Western Thought, Middle East

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Western Thought, Middle East

The interest taken by the Islamic world in Western thought prior to the colonial period was selective and spasmodic. The expansion of Islam in the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 c.e. quickly brought Muslims into contact with populations rooted in other cultural traditions, such as those of ancient Greece and Persia, and during the Abbasid period (749–1258 c.e.), an institution known as the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) was established in Baghdad to facilitate the translation of Greek and other texts.

A large number of important works were translated into Arabic during this period, often through the intermediate language of Syriac, including works by Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), Plato (ca. 427–347 b.c.e.), and Ptolemy (second century c.e.), but the selection of works was primarily practical and utilitarian. Greek learning was translated when it was felt that it could supply a need or serve the interests of those in positions of authority, either religious or political. Many works of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and other sciences were accordingly translated into Arabic, but little or no attention was paid to works of Greek literature, from which the Muslims felt they had nothing to learn.

At the other end of the Islamic world, Islamic Spain provided a forum for the cross-fertilization of cultures (Muslim, Jewish, and Christian) from the eighth century c.e. to the fall of Granada in 1492—a phenomenon that has been much studied, though its precise ramifications remain in some cases obscure. Despite its obvious importance for the history of contacts between Islam and the West, however, Islamic Spain was more significant as a channel for the transmission of Greek and Islamic ideas to Christian Europe than for any transmission in the opposite direction. Contact between the two cultures of a different kind was provided by the Crusades, a series of Western military expeditions to the Holy Land between 1095 and 1270, but these are of little or no significance in the present context.


From the fifteenth to the early twentieth century, much of the Middle East and North Africa remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire, centered on Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). Early Ottoman rulers seemed eager to learn from European ideas, both contemporary and classical. Sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481), for example, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, had the works of Ptolemy and Plutarch (ca. 46–120 c.e.) translated into Turkish, and gathered Italian and Greek scholars around him at his court.

These initiatives, however, lost their impetus as the Ottoman Empire generally lost its vitality, so that, despite contacts on various levels, intellectual exchanges between Europe and the Ottoman Middle East were not of major significance during the succeeding period. It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that Sultan Selim III (r. 1789–1807) made serious attempts to reform the empire, by then threatened with economic and administrative chaos, on the basis of European ideas, opening embassies in major European capitals in order to promote links, and opening the way for the formation of a new educated class of reform-minded intellectuals later in the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, within the Ottoman Empire, particular ethnic and religious groups had, for different reasons, been maintaining regular intellectual contacts of their own with their counterparts in the West. The Christian Maronite community, centered on Lebanon, had had a college in Rome since 1584, and members of that community were later to play a prominent role in the nahda(the Arab literary and cultural revival) of the nineteenth century.


Although a case can be made for other dates as the starting point for the history of the modern Middle East, there can be little doubt that the expedition of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) to Egypt in 1798 played a major role in laying the foundations for the relationships—intellectual and otherwise—that subsequently developed between the West and the central Islamic world. Itself largely a product of Anglo-French colonial rivalry, Napoléon's expedition for the first time gave large numbers of a Middle Eastern population direct exposure to Western ideas in practice: these included not only intellectual and cultural institutions, such as the printing press, newspapers, and Western-style theater, but also representative institutions, such as administrative councils, embodying the ideals of democracy and of the French Revolution (1789–1799). Meanwhile, teams of scholars and savants roamed Egypt constructing a detailed survey of the country, subsequently published in several volumes as the Description de l'Egypte (1810–1829).

The reaction of educated Egyptians to these developments was, not surprisingly, an ambiguous one. The most prominent Egyptian intellectual to have witnessed the invasion, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753–1825), expressed contempt for the French as materialists and the enemies of Islam; in other passages of his account, however, he speaks with enthusiasm not only of their scientific and cultural achievements, but also of their sense of justice and fair play, which he regarded as superior to that of the Ottomans. This ambiguous attitude toward the ideas of the West—a combination of suspicion and admiration—forms the starting point for many of the subsequent discussions during the nineteenth century, when Muslim reformers and the champions of secularism alike strove to reformulate the guiding principles of Middle Eastern society in the light of the perceived new challenges of the West.


These nineteenth-century debates were fueled by an interchange of ideas in which travel, both east to west and west to east, played a large part. In Egypt, the reign of Muhammad 'Ali (1769–1849), who established himself as a virtually independent ruler in the wake of the departure of the French, and who modeled himself to some extent on Selim III, saw foreign instructors imported into Egypt to provide the military and administrative expertise required to run the country. At the same time, Egyptian students were dispatched to study in the West, mainly France. On their return, these students were often required to translate the textbooks from which they had studied—a process that laid the foundations for the nineteenth-century translation movement that played a significant part in the transmission of Western ideas to the Islamic world during this period.

Among the most interesting of these early travelers to the West was Rifa'a Rafi'al-Tahtawi (1801–1871), a religious imam who served as leader of the first Egyptian educational mission to France from 1826 to 1831. On returning to Egypt, he embarked on a distinguished career in public service that included the directorship of the School of Translation. His Takhlis al-ibriz ila talkhis? Bariz (The refinement of gold for the summary of Paris) (1869), which offers a lively account of his encounter with Western society, set a pattern for many subsequent works, both autobiographical and fictional, inspired by visits to Europe. Al-Tahtawi's account of his stay in French society, which included meetings with some of the leading Orientalists of the day, is often surprisingly sympathetic, and his writing reveals the influence of wide reading in the works of eighteenth-century French thought, including Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Montesquieu (1689–1755).

Although al-Tahtawi's views on the nature of the state and the relationship between ruler and ruled—topics treated at some length in Manahij al-albab al-misriyya fi mabahij al-adab al-'as?riyya ("The ways of Egyptian minds in the delights of modern manners") (1869)—remained essentially rooted in the Islamic tradition, his writings introduce a number of themes that were shortly to be commonplaces among Arab and Muslim thinkers. These included the idea that within the Islamic community (umma) there could be national communities demanding the loyalty of the subject, and the suggestion that the Islamic world should not shy away from adopting modern European science in order to adapt to the modern world. Implicit in much discussion of this sort was a central problematic: how to reconcile the belief in a divinely revealed religion and the all-embracing set of religious law (the Islamic shari'a) that accompanied it, with the idea that laws should be made by governments in the interests of their subjects? Or, to pose the problem more generally, how could the practice of Islam be reconciled with the needs of the modern world? And if Islam had claim to be the definitive divine revelation, how was it that the Islamic world had fallen behind Europe in so many material respects?

It was not only in Egypt that these questions were acquiring an importance in the middle years of the nineteenth century. In Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, the reformist Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1822/3–1889) produced a monumental work, Aqwam al-masalik fī ma'rifat al-mamalik (1867), in which he reviewed the history and political and economic structures of a number of European countries, as well as those of the Ottoman Empire itself. In the most interesting part of the work, the Muqaddima (meaning "Introduction," a title borrowed from his illustrious fellow-countryman Ibn Khaldun [1332–1406]), the author argued in favor of trying to emulate the progress of the West, which in his view sprang from a combination of representative government and the fruits of the Industrial Revolution.

In the meantime, similar sets of questions were being addressed in a somewhat different form further east by members of Christian communities centered on Lebanon and Syria, whose perspective, unencumbered by the weight of Islamic tradition, was in some respects more flexible. Among the most prominent of these were the ruggedly individualist Faris (later Ahmad Faris) al-Shidyaq (1804–1887) and Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1893), a member of the extensive Bustani family who collectively were to play a leading role in the nineteenthcentury nahda (revival) in its Syro-Lebanese form.

One of the most fascinating characters of the nineteenth-century Middle East, al-Shidyaq's loyalties embraced at least two sects of Christianity before his conversion to Islam around 1865. His al-Saq 'ala al-Saq (Leg Over Leg) (1855), which has been likened to the sixteenth-century narrative Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French satirist François Rabelais (ca. 1483–1553), has some claim to be considered the first attempt at modern fiction in Arabic. For his part, many of al-Bustani's ideas echoed those of Ottoman reformists such as the Young Turks—though for obvious reasons, Lebanese Christian intellectuals generally laid more emphasis on notions of religious tolerance and equality than their Muslim counterparts elsewhere.


The religious strand implicit or explicit in many of these debates found perhaps its most eloquent expression in the lives and works of the two most prominent religious reformers active in nineteenth-century Egypt, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) and his disciple Muhammad 'Abduh (1849–1905), whose lives were closely intertwined. The origins of al-Afghani are slightly obscure, but as his name suggests he certainly hailed from the eastern part of the Islamic world, from either Iran or Afghanistan. His roving life included spells not only in the West but also in India, and both his life and his work (though he in fact wrote rather little) have a strongly anti-imperialist tone to them. In 1883 al-Afghani published a vigorous article taking issue with the argument of French historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892) on the incompatibility of Islam and science, and it was largely through al-Afghani that the modern European concept of civilization, as expounded by French historian and statesman François Guizot (1787–1874) and others, reached the Islamic world.

Al-Afghani's disciple, the Egyptian Muhammad 'Abduh, was not only a less flamboyant figure than his master but also a more systematic thinker. His association with al-Afghani started when the latter was lecturing at the traditionalist Azhar University in Cairo in around 1869. The two men's collaboration found its most obvious expression in their cooperation on the short-lived weekly periodical al-'Urwa al-Wuthqa (the Firmest Bond), published in Paris from March to October 1884, which struck a note that simultaneously embraced both anti-imperialism and Islamic reformism.

Muhammad 'Abduh's career was intertwined with the politics of the time, including the resistance to British interference expressed in the 'Urabi Rebellion of 1882. He was for a time imprisoned, but in later life he became a much respected figure both in his native Egypt and beyond. His thought, which found its expression in a commentary on the Qur'an, as well as in an important theological treatise, Risalat al-tawhid (Treatise on the Unity of God, 1897), laid emphasis on the reinterpretation of the Islamic shari'a in the light of modern conditions, with considerable stress on the idea of the public interest, clearly derived from contemporary European thinking.

Although never universally accepted, Muhammad 'Abduh's influence was undoubtedly greater than that of any other Islamic thinker of his period, and his ideas found echoes in groups of intellectual Muslims in many parts of the Islamic world, from North Africa to Iraq and even beyond. Some thinkers, such as the Syrian Rashid Rida (1865–1935), may be regarded primarily as Islamic modernists, whose work lay in extending and carrying forward the ideas of al-Afghani and 'Abduh without radically changing their direction.

At the same time, however, a number of other, more radical intellectual currents were beginning to gain ground in the region. As in the previous generation, Middle Eastern Christians—whose acquaintance with modern Western ideas had in many cases been fostered through missionary schools—were prominent in this process. Two Arab thinkers in particular may be mentioned in this context: Shibli Shumayyil (1853–1917) and Farah Antun (1874–1922), both of whom made major contributions to Arab secularist thought of the period.

The Syrian-born Greek Catholic Shibli Shumayyil, who trained and practiced as a doctor, played a prominent role during the 1880s and later in popularizing modern European scientific theories, including those of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), but he also wrote extensively on society more generally, many of his ideas being derived from European thinkers such as Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and Georg Büchner (1813–1837), and he was mainly responsible for spreading the concepts of socialism widely in the Arab world.

This strand of thinking, which openly espoused Darwinian and Freudian ideas, was carried forward by, among others, the Egyptian Copt Salama Musa (1887–1958), who had studied in England, where he made the acquaintance of the playwright and critic Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and the novelist H. G. Wells (1866–1946) and adopted the philosophy of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization founded in 1884. Marxist ideas were by this time circulating widely among groups of Middle Eastern intellectuals. Although the popularity of Marxism in its more extreme forms has been limited in the Middle East by its often aggressively atheistic associations, this more moderate form of socialism as espoused by Shumayyil and Salama Musa was later to underlie the social and economic structures of a large part of the Arab world following independence in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Unsurprisingly, Shumayyil's ideas, which he advanced with considerable vigor, provoked controversy and opposition among the more conservative elements of the intelligentsia. Equally controversial was the Lebaneseborn Farah Antun, whose omnivorous interests may be gauged from the range of his translations, which included not only Rousseau's novel Émile (1762), but also German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883–1885), Renan's Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus, 1863), and works by Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), Anatole France (1844–1924), Chateaubriand (1768–1848), and others. An admirer of Renan, Shumayyil's views on the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126–1198) provoked a vigorous confrontation with Muhammad 'Abduh in which the relative merits of Islam and Christianity played a prominent part.

In the meantime, other followers and disciples of Muhammad 'Abduh were developing his ideas in a variety of different directions. Qasim Amin (1863–1908), like Salama Musa, had studied in both England and France, where his experiences and exposure to the liberal intellectual tradition of Europe prompted him to propose changes in the status of women in Egyptian society. Although his proposals were in fact rather modest, they predictably provoked controversy among his more conservative colleagues. Another of Muhammad 'Abduh's followers, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872–1963), played a prominent role in the development of a modern educational system in Egypt, as well as making contributions to political life and to journalism.

The extent to which the culture of contemporary Arabic thought and writing was by now being influenced by Western ideas can perhaps be most clearly seen, however, in the career and output of the great Egyptian litterateur Taha Husayn (1889–1973), who had learned Greek and Latin in France, attending courses at the Sorbonne in Paris in classical civilization, history, philosophy, and psychology. Much influenced by his Orientalist teachers, who included Eno Littmann, Carlo Alfonso Nallino, and David Santillana, he set out to apply the principles of Western literary criticism to preIslamic poetry, provoking an outcry among his conservative colleagues with his claim (no longer accepted) that much pre-Islamic poetry had been forged. Taha Husayn subsequently went on to argue, contrary to much contemporary nationalist debate, that Egypt had always belonged to a wider Mediterranean civilization—in effect, arguing that the future of Egypt lay with Europe rather than the Arab or Islamic world.


Religion excepted, the most important debate, or rather, series of debates, preoccupying the Middle East during the last years of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century revolved around different varieties of nationalism. Space does not permit a detailed discussion of this complex phenomenon, but the general political and intellectual context may be summed up briefly in a number of interrelated factors: the progressive weakening of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, prompting both dissent and a number of attempts at internal reform in response to threats from Europe; the growth of European influence on, and control over, many parts of the region, as exemplified by Napoléon's expedition of 1798 and by the British occupation of Egypt from 1881; and the growing sense of self-identity of the various ethnic groups who formed a large proportion of the population of the Ottoman Empire. The last of these factors can be paralleled in several parts of Europe during the same period.

A notable feature of the various national movements active around this time was the extent to which they cross-fertilized each other intellectually. Unlike in India, for example, nationalism in the Arab Middle East was almost always formulated in terms derived from European experience, and its emergence and development was closely bound up with events in the Ottoman Empire itself, including the progress of the reformist Young Turks (Turkish: Jöntürkler) movement.

Influenced by positivist thinkers such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Georg Büchner, the Young Turks—a loose coalition of various reform groups—had their origins in the Istanbul student communities of the late 1880s. An initial conspiracy to unseat the authoritarian Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842–1918) was uncovered before it could be put into effect and several of the group's leaders fled to Paris. Following the formation of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in Turkey, they succeeded in establishing a constitutional government in 1908, consolidating their power in 1913. Despite some success in internal reform, however, including education and the status of women, the Young Turks proved inept in the handling of foreign affairs, and it was only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 1920s that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk, 1881–1938) was able to begin to articulate a fully modern Turkish nationalism based on European models.

Arab nationalist thinkers such as Sati' al-Husri (1880–1968) drew on the ideas of Ziya Gökalp (ca. 1875–1924), the Young Turks' theoretician, together with those of such European thinkers as Johann Fichte (1762–1814) and Johann Herder (1744–1803), to produce a sort of Romantic cultural nationalism that later found expression in different countries in various forms, many of them modeled on the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) that came to power in Egypt in 1952.

A somewhat different slant to the Arab nationalist movement was provided by the Syrian Michel 'Aflaq (1910–1989), whose four years of study in France had enabled him to develop a wide-ranging acquaintance with European history and philosophy—studies that underlay the foundation in 1947 of the Ba'th (Renaissance) Party, which subsequently assumed power in Syria and Iraq. In Turkey itself, the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I (1914–1918) was followed by the establishment of an officially secular state modeled on European principles, and by the introduction of language reform measures including the substitution of Latin script for the Arabic alphabet. But these measures were nowhere followed in the Arab world.

By contrast with the Arab regions of the Middle East, European influences on Iran, initially at least, came mainly through Russia rather than the countries of western Europe. Russian influence in the area increased dramatically following the Russian invasion of 1826, and the country soon found itself in an unenviable position, sandwiched between the competing economic, political, and diplomatic rivalries of Russia to the north and British imperial interests in the Indian Subcontinent to the east. The economic and social chaos brought about by World War I was followed by the ousting of the Qajar regime, to be replaced in 1925 by the Pahlavis, who embarked on a program of rapid westernization, accompanied in later years by an increasingly unrestrained apparatus of repression.

The frustration of many Iranians, not least the religious hierarchy, at what appeared to be an increasing loss of national identity was expressed most vividly, if a little belatedly, by the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923–1969) in his polemical work Gharbzadegi (an untranslatable term, broadly equivalent to "westoxication" or "westomania"), first published in 1962. Banned by the Pahlavis, the work circulated underground until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when it quickly acquired almost cult status—its radically anti-Western tone echoing some aspects of the ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989). It remains among the most controversial and thought-provoking essays to emerge from modern Iran, and arguably, indeed, from the whole of the Islamic Middle East.


An interesting twist to debates in the Arab world on relations with the West in the period following World War II (1939–1945) was provided by the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), whose idea of commitment, in both literary and political senses, appeared to mirror the mood of the Arab Middle East following the Arab defeat in the Palestine War of 1948 and the Egyptian Free Officers' Revolt of 1952. Commitment (iltizam) quickly became the dominant literary and cultural mood of the period, echoing the Romanticism—again, largely derived from Western models—of the interwar years.

The next sea change in the prevailing mood among Arab intellectuals coincided with the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, which initiated a period of widespread bitterness and frustration among Arab writers and other intellectuals in the region. More recently, globalization, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the failure to find a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict have again radically shifted both the tone and the focus of the Middle Eastern response to the West. Despite that, it is arguable that the underlying problematic continues to be the one that dogged Muslim intellectuals in the nineteenth century—how to adapt to modern civilization while remaining true to the revelation of Islam.

see also Education, Middle East; Empire, Ottoman; Ideology, Political, Middle East.


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Western Thought, Middle East