Department of History     Yoav Di-Capua Assistant Professor, PHD

Out of the Ottoman Order

The Nahda

The Nahda, or renaissance, is the cultural and intellectual modernizing project of the Arab East. As a modern phenomenon the Nahda was characterized by rationalism, the dominance of secularism, nationalism, scientism, urbanism and individualism. It started simultaneously in both Lebanon and Egypt. While, in Lebanon, it was characterized by an effort to modernize Arab culture by introducing new genres of writing as well as reviving the Arabic language, in Egypt the emphasis was on reforming Islamic institutions and making them compatible with the modern world.

Gamal al-Din al-Afghani (1883-1897)
A philosopher, teacher and the founding father of Islamic modernism. In addition to his intellectual activity which called for a legal and philosophical reform in Islam, al-Afghani was a political agitator, a professional “trouble maker” and a precursor of early Arab nationalism. Though he traveled extensively in the Arab East, he was especially successful in Egypt where he held a highly influential salon, or intellectual circle. Al-Afghani subscribed to the European perspective that Islamic civilization is in decline. He did argue though that that this state of inferiority is circumstantial and that there is nothing inherently flawed in Islamic religion as such. By no means a systematic thinker, he engaged with several ideas ranging from the political (Pan-Islamism) to the philosophical (refutation of a contradiction between science and Islam).

Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)
One of the most influential Islamic jurists of the modern era and the person who, more than any one else, is identified with the notion of Islamic reformism. Abduh began his public involvement as an advocate of the Urabi Revolution for which he was jailed. He later got to know al-Afghani and became his most ardent disciple and a partner for the proliferation of reformist ideas. However – much more systematic than his mentor – Abduh set out to re-introduce to Islamic law the concept of Ijtihad, which, if applied to Islamic source material (Quran and Hadith) might form a groundbreaking breakthrough of religious interpretation and the possibility of accommodating modern values and practices. For this reason alone he got the full support of Lord Cromer. In 1889 he became Egypt’s Chief Mufti and later tried to reform al-Azhar. He died prematurely leaving his intellectual and legal project unfinished. His many followers included Qasim Amin, Saad Zaghlul Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid and others.

Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914)
The foremost representative of the Lebanese Nahda. Zaydan was an exceptionally prolific novelist, historian and cultural functionary. He was born to a Greek-Orthodox family and was mainly self-educated. He began studying medicine in the Syrian protestant Colleague (later American University of Beirut) but was expelled following his support of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Like so many Syrian Christians, in 1892 he left Beirut for Egypt where they were welcomed by the British. There, he founded the literary journal al-Hilal, which would become a cultural standard-bearer of the Nahda and, more broadly, of Arab Liberalism. He wrote more than twenty historical novels as well as history books and works in philology. In the 1910s his modern history of Arab civilization was heavily criticized in Islamic circles, where it was deemed inaccurate and heretical. In his work Zaydan laid the cultural foundations for Egypt’s liberal era.

Other key figures of the Nahda worthy of attention are Butrus al-Bustani, Farah Antun, Qasim Amin, Shibli Shumayl, Zaynab Fawwāz and Hind Nawāfil.

Further reading:
Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

Sabry Hafez, The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse: A Study in The Sociology of Modern Arabic Literature (London: Saqi Books, 1993)

Should a woman demand all the rights of a man?