In a seminal moment of David Lean’s classic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, the eponymous hero momentarily turns upon the Arab allies he is aiding in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and exclaims in frustration, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people—greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”
When Lean’s film was appearing in theaters, less than 50 years after the events it portrayed, the politics of the Middle East seemed on the brink of proving the basic logic of Lawrence’s message. Arabs had finally come together in a shared, pan-Arab nationalism and seemed on the cusp of transforming their region—as the British empire retreated from, the Soviet Union armed, and the United States appeased their great nationalist leader, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, and its message—that the cruel reality of the Arab world was the result of external interference and internal division, and that only through the elimination of these things could its people be saved from that reality—helped shape a generation’s diagnoses of the problems in the contemporary Middle East.
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Tim Mackintosh-Smith is the most interesting author to grapple with his subject matter in a generation, in part because he is so immune to such romanticism. Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires was written not from the comfort of an academic study but from a medieval tower house in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital that has been his adopted home for over 30 years, and is a very direct product of this setting. The current civil war in Yemen—the third Mackintosh-Smith has lived through in the country—has confined him to a kind of “neighbourhood arrest” for over four years, which has given him plenty of time to ponder his subject. We read in the book about the falling mortar shells that shake his study; the nights he is kept awake by Saudi missiles pounding distant suburbs; and the morning sounds of marching schoolchildren chanting “death to America” drifting through his open windows. Arabs is dedicated to the memory of a “unified Yemen, 1990–2014,” but this is not the familiar cri de coeur we so often find in the dedications of professors of Middle Eastern Studies. It is the tribute of a veteran Arabist, sitting in his house in Sanaa, trying to understand why “the land…[he] love[s] is falling apart.”
Mackintosh-Smith begins from “the beginning” rather than, as is more common, from the emergence of Islam in the 7th century or the Arab national “reawakening” in the 19th. He makes the striking point that, between the first known inscription referring to Arabs in 853 B.C., and our present day, the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad marks only a midway point. The indispensable story of that first 1,400 years, neglected in the Islamic tradition as an “age of ignorance,” is the story of the emergence of the formal Arabic language, and its establishment, rather than shared ethnicity or territory, as the core of Arab identity.
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Scholars and pundits are regularly drawn into defensive debates about the Arab contribution (or not) to Western civilization—from the supposed rescue of ancient wisdom in the Middle Ages to the contested existence of an “Islamic Enlightenment,” variously identified and described. In response, Mackintosh-Smith offers the refreshing and powerful case that the Arabic language itself should stand as one of the great civilizational wonders of the world. For a millennium Arab society was almost entirely oral. And yet its itinerant poets, preachers, and tribes developed, by Mackintosh-Smith’s count, over 200 words for “beard,” 800 for “sword,” and 1,000 for “camel”—a rich treasure of vocabulary that was later organized into a grammatical system that is breathtaking even today in its sophistication and complexity. “[W]isdom descended from the heavens on three organs of the people of the earth,” went an adage the author says was already old in the 9th century: “the brains of the Greeks, the hands of the Chinese, and the tongues of the Arabs.”
The coming of Islam gave this culture its first book and its greatest literary masterpiece, the Koran. Throw aside your preoccupations with its claims to divinity or your fears for its more incendiary passages and just marvel at the sheer logistical feat of its creation. Muhammad could neither read nor write, so when, in A.D. 610, in a cave near Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, he began receiving revelations from (it is believed) the Angel Gabriel, he recited them to his followers, who in turn committed the verses to memory or jotted them down on anything they had to hand. Eighty thousand words of Scripture—written on papyrus, scratched on bits of leather, scribbled on palm leaves, carved on animal bones, or simply memorized by his followers—were eventually gathered and compiled by the third Caliph, Uthman, decades after Muhammad’s death in 632.
The text was a striking synthesis of multiple strands of contemporary political theology and metaphysics, influenced by Judaism, Christianity, and the ancient civilizations of southern Arabia, all expressed in the sonorous idioms of traditional Arabic oral poetry. As the eminent Oxford Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder once observed: were it not for the dogma of the Koran’s divine origins, Muhammad would probably be regarded as one of the world’s most gifted and original authors. There are reasons besides fanaticism why, if you travel to almost any country in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, you may find your taxi driver listening to a radio station which broadcasts nothing other than 24/7 recitations of its mellifluous verses.
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One of the most striking take-aways from a 3,000-year history of the Arabs is how ephemeral the era of their political ascendancy really was. This is perhaps the most remarkable effect of Mackintosh-Smith’s book. Muhammad was succeeded as the religious and military leader of the Muslim community by four of his close followers, known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” But their combined reigns lasted less than 30 years, and the third of them, Uthman, was brutally murdered by his rebellious armies while sitting at prayer in Medina. The resultant civil war raged on for five years under the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, whose death at the hands of conspirators in 661 marked the end of Arab rule from the Arabian Peninsula and created a permanent sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam. The second, Umayyad Caliphate, ruled from Damascus and lasted almost 90 years, from 661 to 750. Its achievements were many, but it is viewed with ambivalence in Arab and Islamic tradition, and it was only with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad after 760 that the “golden age” of a united Arab empire truly began. Yet even this era lasted only slightly over a century before setting into a pattern of bloody, terminal decline.
To be sure, the historical achievements of these three centuries were little short of miraculous. In the 100 years after Muhammad’s death, Arab Islamic “crescaders”—in Mackintosh-Smith’s mischievous phrase, referring to the crescent moon of the Islamic flag—conquered so much of the Old World so swiftly that the campaigns of Alexander the Great pale in comparison. By the 750s, Arab dominion stretched from present-day Spain and Morocco in the west to Uzbekistan and Pakistan in the east, containing almost all of the modern Middle East and North Africa in between. In early-800s Abbasid Baghdad, the four city gates were said to lead to all four corners of the known world, and the cultural efflorescence of its caliphal court remains a byword for intellectual inquiry and diversity.
Perhaps the spectacular ascent of this Muslim empire explains why, more than 1,000 years later, there’s still so much fuss over its having come to an end. And the end was pitiable indeed. Arab rule was formally dissolved by the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, when the 37th and last Abbasid “Caliph of all Muslims” was put in a sack and kicked to death by Mongol soldiers. Not the least of the indignities was that for much of the preceding three centuries, Arab caliphs had been puppets of the Turkish mercenary dynasties that ruled Baghdad—royal captives wheeled out on special occasions, garrotted and replaced as required in the course of their masters’ local struggles for power. It was a long way from the heroism of the great Arab commanders of the Islamic conquests—and it hadn’t needed the crusaders to bring things there.
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The challenge for any history of the Arabs is that for a span of almost 1,000 years, between the late 10th and the early 20th century, their story becomes inescapably the story of the Turks, Persians, Ottomans, and then Europeans who ruled them. A central question is therefore, why didn’t the Arabs go the way of the Romans? For Mackintosh-Smith, the answer is bound up in the special status the Arabic language had attained as the vehicle for Islam. While Islam’s mission is universal, its scripture reiterates time and again that God’s final message to mankind was delivered in the Arabic tongue, and Muhammad ensured that the ancestral Arab cities of Mecca and Medina would remain the spiritual focal points of the global community of believers. Thus even as Arabs suffered total political eclipse for 1,000 years, Arab society endured, precisely because its members knew in their hearts that they could never be a “silly” or a “little” people.
Indeed, Mackintosh-Smith suggests that the very same qualities that enabled Arabs to endure so long under foreign domination—a sense of primacy within Islam and dogged, patriarchal notions of racial purity—have also made their relationships with other societies, including Islamic ones, consistently difficult. As evidence of this, he deploys his remarkable command of the Arabic language to analyze the formal terms for inter-communal marriage: Hujnah, the term for the marriage of an Arab man to a non-Arab woman, suggests “hybridization.” Iqraf, the term for the converse union of a non-Arab man to an Arab woman, connotes “loathsome infection.” The terms are archaic, but some of the sentiment plainly endures, evinced in the discriminatory naturalization and citizenship laws on the books today in most modern Arab states.
When European ideas of nationalism entered the Middle East after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, they fell on predictably fertile ground. By the end of the 19th century, in Ottoman Damascus and British-ruled Cairo, a climate of cultural and intellectual fecundity gave rise to a national reawakening that continues to invite comparison with Abbasid Baghdad. Arab reformers and scholars authored searching inquiries into their own history, faith, and society—works that today would likely result in prosecutions for blasphemy in most countries of the Arab world, and certainly have gotten their authors “deplatformed” at present-day Ivy League universities.
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One account given by historians of what happened next is that the politics of this “Arabic Liberal Age” were poisoned by betrayals the Arabs suffered following World War I. Rather than liberating them from the Ottomans, as T.E. Lawrence had promised, the Treaty of Versailles placed even greater numbers of Arabs under European rule—which from then on stretched from Iraq to Morocco—and awarded the Jews a national home in Palestine. Independence came to weak and divided Arab kingdoms and republics, which proved no match for Israeli armies in 1948, 1956, and 1967. Thus, their secular nationalist project wholly scuppered by the end of the 1960s, the Arabs had little alternative than to turn—in a kind of political and metaphysical despair—to the forces of a revivalist and theocratic political Islam.
This, at least, is the received wisdom in almost every history of the modern Middle East—and Mackintosh-Smith gives us fresh reason to doubt it. One of the book’s greatest insights is that the secular Arab nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, and the political Islamism of its end, should be seen not as opposites but as two sides of the same coin. Mackintosh-Smith develops a highly sophisticated argument that any political movement revolving around the Arabic language—which was after all the only unifying feature available to Arab societies spread across a territory larger than Europe—was necessarily a backward-looking one. Formal Arabic is the mother tongue of no Arab society, which speak highly distinct local dialects, but it has retained its resonance for all of them as the “mother tongue” of Islam. Thus even as nationalists spoke of a secular future, they did so in the “past idiom.” (And Mackintosh-Smith might have added that, as a simple matter of territorial fact, successfully uniting an “Arab nation” would necessitate restoring the caliphate, which is the only historical precedent for such a project.)
The switch in the 1970s and ’80s from secular Arab nationalism to political Islam, with which the book ends, was not revolutionary but entirely natural—and would have been predicable had observers not been so carried away by the Modernization Theory shibboleths of Arab nationalist leaders. Both movements always pointed outward, faulting others—whether foreigners or imperialists, unbelievers or reactionaries—for causing the ills of the Arab world. Both proposed the same impossible palliatives of unity and revival. Arabism and Islamism, Mackintosh-Smith says, are unseparated Siamese twins. Strip away the secular garb, as the Lebanese-American historian Fouad Ajami wrote in 1981 while a professor at Princeton, and you will find “‘covert Islam,’ and covert Sunni Islam to be more precise.”
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The great late-Victorian conservative statesman, Lord Salisbury, speculated in an article in the London Quarterly Review in 1861 that the “natural tendency of mankind” pointed not “toward unity,” as is conventionally assumed, but rather “toward separation.” Of course, he made this remark with regard to a case where it proved emphatically not to apply—the American Civil War. But the reasons why he thought it should be so could be applied to most of the other unity projects that have plagued the political affairs of the past hundred years—Arab or African, European or United Nations. Because, Salisbury wrote, it “is only in the wreck of all ideals, and the collapse of all fantastic hopes, that sober, cynical Truth can make her prosaic accents heard.”
By the end of the Arabs’ political odyssey through the 20th century, stability and peace had come to those parts of the Middle East which had learned quickest that overcoming the barriers to localism can be as difficult and as important as overcoming those to globalism. It came to those states which had the confidence to assert that inward-looking societies can be as virtuous as outward-looking ones, and that parochial attachment to one’s small corner of the earth must not always defer to high-minded universalism. It came to those societies which recognized that to love your sheikh or little king is usually more fulfilling than conspiring for his destruction. A small state exporting dates and olive oil, as the reforming Tunisian Islamist Rached Ghannouchi recently put it, is likely to be much happier than one which sets itself up as a base for exporting revolution. Ultimately, to be a Jordanian or Tunisian, a Saudi or a Kuwaiti, or simply to be a proud resident of Beirut, Cairo, or Paris, offers more meaning and attachment than being the citizen of any imagined world ever could.