Jurji Zaidan and the Foundations of Arab Nationalism: Book Review

jurjiJurji Zaidan and the Foundations of Arab Nationalism: A Study. By Thomas Philipp, Hilary Kilpatrick, Paul Starkey, and Jirjī Zaydān. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. 451, with bibliography, glossary, references, index. $49.95 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780815633587.

Jurji Zaidan and the Foundations of Arab Nationalism presents and analyzes the thought of one of the most prolific and influential public intellectuals of the 20th-century Arab Nahda (revival or awakening) movement. Jurji Zaidan (also written Jirjī Zaydān) wrote extensively on Arab heritage, history, language, society, and religion, as well as popularizing the genre of historical novels in modern Arabic literature. This title, published in cooperation with the Zaidan Foundation, aims to demonstrate a link between Zaidan’s secular analysis of history and language and the development of his pan-Arab nationalist identity which predates and transcends Islamic history. Unlike other works on Zaidan, this work attempts to present his thinking on history, language, and nationalism as an integrated whole. The work is divided into three parts: an extended essay on Zaidan’s secular analysis, translated excerpts from Zaidan’s writings, and a “comprehensive bibliography” of primary and secondary sources.

Thomas Philipp’s essay provides us with a detailed introduction to the life and work of Zaidan. Philipp is a recognized scholar on the life of Zaidan, having completed his doctoral thesis for the University of California on Zaidan’s role in the intellectual development of the Nahda, translated Zaidan’s autobiography, and published a previous study entitled Gurgi Zaidan, his life and thought. In this essay, Philipp places Zaidan in his social context and in relationship with other competing movements and intellectuals, discusses main themes in his works such as the role of science, reason, and religion in society, his evolutionary approaches to history and language, and his concern for society’s advancement, and relates these themes to Zaidan’s pan-Arab nationalism. The essay appropriately prepares the reader with enough background information to venture into the primary sources.

Zaidan’s essays in the second part of the book were selected for their topical relevance to Philipp’s analysis. These are original translations of articles from Zaidan’s journal Al-Hilal and other scholarly works, giving the non-Arabic reader a rare and fascinating view of his intellectual output as well as the general scholarly discourse of the time period. The essays are dense with information not only about Zaidan’s thought, but also about Islamic, Ottoman, and Arab history, language, and society. Zaidan has written on so many topics that scholars of various fields will find something of value in his work. This section could have been improved by including the transliterated Arabic title and date of the essay in the heading itself, although this information can be found in the notes and bibliography of sources.

The third section contains the general bibliography on Zaidan and his works compiled mostly from information in the library collections of Harvard, Princeton, and the Library of Congress. A brief introduction explains how the sources were brought together and its limitations due to the sheer breadth of Zaidan’s literary production. Historical novels are listed with their translations in several other languages, although it is admitted that this list is not comprehensive as some translations and editions are not easily traceable.  Along with Zaidan’s works in other fields, a section is included for studies and critiques of Zaidan’s works in English, Arabic, French, and German. An additional bibliography of sources lists other works cited in the text but not included in the general bibliography.

Jurji Zaidan is a welcome contribution to the study of this important intellectual and the revival movement in which he was a leader. It is a suitable text for advanced researchers interested in modern Arab history, particularly Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, pan-Arab nationalist and secularist movements, religion, philosophy, linguistics, and literature. Graduate students of the Middle East will find it to be an excellent model for researching a modern historical figure and compiling a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The text would be best utilized in conjunction with its companion volume entitled Jurji Zaidan’s Contributions to Modern Arab Thought and Literature, which consists of essays elaborating other aspects of Zaidan’s career, and the translations of his historical novels published by the Zaidan Foundation. Parts of the text or individual essays could possibly be used at the undergraduate level. The character of Zaidan illustrates the interesting nuances of the time period and region, being simultaneously a pan-Arab secularist and Christian theist, which might be instructional for undergraduates unfamiliar with the complexity of the Arab world and its history.

Justin Parrott
New York University in Abu Dhabi