Helmi Sharawy’s Critique of Racial and Colonial Paradigms in Egyptian African Studies

Helmi Sharawy’s Critique of Racial and Colonial Paradigms in Egyptian African Studies

Zeyad el Nabolsy, Cornell University[1]


This paper seeks to understand how conceptions of essential differences between “Egypt” and North Africa more broadly on the one hand, and “Sub-Saharan Africa” on the other hand have informed African studies in Egypt. It is commonly claimed that most Egyptians do not think of themselves as Africans; in this paper I aim to explore how this popular self-understanding has both informed African studies in Egypt and has been affected by academic discourses. I discuss the colonial and racial origins of modern African studies in Egypt. I also emphasize the significance of the existence of a counter-hegemonic discourse which is exemplified in the life and work of Helmi Sharawy. Helmi Sharawy is today the head of the Arab African Research Center in Cairo, and he was politically active during the Nasserist period as a liaison between Nasser’s government and the various African liberation movements which established offices in Cairo during that period. What is especially significant about Sharawy’s life and thought is that his critique of Egyptian African studies was developed outside of the academy; it was the product of his autodidactic impulses combined with his immersion in political struggles. I argue that we can identify in the work of Helmi Sharawy, a critique of surviving racial and colonial paradigms in Egyptian African studies. I relate this critique to discussions of racism in Egyptian society.


Autodidacticism and African Studies in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s:

Attempts to seriously study African social and political thought (and African political and social movements) faced tremendous obstacles within the Egyptian academy during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, when Sharawy proposed a study of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the national liberation movement in Nigeria as a project for his M.A. thesis, he was met with mockery by faculty members.[2] It was not in the Egyptian academy but rather through his involvement with the African Association that Sharawy was able to engage seriously in the study of modern African political and social thought.[3] It was there that he was able to make sustained contact with other Egyptians who shared his interests. For example, the former Egyptian ambassador to South Africa would periodically give lectures on the apartheid system to attendees at the African Association. In addition, some Egyptian academics who showed interest in African studies attended the Association’s meetings: Mohammed Riyad and Qawthar ‘Abd-al Rasool, along with Al-Shater Bosili, and the journalists Mohammed Haki, and Reda Khalifa.[4] Some academics had banded together in order to transform the Institute for Sudanese Studies (founded in 1947) at Cairo University (then King Fuad University) into the Institute for African Studies and Research in 1958.However, Sharawy argues, that this institute continued to be a bastion of colonialist anthropology until very recently.[5] Other Egyptians who took an interest in African studies include Abdel Malek Ouda,[6] as well as the poet Abdu Badawi, who aside from editing Nahdatu Ifriquiah [Africa’s Renaissance],[7] wrote on the contribution of Black thinkers to “Arabic civilization.”[8]

Much of the interest in African studies (meager as it was) in the 1950s was driven by a kind of imperialist stance towards the rest of the African continent. For example, Hussein Mouenes, who published Misr wa Risalatiha [Egypt and her Message] in 1955, conceived of Egypt as having a civilizing role on the African continent.[9] In his book Mouenes portrayed the rest of the African continent as the passive recipient of Egyptian civilization, and Egypt as instantiating a primarily “Pharaonic” and “Mediterranean” civilization.[10] Even in Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution, Africa is identified as a second circle for Egypt after the circle of Arabism.[11] At this early post-revolutionary moment, Nasser still conceived of Egypt’s role in Africa in paternalistic terms that simulated the rhetoric of civilizing missions: “we cannot in any case abandon our responsibility in aiding, as much as we can, in the spread of light and civilization into the depths of the virgin jungle.”[12]

The above statement, at least from the standpoint of Mohammed Fayek, who served as the head of the presidential office for African Affairs under Nasser, did not represent Nasser’s mature views on Egypt’s relations with the rest of the continent.[13] Nonetheless the quotation shows that even for the Egyptian political leadership that had attempted to amplify the country’s African identity during the 1950s and 1960s, there was still a lingering discursive gap, whereby it was difficult to develop a language that did not draw on Egypt’s imperialist past in the Sudan (and beyond). Sharawy also thought that the “three circles” model, as articulated in Nasser’s book, did not in fact correspond to reality. He argues that in the 1950s, the “African circle” was even strategically primary relative to the “Arab circle.”[14] This is perhaps a case where theory was not keeping up with practice. It must be noted, however, that some Arab discourse continued to refer to the three circles model in an uncritical manner, at least until the 1980s.[15]

Helmi Sharawy and other contributors to Nahdatu Ifriquiah such as Abdu Badawi consciously attempted to counter such discourse. They were aware that the cultivation of “African studies” in Egypt was in principle compatible with a revival of the imperialist dream of an Egyptian African empire which had animated some Egyptian national leaders since the nineteenth century. Thus, they were careful to write and translate articles that would present other parts of the continent as equal partners with Egypt in the anti-colonial struggle.[16] Sharawy’s first contributions to the magazines included articles on African journalism and newspapers (specifically the West African Pilot in Nigeria, the East African Standard in Nairobi, The Argus in South Africa, and Rhodesia from Harare),[17] as well as articles on African sculpture and African music, and the Mau Mau movement in Kenya.

Even though the Egyptian state was actively supporting anti-colonial liberation struggles on the African continent during the 1950s (and through the 1960s), there was nonetheless a more or less complete dependence on European and American texts for information on the various countries of the continent. For example, Mohammed Fayek—who in his capacity as the head of the presidential office for African affairs regularly made appearances at the meetings of the African Association—was reduced to circulating copies of John Gunther’s Inside Africa and Lord Hailey’s African Survey to the young members of the Association to help them with their studies.[18] Sharawy was later employed by Fayek as a researcher for the presidential office for African affairs in 1959, and it was through this work that Sharawy would come to meet and develop personal relationships with key figures in various African liberation movements.[19] Sharawy had to study modern African political philosophy and political theory in order to be able to coordinate with the leaders of African liberation movements, and in order to understand the context of debates regarding violent and non-violent paths to independence, e.g., it was in this context that he first read Fanon in the 1960s.[20]


The Critique of “Arab Sophistry” in Arabic African Studies:

Sharawy has been and continues to be a strident critic of the paradigm that has dominated research in Arabic on African studies. He has been very critical of what he calls al safsata al ‘Arabiya [“Arab sophistry”] in the study of African languages. He has criticized the manner in which Arab authors have frequently overemphasized the influence of Arabic as a language on other African languages, perhaps the paradigmatic case here is the manner in which “Arabism” is frequently foisted onto Swahili.[21]  Sharawy has argued that Arab authors who obsess over demonstrating the influence of Arabic on other African languages have undermined the possibility of scientific studies of the interactions between Arabic and other African languages. He argues that instead of understanding the spread of the Arabic language on the continent in a concrete way that takes into consideration specific conditions in different parts of the continent in different historical periods, as well as the manner in which Arabic was also influenced by the languages that it encountered, Arab researchers have, for the most part, confined themselves: “to emphasizing the Arabic origins of terms in some African languages such as Swahili and Hausa, etc….this has transformed  the sociology of language into studies in cultural hegemony.”[22] Of course, the issue of language expresses a more general paradigm whereby: “many Arabic writings, in history and literature, still cling to studying these issues [i.e., issues regarding cultural interactions between Arabs and Africans], through the standpoint of the bearers of a civilizing mission, due to the spread of Islam and Arabism on the African continent, such writings remind African intellectuals of European writings on the white man’s civilizing burden.”[23] A good example of this discourse is Jamal Zakaria Qassem’s claim that “Arabic was the language of culture in Africa.”[24] Even if we provide a charitable interpretation of this claim by interpreting it as a claim about Ajami manuscripts, it is still clear that it conveys an attitude of superiority.

This paradigm is also instantiated in Abdelkader Zebadia’s claim that “Islam played a major civilizing and social role in sub-Saharan Africa” and that “Islam introduced them [Africans] to the outside world.”[25] Note that this claim echoes the claim made by colonialist European ethnographers who often claimed that prior to the introduction of Islam, there was no “religion” in Africa in the strict sense of the term.[26] Abdel Rahman Abuzayd Ahmed has argued that “the orientalists and imperialists strove to establish a ‘model’ of Islam, similar to the Christian one, by emphasizing its ‘civilizing message’ and the issues of violence and slavery, both of which had a great impact upon African societies. We, however, as Arabs or Muslims, failed to formulate a historical model of Islam distinguishable from the Christian one.”[27] While the manner in which Ahmed formulates this claim can be criticized insofar as it does not take into consideration the agency of those Arab researchers who have helped to construct and maintain this “model” of Islam; it is nonetheless helpful in understanding why this model or paradigm developed in an imperial context where the Victorian image of Christianity as a civilizing religion was countered by the construction of a model that depicted Islam as an equally imperial and civilizing religion.

Sharawy argues that this paradigm involves the adoption of the view that, prior to Islam, Africans were “peoples without history.”  The focus on Islam as a mediating agent in African-Arab relations also leads to the neglect of the fact that Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula and Africans from North-East Africa were engaged in sustained economic, political, and cultural interactions long before the rise of Islam.[28] Moreover, Sharawy engaged in critiques of the monolithic view of “African cultures” that has characterized the work of many Arab researchers in African studies. Instead, he argues for the recognition of cultural diversity on the African continent as a function of both space and time.[29]

Sharawy also does not have much patience with Arabo-centric defensive approaches to the study of historical interactions between Arabs and Africans.  In particular, he takes issue with what he takes to be the culturalism of Arabo-centric historians.  For according to Sharawy, they implicitly posit an unchanging Arab cultural essence which is then invoked in explaining Arab history. Moreover, such culturalism, because it does not take into account what we can call the material determinants of culture, ignores the transformations that take place in culture through social, economic, and political transformations. Sharawy argues that while Arabo-centric historians obsess over “Arab and Islamic” cultural influences on “African culture” (which is treated as a monolith by them), they completely neglect the important role of “Black Africans” in the development of “Arab culture”: “we are prone to forget that there are other African cultures which were brought to the Arab countries with the millions who were brought from across the continent [through the trans-Saharan and East Indian Ocean slave trading routes], and from amongst them were Antarah, al-Jahiz, and others.”[30] He also points to cultural influences on popular cultural practices such as the “Zār”, and the pentatonic scale in music.[31]Sharawy recognized the importance of engaging in a critical examination of the “classical Arabic heritage” regarding descriptions of African social formations south of the Sahara, and not attempting to simply re-cast this heritage for use today (especially with respect to its analytical framework).

One should connect these debates about different paradigms for the study of Arab-African interactions to issues pertaining to policy formulation. Sharawy’s frustration with proselytizing approaches to the analysis of the history of Arab-African cultural interactions also stemmed from his experiences as a liaison between the Egyptian government and the various African liberation movements that set up their offices in Zamalek.  Sharawy was very critical of what he understood to be the conservative and “religious” nature of the Egyptian bureaucracy during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, he notes that even though the 1956 policy paper which laid out Egyptian policy towards other parts of the African continent was more progressive than previous formulations (e.g., it abandoned the “three circles” discourse of Nasser’s 1955 Philosophy of the Revolution, and the explicit “civilizing mission” discourse), it was also characterized by a concern for proselytization. On the cultural front, the policy paper called for “an expansion in the number of cultural and proselytizing missions, especially from al-Azhar in order to attempt to contribute to the spread of Islam in Africa.”[32] It seems that the leaders of al-Azhar were primarily concerned with securing converts, whereas the Egyptian government, especially the presidential office for African affairs, was more interested in securing political alliances with progressive African liberation movements (i.e., those movements whose outlooks corresponded to the more radical stance of the Casablanca Bloc).  Sharawy thus accused al-Azhar of aligning itself with religious authorities which were socially and politically reactionary.[33]

Sharawy emphasizes the importance of a critical examination of depictions of Blackness in the “classical Arabic heritage/corpus.” Especially insofar as he argues that representations of Blackness in the classical Arabic heritage probably reflect representations at the popular level (even if they do not correspond to them with exactitude): “several of the written classical texts such as al-Jahiz’s defense in his “Fakhr al-Sudan ‘ala al-Bidan”, or the confused image [of Black Africans] in Ibn Khaldun’s work, usually reflected popular images which can be analyzed using different methodological approaches.”[34] Sharawy points to the importance of Arab researchers engaging in an analysis of epics because he conceives of epics as expressing popular memory (including racial and racist stereotypes).[35] Thus, he points to the “Epic of Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan” as a potentially fruitful object of research in relation to understanding representations of Blackness in Arab popular culture. Sharawy’s concern with popular culture stems from both his past academic interests and research in folklore studies, and from his analysis of the failures of the Bandung era governments.[36]

Sharawy is conscious of the fact that answering the question of why do Egyptians not conceive of themselves as being African, requires the critical study of the relationship between Egypt and Sudan, especially in relation to the manner in which the Egyptian state’s imperialist ambitions in Sudan, since Mehmed Ali’s conquest of the Sudan in the 1820s, has influenced Egyptian perceptions of Sudan (and of “Blackness” in general).[37] For example, Sharawy has written on “the formation of the image of the Sudanese in Egypt” by way of analyzing the writings of prominent Egyptian intellectuals during the period where Egyptian national consciousness was being formed, e.g., Al-Tahtawi.[38]

Sharawy is at pains to answer the following question: why did the Pan-Africanist discourse enacted at the governmental level of the Bandung era Egyptian state fail to leave significant traces on Egyptian identity at the popular level? I.e., why do Egyptians not see themselves as Africans? Sharawy admits with disappointment that “unfortunately, Egyptian society did not display any real development at the level of its political and religious culture with respect to Africa during this period”.[39]As Afifa Ltifi’s contribution to this issue shows, the same disengagement from “Africa” is to be found in Tunisia and other North African countries as well.

While Egyptian governmental discourse was generally progressive (although not without echoes of the imperialist past) in relation to African affairs, this discourse did not have any significant impact on schooling or cinema for example — one only needs to look at Egyptian cinema today in order to see that the Pan-Africanist Nasserist period has had very little impact in terms of undermining negative depictions of “Black Africa” and “Blackness” in general, even at the level of academic discourse (note that most of the progressive “Africanists” worked outside the academy).[40] In terms of analyzing this failing, Sharawy points to a lack of coordination between the governmental bodies responsible for the formulation and carrying out of African policy on the one hand, and the governmental bodies that were responsible for media policy, educational policy, and so on.[41] This diagnosis should be kept in mind when making policy recommendations about how best to combat racism in Egyptian society today.




[1]All translations of texts cited in Arabic are my own. I wish to express my gratitude to Afifa Ltifi for her helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, as well as to the other participants at the “Racial Formations in the Middle East and Africa” workshop for their insightful questions.

[2] Helmi Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story]. Ed. by Reem

Abou-el-Fadl (Cairo: Al-Ain Publishing, 2019), 84.  Reem Abou-el-Fadl has translated excerpts from Sharawy’s autobiography: Reem Abou-el-Fadl, “From An Egyptian African Story“, Asymptote, January 2021: https://www.asymptotejournal.com/nonfiction/an-egyptian-african-story-helmi-sharawy/

[3]The leading figure behind the African Association at the time, Mohammed Abdel-‘Aziz Isḥak, was interested in making the association a center for serious study of African affairs. However, the Association, founded in 1955, also had a vital political role, for it also served as a coordinating office for all the African liberation movements that had set up offices in Cairo. For a history of the African Association in its context, see Reem Abou-el-Fadl, “Building Egypt’s Afro-Asian Hub: Infrastructures of Solidarity and the 1957 Cairo Conference,” Journal of World History 30, no.1-2 (2019):162-174.

[4] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 93.

[5] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 149.

[6]Abdel Malek Ouda, “Mouqa’ Ifriqiya fi al-Nashat al-Fikri al-Misri” [The Position of Africa in Egyptian Intellectual Activity], Al-Kitab al-‘Arabi 46 (1969):9-14.

[7] This was a monthly magazine that was produced by the African Association. In general, the magazine published articles by Egyptian intellectuals and academics on African affairs, as well as translations of texts written by key authors from other parts of the African continent and the diaspora.

[8]Abdu Badawi, Al-Suud we al-Hadara al-‘Arabyia [Black People and Arab Civilization] (Cairo: Dar Quba’, 2000).

[9]Hussein Mouenes, Misr we Risalatiha [Egypt and her Message] (Cairo: Matba’at Dar al-Kutub we al-Watha’eq al Qoumyia, 2011 [1955]).

[10] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 93.

[11] Gamal Abdel Nasser, Falsafat al-Thawra [Philosophy of the Revolution] (Cairo:

Madbouli, 2005 [1955]), 79.

[12]Nasser, Falsafat al-Thawra [Philosophy of the Revolution], 79.

[13] Mohammed Fayek, Abdel-Nasser we Al-Thawra Al-Ifriquiah [Abdel-Nasser and

the African Revolution] (Cairo: Dar al-Faloga, 2019 [1984].

[14] Reem Abou-El-Fadl, “Qira’a fi Fikr Helmi Sharawy” [A Reading of Helmi Sharawy’s Thought]. In Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 523 – 605.

[15] Yusuf Fadl Hassan, “The Historical Roots of Afro-Arab Relations,” The Arabs and

Africa, ed. by Khair El-Din Haseeb (London and Beirut: Routledge and Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1985), 42.

Ahmed, Ahmed Youssef, “Ahmed Youssef Ahmed,” The Arabs and

Africa, ed. by Khair El-Din Haseeb (London and Beirut: Routledge and Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1985), 111.

[16] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 94.

[17] Sharawy is probably referring to The Herald when he talks about the newspaper “Rhodesia“.

[18] John Gunther, Inside Africa (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955). Lord Hailey, An African Survey: A Study of Problems Arising in Africa South of the Sahara (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956 [1938]).

[19] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 117.

[20] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 197.

[21] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 175.

[22] Helmi Sharawy, Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa] (Cairo: Al-Hai’a al-‘ama lel Kitab, 2016), 81.

[23]Sharawy, , Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa], 81.

[24] Jamal Zakaria Qassem, “Jamal Zakaria Qassem.”The Arabs and

Africa, ed. by Khair El-Din Haseeb (London and Beirut: Routledge and Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1985), 47.

[25] Abdelkader Zebadia, “Abdelkader Zebadia.”The Arabs and

Africa, ed. by Khair El-Din Haseeb (London and Beirut: Routledge and Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1985), 80.

[26] T. N. O Quarcoopome, West African Traditional Religion (Ibadan: African Universities Press, 1987), 14.

[27] Abd Elrahman Abuzayd Ahmed, “Abd ElrahmanAbuzayd Ahmed.”The Arabs and

Africa, ed. by Khair El-Din Haseeb (London and Beirut: Routledge and Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1985), 79.

[28] Helmi Sharawy,  Al-‘Arab we Al-Ifriqyiuon Wejehen le Wejeh [Arabs and Africans Face to

Face] (Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadeeda, 1984), 21.

[29]Sharawy , Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa], 12.

[30]Sharawy , Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa], 13.

[31]Sharawy , Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa], 13. It should be added that debates about the origins of the pentatonic scale have been the subject of much study in the Maghreb. This point was communicated to me by Hisham Aidi.

[32] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 126.

[33] Sharawy 2019, 142-143

[34]Sharawy , Al-Thaqafa we Al-Muthaqafoun fe Ifriqyia[Culture and Intellectuals in

Africa], 29.

[35]For an example of how popular mythical histories have been used to justify the oppression of some groups of Black people in the Arab World, see Gokh Amin Alshaif’s contribution in this issue.

[36] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 52,85.

[37]For a discussion of Sudanese perceptions of Egypt, see Zachary Mondesire’s contributions to this issue.

[38]Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 278. The importance of this project has also been recognized recently by some American scholars, e.g., Eve M. Trout Powell’s A Different Shade of Colonialism (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[39] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 144.

[40]See Bayan Abubakr’s and Yasmin Moll’s respective contributions in this issue.

[41] Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya [An Egyptian African Story], 250-251.