THE ARAB RENAISSANCE
The influential Arab cultural and intellectual movement known as Al Nahda, began in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century. It is highly regarded as the renaissance of the Arab world, which bridged the gap between the East and West following the invasion of Napoleon of Egypt in 1798. Although Cairo was the epicentre of the intellectual movement, Al Nahda quickly found an insatiable audience in nearby capitals such as Beirut. The trigger of the tsunami of writings that were published during that period, was a result of an attempt by the Ottoman Empire to quash the tide of nationalist sentiment rising in the region. By introducing political reformations, the aim was to reintegrate non-Turkish communities back into society. It was an ambitious plan launched to combat the slow decline of the empire which had seen its borders shrink, and its strength weaken, in comparison to the rising influence of imperial European powers.
Reformists, often European-educated liberal bureaucrats, recognised that the old religious and military institutions no longer met the needs of the modern empire. Hence, the symbolic changes included encouraging government officials to adopt a more western-style of clothing, while following the international code of practice in education and law. By adopting the Napoleonic Code and French law under the Second Ottoman Empire, the rulers were hoping to reaffirm the legitimacy of Ottoman rule throughout the Arab-speaking region. One of the fears was the increasing tension between the various ethnic groups, which led the government to believe it will systematically lead to outside intervention on their behalf. Radical steps had to be quickly taken to give society more equal rights and liberty. It included dramatic changes to the constitutional law and a move towards the secularisation of the state.
The biggest advantages of Al Nahda movement, however, in Arab society was the introduction of the modern press and the proliferation of many different publications into the market. An Egyptian scholar called Rifa'a el-Tahtawi, who was sent by Muhammad Ali's government to study in Paris in 1826 is heralded as one of the pioneering figures of the movement. Learning French, he began translating important scientific and cultural works into classic Arabic, and returned to Egypt with a positive view of Western society and educational methodology. In fact, upon his return he became an advocate for the education of women in Arab society. El Tahtawi's philosophy of reform was published in a book titled “The Quintessence of Paris.” His open-minded ideals were not encouraging a blind copy of Western values. Rather, he was calling for a new system that struck the right balance between the needs of a just political system, and the modernisation of society in line with the values of Arab culture.
And alongside El Tahtawi, another tour de force in Al Nahda was rising in Beirut. His name was Butrus Al Bustani - a Lebanese Maronite Christian - he was the first teacher to establish a school based on secular studies. His relentless effort and ground-breaking work led to the publication of two newspapers and fortnightly reviews. Like the work of El Tahtawi in Egypt, Al Bustani was not promoting the indiscriminate adaptation of western ethics and system of education. He was again working on implementing a new formula that expresses sympathy with the native culture and tradition. Hence, through numerous writings the ideals of influential intellects who encountered the European Enlightenment, pushed the barriers of development in the Arab World, giving rise to a new breed of modern thinkers that challenged the status quo. Hence, Cairo and Beirut became among the first capitals in the Arab World to follow a more liberal system of education.
[Painter: Ludwig Deutsch, Austrian (1855-1935)] ...