Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Faber and Faber, 1991).

This is a rich and profoundly satisfying book, the high-water mark of Albert Hourani’s long and influential career as a writer and teacher. Hourani’s gifts as a teacher, and the care and affection he has devoted to his students, are legendary. He has shaped the perceptions and interpretations of the history of the modern Middle East of several generations of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, both in Britain and in the United States.

Albert Hourani’s parents came from Marjayoun, in south Lebanon, to Manchester in the early years of this century. He was born in Manchester in 1915, and went to teach at the American University of Beirut in the late 1930s, shortly after graduating from Oxford. During World War II he was attached to the British Foreign Office in the Middle East, and in 1947 he published two books, Minorities in the Arab World and Syria and Lebanon: a Political Essay, both of which are still widely read. Parts of his testimony to the Anglo-American committee of inquiry on Palestine in 1945 and 1946 have been reproduced in the various editions of Walter Laqueur’s Israel-Arab Reader.

In the early 1950s, he began his teaching career at Oxford, making several extended visits to Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s. Although formally retired for several years, he has continued to produce articles and books, and to supervise and advise graduate students and others working on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arab Middle East. He is the most distinguished, and the most respected, practitioner in this field in our time.

Before A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani’s principal work was Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939, first published in 1962, which deals with the reception of European political philosophy, and particularly the ideas of liberalism and the Enlightenment, in the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the various intellectual movements (the Arab literary revival, national self-consciousness, Islamic modernism, Arab nationalism) of the period. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age is one of the very few seminal works in modern Middle Eastern studies, and that small corpus has now been enlarged by its author’s latest book.

A History of the Arab Peoples is divided chronologically into five parts. The first covers the seventh to tenth centuries; the second, “Arab Muslim Societies,” the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. The remaining parts discuss the Ottomans, the age of European expansion and the age of nation-states. Part two contains a series of brilliant essays on the development and growth of what may be broadly described as major Islamic “institutions”: law, philosophy and the religious professions. While Hourani clearly endorses the view that the medieval Islamic period marked a golden age in volume and quality of artistic and intellectual creativity, a refreshing feature of his interpretation is that the discussion of subsequent periods is not suffused with nostalgia for a vanished past. Rather, he helps us to understand the nature of change whether in the context of intellectual life or of political institutions. Thus, Hourani redefines the notion of Ottoman decline; “it might be more correct to say that what had occurred was an adjustment of Ottoman methods of rule and the balance of power within the Empire to changing circumstances.”

Hourani’s approach is interpretative and analytical; the book assumes a basic grasp of the narrative of Arab and Islamic history. To take an example from the modern period, World War I and the peace settlement are covered in a page and a half, but this brief account is part of a chapter entitled “The Climax of European Power, 1914-1939,” which is followed by “Changing Ways of Life and Thought, 1914-1939.” Together the two chapters trace the impact of direct European colonial penetration upon the region, disentangling the profound from the superficial. Here as elsewhere this comparative-synchronic approach gives the reader a framework for appreciating and understanding local manifestations of phenomena affecting the region generally.

The thematic arrangement of the book makes it possible to follow certain trends and developments over time. The great cities of the Middle East and North Africa, their rulers, their elites, their scholars — and their peoples, have been one of Hourani’s abiding concerns; the introductory article in the collection entitled The Islamic City (which Hourani and his close friend and colleague Samuel Stern edited in 1970) is much more than a summary of the state of the art at that time, and his essay on “Ottoman Reform and the Politics of notables” (1968) has inspired several books and doctoral theses. In A History of the Arab Peoples, we see the ways in which cities were able to become centers of civilization and culture because of their capacity to extract the surplus from their hinterland; Damascus was able to become the Umayyad capital for this reason, and Baghdad was constructed as the new Abbasid capital because of its location in a rich agricultural area.

Hourani stresses the intimate rapport between city and countryside, showing that in spite of the exploitation of the latter by the former in more recent times, there was a degree of interdependence in the relationship as well. Thus the ruling dynasties often originated in the countryside; to maintain their power they needed to participate in (or tax) urban trade and wealth, and they needed religious legitimation from the city’s ‘ulama’. In return, they tried to uphold a political framework within which economic prosperity, justice and the social morality of Islam could flourish. The city was the center of law and order, providing stability and regulation for the population as a whole. Particularly after the eighteenth century, men of talent from rural backgrounds founded “dynasties” of notables from lowly beginnings as teachers or jurisconsults; at least from the early modern period onward, families of ‘ulama’, whose wealth was based substantially on their control of religious endowments (awqaf) and their function as qadi or mufti, showed greater continuity than families of “secular” merchants or officials.

It is impossible to do this book justice in a brief review. It is a measure of the scale of Hourani’s achievement that although his main scholarly interests (in terms of publications) have always lain in the modern period, the accounts of early Islamic society and the development of Islamic institutions are among the strongest parts of the book. Throughout, but especially in the chapters on the very different intellectual currents in medieval Islamic thought and Islamic society, Hourani emphasizes the variety and heterogeneity lying at the heart of Arab and Islamic civilization. Again, in the context of the Islamic movements in the 1970s and 1980s: “The word ‘Islam’ did not have a single, simple meaning, but was what Muslims made of it. For ‘traditional’ villagers, it might mean everything they thought and did. For more concerned and reflective Muslims, it provided a norm by which they should try to shape their lives and by which their acts could be judged, but there was more than one norm.” It is no accident that this is a history of the Arab peoples, in the plural rather than the singular.

Both in terms of his own background and in terms of his career and experience, Hourani is uniquely qualified to interpret some 1,500 years of Arab society to a non-Arab audience. It is good to know that the book has already enjoyed a runaway success, and that it has reached a readership far beyond the university; Hourani derived much wry amusement from the fact that for several weeks after its publication in the US, A History of the Arab Peoples shared the top few places in the non-fiction bestseller lists with Kitty Kelley’s exposé of the foibles of Nancy Reagan! Hourani writes beautifully, with a finely modulated appreciation and mastery of an enormous range of subject matter. This book displays immense learning, with a degree of grace and lucidity that makes it a joy to read. What comes out again and again is Hourani’s profound understanding of, and his abiding concern for, his subject matter. This an outstanding contribution from a great scholar, teacher and humanist.

How to cite this article:

Peter Sluglett "Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples," Middle East Report 178 (September/October 1992).

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