Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Orientalism to Khomeinism: A Century of Persian Studies in Egypt

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Orientalism to Khomeinism: A Century of Persian Studies in Egypt

Article excerpt

This article examines the evolution of Persian and Iranian studies as a modern academic discipline in Egypt since the early twentieth century. It employs Persian studies as a case study of Eastern Orientalism, while shedding light on the long-overlooked Iranian contribution to modern Egyptian thought. The author argues that the politically motivated demand for Iranian studies in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran has expanded the field of Persian scholarship from medieval literature to focus more on modern and contemporary Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian studies in Egypt, like most academic disciplines, have increasingly become vulnerable to the bureaucratization and politicization associated with the state's control over higher education institutes and most of publication industry.

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This article contributes to the growing scholarship on the formation of modern disciplines of knowledge which is at the intersection of nationalism and state-building in Egypt by tracing the evolution of Persian Studies as a modern academic field of inquiry since the early twentieth century (see El Shakry; Di-Capua; Elshakry). The aim is twofold: first, to employ Persian Studies in Egypt as a case study of Eastern orientalism; second, to shed fight on the long-overlooked Iranian contribution to modern Egyptian thought while examining how the state--as a main agent in structuring a scholarly discipline--has politicized the growing scholarship on Iran in Egypt. Persian Studies in Egypt witnessed a dramatic shift: from focusing on medieval Persian literature as a central terrain of Persian Studies until the mid-1970s to a wide array of inquiries with a particular focus on contemporary Iranian politics after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. While the revolution increased public interest in Iranian politics among Egyptians, it exposed the knowledge vacuum on modern Iranian history and society, which led to unprecedented growth in Persian academic programs and publications during the last three decades. I argue that the politically motivated demand for Persian Studies has expanded the field of Persian scholarship to focus on modern and contemporary Iran. In both cases of studying the legacy of traditional study of classical Persian literature and of contemporary Iranian politics, Egyptian scholars utilized the Iranian experience to answer questions concerning Egyptian realities, and the Iranian trajectory inspired Egyptian scholars in their search for authentic modernity. Meanwhile, Persian Studies in Egypt, like most academic disciplines, have increasingly become vulnerable to the bureaucratization and politicization associated with the state's control over higher education institutes and most of the publication industry.

Seek the Persian Knowledge Even in Europe

With the establishment of the Egyptian Ahliyya (Civil) University--Cairo University now--in 1908, the university faced a lack of Egyptians with doctoral degrees and familiarity with Western literature in their fields to teach in Arabic (Reid, Cairo University 24). The university employed European orientalists who could lecture in classical Arabic on a wide range of topics, such as Arabic literature, Islamic history, and the history of philosophy. The university sent its promising students to Europe on educational missions to obtain the necessary training and doctorate degrees. The goal was to foster Egyptian scholars capable of teaching modern subjects in Arabic, a goal that took years to attain. European orientalists played a vital role until the early 1930s, and a dwindling one thereafter, until they virtually disappeared in the 1950s (Reid, "Cairo University" 53). They introduced a generation of Egyptian intellectuals to Western methods of historical and sociological analysis that became integral to the study of the humanities and social sciences (38). At the newly established Ahliyya University, European teachers exposed Egyptian students to aspects of Persian civilization and introduced them to Western approaches of analyzing medieval Persian literature. …

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