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  • Ellen McLarney


This article analyzes in depth four main writings by the pioneering nahḍa intellectual Rifaʿa Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi, who drew on classical kinds of adab to articulate new kinds of political subjectivities. He especially draws on the image of the body politic as a body with the king at its heart. But he reconfigures this image, instead placing the public, or the people, at the heart of politics, a “vanquishing sultan” that governs through public opinion. For al-Tahtawi, adab is a kind of virtuous comportment that governs self and soul and structures political relationships. In this, he does not diverge from classical conceptions of adab as righteous behavior organizing proper social and political relationships. But in his thought, disciplinary training in adab is crucial to the citizen-subject's capacity for self-rule, as he submits to the authority of his individual conscience, ensuring not only freedom, but also justice. These ideas have had lasting impact on Islamic thought, as they have been recycled for the political struggles of new generations.


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Ellen McLarney is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; e-mail:


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1 al-Tahtawi, ‘Rifaʿa Rafiʿ, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila li-Rifaʿa Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi (Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1973), 247.

2 Ibid.

3 Hourani, Albert Habib, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962); Rosenthal, Franz and Lewis, Bernard, “Hurriyya,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Ed., ed. Bearman, P., Bianquis, Th., Bosworth, C. E., van Donzel, E., and Heinrichs, W. P., Brill Online,; Ahmad Zakaraya al-Shilq, Ruʾya fi Tahdith al-Fikr al-Misri (Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Misriyya al-ʿAmma li-l-Kitab, 1984).

4 For an excellent discussion of early Islamic conceptions of maslaḥa as the “public good,” see Afsaruddin, Asma, “Maslahah as a Political Concept,” in Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft, ed. Boroujerdi, Mehrzad (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 1644.

5 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 520.

6 For a discussion of the sultan as the heart of the body politic, see al-Azmeh, Aziz's Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Politics (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 119–20.

7 Peter Gran, “Al-Tahtawi's Trip to Paris in Light of Recent Historical Analysis: Travel Literature or a Mirror for Princes?,” in Mirror for the Muslim Prince, 190–217.

8 Nallino, C.A., La Literature arabe des origins à l’époque de la dynastie Umayyade (Paris: G.P. Maisonneuve, 1950); Pellat, Charles, “Variations sur le thème de l’adab,” Correspondance d’Orient 5, no. 6 (1964): 1937; F. Gabrieli, “Adab,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Ed.,; Bonebakker, S. A., “Adab and the Concept of Belles-Lettres,” in Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres, ed. Ashtiany, Julia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

9 Farag, Iman, “Private Lives, Public Affairs: The Uses of Adab,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, ed. Salvatore, Armando and Eickelman, Dale F. (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 9899; Allan, Michael, “How Adab Became Literary: Formalism, Orientalism and the Institutions of World Literature,” Journal of Arabic Literature 43 (2012): 172–96.

10 Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991), 100104; Powell, Eve M. Troutt, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003), 49; Euben, Roxanne, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), 122.

11 Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, 100–101.

12 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Gordon, Colin (New York: Vintage, 1980), 39.

13 Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 25, 222; Farag, “The Uses of Adab,” 93.

14 Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship, 89.

15 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 433. For a discussion of al-Tahtawi's concept of freedom in al-Murshid al-Amin, see Benjamin Geer, “The Priesthood of Nationalism in Egypt: Duty, Authority, Autonomy” (PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2011), 147.

16 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 281; Taylor, Charles, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 20. See Farag's discussion of “Adab as education” in Public Islam and the Common Good, 95–98.

17 Euben, Roxanne L., “Traveling Theorists and Translating Practices,” in What Is Political Theory?, ed. White, Stephen K. and Moon, J. Donald (London: Sage, 2004), 145; Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore, 15.

18 Gran, Peter, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 75.

19 al-Tahtawi, Rifaʿa Rafiʿ and Newman, Daniel L., An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi's Visit to France 1826–1831 (New York: Saqi Books, 2011), 7375.

20 Badawi, Muhammad Mustafa, A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 1467; Cachia, Pierre, An Overview of Modern Arabic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), 180–84.

21 Stetkevych, Jaroslav, The Modern Arabic Literary Language: Lexical and Stylistic Developments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

22 Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 171–99; Asad, Formations of the Secular, 220, 222.

23 Yousef, Hoda A., “Reassessing Egypt's Dual System of Education Under Ismaʿil: Growing ʿIlm and Shifting Ground in Egypt's First Educational Journal Rawdat al-Madaris, 1870–77,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008): 109–30.

24 al-Karim, Ahmad ʿIzzat ʿAbd, Tarikh al-Taʿlim Fi ʿAsr Muhammad ʿAli (Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahda al-Misriyya, 1938), 555.

25 Heyworth-Dunne, James, An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt (London: Luzac and Co., 1939), 376–77.

26 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 138.

27 Yousef, “Reassessing Egypt's Dual System of Education,” 110.

28 Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore, 90.

29 ʿImara, Muhammad, Sirat al-Rasul wa-Taʾsis al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (Beirut: al-Muassasa al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1977); ʿImara, , Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi: Raʾid al-Tanwir fi al-ʿAsr al-Hadith (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1984); Khatib, Sulayman, al-Din wa-l-Hadara fi Fikr al-Tahtawi: Qiraʾa Islamiyya (Cairo: al-Markaz al-Islami li-Dirasat al-Hadara, 1992); Euben, Roxanne L., Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 90133; Rastegar, Kamran, Literary Modernity Between the Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions in Nineteenth-Century Arabic, English, and Persian Literatures (New York: Routledge, 2007), 7784; Coller, Ian, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798–1831 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2010), 167–86; Tageldin, Shaden M., Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2011); El-Ariss, Tarek, Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 1952; Gran, “Al-Tahtawi's Trip to Paris.”

30 ʿImara, Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi.

31 Stetkevych, Modern Arabic Literary Language; Ayalon, Ami, “Dimuqratiyya, Hurriyya, Jumhurriyya: The Modernization of the Arabic Political Vocabulary,” Asian and African Studies 23 (1989): 2342; Sawaie, Mohammed, “Rifaʿa Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi and His Contribution to the Lexical Development of Modern Literary Arabic,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32 (2000): 395410.

32 Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore, 117–18n127.

33 Lane, Edward William, Arabic-English Lexicon (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968), 539.

34 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 102.

35 Newman, An Imam in Paris, 195.

36 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 102.

37 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 74.

38 He also understands justice and fairness as a nearly unattainable ideal, “like complete faith or total goodness (al-halāl al-ṣirf).” Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 103.

39 Asad, Formations of the Secular, 220.

40 Lewis, “Hurriyya.”

41 Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 89. This is Taylor's definition of the modern public sphere.

42 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 247.

43 Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 190–91.

44 Voll, John O., “Renewal and Reform in Islamic History: Tajdīd and Islaḥ,” in Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. Esposito, John L. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Haj, Samira, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 7. Haj talks about the concepts of renewal, revival, and reform in the Islamic discursive tradition as “imperative for safeguarding and ensuring the continuity of the moral community.”

45 Asad, Formations of the Secular, 25, 222.

46 Rosenthal, Franz, The Muslim Concept of Freedom Prior to the Nineteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 1960); al-Khidr Husayn, Muhammad, al-Hurriyya fi al-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Iʿtisam, 1982); Laroui, Abdallah, “Islam et liberté,” in Islam et modernité (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 1987).

47 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age; Lewis, “Hurriyya”; al-Shilq, Ruʾya fi Tahdith al-Fikr al-Misri.

48 al-Tahtawi, Rifaʿa Rafiʿ, Manahij al-Albab fi Mabahij al-Adab al-ʿAsriyya (Cairo: al-Bulaq, 1869); al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship, 84–92, 115–53.

49 Tajir, Jak, Harakat al-Tarjama bi-Misr Khilal al-Qarn al-Tasiʿ ʿAshar (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿarif, 1945), 149.

50 Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism, 51.

51 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract (New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013), 6.

52 al-Tahtawi, Rifaʿa Rafiʿ, Mawaqiʿ al-Aflak fi Waqaiʿ Tilimak (Cairo: Matbaʿat Dar al-Kutub wa-l-Wathaʾiq al-Qawmiyya, 2002), 133.

53 Ibid., 135.

55 ʿAbduh, Muhammad, The Theology of Unity, trans. Cragg, Kenneth (New York: Islamic Book Trust, 2013), 125; Husayn, al-Hurriyya fi al-Islam; Wafi, ʿAli ʿAbd al-Wahid, Huquq al-Insan fi al-Islam (Cairo: Maktabat Nahdat Misr, 1957); Qutb, Sayyid, al-ʿAdala al-Ijtimaʿiyya fi al-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1975).

56 Al-Tahtawi, Tilimak, 240–41.

57 ʿAbduh, Theology of Unity, 125.

58 Lukács, Georg, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Bostock, Anna (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974), 38, 56.

59 Ramsay, Andrew Michael, “A Discourse on Epic Poetry and the Excellence of the Poem of Telemachus,” in The Adventures of Telemachus, by de la Mothe Fénelon, François de Salignac, trans. Maizeaux, F.R.S. Des (Paris: Theophile Barrois le jeune, 1798), 1112.

60 Ibid., 36.

61 Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism, 52.

62 Moosa, Matti, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1983), 6.

63 The popularity of al-Tahtawi's Takhlis al-Ibriz resulted in a surge of similar publications that combined riḥla and adab. As Kamran Rastegar points out in his Literary Modernity between the Middle East and Europe, they also innovated on these traditional genres.

64 Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid, “The Ulama of Cairo in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East Since 1500, ed. Keddie, Nikki R. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978), 163; Yousef, “Reassessing Egypt's Dual System of Education,” 110–11.

65 Aroian, Lois A., The Nationalization of Arabic and Islamic Education in Egypt: Dar al-ʿUlum and al-Azhar (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1983), 1214.

66 al-Ghazali, Muhammad Abu Hamid, Mizan al-ʿAmal, ed. Dunya, Sulayman (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿarif, 2003), 235.

67 Moosa, Ebrahim, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 215.

68 Chatterjee, Partha, Texts Of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 8.

69 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 516.

70 Ibid., 520.

71 Al-Tahtawi, Tilimak, 15.

73 Al-Tahtawi, Al-Aʿmal Al-Kamila, 520.

74 Ibid., 523.

75 Ibid., 519.

76 Ibid., 664.

77 Ibid., 429.

78 Ibid., 433.

80 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990), 100101.

81 Al-Tahtawi, Al-Aʿmal Al-Kamila, 284, 520.

82 Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, 100, 102.

83 Moosa, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, 216.

84 On the role of the intelligentsia in the ʿUrabi revolt, see Cole, Juan R. I., Colonialism & Revolution In the Middle East: Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt's ʿUrabi Movement (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999), 234–72; and Sean Lyngaas, “Ahmad Urabi: Delegate of the People, Social Mobilization in Egypt on the Eve of Colonial Rule,” al-Nakhla (2011): 1–13.

85 Al-Marsafi's lectures on literature were published in the journal Rawdat al-Madaris, for which al-Tahtawi was the editor-in-chief between 1870 and 1873. These lectures were later compiled into a two-volume work al-Wasila al-Adabiyya ila al-ʿUlum al-ʿArabiyya (The Literary Means to the Sciences of Arabic).

86 al-Marsafi, Husayn, Risalat al-Kalim al-Thaman (Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Misriyya al-ʿAmma li-l-Kitab, 1984), 64.

87 Ibid., 173, 174.

88 Ibid., 85.

89 Ibid., 74.

90 Ibid., 85.

91 Ibid., 85, 86.

92 Ibid., 74.

93 Ibid., 82.

94 Ibid., 117.

95 Ibid., 119.

96 Ibid., 121.

97 Al-Tahtawi, al-Aʿmal al-Kamila, 281.

99 Rastegar, Literary Modernity, 77–84; El-Ariss, Arab Modernity, 19–52.

100 Gran, “Al-Tahtawi's Trip to Paris.”

101 Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, 135–36.

102 Al-Marsafi, al-Kalim al-Thaman; Husayn, al-Hurriyya fi al-Islam; Jawish, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz, Athar al-Qurʾan fi Tahrir al-Fikr al-Bashari, ed. ʿImara, Muhammad (Cairo: Majallat al-Azhar, 2012); Qutb, al-ʿAdala al-Ijtimaʿiyya fi al-Islam; ʿImara, Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi; Hanafi, Hasan, al-Din wa-l-Thawra fi Misr (Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli, 1988).

103 Muhammad ʿImara has published over seven books on al-Tahtawi, many of them multiple times, including a five-volume edition of al-Tahtawi's complete works.


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