Back to the futuh

Robert Irwin

  • The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Birth of Christianity to the Present Day by Bernard Lewis
    Weidenfeld, 433 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 297 81345 5

The dust-jacket of this handsome book reproduces a medieval manuscript miniature of mounted Arabs beating drums and blowing what are probably mizmars (woodwind instruments). According to the caption, this is a ‘Celebration of Ramadan, from “The Meetings” illustrated by al-Hariri, 13th century’. Oh no it isn’t. Al-Hariri, author of the Maqamat (literally ‘Standings’, but more usually translated as ‘Sessions’) died in 1122. The painting is actually by the 13th-century artist Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Turning to the back of the book, one finds an elegant painting of a seated Arab. According to the caption, this is a portrait of Saladin c.l180. Wrong again. There is no evidence that Saladin ever sat for his portrait. If he had done so, he would have been unique among medieval Muslim rulers. What we are actually looking at is the picture of a little mechanical man designed to sit on top of an elephant-shaped water-clock. It was copied in Egypt in 1354 from an early 13th-century treatise on automata written and illustrated in Diyarbakr, in what is today Turkey, by al-Jazari. The little mechanical man was supposed to pick up a ball every hour and drop it into a dragon’s mouth. Saladin (who died in 1193) would hardly have been the right model for this rather menial job. (Incidentally, this ‘portrait of Saladin’ has done the rounds and features in quite a number of popular illustrated books. In Anthony Bridge’s The Crusades the accompanying caption says: ‘This is thought to be a portrait of Saladin by an Egyptian artist of the Fatimid school, perhaps because the man portrayed appears to be blind in one eye, as was Saladin.’ Nice try, but there is no evidence at all that Saladin was blind in one eye.) To return to the Maqamat miniature, al-Hariri and al-Wasiti were major figures in their respective fields. If the dust-jacket of a book about Western culture featured one of Botticelli’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy, but claimed that Dante drew it, there would be an outcry. Do publishers think that dead Arab painters don’t really matter?

Fortunately, the text of The Middle East has not been written by the author of the captions. Bernard Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, is a fluent, lively, erudite and lucid writer. He also has an eye for the pointillist anecdote and pithy maxim culled from the primary sources. His book appears in a ‘History of Civilisation’ series, in which it joins such works as Charles Burney and David Marshall Lang’s The People of the Hills: Ancient Ararat and Caucasus (1971) and George Lichtheim’s Europe in the 20th Century (1972). Indeed, the back of Lichtheim’s book announced Lewis’s work as forthcoming, though it then bore the title The Empires of Islam. This suggests that The Middle East is the product of a lengthy gestation.

How then have Lewis’s ideas (and those of his peers) changed over the years? It is instructive to compare this latest book with one of his earliest, which covered much of the same ground: The Arabs in History, first published in 1950. In 1950 Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen were still monarchies; Britain had a military presence in the Gulf and Algeria was part of France; Egypt, Syria and Lebanon had signed armistices (but not treaties) with Israel the previous year.

In The Arabs in History Lewis laid stress on the economic environment within which Islam was first preached and wrote about the twice-yearly Meccan trading caravans and the Hejazi oligarchy of bankers and entrepreneurs, adding that ‘The government of Mecca has been happily described ... as a merchant republic governed by a syndicate of wealthy business men.’ But Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, which appeared in 1988, demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that there is no real evidence for a flourishing trade in spices, or anything else very substantial, in the seventh-century Hejaz. Consequently and to its credit, The Middle East is much more cautious, merely referring vaguely to ‘established trade routes passing through Arabia and a significant movement of merchants and commodities’. Similarly, The Arabs in History, which provided quite a detailed narrative of the life of the Prophet Muhammed, prefaced this with a quotation from Ernest Renan on the origins of Islam: ‘Its roots are at surface level, the life of its founder is as well known to us as those of the Reformers of the 16th century.’ But in recent decades various scholars, working mostly out of Britain, Germany and Israel, have challenged one aspect after another of the historicity of the Prophet’s life. So The Middle East adroitly presents the story of Muhammed’s mission as it was known to medieval Muslims and Lewis makes repeated use of the phrase ‘according to tradition’ – nowadays it is desirable to write and speak with circumspection when dealing with questions relating to the life of the Prophet and the compilation of the Qur’an.

The Prophet died in 632, ‘according to tradition’. The Umayyad Caliphs, who directed the affairs of the Islamic community from 661 until 750, used to be treated by historians primarily as politicians exercising secular authority. More recent research has suggested, however, that the Umayyads had a more exalted sense of Khilafa (‘Caliphate’, but literally ‘Deputyship’) than was previously thought. That is, they conceived of themselves as belated deputies not of the Prophet, but of God Himself. As Lewis notes, this would be ‘a claim of far-reaching implications’. Indeed, it may have implications for the fundamentalist Muslim Khilafa movement so active in Britain today.

Chapter Six of The Arabs in History was prefaced by a quotation from Rimbaud’s Illuminations, though its title, ‘The Revolt of Islam’, echoed that of Shelley’s famous, long-winded poem. In it Lewis suggested that the Isma’ilis may have created, and certainly used the Islamic guilds as instruments in their organisation, and for centuries afterwards the catechisms and structure of the guilds show many traces of Isma’ili influence.’ Later on he wrote of Isma’ilism as ‘the révolution manquée of Islam’, which, had it triumphed, ‘might have ushered in a full acceptance of Hellenistic values, heralding a humanist renaissance of the Western type, overcoming the resistance of the Qur’an by the device of esoteric interpretation’. However, S.M. Stern and Claude Cahen, both writing in 1970, demolished the notion that guilds, whether directed by Isma’ilis or not, played any significant part in the organisation of the Islamic city. Indeed, evidence for the very existence of craft and trade guilds prior to the Ottoman period is surprisingly sparse and ambiguous. The Middle East still seems to imply that there were medieval Arab guilds, but it does not linger on the matter. As for Isma’ilism (a branch of Shi’i Islam), the new book presents it as a medieval movement of socio-economic protest, rather than as the doomed harbinger of a cultural renaissance that never was.

Here and there throughout The Middle East there are other (welcome) inclusions and omissions that reflect the work done by scholars in recent decades: Richard Bulliet on the economic importance of the camel, Andrew Watson on the role of the Arabs as introducers of new crops, Oleg Grabar on the Dome of the Rock, and so on. It is, however, a tribute to both the scope and depth of Lewis’s research in the past half-century that so much of the material he draws on is his own. In large part, The Middle East is a skilful synthesis of arguments first presented in such books as The Origins of Ismailism (1940), The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) and Race and Colour in Islam (1971), as well as articles on the Byzantines, Fatimids, Abbasids, Ayyubids, Ottomans, Mongols and modern Middle Eastern regimes, among many other topics.

The scope of The Middle East is, of course, wider than that of The Arabs in History. The new book begins in the first century AD, though it gets through the first six, pre-Islamic, centuries at an alarmingly brisk pace. Additionally, The Middle East deals with Jews, Eastern Christians, Persians, Turks, Kurds and Mongols as well as Arabs. (Lewis’s Middle East is a fluctuating territory: for example, Anatolia is not included for as long as it is ruled from Greek Constantinople, but once the Turks move in, from the 11th century onwards, it becomes part of the Middle East.)

Both books put Islam and the history of Islam at the centre and both, in my opinion, exaggerate its importance in Middle Eastern history. The Middle East presents us with an Islamic literature, an Islamic city, an Islamic pattern of government, and so on. In doing so, it undervalues the contributions, not only of pre-Islamic antiquity, but also of Jews and Christians in the Islamic period. It also undervalues the role of those Arabs, Turks and Persians, who, though nominally Muslim, governed and wrote on the basis of principles which owed little or nothing to Islam, but a lot to secularism, esotericism, or cynicism. While Lewis provides an excellent, brief and lively account of classical Arabic literature, he neglects altogether modern writers of a more secular orientation, such as Nazim Hikmet, Sadegh Hedayat, Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish.

The Bernard Lewises of the Fifties and Nineties share a marked philological bent. The Arabs in History began with a long discussion of the meaning of the word ‘Arab’. Similarly, in The Middle East Lewis repeatedly focuses on the meaning of words. The origins of place names – Syria, Baghdad, Byzantium and Anatolia among them – are explained when we first come to them and later he pauses to note, for example, the significance of futuh, meaning both ‘conquests’ and ‘openings’. (The Arab conquests made Islam ‘open’ or available to the subjected peoples.) His is a thoroughly lexical history. This was ever the Orientalist’s way of dealing with Middle Eastern matters and it can be traced back to the French Revolutionary period and the origins of Orientalism itself. Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the founder of the Ecole des Langues Orientales in Paris and perhaps the father of Orientalism, pioneered an austerely philological approach. Language rather than history, sociology or anthropology provided the key to understanding Middle Eastern societies and their past.

Other Orientalists of the 19th century continue to cast giant shadows. Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) brought to the study of early Islamic history techniques he had been instrumental in pioneering in Biblical scholarship, in particular in his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1882). Wellhausen was fascinated by revolutionary movements in Islam; revolutionary passion and activism was what gave the history of that religion life. The Hungarian Jew Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) had a philological training and, like Wellhausen, transferred techniques previously used for the study of early Judaism and Christianity to the study of the early Islamic community. Lewis’s interest in such oppositional movements as Isma’ilism and its breakaway Assassin faction can be seen as the distant heir of the historiography pioneered by Wellhausen and Goldziher. Wellhausen taught Robertson Smith, Robertson Smith taught Thomas Arnold, Thomas Arnold taught Hamilton Gibb and Gibb was Lewis’s teacher. As for Goldziher, there is a legend that he laid hands on the mystically inspired French scholar Louis Massignon (1883-1962), who was another of Lewis’s teachers. Lewis is steeped in Goldziher.

The names of both Wellhausen and Goldziher were dropped in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), but neither is discussed in that eccentric, erratic and substantially misleading book. Instead, Said preferred to concentrate on writers like Sir Richard Burton, Lord Cromer, T.E. Lawrence, Gérard de Nerval and Renan, all good for self-damning soundbites, but whose influence on serious academic study of the history, languages and religions of the Middle East was pretty negligible. One cannot understand Lewis’s intellectual formation without looking at the more weighty academic figures; Said has not understood Lewis.

The Arabs in History ended with a tour d’ horizon of the Middle East as it was in the middle of the 20th century. Although Lewis wrote presciently about the short-term opportunity presented to Arab regimes to take advantage of Great Power rivalry, he failed to anticipate the overweening importance of Middle Eastern oil. He also underestimated the continuing vitality, adaptability and revolutionary potential of Islam. In 1950, he wrote that ‘Islam is no longer a new faith, hot and malleable from the Arabian crucible, but an old and institutionalised religion, set by centuries of usage and tradition into rigid patterns of conduct and belief.’ But perhaps it should not be the function of a historian to double as an analyst of current affairs.

The new book also ends with a prognosticatory tour d’horizon of the region today. It takes account of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, though it rightly stresses how modern and Western that revolution is in most of its features. In his final paragraph, Lewis suggests that ‘the peoples and governments of the Middle East, for the first time in two centuries will determine their own fate’ and continues: ‘They alone – the peoples and the governments of the Middle East – can decide whether and how to use this window of opportunity while, in the interval of their troubled modern history, it remains open.’ But this is to underestimate the degree to which the West remains dependent on Arab oil. It also neglects the strength of the United States’s commitment to Israel, the French government’s support of the present regime in Algeria and the British military presence in Oman. The opening and closing chapters of Lewis’s book contain eloquent (and gleeful?) reflections about the pervasive triumph of Western technology and culture over those of the traditional Middle East. It seems odd then that in the final paragraphs he should choose to adopt a valedictory note, which may remind some of Christopher Robin’s farewell to his bear in The House at Pooh Corner.