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“To Risk Stirring the Hearts”: Negotiating Ottomanism through the Popularization of Islamic History
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Cairo-based Ottoman historian and man of letters Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) received countless letters from scholars and laypeople across the Muslim world. They warned the prominent founder of al-Hilal against writing Islamic history within the narrative form of the modern Arabic novel. Zaydan, coming from a Syrian Orthodox working-class background and committed to social and political equality of Ottoman religious and ethnic communities, argued that it was impossible for him to abandon either “Islamic” history or the novel form. Instead, he continued to write a total of 22 novels that were enthusiastically translated by his readership into multiple languages, and which he promoted as works of history under the title “The Islamic History Series.” Contemporary debates around Zaydan’s work were not isolated, but rather an integral part of Arabic intellectual discourses on who could write and make claims over the historical record. Dialogue between supportive and critical readers engaging with Zaydan’s project highlight the uniqueness of his intervention in shaping the Islamic past towards socio-political change in the Ottoman present. Zaydan’s rich and contentious works of historical fiction, and the public debates surrounding their production, provide a glimpse into the intellectual, social, and political struggle for reform that shaped his generation. Further, his novels shed new light on the nahda, whose popular productions have often been ignored in favor of “high” literature and scholarship. This paper examines how Zaydan’s project of rendering Islamic history and its classical and medieval texts within a fictionalized narrative form challenged the normalization of history as part of modern Islamic sciences and negotiated a non-sectarian reformist vision grounded in Ottomanism. The paper situates Zaydan’s novels and the public debates they ignited within the broader context of Egyptian and Syrian Ottoman anxieties over shifting communal boundaries and belonging.
Geographic Area
Islamic World
Ottoman Empire
The Levant
Sub Area