This Period in Islamic History was Very Important But is Hardly Known: The Arab Renaissance

Al-Nahda means Renaissance” or interest in something, especially art, literature, or music.  How, when and what caused this renaissance in the Arab world and what were the factors behind them is what we are here to explore.

Al-Nahda, also known as the Arab Renaissance, began in the 19th century and the early 20th century in Egypt and then spread across the then Ottoman ruled Arab regions of Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. This period in the history of the Arab regions is often regarded as a period of reform and modernization. However, some critics seems to have an opinion on the matter and call this renaissance as an autogenetic response to the cultural shock that was brought to the land of Egypt when Napoleon invaded it in 1798.

In traditional scholarship Nahda is seen as a massive cultural shift that was western inspired and was also linked to Tanzimat, which was the period of reforms in the Ottoman Empire and internal changes in the political economy and communal reformations in Egypt and Syro-Lebanon. The Nahda itself started simultaneously both in Egypt and Greater Syria and affected both in different ways as both of these regions differed in their backgrounds. The renaissance in Egypt was more focused on politics, while in Greater Syria it was more directed towards culture. This was not an exclusive event in history for both these regions, as it did in the end affected both these regions in both political and cultural aspects. This was something that also inspired the “Young Turk Movement” which provided the base on which proliferation of press and other publications were allowed to be spared among the masses.

The Nahda’s main goal was to drive the then Arabic society to secularism, rationalism, urbanism, scientism and individualism.  The major participants were the leaders of that time. They wanted to make the Arab world stand shoulder to shoulder with the western world. They had a vision that would only come alive through the Renaissance of culture and Islamic governing institutions of the Middle East.

Rifa’a Rafi’ El-Tahtawi

Rifa’a Rafi’ El-Tahtawi was an Egyptian scholar and is widely considered as a pioneer in the renaissance of the Middle East. He was sent to Paris by Muhammad Ali Pasha’s government to study western sciences and methods used by their authorities for educating the masses. Although originally he was sent as an Imam for the Egyptian cadets training at the Paris military academy, he held a very positive view of the French society and government. That’s not to say that he does not criticize some parts of it. A lot of his previously held view that were of conservative nature changed during the period he was in Paris. He learned French and translated a lot of their work in to classical Arabic text. His book “Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz” (translated as ‘The Quintessence of Paris’) is a rhymed prose which describes France and Europe from an Egyptian Muslim’s point of view. The book is essentially a summary of his views and reforms that he wrote while living in Paris. He returned to Egypt to implement his philosophy of reform but made sure that reforms are based on Islamic cultural values. His open-minded modernism was the defining creed of Al-Nahda.

Muhammad Ali, pasha of Egypt
Muhammad Ali, pasha of Egypt


Butrus Al-Bustani

Born to a Lebanese Maronite Christian family, 1819, Butrus Al-Bustani was a polyglot, educator, activist, and the driving force of the Arab renaissance in mid 19th century in Beirut. Impressed by the American missionaries and their approach towards Christianity, he later converted to Protestantism and became a leader for the local Protestant church. He was the central figure when it came to translating the Bible into Arabic with American missionaries. Butrus Al Bustani had very close relations with these missionaries but later became completely independent and eventually broke away from them.

As the deadly and the bloody 1860 Druze–Maronite conflict reached its ultimate demise, it served as a catalyst for the rise of Confessionalism and it was these circumstances that lead Butrus Al Bustani to found a school called “Al-Madrasa Al-Wataniyya” or the “National School” which was based on secular principles. The schools served as a launching pad for many to further lead the Nahda and many of its students were pioneers of the movements. He compiled and published several school textbooks and dictionaries which gave him the title of “The Master of The Arab Renaissance”. Butrus Al Bustani was a fierce secularist and the man who formulated the principal of Syrian Nationalism. His most groundbreaking work led to the creation of the Arabic expository prose.

Influence on Religion, Media and Politics


Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī was an Islamic ideologist and political activist who gave Islam a modern interpretation and fused adherence to faith with an anti colonial doctrine, which advocates Pan-Islamic solidity to fight against European pressures. He was in favor of authoritarian monarchies with representative rule and deduced anything he deemed as dogmatic and corrupt with Islam in his age. He was also the teacher of a very important man when it comes to the Arab renaissance and that was Muhammad Abduh.

Muhammad Abduh played a very significant role in furthering the teachings of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. He presented his reforms for Islam and accused traditionalist Islamic authorities of moral and intellectual corruption. He accused the then Islamic authorities for imposing a doctrinaire form of Islam on the masses.  He suggested that we all should practice the true Islam of the time of the Prophet Muhammad which was both rational and divinely inspired.

Jalal al-Din al-Afghani


The very first printing press was under the monastery of St Anthony of Kozhaya in Lebanon and dates back to 1610 in the Middle East. The publication printed Arabic books with Syraic letters.  Muhammad Ali Pasha’s government was the first to bring printing press in Egypt. This was a form of modern and reformist media for the Egyptian population. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram dates back from 1875, and/or between 1870 and 1900. Beirut alone saw the founding of about 40 periodicals and 15 newspapers.


The renaissance had a major impact on how the governing bodies ruled in that time period. For the first time in the Ottoman era a constitution was introduced and was called a crowning achievement for the Tanzimat reform movement. The reason for the formation of this constitution was based on the fact that the Ottoman wanted to bring back the Empire to power and level with western powers. This constitution was developed using European methods of governing. The Sultan of the time rejected this constitution but nevertheless it had symbolic and a vast political importance.

The concept of a parliamentary system was introduced and accepted among the then Ottoman ruled provinces in the Middle East. This created a political class within these provinces. It also gave rise to liberal nationalist elite which gave emergence to Egyptian nationalism. Egyptian nationalism was non Arab and focused mainly on ethnic Egyptian identity to give response to European colonization and Turkish occupation of Egypt.

Sources: The University of Taxes, College of Liberal arts

This article was written by Soniya Shah Noor