Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria

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Deanna Ferree Womack
Alternative Stories
  • Edinburgh, Scotland: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , April
     2019.
     424 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474436717.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria, Deanna Ferree Womack presents the results of her dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary (ix). It appears in the prestigious series Alternative Histories: Narratives from the Middles East and Mediterranean with Edinburgh University Press. The series explores the narratives (or “alternative histories”) of minority and marginalized communities and individuals in the Near and Middle East and Mediterranean. Womack’s book is the first volume in the series to focus specifically on Syria (ii). Unlike previous studies, Womack takes 1860 as a point of departure, when the Protestant community was tossed into chaos by a civil war that undermined the fabric of Ottoman Syria; in the following decades, women survivors sought to resurrect the Syrian Evangelical Church, giving rise to what later became known as the era of Nahda, an “Arab awakening,” “the liberal age” of Arabic thought or an “Arabic print revolution” (1).

According to Womack, “Beirut became a hub for the Nahda,” and its transformation from a provincial town into a city over the course of the 19th century provides the backdrop for her study (2). Womack’s account concludes in 1915 when the war efforts shifted missionary attention to humanitarian relief (3). She divides her account into five chapters focusing on the Evangelical awakening (chapter 1), Protestant print culture in Late Ottoman Syria (chapter 2), Evangelical women and the Arab Renaissance (chapter 3), the Beirut Church Controversy (chapter 4), and Syrian women and their efforts at building the Protestant Church in Syria (chapter 5).

American missionary activities in Syria had begun in 1819, and by 1870 the Americans had become an enduring presence (3). Against traditional accounts of missions, Womack focuses on the agency of local Christians and other non-Western residents, especially women (4). She summarizes her approach succinctly on the first pages of the book (4-5). The author seeks to address several tendencies in Middle Eastern studies, including the trend to focus on male figures in mission history and on foreign missionaries rather than local agents, and the general tendency of neglecting Christianity as a subject. Womack believes that scholarship is still preoccupied with revising Abdul Latif Tibawi’s American Interests in Syria (Clarendon Press, 1966), the standard work on the America Syria Mission for the late 19th century (5).

Womack’s work is innovative in that its focus, unlike previous scholarship on these missions, is directed at the period from 1860 to 1915. With this approach, she avoids the pitfalls of a unilateral perspective and the false dichotomies of East and West. She lays the groundwork for further nuanced transregional comparisons of Middle Eastern Protestant women’s histories (6) and demonstrates the importance of faith and belief as much as institutions and intellectuals (9).

Her decision to use “evangelical” and “Protestant” interchangeably may be puzzling for some readers, especially outside the US. By contrast, she is more precise when it comes to the structure of the Syrian Christian communities before the Protestant missions. The largest of these are the “Maronite Catholic (liturgically Syriac), Greek Orthodox (liturgically Greek) and Malkite (a liturgically Greek Catholic tradition)” (13). Future research will need to relate the complex history of these denominations of faith with the Protestant missionaries that sought their salvation.

In the first chapter on the “evangelical awakening,” Womack describes the basis of conversion, pointing out that “in Nahda Studies, the term ‘Christian’ usually marks an Arab intellectual’s social demographic” (26). Womack is well aware of her role as a Protestant scholar at a theological seminary (331-32), and her efforts to make Arabic texts accessible to non-Arabic speakers through her own translations is commendable. But the greatest strength of this volume is the care with which the author addresses and analyzes the intersections of faith, belief, ethnicity, demography, liturgy, patriotism, socioeconomic issues, and local and missionary history. She draws upon archival history and periodical studies and engages in an intense dialogue with previous scholarship, touching upon topics as diverse as the doctrine of freedom in the Reformed tradition (29), Protestant identity and independent agency (60-62), education and child-rearing (160-81), women’s sermons (181-89), and discourses of Syrian masculinity (222-29). Womack rightly points to the millenialist imaginations of New England Protestants, for whom the conversion of Jews in Palestine has been of eminent concern since early modern times (35). While this is an important chapter in the history of missions, her work also demonstrates a theological continuity in New England Protestantism.

This thorough and well-written study points the way to a new field of research. Its central chapters each include a helpful conclusion summarizing the most important findings (122-23; 189-91; 258). The volume is made even more useful by the lists of figures, abbreviations, useful glossary of Arabic terms and five appendices on Syrian-Protestant genealogies, American missionary families, founding members of the Evangelical Independent Church of Beirut, a statistical comparison between those Womack calls biblewomen of the British and American Missions, and a list of publications by Syrian women (339-363; 394-406). Its bibliography—divided into libraries and archival sources, Arabic journals, English periodicals and reports, and primary and secondary sources—may serve as a useful survey of the most recent literature in the field. It underscores how this study contributes not only to the study of religion, but also to the history of periodicals (362-93). This book should be included in every library on the Middle East and read by everyone interested in the history of Christianity, modernity, publishing and print culture, Bible translation and history, and especially the history of (Protestant) missions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
October 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Deanna Ferree Womack is Assistant Professor of History of Religions and Multifaith Relations at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

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