According to most accounts, Taha Hussein, one of Egypt’s most esteemed writers and intellectuals and a giant in modern Arabic literature, was born on 14 November, 1889, in the Upper Egyptian village of Izbet Al-Kilo in the Minya governorate. He had humble beginnings hailing from a large lower middle-class family of 13 children, in which he was the seventh child.
However, adversity struck Hussein at a young age, when a simple eye infection mistreated by folk medicine caused him to lose his sight at just three-years-old. Yet, this did not deter his thirst for knowledge and education growing up. Indeed, his motto later in life would be: “Education is like the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
In spite of his challenges, Hussein’s father sent him to a traditional school known as a kuttab, where he learnt the Arabic language and to memorise the Quran. One of his older brothers studied at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo and would pay a visit to the family home each summer. This would leave a strong influence on Hussein who had hoped to return with him each time, in part to further his education, but also to attain the respect of being an Azharite.
In 1902, aged 13, Hussein would eventually move to the bustling capital to study at the famed institution. It was here that the blind, young student would experience what he described as a “boundless sea” of scholarship. Noting in his seminal three-volume autobiographical work, Al-Ayyam (The Days), he was: “Determined to throw himself into this sea, to drink of its waters, as much as was granted to him, was even prepared to drown in them.”
After several years of religious studies, he gradually felt he was in a “leaden atmosphere of outdated discourse”, as he put it. The turn of the 20th century was, of course, a pivotal period in modern Egyptian history, as the British began to establish a veiled protectorate over Ottoman-Egypt. With it, came new ideas and a class of modernists in intellectual circles, amid years of neglect and stagnation in among the religious scholarly institutions since the previous century.
Significant educational reform at Al-Azhar would occur a few decades later, under the leadership of Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut, who, like Hussein, was influenced by the ideas of modernist Muslim Egyptian thinker Muhammad Abduh. Although, Hussein raised the issue of state supervision of education some thirty years before Egypt’s 1971 constitution.
Frequent disagreements with the ulema of Al-Azhar, and a growing interest in literature, left Hussein with little choice but to move onto more secular educational endeavours. He transferred to the University of Cairo which was founded in 1908 and where Hussein received his PhD in 1914 – the first one awarded by the university. Interestingly, his thesis was on Abu Al-Ala Al-Maarri, an 11th century blind, sceptic philosopher and poet from Syria.
The following year, he moved to France on a scholarship, first to Montpellier and then Paris. Hussein would delve into the fields of Latin, Greek and contemporary French literature, attaining a post-graduate diploma in history, and a PhD at the Sorbonne – the first Egyptian to do so. It was during his four years in France that he married.
Returning to Egypt in 1919, he was appointed as the university’s professor of history and also became a founding rector of the University of Alexandria. Hussein was later made dean of the faculty of literature in 1930. Yet, during his tenure at the more progressive and Western-modelled university, Hussein also found himself at odds with the establishment over some of his unorthodox views regarding religion.
In 1926, his most controversial book was published, entitled Pre-Islamic Poetry. The book was banned and later revised, having been deemed by religious authorities as being blasphemous over its questioning of the Quran’s traditional interpretation and the authenticity of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, insinuating Arab historians and linguists of faking or accepting fake history of pre-Islamic Arabic tribes. This serious charge would see his later position as dean of the faculty of arts terminated in 1932, only for him to be reappointed where he would thereafter always formally be known as “the Dean”.
Perhaps the pinnacle of his life’s achievement was in 1950, when he was appointed as minister of education, where he campaigned for free education and the right for all to be educated regardless of social standing, predating President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s realisation of it after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
Whilst Hussein’s autobiography is the most known of his works in the West, and certainly was the first modern Arabic piece of literature to receive critical acclaim there, the bulk of his legacy is on Arabic literature, hence his nickname “the Dean of Arabic Literature”. He was nominated 14 times for the Nobel Prize Awards and received the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights and Egypt’s Order of the Nile, the country’s highest possible award. Winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz acknowledged Hussein as one of his influences, once stating: “When I read Taha Hussein’s The Days, I wrote a booklet, or a book as I called it then, in which I narrated the story of my life in the manner of Taha Hussein.”
Hussein continued to write articles and give lectures on literature almost up until the time of his death on 28 October, 1973, aged 85-years-old. He remains an inspiration to millions having overcome poverty and a disability, and becoming one of the Arab world’s most important celebrated writers and academics.