The Social Imaginary of Culture/Civilization in the Arabic Literary Tradition

Stephan, Johannes (2014). The Social Imaginary of Culture/Civilization in the Arabic Literary Tradition (Unpublished). In: Working with A Secular Age. Interdisciplinary Reflections on Charles Taylor’s Conception of the Secular. University of Bern. 07.03.2014.

Charles Taylor’s contribution to social imaginaries offers an interpretive framework for better understanding modernity as secularity. One of its main aspects is conceiving of human society in linear, homogenous time (secular time). Looking into the Arabic intellectual tradition, I will argue in my paper that Taylor’s framework can help us understand major social and intellectual transformations. The Ottoman and Arabic modernization process during the 19th century has often been understood by focusing on certain core concepts. One of these is tamaddun, usually translated as “civilization.” I will be mostly talking about the works of two “pioneers” of Arab modernity (which is traditionally referred to as an-nahḍa, the so-called Arab Renaissance): the Syrian Fransīs Marrāsh and the Egyptian Rifāʿa aṭ-Ṭahṭāwī. First I will focus on Marrāsh’s didactic novel “The Forest of Truth” (1865), as it offers a complex view of tamaddun, which has sometimes been construed as merely a social and political reform program. The category of "social imaginary,” however, is useful in grasping the wider semantic scope of this concept, which is reading it as a signifier for human history conceived of in secular time, as Taylor defines it. This conceptualization of human history functioning within the immanent frame can also be observed in the introduction to “The Extraction of Pure Gold in the Description of Paris” (1834), a systematic account of a travel experience in France that was written by the other “pioneer,” aṭ-Ṭahṭāwī. Finally, in translating tamaddun as “the modern social imaginary of civilization/culture,” the talk aims to consider this imaginary as a major factor in the emergence of the “secular age.” Furthermore, it suggests the importance of studying (quasi-) literary texts, such as historiographical, geographical, and self-narratives in the Arabic literary tradition, in order to further elaborate continuities and ruptures in social imaginaries.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

Graduate School:

Graduate School of the Humanities (GSH)

UniBE Contributor:

Stephan, Johannes


200 Religion > 210 Philosophy & theory of religion
200 Religion > 290 Other religions
400 Language > 490 Other languages
800 Literature, rhetoric & criticism > 890 Other literatures
900 History > 940 History of Europe
900 History > 990 History of other areas




Johannes Stephan

Date Deposited:

10 Sep 2014 09:55

Last Modified:

15 Feb 2018 19:35


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