Jens Hanssen | Nietzsche and the 20th-century Arab Intellectual Tradition (précis)

By Jens Hanssen

“Übrigens ist mir alles verhasst, was mich bloss belehrt, ohne meine Tätigkeit zu vermehren oder unmittelbar zu beleben.”[1]

This is the opening line of Frederick Nietzsche’s “Of the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Of all the quotable Nietzsche, and this sentence is not even his own – he lifts it from his beloved Goethe – this quote perhaps best encapsulates the potential attraction of Nietzsche’s work for 20th century Arab intellectuals across the ideological spectrum: Farah Antun’s and Sadik al-‘Azm’s critiques of religious thought, Salama Musa’s Fabian Social Darwinism, ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad’s Sensualism, ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi’s pre-Sartrian Existentialism and Edward Said’s radical philology.

In a report to British intelligence during World War II, the future doyen of modern Middle East Studies in Britain, Albert Hourani, offered these remarkable observations on intellectual life in the Arab world:

In recent years, there have been signs of a wider view replacing the old. It can be found, for example, in the popularity of Dostoievski [sic] among the young intellectuals, who find themselves depicted in his possessed and divided characters; or again in the new interest in the German thought of the nineteenth century, and especially in Nietzsche. Then again, there is a growing realization that the Arabs will not understand Europe until they have come to terms with Greece. Thus in Egypt Taha Hussayn is advocating the teaching of Greek in secondary schools; in Palestine too an attempt is being made to introduce the study of the classics in government schools. At the same time, the centre of interest is being moved from the sphere of literature to that of thought. Both in Egypt and in Syria it is possible to see the beginnings of serious philosophical movements. For example, a young Egyptian philosopher, Abdur-Rahman Badawi, has recently begun to publish a series of works on the great European thinkers which are having a very big sale among the general public.[2]

Against the backdrop of Hourani’s assessment, my research explores two aspects and modes of analysis of the place of Nietzsche in modern Arab thought: first (and briefly) how some of Nietzsche’s works may help conceptualize the particular transformations that the Middle East underwent during the four decades before World War I, and how his understanding of Islam shaped his critique of Germans, and Christianity (drawing on my “The Middle East at the fin de siècle listed in the bibliography); and secondly, based on a preliminary survey of which Arab thinkers and debates invoked Nietzsche’s work, when, and with what purpose; what do  invocations of Nietzsche tell us about the transformation of the 20th-century Arab intellectual tradition?

Frederick Nietzsche’s was a crucial intervention in challenging the established temporal mantras of German historicism of his day[3]: progress, nationalism, and scientific inquiry. But like most, Nietzsche had trouble thinking across the Orientalist East-West divide, although at least he tried to destabilize the still pervasive truth claims about essentialist alterity and and the geographical distribution of cultural superiority and inferiority. As we will see, the first Arab thinkers who picked up Nietzsche’s ideas struggled with the spatial dimension of colonial culture, too. Closely related to this difficulty is the way in which 20th century Arab thought is hamstrung by censorship in the West, especially by Zionism and in the Middle East itself, in particular by Islamism, not to mention Christianist liberals Charles Malik. Confessing to the influence of Nietzsche (as did some of the Free Officers in Egypt) ‘proves’ Arab anti-Semitism to the former, and apostasy to the latter (see, e.g. the court case against Sadik al-‘Azm’s Critique of Religious Thought, 1969). Thus, the conservative political historian Elie Kedourie could see in Kant, Fichte and Hegel—indeed, the entire history of philosophical idealism—the roots of both Nazism and Nasserism.[4] Finally, what work does the Global Nietzsche do for us? What happens when it travels across the colonial divide? Nietzsche’s work also finds itself at the center – if in the shadows – of the ongoing debate between postcolonialism and Marxism, theory and praxis, discourse analysis and materialism. This Nietzsche/Marx problem space is similar to the opposing conceptions that, as David Scott has argued, are represented by the figures of Fanon and Foucault:

If Fanon is the revolutionary architect par excellence of anticolonial liberation, Foucault is the paradigmatic agon of settled fictions and normalized modes of identity and community. If Fanon’s is a demand for an immediate resolution of the normative question of political community, Foucault’s is a demand for an indefinite deferral of any such resolution in order to gain space – to buy time – for the work of ethicality.[5]

This talk builds on two colleagues, Fadi Bardawil and Samer Frangie, who have recently begun to explore the broader incommensurability between postcolonial thinkers in the metropole and leftists in the soi-disant Arab periphery. At the heart of the “broken conversation” between the two differently located problem-spaces lies the question of what constitutes a radical critique of Western imperialism – colonial discourse analysis of regimes of truth, or a materialist approach that is forced to confront directly the brute force of global capitalism and militarism, and their local manifestations, sectarianism, racism, patriarchy and inequality.[6]


[1] “Moreover, I have contempt for everything that merely educates me, without enhancing my activity or instantaneously/intuitively enlivening/invigotating me.” Friedrich Nietzsche, „Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben [1874], 95; in his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1981 [1873-6]).

[2] Albert Hourani, “Great Britain and Arab nationalism,” PRO, FO141/14281, July 1943, p. 69-70. On Hourani’s wartime work for the British government and postwar work for Arab Palestine, see Jens Hanssen, “Albert’s World: Historicism, Liberal Imperialism and the Struggle for Palestine (1936-1948),” in Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age, eds. J. Hanssen and M. Weiss, (New York: CUP, 2016), 62-92.

[3] Georg Iggers, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995), 129-152.

[4] Kedourie (1960; 1995).

[5] Scott (1999: 200). Another instructive example of such incomensurability between generations of one and the same tradition was when impatient students stormed the aging Adorno’s office during the ‘68 revolt brandishing his own earlier radical writing to legitimate their insurrectionary action only for Adorno to call the police and charge them with “leftwing fascism.”

[6] Fadi Bardawil, “When All This Revolution Melts Into Air: The Disenchantment of Levantine Marxist Intellectuals” (Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 2010); Samer Frangie, “Theorizing From the Periphery: The Intellectual Project of Mahdi Amil,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 44 (2012), 465-82; ibid, “On the Broken Conversation between Postcolonialism and Intellectuals in the Periphery,” Studies in Social and Political Thought, 19 (2011), 41-54.