Darwin in Arabia – The Introduction of Evolution into the 19th Century Middle East

This is a book I cannot obtain here, but have found a detailed review, from which I quote below and provide references and other links.  The topic is indeed fascinating, in considering the multiple ways in which concepts move from one region to another – involving political, religious, and linguistic dimensions, among others – are treated.  As well, the concept of  *science* as being of European origin and implications of this fact in the Middle East.

READING DARWIN IN ARABIC, 1860–1950 by Marwa Elshakry
448pp. University of Chicago Press. $45.
978 0 226 00130 2
The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century Irwin_Darwin in Arabia

In reviewing the above-referneced book, Robert Irwin points out some of the difficulties of translocating both concept and vocabulary of Darwinism from Victorian England into the Middle East as well as into Arabic >

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”.“Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”.

When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language.

Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

The word al-tatawwur has further migrated from meaning evolution in the 19th century (above) into the language of development in modern standard arabic.  I learned this some years ago when asking a professor at a regional university in Egypt what he thought I should call an upcoming talk I was giving at the university.  He responded, al-tatawwur fil-aryaaf wal-alaqaatuhu bi-dawlah (Development in the countryside and connections (of the countryside) with the State).

Regarding Darwinism itself, Irwin goes on to say –

Reading Darwin in Arabic deals primarily with the works of popularization and polemic produced by a small elite of bookmen during the heyday of the Nahda (Awakening, Rennisance) …

Elshakry’s densely argued and fascinating book casts the net wider than that and gives extensive coverage to such matters as missionary ambitions and strategies in the Middle East, Muhammad Abduh’s attempts to reform al-Azhar as a teaching institution, the rise of Pharaonism as a cultural movement, the growing sense of an Islamic civilization with a history, the eleventh-century Sufi al-Ghazali’s overweening presence in philosophical debates, and Arab interest in Atatürk’s reforms.

As Elshakry notes, enthusiasm for Darwin and his followers fell away after the Second World War and that enthusiasm turned to outright hostility from around 1970 onwards. The reasons for this lie beyond the scope of Reading Darwin in Arabic. Perhaps the intellectual prestige of the British declined as their empire was dismembered. Perhaps Muslim scholars took their lead from American creationists. The rise of a militant political Islam may also have been a factor.

This appears to be a most worthwhile read and I plan to obtain a Kindle addition. Reference to the article in the Times Literary Supplement from which I quote is –

Darwin in Arabia, by ROBERT IRWIN

A couple of other links to presentations by  Dr Marwa Elshakry are given bleow –

Translating Knowledge

Historians have begun to explore the paradox of the identification of a would-be universal form of rational knowledge known as science with the particular historical experience of Europe.

This begs the question: how have new forms of scientific knowledge been translated, received, assimilated, and engaged outside of the cultural contexts within which they were produced?

In this episode, Marwa Elshakry examines the case of Arab engagement with and translation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is the subject of her recently published book entitled Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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