That era was marked by the emergence of a distinct scientific magazine, Al- Muqtataf. The magazine came to light thanks to the joint initiative of Yaacoub Sarrouf and Fares Nemer, in cooperation with Chahine Makarios from the Evangelical Syrian College, which turned into the American University of Beirut in 1920. The first issue came out in May 1876. It cast light on the sciences and industries of the time, thus portraying the scientific and intellectual propensity to reform and civilize the Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire in particular. Unsurprisingly, the Evangelical Syrian College was a nonpareil intellectual platform at the time, where Yaacoub Sarrouf and Fares Nemer had the privilege to learn Arabic sciences from iconic figures like Sheikh Nassif El-Yaziji, Sheikh Youssef El-Assir and Cornelius Van Dyke who enriched the Arabic libraries with their various publications and translations.
Adding illustrations to facilitate the communication of the content was a pioneering step taken by Al-Muqtataf during that time and our primary purpose here is to unveil the openness of the Arab intellectuals to the sciences in Europe and their skill in finding the proper Arabic renderings of scientific terminology that had not existed before. Al-Muqtataf covered various topics including the solar system, silk reeling and silkworms, types and species of plants, news of the Syrian astronomical and meteorological observatory, etc. It also dedicated a column to the insights and questions and answers of readers. However, the attention of Yaacoub Sarrouf and Fares Nemer was focused mainly on matters related to the evolution of humans, as they were among the first in the Arab world to broach the Darwinian Theory and the rotation of the earth. Yaacoub and Nemr also explored the need to modernize Arabic and transform it from a poetic and prosaic language to a new one that accommodates the lexicon and aspirations of the century, not to mention their call for a curriculum comprising modern sciences and for compulsory education for girls equal to boys, without delving into political and religious matters or abandonment of their Arab and oriental identity.
With the rise of political pressures and publishing constraints, the magazine was compelled to continue its awakening journey in Egypt, where it became a reference for historic events and scientific knowledge.
The question raised in this context tackles the correlation between the scientific awakening in the Arab world and the concept of reform, political reform in particular, and whether it is possible to witness any political revolution without prior and groundbreaking intellectual uprisings that lay the grounds for it. The question seems pressing after researchers have conceded that the Arab countries have been floundering since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, especially nowadays with the spread of the “Arab Spring”. The real reform starts with the scale of social values and principles rather than politics.
The subjects featured in Al-Muqtataf were too advanced for their time and introduced the eastern mind to pioneering and revolutionizing ideas including the exigency of female education and the administrative, agricultural and industrial reform, which strengthens the pillars of the state. The magazine championed human rights and hailed the respect of values like justice, liberty and equality, which were inspired from the French Revolution. The separation of state and religion ranked high on Al-Muqtataf’s agenda, as it believed that national, not religious belonging unites people and only a real democracy can eliminate discrimination and guarantee equality in rights and duties. These values contributed to developing the structure and hierarchy of governance, in order to form a power that comes from the people. All this attests once again to the role of this magazine in the Arab intellectual revolt and its persistence, despite the opposition it encountered at certain stages, in budging the Arab thought from its stagnation and giving impetus for the exploration of practical sciences, in the wake of the Ottoman tanzimat. Al- Muqtataf strived to educate and elevate Arab men and therefore advance the nation in the hope of reaching democracy.
Are the subjects raised by Al-Muqtataf over 120 years ago still standing today? How can we possibly call the movements erupting nowadays revolutions, at a time when they are fomenting archaic instead of reformative notions? How could there be a change in a world with fewer liberties and more restrictions? In an era of the one-party, one-thought and one-pole, have revolutions become a means to reach autocracy and stamp out the freedom of expression and the different other? What is the point of uprisings and change if no room is left for diversity?