by A. H. Hourani
MR. Ahmad's book deals with a group of Egyptian thinkers who flourished in the early years of the present century. This may seem a subject remote from the problems of today, but in fact he is writing about the most important movement of modern thought in what is, from many points of view, the most important country of the Middle East. The unique geographical position of Egypt, at the meeting point of three Arab regions (the North African littoral, the Nile Valley, and the Arabian Peninsula with its northern fringes) gives her, as we all know, a vast potentiality of political influence--at least of negative influence, the power of obstructing the policies of other states--; but she has also had for many centuries a pre-eminence of another type. After the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad the centre of gravity of Islamic thought and Arabic culture moved to Cairo, and the Azhar Mosque-University became the home of the traditional sciences of religion and language. Then in the nineteenth century Egypt was the first Arab country and one of the first Muslim countries to begin the process of adopting the institutions which are characteristic of the modern world. She became the scene of an experiment which was of interest to all Arab and Muslim countries; and since she also became the centre of modern Arabic literature, the experiment was self-conscious and articulate. Among Egyptian Muslims, as among no others except perhaps those of India and Pakistan, the question was posed and debated, on what terms can the Muslim peoples become part of the modern world while remaining Muslim?
Although in principle subject to the Ottoman Sultan, the rulers of Egypt had considerable freedom of action, and Egypt became virtually autonomous from the time when Muhammad Ali seized power in the confusion created by the withdrawal of the French army of occupation. Once Muhammad Ali had consolidated his power he set himself the task of reforming the