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Muḥammad Naṣīf (1885-1971) and the Revival of Philology as an Intellectual Craft in Early Twentieth Century Hijaz
The history of the modern Arabic editor, or muḥaqqiq, has recently emerged as a key lens for the study of Modern Arab Intellectual History. This new perspective foregrounds Arabic philologists, manuscript collectors, librarians, and editors -- i.e., those who did not author original monographs -- rather than the poets, journalists, and novelists which have traditionally been associated with studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century “Arabic Nahḍa.” The Nahḍa also involved an Islamic revival and reform movement centered on “rediscovering the classics” of medieval writings on Islamic law and the Hadith sciences (El Shamsy 2020). The exhuming and mass-printing of these Islamic texts (including, most controversially, Ibn Taymiyya) had major implications for religious affairs across the Muslim world, leading to a dramatic upsurge of textualist and “originalist” interpretations of Islamic law, known as Salafism. This paper identifies and situates the role of Muḥammad Naṣīf, a Saudi intellectual who pioneered both the Nahḍa literary revival and the Salafist turn. The paper traces his correspondence with three key interlocutors across the Arab world: (1) Father Anastās Marī al-Karmalī, the Baghdad-based Christian priest who published the Arabic philology journal Lughat al-ʿArab; (2) Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, the famous Islamic modernist based in Cairo; and (3) Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb, the radical anti-Shīʿī cleric and Arab Nationalist publisher of Al-Fatḥ. Naṣīf was a Jeddah-based librarian and philologist who developed a Salafi-Wahhabi religious outlook borne out of his philological passion for “classical” Arabic texts. He hailed from an Ottoman notable Aʿyān family which followed the Shāfiʿī school of jurisprudence and had long supported Sherifian rule in the Hijaz. However, throughout the 1910s, he experienced a personal spiritual conversion and became inclined towards Wahhabism. In his letters to al-Karmalī, Riḍā, and al-Khaṭīb, he describes his growing emotional and spiritual turn towards Wahhabism, driven by local study circles and intensive nightly readings of al-Ṭabarī. By the early 1920s, he had become an unreconstructed Wahhabist, and he was instrumental in the gathering, editing, and publishing of Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. By December 1925, when the Saudis invaded the Hijaz and took control of Jeddah, he had fully “switched sides,” and began serving as a senior advisor to the Saudis. If we take him seriously, which values drove his conversion?
Geographic Area
Arabian Peninsula
Ottoman Empire
Saudi Arabia
Sub Area