The ‘Arab Awakening’: A Popular but Dubious Myth

The grand narrative of a 19th-century Arab cultural renaissance enjoys broad appeal but relies on a contentious interpretation of ambiguous evidence

The ‘Arab Awakening’: A Popular but Dubious Myth
King Faisal II of Iraq (1935 – 1958) and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain leaving Victoria Station, London, for Buckingham Palace on July 16, 1956 (Ron Stone / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, four sets of anti-Ottoman placards appeared in Beirut and other cities in what was then referred to as Syria. The first was a pair of posters, one in Arabic and another in Turkish, both hung on the streets of Damascus in July 1878. In June 1880, two more appeared in Beirut in Arabic. John Dickson, the British acting consul, provided a copy of the latter to the British Foreign Office, as he did with a third group of placards appearing on the streets of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli later that year. The fourth and final incident involved a single poster printed in March 1881 and distributed by the foreign postal services to European consuls serving in the Arab provinces. All four sets of placards reflected the deflated morale throughout Ottoman-controlled Arab provinces following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878, when the victorious Russian-led coalition drove the Ottomans all the way back to the gates of Constantinople, leading to the intervention of Western European great powers.

In his 1938 book “The Arab Awakening,” George Antonius, the first historian to document the placard affair, attributed them to a secret society numbering some 22 Christian members of the Masonic lodge in Beirut who were militating for Arab independence. To Antonius, the very existence of the secret society, and the placards they allegedly made, proved the rise of Arab nationalism as an ideology and of an Arab awakening, a “nahda” in Arabic, as a movement. Yet there are reasons to doubt the significance and even the existence of the secret society that may or may not have produced the placards. There are also questions about the placards’ intent. Antonius claimed they called on all Arabs everywhere to throw off imperial rule, but subsequent research has cast doubt on that thesis. Antonius’ main informant, Faris Nimr, told another historian before his death in 1951 that a concept of nationality, especially one that would trump religious affiliation, simply did not exist when the alleged secret society was active.

Perhaps that society was a front for an Ottoman governor who had ambitions of breaking away from the empire. More likely, the placards may have simply shown that residents of Greater Syria wanted the same autonomy enjoyed by those in Mount Lebanon. Alternatively, they may have represented a bid for reform in the Ottoman administration. The “nahda” at the heart of so many histories of the Arab world may have been founded on a misconception.

The term “nahda” has become a catch-all. It’s been associated with print culture imported from Europe, mass literacy, ambivalent Westernization, anti-Western struggle, classicism, Arabic linguistic purity, women’s rights and romantic Arab nationalism. It includes figures like Muhammad Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1805-1848 who made dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres, and efforts like the Tanzimat, a series of late Ottoman military, legal, educational and economic changes meant to modernize and consolidate the empire. The meaning of the term has broadened so much that contemporary scholars like Samah Selim and Elias Khoury try to sharpen the fuzziness by claiming there were at least two such “awakenings.” To some, the word has gone from meaning Westernization, to deep ambivalence toward the West, to flat-out anti-Westernism.

Fifteen years after Antonius’ book appeared, the Baghdad-born British historian Elie Kedourie defended his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University in 1953. At his oral examination, Kedourie made two bold claims. First, he said that Britain owed its humiliating post-World War I withdrawal from the Middle East to the incompetence and romantic fantasies of its administrators. Simply put, Britain quit the Middle East ignobly, due entirely to its Orientalist misconceptions. Second, Kedourie claimed the idea that Britain withdrew in order to oblige a national “awakening” among the region’s Indigenous populations lacked supporting evidence. In fact, Kedourie argued, the reasoning was backwards, in that whatever nationalist feeling may have put down local roots was a direct, and quite recent, import from Europe; a notion with a dodgy pedigree stemming back to anti-Enlightenment German Romantics in the 19th century. (Kedourie rejected Zionism on the same grounds.) German Romanticism was nationalistic, embracing German ethnic and cultural touchstones and rejecting cosmopolitanism, including such ideals of the French Revolution as the primacy of reason. Kedourie saw the seeds of “Arab nationalism” in this, rather than in any grassroots movement from the Middle East.

Sir Hamilton Gibb, who held Oxford’s distinguished Laudian endowed professorship of Arabic and served as Kedourie’s doctoral adviser, vehemently disagreed and demanded Kedourie change his thesis. (Nearly two decades later, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would argue that Kedourie, a native Baghdadi Jew, understood the Middle East in a way that Gibb, the foreigner with his head in the clouds, never could.) Kedourie, in turn, demanded that Gibb provide evidence for his objections. Yet, by virtue of his position, Gibb was required to do no such thing, and so he simply stood his ground. Kedourie backed off and forfeited his degree. In a situation that is hard to imagine in today’s threadbare academic economy, an ally of Kedourie’s got him a job at the London School of Economics, even without the degree.

Kedourie and the Arab nationalists with whom he disagreed did share one belief: that the post-World War I map of the Middle East, made up of arbitrary statelets ruled with horrific violence, was a sham. The British officials T.E. Lawrence (aka “Lawrence of Arabia”) and, even more so, Gertrude Bell were monsters with romantic reveries. Lawrence invested Arab nationalism, in Kedourie’s words, “with an impossibly transcendental significance,” while Bell thought “to stand godmother to a new Abbasid Empire.” Once unleashed through a pseudo-rebellion against the Ottomans and support for the unpopular and unreliable Faisal as king of Iraq and Syria, Lawrence’s and Bell’s fantasies caused unimaginable bloodletting.

Ultimately, the decades-old scholarly consensus that Europe betrayed the Middle East has undercut Kedourie’s claim that the Middle East would have been better off under imperial rule, whether by the Ottomans or some faction among the European powers.

But what of his second claim, namely that the Arabs experienced no national “awakening” or cultural renaissance? Shouldn’t there be some proof? Though most scholars take the “nahda” narrative at face value, there is good reason for healthy skepticism.

At some point in the 19th century, the conventional narrative of modern Middle Eastern history tells us that Arabs — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — underwent a cultural rebirth. This soon became a mass movement demanding independence from foreign empires. The trouble is, each of these two claims — a cultural renaissance, which then became an independence movement — relies on controversial readings of fuzzy evidence. The two claims also correspond exactly to what the scholar James Gelvin has dubbed “the grand narrative of Arab nationalism.”

Just as the term “Dark Ages” is a foil for the beauty of the Renaissance that would follow, the concept of a “nahda” went hand in hand with the idea that the previous period was one of decline or decadence (“inhitat”). Scholars tell us that, during the “nahda,” Arabic print culture emerged, educational reform led to mass literacy, Muslim clerics liberalized Islam and rediscovered the Islamic classics, writers tried to strip the Arabic language of its floweriness and Arabs, especially Lebanese Christians, yearned for independence from both Ottomans and Europeans. The idea that history was a grand trajectory of decline and awakening had some support from Islamic sources and Arabic belles-lettres, which argued that humankind has gone steadily downhill, whether since the days of the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest Muslims (circa 570-630 CE) or since the works of the great Abbasid-era poets (circa 750-1258 CE). Even Ibn Khaldun, widely touted as the first Arab Muslim author of a grand theory of history, follows this standard narrative of decline.

As espoused by Orientalist scholars like Gibb, this pessimistic view of the past followed on the tails of 18th-century Europe’s grand theories of decline and revival. Robert Brunschvig, a 20th-century French Orientalist, surveyed European moralizing about the Islamic East’s downward spiral, examining sources from the French Enlightenment to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder and the English historian Arnold Toynbee, Brunschvig’s contemporary. Brunschvig viewed these thinkers with bemused frustration, both at the confidence of their architectural plans for human history and at the shallowness or even plain inaccuracy of their evidence. Brunschvig writes that 19th- and 20th-century debates over decline and progress “too often [represent] exceedingly theoretical theses; and more than once, even now, the status of Islam is greatly reduced, even where its very shape is not shockingly altered.”

For Brunschvig, European writers from Herder to Louis-Pierre-Eugene Sedillot indulged in “a perpetual dithyramb” — a passionate or inflated song of praise — on medieval Arab civilization. Similarly, Gustave Le Bon was “remarkably insistent on ‘greatness,’” while at the same time arguing for the decadence of the Arabs. As Brunschvig wrote of the supposed Arab decline, “The essential idea, with its hint of Gobinism” — a 19th-century ethnically pro-Germanic yet anti-nationalist ideology, especially against the French nation — “was racial miscegenation.” In other words, pure Arab civilization had initially succeeded, but once non-Arabs like Persians and Turks got involved, things went downhill quickly.

Finally, Brunschvig addressed the historical theories of Toynbee, Kedourie’s bete noire, who shared Gibb’s politics but enjoyed even greater access to the corridors of power as director of the London policy think tank Chatham House. “The objective historian,” wrote Brunschvig, “cannot silence his distrust of a system that is too vast, too observably biased, in which overly general conceptions of the life and death of civilizations always seek, at all costs, to justify themselves.”

While the idea of decadence, which the Islamicist Bernd Radtke called a “powerful myth” in Arab-Islamic history, has been rightly jettisoned, that of a rebirth seems to have only gained strength. Yet can there be a rebirth without a death? In his recent book “Rediscovering the Islamic Classics,” Ahmed El Shamsy shows convincingly that the post-classical Islamic scholarly tradition was indeed stagnant. Islam’s elites spoke languages other than Arabic; rapacious European book dealers snapped up manuscripts to sell to Western libraries; early modern supercommentaries — commentaries on earlier commentaries, at two or three degrees’ remove from the original texts — were prized above the classic texts themselves; and charismatic mystics ran amok through the world of ideas.

But there are compelling counterexamples. For instance, one searches in vain for the word “nahda” in the works of Albert Hourani, whom many consider a pioneer in studying the period. His claims were sober and grew from the sources he studied and identified with: Arab elites who were receptive to European ideas starting from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 until the outbreak of World War II. Hourani himself documented the radical shift from the liberal Islamic modernism of Muhammad Abduh to the reactionary politics of Abduh’s student, Rashid Rida, and the adoption of European political rhetoric by the Arab regional military juntas that arose in the 20th century.

Hourani was skeptical of claims to Arab nationalism, although less so than Kedourie, for whom Antonius’ heady and conspiratorial account was “a tissue of doubtful historical statements, marshaled to form an apologia for Arab nationalism.” By contrast, Gibb praised Antonius’ “Arab Awakening” and eagerly hitched its thesis of British betrayal to his own guilt over what he saw as the West’s perfidy and “all-pervading Zionist propaganda.” Moreover, far from merely watching British machinations unfold from his Oxford ivory tower, Kedourie dug up a memo in the Foreign Office archives in which Gibb had called for carving up the former Ottoman lands into a federation of peaceful and democratic provinces occupying “the whole of Arab Asia.” Kedourie tartly quotes a Saudi minister, cited elsewhere in the file, who told one British official that “since the days of Muhammad no one had been able to arrive at a satisfactory scheme for Arab federation.”

The camps of Kedourie and Hourani on one side, and Antonius and Gibb on the other, illustrate a basic division noted by the historian Rashid Khalidi among scholars of Arab nationalism. There are those, like Antonius, who are “generally positively inclined towards [the] subject,” and those who are “highly critical, often to the point of derisiveness.” Strangely, Khalidi includes only Kedourie and his wife, the historian Sylvia Kedourie, in the second group. In the 1958 book “Arab-Turkish Relations and the Emergence of Arab Nationalism,” the Lebanese scholar Zeine N. Zeine looked skeptically at Antonius’ version of Arab nationalism. For Zeine, Arab nationalism was a 20th-century phenomenon, a reaction to the chauvinistic Turkish nationalism of the 1908 revolution. Zeine also stressed that, during the 20th century, Muslim loyalty to the Ottoman sultan was a far greater emotional commitment than nascent Arab nationalism. Similarly, C. Ernest Dawn’s book “From Ottomanism to Arabism” challenged the dominant narrative of nationalism, instead underscoring the role of Islam.

More recently, the late Fred Halliday, an international relations scholar, suggested that “instead of asking why the Arabs failed to unite, it would be more appropriate to ask why they should.” To Halliday, it wasn’t surprising that the Arabs themselves, like virtually everyone else in the post-World War II landscape, embraced nationalist ideologies, or that this embrace should be part of a moralization process through which certain “pan-Arab” culture heroes and practices became virtuous and localized ones more stigmatized (the use of Arabic dialects being a prime example of the latter). What did surprise Halliday was that such moralizing arguments should have gained such traction among academic observers.

Yet, aside from a few recently published accounts of Arab travelers in Europe, the evidence for both sides, Westernization and anti-Westernism, is exactly the same. It is therefore hard to escape the sense that scholars have gone in for knee-jerk virtue-signaling, in which it is simply impolite to suggest there is anything about the West worth emulating. Why this should be the case is a mystery. To take an example from another context, describing the stamp of Mongol civilization on the peoples they conquered does not automatically make someone a propagandist for Genghis Khan.

In his essay, “The Myth of the Renaissance,” the medieval historian Arthur White dismantles the idea that secular humanism appeared in 14th-century Italy. Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch, boasted that he belonged to a new age superior to the Dark Ages that had preceded him, invoking Cicero as the model for a lost pure Latin. Yet for all his professed love of classical Roman writers, and despite his famed (vulgar) Italian writing, Petrarch’s Latin wasn’t particularly good. The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari coined the term “Renaissance” (in contrast with the barbarism preceding it) as a way of saying the painters of his hometown, Florence, had broken their mold. It was the French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire, White argues, who almost single-handedly invented the Renaissance as a precursor to the Enlightenment. “Its leaders, like a newly prominent family, had a natural (though irrational) yearning for a distinguished pedigree. Voltaire believed he had found this noble ancestry in Renaissance Italy.”

Similarly, the term “nahda” seems to have been a way to invoke the Arabs’ own noble ancestry, whether real or imagined. Whatever the origins of the word, the man who popularized it, although he was referring specifically to Egypt, was Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914). Not coincidentally, he also coined the term’s opposite: cultural decline. Zaydan was a secular Lebanese Christian who wrote historical novels. Along with others like him, he had settled in Egypt and enjoyed its comparatively free press. His claim of an Egyptian renaissance under that country’s ruling khedives, who formed an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, may have been Zaydan’s way of concocting a pedigree for the modernizing dynasty that hosted him, which he did by harkening back to an earlier Arab Golden Age: the Abbasid Caliphate.

Kedourie knew this, and both he and Hourani suspected it was a distraction from the real agenda, which was nationalistic. True, Muhammad Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt who enacted key reforms, was real. The Tanzimat reforms did happen. Print culture was real and it was imported from Europe. The same was true of mass education and the push for women’s rights. The question is whether this was all part of an “Arab intellectual and cultural ‘revival’ of the long nineteenth century,” in the phrasing of the Northumbria University historian Peter Hill. If a cycle of cultural boom and bust is passe, then what meaning does the supposed 19th-century revival even have? What is it reviving, and from what death?

In premodern Islamdom, the study of “pagan” Arabic poetry from the age before Islam was grudgingly accepted as part of religious education. Yet that poetry’s irreligious character made sure that, in the words of the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher, “the poetry of a people [would be] a living protest against the religion of that same people for centuries.” Another scholar, Helmut Ritter, gave an example of this tension between contemporary society and its “golden age” origins, from the writings of the theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali: “When the grammarian Khalil [ibn Ahmad] was seen in a dream after his death and asked what had become of him, he is said to have replied that everything he had done had turned out to be in vain, except ‘Glory be to God! Praise God! There is no god but God, and God is great!’” To al-Ghazali, God cared not a fig for Khalil’s many achievements, among them deducing the rules of Arabic grammar and discovering poetic meter. All that counted was Khalil’s repeating of pious formulas. In like fashion, and aside from half-baked appeals to Pharaonic Egypt, the Babylonians and the Phoenicians, no Arab nationalist ever seriously called for restoring the glories of antiquity, especially pagan Arabia.

“The pre-Gothic Middle Ages had left Antiquity unburied, and alternately galvanized and exorcized its body,” writes the art historian Erwin Panofsky. “The Renaissance stood weeping at its grave and tried to resurrect its soul. And in one fatally auspicious moment it succeeded.” Aside from its grandiosity, one struggles to find common ground between Panofsky’s view of the European Renaissance and the alleged awakening of the Islamic world. True, Muslim reformists did rescue key authors from the fog of history, as El Shamsy shows, but their efforts had unplanned results. For instance, the 14th-century polymath Ibn Taymiyya, while brilliant, was also a mean-spirited jerk. His work inspired generations of Islamists bent on shooting first and asking questions later, who were keener on killing other Muslims than they were on slaying infidels. Lebanese Christians had little to do with any of that.

As for purifying Arabic, reformers like Muhammad Abduh railed against the ornate late-classical prose style, preferring the clear Arabic of newly discovered classical greats like al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun. Again, El Shamsy shows this clearly. Yet most linguistic debates of the period, such as the overheated polemics of the Lebanese scholars and writers Nasif al-Yaziji, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Butrus al-Bustani, reached levels of bookishness and pomposity of which flowery “post-classical” writers could only dream. Interpreting Shidyaq’s “Leg Over Leg,” a raunchy, entertaining, deliberately obtuse and self-deprecating comedic work, as a political manifesto would be like arguing John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” voiced the beliefs of a secret group of Roman Catholic intellectuals in the 20th-century American South.

The sociologist Salim Tamari describes the Arabizing tendency among Christians in Greater Syria during the late 19th century to early 20th century as an “Orthodox Nahda.” Usually well-to-do, these local Christians wanted more Arabic in the church and fewer ethnic Greeks occupying high ecclesiastical ranks. As savvy political operators, they allied with Muslims when it served their interests. They were not at all keen on the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, in view of the chaotic Hobbesian state of nature that might result. Very few people were. Recent scholarship supports Kedourie’s conclusion that, whatever resentment Arabs felt toward the imperial center in Istanbul, the Ottoman option was vastly preferable to what might result from its absence. Yet it was the Christian Antonius who harnessed these many phenomena into an elaborate scaffolding called the “awakening.” Gibb, among many others, took the bait.

The time to discard the fanciful idea of a “nahda,” whether as a movement or a historical period, came and went in 1953 with Elie Kedourie’s doctoral defense. Now all we can do is ask why current scholars like Tarek El-Ariss, Rebecca C. Johnson, Stephen Sheehi and many others vie over increasingly overblown claims for it. The “nahda” myth represents an understandable but flawed desire for legitimacy among modernizers of all stripes, from nationalistic and secular democracy advocates to old-school Marxists in the Middle East and their Western admirers. It’s a way to show they are the torchbearers of an authentic Arab identity that gelled sometime before World War I. They are the heroes. The villains are a host of meddlesome foreign actors and their disloyal allies among the region’s minorities: Turks, Europeans and Zionists. Were it not for their machinations, an Arab nationalist utopia (or bloc of Soviet-style republics) would have naturally emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

One might argue that dividing history, especially intellectual history, into arbitrary periods makes for an easy target. The Oxford University historian Lucian George has pointed to professional historians’ “‘perpetuum mobile’ of utility vs artificiality” regarding this practice. That is, while historical periods are useful, particularly the three-part itinerary of “Antiquity-Middle Ages-Modernity,” they do not withstand close scrutiny. George observes how this cliche is “frequently condensed into a contrastive prose couplet, the first line of which concedes the usefulness or even necessity of periodization, whilst the second laments its artificiality.” What use is the idea of a “nahda” when it doesn’t serve the conclusion, assumed from the start, of Arab national hopes raised and then quashed? Maybe the romantic idea that a secret society’s revolutionary placards catalyzed an Arab national awakening already underway satisfies our emotions better than a more stolid analysis, one involving local Ottoman politics and legal wrangling over the status of its territories. An Arab secret society makes a good story, and good stories have a habit of edging out boring theses of incremental change.

In a sense, Kedourie’s skepticism wasn’t so different from the now-orthodox postcolonial paradigm that the West, and specifically its well-intentioned bumblers in Britain and France, broke the Middle East after World War I. Where Kedourie differed was in his deep distrust of revolutionary ideas, the motives of their supporters and their actual connection to the oppressed masses whose lot they claimed to improve. On this unhappy vast majority, Kedourie indulges in a bit of dry humor, letting the subaltern speak:

“But where in all this are the Syrians? [Patrick] Seale does not tell us what they, the corpus vile in all these [ideological] experiments, think of it all. But perhaps it does not matter, for they have never been much accustomed to being asked their opinion about their rulers. For them the happy man has always been he who has a beautiful wife, a comfortable house, a lucrative occupation, who does not know government, and whom government does not know; in short, the private man.”

Maybe Kedourie’s wit verged on contempt, as Khalidi suggested. Even so, in the wake of the Islamization of the 1970s, the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath, namely the wars in Syria and Yemen among others, it is difficult to accept the idea that his skepticism was misplaced.

Khalidi was right when he wrote that the ideas Antonius laid out in “The Arab Awakening” “have in some measure become parameters for the field.” Yet why should this be the case almost a century later? How can humanists and social scientists, charmed by all manner of current interpretive schemes, so reliably fall back on this tired, old romantic fantasy? In one sense, Gibb’s demand that Kedourie adopt Gelvin’s “grand narrative of Arab nationalism” in order to have an academic career represented Gibb’s lasting legacy. As a “progressive” commitment, romantic Arab nationalism has become a litmus test for academic Marxists and their admirers in the Middle East, despite the lack of evidence buttressing the theory.

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