Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Education and the Journey to Islam

Christiane Paulus
Christiane Paulus

From my new article on Arab West Report:

When it comes to Egyptian education and Islam, Christiane Paulus is both a critic and supporter. So much so, she adopted both.

Paulus is a German national, resident in Egypt since 1998. She is currently a professor of Islamic studies and Protestant theology at the Azhar University, through the medium of the German language. Her journey here is a story all its own.

Paulus studied Protestant theology and postmodern philosophy in Marburg, Germany, with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But in 1988, before her final tests, she married her husband, an Egyptian Muslim. Unless he converted to Christianity, the church ruled she could not receive her preaching license, as both spouses needed to be of the faith.

Years thereafter Paulus remained in her Christian faith, even after moving to Egypt with her family.

Paulus does describe what she finds are the culturally derived faults of the Egyptian education system, with consequences falling directly on religious and political relations:

Dialogue, Paulus believes, is a subject of the social sciences – a discipline largely ignored in Egyptian education. Curriculum, methodology, and pedagogy have remained stagnant since the Nasser era, when a resistance to new ideas was the norm. Since then, however, both students and teachers have sought to escape the system. At the basic level this involves the reliance on private tutors; for those able it means enrollment in private or foreign schools.

Women, she noted, are in general educated relationally. This equips them for dialogue more readily than men. But in addition to educational lacking, the Egyptian culture is bound by concepts of honor and shame. Together with pride, this produces an atmosphere of ‘not talking’. An Upper Egyptian husband, for example, will ignore his wife and stay silent with her when upset. Outside the family, discord produces the same result. The first casualty of Egypt’s political division is a lack of communication between liberals and Islamists.

But her focus in presentation was on what drew her to Islam as a religion. Much of this was due to the influence of her husband and his family, but it was also from historical study:

In 2005 Paulus read a book by the Egyptian Muslim theologian Amin al-Kholy, an active intellectual in the early 20th Century. ‘Islam and the Connection to Christian Reform’ summarized his presentation on the Protestant Reformation, representing the Azhar at the 1935 Brussels conference on the religious sciences.

Kholy noted that the early Protestant reformers – prior to Luther – emerged from areas long occupied by Muslims. From Spain under the Reconquista, Lyon, and Monaco, figures such as Peter Waldus and William of Ockham adopted ideas originating in Islam, translated them into Latin, and began applying them to criticize European Catholic Christianity. The Muslim populations of these areas had been forcibly converted into Christianity but retained their Islamic beliefs in secret. A few centuries later, Islamic-cum-Protestant ideas such as no mediation between man and God, private reading of the Scriptures, and clerical marriage began to take hold.

But she remains critical of prevalent Islamic thinking as well, which generally leaves their received religious heritage unquestioned:

Of course, a great deal of irrationality has entered the Muslim world, too. Where education is lacking the religious discourse takes over everything. Contrary to the prevailing religious spirit, Paulus says each individual Muslim has the right to read and evaluate Islam’s religious sources – the Qur’an and Hadith – weighing their value. The condition is to keep the Islamic culture of discussion respectful, objective, and academic.

This individuality also comes out in Paulus’ decision not to wear a headscarf.

Paulus is a charming person who is clearly a deep and sensitive thinker. Her testimony was given in a presentation with brief time for questions and answers; otherwise, it would have been useful to probe many of her arguments further. Please click here to discover them by reading the whole article on Arab West Report, and here for an Arabic language article on Paulus.

But less interesting than arguments is the story of an individual human being, seeking to make sense of the world. Tomorrow I hope to post a link to another recent article I have written, this time in the other direction.


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