The French Civilizing Mission in Egypt: An Initial Muslim Response

By Spahic Omer

The French occupation of Egypt was not the first time that Muslims were defeated by non-Muslims and that some Muslim territories fell under their control. There were many historical setbacks of that kind, from most of which, nevertheless, Muslims managed to recover somehow. However, the French occupation of Egypt and the French physical presence in the heart of Islamdom as political masters were different and were hard to swallow. The reason for this was the fact that the French occupation was not just a military incursion for which the people would have had a pre-set pattern to follow. There was more to the sudden happenings than what everybody expected and was prepared for. Much of the threat posed by the French was imperceptible, disguised, fluid and at a first glance harmless, plus alluring. 

The “language” spoken was not understood, and beyond the battlefields, many people were at a loss to develop adequate responses to the intellectual, cultural and religious (civilizational) attacks. The justifications for the French occupying presence were baffling. They were in the name of things that Muslims were either unfamiliar with or had a totally different understanding of. To the Muslim mind, the French were known as representatives of Christendom, however there they were on a mission that had nothing to do with the religion of Christianity, and they themselves had nothing to do with it, neither in theory nor in practice. As such, the French also had the wrong perception about Muslims. The lenses through which they observed them were the secular enlightenment thought and values of France in particular, and Europe in general, whereas the religious thoughts and standards were the Muslim reasons to be and live.

In Islam, the concepts of freedom, equality, science, development, man and his good life are diametrically opposed to what the French preached. The two sets of ideas were antithetical to each other, and so, irreconcilable. There was no word in Arabic or any other Muslim language that could match up with the undertones of the novel concept of “civilization”. There was the concept of “‘umran”, as developed predicated on the Qur’anic worldview and lexicon by Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) – the founder of social sciences – slightly less than four centuries earlier; there were also the Qur’anic concepts of “baldah tayyibah” and “hayah tayyibah”, which mean “good and prosperous city” and “good and productive life” respectively. However, these three concepts had nothing in common with the European renaissance- and enlightenment-driven notions of civilization and scientific progress. 

In passing – and as a short detour – to say that Ibn Khaldun spoke about civilization is unfair and is an insult to the man’s ground-breaking intellectual legacy. Also, to say that there is civilization in Islam is as unfair and spells an attempt of ideological as well as intellectual distortion. In point of fact, Muslims never fully succeeded in reconciling civilization with the revealed knowledge and guidance of Islam – and never will – for the simple reason that something (civilization) which is anchored in refuting God and deifying man is unable to peacefully coexist with something (Islam) which is all about affirming God and His revealed truth. 

It is easy to see that Muslims will be better off if they work on finding out suitable alternatives for the concept of civilization, using their intellectual heritage as the primary reference. The least they can do, however, is to continue availing themselves of the concept of civilization, albeit without stopping to Islamize it as much as possible. The pressing reality of today is a witness, according to which wherever in the Muslim world there is an ostensible “civilizational” progress, there is, in equal proportion, an Islamic decline. What we call civilization in Arabic today – namely “hadarah” and “tamaddun” which were not coined until the second half of the 19th century – is merely an attempt to translate the Western term as literally as possible. Neither “hadarah” not “tamaddun” is reflective of the authentic ethos of Islam and its propensity for peacefully coexisting with, valuing and nurturing the earth (life).

Muslims taken aback  

At any rate, the Muslims of Egypt were taken aback by the approach of the French. A great deal of their responses were impulsive, unrefined and, at times, rather unimpressive, for there did not exist sufficient ideas, methods, vocabulary and styles for doing otherwise. As a result, more often than not, dialogues and arguments between the French and Muslim sides seemed as though disproportionate and unfair. The playing field was not levelled, nor the “battles” even-handed. In their role as the colonizers and the new political masters in the land, the French were not short of pride and a sense of complete superiority, hence they wished to impose themselves at all times and to conduct those ideological battles on their terms only. 

The first Muslim scholar who adapted his style and methods and was able to take on the West and its new thought patterns in its own backyard and on its own terms, was Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897). Al-Afghani was one of the leading Muslim voices of the second half of the 19th century. In many ways he was an originator of the Muslim reformist thought in modern times. He advocated that Muslims should stand up to the challenges of the growing Western hegemony by means of the strength of Islamic unity – ideologized in the West as pan-Islamism – affirmative political actions, and a series of religious and educational reforms that will be faithful to the Islamic spirit and, at the same time, will be duly responsive to the exigencies of the contemporary era. 

Afghani was the first Muslim intellectual to launch ideological responses to the major aspects of the Western cultural and civilizational onslaughts. He did so methodically and scientifically, developing new approaches, new methods and new vocabulary. He spent some time in Egypt as well, where he was able to witness the impact of the French invasion and the quasi-modernization movements that followed afterwards. Despite his short stay in the country, Afghani managed to initiate an intellectual transformation. Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), by far the most important reformist scholar in Egypt, was one of Afghani’s students.

While Muslim military responses to the French occupation abounded, there were less intellectually uniformed responses to the ideological attacks in the name of civilization. An example of the latter could be found in al-Jabarti’s “Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt.” In it, the author partly repudiated and partly ridiculed what the French considered to be liberty, equality, goodness and benevolence. The purported righteousness of their mission – i.e., to liberate, defend, enlighten and build – was knocked over. Everything the French said – it was publicized – was a lie, everything they propagated was from the domain of falsehood, and everything they initiated was stained with nuances of hypocrisy. The only purpose for their coming to Egypt was to colonize, exploit and rob the country and its people of whatever good they possessed. 

Not only in the eyes of the French, but also other European colonialism-mongers, Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world signified no more than a prize to be won and so, worthy vying for. This sentiment was perfectly communicated by Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890), a British explorer, writer, soldier and spy, who said in his book “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah” that Egypt was the most tempting prize which the East held out to the ambition of Europe, not excepted even the Golden Horn. “Whatever European nation secures Egypt will win a treasure.”

Understanding “liberty” and “equality”

Al-Jabarti understood the French notions of “liberty” and “equality” as, first, being not slaves like the Mamluks (which literally means “slaves”), and, second, as organizing life through hierarchical systems, which people have invented for themselves and where all persons were to be equal “and none superior to any other in view of the equality of creation and nature.”

Obviously, al-Jabarti’s understanding was simplistic and inaccurate as far as the French perspective was concerned. As a Muslim, he knew that Islam was all about liberty and equality, liberty in the sense that Almighty God created everyone to be free as regards human relationships and to freely submit to and worship the Creator; and equality in the sense that all humanity was one family and the only criterion for distinguishing between people was piety and God-consciousness. There could be neither genuine liberty nor equality in the absence of the heavenly dimension. People are born free and equal, and are supposed to live and die in such honourable conditions. Liberty and equality are God’s gifts to man and it is only God who can safeguard them.

That is why al-Jabarti felt that the French could not offer any viable additional components to the existing Islamic models. Theirs was a hollow preference. Their biggest fault was that they were inspired by man, whereas the biggest strength of the Islamic alternatives was that they were inspired by God and His revelation. The issue was one of a man-versus-God axis. Having rejected the authority and role of the Divine, the only thing al-Jabarti could think off in relation to the French concept of liberty was that people should not live enslaved. Al-Jabarti reckoned that the French ideological narrow-mindedness could not produce except correspondingly narrow-minded results. 

From the beginning the French were at a disadvantage, which resulted from their miscalculations. One has to ask how the French could base their invasion on the pretext of   delivering Egypt from the oppressive Mamluks (“owned slaves”), of restoring the people’s rights, and of saving them from the hands of the oppressors. The rationale was so weak and so transparent that not many people were able to buy it. It must have looked imprudent to the French themselves.

When all is said and done, even if the Mamluks were oppressive, at least they were Muslims, seeing that the French were both non-Muslims and tyrannical, as much corporeally as incorporeally – notwithstanding their deceitful declarations to the contrary. So much so that most people preferred the worst of the Mamluks over the best of the French as their ruling masters. The problems of Egypt were internal (i.e., were part of a bigger Muslim picture) and should therefore be settled internally. 

Hence, al-Jabarti responded in a vehement manner to the claim of Napoleon that he was serving God more than the Mamluks did: “There is no doubt that this is a derangement of his mind, and an excess of foolishness. What a worship he is speaking about, however great its intensity, kufr (disbelief) had dulled his heart, and prevented him from reaching the way of his salvation.” Or could it likewise be possible that the French were so self-deluded – even foolish – that, as self-styled crusaders for liberty, they saw in the Mamluks – who were fundamentally “slaves” bent on oppressing others and so, divesting them of their freedom – a soft target? Inasmuch as the morals of the French were antonyms for the tenets of the Mamluks, the French were able to present themselves back home as saintly warriors, and to the Egyptian public as redeemers sent from another domain. The battles for and in Egypt the French wanted to advertise as battles between the ideals of liberty and their proponents, and the ideals of suppression and their own proponents.

However, little did al-Jabarti know that the chief aim of the Western liberty was to affirm human individuality and independence from subservience to traditions, beliefs and authorities. This nonetheless applied solely to the separation of man from spirituality and religious moral systems. The role of religion and everything affiliated with it – such as institutions, rituals, customs and authorities – was to be impeded at all costs, and the role of man and his intellectual capacities extolled. 

This was more distressing than what al-Jabarti thought. He could not imagine how far man can go in his non-belief and vice. Radical atheism was relatively unknown in the Muslim midst, due to which the French and Muslims were seldom on the same wavelength. It might have seemed farfetched that in the name of freedom the Western man “liberated” himself from the authority of heaven, but enslaved his total being with his own artificial authorities, systems and laws. Man unfettered himself from the influences of heavenly wisdom and guidance, but chained himself with the shackles of his unbridled lust and sensual desires. Man stopped submitting himself to and worshipping his Creator, but ended up submitting himself to and worshipping other men. 

In short, the Western man traded the true freedom for an illusory one. He also embraced racism and nationalism, thereby cancelling the possibility of having any form of authentic equality. Indeed, the equality of the French was not the equality sanctioned by the Muslim outlook. The former was subjective, socio-culturally relative and earthly, the latter impartial, unqualified and a concern of both earth and heaven. Thus, every so often, what was equality for the French was not necessarily so for Muslims, and vice versa. While commenting on Napoleon’s understanding of equality, al-Jabarti said that the former’s saying to the effect that all people were universally equal in the eyes of God was a lie and stupidity. “How can this be when God has made some superior to others as is testified by the dwellers in the Heavens and on the Earth?”

Repudiating and mocking the French

Having thus outlined a conceptual context, al-Jabarti went on revealing more of the veiled truths concerning the French invaders and their “noble” mission. He mocked their claims that they were Muslims and that they respected the Holy Qur’an and revered Prophet Muhammad. In all this al-Jabarti saw a compendium of lies. He said about their hoopla that if they were sincere they would have believed both in the Qur’an and the Prophet. They would have accepted the truth the Prophet had brought and would have followed his life example and would have respected his nation. Their purported reverence for the Qur’an would have meant glorifying it by believing in and practicing what it contained. 

To al-Jabarti, the standpoint of the French was inconsistent, causing erratic and unreliable courses of action. Yet, such was two-facedness at its best. How can it be that someone’s admiration and esteem for something cannot go beyond the level of lip service? Moreover, how can it be that everything such a person does goes against his empty words? This tokenism al-Jabarti understood to be an effect issuing from the sham holiness of a wider philosophical background on account of which the French had landed on the Egyptian soil in the first place. First the abused concepts of liberty and equality, then the claims of religious tolerance and inclusivity, and even Islam-ness, established that the French were a base and selfish lot. 

As a group that did not possess a moral compass and a clear sense of direction, the French could not excite, never mind win over, the Egyptians. Through the eyes of Muslims, the French had form, but lacked substance. The Muslim instance was the reverse; they had substance, but form was degenerate to a large extent. And whenever the worth of substance is pitted against the worth of form, the case is no contest.

Al-Jabarti was so meticulous in his work that he also repeatedly discredited the linguistic competence of the Arabic proclamations made by the French. The language mistakes were carefully analysed and corrected, suggesting that the French, in addition to lacking sincerity, lacked professionalism and solemnity too. The last thing the French had in mind was quality for Egypt and welfare for the Egyptians. If the opposite was true, the French would have taken on-board the best of the heritage of Egypt and of its people. Displaying their true colours, the invaders never stopped combatting traditions, contravening conventions and antagonizing the people.

Al-Jabarti by the same token hastened to portray the French as a shameless community whose immorality virtually knew no bounds, unmasking yet again the worthlessness of the ideas from which such corrupted manners had stemmed. As servants of egotism and carnal desires, the French, as informed by al-Jabarti, were hard-core materialists who resisted their own Christianity and were prepared to do the same to Islam, albeit in an affable and subtler way; that the streets and houses where they lived were full of filth, the entrails of animals, garbage, the stench of their drinks, the sourness of their alcoholic beverages, their urine and excrement, such that a passer-by was obliged to hold his nose; that they had their centres of amusement and licentiousness including all kinds of depravities and unrestricted entertainment, among them alcoholic drinks and spirits, female singers, prostitutes, European dancers and the like; that fornication and gambling were common; that their women did not veil themselves, had no modesty, and did not care whether they uncovered their private parts; that if a Frenchman had to perform an act of nature he did so wherever he happened to be, even in full view of people, and he went away as he was, without washing his private parts after defecation; that if a Frenchman was a man of taste and refinement (that is, if he was civilized) he wiped himself with whatever he found, even with a paper with writing on it, otherwise he remained as he was; and that they had intercourse with any women who pleased them, and vice versa (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt).

Napoleon as a bad example

Napoleon himself was no exception to this immorality pattern. According to his private secretary, about the middle of September in 1798, Napoleon ordered to be brought to his official residence half a dozen Asiatic women whose beauty he had heard highly extolled. “But their ungraceful obesity displeased him, and they were immediately dismissed.” A few days later Napoleon is said to have fallen violently in love with Madame Foures, the wife of a lieutenant of Napoleon’s infantry, whom Napoleon started courting immediately. Since the husband was one of Napoleon’s officers, Napoleon hatched a vicious plan. Foures, the husband, was ordered to go to France on a mission to deliver a message to the Directory. He departed from Egypt towards the end of 1798. The lonely wife lived in a house adjoining Napoleon’s residence, all of which was part of the plan. 

The private secretary recounted: “He (Napoleon) frequently ordered dinner to be prepared there, and I used to go there with him at seven o’clock, and leave him at nine.” The sequence of events turned hilarious somewhat afterwards. The husband of Madame Foures embarked at Alexandria but the ship was soon captured by the English, who, having been informed of the cause of the man’s mission, were malicious enough to send him back to Egypt as a form of chastisement for their sworn adversary, Napoleon, instead of keeping him prisoner. The private secretary concludes the episode: “Bonaparte wished to have a child by Madame Foures, but this wish was not realised” (The French View of the Events in Egypt: Memoirs by Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, Private Secretary to General Bonaparte).

In doing all this, Napoleon perhaps took a leaf from the biblical king David’s book. According to the content of “2 Samuel”, David fell in love with a woman called Bathsheba who, nevertheless, was married to a man called Uriah. The husband was an obstacle, in particular after David “who was not able to restrain his desires” had slept with the woman and she conceived a child. But David devised a conspiracy to get himself and the woman out of the predicament. He thrusted the husband into the most hazardous part of a battle with their enemy and instructed his comrades to desert him in the thick of the battle. David hoped that the husband – otherwise known as a valiant soldier who had a great reputation for his valour and who was known for not running away and leaving his post – will be defeated and killed thus. And that is exactly what had happened, after which David married the woman and a son was born to him by her. God was not pleased with this marriage, nor was the prophet of the day, Nathan, who, however, had to act discreetly knowing that “kings, when they fall into a passion, are guided more by that passion than they are by justice” (2 Samuel, 11).

Giving credit where credit was due

To be fair, there were several outward aspects of the French with which al-Jabarti was impressed. One of them was the French military discipline, abilities and zeal. Pertaining to some of the Egyptian military units headed by the Mamluks, al-Jabarti, disgusted, wrote that they were “irresolute, and were at odds with one another, being divided in opinion, envious of each other, frightened for their lives, their well-being, and their comforts; immersed in their ignorance and self-delusion; arrogant and haughty in their attire and presumptuousness; afraid of decreasing in number, and pompous in their finery, heedless of the results of their action; contemptuous of their enemy, unbalanced in their reasoning and judgement.”

Juxtaposing the Mamluk incompetence and low morale with the direct opposites of the French, al-Jabarti said: “(The French) were a complete contrast in everything mentioned above. They acted as if they were following the tradition of the Community (of Muhammad) in early Islam and saw themselves as fighters in a holy war. They never considered the number of their enemy too high, nor did they care who among them was killed. Indeed they considered anyone who fled a traitor to his community, and an apostate to his faith and creed. They follow the orders of their commander and faithfully obey their leader. Their only shade is the hat on their head and their only mount their own two feet. Their food and drink is but a morsel and a sip, hanging under their arms. Their baggage and change of clothing hang on their backs like a pillow and when they sleep they lie on it as is usual. They have signs and signals among themselves which they all obey to the letter” (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt).

Al-Jabarti also appears to have approved to some extent of the democratic spirit infused in the ways the new government and its institutions were run. This however ought not to be overstated, to the point that the author’s and other Muslims’ continuous resentment towards the contents and goals of the new governmental system and its policies, might be eclipsed. As an example, while in principle there was nothing wrong with the notion of Diwan (a legislative body or a house of representatives), its functions were its downside. By means of this Diwan “the French established a basis for malice, a foundation for godlessness, a bulwark of injustice, and a source of all manner of evil innovations.” Its policies were dedicated to one purpose only, “namely robbing people of their money by devious means and despoiling them of their real estate, inherited property and the like.”

The second example was the institution of waqf (charitable endowment) with its complex functions, which was gradually usurped and then mismanaged greatly. The procedure caused much distress to the affected groups of people, such as students, scholars, various recipients of pensions, and those who used to receive legally prescribed alms such as the insane and the chronically ill. On one occasion those people assembled and complained “that their pensions and bread rations had been cut, and that was because the revenues of all the waqfs had been suspended and that pension stopped.” Al-Jabarti narrowed down the main causes of the predicament to the fact that “the Christians, Copts and Shamis had taken over the supervision of the waqfs, making them a source of profit for themselves” (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt).

Al-Jabarti likewise touched on an institution that was either a library or the above mentioned Institut d’Egypte. He praised the establishment’s aesthetics, functionality, ambiance, facilities and the number of books contained. The author admitted that he went to the place many times and every time they showed him all those “various things”. However, as was the case with everything French, with this breath-taking institution, too, there was a serious problem. That problem was in the form of the character and contents of some books. One of those books was the biography of Prophet Muhammad. It was a large anthology wherein they drew the Prophet’s picture “according to the extent of their knowledge and judgement about him. He is depicted standing upon his feet looking toward heaven as if menacing all creation. In his right hand is the sword and in his left the Book and around him are his companions.” There was also a copy of the Qur’an translated into French, as were many other Islamic classical texts. 

Al-Jabarti also referred to the encyclopaedic works they (the French scientists and scholars) had been performing, featuring animals, plants, cities, buildings, various objects, etc., in Egypt and elsewhere especially in the Muslim world. These might have been the first productions from the above mentioned colossal scientific compilation titled Description de l’Égypte. Al-Jabarti was impressed with the overall scientific and research climate of the place: the mood, methods, facilities, services and passion, giving credit where credit was due, and – as might have been expected – secretly wishing that Muslims possessed the same assets and employed them in the service of their religion.

Al-Jabarti said: “They have a great interest in the sciences, mainly in mathematics and the knowledge of languages, and make great efforts to learn the Arabic language and the colloquial. In this they strive day and night. And they have books especially devoted to all types of languages, their declensions and conjugations as well as their etymologies. They possess extraordinary astronomical instruments of perfect construction and instruments for measuring altitudes of wondrous, amazing, and precious construction. And they have telescopes for looking at the stars and measuring their scopes, sizes, heights, conjunctions, and oppositions, and the clepsydras and clocks with gradings and minutes and seconds, all of wondrous form and very precious, and the like” (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt).

This love-hate and respect-disrespect relationship between the French and Muslims in Egypt, was summarized in an account of Napoleon’s private secretary, who said that his boss neglected no opportunity of showing off to the Egyptians the superiority of France in arts and sciences. Once for this very purpose Napoleon invited the principal religious leaders to be present at some chemical experiments performed by a scientist called M. Berthollet. Napoleon expected to be much amused at their astonishment; but the miracles of the transformation of liquids, electrical commotions, and galvanism, did not elicit from them any symptom of surprise. They witnessed the operations of the able chemist with the most imperturbable indifference.

Napoleon’s private secretary added that “our music produced no greater effect upon them. They listened with insensibility to all the airs that were played to them, with the exception of ‘Marlbrook’. When that was played, they became animated, and were all in motion, as if ready to dance” (The French View of the Events in Egypt: Memoirs by Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, Private Secretary to General Bonaparte).

The first sign of possible integration 

However, a sign of things to come, insofar as the relationship between Islam and modern scholarship, and between Muslims and the West, was concerned, hailed from an unlikely source. While most Muslims were either indifferent or overly circumspect, it took Napoleon’s Muslim general Jacques-Abdullah Menou to break the ice. He was the first in the history of Islam-West relations to articulate such language as amalgamating the modern West-dominated science with the Qur’an, and that there will be no happiness for people in modern times unless the instructions of the Qur’an and the study of modern science were integrated. He believed that such a thing was possible and was the key to the future. The ultimate wisdom of the Qur’an and the inquisitive spirit of science spelled the formula. That proposition impacted him so much that he, as a consequence, could not but embrace Islam and be the idea’s first advocate. It by no means would be embroidering to say that Jacques-Abdullah Menou planted the seeds of what later came to be known as the Islamic modern thought. He, in equal measure, was a precursor of the notion of Islamization of knowledge.

Jacques-Abdullah Menou once said: “I have known that the Koran, that exalted scripture, includes only wise and true principles. Yet these would be neither wise nor true if they omitted instruction and study of the sciences whose application is of such great advantage to the welfare of people united in society. Nor can the Koran but commend order, as without order everything in this world is merely disaster and destruction…But you, honoured shaykhs, investigative ‘ulama’ and all of you, distinguished by knowledge, have already discerned that the best order for organizing this world entirely is the one that pays heed and follows completely the order emanating from the wisdom of God Most High. (You know) that the land and regions considered successful, happy, and prosperous are so only because (their) inhabitants are rightly guided by the principles of the shari’a and laws which emanate from men of astuteness and understanding and are prepared for the path of justice and equity” (Shmuel Moreh, Napoleon and the French Impact on Egyptian Society in the Eyes of al-Jabarti).

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

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