Marwa Elshakry: Reading Darwin in Arabic

This ground-breaking work on the reception of Darwin in the Arab world opens several windows to the complex process of the making of Darwin’s image in the Arab world; it also situates “Darwin’s dangerous idea” in a broader context by exploring attitudes and ideas of a diverse and influential minority including Free Masons, missionaries, colonial agents, officials of the fledging Ottoman Empire, Arab propagators of the new science, and religious scholars (ʿUlamāʾ) who were not equipped to deal with the brave new world of modern science. The opening chapter of the book is a fascinating narrative about the milieu in which Darwin arrived; this is followed by a thorough exploration of the attitudes of chosen individuals and institutions responsible for the spread of Darwin’s views in the Arab world via translations, discussions, and interactions, which were also intertwined with the broader discourse on science and religion in the Arab world.

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“The Gospel of Science”, the first chapter of the book, recounts the story of the spread of science journalism in the Arab world, especially through the influential journal Al-Muqtataf and the missionary zeal of its founders, Ya‘qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, both “enterprising young Syrian Protestant College instructors who dedicated themselves to campaigning for scientific advancement” (p. 27). The chapter presents a synthetic and layered account of the internal politics of the Syrian Protestant College as well as informative episodes from the public life of the small elite which had started to mold science and religion discourse on a pattern that imitated similar discourse in Europe and America. In this chapter, Elshakry is at home with her sources, she writes with confidence and presents historical evidence for the fast- flowing narrative.

The second chapter, insightfully entitled “Evolution and the Eastern Question” brings into sharp relief the dynamics of the intellectual and political contours of the “Sick man of Europe” (the Ottoman Empire) and especially its flagging fortunes in Egypt, which was formally taken over by the British through a “veiled protectorate” that was to simultaneously re-energize the efforts of Sarruf and Nimr to spread the gospel of new science. They also started a daily, Al-Muqattam, and thus entered “a political minefield—one that ultimately tarnished their reputation and altered the reception of their ideas” (p. 79).

“Materialism and Its Critics”, the third chapter, considerably widens the scope of the book’s narrative. It brings in other actors and links this scene in the Arab world with other parts of the Muslim world, although this attempt remains limited to a few individuals such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who exerted considerable influence on Muhammad ‘Abduh and, through him, impacted other Egyptian thinkers of the time. One fascinating aspect of Elshakry’s work is its frequent perusal into issues of linguistics, as well as social and political aspects of reading Darwin in Arabic. She notes how new Arabic terms were invented and how this process was influenced by both the classical Arabic sources and modern Western. Materialism, for instance, was “called al-maddiya, an abstract noun derived from al-madda (matter or material). But Shumayyil’s particular brand of materialism had very little to say about matters of central concern to most European materialists of the time—such as the relation of mind to matter or the nature of emotion, reason, or consciousness.” (p. 109).

The fourth chapter, “Theologies of Nature”, is the only chapter of the book which does not present what one would expect from the title; it, rather, focuses on another protagonist of the wider discourse, Husayn al-Jisr. It is through al-Jisr that Elshakry brings in a truncated reference to Islamic theology of Nature. This is not a problem in itself, as it serves well the aim of the book, but the misleading title does remind one that the book has nothing to say about the Islamic concept of the critical issues it discusses.

Elshakry’s ability to synthesize a coherent narrative out of a large number of historical accounts and textual sources is best exhibited in the fifth chapter, “Darwin and the Mufti”, which encapsulates the life, works, and ideas of Muhammad ‘Abduh, the architect of Arab modernism. She recounts the story of the life and career of ‘Abduh with remarkable insights and the chapter has several memorable quotes:

Yet “religious modernism” is perhaps not the best way to describe what ‘Abduh saw himself engaging in. In the first place, his vision of science was (as for so many thinkers treated in this book) rather eclectic. Like others of his generation, he drew on the emerging consensus that science as merely the uncovering of the “true principles,” or laws, of nature, which he allied to final causes (and divine laws), an approach drawn as much from past Arabic philosophical and exegetical works as it was from contemporary views.
Second, ‘Abduh was primarily concerned with the fate of the Muslim umma, not with modernism, and his ideas on civilization and even the “West” cannot be separated from this, particularly as his project of reform was critically couched in an older language of islah and tajdid (Muslim communal reform and renewal). (p. 165)

Such insights into the complex, diverse, and overlapping intellectual currents which were transforming the Muslim world are clearly a result of deep reading of sources and clear thinking. Elshakry’s treatment of ‘Abduh maintains a critical detachment throughout the chapter and although the undercurrent of her narrative indicates her own perspective on the life and ideas of her protagonists, she consciously remains objective and non-judgmental. One, however, feels less than satisfied with the section on “Adam and Evolution”, where her treatment is rather cursory. Likewise, the list of Muslim thinkers on page 192 is either due to the lack of familiarity with pre-modern Islamic sources or simply poor proofing; one hopes it is the latter: the names listed here are random, there is no chronological order, and Abu Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ṭayyib al-Bāqillānī is called Abu Bakr al-Baklani. In such cases, the text could have used proper transliteration, at least for names and major technical terms.

“Evolutionary Socialism”, the sixth chapter of the book, focuses on broader social, intellectual, and political currents which informed the reading of Darwin in Egypt through a number of thinkers, such as Farah Antun, Mustafa al-Mansuri, and Salama Musa who were less influential than other protagonists of the book, but who, nevertheless had a place in the making of the intellectual discourse. The general sweep of this chapter is, once again, panoramic, and the summary presented in the last two pages is a highlight of this chapter.

“Darwin in Translation,” the last chapter of the book, is, once again, a skillful treatment of both the story of Arabic translation of the Origin of Species and Isma‘il Mazhar, the person who undertook this task. Elshakry shows deep insights into the process and difficulties of translation as well as cross-cultural and historical currents which informed the choice of Mazhar’s use of technical terms and syllogism. In her own words, this final chapter of the book “explores this process of translation as a complex project of intercalating linguistic, conceptual, and historical references and metatexts by focusing on the figure of the translator himself. Viewing Darwin through Mazhar’s eyes, we can capture the local referents through which Darwin was read. The focus on Mazhar, meanwhile, takes us into the nexus of ideas, places, and people that helped to construct this particular reading of Darwin in translation.” (p. 264).