The Premodern History of "Civilisation" in Arabic: Rifā'a al-Tahtāwī and his Medieval Sources

Wael Abu-'Uksa*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


From the 1820s onwards, "progress"and "civilisation"gained extensive use in Arabic and evolved as comprehensive concepts. "Progress"conveyed the power of development and "civilisation"referred to the aspired-to future. The key use of "civilisation"was to establish a new form of legitimacy used to justify new institutional practices, values, and customs. Using Rifā'a al-Tahtāwī's early theorisation of "civilisation"in the late 1820s as its starting point, this article tracks how medieval Arabic conceptions of the term influenced his theory, while also elaborating on the course and transformation of "civilisation"over time. The article traces the prehistory of the modern concept by mapping the semantics of words such as tamaddun, 'umrān, tahaddur, and tamassur, all of which characterise different aspects of civilisation. It examines the sources al-Tahtāwī drew on in constructing his conception of civilisation and problematises the idea that it is a notion wholly imported from France. The article's diachronic analysis of "civilisation"uncovers its antecedents as represented in al-Tahtāwī's works, which intertwine the classical Greek, Hellenist, Arab, and modern European traditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)389-418
Number of pages30
JournalDie Welt des Islams
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:


  • al-Tahtāwī
  • Arab modernity
  • Arab philosophy
  • Islamic civilisation
  • nahda
  • tamaddun


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