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HUSAYN, TAHA (1889-1971), Egyptian novelist, critic, and modernist reformer. His two Arabic nicknames summarize this famed writer’s life. One, `Amid al-Adab al-‘Arabs (dean of Arabic literature), signals his pivotal role as one of the towering figures of Arabic letters in the twentieth century. The other, Qahir alZalam” (Conqueror of Darkness), alludes to his blindness, a handicap that gives his story a heroic cast.

Taha Husayn was born in `Izbat al-Kiln, a small village inUpper 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 Taha’s resolve. He broke barrier after barrier in his rise to a position of leadership in Egyptian society and letters.

Taha Husayn’s education began in the village kuttdb (Qur’anic school). In 1902 he went toCairo, 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 inCairo, from which he received a doctorate in 1914. Like many other Arab intellectuals, he was drawn toEuropeand studied in

Montpellierand thenParis, where he received his second doctorate in 1919.

InFrance, Taha Husayn met and married a Frenchwoman, Suzanne Taha Husayn, who maintained the practice of her own religion, Catholicism. That, combined with much travel and residence abroad, meant that Taha participated in two civilizations; however, his impact was greatest on Egyptian society and contemporary Arab culture. In his roles as adviser toEgypt’s Ministry of Education and then as minister from 195o 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 Taha Husayn 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 ‘Abbasid poet Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma’arri (d. 1058). In his cultural manifesto The Future of Culture inEgypthe predicates his positions on intimate connections betweenEgyptand the West. Of all his works, it is Taha Husayn’s autobiography Al-ayydm (The Days) that has earned him a position in world literature. The threevolume 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 Taha Husayn 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 onEgyptand 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 theMiddle East, the figure of Taha Husayn 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 toEgypt, but to the whole of the Middle East andNorth Africa. Two decades after his death, Taha Husayn has become a pawn in the cultural game in which he was such an active player.

[See also Arabic Literature, overview article;Egypt.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cachia, Pierre. Taha Husayn.London, 1956. Useful general study on the Egyptian modernist.

Husayn, Taha. Al-Ayydm. Vol. I. Cairo, 1971. Translated by E. H. Paxton as An Egyptian Childhood.Washington,D.C., 1982. AlAyydm. Vol. 2.Cairo, 1971. Translated by Hilary Wayment as The Stream of Days.London, 1948. Al Ayyam. Vol. 3.Cairo, 1973. Translated by Kenneth Cragg as A Passage toFrance.Leiden, 1976. Classic of modern autobiography, and one of the most widely read and influential texts in the Middle East andNorth Africa. Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Blindness and Autobiography: Al Ayyam of Taha Husayn.Princeton, 1985. In-depth study of Taha Husayn’s autobiography that analyzes both its literary properties and its links to the Arabo-Islamic textual tradition.

`Usfur, Jabir. Al-Maraya al-Mutajdwirah: Dirdsah fi Naqd Taha Husayn.Cairo, 1983. Study of Taha Husayn’s critical and literary corpus by one of the Arab world’s leading critics.

FEDwA MALTi-DOUGLAS

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/husayn-taha/
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  • writerPosted On: June 23, 2013
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