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Utopia and Civilisation in the Arab Nahda, Peter Hill (University of Oxford)

October 15, 2018, 5:00pm BST - 7:00pm
Department of History, SOAS, University of London

Khalili Lecture Theatre
10 Thornhaugh Street
London WC1H 0XG
United Kingdom

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Peter Hill, Christ Church, University of Oxford

This talk surveys Arab intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century, the first generation of the ‘Nahda’ or cultural ‘revival’ movement. I present an outline of the theme of my forthcoming book, which examines the new cultural and literary forms such intellectuals created. Through newspapers, novels, translation-adaptations of European texts, and pamphlets, they expressed their visions of a possible future: one in which lands like Egypt and Bilad al-Sham would become integrated into capitalist modernity, but under local rather than European imperial control. I will present three main case-studies. The first is that of writers and journalists in Ottoman-ruled Beirut during and after the traumatic outbreak of sectarian violence in 1860. Under the pressures of war and the shadow of European intervention, men like Butrus al-Bustani and Khalil al-Khuri forged their own hybrid concept of ‘civilisation’ (tamaddun), drawing on both older Arabic sources and post-Enlightenment Europe. With confidence and skill, they created a didactic discourse of civilised patriotism which would become central to the later, better-known Nahda of the 1870s onwards.

My second case-study is that of Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, the famous Egyptian traveller and educator, and his adaptations of European geography texts during the 1830s and 1840s. A servant of the autocratic statebuilding project of Mehmed Ali Pasha, al-Tahtawi refashioned European imperial geographies into Egyptian ones. Taking over from Europe the notion of a hierarchy of civilizational levels, he placed civilised Arabs, Egyptians, and Ottomans high – practically on a par with Europeans – in this hierarchy, while those they sought to rule –Bedouin or Sudanese – were ranked far lower.

The third case is an 1865 utopian narrative by the Aleppine writer Fransis Marrash. In theaftermath of the sectarian violence of 1860 and the still more violent Ottoman restoration of order, he considers the possibility a peaceful and prosperous Ottoman Syria under the strict rule of a royal court guided by a benevolent ‘philosopher’. His blueprint for civilisation, though backed by a cosmology that presents its rules as emanating from the natural order, is shot through with uncertainties and doubts. These would lead, in Marrash’s later writings, to a harsh critique of both European model and Ottoman reality, as a false and ‘barbarous civilisation’.

In these ways, between the 1830s and the early 1870s, Arab writers confronted the West with openness, curiosity, and confidence in the ability of their own culture to take what it needed from the outside world. They did so by blending European ideas and techniques with those of local, Arab and Ottoman derivation, thus constructing a distinctive local culture bound together by ideas of patriotism, civilization and prosperity. Their project aimed to legitimate the hegemony of ‘civilised’ Arab and Ottoman elites over the ‘uncivilised’ lower orders, subject peoples and rival groups of notables. Though forestalled by the directly territorial European imperialism from the 1880s onwards, this project would continue to inform the discourses of the Arab Nahda well into the twentieth century.

Peter Hill is a historian of the Arab world in the long nineteenth century. His current research focusses on the intellectual history and social history of intellectuals in Bilad al-Sham and Egypt. He holds a DPhil and Masters in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, and has lived and studied in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. His publications include ‘Ottoman Despotism and Islamic Constitutionalism in Mehmed Ali’s Egypt’, Past & Present, 237: 1 (2017), ‘The Arabic Adventures of Télémaque: Trajectory of a Global Enlightenment Text in the Nahdah’, Journal of Arabic Literature 49: 3 (2018), and ‘The First Arabic Translations of Enlightenment Literature: The Damietta Circle of the 1800s and 1810s’. Intellectual History Review, 24: 2 (2015). His first book, Utopia and Civilisation in the Arab Nahda, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.

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