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The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? [Pt. II]

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2014

Muhsin al-Musawi*
Columbia University


In this part, the implications of negativism are interrogated, especially as they lead to a deliberate negligence on the part of some nahḍah scholars to overlook significant and in fact groundbreaking contributions to the theories of translation as laid down by al-Jāḥiẓ, for example. Counter readings by other nahḍah scholars and translators balance and should have corrected the view of $T{\hskip-5.6pt\vskip1.9pt.}\,$ āhā Ḥusayn, whose alignment with the Enlightenment prevented him from exploring even the most salient features of a past tradition. The medieval as a powerful dynamic in the makeup of historical understanding can be traced in writings by Mudawwar, Sulaymān Khaṭṭar al-Bustānī, and others, but these draw on a Golden past (the Abbasid) as an imaginary that sustains another lineage that takes translation from a Greco-Roman tradition as an invigorating enterprise in an otherwise lively Abbasid (750–978; and then until 1258) culture that was already triumphant. In other words this reclamation of the Golden past was not meant to disparage the Middle Ages, that is, the Mamluk period (1250–1517), but to obliquely criticize cultural dependency on Europe. Hence, prominent journals and publishers did not shy away from picking their designations and names from the Mamluk parlance and architectural sites. These two trends in lexical activity, translation, and historicization attest to a differentiated nahḍah space where the proclaimed epistemic discontinuity with the immediate past was balanced by the setup of a schema for translation as a schema for the nation, a premise that was also applied to the lexicon as a pan-Arab cauldron.

Paradigms: Literary World Systems
© Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Ismāʻīl Maẓhar, Nahḍah Dictionary, or Awakening Lexicon, cited from the unpaginated preface.

2 Carter, G., “Arabic Lexicography,” 106117 Google Scholar, in The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Religion, Learning and Science in the ʻAbbāsid Period, eds. M.J.L. Young, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), at 107.

3 See Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s preface to Aḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt’s translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther, ͗ Ālām Veirter (Cairo: Lajnat al-Ta’līf wa Tarjamah wa al-Nashr, 1920).

4 . Allen, Roger, “The Post-Classical Period: Parameters and Preliminaries,” in Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period, eds. Roger Allen and D.S. Richards (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 15.

5 Al-Muqtaṭaf Press was the one publishing its journal under the same name (1876–1952). The journal was the most advanced and encyclopedic among contemporary journals in Egypt and the Arab world, and was run by the Syro-Lebanese/Egyptian intellectual Yaʻqūb Ṣarrūf (1852–1927) and Fāris Nimr (1857–1951). It was started in Beirut and moved to Cairo in 1885.

6 Wichtenstader, Ilse, Classical Arabic Literature (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 357362 Google Scholar.

7 The Press was the one publishing Shaykh ʻAlī Yūsuf‘s newspaper (1889) under the same name and speaking for Khedive ʻAbbās and the Muslim national opinion. Its writers moved to al-Liwā’ (1900) to carve a straightforward nationalist discourse against the British.

8 al-Mudawwar, Jamīl Nakhlah, Ḥaḍārat al-Islām fī Dār al-Salām (Islamic Civilization in the Abode of Peace; i.e., Baghdad; Cairo: Al-Amīriyah Press, 1937), iiiiv Google Scholar.

9 Ismāʻīl Maẓhar, et al., Qāmūs al-nahḍah (Cairo: Al-Nahḍah Bookshop, n.d.), preface: n.p.

10 Stetkevych, Suzanne P., Abū Tammām and the Poetics of the ‘ʻAbbāsid Age (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 1617 Google Scholar. In her translation, al-Jāḥiẓ says: “For the Mutakallimūn [speculative theologians] selected expressions for their concepts, deriving terminology for things for which the Arab language had no word. In doing so they have set the precedent in this for all who came after them and the model for all who follow.”

11 Ismāʻīl Maẓhar, Qāmūs al-nahḍah, preface: n.p.

12 Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française (English: Description of Egypt, or the Collection of Observations and Research which Were Made in Egypt during the Expedition of the French Army).

13 For an opposite argument, see the following article in Al-Hilāl, 1939 by ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz al-Bishrī, in “Muhimu al-adīb fī al-Sharq an yakūna adīban Sharqiyyan” (How Disturbing for a Littérateur in the East to Be an Oriental Littérateur; the title can delude one to read it as the “mission of… to be… ”); already cited.

14 Cited from Matthew Arnold, “The Literary Influence of the Academies” and “Heinrich Heine,” Essays in Criticism, 1st Series, 47, 158, 159, in Muhsin al-Musawi, Anglo-Orient (Tunis: Centre de Publication Universitaire, 2000), 117, 143.

15 See how this repudiation creeps in his Tārīkh al-adab al-ʻArabī (1928), which is on the whole a well-balanced account of literary history. Jurjī Zaydān’s criticism takes lead from social and political circumstance, specifically in the Arab East, as Egypt and Syria were engulfed by “backwardness and corruption.” Tārīkh ͗ ͗ Ādāb al-lughah al-‘Arabiyyah, 4: 6, 11.

16 Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s preface to Aḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt’s translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther, ͗ Ālām Veirter. page Iiii.

17 Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s preface to Aḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt’s translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther, ͗ Ālām Veirter.

18 Benjamin, Walter, “The Translator’s Task,” trans. Steven Rendall, 75–83. The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (New York: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar.

19 Cited and translated from al-Jāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān, Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Salām Hārūn, ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Jīl, 1996), I: 75–76; Yücesoy, Hayrettіn, “Translation as Self-Consciousness: Ancient Sciences, Antediluvian Wisdom, and the ʻAbbāsid Translation Movement,” Journal of World History 2.4 (2009): 523557 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 For a brief discussion of views on this matter, see al-Kindī, ibn Maṭrān, and al-Jāḥiẓ. Ibid, p. 535.

21 For the popularity of these views during al- Jāḥiẓ’s times, see Ṣalāḥ al-Ṣafadī in Rosenthal’s translation, Classical, 17–18.

22 Hayrettіn Yücesoy, 537.

23 D. S. Margoliouth, “The Discussion between Abu Bishr Matta and Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi on the Merits of Logic and Grammar,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Jan. 1905): 79–129, 116, 117.

24 Ibid. p. 536.

25 See Rosenthal, , The Classical…, 4849 Google Scholar. Citing al-Nadīm’s (d. 995 or 998) narrative of the dream in his Kitāb al-Fihrist (a massive dictionary of books, trends, and authors), Rosenthal translates as follows: “He dreamed that he saw a man of reddish-white complexion with a high forehead, bushy eyebrows, bald head, dark blue eyes and handsome features sitting on his chair. Al-Ma’mūn gave the following account of his dream: I had the impression that I was standing respectfully in front of him. I asked him who he was. He replied: ‘I am Aristotle.’ I was happy to be with him and asked if I might address a question to him. He granted me permission, and I said: ‘What is good?’ He replied: ‘Whatever is good according to reason.’ I asked: ‘what else?’ He replied: ‘whatever is good according to religious law.’ And I asked: ‘and what else?’ He replied: ‘Whatever society considers good.’ I asked: ‘What else?’ And he replied: ‘Nothing else.’”

26 FitzGerald, Edward, The Poetical and Prose Writings of Edward FitzGerald, ed. George Bentham (1967; New York: Phaeton Press, 1902)Google Scholar, I: 30; cited in Anglo-Orient, 313.

27 De Man, Paul, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 84 Google Scholar.

28 Cited from a letter of March 20, 1857, in Basnett, Susan, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (London: Blackwell, 1993)Google Scholar, 18; see Anglo-Orient, 313.

29 Tageldin, Shaden M., “Proxidistant Reading,” Journal of Arabic Literature, 2.3 (Fall 2012): 240 Google Scholar; and Aḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt, “Fī al-Adab al-ʿArabī,” al-Jadīd 1.2 (6 February 1928): 19–20.

30 Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)Google Scholar.

31 Khalīl ibn Aybak Ṣafadī, Kitāb al-Ghayth al-musjam fī sharḥ Lāmiyyat al-ʻajam (The Book of the Smoothly Flowing/Life-Giving Rain in Explicating al-Ṭughrā`ī’s ʻAjam Ode Rhyming in L.). (Al-Dār al-Bayẓā’: Dār al-Rashād, 1990), 2 vols. Vol. 1, 442–43. Al-Ṭughrā’ī was executed in 515 or 518/1121 or 1124.

32 Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayrī (d. 1333), Nihāyat al-Arab fī Funūn al-Adab (The Ultimate Goal of the Learned).

33 Gran, Peter, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840 (New York: Syracuse University Press), 7691 Google Scholar. For detailed reading in view of Gran, see Tageldin, Shaden M., Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 66107 Google Scholar. The original full text is as follows: Hadhihī al-Maqāmāt al-Suyūṭiyah, li-Jalāl al-Dīn ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al-Suyūṭī. Mudhayyalah bi-Maqāmah li-Ḥasan al-ʻAṭṭār (Cairo?: Ṣāliḥ al-Yāfī, 1859).

34 Maʻrūf ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Ruṣāfī, Lisān al-‘Arab (The Arabic Language, issued in Istanbul and established by the Iraqi Aḥmad ‘Izzah al-‘Aẓamī, 1912), 7–9; cited in al-Musawi, Muhsin, Islam on the Street (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009)Google Scholar, xv, xxxi. The renowned poet and polemical fighter against the British after 1917 has the following to say on this point: “The language of each nation is irrefutably one of its historical glories. Hence: each language of a nation is part of its nationhood.” Ibid.

35 Ibid. xv.

36 Al-Jāsūs ʻalā al-Qāmūs. Al-Jawharī made a point in his $S{\hskip-3.6pt\vskip1.9pt.}$ iḥāḥ of including what is faṣīḥ (pure, correct) and of an Arab root.

37 Joe Cleary, “The World Literary System: Atlas and Epitaph: The World Republic of Letters by Pascale Casanova,” Field Day Review, Vol. 2 (2006), 196–219.

38 For a succinct reading of this rise, see Dabashi, Hamid, The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Boston: Harvard College Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum/The Seabury Press, 1979)Google Scholar, 53.

40 Messick, Brinkley, The Calligraphic State (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1993)Google Scholar, 1.

41 Goodman, Dena, The Republic of Letters, A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994)Google Scholar, 2, 15.