Al-Nahda: A turning point in the Arab world

Culture Contributor

Al-Nahda, or known as the “renaissance”, is a cultural movement that happened in the Middle East during the 19th and 20th centuries. Especially affecting countries under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, such as Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Directly influenced by the Western ideals, the ottoman Tanzimat, and the wave of colonialism, Al-Nada was characterized by being a period of complex and quick social, cultural, and political modernity. It marked the proliferation of the press, education, and new ideologies. Such as secularism, nationalism, individualism, and many more. The movement was mainly intended by the great leaders of the ottoman empire to place the Arab world side-by-side with the West.

How did Al-Nahda start?

By looking at the beginning of the spark, Al-Nahda came into being through the Tanzimat. Which consists of various political-cultural reforms inspired by the west. These communal and political reforms were implemented by the Ottoman Empire in the three-ruled countries Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. However, the impact of its implementation was different. It depended on the background of each country. On one hand, in Egypt, the “awakening” happened spontaneously and was directed towards the world of Egyptian politics. On the other hand, Syria experienced such a shift mainly in the cultural aspect of life. One similarity between both cases was the spread of mass publications and newspapers, which was labeled as the “Young Turk Movement “.

Leading scholars of Al-Nahda

There were early scholars that supported such a movement. They contributed to its survival inside and outside the Arab world. To begin with, the founder of the renaissance movement in Egypt, of course referring to Rifa’a Rafi’ Al-Tahtawi who was the first to implement the “open-minded modernism”. He did it after his stay in Paris to study the methods through which the West educated their citizens. Remarkably, Al-Tahtawi’s conservative perspective regarding the West was shifted dramatically when he returned back to Egypt. In his book “The Quintessence of Paris”, he analyzed Europe through his Islamic lens. The collection also included the Lebanese Maronite Butrus Al-Bustani.

Highly inspired by the American Missionaries, Al-Bustani counted as the key factor behind the spread of the Arab renaissance in Beirut, Lebanon. His major achievement was the creation of the “National school” or AL-Madrasa Al Wataniya. Which serves as the first secular school in Beirut. In speaking of his contributions, he translated the bible into Arabic with the assistance of the American Missionaries. He established a newspaper called “Al-Janayen” and published an Arab dictionary.

The movement’s impact on religion, press, and politics

Regarding the religious aspect, one of the major advocates of this Pan-Islamism movement was the Islamic figure Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. He was among the first to modernize the interpretations of Islamic principles. Also, he worked to eliminate any rigidity while having individual references to the Quran and Sunnah. The anti-colonial sentiment was dominated by Al-Afghani. Due to his huge influence on others, one of his colleagues continued his journey and took part in furthering his knowledge. That was Muhammed Abduh. Similarly, Abduh supported the rational and divine practice of Islam. He imposed reforms to Islamic teachings that ended the intellectual corruption imposed by earlier Islamic scholars.

Moving to the press field, the Arab renaissance was a driving force behind the establishment of press printing for the first time in the Middle East back in 1610. The Arab world back then witnessed the printings of several Arabic books. For the case of Egypt, the printing press was founded by the government of Mohamed Ali Pasha, which marked a major turning point for the Egyptian masses. One of the famous newspapers that are still operating today is Al-Ahram, founded in Cairo by the 1870s. However, Lebanon was more active to the extent that it witnessed the founding of more than 14 newspapers.

Al-Nahda impacted the way in which governments rule their own country. For the first time, the concept of having a constitution was introduced to empower the Ottoman empire’s rule and to counter the evolvement of the Western power. In addition to that, the parliamentary system was adopted in the Middle East and in return gave birth to Egyptian nationalism against the colonial occupation of Egypt by the Ottomans.


(Written by freelancer Yara Lotfy)

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