Moslems and Arabs

Islam in Modern History.
by Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
Princeton University Press. 308 pp. $6.00.

Islam Inflamed.
by James Morris.
Pantheon. 326 pp. $5.00.


One of the main difficulties in assessing phenomena in the Islamic world derives from the circumstance that the Arabic language, indispensable for an understanding of the intellectual background of Moslem and more particularly Arab affairs, is extraordinarily difficult to learn. This simple fact makes specialists irreplaceable, and from the point of view of cultivated Westerners imposes a choice between the erudite approach and the casual effusions of journalists purveying “local color.”

Now most of us know the shortcomings of specialists. A lifelong study of Arabic, or of Islamic theology, does not necessarily imply qualities of insight, or for that matter anything beyond the fact, in itself sufficiently impressive, of having accumulated enough Arabic to be able to cope with texts. There are some notable exceptions, but the fact that the attainment of expertise is so cumbersome lays the scholar open to the charge of pedantry. This deficiency becomes more disquieting as the interplay of interests becomes more intense. We are progressively exposed to the disguised special pleading of propagandists, as well as to the lucubrations of the specialists. This is regrettable since, after all, Islam encompasses a substantial segment of humanity, covering as it does a third of Africa and a vast area of Asia. An awareness of basic similarities between Islam and Christendom, long overlaid by the historic European self-preoccupation, is now gradually reaching the wider public, and a growing stream of material has been pouring off the presses since the end of the last war. Two recent books dealing with this subject are excellent examples of different approaches: the scholarly and the reportorial, in this case with literary overtones.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, professor of Comparative Religion and director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, has undertaken a comprehensive survey of a number of Moslem civilizations (Arab, Turk, Pakistani) plus a general essay on the development of Islam in the modern world. On the whole he strikes a successful balance between professional scholarship and writing for the general public, but he lacks the penetration one has a right to expect from a leading scholar.

Professor Smith, like so many Anglo-Saxon enthusiasts before him, is deeply involved not only in the “Arab” past, but in present-day Arab propaganda, without, unfortunately, appearing to realize it. What is one to make, for instance, of a long section dealing with the Arabs in history which begins with “The Arabs are a proud and sensitive people”? This tone recurs in one form or another throughout the book, and where it does it blurs the perspective precisely when some crucial question of history or politics comes up for discussion, e.g., by lumping together “Arabs” and “Moslems” when it is necessary to keep them disentangled. Again, while paying lip service to the notion that Islam—like Christianity—is in principle indifferent to nationalism in its modern form, Professor Smith occasionally indulges in remarks such as “Nationalism, for Moslems, is everywhere a Moslem nationalism.” To the extent that there are nationalist movements in Moslem countries this is clearly not only true but trivial. But by stating it in this oversimplified form, Professor Smith manages to by-pass the deeper antithesis between the two movements (considered in terms of their spiritual implications) which has led to so much misunderstanding in Moslem and especially in Arabic-speaking countries.

The author’s infatuation with the rhetoric favored by propagandists leads him not only to refer continually to the “Arabs” as a people, even for periods when the meaning of “Arab” was profoundly different from later ages, but causes him to indulge in statements such as “the Arabs once produced one of the world’s great cultures.” Yet the whole point about the Arab past is that, whatever the impetus given by the Bedouin irruption from Arabia, Islamic civilization itself, with the exception of the language and the basic elements of religion (itself manifestly a borrowing from Judaism and Christianity), was the creation of those nationalities who were conquered by the Arabs, while remaining on a higher plane culturally and administratively: the Byzantines, Persians, Greeks, Jews, Arameans, etc., etc.

The author tends to employ the terms “Arab” and “Moslem” almost interchangeably: thus he refers to the initial failure of the Arabs to conquer Constantinople, which later, however, falls—in 1453—to the “second great wave of Islamic expansion.” The reader’s mind at this point is compelled to leap from one stage to the next: the “second great wave” which took Constantinople was, after all, that of the Turks, the people who oppressed the Arabs longer than any other and evoked a hatred among them which brought Arab nationalism into being at the end of the 19th century! More generally, the author’s constant references to Arab pride in the past appear strange, since one of the most striking things about this recovery of the ancient Islamic (not merely Arab) past is that it is largely due to the efforts of scholarly minds in Europe during the past three generations, who all wrote in German, French, or English. In fact there is no knowledge of any serious kind at all among contemporary Moslems about their past which is not due to these Western scholars. Folklore, legends, fables, etc., etc., survive indeed among the masses, coupled on another level with the traditional pietistic view of theologically trained Moslem scholars; but it is precisely since the spread of nationalism in the Moslem world that the concomitant extravagances of rhetoric about the glorious past have come to depend on the work done by European scholarship.

Professor Smith’s susceptibility to propagandist rhetoric has also led him to underrate the part played by non-Moslems in the genesis of Arab nationalism. It is common knowledge that the very first impulses toward a modern “nationalist” conception of Arabic-speaking people took root in the Christian communities of Syria (including Lebanon) during the last third of the 19th century. This nationalist ferment passed into Syria chiefly via the foreign missions stationed there. To the Arabic-speaking Christians in their quest for a way out of their ghetto, glorification of the Arabic language, which they shared with their Moslem neighbors, was as natural as common aversion to the Turks. This circumstance may be displeasing to Moslems today, but for a scholar to disregard it seems puzzling. One also notes Professor Smith’s curious identification of Egypt with Arabism, notwithstanding the extreme novelty of this phenomenon.

These weaknesses are the more striking in view of such introductory remarks as “We shall see in the Arab a case of how terribly significant is this use of the mind not to solve problems, but to prove that they really do not arise.” The author is fully conscious of the profound importance to contemporary Islam of apologetics rather than analysis, and yet he falls prey to the prevailing tendency to concentrate not on the reality of the Arab world, but on the Arab ideologist’s myths about that reality. Needless to say, the “Zionist crisis” is an inevitable victim of this method. It seems perfectly reasonable to Professor Smith that Arab leaders representing fifty million of their fellow nationals—or for that matter, in their wilder moments, all 350 million Moslems!—turn hysterical when discussing the presence on one four-hundredth of their territory of one and a half million Jews! Arab hatred of Israel is incontestably a factor in the Middle Eastern imbroglio; the problem is how much of a factor it is and what its objective sources are. This question must be studied soberly, and not in terms of the conventional ax-grinding of politicians and journalists.



James Morris’s Islam Inflamed is a different kettle of fish altogether. Mr. Morris is a youthful British journalist who has made a considerable reputation for himself as a talented writer and observer; he makes no claim beyond this, but it is a great deal, and this book is a good example of his best qualities.

The book is actually a long essay on Egypt, with a tailpiece on the Sudan, followed by a casual sprinkling of notes and sketches on the remainder of the “Islamic world,” mostly odd points around Syria and the Persian Gulf. This travelogue is amplified by random observations on French, Russian, British, etc., policies, the whole united by little beyond an agreeable style. The title is thus a misnomer, but in justice to Mr. Morris it should be noted that the British edition bore a different designation. Its present form must be due to an understandable desire to cash in on the post-Sinai situation without annoying anyone by mentioning Israel, at any rate in the body of the book. Actually, a compromise has been found by providing the book with a bogus “live” framework, in the guise of a somewhat improbable conversation Mr. Morris is supposed to have had with an Israeli colonel in the Sinai Peninsula, in November 1956. Otherwise, except for a few banal references to Arab hatred of the Israelis, Israel is omitted altogether from a book subtitled by the publisher “A Middle East Picture.” Thus, only the Egyptian section of the work can be taken seriously.

With these qualifications it can be said that Mr. Morris’s observations are unusually well written, accustomed as we are to the same general sort of material being displayed in the implacable stereotypes of American journalism. His style has momentum, color, and elegance, and the Egyptian third of the book is exceedingly readable. In addition he has managed to do something which scarcely any journalist has ever done in Egypt: he has actually poked his nose into the sights, sounds, and smells beneath the surface, and something of the pervasive reek comes through.

But only on that level. Colorful reportage, however readable, does not convey insight, and Mr. Morris, unprepared for his trip to the Middle East by anything but a general education and his native acumen, continually stumbles over matters which require more than elementary knowledge. Thus he comments on the Bedouins having “advanced further along the road to Arab unity than anyone else,” a remark whose naivety is really quite breathtaking. The cleavage between the Desert and the Sown is perhaps the most deeply rooted division in the Middle East, and failure even to perceive its existence hardly reassures us as to the author’s grasp of the phenomena he describes so smoothly.

On the more contemporary and purely political plane, he swallows the usual nonsense distributed by the Egyptian regime to the innocent. One of the chief problems of Egypt is the increasing pressure to which all minorities have been subjected during the recent nationalist fervor; this does not, to be sure, have much to do with the theoretical claims of Islam to racial tolerance (which are justified—within Islam) but it is nevertheless a fact of moment to the minorities who are feeling the squeeze. This includes the most ancient minority of all, the Copts, whose history is as old as Egypt itself and who constitute over one-tenth of the population. Mr. Morris dismisses this human and political problem with an airy wave of the hand, after speaking sardonically enough of the polemical zeal of government propagandists; but his cynicism by-passes the point.

In the ordinary way such a book would simply be taken for the light reading it is. One of the characteristics of its style, however, is an urbane authoritativeness, and against this the unwary reader should be warned.



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