What makes someone a Nahḍawī? Must a person have lived and breathed the Arab project of cultural and political modernity, or is it enough to have lived in the nineteenth-century to earn the moniker?
This paper explores the attributes of a Nahḍawī through a case study of Ibrāhīm al-Najjār (1822–1864), a forgotten physician from Mt. Lebanon who was rooted in the Ottoman political and military arena and actively participated in Nahḍa-era events in Beirut. I argue that Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey, as he was known, was an Ottoman Nahḍawī who believed that his cultural and scientific contribution improved civil society and supported the state-sponsored program of modernity, i.e., the Tanzimat (1839–1876). This research draws primarily on his autobiographical-cum-ethnological monograph Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qāriʾ (Traveler’s Light, Reader’s Delight, 1855–1858), as well as newspaper clippings, church records, and Catholic missionary reports.
Living life on his own terms, Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey confounds conventional approaches to categorization. Intellectually, he was a man of science, educated at the top Ottoman medical institutions in Cairo and Istanbul. Politically, he was faithful to the Sultan and served as his chief physician at the Ottoman Military Hospital in Beirut. Locally, al-Najjār enhanced the cultural infrastructure of his city where he presided at the predominantly Catholic al-Jamʿiyya al-Sharqiyya (the Oriental Society, est. 1849) and established an independent printing press. Religiously, he was ambivalent, leaving Catholicism to adopt Protestantism and then leaving Protestantism to embrace something that the archives do not divulge. It seems that al-Najjār was like his peers, such as Buṭrus al-Bustānī (1819–1883) and Khalīl al-Khūrī (1836–1907), who navigated complex matrices of loyalties and affinities (Zachs 2011; Arsan 2021).
Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey epitomizes the nineteenth-century Ottoman man of science, becoming a “proper” and “loyal” man of the state. (Yalçinkaya 2014). He operationalized his immoveable belief in logic and reason to serve the Sultan and perceived no contradiction in supporting imperial projects, in addition to engaging in the cultural and intellectual ventures transpiring in Beirut. He ascribed a positive mutual effect between activities in the periphery and plans drawn up in the metropole. Functioning confidently in both spaces, al-Najjār presents himself as both an Ottoman and a Nahḍawī.