A Nuanced Account of the Arab Nahda
The Nahda, the “awakening” or “renaissance” that swept many Arab countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is hard to define. It was a lengthy, complex, varied movement, bent on elaborating a political and social modernity for the region, but encompassing many different influences, voices and ideologies.
As Tarek El-Ariss notes in his introduction to a new anthology dedicated to the Nahda, today it is often invoked both to point to an Arab Enlightenment project and to lament its failure.
El Ariss is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College. He has edited the Modern Language Association’s new bilingual anthology of Nahda thinkers and writers. The Arab Renaissance contains essays, speeches, articles, stories and excerpts of plays—all translated into English for the first time.
The Nahda inspired new models of nationalism and secularism as well as an Islamic revival. The movement was characterized by a preoccupation with linguistic reform and translation. It was also marked by the emergence of the Arab novel, the proliferation of newspapers and magazines, and the advent of new forms of education.
The Nahda was partly a reaction to European colonial encroachment; one of its first triggers was Napoleon’s easily accomplished invasion of Egypt in 1798. The Nahda emphasized the need for reform and revitalization in the face of European military superiority and the stagnation of the late Ottoman empire.
The Lebanese Butrus al-Bustani was a key early figure. In 1863 he founded al-Madrasa al-Wataniya (the National School) in Beirut, the first secular school in the Arab world. He also founded a newspaper, al-Jinan (the Gardens). He wrote an Arabic dictionary and worked on an encyclopedia.
In his lecture “The Culture of the Arabs Today,” delivered in 1859 to the Syrian Society of Arts and Science, he stated that: “It cannot be denied that the market for the goods of knowledge has stagnated among the Arabs and that they no longer circulate among the Arab masses, especially not among their leaders.”
His recommendations to improve this situation included “allowing sophisticated Arabs to intermingle widely with civilized people, increasing the number of presses and schools, organizing salons and gatherings, enlightening government officials, opening the door to cultural, religious, and political discussion, speech and dialogue, releasing the mind from its reins and the will from its bridle, and paying more attention to the education of women.”
The collection also includes an essay by Muhammad Abduh, one of the most famous figures of the Nahda. Abduh studied at Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, and was Egypt’s Grand Mufti from 1899 to 1905. He was exiled from Egypt for his political views; he travelled widely, lived in Paris and Beirut, and corresponded with Tolstoy.
In the essay, Abduh argued that images and statues are not un-Islamic but rather are “one of the most effective tools of learning.” He also lamented the lack of interest in heritage preservation in Arab countries, contrasting it with European practices. He wrote that “If I were to give you the whole narrative of what we have lost and what they have preserved of [our] books of learning, I would have to write a whole book on the subject—a book that would also be lost and then found in the hands of some European in France or elsewhere in Europe.”
But Nahda writing was not just an exercise in self-criticism or a call to imitate the West. The anthology also contains several examples—from magazine to plays—in which sarcasm and parody were employed to critique those who unquestioningly and inappropriately donned Western habits and manners. The Egyptian writer Abdallah al-Nadim’s journal Raillery and Reproach features stories about a young man who has travelled to Europe to be educated and returned home full of scorn and ignorance. He finds hugging his father “vulgar” and has even forgotten the Arabic word for “onion.”
Nahda writers often used literature to make their arguments. The Iraqi writer Mahmoud Ahmad El-Sayyid extolled the novel as a means of moral education: “For writing is one of the most important means of advancing the nation and bringing culture and learning to the minds of citizens.” He set his own first novel, featuring two young lovers whose marriage plans are thwarted by a scheming father, in India, and used the foreign setting to be able to freely criticize religious traditionalism, unfair customs and patriarchy.
The poet ‘Aisha Taymur (1840 – 1902) laid claim to her literary achievement and argued that it was in no way at odds with her womanhood:
“With pure virtue’s hand I guard the might of my hijab and, with faultless self-shielding, among my peers I rise.
With my thoughts taking fire and my gift for sharp critique I have brought my poet’s skills to new and perfect heights. . .
My literature and my learning did me no harm save in making me the finest flower of minds wise.”
The voices featured in The Arab Renaissance anthology are of their time, but they also resonate strongly with present concerns. Interest in the Nahda is likely to continue partly because many of the questions its thinkers and artists raised—questions of how to achieve political modernity, women’s equality, educational attainment—remain as relevant as ever. The Nahda’s legacy persists, writes El-Ariss, including within the Arab Spring, “as if something in it has not yet been accomplished or settled.”