Arab Intellectuals and the West

Even though many Arab intellectuals have expressed hope that the Arab Spring would significantly change the dynamics permeating the relationship between the Arab and the Western worlds, however based on the outcomes of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, popular attitudes remain similar if not identical to those that were prevalent following the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in July of 1798 which brought Egypt and with it the Arab Muslim world face to face with the scientific and technologically superior Europe. As I elaborated in details in my book, Arab, Muslim Travelers and the West, Arab/Muslim, attitudes towards the West since then took four different yet interwoven directions that continue to dominate intellectual discourses on the subject in and outside of academia.
The first direction which is still popular among both Arab secularists and Islamists is a selective process by means of which the Arab/Muslim culture adopts from European culture particularly those elements that complement and conform to the Arab/Islamic values and traditions. This trend was initially adopted by the Egyptian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753-1825) whose calls for reconciliation between the Arab/Islamic and Western/Christian cultures appear at times to be accepted out of resignation rather than persuasion. Like his thirteenth century predecessor Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217), al-Jabarti characterization of Europeans and European civilization vacillates between loathing and admiration. He sometimes rails against what he perceives to be irreconcilable differences between the Islamic and Western values and morals but then again he praises the Europeans ingenuity and their advances in science and technology. His reflections show appreciation not only for the Europe states’ material advances, but also for their judicial and political systems. Al-Jabarti is not alone in this since the trend can also be seen in the writing of al-Tahtawi and Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1822-1890). Rif’a Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) was a graduate of al-Azhar, Egypt’s renowned Islamic University and an Imam. When in France chaperoning a group of students he became deeply immersed into French politics and culture. It is said that he taught himself the French language and even translated the French constitution. When he returned to Egypt he began to call for the education of girls as well as boys. He was said to have influenced the well known scholars, Judge Qasim Amin (1863-1908), and Shaykh Muhammad Abduh who later became the rector of al-Azhar. Whereas Qasim Amin called for the emancipation and education of Muslim Women in his two books “Tahrir al-mar’a”, (The Liberation of Women) and “al-mar’a al-jadida”, (The New Woman), Muhammad Abduh called for the adoption of Western innovations to the Islamic traditions. Abduh’s views would later lay the foundation for the manifesto of Islamic Modernism as opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. Another outspoken opponent to the rigidity of Islamic fundamentalism was Shaykh Ali Abdul Raziq who called for the separation between religious and secular matters particularly in state affairs.
Another contributor to this movement was the well known literary figure Taha Husayn (1889-1973). Taha Husayn who was blind at early age was known for his courage and sharp intellect. After completing his education in Egypt he travelled to France in pursuit of higher education. At the Sorbonne University he was a warded a PhD degree in sociology after writing a dissertation about the fourteenth century father of Arab sociology and traveler Abd al-Rahman Bin Muhammad Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Taha Husayn in his efforts to reject what he called blind imitation of the past on the part of Muslim Fundamentalist, angered many by confirming that even what was then called Pre-Islamic poetry was actually written after Islam. He even called for resurrecting the old connections between the people of both sides of the Mediterranean Sea that date back to the early Greek and Pharaonic civilization. In his book (The Future of Culture in Egypt) he identifies Egypt’s culture as a fusion of many influences and many civilizations including those of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt as well as Christian and Islamic civilizations. The other intellectuals who followed suit and called for adopting aspects of Western culture but most importantly literature were Jurji Zaidan (1861-1914) and Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (1858-1930). Whereas Zaidan adopted Western literary forms to write his historical novels titled (The History of the Arabs and Islam) in emulation of those written by the Scottish historian and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), al-Muwaylihi sought to combine the Arabic literary form called Maqamat or (Maqamas) which is a combination of poetry and prose with the Western literary forms to produce his famous literary work entitled “Hadith ‘Isa Ibn Hisham” (The Narrative of ‘Isa Ibn Hisham). Al-Muwaylihi’s had firsthand knowledge of Europe and European culture due to his travels with his father Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi to Italy, France and England.
The second direction in the interaction between the Arab/Islamic and Western worlds was one of complete rejection of anything Western and a complete return to Islam as a religion, a culture and a social, economic and political system. Because of this tendency to rely entirely on the past this direction became known as the “Salafist” hence emulation of the ancestors. This direction was championed in the past by the founder of the Muslim group known as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brotherhood) whose name is Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) and his disciple Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). The extreme wing of this group later resorted to confrontation under several leaderships including the late leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) and the group’s present leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951- ). Before his total transformation to rigid fundamentalism Sayyid Qutb travelled to both the United States of America and Europe. In the United States he attended Wilson teachers’ College, Colorado State College for Education as well as Stanford University. On his return journey to Egypt he also visited a number of European States. During his stay in the United States he travelled to many places just to experience the country for himself. Ironically though, his experiences in the United States made him turn against the American culture and political system. Along with writing an article entitled “America the I have seen” in which he expresses his aversion to American culture and people’s way of life he later wrote a book expressing his utter rejection of the West and his call to a total return to Islam which was entitled “Ma’alim ‘ala al-Tariq” or (Milestones).
The third direction which was the cause of controversy and friction with the two other directions was the call for complete westernization. Along with Taha Husayn who angered his critics by his suggestion that Arabs and Egyptians abandon their Eastern Culture and adopts Western culture, Salama Musa (1887-1958), the known Coptic intellectual, was also known to have called for adopting Western culture. When in England Salama Musa actually became acquainted with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and even became a member of their Fabian Society whose manifesto combined economic socialism and humanism. Upon his return to Egypt Salama Musa not only began to spread the Fabian doctrine but encouraged his readers to leave behind all links to Eastern which he calls “Asian civilization” and adopt Western and particularly British civilization instead.
The fourth direction adopted by post-independence writers and intellectual still involve Western culture and travel accounts but only to look inward and engage in soul searching. After the failure of Arab regimes to live up to the peoples’ expectations and consequently blame the West for their short comings many Arab/Muslim writers and travelers who were convinced that the West was being used as an escape goat demanded accountability and reform. Whereas writers such as the Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatima al-Mernissi (1940- ) and the Egyptian-American and Harvard professor Leila Ahmed (1940 -)demanded a reexamination and reevaluations of religious and cultural traditions responsible for restricting human rights and women’s progress, writers including the late Saudi Arabian writer Abd al-Rahman Munif (1933-2004) and the late Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lawzi (1922-1980), who is said to have been assassinated by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, focused their criticism on the social and political systems and demanded responsibility and accountability on the part of the regimes and the general populace. As I concluded in my book cited above Arab / Muslim intellectuals have a responsibility to seriously reevaluate our relationship with the West now that the Arab Spring has provided a rare opportunity for such a worthwhile undertaking. Fathi El-Shihibi is a professor at Emmanuel College, Boston, MA 02115 USA.