The Arabic nahḍa (English: rise; often meaning renaissance) carries many meanings. Among them, as Arabic lexicons reveal, is a rise following a decline: A renewal and a revival in the wake of atrophy and stagnation. In this sense, the Arab Nahḍa, or Renaissance, refers to the intellectual and political efforts that aim at moving the Arab world away from its characteristic state of stagnation and backwardness towards a higher state of vigour, action, and continuous movement forwards and upwards, characterised by a studious examination of intellectual and political proposals and the enabling of Arab peoples to set foot on the path leading to their adjoining the developed world and effective participating in contemporary human affairs. Albert Hourani, historian and scholar of Arab thought, points out that the Arab world’s awareness of the reality of its backwardness and the progress of others came with its contact with the French campaign for the invasion of Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. This campaign included within its ranks, in addition to the thousands of soldiers and military personnel, more than 150 scientists and 2000 specialists and experts in various fields of the arts and sciences, including medicine, engineering, agriculture, irrigation, archaeology, humanities, and the social sciences. In addition to the deadly war machinery and modern and advanced military equipment, such as cannons, ammunition, vehicles, and fleets, the French campaign for Egypt brought printing presses, machines, maps, and various other civilian inventions that the Egyptians had not known before.
In such a context, it was natural for all who came into contact with the French campaign in Egypt, which grew to encompass the invasion of the Levant, to realise the extent of backwardness that had befallen Eastern countries in contrast to their Western counterparts. It was also natural for the collective Eastern mind to ask the fundamental question of the Self and the Other: Why have we regressed while they have progressed? This was not a question addressed to the confines of the Egyptian mind alone, for it was also one for the collective Arab and Islamic minds. In spite of more than two centuries passing since collective thought on this issue began, and even with the strenuous and successive efforts made to reach intellectual and political consensus on the issues it flags, the question of the Nahḍa is very much still on the Arab and Islamic minds, and attempts to answer it grow ever more complex. We truly are facing a very complex problem.
On the intellectual level, there is still no Arab consensus capable of diagnosing the causes of the state of backwardness that has come to afflict the Arab world, nor of examining its roots and branches that extend into the various political, economic, social, and cultural fields. Likewise, actionable solutions for overcoming this state of backwardness and moving into progress and the nahḍa have not yet been offered. On the political level, no regional Arab system has thus far been able to formulate and lead a nahḍa project in which the various Arab states can engage. All comprehensive attempts to reform and revive initiated by various Arab states at different stages of their development have failed for a variety of reasons, some internal, such as unavoidable factors, gaps, and structural defects, and others external, such as challenges that could not be confronted and overcome.
It should be noted here that Arab literature is teeming with terms that are often used as analogues for the [Arab] Renaissance, such as the Yaqaẓa (Awakening) and the Tanwīr (Enlightenment), among others. I believe, however, that the Nahḍa (Rise) is the most accurate and comprehensive. Referring to the Renaissance as the Yaqaẓa seems to suggest that the Arab world was abruptly awoken from a long sleep or hibernation: that it regained its consciousness and awareness following a lapse or absence, after which it appreciated the full extent of its backwardness and the progress of the Western Other. This term, however, does not assert nor imply that the Arab world, following its supposed awakening, is become ready to do what is necessary for it to match and keep up with the world’s progression. Similarly, referring to it as the Tanwīr implies that the awaited rise of the Arab world shall come only through its tending to the facets of knowledge and reason, such as thought, education, and culture, without attention to the material facets of their practical uses in fields such as agriculture, industry, and service in its various forms. It is, hence, that the Arab Nahḍa seems to me the most appropriate and sensible analogue for the Arab Renaissance, as it alludes not only to the Arab world’s awareness of its backwardness and the progress of the Other but also to its keen desire to cultivate the conditions that can enable its rise and effective participation in the contemporary progression of the world and its civilisations, intellectually and materially.
Here, too, it may be helpful to distinguish between the acts of modernising and civilising. Modernisation is a process primarily concerned with instilling the products of modern civilisation, such as roads, bridges, factories, schools, and universities, even if through whole or partial importation. Civilisation, however, attends to the nurturing of individuals capable of creating and innovating across various fields and to the cultivating of conditions suitable for establishing communal environments that incubate and enable nations towards liberation and broader horizons for the contribution of a significant share in the shaping of human civilisation. Most Arab states have concerned themselves with the former and not the latter.
There is no doubt that the quest for the Arab Nahḍa in its intellectual and ideological dimensions is stalled by several problems that must be dismantled and resolved in light of independent and historically acquired experiences. On the intellectual level, the issue of religion and its relation to society and the state initially arose as one of the most problematic issues that needed resolving as a prerequisite to paving the way towards the rise of the Arab world. The issue of religious reform, then addressed by thinkers and social reformers such as Muhammad Abdo, Rashid Rida, and others, swiftly gave rise to other consequential issues such as authenticity and modernity, democracy, women’s liberation, social justice, identity, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, among others. With the eruption of the Arab Revolt, aiming to separate the Arab world from the Ottoman Empire, the issue of Arab unity with its many intellectual and ideological concerns came with an urgency to the forefront of the Arab mind, and thinkers such as Sati’ al-Husri, Muhammad Izzat Darwaza, Constantin Zureiq, and others pioneered its confronting. On the political level, several leaders and politicians have come to the fore with undertakings for the nahḍa and political and social reform in various Arab states, such as Muhammad Ali in Egypt in the first half of the 19th century, Hayreddin Pasha in Tunisia in the second, and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in the second half of the 20th. All of these undertakings, however, and as noted previously, were crushed by internal errors or external challenges.
To the extent of provoking productive dialogue and fruitful discussion around the quest for the Arab Nahḍa, we shall attempt through weekly articles to address some problematic issues that presently hamper its intellectual or ideological progress. We shall attempt to dismantle these issues and reach clear and specific understandings of their implications as a step that we deem necessary for the progress of the Arab Nahḍa and to undo its impediment. I shall inaugurate this series by presenting and discussing the issue of Arab unity through several vital questions: Is Arab unity a prerequisite for attaining the Nahḍa? If unity is a condition of the Nahḍa, what desired form can it take? Should a specific model guide the establishing of Arab unity, and should this model be derived from the historical experiences of Arabs, such as the failed experience of Egyptian–Syrian unity or the successful one of the United Arab Emirates, or from the experiences of others, such as that of the European Union? Once our discussion of the issue of Arab unity, its various dimensions and problems, and its supposed relation to the Arab Nahḍa is concluded, we shall begin to address other problematic issues, such as religious reform, democracy, and other such matters.