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Arab History and the Nation State: A Study in Modern Historiography, 1820-1980.

This is an interesting and provocative work written by an Arab historian about Arab historians of the modern nation-state. Youssef Choueiri begins his book with the bold statement that "modern Arabic thought has not yet found its historian" (p. xi) and proceeds to show how "most Arab historians have increasingly tended to devote their academic research to the past of their own national states" (p. xvi).

The author identifies two phases in the development of modem Arab historiography. An early phase from 1820 to 1920 was followed by a later lasting from 1920 to 1980. The earlier was the phase of pioneers and amateurs who were working under the influence of both traditional and European concepts and ideas. Thus they appropriated theoretical formulations of Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu alongside those of Ibn Khaldun. What characterized this period and the histories of its pioneers like Rifa a al-Tahtawi, Salim al-Bustani, Ilyas Matar, Jurgi Yanni or Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi was the beginning of an awareness of a well-defined territorial unit governed by a quasi-Western state. This was a distinct break with medieval Muslim annalists and chroniclers, from al-Tabari to al-Maqrizi, who were usually concerned with Islamic history irrespective of geographical boundaries. What is fascinating in this section of the book is the different ways historians belonging to different traditions tackled the transformation. While the Egyptian historian al-Jabarti (1753-1825), an Azharite alim of the old school, considered Muhammad Ali, the founder of modem Egypt, a heretic who violated the norms of religion, al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), also an Azharite alim, who visited Europe and came under its influence, became the ideologue of the pasha and considered him his ideal ruler.

Moving on to the historiography of geographical Syria during the same period, Choueiri believes that it was the Egyptian occupation in the 1830s which first unified the country politically and economically, albeit under Western influence. The subsequent Ottoman modernizing measures of the Tanzimat which introduced relatively secular laws permitted history-writing that appealed to Syrian patriotism. The development of local geographical consciousness at this stage, however, did not lead to the shunning of the larger, still acceptable indigenous supra-national framework of political identity. Thus, local patriotism did not try to detach itself from the Ottoman state, but rather renewed its attachment to it. To prove his point, Choueiri discusses the histories of Ilyas Matar (1857-1910) and Jurgi Yanni (1856-1941). Both emphasized Syrian national consciousness and adhered to Ottomanism. But while the former was also interested in secularizing the Arab past and diluting its Islamic identity, the latter was more sympathetic to Islam, though preferring to look at Syria as a refuge implicitly for the Christians of the Arab East. In this, Yanni was following a model set by the French historian Jules David for the Maronites of Mount Lebanon, but expanding it to apply to all Arab Christians and to geographical Syria as a whole.

Although Choueiri does not discuss Syrian Muslim historians, it is quite unlikely that they looked at Syria in a way similar to the way Matar and Yanni did. Yet it is conceivable that they too developed a local national consciousness which emphasized Ottomanism, but alongside Arab and Islamic identities. Something of the sort took place in Arab Africa, and particularly in Tunisia, in the writings of the Westernized semi-secular state official Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1823-1889) and others. The French assault on Maghribi culture and indigenous society triggered a different response from the religious elite, especially in places like Algeria and Morocco where the assault was most intense. This was best expressed later in the 1930s by the following motto of the Association of Algerian Ulama: "Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my fatherland" (p. 60).

The later phase in the development of modern Arab historiography was that of professional historians. Though trained in modem techniques, the historians of the 1920-1980 period served as the self-appointed managers of legitimation of the Arab nation-states born after the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the concept of Ottomanism at the end of World War I. The new Arab nation-state was usually either carved by a Western power or born under its watchful eyes. During this phase, Choueiri notes, the historian set up his teleological purpose of defending the territorial integrity of the newly defined political entity and claimed to possess a solution to the backwardness of his society. Interestingly enough, Choueiri makes the point that "the army officer and the scholar in the Arab world share a number of common characteristics: the adoption of certain Western ideas, a burning desire to reform society, efficiency, discipline and a perceptible aloofness toward their traditional communities" (p. 190). (One wonders whether this relationship the author describes between the modern Arab scholar and Arab power is different from the relationship of the Western scholar vis-a-vis Western power.)

Choueiri studies three cases which allow him to arrive at this conclusion: the Egyptian Shafiq Ghurbal, the Lebanese kamal Salibi and the Moroccan Abdallah Laroui. Ghurbal is accused not only of legitimizing the Egyptian nation-state, but also the rule of Muhammad Ali and his dynasty, to the extent of suppressing evidence that does not show the pasha's rivals in the worst possible light. (The author reproduces the evidence in appendix B, pp. 207-19.) For Choueiri, Salibi and Laroui travel different routes to serve as ideologues of the authorities in power in their respective states. Salibi is criticized for writing history as politics. Laroui is criticized for writing history as culture.

Choueiri's strongest point is his refusal to accept the received wisdom of Arab historians of the nation-state. He courageously judges the judges and questions their premises and conclusions. But the author's arguments may be plausible only as far as his data go. His study of three cases, important as they are, should not allow him to generalize about "most Arab historians" (p. xvi) and about the regions of the Arab world which he did not look at closely. In fact, what is quite evident in geographical Syria, the Lebanese case aside, is the absence of a modernist Syrian historian who commits himself (or herself) to the idea of the Syrian nation-state within its present boundaries. There are quite a number of notable Syrian historians like Abdul-Latif Tibawi and Abdul-Karim Rafiq, alongside some Lebanese historians like Wajih Kawtharani, who do not fit into Choueiri's paradigm. No serious Syfian historian, for example, could be presented as the ideologue of the Syrian nation-state in the same way that Shafiq Ghurbal was the ideologue of the Egyptian state. Yet, it is possible to argue on another level that, with the exception of Kawtharani, who does not subscribe to the ideology of the Lebanese nation-state, the absence of a historian of the Syrian nation-state confirms rather than contradicts Choueiri's argument. This may be the case, for the Syrian contemporary state itself did not explicitly promote an ideology of a Syrian nation-state, but rather of Arab nationalism. Choueiri mentions briefly the demise of the ideology of geographical Syria for political reasons which had to do with the way the Syrian Nationalist Party founded by Antun Sa adah in 1932 conducted its activities (p. 49). The author, however, does not pay equal attention to cultural factors discussed in Labib Zuwiyya Yamak's well-known study on the subject.(1) One has to ask whether the Syrians felt that their Arab culture was under a more severe Western assault than the assault on their territorial integrity. Could they have perceived such an assault on Arab culture in a way similar to the way the Algerians perceived the assault on their religion? These are still open questions since Choueiri confines the treatment of his subject in the main to territorial nationalism. That is why some of the author's conclusions may be only partly correct. Choueiri states that "Arab nationalism was alien to both al-Tahtawi and al-Bustani, in addition to Abduh, Adib Ishaq, Shibli al-Shumayyil, Farah Antun, al-Kawakibi and Mustafa Kamil" (p. xv). This is certainly the case regarding Arab political nationalism, but the same conclusion cannot be reached for Arab cultural nationalism, especially in the cases of Abduh and al-Kawakibi. Both figures were active participants in the Islamic modernist Salafiyya movement which emphasized Arab Islam and the Arabic language concurrently with modem sciences. Choueiri could have benefited from C. Ernest Dawn's study, "From Ottomanism to Arabism: The Origin of an Ideology,"(2) which does not appear in his bibliography.

Despite these limitations, Arab History and the Nation-State remains a welcome critique of the work of some Arab historians. Such a critique, which draws the line between the historian and the ideologue, may have been long overdue.

(1) Labib Zuwiyya Yamak, The Syrian Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis (Cambridge, 1966). (2) In his book, From Ottomanism to Arabism: Essays on the Origin of Arab Nationalism (Urbana, 1973).
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Author:Haddad, Mahmoud
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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