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January 15, 2015

Paris - between the Kouachi brothers and Imam Tahtawi

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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(Cairo) By now, the entire world knows about Said and Cherif Kouachi. They were brothers, home radicalized and Yemen trained, who methodically carried out the horrific January 7 attack that killed multiple staff members of the Paris-based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

Very few, however, know about Egyptian native Imam Rifa'a El-Tahtawi (1801-1873), a 19th-century Muslim scholar who also had deep roots in Paris.

These three men, all professing Islam, held polar opposite views concerning the freedoms of speech, expression, belief and assembly.

Like everyone else, I first learned of the Kouachi brothers as I watched the unfolding horror of live TV news coverage from Paris during the moments and hours following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

By coincidence, or perhaps fate, the very next day I renewed my knowledge about Imam Tahtawi by attending in Cairo a live dramatic production about his life at the Egyptian National Theatre.

I realized I had encountered a profound study in contrasting choices.

The Kouachis, both in their mid-30s, mowed down innocent, unarmed “infidels” whom they saw as representing an anti-religious (especially anti-Islam) society.

But more than a century and a half earlier, the young Tahtawi developed a very different relationship with Paris.

Far from condemning all of French society as “infidel,” he spent five years studying his host nation’s arts, sciences, education system, health care, governance, law and freedoms – in fact, its entire civilization and culture. 

On returning to Egypt, Tahtawi was so inspired that he led a cultural renaissance in areas where he recognized French excellence and advancement, such as the education of girls and women.

He was credited with establishing Egypt’s first school for girls, which in his day was also the first of its kind in the entire Muslim world. Although many of his peers failed to appreciate Tahtawi’s insight and labelled him “infidel,” he persevered in his quest to share the power of knowledge.

French police reported that Said and Cherif Kouachi fled to a printing warehouse north of Paris where they took a hostage, who fortunately survived the ordeal. They were killed when police stormed the building, but their deadly influence sparked yet another terror incident. Self-professed ISIS supporter Amedy Coulibaly, who claimed links to the Kouachi brothers, took hostages in an eastern Paris kosher supermarket. Coulibaly had previously killed a policewoman and seriously injured a jogger. He too died in a hail of police bullets, becoming what fellow terrorists call a “martyr.”

Whatever happened to Muslims to open up such a shocking gulf between the inter-cultural optimism of Imam Tahtawi and the deadly anger of radicalized young men like the Kouachis and Coulibaly?

All claimed to act on the basis of Islamic teachings. But in contrast to the recent tragedies of 21st-century France, the tenets of faith moved Tahtawi during the mid-1800s to heroically resist the extremism of his own time and work tirelessly to advance education and understanding.

Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers instead embraced a vengeful, extremist misinterpretation of their religion and became violent murderers, smearing a faith whose very name means “in peace.”

In this respect they have become part of a globally distressing and tragic situation, in which imported and home-grown terrorists alike share a dangerous lack of education and awareness. They choose a self-dramatizing road toward goals based on violence, with the outcome of every terrorist act being a rise in undeserved hate against Muslim minorities everywhere.

In 1826 Imam Rifa'a El-Tahtawi was sent by Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali (1805-1848) to serve a five-year term as Imam to a group of students in Paris. In addition to his spiritual duties he also learned French and soon mastered the language.

He then set about translating books of literature, sciences, history, geography, ethics, social and political philosophy, mathematics, geometry and law, including the French constitution. In fact, he personally translated or supervised the translation of more than 2,000 works from French into Arabic.

Tahtawi also kept a detailed journal of his time in Paris, published in 1849 as the famous Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz – or, The Extraction of Gold by Over-viewing of Paris. It was praised not only by progressive Egyptian Muslims, but also in France itself. The title of his journal pointed to his mission in Paris: to bring back to Egypt what he considered the best for his people.

Tahtawi’s biography offers telling insight into why he became a leader, not a killer.

Born in the village of Tahta in Upper Egypt, he followed the traditional education program of memorizing the Qur’an at a young age and learning the basics of reading, writing and mathematics.

He then attended Al-Azhar University in Cairo, graduating in 1821 at the top of his class. Although Tahtawi’s rural family might seem ordinary by the standards of his time, he commented in some of his later writings on the extraordinary intellectual background in which he grew up.

At the university of Al-Azhar, Tahtawi was fortunate to have exceptional professors, three of whom became Sheikhs of Al-Azhar. They were crucial in giving him the confidence to advocate for social, intellectual and religious reforms. One of them, Hassan El-Attar, worked with Tahtawi in championing the teaching of rationalism as a subject. El-Attar was hated by many conservative peers and as a result suffered much misery during his tenure as Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

Shortly after graduating, Tahtawi began his university teaching career. Soon he’d published two books, one on Islamic theology and the other on Arabic grammar, both at the urging of his fellow professors and former teachers.

At age 20, he was one of Al-Azhar’s youngest instructors, teaching courses on logic, writing style, languages and Hadith (the recorded sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

Tahtawi's years in France can be seen in two ways.

First, a great change came over him, for as an impressionable young man he was awed by the diversity and opportunity of French secular culture.

The second way, which is more compelling to me, is that his moderate and open-minded interpretation of Islam sparked his zeal to bring the European enlightenment into Egypt and beyond. It would take more than just an appreciation of secular life to inspire an intellectually gifted young man, a graduate of Al-Azhar, to undertake translations of so many French works.

Tahtawi’s most significant contribution to Egyptian academic and political life was the concept of France as a nation in which religion and state are separate and where citizens enjoy rights guaranteed them through the social contract of the law.

Many aspects of society and government in both Egypt and France during the mid-1800s could have driven a bright young man like Tahtawi to rage; the period was hardly a golden age for either country. Instead, he chose to fight for improvement through knowledge and communication; he chose the pen (Je Suis Tahtawi) as his weapon.

It is deeply regrettable that the Muslim world of today, especially for young Muslims, has no one like Imam Rifa'a El-Tahtawi to train them in using the most powerful revolutionary and reforming weapon of all – knowledge.

Dr. Elmasry, an Egyptian-born Canadian, is Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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