Taha Husayn

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Taha Husayn

Taha Husayn (sometimes spelled Hussein)(1889-1973) is considered one of Egypt's leading men of letters. Blind from early childhood, he devoted his life to intellectual freedom for the writer, critic, and scholar and to the introduction of Western learning into his country.

Taha Husayn was born on Nov. 4, 1889, in Maghagha, a mill town in Minya Province, Egypt. One of 11 children, he became blind at the age of three from a combination of eye disease and folk medicine. After completing studies at the village mosque school, Taha was sent to Cairo (1902) to attend al-Azhar, the mosque university that served as a theological seminary to much of the Moslem world. Because of his outspoken opposition to the school's teaching system at al-Azhar, Husayn was failed in his final examinations. He enrolled in the new, secular Egyptian University, where he studied with some of the leading scholars of the time, Egyptian and European, in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies. In this heady new atmosphere, Husayn received the first doctorate awarded by the university (1914) for his thesis on Abu-l-Ala al-Maarri, the blind Syrian philosopher of the 11th century.

Study in France

In 1915 Husayn won a scholarship for study in France, first to Montpellier and then to Paris. In Montpellier he employed a young Frenchwoman and student, Suzanne Bresseau, as his reader, and she later became his wife. His fields of study were literature and philosophy, including classical, and he became deeply interested in contemporary French literature.

Upon his return to Egypt after earning his doctorate in 1919, Husayn became a lecturer in ancient history at Egyptian University, and in 1925 he was given the chair in Arabic language and literature. Soon after he was elected dean of the faculty, the first Egyptian to hold the post.

A Provocative Career

In 1926 the young professor caused a public uproar with his work on pre-Islamic poetry that scandalized conservative Moslem opinion by criticizing traditional assumptions. The outcry almost caused the fall of the government, and the book was eventually withdrawn and reissued in a less provocative version.

Husayn's boldness and fervent support of academic freedom were not forgotten, however, and in 1932 he was dismissed. He wrote prodigiously for literary magazines and newspapers, as well as more substantial works. He became a prime mover in the founding of Alexandria University, and was minister of education and chairman of the cultural committee of the League of Arab States. In later years he was awarded many domestic and foreign honors.


Hasayn retired from academic life in 1952 to continue his writings, which he did until his death in 1973. The vast body of his works places him at the forefront of the Egyptian literary renaissance of the 20th century. He worked on the edition of classical Arabic texts and translated ancient Greek and modern French classics into Arabic.

Husayn's more purely literary studies were, on classical Arabic poetry, Ma al-Mutanabbi (1937; With al-Mutanabbi); and on modern Arabic poets, Hafiz wa-Shawqi (1933; Hafiz and Shawqi). His studies of the political and social history of early Islam include Al-Fitnah al-Kubra (The Great Time of Troubles), an interpretation of major political and ideological clashes.

Husayn's fiction includes numerous short stories as well as novels such as Ala Hamish al-Sirah (3 vols., 1933-1943; On the Margin of the Prophet's Life) and novellas with modern, often Upper Egyptian settings such as Dua al-Karawan (1934; The Appeal of the Caravan) and Shajarat al-Bus (1944; The Tree of Despair).

Husayn's fiction often became a vehicle to attack the Egyptian "system" that he knew. One of his most important works on educational and cultural policy is the major study Mustaqbal al-Thaqafah fi Misr (2 vols., 1938; The Future of Culture in Egypt), in which he developed his thesis that Egyptian culture was part of Mediterranean culture and hence any attempt to "orientalize" it was a dangerous error.

In his moving autobiography, Al-Ayyam (3 vols., 1929-1955; The Days), Husayn retells in simple language his own story, from village life and childhood blindness through educational trials and maturity. The value and appeal of this work are suggested by the fact that it has been translated into at least nine languages, including Chinese, English, Hebrew, and Russian.

Further Reading

The major critical study of Husayn is Pierre Cachia, Taha Husayn: His Place in the Egyptian Literary Renaissance (1956). Recommended for general background is Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (1962). □