Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950.

Author:Varisco, Daniel Martin
Position::Book review

Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950. By Marwa Elshakry. Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 439. $45.

No scientist has had a more profound and contentious impact on the modern world than Charles Darwin, whose writing on evolution has made him a global icon--a hero for biologists, an apostate for creationists. In her meticulously documented study of the reception of Darwinian evolution in Arabic, Marwa Elshakry traces the genealogy of his admirers and detractors from the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. The first translation of parts of Darwin's work into Arabic was made in 1876 by Ya'qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr. who were Syrian Christians with ties to the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. It appeared in their journal, al-Muqtataf which was a major conduit for European scientific ideas. The journal had a circulation of perhaps only 500 subscribers maximum between 1876 and 1885, after which it was moved to Cairo; however, the translation introduced what were to become the standard Arabic terms for "evolution" (tatawwur), "struggle for life" (tanazuc al-baqa'), and Darwinism {darwiniyya). The first six chapters of Darwin's On the Origin of Species were only fully translated in 1918, by Isma'il Mazhar; four more chapters were added in 1928, but the complete translation was not published until 1964.

Commentaries on Darwin were available before his work in translation. One of the earliest was the Syrian Christian Shibli Shumayyil's 1884 translation of the 1869 French translation of Ludwig Buchner's Sechs Vorlesungen uber die Darwin 'sche Theorie von der Verwandlung derArten und die erste Entstehung der Organismenwelt. From the start, most Arab Christian and Muslim authors assumed that Darwin was a materialist, but there was a spirited debate. In her nuanced overview Elshakry notes that Darwin himself was ambiguous in this respect: he "captured and captivated the world--not by ridding it of the forces of enchantment, of faith, or even of God, but by revitalizing traditions of belief and reenchanting them" (p. 7). An example is the Syrian Husayn al-Jisr's argument in 1888 that evolution could be compatible with creation as presented in the Quran. Ironically, the inspiration for al-Jisr's harmonization was Isaac Taylor, an English cleric, who argued that evolution could be reconciled with the Christian faith. Indeed, it was through a--largely Protestant--Christian lens that Muslims encountered Darwin.


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