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arwa Elshrakry's Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 traces the spread of Darwinism in Ottoman Syria and Egypt, focusing on the ways in which writers, editors and translators adapted Darwinian ideas to the purposes and contexts of the Arabic-speaking world. Although the book's chronological scope extends to the middle of the twentieth century, the bulk of Elshakry's research focuses on developments in the middle and late nineteenth century, making the book of serious interest to historians of Victorian science, particularly its colonial and imperial aspects. However, the central thrust of Reading Darwin in Arabic is less the fortunes of Darwin and Darwinism in Arabic than the ways in which religious institutions, the spread of literacy, the development of science education, and an increasingly powerful periodical press combined to produce several similar but distinct strands of Darwinism in the Arabic-speaking world. Elshakry notes that her aim is not to compare translations of Darwin to their originals, but to explicate the different contexts of Darwin's reception on their own terms. Fundamentally, as Elshakry rightly points out, fulfillment of this aim requires understanding and attending to the activity underpinning "reception" — in short, reading — as comprising a diverse set of practices, each of which could be turned to equally diverse public and private ends:

Reading, of course, involves a variety of related actions: interpretation, explanation, appropriation, and omission, among others. It is at once a private and a highly public act. What gets read is moveable and transmissible. And yet it also involves and often helps to define specific communities, with distinct epistemic, didactic, and literary styles, often with their own linguistic and conceptual vocabularies. Rather than mining readings of Darwin in order to measure them against the original texts, this book explores the array of interpretations, inspirations, and intellectual metatexts that were generated and that encompassed social thought, political commentary, pedagogy, theology, and law [...] it emphasizes the creative tensions involved in the negotiation of meaning across languages and locales (5).

Elshakry opens her study with a portrait of the Lebanese writer and publisher, Faris Nimr (1856-1951), whose portfolio of publications eventually included the popular science monthly Al-Muqtataf as well as a daily newspaper and several other offerings. First published at the Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut), Al-Muqtataf in 1876 provided the first public forum for discussion of Darwin's ideas in the Arabic press. (4) In the pages of journals like Al-Muqtataf and its rival, Al-Tabib, which began publication in 1882, readers could find summaries of recent scientific findings which the editors published, often as spurs to local social, economic and scientific development. In Chapter 1, "The Gospel of Darwin," Elshakry shows how summaries of Darwin's ideas that appeared in the pages of publications like Al-Muqtataf became the focus of discussions among students and between members of local scientific and cultural societies; as these debates fed back, in the form of letters and additional articles, to the original publications, this circuit sustained a lively culture of intellectual exchange.

But if the debates were lively, they were also subject to religious and ideological pressures and constraints. Missionaries in Syria initially saw little contradiction between Christian religious faith and science. Indeed, exposure to science through the missions' university curriculum was considered uniquely important to the project of converting Muslims and others to Christianity. Using the Syrian Protestant College's approach to science education as an example, Elshakry explains:

[T]he curriculum at the Syrian Protestant College was intended to attract not only those local Christian sects among whom American missionaries had the far had some measure of success but also local Muslims and others who had so far remained aloof. Blaming stubborn Muslim feelings of 'pride in the superiority of their own religion,' James Dennis complained in 1872 of the difficulties American missionaries faced in converting them and suggested science as the way forward. 'They rarely attend our preaching, rarely visit us for religious conversation,' he wrote. 'But Mohammedanism, as a system is vulnerable through science [...] To an educated mind there are in it puerilities, absurdities, glaring inconsistencies.'" [Elshakry, 57]

Scientific education did, in fact, prove alluring, but not for the reasons Dennis imagined. At these mission schools, the progressive-minded students who so eagerly enrolled in biology and chemistry classes did not find Christian, or any other, faith at the bottoms of their petri dishes and Erlenmeyer flasks. Rather, these students often looked forward to using their knowledge to improve local social and economic conditions, setting religious concerns aside. Eventually, missionary leaders noticed the discrepancy between their curricular intentions and results, and those professing Darwinian ideas came under suspicion. Matters came to a dramatic head during the "Lewis Affair" of 1882, in which an American professor, Edwin Lewis, lost his position after reading a speech that was felt to be too sympathetic to Darwin's view of human origins. Al-Muqtataf published not only the speech but also the responses to it, both pro and con. More than a dozen students were suspended for protesting the administration's position, and the already-waning enthusiasm for science education rapidly gave way to a more conservative and religiously orthodox curriculum. (65-69)

Toward the end of 1884, Nimr left the now-chilly intellectual environment of Beirut for Cairo, where he hoped to establish, in cooperation with his colleagues Ya'qub Sarruf and Shahin Makarius, both also formerly of Syrian Protestant College, a new press that would flourish in a more cosmopolitan environment. It was a propitious move, as Cairo at this time boasted a rich print culture, in service of which a hundred and fifty printing presses churned out more than six hundred newspapers and periodicals between 1880 and 1908. Freed of their former dependency on institutional largesse, the editors of Al-Muqtataf had the challenge of finding new audiences for their scientific boosterism.

Darwin's ideas "provided not only a theory of origins but equally a set of powerful metaphors for political backwardness and a model for social analysis" (74-75). For Nimr and his partners,"science, rather than the state, was the key to social progression; nevertheless, they found that moving to Egypt opened up the possibility of an increasingly close engagement with political affairs. [...] Increasingly, they looked to European discourses on liberal political theory for ideals of separation of state and church, individualism, and free enterprise, even as the advancement of science continued to serve their particular hope for the Arabs' path to progress." (74) By 1892, Al-Muqtataf's production had increased six-fold, to about three thousand copies monthly. But, in keeping with the broadening of the editors' interests, from science to society, the journal's intellectual focus also shifted, and the scientist of the day was no longer Darwin he ceded his preeminent position in those pages to Herbert Spencer, "the great shaykh of the philosophers" as the editors styled him in an obituary (83), whose social theories attracted significant interest.

After telling the story of the rise of Al-Muqtataf, Elshakry leaves the rough-and-tumble of popular science in order to consider the reception of Darwinism among Arabic-speakers more broadly. Rather than looking merely at Darwin's texts in translation, the second half of the book traces a cluster of ideas related to Darwinian evolution — materialism, natural theology, and what Elshakry calls "evolutionary socialism" — through important Arabic publications and controversies, mainly in Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, through the middle of the twentieth century. In doing so, Elshakry relies more heavily on the analytical and methodological premises of intellectual history than she does in the book's first half. While intellectual historians will welcome the density of information here, Elshakry's propulsive narrative does slow through this part of the book. As the argument unfolds, Elshakry's anecdotal materials vie with her argument, rather than advancing it. For instance, her descriptions of Spencer's 1903 meeting with Muhammad 'Abduh, grand mufti of Egypt (161-64), and of the socialist Farah Antun's use of the novella as a vehicle for promoting his dangerously materialist ideas (219-24) are both terrific set pieces, but they are surrounded by such an abundance of social, institutional and intellectual history that it can be hard to identify and hold onto the role that these and other similarly short narratives play in the argument, apart from providing the reader with moments of relief from longer and denser chunks of intellectual, social and institutional history. All of this material is good and necessary, but more of it could have been safely relegated to footnotes or an appendix. This quibble aside, Elshakry imparts a great deal of useful information throughout the book and especially in this denser latter half, synthesizing important primary and secondary sources (many of them in Arabic) that will be new to historians and literary scholars accustomed to thinking about Darwin and his ideas in more familiar contexts.


Elshakry, Marwa. Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Last modified 9 July 2014