al-jarida fi mawdu‘ al-mar’a al-Misriyya [The feminist discourses: A collection of articles published in al-Jarida on the topic of the Egyptian woman]. Cairo: Mu’assasat al-Mar’a wa al-Dhakira, 68, 152, 153, 155.