Revisiting the Intellectual Space of the Nahḍa (Eighteenth-Twentieth Centuries)

First page of the History of the First Century After the Birth of Christ by Eugenios Voulgaris (in Greek, 1805), Arabic translation made at Damietta in 1817. Image : Bibliothèque orientale, Université de Saint-Joseph, Beirut, MS 43.

First page of the History of the First Century After the Birth of Christ by Eugenios Voulgaris (in Greek, 1805), Arabic translation made at Damietta in 1817. Image : Bibliothèque orientale, Université de Saint-Joseph, Beirut, MS 43.

Une version française de ce billet est disponible ici. An also an Arabic version

The nahḍa or Arab ‘Renaissance’ took place between the eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries, in a context of Western economic and political penetration and of reforms in the Ottoman Empire (the ‘Tanzimat’), as well as intellectual and cultural influences mediated by a variety of groups. Nonetheless, our impressions of the exchanges between Arabs and Europeans in this period have long been dominated by the image of a ‘bilateral’ set of contacts between two worlds, Arab and Western, perceived as monolithic. The celebrated story of the Muslim intellectual Rifāʿa al-Ṭahṭāwī setting off for Paris in 1826 on one of the educational missions of Mehmet Ali, governor of Egypt, remains the best-known version of the relations between the Arabs and the West at this time. We still tend to privilege direct links with the countries considered to be the most ‘advanced’, especially France but also England, in our picture of the relations between the Arab countries and the rest of the world during the nahḍa. Yet it is possible to add some other aspects to this impression of a simple contact between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Westerners’. We could mention, for instance, the role of links with other Muslim countries (Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and India, with the influence of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī on Arab thinkers such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh). But even contacts with Europe or ‘the West’ were never limited to simple, direct relations with Western Europe. Elements of French and English intellectual culture arrived in the Arab world via other languages and cultures. In what follows I will give a few examples.

Title page of Charles Rollin’s Roman History (1739-1741), Armenian translation by Manuēl Jakhjakhean, 1816-1817. Image: HathiTrust/University of Michigan.

Title page of Charles Rollin’s Roman History (1739-1741), Armenian translation by Manuēl Jakhjakhean, 1816-1817. Image: HathiTrust/University of Michigan.

Going back to the origins of the modern Arab intellectual and cultural movement, we find evidence of contact with various parts of the world of the Enlightenment, such as the Balkans and Russia. Thus the first Arabic press to be set up in the region was brought back from Wallachia (southern Romania) by the Aleppine Melchite prelate Athanāsiyūs Dabbās in 1706, thanks to the support of the Wallachian prince and of the Orthodox Church (Heyberger 1994, 439). This Orthodox ecclesiastical network, linking the Arab Orthodox communities (the Rūm) to Greece, the Balkans, Russia and the lands around the Danube and the Black Sea, contributed to the revival of literature and education among the Arab Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as the better-known activity of the Catholic missionaries. It seems that it was via these Orthodox connections that the first works of the European Enlightenment arrived in the Arabic-speaking world, with the translations (which remained in manuscript) made at Damietta between 1808 and 1818, from Greek texts printed during the ‘Modern Greek Enlightenment’. In the same period, similar works were translated into Arabic from Armenian translations printed by the Mekhitarist monks, a religious order based in Venice which played a key role in the renewal of Armenian culture. (I hope soon to publish an article on these translations in Intellectual History Review.) http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/.U39OVii36_E

In the second half of the nineteenth century, at the origins of the independent Arabic press, we can observe a lively journalistic scene at Bombay and Calcutta, among the Jewish communities from Iraq which had settled there from the eighteenth century onwards. Some of these families became very successful in international trade: the most important was undoubtedly the Sassoons, known at the time as the ‘Rothschilds of the East’, who went on to enter British high society. The Judeo-Arabic press of India, printing in Arabic written in Hebrew characters, was strongly influenced by the European Hebrew press of the haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment whose most famous name was perhaps that of Moses Mendelssohn. The movement’s newspapers were mostly published in the Ashkenazi Jewish centres of Eastern Europe, such as Berlin, Odessa, and Warsaw (Bashkin 2004). We should also note the Hebrew paper Ha-Ḥavaṣelet (The Lily), which was published in Palestine, as well as another, Ha-Levanon (The Lebanon), which was also published there for a short period in 1863-64 before moving to Paris (Kouts 2012). In 1863 a Judeo-Arabic paper, Ha-Dôver (The Orator), was founded in Baghdad, six years before the first official Arabic-Ottoman newspaper appeared there (Bashkin 2004).

Masthead of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Ḥavaṣelet, Jerusalem 1863. Image: Hebrew Academy.

Masthead of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Ḥavaṣelet, Jerusalem 1863. Image: Hebrew Academy.

This last remark also points to the important role played by the Ottoman reformers of the ‘Tanzimat’ in the promotion of the nahḍa. Long neglected by both the Arab and the Turkish nationalist traditions of historiography, it is emphasized by Mohammed Jamal Barout in his account of the relations between reformist governors and Arab intellectuals in Aleppo during the 1860s (Barout 1994, Part 1). One could give other examples, such as the warm welcome given to Fuad Pasha, Foreign Minister and special envoy of the Sultan, in the Beiruti press in 1860, or the large number of Arabic poems dedicated to Turkish officials and Sultans during this period (see, for instance, Khalīl al-Khūrī’s collection al-ʿAṣr al-Jadīd, Beirut 1863). By the early 1870s, there were official Ottoman-Arabic newspapers in Istanbul (the famous al-Jawāʾib of Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq), Mosul, Tripoli of Libya, Damascus, Baghdad, Aleppo and Sana’a. The Aleppo one was published in Armenian as well as Arabic and Ottoman Turkish (Mestyan 2012-14).

Title page of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Levanon, Paris 1867. Image: reproduced in Kouts 2012.

Title page of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Levanon, Paris 1867. Image: reproduced in Kouts 2012.

These diverse contacts continued into later periods of the nahḍa. For the fin de siècle, Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 (Khuri-Makdisi 2010) places the Arabic intellectual movement firmly in a global context which embraced, for example, the Syro-Lebanese colonies of Latin America and the USA, and the anarchists of Spain and Italy. For the 1920s, Sabry Hafez had emphasised the important influence exercised by Russian literature on the ‘modern school’ of Egyptian writers, such as Maḥmūd Ṭāhir Lāshīn and Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī, as well as on Lebanese writers such as Mīkhāʾīl Nuʿayma (Hafez 2010; Hafez 1993, 191).

Despite the diversity of these international contacts, these different Arab cultural activities were linked, during this period, by common themes, so that we can speak of a certain unity of the nahḍa. Behind the various inflexions and different contacts, we can still distinguish the influence of intellectual currents which were then becoming ‘globalised’: the spirit of the Enlightenment and the bourgeois modernity of the nineteenth century. ‘Civilisation’, ‘reason’, the ‘spirit of the age’, the dichotomy between modern progress and traditional stagnation, are present in the eighteenth-century Greek writers and the Hebrew pages of the haskalah as well as in those of the Beiruti nahḍa. In this common discourse, the idea of Europe or the West is ever-present: France and England (and later the USA) are often presented as the examples par excellence of contemporary civilisation. But the points of contact which allowed the circulation of these ideas were diverse and varied, and form part of a context more global than that of a single set of ‘binary’ links between the Arab world and Western Europe.

An approach that takes account of the diversity of these links would allow us to place the nahḍa in a global context of movements of cultural and intellectual renewal, closely linked to ‘modern’ state reforms and to integration into the capitalist world economy. Apart from the best-known European formations of the Enlightenment, we could mention the Balkan and Russian Enlightenments, the Jewish haskalah, the Bengali Renaissance, the ‘modernisation’ of Japan in the Meiji period, and their equivalents among the Armenians and Ottoman Turks. A comparison of these movements would reveal significant common features: the rediscovery of an ancient heritage, the concepts of civilisation, enlightenment, and human progress – as well as, of course, the model or challenge of the West itself. Along with a study of the contacts between these movements, such a comparison would allow us to see the nahḍa not as the result of a single, binary contact with the West, but as the Arab instance of a global phenomenon.

Bibliography

  • Barout, Mohammed Jamal, 1994, Ḥarakat al-tanwīr al-ʿarabī fī al-qarn al-tāsiʿ ʿashar: ḥalaqat Ḥalab numūdhajan, Damascus, Ministry of Culture, Syrian Arab Republic.
  • Bashkin, Orit, 2005, “Why Did Baghdadi Jews Stop Writing to their Brethren in Mainz? – Some Comments about the Reading Practices of Iraqi Jews in the Nineteenth Century”, in Philip C. Sadgrove, ed., History of Printing and Publishing in the Languages and Countries of the Middle East, Oxford, Oxford University Press (Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement, 15), p. 95-110.
  • Hafez, Sabry, 1993, The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse: A Study in the Sociology of Modern Arabic Literature. London, Al Saqi.
  • Hafez, Sabry, 2010, “Maḥmūd Ṭāhir Lāshīn (1894-1954)”, in Roger M. A. Allen, ed., Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, vol. 3, 1850-1950, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, p. 191-199.
  • Heyberger, Bernard, 1994, Les chrétiens du Proche-Orient au temps de la réforme catholique (Syrie, Liban, Palestine, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles), Rome, École Française de Rome (Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 284).
  • Khuri-Makdisi, Ilham, 2010, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914, Berkeley, University of California Press (California World History Library, 13).
  • Kouts, Gideon, 2012, “Communication transnationale dans l’espace public juif : le journal Halevanon à Paris (1865-1870) et la ‘traversée de la Méditerrané’. Rubriques, textes et publicité”, Cahiers de la Méditerranée, 85, p. 169-194. [Online] http://cdlm.revues.org/6733
  • Mestyan, Adam, ed., 2012-2014, Project Jara’id : A Chronology of Nineteenth Century Periodicals in Arabic (1800-1900), Berlin, Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). [Online] http://www.zmo.de/jaraid/HTML/index.html

To cite this note : Peter Hill, “Revisiting the Intellectual Space of the Nahḍa (Eighteenth-Twentieth Centuries)”, Les Carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient (Hypotheses.org), 5th June 2014. [Online] http://ifpo.hypotheses.org/6013

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Peter Hill has been at the Ifpo as an associated doctoral candidate since October 2013. He is working on a thesis entitled Utopia and Civilisation in the Arab Nahḍa at the University of Oxford, supervised by Mohamed-Salah Omri.

Web page : http://www.ifporient.org/peter-hill

All posts by Peter Hill


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