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A shallow attempt at Middle Eastern historiography
on 19 December 1998
Bernard Lewis' book 'The Middle East' is a testament to how irrelevant the debate over Orientalism has become. Edward Said was quite right 20 years ago to draw attention to the context in which Western scholarship of the Middle East was born. He armed a whole generation of educated youngsters in Arab-Islamic cultures humiliated by Western military imperialism and the cultural and economic imperialism that followed it once the armies had gone, ammunition they used at random in newspapers, in conversation on university campuses and in lecture rooms as perhaps a form of misplaced revenge.
But the accusation 'orientalist' somehow misses the point. It missed the point when Said wrote 'Orientalism' because Western scholars of the 'Orient,' for all the secularism of the West, wrote as believers in their own sacred history. What more, therefore, could we expect of their work other than it be to some degree or another an 'apology' or 'criticism' of Islam before the Christian West? Virtually everything they have written falls within these two parameters: apology-criticism, as 'explanation' to a skeptical Western audience. The majority of Muslim scholars of history in recent times have done exactly the same: they write as committed Muslims, who believe their own sacred history, and for the majority of scholars that is untouchable.
The loser in all this, however, is history itself, and this is why the debate about Orientalism now, two decades after Said blew it open, is even more irrelevant. A new body of scholars emerged in the 1970s which for the first time took the debate over how to interpret Arab-Islamic history out of the realms of religious polemic and into the fundamental issues of historiography: how is it that a new civilization comes into existence; are we really prepared to accept that it happened (all 200-300 years of it) on the back of a glorious decade or two, when the religion is supposedly perfected via the Quran and the Sunna; and where is the evidence for this?
Scholars such as Lewis will enter into great discussions and diatribes about the deterioration of the Islamic state during the time of the first four caliphs, ending in the first civil war, and portray this as a disaster for the new religion and its realm, but in doing so he is merely mouthing the stories of Muslim scholars who wrote over two centuries later. Why is it that the scholars of a civilization at its intellectual zenith talk of a brief golden age which steadily fell apart? Why does a religion which won the world talk as if that world is lost? Lewis doesn't enter these very serious issues because, like those Muslim scholars, Lewis is obsessed with the religion and not the civilization.
The new wave of scholars argue that they are trying to understand the formulation of a civilization, and that the traditional account of Islam -- its evolution, its deterioration and the great civilization that inhabited the wasteland of its 'deterioration' -- is too full of holes. A look at the source material is sobering: there is not one contemporary Muslim source for the story of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The earliest material that is recognizably Quranic is the text inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built c.688 CE). The earliest history is that of Ibn Ishaq who died over 100 years later in 767 CE and even then our versions of it are written another 100 years later. With every new history written in the Abbasid period (begun 750) more "facts" about the life of the Prophet and the early caliphs emerge. The stories fit into the stereotypes of the sacred histories of the peoples of Semitic civilization.
An example of a very real problem of Islamic history that those such as Lewis fail to address is the evidence that the Ummayyad caliphs thought of themselves as "viceroy (caliph) of God [Shiite ideology]" on earth and not "viceroy of the Prophet of God [Sunni ideology]," as the established Muslim canon maintains they were, following the death of the Prophet. In fact, a book was published on this subject and its huge implications by Martin Hinds and Patricia Crone in 1987, 'God's Caliph', and it is one of the most important scholarly works in the last 20 years on early Islamic history.
A new generation of historians argues there are simply too many problems with the source material to write a convincing history of early Islam, the Arab conquests, the early caliphs and the Ummayyad dynasty. We can only be sure of the outlines. Contemporary Christian sources even offer differing dates for the death of the Prophet. Lewis, Lapidus and others are frightened of touching these issues.
It is around 800 CE that modern scholars find themselves on much firmer ground vis-a-vis the source material. It is around this time, for example, that a caliph (Al Mamun) instigates an inquisition of the class of religious scholars. Al Mamun is also the caliph who openly played with Shiite politics by housing the imam of the time as a means of legitimizing his rule.
Ostensibly, this inquisition was to force the religious scholars (ulamaa') to accept a caliphal view on a nit-picking theological point about the Quran, which for the first time enters into the language of the source material in the definite sense we have of it now as 'a book.' But that these issues should be still open -- the role of the caliphs vis-a-vis the religious scholars, whose right was it to interpret the religious law, a supposedly Sunni caliph has a legitimacy problem -- is a fact of tremendous consequence. In the ensuing century, Islamic civilization comes alive: the hadith are compiled, the four schools of law crystallize, founding histories of Islam and grammars of Arabic are written. But the orientalists are too tied up in the sensitivities and political correctnesses of the present to deal with these important issues -- it is easier to stick within the bounds of apology-criticism of Islam as a religion (the Arab conquerors converted by the sword/the Arab conquerors did not convert by the sword), than to deal with the very real problems of historiography.
A more cynical opinion of Lewis at least is that such an enterprise would deprive him of his right to proffer his opinions on modern Middle Eastern politics. He insists on talking about such absolutes as 'Islam' and 'democracy.' In the final chapter of 'The Middle East', he appears to throw off all pretension to 'history' and enters into straight political opinion: "So-called Islamic fundamentalists [have] no use for democracy, except as a one-way ticket to power," and "European-style democracy is not dead in the Islamic lands and there are some signs of a revival." This biased generalization ignores the fact that the most European-style democratic regime in the region is very much on a one-way ticket to power and showing no signs of giving it up, and that the term 'Islamist' includes a powerful movement of educated people who advance a political program at least as democratic as any other political group in the country. And is democracy the only way forward? Effectively, Lewis mouths the most prominent excuse of our times offered by despotic, military regimes for going on and on and on: allow free elections and we allow the "fundamentalists" in.
Further, for all Lewis' interest in the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 he has little to say about modern Saudi Arabia, whose religion and politics is, in the view of many Arabs and Muslims, far more pernicious than that of Iran. Does their pro-Western stance make them less worthy of comment to Lewis? What about the opinion of the peoples he is actually writing about? Lewis tells us that the regimes of this century, cooped up inside their false borders perhaps, have nevertheless shown remarkable resilience -- and this says much about Lewis' attitude. As Said said in 1977, Lewis sees something inherently wrong with "change" or "revolution" in the region, more so if Islam has anything to do with it.
Edward Said himself recently noted that no adequate response has yet been made to the quiet revolution in Western scholarship on Islamic civilization. The truly secular approach which posits that Islam as we know it took some 200 years to formulate and evolve, and did not "pop out of the head of a prophet," is a far more serious attempt at 'history' than the "blockbusters" of Bernard Lewis, which have been spouting, in their countless numbers, essentially the same thing since the 1960s ad nauseam: that the Middle East as it is presently conformed, no matter the cost, must remain as it is. The society and civilization of the Arab Middle East is reduced from beginning to end to religion. For Lewis, before there was classical Islamic civilization there was 'Islam'. For Lewis, 'Islamists' today are en masse fundamentalists for Islam and not educated human beings who see the paradigm of Islam as the only one for the revival of their society, whose fabric they argue has been eroded by 200 years of ideas which belong essentially to another social environment.