In 1970 Cambridge University Press defined the state of Orientalism by publishing The Cambridge History of Islam — a conceptually barren and supremely boring tome whose main claim to distinction may be that Edward W. Said devoted several pages of Orientalism to excoriating it as “an intellectual failure.” It is a measure of the intellectual and political progress in Middle East studies over the last two decades that Albert Hourani, a perceptive critic of The Cambridge History of Islam, was chosen as advisory editor, with Trevor Mostyn as executive editor, for a new Cambridge reference work, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa. This is a handsome, well-illustrated volume, a cross between a coffee table book and a reference work, emphasizing the modern Middle East — one of the topics least well served by the old Cambridge History of Islam. Unlike the format of standard encyclopedias, the articles are integrated into a coherent design which includes geographical and historical overviews and sections on societies and economies, culture, individual country surveys for the period since 1939 and interstate relations. The country surveys contain the standard sort of information found in area handbooks. The economic sections tend toward a businessman’s view of the region — sympathetic but above all profit-seeking. It is a pleasure to read the innovative sections on cuisine, music and cinema. The authors are scholars and seasoned journalists, including several contributors and members of the editorial family of this magazine.
Cambridge University Press has not abandoned the project of providing a definitive history of Islam. Ira Lapidus’ A History of Islamic Societies (1988) is its nominee to replace the Cambridge History of Islam. As it was written by a single author, this book has a structure and analytical purpose largely lacking in its predecessor. Its geographical range is very wide: from sub-Saharan Africa to central Asia, from Morocco to Indonesia. Lapidus’ focus on the communal, religious and political institutions of Islamic societies indicates his intellectual affinity to the Orientalist tradition and Weberian sociology. Many readers of this magazine may prefer a historical synthesis giving more priority to political economy and material culture. It would have been interesting and useful if Lapidus had engaged in a sustained debate with the two other major comprehensive histories of Islam to appear in the 1970s — M. A. Shaban’s two-volume Islamic History (Cambridge, 1976) and Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam (Chicago, 1974). Lapidus' work, unlike much scholarship in the Orientalist tradition, is informed by an attention to questions of social theory and historical method and demands serious engagement, even by those who favor alternative approaches.
The presence of feminist scholarship has made recent annual meetings of the Middle East Studies Association much more interesting and enjoyable by injecting new intellectual tension and a humane and less stuffy style to the proceedings. As feminist scholars have become established they are beginning to challenge some of the naive assumptions of social science method that have been in question for some time in other fields but have remained strong influences guiding much work done on the Middle East. Among the most pervasive of these doctrines is that of the objectivity of the scholar and its corollary, value-free social science. If the personal is political, surely the scholarly is too. Or, as several of the contributors to Soraya Altorki and Camillia Fawzi El-Solh, eds., Arab Women in the Field: Studying Your Own Society (Syracuse, 1988) argue, the scholarly is also personal. The contributors to this volume — Middle Eastern women engaged in the scholarly study of their own societies — have reflected on the problems and challenges this activity has raised for them. None of the authors offers a fully elaborated theoretical conclusion. The most radical statements are by Lila Abu-Lughod and Suad Joseph, the former American-born, the latter raised here. Suad Joseph’s chapter is the boldest in breaking down the formalistic and ultimately unsustainable barriers between the personal, the political and the intellectual, asserting that “we are always studying ourselves.” This capacity for radical deconstruction of received categories gives feminist scholarship great potential for recasting the study of the Middle East.
Veteran observers of the Palestine-Israel conflict may be familiar with the translations from the Israeli Hebrew press produced and informally distributed by Hebrew University professor Israel Shahak for more than a decade. The American Educational Trust, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, is now making From the Hebrew Press: Monthly Translations and Commentaries from Israel by Israel Shahak available. The translations, spiced with Shahak’s pungent introductory and parenthetical comments, have emphasized the most outrageous examples of racism, religious coercion, corruption, excesses by the military and undemocratic practices in Israeli society. These are commonly reported in the liberal Israeli Hebrew press but, despite the intifada, typically receive little or no attention in this country. The Shahak translations emphasize extreme cases, suggesting that they reflect the prevailing norms in Israel. Such cases occur frequently enough so that they can not be dismissed as anomalies, and the translations often yield valuable insights unavailable elsewhere. Shahak’s method may occasionally be misleading if the translations are regarded as a comprehensive summary of the Israeli news rather than a supplement to other sources. The US editors of the translations do not know Hebrew, so a few errors in the names of people and places inevitably appear and users should check items they intend to quote.