Excerpts from the Foreword by the Zaidan Foundation
“The central theme of this book is to demonstrate how Jurji Zaidan’s secular analysis of history and language influenced the evolution of his Pan-Arab nationalist thought. It traces the manifold relationships between Zaidan’s thinking as a historian, linguist and his views on Arab nationalism. The seminal contribution of this work is that it is the first to anlayze Zaidan’s thought on history, language and nationalism as an integrated whole.
Heavily influenced by his exposure to science in general and evolution in particular during his only year of formal training at university, Zaidan’s writings make numerous references to natural laws, evolution and other scientific principles. But with few exceptions Zaidan left it to the reader to determine how these laws specifically apply to social phenomena. There are, of course, basic differences between scientific laws that can be tested and reduced to broad and simple axioms that are predictable and measurable and social “laws” that are complex, imprecise and neither general nor simple. But these differences should not obscure what scientific laws have in common with Zaidan’s secular interpretations of social phenomena – namely that neither relies on metaphysical or divine explanations. In Zaidan’s view, historical and linguistic changes resulted from human action – either individual or from various groups motivated by a common interest. The notion that human actions were responsible for change according to rational explanations was similar to, and no less revolutionary than, moving from creationism to evolution. In both cases the influence of God became limited -- as creator, driving force or provider of higher meaning to natural or human events. This was a world where man could influence his destiny more than ever before and where dynamic change therefore became desirable.
The modern world that Jurji Zaidan and his contemporaries in the Nahda were exposed to was characterized by orderly progress within a stable framework. Newtonian physics reflected a certain, predictable and orderly world; the uncertainties of twentieth century physics were yet to come. The theory of evolution and the “survival of the fittest” were applied to social phenomena by social Darwinists who believed that things were being perfected in response to a changing environment. In the international arena, the Western model of political and economic development with its liberal values provided the best model for the developing world to emulate in order to become part of the civilized world. There were no competing models of progress that the twentieth century ideologies of communism and fascism would bring. With few exceptions, conservatives and progressives agreed on the need for modernization but differed on its pace and the need for compromise with traditional values. For the Arab intelligentsia of the times, certain progress towards western ideals was in the air.
This was Jurji Zaidan’s political, cultural and scientific environment and it may explain both the evolutionary and revolutionary aspects of his work. The secular approach to social phenomena--explaining change in purely human terms without divine intervention was indeed revolutionary -- even though Zaidan was always a theist who believed in the afterlife. His secular approach to history and language made Arab identity the predominant bond among Arab-speaking peoples displacing both religion and regional nationalisms as the primary bonds. In this view, Arabs needed to consider themselves as Arabs first and Moslem, Christian or Jewish; Egyptian, Syrian, Phoenician or Ottoman, second. His secular pan-Arab nationalism was seen as a threat by religious purists, both Moslem and Christian. That is why when he was attacked – and attacked he was -- the attacks were directed much more at the secularism of his approach than at the findings and conclusions of his works. Zaidan was also attacked by Egyptian nationalists such as Mustafa Kamel who rejected Zaidan’s pan-Arabism even though they too had a secular outlook. Notwithstanding the revolutionary nature of Zaidan’s analysis, the implications he drew were moderate and evolutionary – perhaps influenced by the gradualism he saw in the natural world as well as his non-confrontational nature and desire to promote peaceful change. Whatever the reasons, even though Jurji Zaidan’s thought was revolutionary, he himself, like most of his contemporaries, argued forcefully in his writings for a measured and gradual approach to political and social change based on factual information and rational analysis.
The Arab secular pan-Arab nationalism spawned by the Nahda, evolved and thrived in the twentieth century. It prevailed as an ideology and legitimization for political power in the nation states that came into being with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. It reached its apogee after the Second World War when it was adopted and strongly promoted by a number of military republican revolutionary regimes that rebelled against the western liberal-political model that had been espoused by most Arab states in the early years of their independence. Its influence waned in the closing decades of the twentieth century when regional nationalisms reasserted themselves and especially and more recently when the non-secular Islamic fundamentalist forces increasingly challenged established authority.”
Since the above Foreword was written, the world is witnessing what is being called “the Arab Spring”. The rebirth of some of the liberal-secular ideas of the Nahda makes the works of Zaidan and his contemporaries especially relevant to the forces sweeping the Arab world today.