Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The republic of Arabic letters

A new book investigates the contributions of early modern European scholars to the study of the Arab world, writes David Tresilian

The republic of Arabic letters

In the wake of the publication of Orientalism by the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, some works of European scholarship on the Arab world received a bad name. They had been complicit in European colonialism, Said wrote, or they had provided ammunition for prejudices instead of correcting them.

However, whatever the verdict on Said’s thesis on the 19th-century orientalists may be (in the main those of his study), it is a stretch to make it work for other periods. 

Some 19th-century students of the Arab world undoubtedly took advantage of European domination in order to further their work. It is difficult to imagine the Mameluke regime in late 18th-century Egypt welcoming the 150 or so scholars who went on to produce the Description de l’Egypte, an account of almost every aspect of the country, for example, had they not come as part of a military invasion on Napoleon Bonaparte’s coattails. 

Yet, many other scholars were not in bed with military expeditions, and it would be hard to see many of them, often eccentric by the standards of the time, fulfilling any official functions. This is all the more the case with earlier European scholars of the Arab world, who formed a mostly self-contained “republic of Arabic letters,” as a new book of the same title by the US academic Alexander Bevilacqua reveals. 

If their work in fact disguised surreptitious political aims, as Said argued was the case for some of the later European orientalists, it must have been a very heavy disguise indeed. 

Bevilacqua writes about mostly 17th and 18th-century European scholars of Arabic and the Arab world, whose motivations, sometimes obscure, contributed to a new European understanding of Islam and the Arabs that was characteristic of the period. They “studied a much wider range of sources of the Islamic intellectual traditions than ever before… and they began to think and write about Islam with a [new] fairmindedness,” he comments. They “tended to hold a high opinion of Islamic letters [and] of their importance and originality,” in some cases producing works of scholarship and translation that continued to be referred to well into the 20th century.  

These scholars, living at different times and in different places, mostly never met each other, though they read each other’s work since it was either published in Latin, then the lingua franca of educated Europe, or swiftly translated into the main European languages. As a result, Bevilacqua’s book is a combination of intellectual history, being a contribution to the history of the European Enlightenment which saw a new and more methodical interest in the extra-European world, and of the history of European books and reading.

Many, perhaps most, of the European scholars he discusses never actually visited the Arab world, and some of them may never have spoken to a living Arab. They learned Arabic from books, and they relied on the book-buying expeditions of their peers to bring back manuscripts that could then be pored over in university libraries or, in the case of the British orientalists considered here, a succession of country vicarages.

Theirs were mostly “bookish encounters” with the Arab world, Bevilacqua writes, and they depended on the circulation of books not only across Europe, but also between Europe and the Arab world. The European trading companies operating in the Middle East were important sources of Arabic books, but so were private expeditions for the English orientalists and state-sponsored ones for the French. In Istanbul, known for its booksellers, “the buying of books by foreigners got so out of hand that in 1715 or 1716 the grand vizier, Sehid Ali Pasha, himself a book collector,” banned the sale of books to foreigners.

Fortunately, the decree did not work, since many of the most important manuscripts used by the early orientalists came from the city. Much of the late 17th-century orientalist Barthélemy d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale (Oriental Library), an early attempt at an encyclopaedia of the Islamic world, was lifted from the Ottoman scholar Katib Celebi’s Kashf al-zunun an asami al-kutub wa-l-funun (Names of Books and Arts), for example. 

Antoine Galland, the first translator of the Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights) who also completed d’Herbelot’s book after his death in 1695, was secretary to the French ambassador in Istanbul at the end of the 17th century, and he used the position to carry out multiple book-buying expeditions during one of which he acquired the manuscript used for his translation.  


REPUBLIC MEMBERS: Bevilacqua’s book includes discussion of d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale, which, through its 8,158 articles, was “the most ambitious and wide-ranging European reference work about Islamic topics” to have been produced at the time and perhaps a kind of forerunner of the famous 20th-century Encyclopaedia of Islam. 

However, he also looks beyond the immediate French context in line with his conviction that there existed a cosmopolitan, or at least cross-border, “republic of Arabic letters” in Europe at the time, in order to consider early translations of the Quran, including into Latin by Ludovico Marracci, an Italian clergyman, in 1698, and into English by George Sale in 1733/34. Both of these were characterised by a new attention to the Arabic text and the Muslim commentators, producing versions of the Quran in European languages that were vastly superior to anything that had appeared before.

The fact “that neither man left his native country, and yet each was able to translate with seriousness and integrity, is proof of the level of maturity of Arabic studies in Europe” at the time, Bevilacqua comments.

Part of this was due to developments in England, notably in Oxford, in the preceding decades and associated particularly with Edward Pococke, first holder of the professorship of Arabic at Oxford in the 1630s, and with archbishop William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury during the final years of English king Charles I’s ill-fated reign and a major benefactor to Oxford University.

For those whose knowledge of Laud comes from a different context, it may come as a surprise to learn that he was so closely involved with the development of Arabic studies in Europe, though the existence of the Laudian Professorship of Arabic, still thriving at Oxford today, should perhaps have given some clue. Laud is more usually remembered for his opposition to radical protestant movements in the Church of England, eventually being executed during the English Civil War. 

Pococke, however, Laud’s protégé, managed to thrive despite the surrounding chaos, and in 1650 he published his Specimen Historiae Arabum (Specimens of the History of the Arabs) in Latin, a history of the Arabs, which according to Bevilacqua “initiated a new phase in the European study of Arabic [and] offered an entry point into Islamic history and letters and brought into view an intellectual tradition comparable to that of Greece and Rome”. 

Pococke had been chaplain to the English Levant Company in Aleppo, today in northern Syria, before being appointed to the Oxford chair, and his main interest was in Semitic languages, among them Arabic and Hebrew. He, like Laud, thought that knowledge of these could help elucidate the early history of Christianity, and he was typical of the early European orientalists in this regard since the “reinterpretation of Islam originated within the culture of Christian learning in both Roman Catholic and Christian lands”, Bevilacqua says. 

However, also like the other early orientalists considered here, Pococke fortunately allowed his original interest to spread, with his at first religious focus soon giving way to more secular matters, including the history, literature and philosophy, as well as the language and theology, of the Arabs. His son Edward Pococke later translated the mediaeval Arab philosopher Ibn Tufail’s philosophical fable Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a sort of Arabic Robinson Crusoe, into English. 

The Republic of Arabic Letters perhaps rather obviously originates in a doctoral thesis, and so Bevilacqua periodically rounds back upon the argument that is supposed to license it, being the “heyday of the Republic [of Arabic Letters], from 1650 to 1750, [which] was an exceptional era in the European evaluation of Islam”. 

This leads to some academic throat-clearing, but little jargon, and as a result this book can be read with pleasure by general readers, who will also be able to profit from Bevilacqua’s enormously well-informed discussion of his subject. 

Alexander Bevilacqua, The Republic of Arabic Letters. Islam and the European Enlightenment, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018, pp340.

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