Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bustani’s Arabic Encyclopaedia Lacked Teamwork

Bustani’s Arabic Encyclopaedia
Iraqis visit a bookstore during the opening of the International Book Fair in Baghdad on February 07, 2019. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

Relying on individual genius makes no difference

1876 was the year in which the idea of publishing the Arab Encyclopaedia was born. During the Nahda movement, Butrus al-Bustani worked on this project with financial support provided by Khedive Ismail, the pasha of Egypt.

In its introduction, Al-Bustani described the encyclopaedia as “a general dictionary of geographic, historical, scientific, industrial, political and literary knowledge. It contains everything that the soul aspires to and obviates its holders the need for a large library.”

Like most of the individual Arab accomplishments whose owners rely on their genius for accomplishing them, the Encyclopaedia has not been able to obtain a progressive change. Such a thing occurred due to many factors. The lack of collective action among the Arabs is the most influential factor. Individualism is not specific to Al-Bustani alone. Instead, it is a feature that he shares with a large group of Arab geniuses. The list of similar people includes Ibn Rushd, whose critical approach ceased when he passed away. Another one is Ibn Khaldun, whose theory of human ekistics died with his death. Likewise, the list includes all Arab theorists who cling to their genius and do not value collective action that alone guarantees the continuity of the public project.

The absence of a plan before producing this encyclopaedia raises questions. Choosing the term “knowledge” indicates a desire to expand but neglects the intended direction. Such a thing returned the project cognitively to the discretion of its owner and his choice of knowledge that he deems necessary without relying on a work team or a specific methodological plan in which others participate. This is what made the encyclopaedia move towards the retrospective dimension of definition since its owner delivered through translation existing information available in foreign references. About this, Charbel Dagher says in “Al Ketab wa Al Ofoq” that the encyclopaedia “to a large extent is nothing more than an Arabization of foreign materials.”

On the other hand, the literary essence prevailed in the encyclopaedia because it was inherent to the personality of the one who wrote it. From the beginning, and was bound unintentionally to the mentality prevailing in its era. In that era, literati mean intellectual and intellectual means literati.

Likewise, as a renaissance project, it was under the control of the authority. Moreover, it did not take refuge under a collective roof that guards the idea of a qualitative change in thinking, planning, and implementation approaches and desires a substantial strategic change of knowledge. Such a thing might be attributed to being financed by one political entity, Khedive Ismail. The funding allowed Al-Bustani to cover the costs of the first five parts, so the renaissance of his project was far from politics. Therefore, he did not call for total change but remained in the stage of the cultural renaissance with no mandatory implications.

The absence of a plan or collective action has many negative effects, including that the encyclopaedia is devoid of non-literary knowledge, except in an objectionable and definitive form. Besides, Al-Bustani did not deal with sciences and crafts in a way that indicates a desire to transfer them to the Arab mind. Instead, he summarized information related to these fields. He delivered it as a literato, not as a mathematician, physicist or chemist, which allowed those unfamiliar with these sciences to get acquainted with them primarily, not functionally and practically. Based on that, the literary culture has remained on its tyranny. The lack of desire to move from the literary feeling and expression in dealing with the totality of knowledge and voluntary remaining bound to the intellectual heritage kept thought where it was; that is, in its traditionalism and conservatism.

Therefore, Al-Bustani did not want to use research teams to help him in providing in-depth specialized material, contenting himself to do his best in translation and transmission. He did not believe in collectivism but confined his faith to himself and his genius. So, after his death, the encyclopaedia remained in the family. It moved to his biological children due to not forming a team to complete the project after him. Therefore, the project remained individual, cast in a traditional literary mentality, open to global knowledge, but not to its experimental and practical aspects. The renaissance project cast in this classical mould could not objectively, either by Al-Bustani or other geniuses of the Arab Nahda, cause a qualitative breakthrough like those created by different encyclopaedias, which were collectively and systematically produced.

With self-determination and perseverance to achieve his renaissance project, Al-Bustani was finally able to reach some of his goals from the encyclopaedia. His concerns revolved around simplifying knowledge and generalizing it and combating ignorance. He also wanted to raise the status of the Arabic language and keep pace with the era in its cultural production. His third concern was bridging the intellectual gap between Arabs and the Western world. Had it not been for his continuous efforts, the encyclopaedia would not have found its way to light. He wrote all the articles quoting from his readings of articles published in foreign languages because his main concern was to “spare the ordinary reader the acquisition of a large number of books as a condition for entry into global and modern knowledge.” It is safe to say that Al-Bustani succeeded in these endeavours.


Maatouk F., 2015, the French Encyclopedia Intellectuals and the Arab Encyclopedia Intellectual, NO.13, Volume 4th, Tabayyun for intellectual ad cultural studies, Duha, Qatar (Arabic).

Dagher S., 1998, Al Kitab wa Al Ofuq (Arabic) Liberal Preludes to Modernity, American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon.


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