An Urbane Scholar in a Wilderness of Tigers

Robert Irwin

  • A Vision of the Middle East: An Intellectual Biography of Albert Hourani by Abdulaziz Al-Sudairi
    Tauris, 221 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 1 86064 581 X

A remarkably high proportion of those who now teach and write about the modern Middle East in this country were taught by Albert Hourani. He encouraged the historians he supervised to take an interest in developments in anthropology and sociology. More than anyone else, he was responsible for challenging the notion that the Ottoman period was a dark age of political and cultural stagnation for the Arabs. In his later writings he also increasingly queried the notion that the recent history of the Arabs had to be understood in terms of responses to Western challenges.

Hourani was the son of Fadlo Hourani, a Protestant Lebanese businessman, one of the numerous Middle Eastern emigrants who had chosen to settle in Didsbury, a village suburb of Manchester, with its leafy roads and large houses. In the 1920s and 1930s there was an Ottoman feel to the place: in his autobiography, An Unfinished Odyssey (1984), Albert Hourani’s brother, Cecil, recalls how ‘we ate the food of the Lebanese villages – kibbé and the traditional dish of Saturday, mujaddara, or Esau’s pottage.’

In 1933, Hourani went up to Oxford, to read PPE: ‘a very thin young man with luminous green eyes and a diaphanous complexion’, according to his friend Charles Issawi. After graduating, he worked for Chatham House and the Foreign Office, before becoming a fellow of Magdalen and subsequently director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s.

Some Orientalists have led exciting lives. V.J. Parry, an expert on Ottoman warfare, escaped from a prison camp and joined a band of Italian partisans during the Second World War. David Storm Rice, an expert on Islamic metalwork, had an affair with Clara Malraux, fought as a commando in Ethiopia and, after a distinguished career as an art historian, suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. Robin Zaehner carried out dangerous wartime assignments for MI6 behind Russian lines in Persia and played an important part in the coup that toppled Mossadeq in 1953, before eventually becoming Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. It is possible that Paul Kraus, the half-crazed student of Arab alchemy and another of Hourani’s friends, was murdered in Cairo in 1944, because of a suspected connection with the assassins of Lord Moyne. Hourani’s own life, however, was, outwardly at least, a tranquil affair – a matter of tutorial supervisions, university committees and tea parties for his students.

Abdulaziz Sudairi is only briefly concerned with the edifying but unexciting externals: A Vision of the Middle East deals rather with the life of the mind. Intellectual biography was a genre of which Hourani approved. He especially admired Ernst Gombrich’s marvellous Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), in which Gombrich explores the evolution of Warburg’s ideas about the afterlife of antiquity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Warburg’s vision of the night-side of the Renaissance and his restless inquiries into the mysterious interactions of the manic and the depressive in the iconography of Western culture owed something to the tormented quality of his own intelligence, which took him at times to the edge of madness and beyond. Hourani was a much calmer, gentler figure. He had no taste for intellectual dogfights and his reservations about the work of other scholars were courteously expressed. He was always ready, even eager, to criticise his own past work. Unlike Warburg, he wrote a delicate, cadenced prose, which he used to advance subtle arguments in tentative and understated ways.

For all his gentle manner, he had experienced serious disappointments early on in his career. In 1946, he appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on behalf of the Arab Office to argue for an independent Palestine. His presentation of the Arab case was carefully marshalled and dispassionate in its logic. It was wrong that the Palestinians were not being prepared for self-government. It was wrong that Palestine had not been granted a seat in the United Nations and wrong, too, that it had been debarred from joining the Arab League. The Arab population was already suffering economically and socially from the effects of Jewish immigration. The Palestinian demand for a democratically elected government was obviously legitimate. Western support for Zionism would alienate Arabs throughout the Middle East. Any attempt to impose partition on Palestine would lead to bloodshed. Hourani’s case was difficult to argue with, and the Committee of Inquiry did not argue with it: they ignored it and, sensitive to the recent sufferings of the Jews in Europe, recommended that a further 100,000 Jews be immediately given visas to enter Palestine and that more Jewish immigrants be allowed in later.

The issue was decided by force of arms in 1948, and looking back on the Arab debacle, Hourani bitterly but justly observed that the ‘Arab governments made no preparation, either for peace with its concessions, or war with its sacrifices.’ In carefully measured terms he reproached Britain for letting the Palestinians down. The Arabs’ defeat haunted him and much later, in A History of the Arab Peoples (1991), he said of the triumph of European colonialism in the Near East: ‘Defeat goes deeper into the human soul than victory. To be in someone else’s power is a conscious experience which induces doubts about the ordering of the universe.’ Hourani’s hopes for an independent, united and harmonious Lebanon were similarly let down when the civil war broke out in 1975.

Many Arabs of Hourani’s generation have been frustrated by what happened in the second half of the 20th century, in the (nominally at least) post-colonial era. There is a sense in which Hourani withdrew from that century. Apart from political disappointment, boredom may well have been a factor in his renunciation of active politics. ‘My boredom threshold is low,’ he was fond of remarking. So he moved from politics to political history and, later, from political to social history. He preferred to write about the 18th and 19th centuries. In his key historical works, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, ‘Ottoman Reform and the Politics of Notables’ and A History of the Arab Peoples, he put forward a liberal patrician’s version of Middle Eastern history. He repeatedly stressed the role of wealthy and educated members of the urban elites in mediating between the Ottoman central authority and the Arab masses. The availability of informal power structures mattered more to him than conflict or the formal apparatus of despotism. It was a donnish and collegiate way of looking at things, unconsciously shaped perhaps by his experience of Oxford, ‘that segmentary society without possessing formal authority’.

Early on in his academic career, in 1938-39, Hourani taught at the American University of Beirut, where he came to know and admire the influential Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik, later Lebanese Ambassador to Washington. Malik had studied with Heidegger and Whitehead, and his dazzling intellectual trajectory took him from science and mathematics to theology and high politics. Although Sudairi mentions Malik’s impact, ‘the newly returned philosopher from Harvard who brought with him a philosophical approach different from the one Hourani had learnt at Oxford’, he might have explored the association further. Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place, sheds more light on the powerful mind and personality of Malik: ebullient, erudite and eloquent, he seems to have acted as a kind of tutor-cum-father-figure at one stage of Said’s career. A friend of both Kennedy and Nixon, he was a leading spokesman for the Christians in the Lebanon and an opponent of any reforms that would give the Muslim majority more power. ‘Must the fate of the Christians . . . be ineluctably sealed by the determinism of numbers?’ Lebanon’s history was, he taught, a part of Greco-Roman and Christian civilisation, not just a fragment of Arab history.

For a long time Malik continued to assure his followers that the West would come to the aid of the Christians, only to conclude much later that Europe and America had become so corrupted by cynicism, materialism, drugs and pornography that neither material help nor spiritual guidance could be expected from that quarter. Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze leader and Malik’s leading opponent, noted that ‘in his speeches this “distinguished intellect” would tell us about Christian charity and speak of Kant, Plato, Hegel, Aristotle, Jesus and Thomas Aquinas very enthusiastically, knowing that nine out of ten people in his audience had never heard of these philosophers.’ For Malik, culture was to be largely understood in terms of masterpieces produced (mostly) by dead white males. It is understandable that Said now looks back on their early friendship as ‘the great negative intellectual lesson of my life’.

Hourani, however, seems never to have felt inclined to denounce Malik. He was always more ready than Said has been to acknowledge the importance of religion in men’s lives and the sincerity of religious motivations. It is even possible that Malik, who had converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, influenced Hourani’s decision to convert to the same faith some time in the 1950s (his friend Zaehner’s Catholicism, too, may have been a factor) but he also had the example of the great Orientalist and specialist on Sufism, Louis Massignon (1883-1962), by whose life and writings he was obsessed. After experiencing a mystical epiphany in Iraq in 1908, Massignon had gone on to espouse a form of Catholicism he had learned of first from the novelist J.K. Huysmans, in which ‘substitution’, the voluntary taking on of the sufferings of others, had a crucial role. Massignon rewrote the life of the tenth-century Sufi mystic and martyr, al-Hallaj, in the light of this somewhat esoteric interpretation of Christianity. His book La Passion d’al-Hosayn-ibn-Mansour al-Hallaj, martyr mystique de l’Islam (1921) is a work of genius, but it is also incoherently put together and many of its references do not check out. Some of what looks like insight is merely fantasy and Hourani was certainly a much better historian than the Orientalist he so admired. Massignon’s writings contain a curious mixture of racism and anti-colonialism. The Arabs were the children of Ishmael who needed to be brought back into the fold of the true faith and, although Massignon rated Arabs below the Jews, he was also capable of anti-Jewish outbursts. Hourani, on the other hand, was free of such prejudices and, like many Christian Arabs, strongly identified with Islamic culture: ‘Islam was what the Arabs had done in history.’

Although Sudairi does not discuss it, Hourani was also strongly influenced by the lectures and writings of R.G. Collingwood, for whom history and the philosophy of mind were a single subject: in studying the past, one was studying the mind and its ways of knowing. ‘History is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.’ For Hourani, too, political history was really the history of political thought; and empathy was a crucial tool in understanding that history. Collingwood’s influence is most obvious in Hourani’s classic early study, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1789-1939 (1962), where he sought to enter the minds of an Arab intellectual elite as they faced the challenges posed by Western imperialism, modernisation and various forms of secularism and liberalism. Sudairi, however, suggests that ‘the book had overestimated the power of ideas as the prime factor of change in society.’ Others have criticised it for making too much of the role of Christian Arabs in promoting liberal and reformist ideas in the Middle East.

Sudairi, a specialist in Middle Eastern economics, is, quite rightly, an admirer of Hourani, if also an astute critic of his books. Among other things, he suggests that Hourani relied too much on the 14th-century philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun’s model of the cyclical rise and decline of Muslim regimes. Sudairi also relays the criticisms of others. Bassam Tibi thought Hourani had made too much of the role of what was an essentially Anglo-French liberalism in shaping the modern Arab world, at the expense of romantic ideas about the nation and Blut und Boden derived from Germany. Fouad Ajami suggested that Hourani had been too optimistic about the prospects for pan-Arab nationalism – judging that mutually suspicious, if not actively hostile Arab regimes are here to stay. Elie Kedourie, who took a much bleaker view than Hourani of the Middle East and its future, thought Hourani overestimated the importance of the Christians in the Arab intelligentsia. Hourani’s version of the Middle East was civilised and urbane: for Kedourie, it was ‘a wilderness of tigers’.

While at Chatham House, Hourani came under the influence of Arnold Toynbee, the historian of the rise and fall of civilisations. Kedourie, on the other hand, despised Chatham House’s penchant for liberal hand-wringing, as well as what he perceived as the institution’s readiness to fudge unpleasant realities about modern Arab history and post-colonialism. Hourani and Kedourie once made surprise appearances at a seminar I gave at London University on ‘Arnold Toynbee and Ibn Khaldun’. When I had delivered my paper (which was critical of Toynbee’s misreading of Ibn Khaldun), Hourani spoke at length in praise of Toynbee and, when he had finished, Kedourie attacked Toynbee’s vision of history at equal length. The two doyens of modern Middle Eastern history were careful not to engage directly with each other. Hourani was well aware of the criticisms, both general and detailed, that had been made of Toynbee’s Study of History. However, he admired it as ‘the product of a strange, haunted and powerful imagination’. Part of its appeal for him had to do with Toynbee’s belief that civilisations ‘ought to aim at harmony and self-determination’ – a similar idealism pervades Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples.

When that book was published in 1991 it was strongly criticised by Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer for presenting Arab history as largely a matter of continuities, negotiated accommodations and glowing cultural achievements, underplaying the wars, factional fighting, despotism, religious bigotry and poverty. In a review in the TLS, I took much the same view as Pipes and Kramer. Hourani’s book had crucially failed to explain how it was that the West had gained such an ascendancy over the Middle East in the modern period. I now realise that one of the grounds of my unease was that the book was insufficiently problem-oriented, whereas university tutorials and seminars hardly deal in anything except problems. When I taught history, I never set essays with such titles as ‘Explain how things usually worked out all right in the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century’, or ‘Identify the agreeable features of Hohenstaufen rule in Germany’. Even so A History of the Arab Peoples should perhaps be the thing that students read first, before beginning their studies in earnest. Not only is it very learned and beautifully written: it is the book which is most likely to persuade them to fall in love with the Middle East and Arab culture.

Always aware of how much he had learnt from Massignon and Toynbee, as well as from the great Arabist Sir Hamilton Gibb, Hourani was fascinated by intellectual lineages and chains of transmission, and was himself an important source of inspiration to younger historians and political scientists. He was one of a generation of grand, even intimidating historians and analysts of the Middle East who taught in Britain. Among them were Kedourie, P.J. Vatikiotis, Bernard Lewis and Anne Lambton, none of whom objected to being labelled ‘Orientalists’. Hourani was distressed by the acrimony attacks on the profession of Orientalism engendered and by insinuations that its discourse was inherently malevolent, believing as he did in Pope Gregory VII’s words about ‘the charity which we owe to one another’. The grand Orientalist figures have now mostly retired or died. Many of the best of those who might have succeeded them have been recruited by American universities. In his last years Hourani became gloomy about the prospects for Middle Eastern history in Britain. I fear that he was right.