Two new books about culture strangely complement each other: Mark Allen’s introduction to Arab culture and Lawrence Rosen’s essay on culture in relation to law. Everything Allen says about Arabs bears out Rosen’s message, which is that Arab culture is the Arab way of seeing the world, of organizing how Arabs relate to each other, of making the universe meaningful to them. Read Arabs if you can’t quite follow the abstractions of Law as Culture; read Law as Culture to understand why Arabs doesn’t need a separate chapter on law.
Both Allen, a thirty-year veteran of the British Foreign Service, and Rosen, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology at Princeton, focus on knowledge and uncertainty. Allen explains how knowledge of the Quran gives the Arab teacher authority, and how this knowledge is the sacred touchstone of truth and certainty. The old Arab society generated the sustaining context for certainty; now modernization is breaking down that cultural framework, so certainty is fading away. Arab identity is becoming vulnerable and confused. The trend of Allen’s argument suggests somber conclusions about the loss of certainty in the Arab world, for Arabs, to be sure, but also for others.
Rosen’s focus on knowledge operates in the other direction, but comes to the same place. He exposes as false the view that law is an independent source of truth. Jurisprudence has a tendency to treat law as something given in nature, with a capacity to discern facts and attain absolute truth. This idea Rosen is determined to denounce. He accuses various named and unnamed jurists of this error. Law, for him, has a much more creative and important role than settling disputes by revealing hidden facts and providing correct answers. Moreover, in his philosophy, certainty itself is suspect. Rosen doesn’t believe in independent facts, nor in absolute truth, nor in any absolutes whatever: “There is no such thing as natural law”, he writes, “only law naturalized.” His appears to be an extreme case of cultural relativism, the only absolute thing being the autogenic quality of human culture itself.
It is best to pay attention first to Arabs because it makes Law as Culture more accessible. Obviously we want to know more about the Arabs, and Arabs appears at one of these all too frequent moments when the whole world is acutely anxious about Arab-Israeli political tension. We wish we knew the Arabs better. We are concerned about the supply and price of Arab oil. Europe’s central and looming demographic...