Mining the Treasures of the Arab Past
Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, Revised Tenth Edition, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002.
Around the time of the first Gulf War, in 1991, the Arab historian Albert Hourani published what was to be his magnum opus, A History of the Arab Peoples, a comprehensive attempt to place Arab history in a modern framework. Hourani’s massive book was aimed at combating the stereotyped Orientalist version of Arab history by spending over half its 458 pages on the period that began with the Ottomanization of the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than focusing on the so-called Golden Age of Islam, the period beginning with the 7th century and ending roughly in the 13th century, Hourani focused a good deal of his attention on the achievements of the Ottoman period and the intensely difficult birth of the modern Arab world as we now know it.
In 1991, Hourani’s book was the sole English-language single-volume work in print that covered the entirety of Arab history, a history that was little known in the West. At the moment of the Gulf War, such a history found a huge market and the book remained on the best-seller lists for a formidable period of time.
While Albert Hourani’s book carved a niche for a new, post-colonial perspective on Arab history, Hitti’s book first published back in 1937 languished at the time unread and unavailable. Philip K. Hitti wrote, back before there were independent Arab states, back before there was a Zionist-Arab conflict, back before the politics of oil transformed the region and its relation to the West, back before there was “terrorism,” a massive tome that brilliantly framed the core genius of Arab civilization in ways that we are only now beginning to appreciate.
Hitti’s History of the Arabs was a work that had become a standard since its original publication in the interregnum between the two World Wars. Its publication history shows that it was reprinted continually every three to five years since 1937 until 1970. After 1970, a few years from the epochal 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states, the book vanished from sight not to be seen for another three decades. In that time frame, the culture and achievements of the Arabs took a back seat to a malignant post-colonial view of the Arabs as “sand-niggers” and decadent oil robber-barons who lived in an antiquated world of Medieval superstition and pre-Modern ignorance.
The attempt by Hourani and other historians to correct this impression was a valiant one, but ultimately served to obscure the overall patterning of Arab history as presented by Hitti decades earlier. Fearful of reasserting Hitti’s conviction that Arab culture had atrophied from the time of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt (completed approximately 1390) and the subsequent evisceration under the Ottoman sultanate, the new histories, most prominently that of Hourani, were careful to reassess the modern period, begun in the 15th century, and point out its fluidity and relevance to the setting of modern Western civilization.
Hitti’s book devotes less than 50 pages to the modern period and resoundingly ignores the subsequent capitulation to the Imperial powers. Instead, Hitti predicates his book on the idea of the interrelations between the Arabs and non-Arabs and sees the central successes and triumphs of the Arab world as being tied to a quest for synthesizing and translating the cultures of the ancient world. This theme of translation, creating a polyglot, multicultural civilization that was able to strengthen itself by carrying on a productive dialogue with the major civilizations of the pre-modern world, the remnants of the pagan and early monotheistic Middle East (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Phoenicia, the legacy of ancient Israel, ancient Greece and Rome, and the Persian dynasties), took the Arabians out of their original tribal isolation and placed them into a new and dynamic culture.
To this end, Hitti devotes close to 100 pages to an examination of the ancient Near East. By assessing the ancient Arabians against their Semitic neighbors, he provides a vibrant picture of the world that Islam inherited. According to Hitti, ancient Arabian life was modeled on the Bedouin type which inhered to blood ties and a sense of tribal exclusivity:
‘Asabiyah is the spirit of the clan. It implies boundless and unconditional loyalty to fellow clansmen and corresponds in general to patriotism of the passionate, chauvinistic type. “Be loyal to thy tribe,” sang a bard, “its claim upon its members is strong enough to make a husband give up his wife.” This ineradicable particularism in the clan, which is the individualism of a member of the clan magnified, assumes that the clan or tribe, as the case may be, is a unit by itself, self-sufficient and absolute, and regards every other clan or tribe as its legitimate victim and object of plunder and murder.
This concept of ‘Asabiyah, central to the thought of the master historian Ibn Khaldun, according to Hitti was never truly abandoned even in the period of the growth of Islam. This tension between the universal message of the Prophet and the intrinsic clannishness of the Arabian was never completely transcended in Hitti’s view.
But the tribal Bedouins of Arabia lived in a rapidly expanding world which developed science, technology and culture. From the massive industry of the Egyptians, the science of the Sumerians, the imperial progress of the Assyrians and Persians and the developing monotheism of Israel, the Arabians were faced with an expanding universe that had collided in many different and interesting ways. By and large, the ancient Arabians were acted upon by forces such as the Assyrians, Hebrews and Egyptians, rather than they themselves being the actors in the play of ancient Near Eastern culture.
Dynasties like the Sabeans, Himyarites and Nabateans populate the Arabian peninsula, but very little is known about them outside of references in Greek and other ancient texts. Hitti lays down this framework in the first 100 or so pages of the book, because it makes all the more dramatic the rise of Islam as heir to the diverse and rich cultures of the ancient Near East.
By the time of the Near Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great, the various states of the Near East, the Babylonian, Israelite, Phoenician, Egyptian, Persian and others, were swept up in the Hellenomania of the times. Greek ways of thinking and creating permeated the Middle East and changed the axis of civilization for centuries to come. But the Arabians had remained firmly outside the orbit of these changes and continued to stubbornly practice their former way of life, later to be called by Muslims the “Jahiliyyah,” the period of Ignorance. It was at this time, in the pre-Christian and first post-Christian centuries, that works of literature such as the Mu’allaqat, the ancient Arabian odes, were enshrined in what was an exclusive desert culture, hemmed in by its ancient codes and beliefs.
It is thus all the more striking to find the emergence of a cosmopolitan civilization with the birth of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad arrived in an Arabia bent on blood feuds and ancient hatreds rather than a love of humanity and a devotion to the one true God; a God who had, by Muhammad’s time, been filtered though Jewish revelation, Christian transformation and Greek ideation. It was to the calls of the ancient past that Muhammad heeded.
Framing his revelations within the Abrahamic paradigm, that of one man against an entire culture and historical framework, Muhammad, according to Hitti:
In his call and message the Arabian Muhammad was as truly prophetic as any of the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. God is one. He is all-powerful. He is the creator of the universe. There is judgment day. Splendid rewards in Paradise await those who carry out God’s commands, and terrible punishment in hell for those who disregard them. Such was the gist of his early message. Consecrated and fired by the new task which he felt called upon to perform as the messenger (rasul) of Allah, Muhammad now went among his own people teaching, preaching, delivering the new message. They laughed him to scorn. He turned nadhir (Koran 67:26, 51:50,51), warner, prophet of doom, seeking to effect his purpose by vivid and thrilling description of the joys of paradise and the terrors of hell, even threatening his hearers with immunent doom.
This call of Muhammad was the first opening to the West in ancient Arabia, the first of many openings in the vast march of Islam to translate into the Arabic language, that great pride of the Arabian poeteers and Bedouins, the vast legacy of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The key to Muhammad’s mission was the presentation of a Scripture dictated by God in the ancient tongue of Arabia. This Scripture, the Qur’an, was seen as a Divine miracle and the proof of the truth of Muhammad’s mission.
The word Qur’an itself means recitation, lecture, discourse. This book, a strong, living voice, is meant for oral recitation and should be heard in the original to be appreciated. No small measure of its force lies in its rhyme and rhetoric and in the cadence and sweep, which cannot be reproduced in translation without loss… Theology, jurisprudence and science being considered by Moslems as different aspects of one and the same thing, the Koran becomes the scientific manual, the text-book, for acquiring a liberal education… At the time of Muhammad there was no work of the first order in Arabic prose. The Koran was therefore the earliest, and has since ever remained the model, prose work…
Like the rabbinical synod which canonized the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, the publishing of the Qur’an served to create the community that would find in it the final word in truth, culture and history.
But from its very beginnings, the Muslim ummah found itself besieged and beleaguered. Muhammad and his supporters were expelled from their hometown of Makkah and exiled to a city called Yathrib (later, Medinah). Islam was born in violence and would have to make its way in a world that was quite intent on keeping to the old ways and not allowing the new revelations of the Prophet to enter and recreate Arabian culture.
Hence, Islam had to struggle to balance the worldly and other-worldly. With a devoted band of followers, Muhammad was able to defy the chieftans of Arabia and establish a Muslim dynasty on its soil.
In the first centuries which followed the rise of Islam, the followers of Muhammad were able to conquer, in very short order, the better part of the Middle East and North Africa. Against the failures of Judaism to manifest itself as a regional power, and in contrast to the divisive issues which faced Christianity in its rise to temporal and political power, Islam developed its spiritual aspect alongside a defined politics which sought to claim the territories of the ancient Near East in the name of its God and Prophet.
The crucial question henceforth would be how Islam would adapt to the cultures that it had conquered in the course of its stunning march across the ancient world – from India to Spain.
First, Islam began to expand its internal legislation in a manner that paralleled the way in which Judaism codified its Oral Law in the Mishnah and Talmud. While the Qur’an, like the Torah, proscribed certain religious Laws, the overall portrait was a bit scant to be turned into a fully-fledged legal system – the type of system which would have fit into the framework of Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy. Hence, Islamic theologians, the authoritative readers of the Holy Scriptures, began to develop what would be known as the Sunnah of the Prophet, the exemplary deeds and works of Muhammad. The collection of these Sunnah would be known as Hadith, a fully articulated set of precepts delineating the manner in which a good Muslim should live his or her life.
The study of the Koran and the necessity of expounding it gave rise to the twin sciences of philology and lexicography as well as to that most characteristically Moslem activity – the science of tradition (hadith, literally, “narrative”). In its technical sense a tradition is an act or saying attributed to the Prophet or to one of his Companions. The Koran and tradition provided the foundation upon which theology and fiqh (law), the obverse and reverse of sacred law, were raised.
Hand in hand with the consecration of the inner, spiritual life of the Muslim, went the growth of an insatiable curiosity to adopt and adapt the elements of science and civilization that had once fired the culture of the Near East during its Hellenistic epoch. According to Hitti, this civilization, by the time of the Umayyad period, the first era after the death of Muhammad, was in its death throes:
By the time of the Arab conquest of Western Asia, Greek science was no more a living force. It was rather a tradition in the hands of Greek- or Syriac-writing commentators and practitioners. The court doctors of the Umayyads belonged to this group. Outstanding among them were ibn-Uthal, the Christian physician of Mu’awiyah, and Tayadhuq, the evidently Greek physician of al-Hajjaj. Some of Tayadhuq’s aphorisms have been preserved, but none of the three or four books ascribed to him. A Jewish physician of Persian origin, Masarjawayh of al-Basrah, who flourished in the first days of Marwan ibn-al-Hakam, translated (683) into Arabic a Syriac treatise on medicine originally composed in Greek by a Christian priest in Alexandria, Ahrun by name, and was this responsible for the first scientific book in the language of Islam.
This citation expresses a pattern that will become foundational to Hitti’s understanding of the development of Islamic civilization: The ability of Muslims to bring together the genius of prior generations and have their wisdom and culture articulated in a new and evolutionary framework. The Greeks and Romans failed in bringing monotheism to their citizens. The Christians bore a great disdain for the inner workings of the political and the temporal, dissolving their universalism into a maelstrom of tortured and sometimes arid spiritualism and inner-theological polemics. The Jews, who were ambivalent, to say the least, regarding Greek science and culture, linking it to the pagan substrate of Hellenism, failed to conquer any significant portion of the Middle East and were left first as a client-state under the Persians and later were utterly defeated by the Romans, their state in tatters.
It was then left to Islam to carry the united banner of monotheism and civilization. Carrying the dual burden of proselytizing and conquering – the battle for heart and body – the first Muslims held onto the difficulties inherent in the imperial project when joined to a religious revolution.
The first caliphs, the successors to the Prophet, succeeded in transforming the intellectual and moral landscape of the Near East, which had heretofore merged the ancient paganism of its host cultures with the development of science, mathematics, literature – in short, all the rudiments of civilization. After the first wars of succession it was left to the Muslim leaders of the 7th and 8th centuries, the Umayyads and the Abbasid caliphs, to effect this synthesis.
They were helped in large part by the fairly disciplined ethic of the Qur’an which held that monotheistic minorities were to be held as “protected peoples”; thus creating the first ecumenical society in history, a society which held to principles rather than ethnos. This new conception of society, multi-ethnic in origin, permitted Islam to develop in new and creative ways the monotheism that had been stalled, at least in a political sense, with the destruction of the Jewish Temple many centuries earlier.
The Muslims were thus able to create a dynamic and fast-moving civilization while attempting to hold off the seemingly endless political infighting that was endemic to Islamic politics since the death of Muhammad. Without a clear proscription as to succession, two theories developed which would have an ultimately debilitating effect on the Muslim empire: There was the theory of non-tribal succession, where the outstanding leaders in the Muslim ummah would lead the nation, and then there was the tribal theory which held that only those related to Muhammad were able to lead.
Out of this political struggle came the Sunni and Shi’ite versions of Islam which started as different political theories but ended up as very complex theological divergences. The various wars of succession seemed to go hand in hand with the technological and cultural developments that we have already outlined. Islam continued its advances in both civilizational and imperial terms.
At the time of the Arab conquest of the Fertile Crescent the intellectual legacy of Greece was unquestionably the most precious treasure at hand. Hellenism consequently became the most vital of all foreign influences in Arab life. Edessa, the principal center of the Syrian Christians; Harran, the headquarters of the heathen Syrians who in and after the ninth century claimed to be Sabians; Antioch, one of the many Greek colonies; Alexandria, the meeting-place of Occidental and Oriental philosophy; and the numberless cloisters of Syria and Mesopotamia where not only ecclesiastical but scientific and philosophic studies were cultivated, all served as centers radiating Hellenistic stimuli.
While at the beginning of the Christian era there were a few scattered attempts made by Philo of Alexandria the Jewish philosopher and a few of the early Church Fathers to bring together Athens and Jerusalem, these efforts were defeated by the adoption of new orthodoxies in Judaism and Christianity. At the margins of these two religions, there were those who continued to labor at preserving these texts and ideas. It was to this margin that Islam turned.
Islamic civilization thenceforth became the arbiter of all science and culture in a period that saw Europe descend into a “Dark Age.” Arabic became a new lingua franca for intellectual expression and the aesthetics and literary forms of the Arabians, now transplanted in places as far away as Anatolia and Spain, began to take center stage.
What is so fascinating about this form of cultural expansion was that a distinctly new and quite strange phenomenon was taking place with the spread of Islam: On the one hand there was an almost-immediate capitulation to the new faith by the natives, and on the other hand there was an absorption of the skills and knowledge of the natives by the conquering Muslims.
As Hitti has already shown us, the ancient Arabians practiced a hermetic culture that was based on tribalism and xenophobia. Islam, an expansionist and evolutionary faith, was eager to adopt and adapt the good it could find in all cultures. Nowhere was this more evident than in the acquisition by the exiled Umayyad Abd-al-Rahman (sent into exile by the destruction of the seat of Umayyad power in Spain by the Abbasids, who built their capital in Baghdad – yet another jewel in the crown of Islam) of the Spanish peninsula in the name of Islam:
Moslem Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual of medieval Europe. Between the middle of the eighth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries, as we have noted before, the Arabic-speaking peoples were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilization throughout the world. Moreover they were the medium through which ancient science and philosophy were recovered, supplemented and transmitted in such a way as to make possible the renaissance of Western Europe. In all this, Arabic Spain had a large share.
It is at this time that the first stages of Islamic philosophy, that of the Mu’atazila, those who began to examine religion in light of rationalism, had metamorphosed into the scholastic school that culminated in the scholarship of the great Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and his Jewish peer Maimonides. It was in the crucible of al-Andalus, the Arabic name for Spain, that religion and science were brought together in definitive form.
Theologians from the three major religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, all came together in intellectual terms, debating and discussing issues of theology and science – particularly the ideas of Plato and Aristotle – and attempting to support the theological bases of their faith. These philosopher-theologians laid the foundation for the progress that was to take place in the 13th-15th centuries in Italy and elsewhere in Europe during the great Renaissance:
Last of the great Arabic-writing philosophers, ibn-Rushd produced no progeny in Islam. He belonged more to Christian Europe than to Moslem Asia or Africa. To the West he became “the commentator” as Aristotle was “the teacher.” Though using in most instances a Latin translation of a Hebrew rendition of an Arabic commentary of an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek original, the minds of the Christian schoolmen and scholars of medieval Europe were agitated by ibn-Rushd’s Aristotle as by no other author. From the end of the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century Averroism remained the dominant school of thought, and that in spite of the orthodox reaction it created first among the Talmudists and finally among the Christian clergy.
And herein lies the ultimate seeds of the Muslim degeneration in Hitti’s eyes. Coupled with the seemingly endless strife in the Islamic political leadership and the concomitant march of the West in the wake of the Crusades, an important and epochal turning point in the history of the Arab world and its civilization, the Islamic renaissance fell aground with internal discord and bickering. The exile of ibn-Rushd from Spain (as the family of Maimonides had been exiled previously) marked the end of an era of untrammeled progress and creativity in scientific terms.
A combination of intellectual lethargy and military exhaustion began to set into the Islamic revolution.
Taking their cues from the Muslims of an earlier age, the Europeans began to adopt and adapt in new and creative ways the body of knowledge that the Muslims has preserved and transmitted over the course of over five centuries. Europeans began to fund their own translations of Arabic works and assiduously study the canon that had been identified as Arabo-Islamic during the High Middle Ages:
In the process of transmitting the treasures of Arabic erudition into the West, Toledo, which maintained its position after the Christian conquest in 1085 as an important center of Islamic learning, acted as the main channel. Here through the initiative of Archbishop Raymond I (1126-52) arose a regular school of translation. In it a series of translators flourished from about 1135 to 1284. Scholars were attracted from the various parts of Europe, including the British Isles, whence hailed Michael Scot and Robert of Chester. In 1145 Robert made the first translation of al-Khwarizmi’s algebra; in 1143 he had completed with Hermann the Dalmatian for Peter the Venerable the first Latin translation of the Koran. It was also in Toledo that the first school of Oriental studies in Europe was established, in 1250, by the Order of preachers with a view to preparing missionaries to Moslems and Jews.
Thus begins a gradual process in Hitti’s eyes whereby the great intellectual treasures that had been painstakingly collected and integrated by Islamic civilization, were passed over to Europe.
The hinge moment in this process is the chasm opened by the Crusades. The Crusades started as an attempt by the European states to curb Arab expansionism which would eventually, at its height in the Ottoman period, lead the Muslim armies to the gates of Vienna. During the course of some fairly brutal centuries, Europeans stormed into the Levant and began to pick up a few tricks from the Arabs themselves. Rather than look past and ignore the advanced culture of the enemy, the Europeans began to adopt the ways of the East. As they had learned in Spain, it was not necessary to reject the culture of the Saracen infidels while still remaining engaged on the battlefield.
And while the Arabs were ultimately victorious over the Christian Crusaders, their military might became exhausted. They won their victory over the Crusaders at a very high price: The vitality of their civilization.
Perhaps the most definitive statement of this point comes in the classic comment of Amin Maalouf, a statement which could have come from the pen of Philip Hitti himself:
Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile – attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a progress from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued. Henceforth progress was the embodiment of ‘the other.’ Modernism became alien.
To the naked eye these developments, measured over the course of many centuries, were not completely visible. The victory of the Shi’ite Fatimids in Egypt in the 12th century and the dominance of the Ottoman Turks later in this period, led to some positive developments in Arab civilization. But the sweet savor of victory led to the enervation of a civilization which had been at its best when it was learning from and adapting to the cultures of the conquered.
Islam in the High Middle Ages exemplified the spirit of tolerance and pluralism that enriches and enlightens Man. By the start of the 15th century, the light that once shown so brightly, as Maalouf has said, turned in on itself and flushed out its most creative and dynamic impulses, leaving cultural advancement to the Northerners – those people who had been swinging from the trees during the heyday of the Islamic enlightenment.
The Ottoman period, comprising the final section of Hitti’s book, is dealt with in a brusque and quite curt fashion. He spends very little time detailing things and his overall impression is one of diffidence and apathy. Having narrated the glories of the seminal period of Arabo-Islamic civilization, the generation of a grand and noble culture and the transmission of the ancient glories of Greco-Roman science and philosophy, Hitti seems to have little appreciation for the martially-oriented Turks, whose seemingly endless wars and material plunder did little to advance the cause of the Arab culture.
While faced with a Europe that had been expanding, the Ottoman Empire saw itself in the throes of collapse. The encroachment of French and British Imperialism during the 18th and 19th centuries came about because of the internal weakness and ultimate decadence of the Ottoman rule. The Arabs during the early modern period did not really rule themselves and the new theories of democracy and the rights of man, proclaimed in the wake of the scholastic interpretation of the medieval Arab thinkers by European minds, were sealed off from a Middle East that had not developed its rational side.
The modern aims of nationalism and Imperialism began to eat away at the Arab world. Hitti puts it in the following way:
Ibrahim’s invasion of Syria and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt produced in a sense the same results: they closed the ancient order of decentralized authority in both lands and ushered in a new era of centralized dependence. More than that, they threw these lands into the cockpit of foreign imperial machinations. The expansionist trends of the Great Powers began to clash there as nowhere else. Especially keen was the rivalry between England and France, each endeavoring to obtain for herself a preponderating influence in Egyptian and Syrian affairs for the same reason: India and the Far East.
The political traditions of the Middle East, based on a limited form of autonomy for competing groups, a multi-ethnic coalition of differing ethnic groups that sought to some degree to work toward the betterment of their culture and society, however strained that might have been, was now giving way to the newly-developed monolith of the modern nation-state – a place where all were citizens of a centralized government that attempted to create a single polity and erase all sense of cultural and ethnic difference.
Hitti thus ends his story at the point where Europe had begun to dig its talons into the Arabian body politic. He ignores to tell the story of a clash of Imperialisms – not a clash of civilizations, as some would be wont to do. This clash of Imperialisms has to do with the manner in which Europe sought to resurrect the old Greek model of monolingualism: While conquering the East, the new states of the West sought to restrain their conquest in a cultural sense; rather than learning and adapting to new ideas and ways, the Europeans, who had already learned what they needed to from the Arabs and had gone beyond them in technological and scientific terms, set merely to subjugate the East.
It is in this context that there develops what Edward Said has called “Orientalism,” the reframing of the actual Arab world into a caricature; a means to, as Timothy Mitchell has so brilliantly shown, create a new matrix of control in the Orient by its colonialist usurpers. This is where the split between Hitti and Hourani comes back to haunt us: Hitti sees the fault as lying in the weakness of modern Arab culture and its denial of what made it great to begin with. Hourani, having witnessed the many and myriad movements for Arab cultural renewal over the past 50 years, attempts to fix his sights on the mechanisms of control and dependency that locked themselves into the Arab world.
The battle between Hitti and Hourani is one between the internal and external mechanisms that have affected the balance of power in the Arab world since the beginning of the modern period. Hitti is, in a sense, more in keeping with the negationist view of Arab culture which holds the Arabs themselves responsible for the ills they have been experiencing over the past few centuries. Rather than seeing a more pristine form of Islam, a la the Wahhabist-Hanbali model, as the solution for these ills, Hitti has pointed his finger to the very accommodationist model inherent in the expansion of Islam, in its march to enlightenment and the hinge moments of translations and intercultural penetration that has marked what is best about the Arab renaissance.
Hourani has discussed this at length in his masterwork Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, but in his A History of the Arab Peoples he tends to lack the bite that Hitti brings to the table. Perhaps this can be explained by the period of time that separates the publication of the two books. But in the end the deep and penetrating examination of Arab history as brilliantly narrated by Philip Hitti must be the one that we turn to try and come to an understanding of what made Arab civilization the brilliant shining light of the ages.
For Arab civilization to regenerate it must come to a better and more precise understanding that its greatest strengths lay in its assimilation of other cultures rather than in the exclusion of other cultures. The liberality of Arab civilization permitted other cultures, such as that of Europe, to freely interact and partake of its advances – it pluralism was a stated given when it was at its greatest heights. It was this Arab liberality, ironically, that gave Europe back its cultural edge in the modern period.
Modern European culture, a monolingual and destructive culture, a culture which takes pride in secrecy and defensive posturing, is precisely the opposite of the open culture of al-Andalus/Spain that the Arabs created at their best. The world during the Andalusian phase worked together – even while wars and civil strife continued to go on. In the 20th century, man seems to have advanced in profound ways, but those marks of advancement have not been filtered through the open book of translation – the advances in medicine, technology and culture all seem to be caught up and trapped in a matrix of domination and Imperialism.
The Arabs, who developed what must now be seen as an enriching model of Imperial expansion, a model that ultimately served to be the Arabs’ own undoing, were able to dominate yet enlighten. The modern Western model is one that seeks to control, dominate and exclude through a matrix of parasitic-like mechanisms that enslave what is now called the “Developing World” under the tyranny of its own policing.
It must be remembered that under the Arabs, Judaism, perhaps the greatest casualty of the modern nation-state and the ethos of its “Enlightenment” (seeing Germany as a model of such an “Enlightenment”), tended to flourish under the Arabian system, while the modern matrix of control, in which the modern state of Israel has been enmeshed, has only served to destabilize Jewish culture in new and frightening ways.
Arabo-Islamic civilization managed to suppress the unrest that has been unleashed by the malignant forces of tribalism and religious fanaticism. Europe has itself fought wars of religious succession and ultimately found ways to deal with the problem, though not in the same manner as the Arabs. But today, inexplicably, we continue to face the atavistic emergence of furious tribalisms that have come from the ultimate weaknesses of both the Western and Eastern systems.
In Philip Hitti’s splendid masterwork History of the Arabs, thankfully republished by Palgrave/Macmillan after many years of being out of print – and an essential purchase for all our libraries, we are graciously ushered back into a culture that for a few centuries, at the very least, was able to integrate the wonders of the world into a civilization that confidently spread those advances for the benefit of all mankind in a progressive vision of humanity.