Pub. Date:
University of Chicago Press
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950

Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950

by Marwa Elshakry


View All Available Formats & Editions
Current price is , Original price is $50.0. You
Select a Purchase Option (New Edition)
  • purchase options
  • purchase options


Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950

In Reading Darwin in Arabic, Marwa Elshakry questions current ideas about Islam, science, and secularism by exploring the ways in which Darwin was read in Arabic from the late 1860s to the mid-twentieth century. Borrowing from translation and reading studies and weaving together the history of science with intellectual history, she explores Darwin’s global appeal from the perspective of several generations of Arabic readers and shows how Darwin’s writings helped alter the social and epistemological landscape of the Arab learned classes.
Providing a close textual, political, and institutional analysis of the tremendous interest in Darwin’s ideas and other works on evolution, Elshakry shows how, in an age of massive regional and international political upheaval, these readings were suffused with the anxieties of empire and civilizational decline. The politics of evolution infiltrated Arabic discussions of pedagogy, progress, and the very sense of history. They also led to a literary and conceptual transformation of notions of science and religion themselves. Darwin thus became a vehicle for discussing scriptural exegesis, the conditions of belief, and cosmological views more broadly. The book also acquaints readers with Muslim and Christian intellectuals, bureaucrats, and theologians, and concludes by exploring Darwin’s waning influence on public and intellectual life in the Arab world after World War I.
Reading Darwin in Arabic is an engaging and powerfully argued reconceptualization of the intellectual and political history of the Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226001302
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/06/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Marwa Elshakry is associate professor in the Department of History at Columbia University, where she specializes in the history of science, technology, and medicine in the modern Middle East. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-00130-2


The Gospel of Science

In 1876 a new Arabic science monthly published in Ottoman Syria rated the invention of the telegraph above the Seven Wonders of the World (awa-bid al-dunya). A series of articles featured a brief history of the invention alongside a quick lesson on electric currents (fig. 1.1). The generation of a steady flow of electric charge was detailed, and two types of voltaic batteries, a pile and a "crown of cups," were also illustrated for the reader. Written at a time when electricity had recently entered parts of Cairo and Alexandria and was only just heard of in Beirut, the journal delighted in announcing the latest discoveries in science and technology to new audiences. After all, the telegraph itself had first made its way to the Ottoman Empire only in 1855—after the Crimean War—and its entry into the Syrian provinces had caused quite a stir. For the journal, however, the science of telegraphic signals offered the opportunity to mark the beginning of a new pedagogic devotion to the popularization of science and its wonders.

This new science monthly first appeared in Beirut under the title of Al-Muqtataf (The digest) and was distributed in several Syrian and Egyptian towns beginning in May 1876. Read across the Ottoman Arab provinces (and later beyond), the journal enjoyed a long and prolific career. It was based initially in the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (where its editors were instructors) before moving to Cairo, where it was published from 1885 until the revolutionary days of 1952. Written in a comprehensible language, full of illustrations, and replete with instructive lessons on the latest scientific advances and technical inventions, the journal was one of the first to popularize the modern sciences in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. "An enterprising and ably conducted scientific magazine," ran one American commentator's assessment, "its mission is a stimulating and timely one among the educated classes in Syria and Egypt."

This journal was to play a critically important role in the popularization of Darwin's ideas. Although Darwin's 1859 work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was not fully translated into Arabic until well into the twentieth century, his ideas were in circulation from the 1870s onward. From the early 1860s, students had heard about Darwin in American Protestant Mission schools in Beirut, and within a decade, mission tutors published science primers in Arabic that made mention of his name, among others. Similarly, ?Uthman Ghalib, an instructor at the main state medical school in Cairo (Qasr al-'Aini), who had studied in Paris, gave zoology lectures on his return to Cairo that were full of references to Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, and others. However, Ghalib was not a popularizer, and his lectures were not published until 1886; and while missionary primers circulated throughout the Ottoman provincial schools from Tripoli to Alexandria, they were intended for young schoolboys and schoolgirls and not the general reader. It was thanks to Al-Muqtataf that Darwin's name moved from classrooms to readers throughout the region.

Yet, as this chapter suggests, reading Darwin in Arabic was bound up with both the classroom and the press and, in its early years, with missionary pedagogy and proselytization. For several decades, foreign missionaries in Beirut, especially American Protestants, had been teaching the "new sciences," from natural philosophy and zoology to chemistry, as part of their proselytizing efforts. The popularization of science was an outgrowth of this program, and it was one that would have decidedly unexpected consequences.

The founding aim of Al-Muqtataf, as the editors put it, was to announce the virtues of science to an Arabic-reading public in an attempt to encourage scientific and technical progress in the Arab East. "We hope that this journal will meet with the approval of the public," they wrote in their introduction to the first issue, "and will encourage the reader to acquire scientific knowledge and to strengthen industry." Science was the key to industry, and industry the key to the success of nations. They therefore published on a wide range of scientific and industrial topics. In line with their ever-growing interests, in 1888 they changed the subtitle from "A Journal of Science and Industry" to "A Journal of Science, Industry, and Agriculture," adding "and Medicine" in 1893.

Its founders were Ya'qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, two enterprising young Syrian Protestant College instructors who dedicated themselves to campaigning for scientific advancement. "We used to regret," they wrote, recounting how the idea for a science journal occurred to them while working as tutors in Beirut, "that our Arabic language lacked a magazine that could simplify the arts and sciences." Shortly thereafter, the two young science enthusiasts embarked on their ambitious project, offering their Arabic readers summaries of "new discoveries and useful research" month after month.

They were committed to popularization: articles ranged from accounts of new inventions such as the phonograph and radiometer to practical tips on how to whiten one's teeth, remove unwanted hair, and get rid of bedbugs. In one issue, one could read the editors' rebuttal of magic, encounter three varieties of zebra, ascertain the latest technologies in blood transfusion, and learn how to grow long, luxurious hair. "It is well known," ran the notice they circulated throughout Greater Syria to introduce the new journal, "that science journals are the best means for diffusing useful knowledge among both the learned and the lay." Their journal was to be based on the summaries and digests of the latest scientific literature of the day, based on their "access to numerous current and reliable sources in several languages." This enterprise, in their minds, was novel not merely in terms of the works they were translating but also in its aspiration to pursue a purely scientific path. "The journal," they emphasized, "will be exclusive of religious and political matter." But this was not so easy to achieve, and as we will see, their writings on science were very much bound up with both religion and politics. Their vision of science was interpreted through a determinedly popularizing (but not populist) lens, especially in the early years.

At first issues were slim compilations of the latest scientific and technical advances in Europe and North America, each month initially totaling no more than twenty-four pages. Apart from one or two original, typically unsigned, articles, the rest were usually summary translations from British and American science journals and periodicals. On Al-Muqtataf's original cover was an emblem—the pen and hammer—which was the same as that found in the American Artisan (fig. 1.2). Although the editors rarely acknowledged their sources, we know that these included Scientific American, American Journal of Science, Popular Science Monthly, and Knowledge, alongside general-interest publications like the Economist, Spectator, Nineteenth Century, Fortnightly Review, and the Times. Articles derived from all these appeared, often a matter of only weeks after their original publication. Summaries of the proceedings of professional societies—such as the Royal Society of London, the Royal Asiatic Society, the International Congress of Orientalists, the Royal Geographic Society of Egypt, the Eastern Scientific Society, and the Cairo Scientific Society—were later also included. This range of sources testifies not only to the editors' wide reading but to the literary resources they were able to draw on in Beirut. European and American science thinkers of the day—such as Darwin, Huxley, Pasteur, Tyndall, Bastian, Lubbock, Wallace, Spencer, Haeckel, E. B. Tylor, Henry Sidgwick, Agassiz, Faraday, Max Müller, Kropotkin, and others—were thus regularly featured, and versions of their ideas disseminated.

The format—following those popular-science monthlies from England and America on which the journal drew—was standardized relatively early. A few feature articles, such as "Glassmaking," "The Microscope," "The Moon," or "Arab Astronomers," usually started off an issue; these would typically include a biography of a famous scientist, such as Galileo or Harvey. A section on useful inventions and household hints followed and then, finally, a question-and-answer column. The price was initially relatively modest—an indication of the editors' efforts to make science accessible to a general audience. The first few issues cost only seven francs; for comparison, Al-Jinan, another early Arabic science journal, in 1879 cost over three times the price of Al-Muqtataf, or twenty-three francs. In 1881, however, when the editors nearly tripled the size of their journal, the price of an annual subscription rose to one Ottoman pound, which was a very expensive proposition and which points to the journal's essentially core elite readership despite its efforts to reach "the learned and the lay" alike.

As a purely scientific journal, dedicated to the "diffusion of useful knowledge"—a Victorian aspiration the journal shared with Arab intellectuals of the time—Al-Muqtataf marked the rise of a new Arabic-reading public's interest in popular-science writings. Before it, there had been only one journal of this kind in Syria: the Beirut monthly Al-Jinan, which was started in 1870 by another onetime Protestant missionary assistant, the Arabic lexicographer and educator Butrus al-Bustani. Bustani's journal, however, was considerably more costly; relying on financial support from Khedive Isma?il in Egypt, it had a more limited circulation and lasted only fifteen years. It was also much more eclectic in its outlook and contents: Al-Jinan set out to "spread universal knowledge" (al-ma'arifa al-umumi) of all kinds—"practical, literary, historical, industrial, commercial, material and the like."

Indeed, there were few comparable Arabic journals in any of the other publishing centers of the Ottoman Empire. In Cairo and Alexandria, for instance, even after the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, when there were hundreds of journals, periodicals, and newspapers in Arabic, English, French, Greek, and Italian, there were only three scientific magazines in circulation in total: Al-Muqtataf, which moved its operation to Cairo in 1885, and two medical journals, Al-Shifa' and Al-Sihha. But this changed completely with the expansion of the press in Egypt. By the turn of the century the journal's success spawned competitors, and periodicals such as Jurji Zaydan's semimonthly journal "of science, history and literature," Al-Hilal, founded in 1892, and Farah Antun's Al-Jami'a, founded in 1899, began to cover similar ground.

Just two years after its founding, the journal expanded from twenty-four to twenty-eight pages, and that same year it included seven lithographic illustrations (the following year, this rose to nine); within another three years, it would treble in length. If this was an indication of the venture's success, it was nevertheless a relative one. With a population of about 2.7 million and a literacy rate estimated at little or no more than 5 percent, Greater Syria hardly offered a large potential readership. But although the journal's subscription list remained modest (at an estimated five hundred) during its early years, it was obviously read much more widely. (In the late 1870s, for instance, we hear of a group of enthusiasts who banded together in Baghdad to buy a single subscription.) Soon letters were reaching it from readers throughout the empire and beyond—from Egypt and from Iran and from further afield, including from the growing migrant diaspora in the Americas. Within a few years, it had also established a network of agents who distributed it in Greater Syria (in Tripoli, Damascus, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Homs, Aleppo, Sidon, and Hama) and throughout Upper and Lower Egypt (in Cairo, Alexandria, Damanhur, Tanta, Al-Fayyum, Al-Minya, Asyut, and Tahta), as well as abroad. Syrian émigrés purchased it in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, and the United States, and by 1892 its circulation (at an estimated three thousand) was one of the largest of any Arabic journal.

The journal was novel and expensive and attracted contributions from renowned literary and public figures such as Ali Mubarak, Mahmud al-Falaki, Riaz Pasha, Shibli Shumayyil, Salama Musa, and Jurji Zaydan—Egyptian and Syrian intellectuals, technocrats, and politicians. It quickly became a prominent forum for what the historical novelist and popular intellectual Zaydan and others termed al-nahda al-'ilmiya (the renaissance of knowledge or science). "Al-Muqtataf," wrote Salama Musa, later one of the journal's most prolific contributors, "opened my eyes to new and beautiful vistas of life."

Many thought similarly. Al-Muqtataf enjoyed a wide and relatively popular readership and received considerable accolades both throughout the empire and abroad. "I have found it easily preferable to other philosophical journals which are currently published in the different centers of civilization," wrote "Prince Hechmat el-Saltaneh" from Tehran in 1883, who complimented the editors on their "interesting articles in modern philosophy and the new sciences." In fact, its reception was probably more favorable outside than within its native Beirut. When the editors visited Egypt in 1880, only four years after they had launched their journal as young college tutors, they were happily astonished to realize that they had already acquired a considerable following. During their travels through Cairo and Alexandria, they were met by such dignitaries as Muhammad 'Abduh and Khedive Tawfiq himself. Their journal was also applauded by fellow journalists: Al-Waqa'i al-Misiya, Al-Watan, Mir'at al-Sharq, Al-Mahrusa, and even the revolutionary Islamist paper Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa sang its praises. It was one of the first Arabic journals to which the newly founded Egyptian University subscribed in 1908.

The journal's appeal owed something to its deliberately easy and comprehensible prose. "We shall endeavor to write it in simple language, accessible to everyone," the editors wrote in 1876. Their aim was to introduce to an Arabic-reading audience the wider (both practical and theoretical) charms of science, avoiding whenever possible a narrow scholasticism. By and large they seem to have succeeded: Jurji Zaydan, another alumnus of the Syrian Protestant College, recalled in his autobiography that when Al-Muqtataf first came out, "some of the school teachers, who often came to us, pointed out to me an article about the eclipse in one of its issues. I read it, and when I understood it, I felt a great joy."

Yet this effort to introduce modern science to a new public required conceptual as well as stylistic inventiveness. Translation involved bringing a great deal of modern scientific terminology into Arabic, either by inventing or transliterating new words. "New discoveries in science and technology require new terms," the editors noted when they first introduced their section on technical vocabulary translated from English, French, and Latin—the glossaries, or mu'aribat, which became a staple item in the journal. Many of these terms shaped the subsequent lexicon of science writings in Arabic. The journal was the first to popularize the translation of "evolution" as tatawwur, for instance. The "struggle for life" became tanazu' al-baqa', and Darwinism, darwiniya. The journal was thus one of the first to deploy a new prose style in Arabic that eventually overthrew its more traditional classical rival. As its editors later wrote, a newspaper should be written in a language that could be understood by laymen as much as the learned, adding: "We shall therefore seek to select correct and familiar words, simple phrases and uncomplicated expressions."

The need to use familiar concepts where possible meant that when Al-Muqtataf introduced new scientific terms and ideas into Arabic, it stressed their connection to older forms, native to the region and its history. The concept of descent and transmutation, for instance, was said to be an old idea; ancient Greek philosophers had also linked the varieties of life together in such a way. Medieval Arab philosophers, they emphasized, such as Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl and al-Khazini, also came to similar conclusions—a form of reference that many later Arab thinkers would popularize and develop.


Excerpted from Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 by MARWA ELSHAKRY. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, vii,
ONE / The Gospel of Science, 25,
TWO / Evolution and the Eastern Question, 73,
THREE / Materialism and Its Critics, 99,
FOUR / Theologies of Nature, 131,
FIVE / Darwin and the Mufti, 161,
SIX / Evolutionary Socialism, 219,
SEVEN / Darwin in Translation, 261,
Afterword, 307,
Notes, 319,
Bibliography, 391,
Index, 419,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews