Modernism in the Middle East and Arab World By Tagharobi, Kaveh; Zarei, Ali

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO14-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 22 June 2024, from


Exploring modernity and its intellectual trends in the Middle East is a very fitting endeavour, as ‘Middle East’ itself is a ‘modern’ term which has only become common since the early twentieth century. The fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and its partitioning into Turkey and the new Arab countries was a key moment in the evolution of the region known as the Middle East. The emergence of new nation-states and their encounter with the modern West led to other influential political and cultural events, which in turn contributed to the experience of modernity and modernism. These experiences differ from country to country; however, we can give a brief account of modernity and modernism in this region by breaking it down into the Arab-speaking world, including Egypt, Iraq, Bilad Al-Sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) and Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) on one hand; and Iran and Turkey on the other. Modernism in the Middle East corresponds to three main intellectual currents in which a will to change was manifest among thinkers, activists, and artists. The first movements toward reform started in the nineteenth century and culminated with the introduction of constitutions and parliaments into the Persian, Arab, and Ottoman monarchies. The second current of modernism was concerned with what can be called ‘nativism’. This period saw Middle Eastern intellectuals looking for native sources of progress and success, as opposed to the first period, which was characterized by a fascination with the West. In the third intellectual current, a strong desire for development opens the way for more liberal values, causing fundamental shifts in the political sphere. In this period, academics try to analyze their societies with the modern critical tools they have borrowed from Western disciplines. While aesthetic modernism flourished in these three periods, the intellectual experience of modernity has faced problems. Facing modernity at a time of decline, the rapid rhythm of the events in the last 100 years, and the colonial presence of the West have complicated the politically unstable Middle East, making the transition into modernity a rough path.

Three Waves of Modernity

The first period is characterised by constitutionalism, parliamentarism, literary experimentation, and a call to transform traditional ways of thinking and living. The first attempts made by Middle Eastern thinkers, activists, and artists to bring about change were made in the mid to late nineteenth century. During this time, Arab, Ottoman, and Persian intellectuals began attending to the outside world, visiting Europe, translating Western literature, and learning about Western scientific and technological advancements. Many started to ask about the reasons behind the West’s success and their own countries’ underdevelopment. This is a period of constitutionalism when intellectuals in Egypt, Persia, and Turkey/Ottoman Empire, captivated by the Western values of democracy and enlightenment, tried to modernize their societies by promoting development, progress, and liberal values. Constitutionalism in Persia, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire was a turning-point leading to the diverse aspects of modernization in the following decades. Liberal landowners and merchants, military commanders, European-educated intellectuals, journalists, literary figures, and proletarian activists all helped introduce constitutionalism into Middle Eastern monarchies, although later on they split into separate groups with their own goals and plans.

Ironically, it was the existence of Westerners in the Middle East that triggered the will to change in the region. The Western presence in the Middle East started for economic reasons as a consequence of industrialization and the need for natural resources, and led to Western cultural and political domination in the region. The West was present in the Middle East through ambassadors, missionaries, travellers and, more prominently, European colonial projects. Direct contact with Western modernity encouraged some Middle Eastern leaders to adopt modern socio-political structures. Becoming aware of the developments in the West, Middle Eastern intellectuals tried to revolutionize their own cultural, social, and political situation. Learning about the new sciences and reforming political structures became significant. During this period, the centuries-old Ottoman Empire experienced some structural and conceptual change through a series of reforms called Tanzimât (1839) that led to The First Constitutional Era (1867). Influential in these changes were literary figures and intellectuals – most notably a secret society called The Young Ottomans (established in 1865) who were familiar with European thought and saw the old concepts and structures both in politics and the arts as insufficient for the needs of the modern world. Around the same time, Persian intellectuals like Mirza Malkam Khan and Fathali Akhundzadeh became outspoken critics of monarchy. In Egypt, while scholars like Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti and Rifa’a al-Tahtawi laid the intellectual foundations of the Arab renaissance, Mohammad Ali Pasha started a series of economic and cultural reforms partly due to his relationship with the West and partly under the influence of the landowners, politicians, and intellectuals who aimed at limiting his power. Ali and his successors wanted to establish a modern state according to the European model, and to do so, the Egyptian military, bureaucracy, culture, society, and politics had to be modernized. In the early nineteenth century, Ali sent the first cohort of Egyptian students to Europe, a decision almost simultaneously taken in Iran.

Literature was closely connected with social and political modernization in the nineteenth-century Middle East. Most of the influential figures in modern political and social structures were also concerned with revolutionizing the deeply rooted traditional forms of literature. Amir Kabir, Persia’s Sadr-e a’zam (prime minister) (1848–51), considered by some to be one of Iran’s leading modernizers, thought of conventional Persian poetry as ‘detrimental to “progress” and “modernization” in Iranian society, which he believed was in dire need of change’ (Ghanoonparvar 1998: 291). Middle Eastern literary figures started to adopt the new forms and structures they saw in Western literature. New genres such as the novel and drama emerged for the first time, and the long tradition of poetry, which had kept its conventions for over 14 centuries, met new themes and subjects, entering the realm of social and political issues, as opposed to the more personal and mystical poetry that was dominant before. The Persian, Arabic, and Turkish languages experienced new possibilities, as new diction and structures emerged. This was also a time when the West paid attention to Persian literature. Translations of classical Persian poetry were introduced to the Western audience by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Edward FitzGerald, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Matthew Arnold. It is also the high age of Orientalism. Through their study of Middle Eastern literature and history, Western scholars influenced Middle Eastern intellectuals’ consciousness of their position in history.

Despite the timely response of literature to the call for change, the modern literature in the constitutional period did not reach significant depth and maturity in most cases. The novel in particular, as the modern epic and a middle-class genre, was warmly welcomed by Middle Eastern writers; however, it is not easy to find nineteenth-century novels that are masterpieces. In Iran, constitutionalists like Akhundzadeh and Abdul’Rahim Talibov attempted to write modern plays and novels, but it took a century before these new forms were fully understood by Iranian writers. In Turkey, while Tevfik Fikret founded the modern school of Turkish poetry, Turkish poetry only freed itself from the conventions of Ottoman literature in the mid twentieth century. During the first round of change in the Middle East, modern literary forms were primarily seen as a way of supporting social and political reform, while their aesthetic dimensions were secondary.

Since the attempts to break the thick ice of tradition and lack of social and political consciousness in this period are among the first of their kind, they only managed to scratch the surface rather than making fundamental and meaningful breakthroughs. Translating Western philosophical works was, for example, one way to broaden the horizons of Middle Eastern thinkers. The first philosophical text to be translated into Persian was Descartes’ Discourse on Method in 1900 with the support of Arthur de Gobineau. Despite its influence on modern Iranian philosophy, this essay was not fully understood at the time, due to the epistemological differences between the old and modern paradigms (Tabatabai 2013: 96–7). Unsurprisingly, the theoretical and critical dimensions of modernity were not deeply understood. Both the Persian constitutionalists and Arabs after their own cultural renaissance (Al-Nahda) were mesmerized with the surface structures of the Western life and society, importing modern political terms and technology as their first priority. But they were looking at the modern world through a different paradigm that had drifted far from critical and analytical traditions through the centuries. As a result, it could not follow the path of the modern Western subject in fundamentally questioning the world, making them unable to be as effective in forming analytical and critical discourses in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The main feature of the Middle East’s second phase of intellectual modernization was an emphasis on domestic sources of thought and development under leftist influences, when the will to change was manifesting through nativism. This period culminated after the Second World War and gradually lost its velocity in the last decades of the twentieth century. As Boroujerdi (1996) notes, during this time Western colonialism was met with nativism throughout the Third World. No longer attracted by the novelty of Western technology and development, nativists reacted against capitalism along three lines: nationalism, Marxism, and Islam. During this period, there were nativist groups and organizations with various combinations of religious, nationalistic, and leftist values.

While nativist intellectuals believed in reliance on domestic capacities for modernization, they often had different resources in mind. Some, like Sayyid Qutb, the leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, believed that Muslims could find everything they needed in Islam and saw European imperialism as the main cause of modern Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ‘ignorance,’ or according to Bruce Lawrence’s Marxist analogy, ‘false consciousness’ [2005: 16 n. 3]). Other Islamic nativists believed that modern thought, such as democracy, agreed with Islam. In Iran, organizations such as The Freedom Movement and figures such as Mehdi Bazargan, the Islamic Republic’s first prime minister (February 1979– November 1979), believed in modernizing Iran while keeping Islamic values, and advocated developing the liberal and democratic aspects of Islamic thought.

Nationalism was also influential in Middle Eastern modern thought. Nationalists played an important role in the Arab countries seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Countries such as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt tried to distance themselves from the Ottomans by emphasizing their Arab roots and the close relationship between Islam and Arabic culture and history. This sometimes allied the Islamists and nationalists, who were usually opposed to each other. Moreover, there were left and liberal inclinations among both the Islamists and nationalists. Among the most notable liberal nationalists was the National Front of Iran, founded by Mohammad Mossadegh, while the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria was an example of leftist-flavoured nationalism.

While modern art remained superficial in the first period, new attempts to engage modernism started in the Middle East after the Second World War. The artists of this period were not simply artists, but rather avant-garde intellectuals who saw themselves as social, cultural, and political commentators, playing an absolutely essential role in both artistic and socio-political modernization. The artist-intellectuals of this period also managed to create serious modernist art. Nima Yooshij revolutionized the long tradition of Persian poetry by writing in a new style, later known as sher-e-no (‘The New Poetry’), and Sadegh Hedayat excelled in the modernist short story and fiction, genres that were new to Persian literature. Modernist experimentation with Arabic poetry started with figures such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, culminating in the Syrian modernist poet Adunis, and Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz was among the first Arab writers, along with Tawfiq el-Hakim, to attempt the new genres of novel and drama. Mahmoud Darwish gave modern Arabic poetry strong social and political dimensions, as he devoted a whole literary career to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkish literature also experienced radical changes after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and rise of the Republic of Turkey in 1922. Before that, and during the first period, Turkish constitutionalists and nationalists, influenced by the Young Turks, had called for a literature that was free from the Perso-Arabic-dominated Ottoman literature. Nationalists also wanted a ‘national’ literature, and millî edebiyyât (National Literature) soon replaced the long tradition of Ottoman literature. After 1922, in the era identified with Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, even more changes took place as writers of Republican Literature revolutionized Turkish literature. Nazim Hikmet, an economics and sociology student in post-revolutionary Moscow, studied modern Russian poetry and introduced free verse into Turkish literature.

Although Iranian, Arab, and Turkish intellectuals had not yet faced the philosophical principles of modernity, they could still relate to its European articulations at the level of art and literary imagination. If the first generation of Middle Eastern modernists imported these new genres along with their socio-political reforms, the modernist artists of the second period formed a deeper critical understanding of the new situation by seriously engaging with its literary and artistic aspects. Furthermore, Leftist movements and organizations became centres for dialogue and promotion of modern literary works, in turn consolidating these authors’ intellectual self-image. In Iran, many notable writers and poets of this period, such as Ahmad Shamloo and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, had Leftist inclinations, taking figures such as French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre as role models.

The gradual settlement of the revolutionary drive in the final decades of the twentieth century and the failure of the Arab nationalist and Islamist programmes mark the beginning of the third period in the Middle East’s process of intellectual modernity. This period, which is still ongoing, is characterized by an attempt for a deeper critical engagement on the intellectual level and changes in the socio-political domain due to the appearance of a new world order. However, like the last two periods, fundamental problems are in the way of the Middle East’s modernization.

In line with global movements, in this period, development becomes a keyword for most Middle Eastern social and political leaders. Dispensing with their leftist inclinations, these leaders understand the urge to join the global community in economic development. This is inevitably accompanied by a turn toward the political right, and some of the ideological movements of the second period see the path to their development in having a relationship with the West. The intellectual support behind such inclinations has been figures with a combination of national and Western tendencies. In Egypt, President Sadat, once a follower of the leftist Gamal Abdel Nasser, radically changed when he decided to negotiate with Israel and open the doors to private investment through an economic programme called Infitah (openness). In Turkey, the liberal market economy has been among the priorities of Islamic parties since the 2000s. Iran, transformed in the 1980s from the West’s ally under the progressive Shah to a revolutionary country at war, was the last to join the right-influenced campaign of development with a group of Western-educated technocrats in the 1990s.

In this period, the intellectuals’ critical analysis of their cultural, social, and political situation comes before their activism, a completely new phenomenon in the Middle East. Although the institutionalizing qualities of the development era turn intellectuals into academicians, the scope of modern thought expands in this period. While second-period intellectuals were mostly concerned with Marxist and anti-colonial thought, the academics of this late period have paid attention to fields as diverse as sociology, political science, philosophy, and history. This was particularly influenced by the establishment of modern academic departments according to the model of Western universities. This last wave of intellectuals see the path toward change in analyzing their own societies through modern critical disciplines and by adopting a historical perspective towards their contemporary issues. In the Arab world, the likes of Mohammed Abed al-Jabri and Mohammed Arkoun (the Maghreb), Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (Syria), Nasr Abu Zayd (Egypt), and Hisham Sharabi (Palestine) are among those who have critiqued their historical, social, and political situations, using tools borrowed from Western philosophers, leftist sociologists, or postmodern thinkers. In Iran, Dariush Shayegan and Javad Tabatabai have tried to reach a deeper level in theorizing Iranian history and culture by maintaining a critical outlook – free from ideological, ethnic, or religious bias – on Iran’s intellectual and cultural heritage. Moreover, religious intellectuals, such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Mojtahed Shabestari, have tried to present updated interpretations of Islam in accordance with the modern world.

However, despite about 100 years of modern thought, the third period’s intellectual trends have not yet reached full development. Sharabi believes that the modern critical approaches, despite their engagement with fundamental issues, still have not reached the level of creativity, and the Arab world is still awaiting its ‘real’ modern philosopher, sociologist, or theoretist (1988: 120–1). The situation in Iran is similar. While modernist artists and writers have played an important role in forming Iranians’ historical self-consciousness, efforts in critical theory and academic social and political analysis have not kept the same pace and vigour. In general, critical thought in the Middle East is still in its infancy and has a long way to go, particularly because of the complications in the region’s troubled history.

The Shock Of Modernity

The experience of modernity in the Middle East – both structurally and conceptually – is complicated and a source of confusion. The Middle East encountered European modernity at a time when Europe had realized an evolutionary path from the Renaissance. In the nineteenth century, the West had experienced the Enlightenment, and had even criticized it through the work of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche. The Middle East, on the other hand, was thrown into a developed experience of modernity while its nations were still struggling with issues like illiteracy, dictatorship, and underdevelopment. This disparity has made the Middle East’s transition to modernity extremely complicated and problematic.

The Middle East’s complicated experience of modernity can be traced in three main problems. The first is a state of oblivion and disconnection from its own history. The Middle East is the heir to some of the great civilizations of the past (Mesopotamia, Byzantine Empire, Persia, and Egypt), and the birthplace of Abrahamic religions. Islamic Civilization in its Golden Age, between the eighth and twelfth centuries, saw the appearance of great scholars such as Farabi, Al-Biruni, Alhazen, Avicenna, Averroes, and Ibn Arabi. Despite such a glorious background at the time of the European Middle Ages, the Middle East spent the centuries after the Western Renaissance in a state of intellectual stagnation. Encountering the modern world at the time of its decline, the Middle East faced many challenges in introducing modernity into its societies. Middle Eastern thinkers’ intellectual resources had lost their dynamism by the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. The clergy dominated the cultural and intellectual domains, and they generally were suspicious of modernity, although their ideas in this regard varied. While some of the first-period reformers such as Tahtawi and Ayatollah Naeini were religious figures, later, religious groups – whether radical Islamists (Sayyid Qutb, the Jihadists) or moderates (Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and The Freedom Movement of Iran, both advocates of Islamic Liberalism and Modernism) – became more conservative toward modernity.

The second problem is the rapid pace of events in the last century. In Iran, The Persian Constitutional Revolution, The Nationalization of Oil Movement, the 1979 Revolution, and the 1997 Reforms all happened in about 100 years. The same is true of Iraq, where independence from the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and the Kingdom era, the Republic era with Saddam Hussein, the Iran–Iraq War, and the US invasion of 2003 all happened during the same time span. Lack of social and political stability, coupled with the repression of critique has hindered analysis of the situation. Philosophy and critical thinking are possible with freedom of thought and political stability provided by modern governments; with the social and political turmoil in the Middle East, there has been little room for the deep critical thinking that makes the transition into modernity possible.

The third problem facing modernization in the Middle East is Western colonialism. Europe was not under the dominance of other powers during its Renaissance and early modernity. The Middle East, on the other hand, was thrown into the experience of modernity under the constant presence and threat of superpowers: France, Italy, and Spain’s presence in the Maghreb; Imperial Russia’s interventions in the Ottoman Empire; and the British occupation of Egypt and their ongoing struggles with Russia over Persia and Central Asia, all consolidated the Western presence in a declining Middle East. Moreover, the state of Israel, located in the geographical Middle East, has worked as a proxy for the West in the last few decades, complicating the relationship between the Middle Eastern countries and the West. Between the struggles for independence from Western powers and increasing domestic social and economic problems, Middle Eastern politicians and intellectuals have been left with few resources to manage a smooth transition into modernity, and though many have remained true to their nations’ interests, many others have quickly abandoned those interests under the influence of oil-driven politics. Sharabi (1988) explains how these tensions have eventually led Middle Eastern societies toward a state of neo-patriarchy, a situation whose instability erupted in the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. When the shadow of war and insecurity is over the Middle Eastern nations, it is only natural that the intellectual and theoretical modernity becomes a problematic process.

A Long Way Ahead

Even though the intellectual trends of modernity in the Middle East started their trajectories a long time ago, the region’s eventful history and disturbed present have caused deviations in those trajectories, producing a radically different experience of modernity from that of Europe. The intellectual background of the Middle East has also played a role in these deviations, but political forces, particularly the rapid pace of events and European colonial projects, are the primary causes. Literary modernism, on the other hand, has proven to be highly adaptable for Middle Eastern intellectuals. Perhaps in the long process of modernization still ahead in this part of the world, literature and the arts can play a positive role by continuing to pioneer change, exactly as they have done so for the last 100 years.


1 Israel is not included, as most of its cultural, social, and political structures are more similar to those of the West, rather than the Middle East.

2 Iran was internationally known as Persia, until in 1935 Reza Shah asked foreign delegates to use the term ‘Iran’. In the text, we have used the term ‘Persia/Persian’ whenever specifically referring to Iran before that date.

3 For the economic reasons behind the West’s presence in the Middle East, see Hunter.

4 For more information on The Freedom Movement of Iran and Islamic Liberalism in Iran, see Taghavi.

5 For more on the Justice and Development Party and Islamic Liberalism in Turkey, see Axiarlis.

Further Reading

  • Axiarlis, E. (2014) Political Islam and the Secular State in Turkey. Democracy, Reform and the Justice and Development Party, London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Boroujerdi, M. (1996) Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

  • Ghanoonparvar, M.R. (1998) Rev. of Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran by A. Karimi-Hakkak, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 118.2: 291–2.

  • Hunter, F. (1998) ‘Egypt under the successors of Muhammad Ali’, in M.W. Daly (ed.) The Cambridge History of Egypt, vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Lawrence B. (ed.) (2005) Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, New York: Verso.

  • Sharabi, H. (1988) Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society, New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Tabatabai, J. (2013) ta’moli darbare Iran: maktab Tabriz va mabani tajaddodkhahi, Tehran: Minooye Kherad.

  • Taghavi, S.M.A. (2005) The Flourishing of Islamic Reformism in Iran: Political Islamic Groups in Iran (1941–61), London: Routledge.

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Citing this article:

Tagharobi, Kaveh and Ali Zarei. Modernism in the Middle East and Arab World. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/accommodating-an-unexpected-guest.

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