Arabic Literary Renaissance

The Arabic Literary Renaissance began after the French occupation of Egypt ended and continued until Middle Eastern nationalist sentiments revived in the wake of World War I. During that long period, European modernization heavily influenced Middle Eastern literary figures and philosophers. As Arab intellectuals adjusted to these new influences, some adapted well while others repudiated modernity outright.

Summary of Event

The Arabic Literary Renaissance marked a segment of wider political, intellectual, and cultural reform affecting the Middle East. Known as Naḥ in Arabic, the regional literary renaissance ended preexisting Middle Eastern literary norms, which had been largely dependent upon oral traditions. The literary symbolism, forms, and figures, as well as technological innovations, made the renaissance a conduit through which Arab culture meshed with modernity amid political and cultural conflict. Rather than submit to Western ways completely, Arabic literature adapted new styles and techniques that preserved elements of Arabic culture. Arabic Literary Renaissance
Literature;Arabic Literary Renaissance
[kw]Arabic Literary Renaissance (19th cent.)
[kw]Literary Renaissance, Arabic (19th cent.)
[kw]Renaissance, Arabic Literary (19th cent.)
Arabic Literary Renaissance
Literature;Arabic Literary Renaissance
[g]Middle East;19th cent.: Arabic Literary Renaissance[0010]
[g]Mediterranean;19th cent.: Arabic Literary Renaissance[0010]
[g]Egypt;19th cent.: Arabic Literary Renaissance[0010]
[c]Literature;19th cent.: Arabic Literary Renaissance[0010]
Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];in Egypt[Egypt]
Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha
Ismāՙīl Pasha
Rifā՚ah Rāfi՚ a
Bustani, Butrus al-
Nāṣīf Yāziji
Gibran, Kahlil
Shihāb al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī

Prior to the nineteenth century, the literary period known as the Age of Depression developed themes that the Arabic Literary Renaissance repeated in new ways. Both periods emphasized romantic ideals of Arab life and a sense of ethnic pride. Although literary subjects shifted from individual achievement and heroics to everyday life, Arab identity remained a constant. Emphasis on broader social themes served as a natural reaction to French general Napoleon Bonaparte’s Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];in Egypt[Egypt]
Egypt;French occupation of invasion of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon brought more than a military occupation of territory; he also brought scientists and scholars to study and survey Egyptian history, culture, and topography. European efforts to learn about and exploit “orientalism” helped introduce modern concepts to the Middle East.

Although France’s occupation of Egypt lasted only three years, it profoundly altered Egyptian attitudes after a new ruler, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha consolidated power in 1805. Mimicking his Ottoman allies, Muḥammad Alī reformed Egypt’s military and education systems along Western lines. By 1816, the transition from Egypt’s religious Azhar system of education gave way to Westernized secular institutions. Muḥammad ՙAlī imported European technicians, scientists, and educators to create a modern Arab state.

Determined not to be outdone by the Lebanese, Muḥammad Alī ordered an Arabic printing Arabic-language printing[Arabic language printing] press for disseminating Western knowledge as well as printing classical Arabic texts. In 1828, the Boulaq Press issued Egypt’s first official newspaper. In 1835, the Cairo School Cairo;language school
Education;Egyptian of Languages began teaching French, Italian, and English. Six years later, the Cairo school helped establish the Translation Bureau, further opening Egypt to the West. Printing presses, language schools, and the Translation Bureau introduced an Arab audience to European literature, history, and technical manuals.

Additionally, the West’s Christian missionaries Missionaries;in Middle East[Middle East] and educational institutions infiltrated the region. Under Egyptian occupation, Syria Syria and Lebanon became home to Western colleges. In 1847, the United States established the American College, later renamed the American University of Beirut American University of Beirut . Missionary schools for women also began appearing in the Middle East. Later in the century, Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismāՙīl Ismāՙīl Pasha advanced modern educational reforms. Educated in France, Ismāՙīl increased educational opportunities for all, including women. He founded the Dar al-ՙUlum, a teachers’ training college seeking connections between Islamic Islam;and Western culture[Western culture] traditions and Western learning. Ismāՙīl encouraged his countrymen to wear Western apparel, adopt Western legal codes, incorporate European financial standards, and fund construction of a Cairo opera Opera;Aida house that opened in 1869, in time to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal Suez Canal with the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. Aida (Verdi) All of these reforms bound Egypt more closely to European influences.

These rapid changes split Arab society and intellectuals into two factions: those repudiating modernity and those embracing it. By the mid-nineteenth century, many Arabs were taking steps to preserve their cultural identity, including their rich literary heritage. For example, the Egyptian poet Sayyid Alī al-Darwish Darwish, Sayyid Alī al- and the Lebanese poet Nāṣīf Yāziji Nāṣīf Yāziji imitated older poetic forms dating back to the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, scholars such as Rifā՚ah Rāfi՚ aṭ-Ṭahtawi, Rifā՚ah Rāfi՚ a who was one of many students Muḥammad ՙAlī Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha sent to Europe to study, followed Western ways; aṭ-Ṭahtawi became director of the Cairo School of Languages Cairo;language school in 1836. The school’s students assisted in translating more than two thousand books into Arabic. Others open to modernity included the Iraqi writer Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ālūsī, Shihāb al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī whose ode commemorating British queen Victoria’s reign won popular acclaim. Interestingly, Arab literary figures developed a paradoxical relationship concerning modernity as the century progressed. While Egyptian poets born after 1850, such as Aḥmad Shawqī, Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Ibrāhīm, and Khalīl Maṭrān, all adopted modern literary forms, they applied them to express strong Arab nationalist sentiments.

By the late nineteenth century, another ethnic group was contesting nationalist autonomy in the Middle East and threatening Arabic notions of identity. The Viennese playwright and journalist Theodor Herzl Herzl, Theodor was calling for a Jewish homeland. Herzl’s 1896 book Der Judenstaat
Judenstaat, Der (Herzl) (the Jewish Jews;and Zionism[Zionism] state) argued for Jewish self-determination as an alternative to persistent European anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] The following year, Herzl joined others in galvanizing support for the Zionist Zionism movement, which specified Palestine Palestine —the future center of the modern state of Israel Israel —as the location for this new Jewish state. Like Napoleon’s invasion, Zionism invigorated Arab nationalism, combining it with reactionary expressions of political Islam. Islam;and Arab nationalism[Arab nationalism]

Interpreting modernity as a threat placed Egyptians and neighboring Arabs on the defensive by forcing them to protect and further define their culture. Literary forms new to Arab culture—such as novels, short stories, essays, biographies, autobiographies, histories, literary criticism, and, most significant, dramas—conveyed a growing awareness of self-identity. Arab writers and philosophers Philosophy;Arab saw modernity as a vehicle imperative for reinvigorating Arab honor and winning respect for it among the world’s civilizations.

By the end of the renaissance era, a few literary figures sought compromise among competing views. For example, Butrus al-Bustani’s work on an Arabic encyclopedia and dictionary Dictionaries;Arabic defined the substantive contributions to world culture that Arabs could claim. Through art and philosophical teachings, the Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran Gibran, Kahlil spread mystical concepts of human existence that challenged scientific notions of modernity. Writers such as these interpreted Arab culture and history as a vital component of the modern world. Using humanity as the constant link between antiquity and modernity, Gibran’s writings defused tensions among the competing schools of thought.


Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the Arabic Literary Renaissance revealed two diverging viewpoints regarding modernity. Many Arabs accommodated change and strove to elevate the Arab role in the modern era. Muḥammad Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha ՙAlī and his successor, Khedive Ismāՙīl Ismāՙīl Pasha , bound the Middle East more closely to Europe’s modern practices by reforming Egyptian military tactics and armaments, as well as social customs and laws. Although many Arab writers and thinkers applauded these events, a substantial portion considered modernization a threat to Arab identity. Scholars such as Kahlil Gibran Gibran, Kahlil and Butrus al-Bustani Bustani, Butrus al- disseminated Arab thought and accomplishments to others by redefining modernity as a reciprocal relationship wherein exchanges of knowledge and philosophy replaced assimilation and resentment. However, conflict between modernization’s proponents and opponents marginalized the true significance of Gibran’s and al-Bustani’s work.

By the late nineteenth century, the two feuding groups and their philosophical platforms had solidified. Politically, the polarized factions continued into the twentieth century with promodernist leaders such as Egyptian prime minister and president Gamal Abdel Nasser and antimodernist groups such as the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood. Novels such as Naguib Mahfouz’s Mahfouz, Naguib Cairo Trilogy reflected the rifts pervading Arab society, and Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. These tensions have persisted into the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

  • Badawi, M. M. A Short History of Modern Arabic Literature. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1993. This book offers an excellent introduction to period and its long-term implications.
  • Bakalla, M. H. Arabic Culture Through Its Language and Literature. Boston: Kegan Paul International, 1984. Bakalla offers a concise summary of the Arabic Literary Renaissance.
  • Boullata, Issa J., and Terri DeYoung, eds. Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997. Although it focuses on a late period in the Arabic Literary Renaissance, this edited volume offers lengthy examinations of philosophers such as Kahlil Gibran.
  • Daly, M. W., ed. Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2 in The Cambridge History of Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Chapter 6, written by Khaled Fahmy, chronicles the events and significance of Muḥammad’s governorate.
  • Fahmy, Khaled. All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army, and the Making of Modern Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Examines Muḥammad’s military reforms and recruitment policies in the context of his modernization of Egypt’s government.
  • Gibb, H. A. R. Arabic Literature: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. Although in many ways dated, this classic study of Arabic literature remains highly respected in the field.
  • Haywood, John A. Modern Arabic Literature, 1800-1970. London: Lund Humphries, 1971. Haywood’s text serves as one the cornerstones in the field of the Arabic Literary Renaissance.
  • Moss, Joyce, ed. Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times. Vol. 6 in World Literature and Its Times. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004. Collection of authoritative essays on individual writers and works, including many from the nineteenth century.

Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs

Muḥammad ՙAlī Has the Mamlūks Massacred

Exploration of Arabia

Turko-Egyptian Wars

Suez Canal Opens

Battle of Tel el Kebir

Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement

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