Darwin in Arabia


From The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century

From The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century

For the Times Literary Review, Robert Irwin writes:  The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918.

Marwa Elshakry
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (Hardback) (and Kindle Edition at Amazon) 448pp. University of Chicago Press. $45.978 0 226 00130 2

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new 9780226001302twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

[Robert Irwin is the author of “Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights” (Studies in the Arcadian Library) and “Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, mystics and the sixties” both available at Amazon]

[The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (The Works of Charles Darwin)]

Theories about evolution had circulated widely in Britain and France from the late eighteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century the work of Georges Cuvier on the reconstruction of creatures from fossil remains and of Charles Lyell on the geological evidence for the great age of the world and its slow transformation had prepared the ground for consideration of Darwinism.

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