foundations of modern arab identity


Published in 2004, Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (access free here) is a pioneering study of the Arab Renaissance or al-Nahda, critically engaging the "intellectual struggles that ensued when Arab writers internalized Western ways of defining themselves and their societies a century and a half ago" (Journal of Arabic Literature).  Orit Bashkin states that "Sheehi’s work is an innovative and important contribution to the field of Arabic literature, Arab culture, and intellectual history" is noted for its "imaginative outlook on the ways in which we read the texts that make up the canon of the Arab nahda," otherwise known as the Arabic Renaissance.  "Sheehi's selection of texts," she adds, "is unique and original. Instead of focusing on either works in social thought or narrative prose, the book studies a variety of texts - pamphlets, newspaper articles, and philosophical tracts as well as maqamat, novels, and sketches - in an attempt to explicate new conversations and ideas, which were articulated in different genres and linguistic modes."  

Among the first of a wave of scholars to apply post-colonial and post-structural theory, most notably the theory of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Homi Bhabha, to modern Arab culture and Arabic literature, the book discusses major Arab intellectuals of the 19th century including Butrus al-Bustani, Salim al-Bustani, Jurji Zaydan, Farah Antun, Ahmad Faris Shidyaq, Nasif al-Yaziji, Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, Muhammad Abduh and others including Jamal ad-din al-Afghani.  


Reframing the conception of modern Arab identity from a confrontation between two undifferentiated cultures, the book closely reads "foundational" Arabic texts from turn of the century to demonstrate that the ideology and discourses of Arab subjectivity were internally formed within the Ottoman Empire at a time of radical transformations in governance and political economy. Sheehi locates the battle for "self" and "other" outside of the "colonial encounter" between Western colonizer and Eastern colonized. Instead, the dialectic between Self and Other transpired internally—epistemologically and discursively—on a plane of dynamic cultural and social formations within Ottoman Arab society and polity during the Tanzimat.


Sheehi proposes that the concept of cultural "failure" is inherent to the ways modern Arab intellectuals critically reorganized and redefined Arab subjectivity during modernity. Examining a host of varying sources including Arab fiction and commentary from the Arab Press, Sheehi maps out a "formula" for Arab reform during 19th and 20th century al-nahda, which predicates "progress and civilization" as "proleptic" teleological endpoints. Linguistically and semiotically structuring this formula was an axiomatic "nomenclature of reform" that was found in all Arab reform writing and thought despite the ideological, sectarian, political, or national position of the author. This commonality, Sheehi reveals, is due to that historical and political fact that all reform paradigms during the late Ottoman and Mandate periods arose from a fundamental epistemology of Arab modernity; a hybridized but still thorough modern form of modernity that Sheehi states was "autogenetic."


Foundations of Arab Identity

What Sheehi finds that the reformist self-diagnosis of "the inherent failure of Arab culture and "identity"  is not proof of the inability of the Arab world to enter into modernity but in fact is precisely a condition of it.[3]Hence, Foundations of Modern Arab Identity reveals that a "spectral European presence" is ever present in Arab modernity and its paradigms of Arab identity.

International Journal of Middle East Studies

"An innovative study that brings to our attention significant, but lesser known Arabic literature of the 19th Century."

Middle East Journal 

" An interesting and provocative study of the Arab nahda (renaissance). An innovative and important contribution to the field of Arabic literature, Arab culture, and intellectual history." 

William Granara

Stephen Sheehi’s Foundations of Modern Arab Identity is a bold project that reexamines the literary/cultural production which was part and parcel of the Arab Renaissance (al-nahda) of the later nineteenth and early twentieth entires…By challenging old assertions and asking a wide range of recently formulated questions that cut across the social sciences and humanities, he brings a higher level of critical sophistication and political daring to what was until recently the guarded academic turf of Orientalists and their Orientalist mimics.