In Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, Abdelfattah Kilito describes the predominance of the trope of fundamental differentiation in nineteenth century Arabic literature, which functions on the horizontal axis of comparison. Kilito ascribes this reliance on the horizontal axis of comparison to European dominance. This paper heeds Kilito’s description and traces how the concept of tamaddun (civilization) was deployed in the nineteenth century as a means of differentiating and approximating (cultural) value. I read tamaddun as a conceptual term that reflects the ascendency of the value form and the corresponding anxiety of finding commensurability between varying genres of social existence, while also accounting for notions of the universal and the particular. As a concept, Tamaddun, I argue, allows Nahda intellectuals to think through the problems of (in)commensurability and (un)translatability by providing world models and world pictures that corresponded to the emerging logic of capitalism.
I look at two iterations of tamaddun, one from Khalil al-Khuri and the other from Faraḥ Antūn and investigate how each author’s respective understandings of tamaddun produces two different forms of communities, one based on communal closure, the other on universal openness. I closely read select articles from al-Khūrī’s Hadiqat al-Akhbar (Garden of News) and Antun’s Al-Jāmiʿah (The Community) to account for the different understandings of tamaddun between the two authors, and investigate how these differing understandings of tamaddun reflect the expansion of capitalism and imperial consolidation by the turn of the century. By pondering these questions, I also demonstrate how tamaddun must be considered as a keyword in the study of capitalism and modernity in the Arab World.