A HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES By Albert Hourani, Harvard University Press, 551 pp. $24.95
HISTORIANS of the Arab world face a most perplexing task: how to identify the very people whose history they would write.
If all Arabs are Muslims, what are Iraqi Chaldeans, Palestinian Roman Catholics, and Lebanese Maronites? If all Arabs speak Arabic, why is it not the primary language of Somalia and Djibouti, both Arab League members in good standing? And if all Arabs trace their lineage to the Semitic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, what of the decidedly non-Semitic Moroccans, Egyptians, and Sudanese?
Albert Hourani's new book deals first with this dilemma in the title itself, by acknowledging the Arabs as more than just one people, and later by showing how the notion of one Arab nation emerged from a multiplicity of roots. In these days of "snap" journalistic accounts of the Middle East, giving us nothing but poorly framed "snapshots" of the Arab world today, it is a relief finally to have its history laid out in one powerfully written scholarly sweep.
Professor Hourani, a fellow emeritus at Oxford University, is probably the last historian of his generation able to synthesize so much in a volume of manageable length. Eschewing the broad strokes favored by world historians like Arnold Toynbee, Hourani paints smaller, more intimate details onto an equally large canvas.
A biographical sketch of the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun serves, for example, as the book's unifying metaphor. The recipient of a classical Arabic education, he was employed as a teacher and administrator in Arab courts from Granada to Damascus, stopping in Tunis and Cairo along his way, moving whenever dynastic upheavals threatened his safety and intellectual independence. But while making the dangerous passage from city to city, his family was killed, and he was later robbed.
For Hourani, this story epitomizes all of Arab history. Unified by language and high culture but separated by political schisms and lawless deserts, Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf share much but divide over more.
Ibn Khaldun's own theory, that history is an endless cycle of rising and falling dynasties, each based on an initially strong but easily weakened tribal spirit of cohesion and allegiance, is as valid today as ever.
Hourani follows the familiar chronology of Arab history, which equates its beginning with the 7th-century birth of the prophet Muhammad. The absence of records from the Jahiliyya, the Arab's age of ignorance before the coming of Islam, rules out much certainty in the study of that period. It was only with the later compilation of the Quran that the language was codified sufficiently to permit verifiable written sources.
Hourani's economical prose marches briskly through a complex succession of political authority, from the four direct heirs of Muhammad's mantle, to the Umayyad Arab chieftans in Damascus, and to the Persian-influenced Abbasid rulers in Baghdad. Hourani blends detail taken from tribal sociology, urban planning, and Islamic theology into a coherent whole.
The Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, the subsequent invasions of other Turkic tribes, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire gradually erased any sense that Arabs were in command of their own destiny. Throughout the European Renaissance and Age of Imperialism, the Arab world became increasingly decrepit militarily, insecure theologically, and divided politically.
Hourani shows how leaders of the now decolonized but still badly fractured Arab world have tried to gain political legitimacy with claims either to radical social justice, nationalism, or Islamic piety.
Again finding historical precedent, he reminds us that these forces are all as quickly corrupted as was the tribal spirit cited previously by Ibn Khaldun. The future strength of Arab nations, he hopes, will lie on a new claim, one based on a vaguely Islamic but basically secular appeal to morality and law.