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Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā

By:
Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā

Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1971), was an Egyptian novelist, critic, and modernist reformer. His two Arabic nicknames summarize this famed writer 's life. One, “ʿAmīd al-Adab al-ʿArabī” (Dean of Arabic Literature), signals his pivotal role as one of the towering figures of Arabic letters in the twentieth century. The other, “Qāhir al-Ẓalām” (Conqueror of Darkness), alludes to his blindness, a handicap that gives his story a heroic cast.

Ṭāhā Ḥusayn was born in ʿIzbat al-Kīlū, a small village in Upper Egypt, to a large family. At a young age he contracted ophthalmia, and the village barber 's treatment caused the young boy to lose his sight. The handicap strengthened Ṭāhā 's resolve. He broke barrier after barrier in his rise to a position of leadership in Egyptian society and letters.

Ṭāhā Ḥusayn 's education began in the village kuttāb (Qurʿānic school). In 1902 he went to Cairo, pursuing his schooling at al-Azhar, the most prestigious place for traditional Muslim education. But secularism attracted him more than traditionalism, and he began studies at the newly founded university in Cairo, from which he received a doctorate in 1914. Like many other Arab intellectuals, he was drawn to Europe and studied in Montpellier and then Paris, where he received his second doctorate in 1919.

In France, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn met and married a French-woman, Suzanne Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, who maintained the practice of her own religion, Catholicism. That, combined with much travel and residence abroad, meant that Ṭāhā participated in two civilizations; however, his impact was greatest on Egyptian society and contemporary Arab culture. In his roles as adviser to Egypt 's Ministry of Education and then as minister from 1950 to 1952, he saw to the implementation of educational reforms that ensured the expansion of the state school system.

It is for his writings, however, that Ṭāhā Ḥusayn is best known in the Arab world today. Novels, short stories, historical and critical studies, and political articles sit side by side with his translations of Western classics into Arabic. He took the controversial critical position that the famous pre-Islamic odes were inauthentic; his criticism also includes impassioned writings on the blind ʿAbbāsid poet Abū al-ʿAlāʿ al-Maʿarrī (d. 1058). In his cultural manifesto The Future of Culture in Egypt he predicates his positions on intimate connections between Egypt and the West. Of all his works, it is Ṭāhā Ḥusayn 's autobiography Al-ayyām (The Days) that has earned him a position in world literature. The three-volume masterpiece was published over forty years, a period critical in the development of Arabic literature. Its third-person narrator exposes, among other things, the weaknesses of the traditional educational system.

More than a century after his birth, the figure of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn stills towers over the Arab cultural scene. As the Conqueror of Darkness, in a movie of the same title, he became familiar to millions of Arab cinema viewers. He stirred controversy during his lifetime with his ideas on pre-Islamic poetry and on Egypt and the West, and with his attitudes toward traditional learning. After his death he was treated in many quarters as a virtual secular saint. With the rise of the Islamists in the Middle East, the figure of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn has been drawn into the fray once again, this time as the object of attack by conservative religious thinkers. The arguments of his antisecular opponents would not surprise him. The question of the future of culture no longer applies only to Egypt, but to the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. Since his death, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn has become a pawn in the cultural game in which he was such an active player.

See also ARABIC LITERATURE, subentryAN OVERVIEW; and EGYPT.

Bibliography

  • Cachia, Pierre. Ṭāhā Ḥusayn: His Place in the Egyptian Literary Renaissance. London, 2005.
  • Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā. Al-ayyām. Vol. 1. Cairo, 1971. Translated by E. H. Paxton as An Egyptian Childhood. Washington, D.C., 1982.
  • Vol. 2. Cairo, 1971. Translated by Hilary Wayment as The Stream of Days. London, 1948.
  • Vol. 3. Cairo, 1973. Translated by Kenneth Cragg as A Passage to France. Leiden, Netherlands, 1976. Classic of modern autobiography, and one of the most widely read and influential texts in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Mahmoudi, Abdelrashid. Taha Husain's Education: From Al Azhar to the Sorbonne. Routledge, 2014.
  • Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Blindness and Autobiography: Al-Ayyām of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn. Princeton, N.J., 1985. In-depth study of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn 's autobiography that analyzes both its literary properties and its links to the Arabo-Islamic textual tradition.
  • Moosa, Matti. The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction. 2d ed.Boulder, Colo., and London, 1997.
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