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Thomas Philipp, Jurji Zaidan and the Foundations of Arab Nationalism, with Selected Writings by Jurji Zaidan translated by Hilary Kilpatrick and Paul Starkey, Syracuse Press in Cooperation with the Zaidan Foundation, Syracuse, NY, 2010, 451 pp. 

Peter Hill

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1The Nahda or Arab Awakening of the long nineteenth century has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years, in both the Arab world and the Western academy. One aspect of this revival has been a reassessment of Jurjî Zaydân (1861-1914), the immensely prolific populariser, journalist and man of letters of the turn of the twentieth century – a reassessment which owes much to the activities of the Zaidan Foundation. Founded in 2009 by Jurji Zaydân’s grandson, George C. Zaidan, it aims to promote ‘intercultural understanding’ in general, and knowledge of Zaydân in the English-speaking world in particular. It has sponsored to date, in addition to the book reviewed here, English translations of five of Zaydân’s long list of historical novels on Arab-Islamic civilisation (Zaidan, 2011, 2012a-d), and a 2012 Symposium on Zaydân (published as Zaidan and Philipp, 2013). This is an impressive record, and a welcome addition to the growing body of work on the Nahda. One shadow has, however, been cast recently over this field by the death of Thomas Philipp, the author of the work here reviewed, in June 2015. Along with his contribution to the 2012 Zaydân Symposium proceedings, this study thus brings, sadly, to a close the career of one of the most distinguished historians of the nineteenth-century Arab world.

2The book itself is unorthodox in format. It is divided into three parts: Philipp’s study; a substantial anthology of translations from Zaydân’s writings, ordered by the themes of the study; and a bibliography of works by or about Zaydân. The study is entitled “Jurji Zaidan’s Secular Analysis of History and Language as a Foundation of Arab Nationalism”; in it Philipp undertakes, as he says in his preface, to “revisit” his “earliest attempt” at scholarship: his first monograph on Zaydân (Philipp, 1979), based on his doctoral thesis. The new version stands in a rather peculiar relation to its earlier incarnation. It is something more than a simple revision, but not quite an original study. Some parts (the introduction, biography of Zaydân, and Chapter VI, “Society and its Educator”) are clearly based on sections of the earlier work; the rest, while reusing the occasional paragraph, is more or less new.

3The result is certainly more tightly focussed than the 1979 study: the general account of Zaydân’s “life and thought” is replaced by a concentration on what Philipp sees as Zaydân’s most original and radical contribution, his “secular analysis of history and language”. This analysis, Philipp argues, stemmed from Zaydân’s basic belief in the evolutionary principle, initially encountered in biology and medicine, but then extended, through his life’s work, to Arabic language and history. This notion of evolutionary development interacted rather ambiguously with a different, Enlightenment emphasis on the active role of the intellectual in educating society, evident in Zaydân’s role as populariser and journalist; it also arrived at rather ambiguous compromises with religious notations of history. In sum, Philipp concludes, Zaydân succeeded – despite his lack of enthusiasm for political nationalism – in providing Arab nationalism with the ‘foundation’ of a secular, evolutionary, conception of the Arabic language and Arab-Islamic civilisation. Zaydân’s role as a successful journalistic entrepreneur – an exponent of Benedict Anderson’s “print capitalism” – also, Philipp suggests, played a role in forming his Arab nationalist views.

4This account is convincing, within its limitations. These lie mainly in the area of the contexts of Zaydân’s thinking: intellectual, social and political. Philipp’s approach tends to suggest that Zaydân took ideas from other thinkers and then developed them further, in a series of rather isolated intellectual operations. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Zaydân was in large part a populariser of others’ ideas, immersed in a Zeitgeist he shared with his contemporaries, Arab and European – and this comes through only very partially. Philipp traces, for instance, the sources of Zaydân’s evolutionism (Spencer and Darwin, the latter via Shiblî Shumayyil), but does not touch on the possible influence of European (or Arab) historical linguistics on Zaydân’s notion of language; or situate his historical thinking very firmly within Arab historiography. (The contributions of Jens Hanssen, Anne-Laure Dupont and Marwa Elshakry to the 2012 Symposium shed some light on these questions, however [Zaidan and Philipp, 2013: 55-144]; see also Dupont’s substantial study [2006] of Zaydân.) The question, too, of where to situate different parts of Zaydân’s work, along a spectrum which evidently ranged from straight appropriation to original writing, by way of degrees of compilation and adaptation, is hardly addressed by Philipp. He does describe some of the social context within which Zaydân’s ideas developed – not just his wide and voracious reading, but debate and controversy with other intellectuals, and his exceptionally close “interactive” relationship with the readership of his journal al-Hilâl (89). But these are not offered as formative influences on Zaydân’s ideas, beyond the link drawn between his Arab nationalism and his activities as “print capitalist” serving a pan-Arab public (108).

5In general, Philipp’s intellectual-history approach inhibits any sustained consideration of Zaydân’s thought as ideology. For here we have a set of ideas taken over from certain critical moments of European bourgeois ideology (Spencerian evolutionism, Smilesian “self-help”, utilitarian conceptions of “interest”) as well as perhaps older, local notions (the ‘âmm/khâṣṣ distinction), and adapted by Zaydân for the requirements of the readers of al-Hilâl, who were drawn (87) from the “new secular bourgeoisie” (a category which would, however, like the similar concept of the “effendiyya”, benefit from more precise examination). To such people – the Levantine shopkeeper, say, or the Egyptian engineer – they could offer “scientific” rationalisations for a “naturally” hierarchical society, for their own “self-made” rise within it (as “survival of the fittest”), and for political quietism or gradualism under European or Ottoman imperial rule.

6Such considerations, raised only in passing by Philipp, must call into question, to some extent, the “radical” nature (p. 3) of Zaydân’s secular thought. Zaydân certainly offered substantial opposition to religious conceptions of history and nature (although others, like the materialist Shumayyil, went further), and made a strong and admirable plea for popular education; and he attracted the ire of reactionaries like Louis Cheikho or Rashîd Riḍâ. But he could provide, at best, only a rather limited critique of imperialism, capitalism and autocracy – though he was ready to attack others who did attempt such a critique: not just Egyptian nationalists like Muṣṭafâ Kâmil, but also the socialist or anarchist “radicals” studied by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi (2010), who shared many of Zaydân’s modernist positions. Philipp suggests that Zaydân’s main enemy was a religious traditionalism; but also tells us (85) that his “sharpest criticism” was reserved for socialist egalitarianism. Though it lies largely outside the scope of Philipp’s study, Zaydân’s fraught relationship with these other “radicals”, as well as the “traditionalists”, calls for further inquiry. Philipp’s original comparison of Zaydân and later Arab nationalists like Sâṭi‘ al-Ḥuṣrî and Zakî al-Arsûzî raises other questions. The shift from the materialistic evolutionism of Zaydân or Shumayyil to the idealist voluntarism of Ḥuṣrî and Arsûzî recalls the transition in European intellectual culture, over a similar period, from Büchner and Spencer to Croce and Sorel, or from Bernstein and Kautsky to Lenin and Gramsci; and would seem to correlate in both cases with a shift from political quietism or gradualism to activism. Here too, further comparative work would be of great interest.

7Little need be said of the remainder of the book, except to applaud the selection of excerpts from Zaydân’s work, finely translated by Hilary Kilpatrick and Paul Starkey. The presentation of Zaydân’s writings in English is evidently a major aim of the Zaidan Foundation – a similar anthology features also in the Symposium volume (Zaidan and Philipp, 2013) – and is most welcome, although one wonders whether the public might not have been better served by a separate volume of Selected Works, rather than a series of anthologies tacked onto other studies. The bibliography of works by and about Zaydân, while not exhaustive, is valuable – though the rather frequent typographical errors and inconsistencies, here and in the endnotes, will irritate the fastidious.

8Bibliography :

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Dupont Anne-Laure, 2006, Ǧurǧī Zaydān, 1861-1914  : écrivain réformiste et témoin de la renaissance arabe, Damascus, IFPO.

Khuri-Makdisi Ilham, 2010, The Eastern Mediterranean and the making of global radicalism, 1860-1914, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Philipp Thomas, 1979, Ǧurǧī Zaidān: His Life and Thought, Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner.

Zaidan George C., and Philipp Thomas eds, 2012, Jurji Zaidan: Contributions to Modern Arab Thought and Literature, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

Zaidan Jurji, 2011, translated by Roger Allen, The Conquest of Andalusia, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

Zaidan Jurji, 2012a, translated by Paul Starkey, Saladin and the Assassins, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

Zaidan Jurji, 2012b, translated by William Granara, The Battle of Poitiers or Charles Martel and ‘Abd al-Rahman, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

Zaidan Jurji, 2012c, translated by Michael Cooperson, The Caliph's Heirs - Brothers at War: the Fall of Baghdad, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

Zaidan Jurji, 2012d, translated by Isa J. Boullata, The Caliph's Sister - Harun al-Rashid and the Fall of the Persians, Bethesda, MD, Zaidan Foundation.

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Peter Hill, « Thomas Philipp, Jurji Zaidan and the Foundations of Arab Nationalism, with Selected Writings by Jurji Zaidan translated by Hilary Kilpatrick and Paul Starkey, Syracuse Press in Cooperation with the Zaidan Foundation, Syracuse, NY, 2010, 451 pp.  », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 142 | décembre 2017, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2016, consulté le 11 décembre 2018. URL :

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Peter Hill

Christ Church, University of Oxford

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