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  • Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 by Marwa Elshakry
  • George Saliba
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950, by Marwa Elshakry . Chicago and London : University of Chicago Press , 2014 . 448 pages. $45 cloth; $7-$36 E-book.

While Reading Darwin in Arabic purports to unravel the complicated transmission of Charles Darwin’s works into the Arab world, as the title implies, in fact it goes way beyond this straightforward claim and can be easily read as the most detailed exploration of 19th-century Arab intellectual history, or even European if not global intellectual [End Page 661] history as well. The extent to which Marwa Elshakry goes to paste together as complete a picture as could be pasted from all the sources that had anything to do with Darwinian ideas, whether in Europe or their echoes in the Arab world, is simply amazing in its breathtaking scope and import. From primary sources, in both European languages and Arabic, to journals, to folk and popular literature, to religious and theological discussions, Elshakry leaves no stone unturned. She does all of that in seven medium-size chapters, ranging from a discussion of the al-Muqtataf journal, which was first issued in Beirut in 1876 and quickly championed science and science education, becoming a “gospel of science” to use Elshakry’s metaphor; to the theoretical discussion of evolution, in both its Darwinian and Sperncerian forms, and the political and social dimensions it engendered towards the end of 19th century Cairo. Elshakry also discusses materialism and its critics in both East and West, and the proclaimed dialogue between religion and materialism in Islamic intellectual culture. Included also is discussion of theologies of nature, and the debates they engendered regarding their relation to religious law, and religious ambivalence to Darwinism as reflected in the life of Muhammad ‘Abduh — by far the most famous religious scholar of modern Egyptian history occupying the two highest positions in the religious hierarchy of 19th-century Egypt, the position of grand mufti, the most influential juridical position in the Islamic world, and rector of al-Azhar University, the foremost religious institution of Sunni Islam. The last two chapters are devoted to the social dimension of Darwinism and its reincarnation during the Arab literary revival, and finally to the subject of the book proper, namely, the necessary twists and turns generated by reading Darwin in the Arabic translation.

This grand tour de force is neither your usual history of science nor a regular anthropological work; it is a meticulous documentation of a social history that is reflected in the intellectual debates of the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Elshakry’s mastery of the sources, in all the languages concerned, and her ability to juxtapose them together and scale them against the political and economic events of the period makes history come to life in ways that has not been attempted before. Her comprehensiveness, and deep attention to details, allow her to swim in the most gentle ways against the currents of accepted opinion without ever sounding bellicose or confrontational, as she elegantly did in her subtle, diplomatic manner when she dethroned the highly respected historian Albert Hourani, the author of Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, by convincingly demonstrating that the major figures of that liberal age in the Arab world were not to be set apart from and against their European counterparts as if they belonged to two groups living in different hermetically sealed universes, as Hourani had done. Rather, she vividly illustrates how the Arab intellectuals of the time were not only arguing against each other, but against and with the European sources as well, thus creating a global, cross-border dialogue that enriched their debates and demonstrated the depth of their scholarship. In her treatment, those intellectuals of the Arab world become at once members of both Arab and European intellectual history.

At the same time, Elshakry is also fully aware of the fact that writing the intellectual history of the 19th century is also writing the history of colonial times, both in Europe, where the awareness of the purported superiority of the European was...


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