This paper returns to one of the germinal texts of nineteenth-century Arab political thought, Butrus al-Bustani's Nafir Suriyya (‘The Clarion of Syria’). A series of broadsides published between September 1860 and April 1861, these reflected on the confessional violence that had rent apart Mount Lebanon and Damascus in mid-1860. As scholars have suggested, Bustani – now regarded as one of the pre-eminent thinkers of the nineteenth-century Arab nahda, or ‘awakening’ – here offered a new vision of Syrian patriotism, which formed part of a longer reflection on political subjectivity, faith, and civilisation. But, this paper argues, these texts can also be read as reflections on the changing workings of empire: on the imperial ruler's duties and attributes and his subjects’ obligations and rights; on the relationship between state and population and capital and province; on imperial administrative reform; and on the dangers foreign intervention posed to Ottoman sovereignty. Drawing on the languages of Ottoman reform and ethical statecraft, as well as on imperial comparisons, Bustani argued against the autonomy some counselled for Mount Lebanon and for wholesale integration with the Ottoman state. These texts offer grounds for methodological reflection and for writing Ottoman Arab thought into broader histories of imperial political thought.