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The Arab Renaissance

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Born in a Greek Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, Jurji Zaidan (1861–1914) is responsible for establishing fiction pertaining to the Islamic past as a prominent genre in modern Arabic literature. His work was part of a widespread literary cultural movement called the Nahda (Awakening, Arising, or Renaissance) that arose in Arabic-speaking societies in the wake of European colonial expansion and worldwide socioeconomic dominance during the nineteenth century.

The Nahda grew through authors who urged local reforms while also resisting European hegemony. Its proponents used the rapidly expanding popular press, and print more generally, as means to shape public opinion. Print was a key technology to broadcast new ideas and undertake polemics within societies as well as across nations and empires. Moreover, the forms print took—newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and relatively cheap books—spurred the creation of a new literary idiom for the written language that is today called Modern Standard Arabic.

The Nahda was well underway by the time Zaidan came of age, and he eventually became regarded as one of its most influential proponents. He began his higher education as a medical student in the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (now the American University of Beirut). His interest in literature and social issues led him to learn French, English, and German, enabling him access to global currents of ideas spreading at ever higher speeds due to new technologies.

Having spent some time in Egypt and Europe already, he emigrated to Egypt permanently in 1883, a year after the British invaded and occupied the country. In Cairo, Zaidan dedicated himself to a career in writing and publishing. In a short life of fifty-three years, he generated a vast literary corpus that has circulated widely, influencing people wherever Arabic was read.

Between 1892 and 1914, Zaidan published twenty-one historical novels that are his most enduring legacy. Through continuous publication in Arabic to the present, and translation into many languages, his fictional work has played a critical role in creating a distinctively modern view of the Islamic past. A meaningful assessment of the Islamic, Arab, and global past was essential to his ambitious work, and fiction was a major venue for him to pursue his larger purpose. Zaidan’s novels implemented a complex linguistic and narrative formula to deliver the past in an accessible yet authoritative way. Most prominently, he highlighted Islam’s place in universal “civilization” seen as a single current flowing from ancient times to the present.

Following the lead of European orientalists, for Zaidan, Islam was an unavoidable missing link that filled the gap between (Greek and Roman) antiquity and (European) modernity. A crucial corollary to this view was that Islam was also unexceptional. That is, Islam’s specificity marked a surface difference, since, underneath, whatever was valuable or reprehensible in it was the same in other contributors to universal civilization. This characteristic of Zaidan’s historical fiction contrasts strongly with the other novels discussed in this chapter.

Zaidan was an autodidact who never received formal training in areas engaged in his publications. He worked assiduously to create summaries of topics based on literature available to him in multiple languages. His presentation of his research was consistently keyed to the imperative of rejuvenating “Eastern” societies through the reform of ideas and practices. His fictional and nonfictional works represent the past in conceptual formulations and language accessible to a contemporary nonspecialist reader. In nonfiction, Zaidan’s approach can be seen in two five-volume works that were published toward the end of his life: Ta’rikh at-tamaddun al-Islami (History of Islamic Civilization, 1902–1906) and Ta’rikh al-lugha al-’Arabiyya (History of the Arabic Language, 1911–1914). These are programmatic treatments of large topics that leverage the author’s extensive familiarity with premodern sources and modern scholarship to create digestible accounts. In them, Zaidan informs while also prescribing the right way to see the evidence.

Zaidan’s celebrity during his lifetime rested also on his editorship of the journal al-Hilal (The Crescent) that he began publishing in September 1892, which he did to both earn a living and propagate his ideas. The journal circulated widely around the world, garnering him the reputation of an influential public intellectual. The journal’s first issue indicated that future issues would contain sections on the following five topics: 1) famous events and great men, 2) topical articles from the editor or other contemporary writers, 3) historical and literary stories from lands near and far, 4) news of events over the past month from around the world, and selections from reports, criticism, and reviews from other journals.

Issues of al-Hilal in years to come provide a sense of the world Zaidan inhabited and to which he wished to contribute through the journal. Especially noteworthy was his attention to established political power, the cosmopolitan scope and broad audience of Arabic journalism at the time he was writing, and a concern for social issues such as women’s representation in society. A meaningful assessment of the Islamic, Arab, and global past was essential to all of Zaidan’s ambitious work. His historical fiction created broad panoramas of life at particular moments in past time. In them, he treated history as a concern for all rather than the scholarly or literary elites.

Voices for the Past

I focus on Jurji Zaidan’s novel Ghadat Karbala (The Young Lady of Karbala) due to concern with the violent death of Muhammad’s grandson Husayn in 681. This event is a pivotal marker in Islamic history and is discussed in multiple places in this book. Ghadat Karbala was the fifth work in Zaidan’s series concerned with Islamic history. First published in 1901, it was reissued in 1909, together with a note from Zaidan remarking that the novel had been received well, especially by Shi’a Muslims. Within two years of publication, it had been translated into Persian by a prince of the Qajar dynasty in Iran and published, with illustrations, under the title Tarikh-i Salma (The History of Salma).

By the time he wrote Ghadat Karbala, Zaidan was following an established formula that he had used to considerable public acclaim already. The novel provides a view of his paradigm for fiction at its height. Upon first encounter, the novel comes across as a disjointed narrative, beginning with general descriptions of early Islamic times and the region surrounding Damascus. Then we move to a scene in a Christian monastery near Damascus where the abbot is welcoming some guests. In the narrative, the author sometimes addresses the reader directly to explain historical occurrences. These interjections happen during a highly emotive story with numerous plot turns involving historical and imaginary characters connected to Husayn.

Action within the story is at times interrupted by short, pedantic asides. Sometimes the dialogue between characters sounds especially archaic, with footnotes to old texts. While the language is fluent, the novel’s plotting seems haphazard, and the narrating voice is markedly heterogeneous in what it chooses to address. The narration is driven by utility and lacks the kind of precise expression that Cheikh Hamidou Kane brings to his French composition as discussed in another section of this chapter.

As I have thought about Ghadat Karbala, I have become convinced that to subject Zaidan’s fiction to literary criticism in the abstract is to squander its value for understanding how the past forms and circulates. Matters such as relatively loose plotting, changes in the register of language, and moving in and out of fictive and nonfictive modes should not be seen as authorial lapses. Rather, these are reference points to understand the author’s position as a voice mediating between competing exigences pertaining to history in his context.

The seeming unevenness of Zaidan’s novels likely was (and remains) one of the greatest reasons for their success across a broad audience. In effect, his novels articulate a particular, very “mixed” sense of history that has mattered greatly for Arab and Islamic audiences since the nineteenth century. The form of narration we find in Ghadat Karbala and similar works by Zaidan and others captures the modern Islamic zeitgeist regarding the past far more than any type of academic historical writing.

I will highlight vignettes from Ghadat Karbala that capture Zaidan’s method for creating the past and making it instructive for the present. The variety of his constructions speaks to the heterogeneity of his sources as well as the fact that he was aware of addressing a diversified audience. The novel’s narrative symptomizes the complexity of discourse about the past as it was encountered in Arabic-speaking societies at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Journey to Karbala

The first chapter of Ghadat Karbala is not fictional at all (1–2). It is a short summary describing the Quraysh tribe in which Muhammad was born, the political and military success of his immediate followers and their internal disputes, and the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty with its capital in Damascus. The second chapter (2–4) describes the fertile region called Ghuta (often Ghouta in modern spelling) that surrounds the city of Damascus. These summaries of time and space are given in an impersonal, encyclopedic voice, informing the reader about the real past within which the fictional story will be set. While fiction takes over from the third chapter, the voice marking real history reappears numerous times, reminding the reader of the past’s facticity.

Zaidan’s presentation of summary historical information is a quick refresher meant for a reader who knows the overall story already. This expectation is expressed directly in chapter 9, entitled “The Fact of the Matter,” which is placed after the main characters of the fictional story have been introduced. It begins with the following:

The reader must have understood from the foregoing that Salma [the “young lady”] was the daughter of Hujr b. ‘Adi, killed at the meadow of ‘Adhra’, and that ‘Abd ar-Rahman was her cousin, and the two were engaged, and that ‘Amir was their guardian. The details of this are that Salma was born in Kufa eight years before her father’s killing and had been entrusted to ‘Amir’s wife for breastfeeding and that she had been with her in the desert. This was a practice common among Arabs. … ‘Amir had been a frequent visitor to the Levant for trade, especially with the Sabaeans and the Banu Kinda, who remained Christian. When he came to Damascus, he would stay and frequent monasteries and churches. He would sit with knowledgeable people, who would relate aspects of Greek history and its relationship to the history of the Levant and other places. He remembered all this, understood it, and became counted among the most knowledgeable people, with the widest information about history. In Salma, ‘Amir intuited intelligence and the inclination to explore stories of origins. To her, he would relate reports he had acquired about the Persians and the Byzantines, and their interrelationship (15–16).

The character ‘Amir described here is an alter ego for Zaidan himself. Like him, Zaidan had acquired knowledge of the past from many troughs. His (and Zaidan’s) custodianship of Salma involves both the duty of protection and making her a repository of historical knowledge. Also important is that ‘Amir and Salma are early Muslims who learn from Christians. Zaidan’s own position with respect to religion worked in reverse. Of Christian origin, he had learned about the Islamic past to the degree of becoming its authoritative mouthpiece.

Zaidan’s historical framing derives from accounts he had absorbed from the work of European orientalists. While he had clearly read many Arabic sources that discuss this history, his mode of presentation mimics modern academic writing rather than attempting to inhabit voices found in premodern sources. The most noteworthy issue here is how his attempt at objectivity contrasts with what premodern authors might do. For the latter, neutrality meant providing as many conflicting accounts as possible to prove the disputed nature of past occurrences. In contrast, partisan premodern authors narrate the past as a matter of ultimate moral truth. Zaidan’s method is different: he conveys a processed neutrality, the past as a set of facts established through deduction that are also not being used for religious or other ideological arguments.

While Zaidan replicates the orientalist posture with respect to knowledge of the past, there is one crucial difference: for him, this is not the history of “others” who live far away in the Orient. Instead, the Islamic past is a crucial component in the history of all Arabic speakers, like the author himself. Through this displacement, Zaidan leverages an orientalist epistemology for a local identity. The transformation he and other proponents of the Nahda accomplished would eventually lead to the rise of a multireligious Arab nationalism, and his novels were crucial predecessors for Arab nationalist movements. They incorporated Islam and Muslims into nationalist ideologies but without making religion the primary basis for collective identity.

Seven of Zaidan’s twenty-one historical novels have women as the titular protagonists. His choice on this score was partly clearly due to his interest in highlighting and promoting women’s wider participation in political life. This was a prominent topic in materials from all over the world in which he was immersed as a maker of public opinion. Zaidan’s female leads are beautiful, brave, and noble, embodying the best ideals of the worlds in which they are placed. They become the period’s raconteurs while also embodying a moral conscience that runs contrary to corrupt and disgraceful behavior.

The first description of Salma, the young lady of Ghadat Karbala, presents her to the reader as seen from the eyes of a Christian abbot who welcomes a traveling party to the monastery (at the end of the novel, the abbot turns out to be Salma’s paternal grandfather):

The third [person in the party] was a girl, whom the leader examined intently on account of her extraordinary beauty. The like of her he had not encountered in his long residence in Damascus and its surroundings, among the abundance of girls from the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Nabataeans, the Assyrians, and the Jews. Before this moment, his eyes had never rested on a girl whose face had such beauty and dignity. The beauty of her eyes stood out, which although they were not as big as that of her young male companion, were sharp and full of light. … He said to himself, even if poor in possessions, this girl’s father is rich because of her (8).

Salma’s outer beauty is a counterpart to her inner fortitude, which includes her interest in knowledge about the past. As an observer of her surroundings, Salma offers the further benefit that her eyes can see more than what is available to her male counterparts. She has unrestricted access to households’ inner spheres, including that of female figures who feature in history. Moreover, when the female character observes the public world dominated by men, she often does so from behind a screen or curtain. She observes without herself being observed, a position also often occupied by the narrator of historical fiction.

While Salma is fictional, her putative father, Hujr b. ‘Adi (d. 660), is a well-known historical figure renowned as a member of the party of ‘Ali (Shi’at ‘Ali) active in early disputes among Muslims. Her father’s violent death at the hands of proponents of Mu’awiya (‘Ali’s chief rival and the father of Yazid, who would eventually order the killing of Husayn) is disclosed to Salma within the novel’s narrative at a scene next to his grave (21–24). This is presented in the voice of her custodian ‘Amir, an eyewitness, with footnotes to Ibn al-Athir (d. 1160), a celebrated chronicler.

Salma and ‘Abd ar-Rahman are overcome with anger and grief when the story finishes. While the man vows to avenge his uncle, Salma holds a fistful of the grave’s dirt and looks to the sky while beseeching God for justice. Then a disembodied voice speaks out from the grave enunciating the quasi-Quranic statement “To those who tyrannize, give the good news of a painful punishment” (the Quranic verse [9:3] says “those who disbelieve” instead) (25).

This scene sets the novel’s narrative fully into motion, leading Salma and ‘Abd ar-Rahman to the court of Yazid in Damascus and various other locations in Syria and Iraq. Numerous historical and fictional characters enter and exit the story as we hear of the main characters’ actions and emotions. Salma eventually arrives in Kufa and the nearby Karbala. Here she becomes witness to various episodes pertaining to Husayn and his companions that figure prominently in later accounts and are commemorated every year across the world.

Zaidan’s account of events connected to Husayn includes aside comparisons with much later times, such as that of the Abbasid caliphs, the Ottoman Sultan Selim (d. 1520), the Ottoman governor of Egypt Muhammad ‘Ali (d. 1848), and Napoleon Bonaparte (d. 1821) (151–152). It is as if he cannot let go of his position as a modern historian even when the fictional frame requires avoiding such anachronisms.

In the part of the narrative that deals with Husayn’s last days, Salma becomes a companion to his sister Zaynab b. ‘Ali (d. 682), who survived the bloodshed at Karbala (161–163). Salma is also depicted as a direct witness to Husayn’s brutal death:

She saw the group of men attack him, one hitting him on the left shoulder, cutting it, and another on the other shoulder. Husayn fell to earth, face forward. Salma shouted, unaware of what she was saying, “Woe to you, you have killed Husayn … your faith is dead.” The shaykh recognized her and grabbed the tail of her garment, even as she was oblivious to him, her eyes on Husayn as he lay next to the corpses of his children and brothers, his blood mixing with theirs, although he was not dead. She saw Shimr jump on him, his hand on his sword. He struck his neck with the sword, cutting until he was decapitated. After a moment, Salma heard a snort. Then she saw Shimr raise the head in his hand, its covering having fallen away, hair exposed and smeared with blood, eyes closed. He gave it to a man with him, telling him: “Take it to Amir ‘Umar b. Sa’d” (184).

Iranian feature film on Hujr b. ‘Adi (2003). His death via arrow is depicted at the very end (1:40:00).

The story continues for a time after the description of this pivotal event. We are told of Husayn’s companions who survive, and Salma and ‘Abd ar-Rahman are reunited after having been separated and not knowing each other’s fate. There are other revelations regarding relationships between characters. At the end, the two cousins go to Mecca, get married, and spend the rest of their lives in loving company in territory that is not controlled by those who had killed Husayn (i.e., the Umayyads) (224).

Zaidan's effort as a novelist involved absorbing the Islamic past from sources old and new and then pouring them into molds meant to inculcate social and political values that were deemed necessary to meet modern situations. In accomplishing this task. he both affirmed Islam as a force in history and circumvented the notion that it was to be considered a privileged mode of being.

From Past to Present

In Ghadat Karbala and other novels, Zaidan is invested in proving that he himself and other non-Europeans living in the age of European hegemony were inheritors of universal values. He holds up qualities such as stringent morals, selflessness, generosity, and perseverance in the face of adversity and extreme tragedy as ideals that should transfer to contemporary situations. When embodying such characteristics, Arabs and Muslims become superior to Europeans in terms that pertain equally to all. This is, in essence, his argument for why the past matters as a public good and why it needs to be made available through fiction and nonfiction alike.

Fiction provided the means to create past characters with emotions that were readily understandable by modern readers. Zaidan’s Arabic composition translated old language into new idioms that were expressed through characters, such as women and the marginalized, who are heard from quite rarely in premodern materials. As Zaidan implemented this mission, Islam was stripped of its significance as a particularistic worldview, belief system, or motivating force. Zaidan’s Islam renders Muslims similar, rather than fundamentally different, from non-Muslims. His narratives do have characters who are good and evil—such as Husayn and Yazid, respectively, in Ghadat Karbala—but they are so based on their actions rather than on religious allegiances.

The power of Zaidan’s portrayals resides in the fact that Islam is neither deleted from the past nor ignored in the present. Indeed, his novels play up all manner of successes attributed to Muslims motivated by Islam. But the measure of what counts as success is a universalist ideology. His view of civilization as a global process is the ultimate arbiter of what is valuable or problematic in Islam.

Zaidan’s career as a historian of Islam had an ironic and bitter end. He was a prominent supporter of the cause to establish a modern university in Egypt, and this effort came to fruition in 1908 with the formation of the Egyptian University (which later became Cairo University). In 1910, he was asked to become a professor of Islamic history in it, but the offer was rescinded before he could accept on account of the objection that he was not Muslim. Soon after suffering this disappointment, Zaidan published a short article on religious motivations and presented religion as a matter intrinsic to human society and psychology that elicits great loyalty from ordinary believers. Being aware of this, ruling elites tug on people’s religious allegiances to manipulate them for political ends.

The article concludes on a resigned tone, stating that common people will always remain malleable in the hands of a skillful preacher: “If he calls them to war, revolution, hostility, revenge, and the like, then the result of such religious sensitivity may be evil. But if he preaches charity or benevolence, the call will be beneficial. So may God multiply the preachers of good!” (Zaidan, “The Sensitive Matter of Religion and How the Elites Monopolize It at the Expense of the Masses,” 176).

Islam, for Zaidan, was nothing less, nor more, than any other religion, susceptible to what he considered laudable or pernicious use. Its significance derived from the large populations that adhered to it. His effort as a novelist involved absorbing the Islamic past from sources old and new and then pouring them into molds meant to inculcate social and political values that were deemed necessary to meet modern situations. In accomplishing this task, he both affirmed Islam as a force in history and circumvented the notion that it was to be considered a privileged mode of being.

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