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A Philip Leverhulme Prize for a New history of Arab Political Thought

Andrew Arsan, Senior Lecturer

Image for Arsan piece of Butrus al Bustani
A fresco portrait of the Syrian literati Butrus al-Bustani, one of the key figures of early Arab political and social thought
I can still recall the exact moment I found out I’d been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize. There I was, going through my emails while cradling the phone to my ear, on hold, of all things, with HMRC on a wet, dreary October afternoon, when a message from the Leverhulme Trust sailed into my inbox. My heart skipped a beat, I swallowed hard, and I clicked on the message, assuming it could only be a routine note of rejection, full of polite phrases of mild consolation. But no – as tinny Vivaldi played in my ear, I discovered to my amazement that I was wrong… It is now more than a year since that email, but I still cannot quite believe my luck: two years free of the usual responsibilities of academic life, to be given over entirely to research and writing. In a sense, it is a little like slipping back into life as a graduate student, when one had the time to work on a piece without feeling that it was just one more item on a crowded to-do list, to look at a subject from every angle, to follow up references, drawing proliferating tree diagrams in one’s mind of all the reading left to do, to think, in short, at a slower pace, with the leisure that is needed for good, clear reflection.


And the project I am working on, a new history of Arab political thought and intellectual culture from the 1860s to the 1920s, is one that will take time. These decades witnessed momentous change, from thoroughgoing reform of the Ottoman state to growing foreign encroachment, civil strife, revolution, war and, ultimately, the empire’s collapse in the wake of the First World War. These tumultuous times provoked much urgent reflection both within the empire and in centres of Arab diasporic life such as Paris, New York, and São Paulo, giving rise to what scholars often call the nahda, or Arab ‘awakening’, a remarkable burst of intellectual activity spanning the realms of political, social and economic thought, philosophy, poetry, literature, and history. The nahda has long fascinated historians. Most, however, persist in viewing it either as a proto-nationalist movement of cultural self-assertion, or a manifestation of middle-class interest. I argue, instead, that many thinkers of the time were primarily concerned with questions of empire. How, they wondered, could imperial cohesion be reconciled with diversity and particularity? And how could the Ottoman empire right the ship of state, reversing the inequalities that characterised its relations with Europe? These were the concerns that most preoccupied Arab political thinkers in these decades. To understand the origins of modern Arab political thought, then, we have to forget for a moment the later ascent of the nation-state, and think of it as a product of an age of empire. This, though, makes it no less relevant to our own times, when questions of sovereignty, representation and devolution, and of political and economic inequality, remain at the heart of political debate.