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Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples

July 31, 2011

In some circles it’s fashionable to lump all of Islam into one threatening block. Following the massacre of dozens of Norwegians at the hands of an evil Christian fanatic who held such views, it is even more fashionable to strive to say the opposite: Islam is great, though there is a minority of crazy Muslims, and if we could we’d convince everyone that what makes them crazies isn’t their religion.

Anyone who reads history and accepts the messiness of the human condition knows that both extreme positions are nonsense. I recently finished reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples: With a New Afterword (I read the 1991 version, so can’t say what’s in the new Afterward). I warmly recommend if, like me, you accept that the Arab and Muslim role in the world is very important while admitting to not knowing much about it. Hourani manages to pack a multi-faceted history of an entire civilization into about 450 pages.

The story can be summed up in a single sentence I once saw in a Bernhard Lewis book (quoted from memory) about how Islam has served for ages as a source of comfort hope and resilience for myriads of people. Hourani demonstrates this by being relentlessly upbeat about his material. Early nomadic Arab society produced sophisticated poetry. Early Islam produced legal structures for the dispensation of justice. Then it encouraged mystical movements which responded to deep emotional needs. Soon after it established a gigantic empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean it fractured into separate political formations of varying degrees of autonomy but continued to offer a unified civilization which enabled trade and the exchange of cultural ferment. It produced philosophers, historians, poets and ever more developed systems of jurisprudence. It tied backward rural areas to developed urban ones in ways which benefited all.

A large section of the book deals with the Ottoman Empire, which between the 16th and the 18th centuries ruled over most of the Arabs; at the end of the 18th century European powers began eroding Ottoman powers and sphere of control, until finally at the end of WWI nothing was left of it and Britain and France controlled most of the Arab world – for a few short decades.

Hourani is always respectful, his tone is calm, and he’s very erudite. Even his depictions of the antagonists of the Arabs are measured and reasonable; I could find a point or two to quibble with him over his depiction of Zionism, but what for. If half of Israel’s Western critics were half as fair as he is it would be a much better world. If half of the West’s chattering classes accepted half of his respect for all parties it would also be a better world.

Yet eventually the insistence on being so upbeat does cast a shadow of doubt over the story. Most jarring is the lack of violence. History has always been violent, and even the peaceful times and areas mostly got to be like that because violence removed enemies and warded off potential sources of disturbance. The transformations Hourani describes were often violent, and maintaining the peace included harsh measures inside and tumult on or beyond the borders. He never says otherwise, of course, he simply skips these parts of the story.

His treatment of the 20th century Arab world is problematic. It’s fine that he wishes to be upbeat, that he respects the people and societies he’s describing and wishes to portray them with empathy and optimism. This really is fine, and is a useful antidote to much of the ignorant verbiage about the Arabs which regularly inundates the Western media since 9/11 at the latest, and to a lesser extent since the latter part of the 20th century. Yet he gets carried away. Since 2002 the United Nations Development Program has been publishing a series of devastating reports about the lives of the Arabs, and how their political and cultural conditions are robbing them of the benefits healthy modern societies can offer their citizens. There is nothing significant in the final chapters of Hourani’s book that will explain how this came to pass. He accepts at face value the Nasarist claim that the Arabs are part of the Non-Aligned World. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union The Economist once quipped that the Non-Aligned had lost the power with which they had been non-aligned). He has nothing significant to say on the absence of democracy throughout the Arab World.

And of course, he never remotely hints at the virulent Jew hatred which seems to have such a strong hold on the minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims, including, probably, most Arabs. Since he never hints at it, he has no need to explain it.

Still, given the breadth of his tale and the fairness and aplomb with which he tells it, I’d recommend the book without hesitating. No book can do total justice to its subject, and once the reader recognizes the weakness of this one, it’s a valuable and enriching volume. You’ll know a lot more about the subject after having read it than you did before – and that’s quite an achievement.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2011 8:35 pm

    Have you read “The Strong Horse” by Lee Smith? Michael Totten recommended it.

    • July 31, 2011 9:59 pm

      It’s on my list, I know Lee Smith, and he’s a serious fellow, but I don’t think his is the first place to start. Hourani offers a more basic overview; Lee’s book is specific.

  2. Sabasarge permalink
    September 3, 2011 10:46 pm

    “Most jarring is the lack of violence.”

    Yaacov, I’m a big fan of yours, but here we will agree to disagree. Ant history of Arabs/Muslims that leaves out the violence is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
    Keep up the good work,
    Shimon

    • Sabasarge permalink
      September 3, 2011 10:47 pm

      Sorry…that should be “any”, rather than ant

  3. Old Curmudgeon permalink
    September 28, 2011 2:23 pm

    There is a tendency to identify with one’s subject. This is a common problem.

  4. T34 permalink
    September 29, 2011 2:05 pm

    I would recommend that a newcomer to the topic read “The Middle East : 2000 years of history from the rise of Christianity to the present day” by Bernard Lewis first. The books are different enough that reading both is beneficial, but I found Lewis much easier to follow.

    Yaacov, good luck if you finally get around to reading the book on Qutb. I sent it back to the library after getting about halfway through. The author is reliant on Qutb’s own account for much of the biography and treats everything that is plausible in Qutb’s account as true. Also having read quite a few books on Stalin, Vyshinsky, Beria and Hitler, I’m cool to the idea that a biographer needs to have ‘empathy’ for his subject. There are a few interesting points in it and perhaps after I’ve read some more modern Egyptian history I’ll take it out again, but I just found it a miserable book.

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