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University of Balamand > News > Archive > Jirji Zaidan: A Centennial Commemoration

Jirji Zaidan: A Centennial Commemoration

On May 15-17, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences organized a conference commemorating  the centennial of the death of the celebrated Lebanese writer Jerji Zaidan(1861-1914), entitled “Al Nahda and its Current Implications.”

Jirji Zaydan was a prolific novelist, journalist, editor and teacher, most noted for his creation of the influential 19th century journal al-Hilal, in which he used to serialize his 23 historical novels.  The conference brought together scholars and researchers from all over the Arab World 

Welcoming the crowd on opening day, Vice President Georges  Nahas said that Jerji Zaidan lived in a period “that has left its mark on the history of the region and that the title of the conference reflected that fact.” The renaissance in thought represented by Zaidan, said Dr. Nahas, “is beyond the language he used or his literary contributions,” and should be valued independently of any current implications.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Georges Dorlian told the audience that “the renaissance of the Arab World was the focal concern of Al Nahda intellectuals, including Jerji Zaidan.” The understanding of those intellectuals “was that ‘Arabism’ should be an open, inclusive, enlightened, and progressive cultural identity revolving around a common language.”

Later, unfortunately, argued Dr. Dorlian, Arabism was transformed into a political ideology that rather than being enriched by the common legacies of culture and language, was increasingly identified as an ethnic and religious identity, closed unto itself and unwelcoming of diversity.   
In turn, Charbel Dagher, chairperson of the Department of Arab Language and Literature, said that examining the writings of Jerji Zaidan one hundred years of his death provided an opportunity to look at his work with the benefit of hindsight. Dr. Dagher added that, contrary to the high ideals of Zaidan, what we face today in the Arab World is violence rather than dialogue, control instead of coexistence, distrust instead of cooperation. 

In turn, Jaber Asfour , former Egyptian minister, described Zaidan as “a man of the enlightenment” who was seeking to develop Arab civilization, although in no way was he a revolutionary in the likes of Adib Ishak, or Farah Antoun. Zaidan preferred reform to revolution, said Asfour. Zaidan chose to contribute to the Arab Islamic civilization, a civilization that he looked at as a “bowl that contains all Arabs.” However, unfortunately, “this bowl has disintegrated.”
Another participant, Ambassador Khaled Ziade argued that the legacy of Jerji Zaidan continues to inspire today’s generations,  adding that the Al Nahda period may have ended but the reformist approach developed by Zaidan, Al Afghani, and Mohammad Abdo continues to influence today’s thinking.
Balamand’s Professor Mahmoud Haddad argued that in the early 19th century there was an interaction between roughly two main trends among intellectuals: an Islamist fundamentalist trend that tried to preserve Arab-Islamic identity and call for liberation from colonialism, and a secular trend whose adherents tried to uncritically emulate Europe and preserve Arab, but not Islamic identity.

The West further aggravated the conflict between these two trends because it failed to take note of the distinction between them. The West, said Dr. Haddad, doesn’t differentiate between moderate Islam and extremists. “The West hates Islam as a religion, but thinks that fundamentalism befits the Arab and Muslim worlds. It, in fact, encourages the fundamentalist movements ( within these borders) and likes to portray all Arabs and Moslems as extremists,” he said.
One prerequisite to reforming the Arab-Islamic world, a world in state of weakness and deterioration, exacerbated by the domination of European colonialism and a fundamentalist wave inconsistent with the progress offered by modern science, argued Dr. Haddad, is the re-conceptualization of secularism. Secularism must not mean de-Islamization. Rather, he said, there “should be an attempt to study Islam & Muslim societies to understand them in their socio-economic settings before trying to change or confront them.”

Mohammad Chafihi,  the current editor in chief of Al Hilal , praised Jerji Zaidan, the founder of Al Hilal magazine, and thanked the University of Balamand for organizing the conference and for promoting “a much needed cultural dialogue.”

The proceedings of the conference will be published by the University of Balamand.
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