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New Texts Out Now: Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss, eds. Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda

Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss, eds. Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jens Hanssen (JH): The partnership for this project with Max Weiss was born at a workshop in Chicago in April 2011. I had long anticipated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Albert Hourani’s seminal Arabic Thought In the Liberal Age, 1798-1939. When I suggested the idea of a conference to reflect on the legacy of the book and the author, Max was immediately game. A year and a half later, three generations of Hourani students and their students met at Princeton University. The fact that we held this conference at Princeton added extra sizzle; its Department of Near Eastern Studies was founded by Philip Hitti, a Lebanese-American family friend of Albert’s father, Fadlo, which served as a model of sorts for the Middle East Centre that Hourani founded at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University in 1957. Over the years, and particularly during Bernard Lewis’s “reign”, both institutions were representing different approaches to the study of the Middle East. As one colleague put it tongue-in-cheek in the run-up to the conference: “It seems to me that you are entering Princeton in the Trojan horse of Albert Hourani and once inside you come out as Saidians.” But it was, by all accounts, a momentous and convivial event. In fact, the papers were of such high quality that Max and I decided to produce not one but two volumes out of the conference. The second volume, Arabic Thought Against the Authoritarian Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Present was also accepted by CUP.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JH: The first two chapters of Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age reconsider the lifework of Albert Hourani from his becoming politicized by the Palestinian Revolt in 1936 and a chance encounter with Hitti in his Manchester home, through his teaching stint at AUB, his political work for the British Arab affairs bureau during World War II and for the Palestinian cause at the Anglo-Arab Committee of Inquiry afterwards, to his role as the founder of modern Middle East Studies in postwar Britain. However, the main analytical thrust of the book is a critical engagement with Hourani’s magnum opus itself. Collectively, we consider which parts of Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age still hold valuable insights, and which ones have become obsolete since it was first published in 1962. It turned out he conceded too readily to some of the early criticisms. While certain lacunae been filled, and other shortcomings of his book have still not been addressed in scholarship today.

The book’s main objective is to convey the dynamic and dialectical nature of the Nahda. Covering the broad themes of late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth-century cultural production in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire offers a number of new perspectives for our understanding of the beginnings of Arab modernity. On the one hand, this involves extending the conventional time frame beyond Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the outbreak of World War II. Instead of the “European spark theory” we shift the locus originis to 1780s Iraq. And moving beyond Hourani’s 1939 endpoint has allowed us to account for the preponderance of Arab anti-fascism in the 1940s and for the deep shock that the Nakba brought about in 1948, not just for Palestinian national aspirations but also for Arab historical consciousness, social cohesion and cultural production. On the other hand, this collective reconstructive effort revealed that the singular liberal Arab Zeitgeist that Hourani’s title postulated does not adequately represent the contested and fragmented intellectual history of the period. Not only is “liberal age” a misnomer – a point that Hourani himself raised in his preface to the 1983 edition; events like the civil war in Mount Lebanon in 1860, the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, or World War I, also had enormous impact on the formation of divergent intellectual traditions within the broad revival and reform movement that constituted itself as the Nahda from the 1870s and ’80s onwards. Our book explores this diversity within commonality by bringing into conversation Hourani’s generational framework with Karl Mannheim’s “sociology of generations” and Koselleck’s ideas about how shared events, whether traumatic or euphoric, generate layered temporalities. Some chapters trace the transformation of concepts like the rule of law, constitutionalism, the Muslim world, economy, the principle of harm and independence during the Nahda. Others introduce little known thinkers and writers or reconsider canonical Nahda figures in light of recent theoretical and methodological developments.

To stop at merely reframing and reconstructing the many faces of the Nahda, however, would be to miss the times’ most important point, namely that it continues to function as the Archimedean point around which competing claims about Arab modernity are staked. In other words, we recognize that for all our pluralization, the Nahda lives on into the present as a single project, valorized and vilified in equal measure. Thus, we propose in the preface that whether to adopt Hourani’s translation as “liberal age”, or follow recent trends to deploy “the Nahda” for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Arab intellectual history, affects not only the framing of the subject of study, but also the relationship between our text and our readers. The former encourages comparisons with – and recognition of – similar intellectual processes elsewhere, but comes at the cost of relegating non-Western intellectuals to the waiting room of history, to modularity or to conceptual piracy. Conversely, to transliterate Hourani’s “liberal age” as “Nahda” may disaffect readers unfamiliar with Arabic, isolate and exoticise its history or discourage comparisons with contemporaneous cultural formations elsewhere. If we introduce the term Nahda to the English lexicon despite the above historical inscrutability, it is not because we consider it more authentic. Rather, we aim to engage the modern Arab intellectual tradition through its own globally situated and contested terms. Retaining the Nahda also avoids liberal overdetermination and precisely captures, we believe, the epoch’s productive tension between the chimera of authenticity and the anxiety of cultural infiltration of the West. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JH: A critical awareness of the Nahda and its place of since the mid-twentieth century is key to understanding contemporary Arabic history, philology, literature, and politics, both in and about the Middle East. Without such awareness, you still get books with titles like Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still – published by academic presses no less – that can argue in the twenty-first century that the modern Arab world “stood still” because Arabic is the language in which the Quran was written down.[1] So at the bare minimum our book reminds its readers that – for better or worse – the relationship between religions and languages, which had always had separate – though entangled – theological and poetic, pious and promiscuous existences, was a subject of serious and polemical debates during the Nahda. Entertaining though taking the Orientalists’ bait would be, Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age is geared towards readers who are already familiar with the Saidian critique of Orientalism.

Our book inhabits the interpretative space between history and literature, draws on both fields and attempts to put them in conversation with each other. Historians of the modern Middle East have long mined nineteenth-century texts for what information they may contain for our understanding of the evolution in political ideas and historical consciousness, particularly nationalism. Scholars of modern Arabic literature have begun to develop approaches that go beyond positivist, ideological and even thought-centric conceptions of the Nahda, as well as highlight the destructive relationship of Nahda thinkers to the Arab and Islamic past. Personally, I feel that sometimes these approaches, especially those who study how contemporary Arabic writers invoke their Nahda predecessors, treat the Nahda as a rhetorical foil of failure – whether as a cultural monolith or a historical relic – to stage what, in another context, David Scott calls “epistemological superiority … instead of “determining what the strategic task at hand was” at the time of their interventions.[2] So in hindsight, what our intellectual history of the Nahda tries to propose is a generous analytical field of vision that is as mindful of the Nahda’s internal dynamics as of the various literary and ideological traditions that have formed in its wake.

J:  What other projects are you working on now?

JH: At present, Max and I are putting the final touches on the revisions to the second volume to emerge out of the 2012 conference in Princeton. Arabic Thought Against the Authoritarian Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Present explores the Nahda’s wake. We ask: to what extent and in what ways are the revolutions and uprisings that have swept across the region in 2011 related to a regional history of ideas? How do they intersect with, or diverge from, the horizon of twentieth-century political traditions both indigenous and exogenous to the region? What has been the fate of those ideologies and intellectual traditions that flourished in the Arab world since World War II and the Nakba? What burdens of responsibility for social change and political vision rest on the shoulders of Arab intellectuals in the first place? What is the relationship, ultimately, between the intellectual and society in the modern Middle East?


Excerpt from the introduction:

In 1924, the American University of Beirut (AUB) held a student essay competition on “The Reasons for the Arabic Nahda in the 19th century.” The 22-year-old winner of the Howard Bliss Prize, Anis Nusuli, was to serialize his eponymous essay in AUB’s and Cairo University’s in-house journals before publishing it as a widely-circulated textbook in 1926. Nusuli’s account of the Nahda was much more sophisticated than Zaydan’s biographical sketches and in some ways anticipated Hourani’s approach. Travel accounts by the Enlightenment Orientalists Comte de Volney and Jean Louis Burckhardt set the stage of his book. The Napoleonic occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801 and the subsequent rise of Mehmet Ali Pasha were narrated through the eyes of the Egyptian chronicler ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Jabarti’s. The role of foreign missionaries in establishing schools and printing presses was integrated into an analysis that was notable for its division into chapters around new cultural institutions: “journalism and publications,” “literary and scientific societies,” “libraries,” “the Orientalists and the Nahda,” “Theatre” and “Emigration.”

The same year that Nusuli’s Nahda textbook came out, Taha Husayn (1889–1973) published his seminal On pre-Islamic Poetry, which argued that many of the classical Arabic poems attributed to the “age of ignorance” were actually written after the rise of Islam. The book caused an enormous uproar and Husayn was accused of blasphemy because of the scientific doubts it cast on the divine nature of the Quran, which harboured the potential for inciting popular sedition. The vilification and subsequent vindication of Husayn that followed would fragment – arguably once and for all – the harmony and syncretism that had characterized the Nahda even after sporadic rifts burst into the open, as when Farah Antun’s The Philosophy of Averroes came out in 1903, or ʿAli ʿAbd al-Raziq’s Islam and the Foundations of Rule in 1924.

In subsequent years, such ideological competitors as the exiled pan-Islamic organiser Shakib Arslan (1869–1946), who lectured on “The Arabic Nahda in the Present Time” on his return to Damascus in 1937, the Lebanese communist historian Ra’if Khuri who penned an antifascist defense of the French Revolution in 1943, and the Baʿthists Zaki al-Arsuzi (1889–1968) and Michel ʿAflaq (1910–89) all deployed the term Nahda to formulate different versions of Arab nationalist resurgence. From the beginning, the focus on the Nahda period as the source of a common, modern Arab consciousness had to contend with discourses of ancient authenticity. The rise of archaeology encouraged essential territorial and ethnic identities that offered justification for the colonial invention of new nation-states. Often these discourses represented Arab nations, especially Egypt, as female bodies whose metaphorical chastity nationalists sought to protect from the violations of colonial rule.

In response to such objectification, Arab feminists invoked a women’s Nahda, particularly in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as part of national and regional women’s movements that agitated both nationally and internationally for political rights. Some were active in the communist party, student organizations or trade unions, including the Egyptian novelist Latifa Zayyat (1923–96), who challenged not only the economic order of Arab state capitalism but also the chauvinism that undergirded it. Female Islamic intellectuals such as Quran exegete and journalist, ʿAʾisha ʿAbd al-Rahman (1913–1998), and the social activist and orator, Zaynab Ghazali (1917–2005), unsettled the claims of state secularism and, just like their secular counterparts, often ended up in prison.

After Arab states gained independence, elite preoccupations with industrial modernization and national economic development marginalized the Nahda discourse and coopted many women’s movements. Nevertheless, Arab liberals continued to champion idealist conceptions of Arab modernity. In Nasser’s Egypt, the literary critic, Luwis ʿAwad (1914–90) developed a comprehensive, albeit Egypt-centric, Nahda corpus, which was animated in part by an attempt to historicize the July 1952 revolution and to wrest the monopoly on liberation away from the Egyptian military.

Israel’s defeat of neighboring Arab states in 1967 hit Arab intellectuals “like a lightening bolt,” and ushered in the end of Nasserism. As the Syrian philosopher, Sadeq al-ʿAzm (b. 1934), recalled self-critically: “We fell victim to the erroneous idea that history had already decided all the issues raised by the Nahda in favour of progress, genuine modernization, modern science, secularism, socialism, and national liberation.” The Naksa, as the defeat came to be glossed, politicised … academics like al-ʿAzm and his nemesis Edward Said (1936–2003). At the same time, the Nahda was either vilified as the root of all evil or neglected entirely. Some ahistoricist lines of inquiry emerged in what were highly contested attempts to make sense of the post-Naksa Arab condition: myth and gnosis, theology, scientific Marxism, formal logic, structuralist linguistics and literary criticism as well as psychoanalysis. The Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui (b. 1933) strove to recover the emancipatory tradition of the Nahda in his seminal The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism?, first published in French in 1974. His historicist approach combined Marxism and liberalism. By locating the origins of Nahda consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century, he established a correlation between Arabic cultural production and the expansion of organized capital across the Mediterranean. Laroui argued that critical theory could better confront colonialism with the hard facts of its historical record of economic and discursive brutality than any of the escapist alternatives of his day, especially as nationalist elites, particularly in Morocco, responded to colonial violence by “retraditionalizing” society.

Laroui’s intervention was overshadowed by the impact of his compatriot, the Averroist philosopher Muhammad ʿAbid al-Jabri (1935–2010). Al-Jabiri’s four-volume Critique of Arab Reason, published between 1980 and 2000, relegated the nineteenth century to a derivative episode of Islamic history. He reasoned that the “modern Nahda” was merely revivalist and lacked the originality necessary to render visible the “colonizing action of Europe” and the Orientalist logic of Arab decline. Therefore, the Nahda did not constitute the epistemic shift of earlier cultural leaps of the ʿAbbasid and Andalusian epochs. By locating the “true” Nahdas before the European Renaissance, but well after the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, al-Jabiri launched a multi-pronged critique of liberal, Marxist and Islamic fundamentalist readings of Islamic history. His alternative treated what he calls the Arabo-Islamic canon as a dynamic “heritage” (“al-turath”) that invited rational and critical engagement without succumbing to European frames of analysis. Al-Jabiri’s early critique of Arab elites’ complicity in neoliberalism made his work popular in Arab leftist circles. But his bias against what he perceived as the historical philosophical deficits of the Arab east and his acceptance of Saudi largesse late in life cast doubt over his scholarly integrity. Indeed, al-Jabiri’s intervention was dwarfed in turn by intellectual production coming out of the Gulf states that championed salafi morality in well-funded media outlets and justified the region’s drift toward economic liberalization.

A different version of the Nahda, recalibrated for formal Arab politics, appeared in the Tunisian elections of 1989. The leader of the “Islamic Tendency” (al-Tayyar al-islami), Rachid Ghannoushi (b. 1941), had changed the name of his movement to the Ennahda Party (hizb al-nahda), in order to signal his disavowal of its more radical origins and his acceptance of liberal democracy.

After the Cold War and the end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the Nahda reemerged as a theme in wider Arabic public discourse – at once pushed by the state to sanction anti-Islamist repression, and championed by intellectuals critical of state violence. In 1992, liberal Egyptian intellectuals gathered around Gaber ʿAsfour (b. 1944) in order to found “The Enlightenment Association” (jamʿiyyat al-tanwir), which reissued many of the classics of “the liberal age,” including Farah Antun’s The Philosophy of Averroes, ʿAli ʿAbd al-Raziq’s Islam and the Foundations of Rule, Taha Husayn’s The Future of Culture in Egypt, and Salam Musa’s primer on the European Renaissance, “What is the Nahda?” Between 1990–93, the quixotic Damascene journal Qadayat wa-shahadat sought to at once preserve and reshape the memory of the Nahda in general and the legacy of Taha Husayn in particular.

This rediscovery of the Nahda occurred in the context of three concurrent menaces: radical austerity policies imposed by international financial institutions; the rise of militant Islamist groups; and repression by state security apparatuses, especially in Egypt and Algeria. It was a time when Islamists assassinated dozens of liberal intellectuals such as the Egyptian professor and columnist Farag Foda (1946–92) even as the state exiled many others and banned their works. Most famously, the Egyptian Court of Cassation convicted the theologian, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010), of apostasy for his historicist and hermeutic approach to Quran exegesis before death threats from Islamists forced him into exile.

As the space for critical thought appeared to shrink in this atmosphere of economic, political and religious violence, and many self-declared liberals embraced American interventionism in the region, leftist intellectuals in Beirut and Damascus began to invoke the Nahda as an emblem and a shield. In 1992, the editor of Beirut’s Marxist flagship journal al-Tariq, Mohammad Dakrub, published a well-received literary history on Nahda luminaries such as Amin al-Rihani, Jibran Khalil Jibran, Maroun ʿAbbud and Raʾif Khuri. Under Dakroub’s editorship al-Tariq ran a series on the contemporary relevance of the Nahda throughout the late 1990s. This culminated in a long and probing essay by the Lebanese novelist, Elias Khoury (b. 1948), after the American invasion of Afghanistan. In “Towards a Third Nahda,” Khoury called for “a return to modern Arab history . . . to search for the truth that might help us escape from the frightful decline into which the Arabs have slid at the turn of the 21st century.” The Syrian psychoanalytical thinker Jurj Tarabishi (1939-2016) also rediscovered the history of the Nahda. His From the Nahda to Apostasy  (2000) opens with the lament: “I belong to the generation that has wagered on Arab nationalism, revolution and socialism and has lost.” In Iterations of a Blocked Nahda, Palestinian Arab nationalist and former Knesset member, ʿAzmi Bishara (b. 1956) reflected on how to revive the orphaned Palestinian contributions to the Nahda project after the expulsions during the Nakba of 1948 that led to the creation of two generations of diasporic intellectuals.

Syrian dissident Haytham Mannaʿ (b. 1951) echoed these appeals for a new Nahda. Writing eight months before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, Mannaʿ considered it imperative to shift the Nahda project from “superficial” cultural and political battles to matters of concern to the broader social base struggling for change. It was after Muhammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010 ignited the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that the Nahda discourse spilled over onto Arab streets. In particular, the chanting of “The People want the Fall of the Regime” was inspired by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s famous existentialist poem of 1933, “The Will to Live.” Al-Shabbi (1909–1934) did not write political poetry. His diwan, which included poems such as “To the People” and “To the Tyrants of the World” that were originally published in the short-lived, experimental Egyptian journal Apollo, was not resistance literature but naturalistic and dreamy poetry. But chanted by thousands of protesters in 2011, the poem energized the people to break all barriers of fear in Cairo and invoked Tunisian-Egyptian solidarity:

If, one day, the people want to live, then fate will answer their call.

And their night will then begin to fade, and the chains break and fall.

For he who is not embraced by life’s passion will dissipate into thin air,

Woe to him whom life loves not, against the void that strikes there,

At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare.[3]

[Excerpted from Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda, with permission. (c) 2017.]

[1] There is, of course, nothing about the twenty-first century that should have immunized us against Orientalist scholarship any more than the return of fascism. Recall Benjamin’s rejoinder in Thesis VIII of his On the Concept of History that “[t]he astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is … not the beginning of knowledge,” but rather a clear sign that “the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

[2] David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism and Postcoloniality (Princeton, 1999), 9.

[3] Translated by Elliott Colla (2012).