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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

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Intro to: 'History of the Arabs', by Philip K. Hitti, 1937 10th edition 2002.

Brilliant, detailed, flawed and increasingly irrelevant. But he shaped our view of the Arab world.

by Ferdinand III

It is not an exaggeration to state that Hitti as an intellectual shaped our society's view on an important topic namely, the Western cultural disposition towards Arabs, Arab history and by extension, Muslims, Islam and Islamic history. Hitti thus ranks with historian Steven Runciman as a man who has had a profound impact on our world-view. It was Runciman's 1950s work which formed the 'mainstream' view that the Crusades were outlandish brutalities, fomented by half crazed religious brutes, who were expressing European and White desire for imperial bounty and land, and who gloried in blood, war, rapine and devastation. Runciman's thesis is trash ignorance, ahistorical, vapid and unsupported, but it is the one taught in the West. Likewise Hitti's sometimes painful to read panegyric to the Arabs has influenced generations since its creation in 1937. Almost all of the academic-media and elite attitudes towards Arab history and Islamic development can trace their origins, their writings, their expressions, to Hitti's research.

Hitti was of course an Arab, born in Lebanon into a Maronite-Christian family. This fact is usually forgotten. As an Arab he possesses an innate and distorted view of the Arab world which colors his informative and professional view. His 'History' is thus in the main, though not at all times, a pro-Arab panegyric. It would be as if a modern French scholar wrote a weighty opus on the glories [which of course do exist in abundance, along with munificent liabilities] of France. I would expect Hitti to put the Arabs in the best possible light since he was born one. Ironically it was Arafat, the Egyptian born terrorist and his Arab legions in the PLO who murdered 100.000 Maronite Christians 'in the name of Islam' and who invented 'Palestine'. I wonder if Hitti would revise his opinion of Arab culture in the light of the Maronite genocide considering that he was a Maronite. Probably not since Hitti never once mentions – not once – the genetic and theological fact of Arab and Moslem anti-semiticism. This animating force of Arab and Moslem imperialism and related atrocity is not cited. This omission and many other problems mar the work of course.

But let's not be too negative. There is much to commend in this huge work which stretches over 700 dense, small font pages. It is not an easy read but the information compiled is the most impressive accumulation of Arab history one will find. To read this magnum opus is to undergo an education. It took Hitti the academic at Princeton, 10 years to write the original work, commissioned in 1927 by Macmillan publishing. He spent a further 30 years updating the book, travelling the Arab world, assessing information and creating new editions. Hitti's work is thus a 40 year project. It has been translated into over 10 languages, undergone 10 editions, and is used as a primary textbook in colleges and universities across the globe. Hitt's impact on culture and academia is serious and profound.

The necessary length and density of the book is due to its vast scope. The core of the work covers more than 1000 years of history, from the pre-Islamic pagan era to the Ottoman conquest of the Arabs in the early 16th century. The last part or 50 pages is Hitti's personal observations of the political-cultural developments in the Arab from the Ottoman takeover of Greater Arabia to the 1970s. This piece of the book is probably not nearly as valuable as the first 4 parts which are 90% or more of the opus.

Hitti narrates the origins of the Arabs, the Semites [whom he erroneously suggests came out of Arabia, when Semitic Hebrews were certainly of Mesopotamian origin, or from modern day southern Turkey], the emergence of what he rightly calls the political-warrior Muhammad; and the rise of Islam and the early 'Righteous Caliphate'. The History then traces the virulent and rapid spread of Islam across North Africa, into Iberia and France, and to Western China in the East. Hitti spends a lot of time describing the rise and fall of the two central Arab caliphates the Umayyad [661-750] and the Abbasid [750-1258]. The former was based in Damascus and the latter in Baghdad until it was utterly effaced by the Mongol invasion under Hulagu in 1258. The Moslem empire was saved by the Mamlukes or Turkish slaves of Egypt who defeated the ferocious Mongols, pushed them back into central Asia, converted them; and then went on to set up the Osman-Ottoman empire which reached its apogee of power, as the leading empire in the world, in the 16th century. After the defeats at Malta in 1565, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1683, the end of the Ottoman caliphate was only a matter of time.

A strength of Hitti's story is his description of the centrifugal forces at work within the Arab and Moslem empires; the succession of dynasties and caliphs; the details of the Sunni-Shia schism; the development of sub sects and cults within Islam; and the penetration of the urbanized Arab elite by non-Arab Muslims including Persians, Turks, Mongols, Berbers and slaves. This information is very deep and fascinating and often ignored in other histories of the Arabs and Moslems. He also rightly describes Islam as a political-social ideology and not a religion. The merger of church and state and the intolerant nature of Koranic theology make war, conflict and imperialism inevitable. Hitti is right when he claims that the culture of Islam is centered around political power, military expansion and imperialist intent.

Hitti also however constantly stresses the 'genius' of Arab civilisation without offering much in the way of proof. He makes the oft-cited but completely erroneous error of ascribing too much influence of Arab 'thought' in the development of the European Renaissance for example. Arabs and Moslems invented very little and created very little outside of literature and the intolerant Koranic theology. Hitti admits this in many passages as well. The Arabs and Moslems were transmitters between civilisations not the creators of civilisations. Any of the supposedly brilliant lights which did shine in the Arab world during its mythical 'golden age' [which is an example of academic fantasy]; were almost exclusively non-Arab and neo-Moslems including Jews, Greeks, Christians, Berbers, and Persians. They were as well quite few in number when compared to the European renaissances [plural is the correct view], which were in train between 500 and 1500 AD. In fact the paucity of inventions, learned men and those of culture in the Arab-Moslem world when compared to Europe does not even merit a mention in this book.

Hitti cheerfully admits that even in Spain the 'Moors' were Hispanics, who converted for many reasons, to Islam, and it was these 'Moors' or neo-Moslems who developed the southern Spanish economy to reach some levels of prosperity in particular during a 40 year period between 960 and 1000 AD – called the Golden Age of Arab history. But the Moors as Hitti proves were not Arabs. They were largely indigenous Hispanics, with some inter-marriage with Arab families. Yet in this and other examples we are told that these men of higher culture are part of an 'Arab' history. The Hispano-Arab Caliph might have been a part of the 'Arab world' but that is not the same as being developed by Arab culture or mores. In fact it is clear that Spain was devastated and regressed for centuries under Moslem rule. Yet Hitti never engages in telling this part of the story. As a corollary it would be as if the Russians had conquered America during the Cold War, and rewrote history to emphasize that the great men of 18th to 20th century America were actually Communists and future historians looked back and believed it and wrote it down as a fact. This would not be history but a polemic. America might have languished under Communist control as a prosperous state for a few decades until it was destroyed; but in that intervening period one could not say that the Communist empire 'created' either American historical greatness; nor the ongoing energy and dynamism allowed it to survive a system of exploitation for a few decades. Hitti's assessment of Spain which has had such a profound impact on our view of Arab-Moslem development, is as unbalanced as a historian in the scenario mentioned above, writing that the vast array of American technological and financial advancement during the 20h century, was due to the Communist culture which conquered it in the mid 20th century. It is simply a bizarre world view.

The reality of Islamic imperialism is that once rich areas were for a time, with no exceptions during Moslem imperialism, completely devastated. Wealthy areas of culture and commerce such as Granada or Cordoba, built on the existing prosperous Visigothic states and trade patterns with Italy, were under the rule of the minority Arabs, scenes of pogroms, mass destruction of Jewish and Christian society, and endless yearly raiding into non-Moslem territory with the expressed intent of capturing lucrative White slaves, exquisite females for sex concubinage and the plundering of crops and assets. Incredibly Hitti does not mention any of these more demonic aspects of Moslem and Arab rule though he does state that under 3 Caliphs, the Jews and Christians had to wear distinctive clothing, undergo social demonization, and had many of their key churches and places of worship [including the Holy Sepulchre] razed. But his commentary on Arab and Moslem violence and warring, the destruction of Dhimmi culture, is so mild, as to be almost missed by the reader.

Hitti also does not mention the cutting off of trade with parts of Europe which lasted for centuries; the economic contraction around the Mediterranean basin which lasted at least from 700 to 1000 AD, which is simply an economic and historical fact [an example is papyrus which forced Europe to invent parchment]; the annihilation of technology, infrastructure and culture across the Moslem conquests including that of Persia ; nor the number of White slaves culled by the Arabs and Moslems which totalled in 1000 years around 10 million souls. Such an unbalanced narrative is not a pure history, but a pseudo polemic.

Hitti displays an obvious bias – since he is an Arab – to extol developments within the Arab world during its expansion and imperialism, and to ignore its liabilities. Whilst it is certainly true that Arabs and some caliphs did rebuild and create irrigation systems, canals, urban architecture, and trade infrastructure, it was limited, confined to certain periods and devoid of technological development. The Europeans by 1000 AD had far more advanced machines, tools, weapons, mills, building techniques [see Gothic architecture]; and roads on which complex carts with axles and brakes – unknown in the Arab world – knitted together an increasingly dynamic pan-Euro economy.

One positive attitude displayed by Hitti is his careful focus on the continuous cross-fertilization between East and West, via the Arab and Moslem empire which straddled the Middle Sea. All aspects of society in both West and East would have been affected. Yet it is a historical fact that the Christians in Europe were far more willing to take ideas, adapt, change and use them, to their advantage; than the Moslems or Arabs. Hitti seems to relish in repeating the simpleton Arab and Moslem propaganda emitted during the middle ages and the Crusades, in which Europeans are criticized as 'barbaric'. Much as the ancient Greeks categorized anyone who was not Greek as a 'BarBar' or a person who spoke an unintelligible and inferior language and were therefore by definition themselves subordinate to Greek genius; we can view the Arab-Moslem propaganda against the Crusades as part of the Islamic culture of supremacism, a 'divine' right to rule; embedded in a culture arrogantly certain that it was superior, when in fact it was already by 700 AD quite inferior in most ways.

Hitti's work is thus deeply flawed. We will post both the good and bad from the book in some more detail in later posts. But the message is this: put the author in context – who is he, what is he, where does he write from, is he an academic with a predisposition ? When you analyze this great book, and it is indeed a great work of research and writing, the view of the author is of paramount importance. Hitti wrote his work to convince the reader that for all its theocratic imperialism and attendant carnage that Arab and Moslem society has benefited civilisation. An objective reading of both Arab and Moslem history reveals the opposite to be true.



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