By Thomas Philipp

With translations by Hilary Kilpatrick and Paul Starkey of

Selected Writings of Jurji Zaidan With a Foreword by the Zaidan Foundation and a Preface by the Author


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.


Scope of the Volume

The volume consists of three parts. The first part is an essay that demonstrates Jurji Zaidan’s secular approach to the analysis of Arab and Islamic history and the evolution of language, especially the Arabic language. It goes on to assess how this approach influenced the secular pan-Arab nationalism that he spearheaded and which was the defining characteristic of the Nahda. The essay draws on articles published by Zaidan in Al-Hilal between 1892 and 1914 as well as his scholarly works. Thirty articles and excerpts from his scholarly works were translated for this book. They were chosen for their relevance to the topics covered in the essay. These translations are reproduced in the second section of this volume. The third section constitutes the first comprehensive bibliography of Jurji Zaidan’s works both in Arabic and all the other languages into which they have been translated over the past century as well as a list of the works about him.

Publisher: Syracuse University Press, New York, 2014. Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8156-3358-7. E-book ISBN: 978-0-8156-5271-7


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Foreword by Zaidan Foundation

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.

The Author and Translators

About the Authors and Translators

Professor Thomas Philipp, a leading expert on the life and thought of Jurji Zaidan1as well as the development of Arab thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the author of this volume. The principal translators of Jurji Zaidan’s writings were Professor Paul Starkey and Hilary Kilpatrick. Professor Starkey is the Head of the Arabic Department at Durham University, England. He is the author of several books on Arabic literature most notably Modern Arabic Literature, Edinburgh University Press, 2006 and has translated many Arab literary works, most recently a historical novel by Jurji Zaidan, Saladin and the Assassins. Dr. Hilary Kilpatrick lives and teaches in Lausanne; she has published on modern and classical Arabic literature and is currently researching the Arabic literature of the early Ottoman period. She is the translator of Ghassan Khanafani’s Men in the Sun.

1 See the earlier study Gurgi Zaidan: His Life and Thought,  Beirut 1979, In Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden.

Preface by the Author

Excerpt from the Preface by Thomas Philipp

“To revisit, after almost four decades, one’s earliest attempts at scholarly work and research is a unique opportunity. The result is, of course, a mixed one. Some insights still seem to stand, and parts of those have been included in this essay. Scholarship on the Middle East, however, has developed substantially, as has our knowledge. The theory of nationalism has received new impulses from new questions and innovative research. This has certainly made it possible to analyze Zaidan’s nationalist thought in greater depth. Re-reading my own earlier study and Jurji Zaidan’s work, I have realized that nationalism per se was not as central to his work as I had thought earlier. However, I found that the disengagement of Arab history from Islamic history by using evolutionary theory for a secular analysis was the innovative achievement of Zaidan’s work. Applying such secular analysis not only to the history but also to the language and culture of the Arab people led then almost by necessity to the reconstruction of an Arab cultural history, Arab identity and to the idea of Arabism.

The shift from an Islamic history, in which the Arabs play a certain role in the manifestation of the divine will, to an Arab history, in which Islam constitutes one of several Arab civilizational phases, occurring before and after Islam, is the focus of this volume. Since nothing of J. Zaidan’s scholarly work has – with one exception – ever been translated into a Western language, it was decided early on to include translations of relevant essays or passages of Zaidan’s writings in order to familiarize the reader with Zaidan’s own texts and to illustrate the arguments and interpretations made in the essay. The translations were chosen with care as representative of Zaidan’s thought on specific subjects.

This is not to say that the texts are representative of all of Zaidan’s thought. They only illuminate the topic of history and language in the context I spoke of above. In fact a great number of topics has not been included in this essay, such as Zaidan’s sociological thought, his political ideas, his support of the emancipation of women, and his enormous role in the development of modern Arabic literature, especially the development of the Arabic novel. Their omission does not imply that they are not important but only that there are physical limits to a book. The hope for this study is that it will further the interest in Zaidan’s work and will lead to more studies on a whole range of other topics.”

Table of Contents

by Thomas Philipp

  1. Introduction
  2. Jurji Zaidan: A Short Biography
  3. Religion, Science and Evolution
  4. Evolutionary and Historical Approaches  to the Arabic Language
  5. Secular Analyses of Arab  History
  6. Society and its Educator
  7. Arab Nationalism

List of Jurji Zaidan’s Translated Writings

1. Religion and Science

  • The Proof of the Existence of God
  • Religion, Science, and Civilization
  • Jinn, Spiritism, and the Talking Table
  • Is There Another World in the Universe? The Sensitive Matter of Religion And How the Elites Monopolize It at the Expense of the Masses

2. Language

  • The philosophy of language and the Arabic vocabulary
  • Literary and Colloquial Arabic
  • The writers and readers of Arabic I: Writers
  • The writers and readers of Arabic II: Authors
  • The Arabic language as a living being

3. History

  • The History of the Arabs before Islam: Its Difficulty and Complexity
  • The TubbaÝ Kings and Ibn Khaldun
  • Kinship among the Ancient Arabs (A response to those who argue in favor of matriarchy and totemism among the pre-Islamic Arabs)
  • The Pre-Islamic Arabs
  • Ottoman Egypt: Preliminary Remarks -- Islamic History Compared  with Other Histories and General History

4. Nationalism

  • The Syrians in Egypt
  • The future of the Syrians in America
  • Egypt and Syria -- Co-operation and relations between them from the dawn of history till now
  • The Syrians in the Americas
  • Egyptian patriotism
  • Arabs and Turks before and after the Constitution
  • Are the Syrians Arabs?  Or what are they?

5. Society and Ethics

  • The Syrians and their Naturalization in America: A sociological study.
  • Through Pressure and Resistance, Hidden Forces Appear
  • Salim Saydnawi: Proprietor of the largest store in Cairo
  • Community of Interest: The Source of All Other Communities and the Primary Motivation for Undertaking Great Deeds
  • The Future of Modern Civilization And How the East May Advance
  • Only the Fittest Can Survive
  • Social Sense
  • How should we construct morality and what is women’s influence with regard to it?


  • Index of names
  • Bibliography for Essay and Anthology
  • Complete Bibliography of Zaidan’s Works and Studies on him.