by Bernard Lewis
During the last few weeks of 1992, I spent most of my time reading and re-reading three of my earlier works, which all arrived at about the same time and for the same purpose: the preparation of a new and revised edition. No doubt those who sent them had been aiming at the Christmas vacation, when I was deemed to be free and available. The result of this was that for a period of something like six weeks, I had an almost unrelieved diet of eating my own words—a diet which I found neither tasty nor nourishing. I had, after all, read it all before. This experience nevertheless provoked a number of reflections, some of which I incorporated and published in new prefaces; others I will share with my readers now.
The most important of the three books——and the only one I shall discuss here—was the oldest: The Arabs in History, first published in 1950. That story begins in early August 1946, when, out of the blue, I received a letter that filled me with incredulous delight. It came from the great and famous historian Sir Maurice Powicke, the Regius professor of modern history at Oxford University and a very eminent medieval historian. The reader may wonder now, as I did then, why a medieval historian was the professor of modern history. The explanation that was given at the time was that at Oxford University modern history begins with the fall of Rome. The letter from Sir Maurice contained an invitation. He was the general editor, he said, of a new series of short historical books to be published by the house of Hutchinson, and he was actually asking me (and here I quote from his letter) if I “would be willing to write a short volume of 60,000 words on the Arabs in History” (the title, as the reader will see, was his). He enclosed a document stating in general terms what the series was about, and explained more specifically what he wanted from me. Again I quote:
I don’t want either a textbook or a work of compact reference, but rather a live essay, which might become a little classic among a wealth of learned and topical literature—clear, well-proportioned, authoritative and easy to read. I think that it is needed, and that you would have an opportunity welcome to you as a scholar and as a man interested in affairs.
(This is the language of 1946, and should not be misunderstood.) Sir Maurice went on to say that if I were “inclined to accept this suggestion”, he would be “glad to have some statement about the range and treatment of the book as you envisage it.” I replied, of course, accepting the invitation with enthusiasm, and I submitted the general plan for which he asked.
Two weeks after his first letter, Sir Maurice sent me a second letter indicating his satisfaction with my willingness to “write the book on the Arabs” and adding some further advice:
I gladly accept your general idea of its arrangement. I would only beg you to remember the point to which I attach much importance—that it should not suffer as a work of art from too much detail. In such a subject—so large, important and comprehensive—it would both be impossible to do more than give a selection, and fatally easy to spoil the essay in literary form by a relaxation of attention to its purpose. This is a great chance for a young scholar, just because only a scholar can take it.
A few days later the mail brought me an even more astonishing document-a real contract from a real publisher with the promise of an advance, in the princely amount of £75, payable on the delivery and acceptance of the completed manuscript. Now £75 may not seem like very much today, but at that time it was sufficient to buy me a one-month honeymoon in Sweden, and thus enable me to escape from the austerities of postwar Britain and briefly enjoy the luxuries of neutrality. It may give some perspective if I mention that my initial salary on appointment as an assistant lecturer was £250 a year, and that by this time I had reached the exalted figure of £600 a year. So this advance marked a definite change in my economic status.
Looking back now, more than half a century later, I am still amazed and bewildered at two things: at Sir Maurice’s trustfulness in issuing this invitation, and at my own temerity in accepting it. After all, I was still very young to be writing a “classic” and still a relative beginner in my profession, and this, from Sir Maurice’s description of it, seemed more like the kind of book that should be written after a lifetime of scholarship, of teaching, of reflection. It is true that when I received Sir Maurice’s invitation, technically I had been a university teacher for eight years, since my first appointment at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, but of those eight years, only three had actually been spent at the university teaching: the first two and the last. The rest of the time I had been on temporary unpaid leave of absence and engaged in war duty—military and other. My war service had left me with an intimate but highly specialized knowledge of certain aspects of the contemporary Middle East, but it had also left my scholarly skills, both of enquiry and of exposition, sadly depleted.
When Sir Maurice’s letter arrived, I was just beginning to learn my trade again. My published work was minimal; it consisted of a shortened but otherwise unimproved version of my doctoral dissertation, published not because it was ready for publication but because I was about to go off to the wars, and the University of London publications committee offered me what at the time might well have been a last chance. Apart from the thesis, I had published few other odds and ends; I shall not be specific because on some of them I now look back with more embarrassment than pride.
Why me? Sir Maurice’s reason for sending this invitation to me rather than to anyone else was certainly not my reputation, which at that time was justly non-existent, but the recommendation of my former teacher, Professor H.A.R., later Sir Hamilton, Gibb. Professor Gibb’s reason for choosing me rather than any of his other disciples to recommend to Sir Maurice was known to me. He had told me many times that, as far as he knew, I was the first professional historian in Britain to study and teach Arab history and that, apart from one other person, a Frenchman called Claude Cahen whom I later got to know, he thought I was probably the only one in the Western world. Otherwise, he said, the history of the Arabs and of the other peoples of the Middle East was taught—if at all—either by orientalists trained in the disciplines of philology or theology or both, but without the skills of the professional historian, or else by teachers of imperial or diplomatic history, without any knowledge of Arabic and therefore of the sources and literature available only in that language.
I think that Gibb was a little hard on himself and on some other scholars—names like Christian Snouck Hurgronje and Julius Wellhausen immediately come to mind-who were good Arabists and who were I think historians in the true sense of the word. But in what one might call the trade-union sense, of holding the professional qualifications of an historian—having an honors degree in history or equivalent, and holding a full-time appointment in a history department—he was probably right that Claude Cahen and I were the only ones. My assistant lectureship in “the History of the Near and Middle East”, created in the autumn of 1938, was, as far as I am aware, the first and for a long time remained the only such appointment in any history department. And it was not until the great expansion of oriental and African studies in the late 1940s and early 1950s that many new posts were created in universities in Britain, in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world. I remained an active member of the history school in London University until 1974, when I moved to Princeton and, for the first time, found myself a professor not of history but of Near Eastern Studies.
The writing of the book took three months; but publishing was a slow and difficult business in those immediate postwar years, and it did not actually appear until 1950. Both of the book’s godfathers—Sir Hamilton and Sir Maurice—declared themselves satisfied, to my immense relief. It was widely and favorably reviewed in the daily and weekly press in England and, later, in scholarly journals both at home and abroad.
I was particularly gratified by the fact that the book received on the whole a friendly welcome in the Arab world. One of the outstanding Egyptian historians of the time, Shafiq Ghorbal, actually made it the subject of a broadcast talk, later published as an article, in which he cited it (and this is deliciously ironic) as an example of the valuable contribution with which orientalist scholarship could enrich the Arabs’ understanding of their own heritage by placing their history within a larger historical context, at that time little known to them. The book was even translated into Arabic by two respected Arab historians, Nabih Faris and Mahmud Zayid, and published by the optimistically entitled publishing house Dar al-‘Ilm li’l-Malayin (Science for the Millions) in Beirut. Even more surprisingly, it was included by the Information Office of the Arab League in Washington and New York in the shortlist of recommended reading for Americans wanting to know more about the Arabs and their history. It was translated in several other Muslim countries, into Turkish, Malay and Indonesian, as well as into Chinese and Japanese, into various European languages, both eastern and western and, all but the last chapter, into Hebrew. (I was given two different reasons for the omission of the last chapter from the Hebrew translation: one was that the publisher ran out of money; the other that they didn’t like the last chapter. I don’t know which was the real one; perhaps both.) One of the more striking responses was a notification from my Yugoslav publisher that I had an account of 40 dinars in a bank in Zagreb which I was at liberty to collect any time convenient to me. I never actually got round to it.
The welcome to the book was by no means unanimous. It was promptly banned in the newly-established Republic of Pakistan because of a disrespectful reference to the Prophet which I had quoted from Dante as an example of medieval European prejudice and bigotry. It is the famous passage (Inferno, xxviii, 35) in which Dante in his travels in Hell encounters the Prophet, condemned as a “seminator di scandalo e di scisma.” More recently the book has been attacked again, especially and indeed principally by exponents of the new school of epistemology, for similarly weighty reasons.
The English original seems to have been widely read and ran through five editions and a much larger number of impressions. I was then and, to be honest, remain puzzled at the continuing success and survival of the book, and even (and this may strike the reader as odd) at times somewhat irritated. This was a book written by a young, immature and inexperienced scholar in three months. I have, after all, written other things since then, based on deeper research and wider knowledge, the fruit of experience and I hope greater wisdom, the preparation of which was measured not in months but in years and even decades. Yet until the sudden spike of public interest in these matters after 9/11, none of them remotely approached the continuing popularity of this sin of my youth.
From the remarks cited above, I am sure the reader will agree that the success of the book owed much to the initial guidance of Sir Maurice Powicke who, so to speak, pointed me in the right direction, gave me a push, and then let me find my own way. Its survival, I suppose, is principally due to the shortage of competing books dealing with Arab history with the same brevity and at the same level of generalization.
As time passed, I became less and less satisfied with what I had written in the last months of 1946 and the early months of 1947. The publishers brought it out again and again, and for each reprint, invited me to make some changes. The changes that I could make were very limited. They insisted on maintaining the type, so that any omission had to be compensated by an addition, and vice versa, and any change affecting the length of a line had to be compensated before the end of the paragraph. One line more or less would have been a disaster, reverberating to the end of the chapter. Obviously there are limits to what one can do while maintaining the existing type. It gave me the opportunity to correct a few statements which, for one reason or another, were no longer true. I could for example switch from one Yemen to two Yemens and then back to one Yemen, and adjust the number of member states of the Arab League as required. Such changes were fairly easy. I was even able to make a few more substantial changes by juggling the number of words or signs in a line and to do some scholarly updating, but all that was very limited. I could also cope with simple changes—for example to record, in successive editions, the creation in 1958 and dissolution in 1961 of the United Arab Republic.
After the sixth edition the original publishers, Messrs. Hutchinson of London, decided that they had had enough. As part of a general restructuring of their activities, in which the whole series to which my book belonged was abandoned, they said that they would let it go out of print. Oxford University Press then proposed to take the book over, but they wanted me to do a thorough revision. They were prepared to re-set the whole thing from scratch, so I was no longer to be bound in the chains, so to speak, of type. This gave me a chance to re-examine the book more thoroughly and to undertake a more comprehensive overhaul.
Their intention, and initially mine too, was to revise principally the last part. After all, we agreed, the earlier history hadn’t changed very much. It was the most recent part, on the 20th century, that would be most in need of revision, as quite a lot had happened in the Middle East since the early months of 1947. Initially, I shared this view. But the idea that the earlier history hadn’t changed turned out to have been deeply flawed, as I should have seen from the start. Re-reading the text that I had written almost 45 years earlier, I soon realized that many more changes would be needed before I could in honesty present it as a “revised and updated” edition. The publishers, obviously, would not be satisfied with anything less. Understandably, they wanted to market this by now old book as a revised and updated edition, and I would have to honor those words. The result was a whole series of changes, on virtually every page of the book—an interesting indication of the scholarly, intellectual and linguistic changes that take place over almost half a century.
Many of the changes were purely verbal. There were even a number of places in the book where I had to change the text in order to retain the original sense, because many English words had changed their connotation or even their meaning. One example is the use of the words “race” and “racial.” In England in 1946 and 1947, these words were almost invariably used where nowadays one would use such words as ethnicity or ethnic. When I joined the British army in 1940, I was given a form to fill in and one line said “Race.” This was the first time I had ever encountered the word race in an official document, and I didn’t know what the form’s authors wanted. (If I had been joining the German army, I would have known what they meant; but I was joining the British, not the German army.) I went to the sergeant in charge and asked him if he could explain to me what race meant, and he gave me the sort of pitying look that sergeants had for the raw recruits with whom they had to cope. He tried to explain, but I didn’t really get much from his explanation. So I asked, “Well, am I supposed to put Jewish here?” “No”, he said, “that’s your religion. They don’t ask you two different questions with the same answer. We’ve already got that. This is your race.” So I said, “Well, what?” Nowadays I suppose I would say white or Caucasian, but that wouldn’t have entered my mind at that time. White was a color—or the lack of one; Caucasian meant people with names like Djugashvili. So he explained to me, slowly and carefully, that as far as the British army was concerned, there were four races, and I had a free choice between the four: English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.
To use the word race in this sense in a book published in 1993 would have been offensive and, what is more important, misleading. In most places where I had used the words race or racial in the original edition, I substituted ethnic. The word race has virtually disappeared from the book, since I was not talking about differences of race in the modern Americanized sense of the word, which is really the old anthropological meaning, now become general.
Another word, “class”, has also changed both its content and its significance, both in the common usage of our time and in my own perception of it. In the first edition, I frequently used class in ways that now seem to be loose and inaccurate, and at times even tendentious. I retained it where it seemed appropriate, but in most places where I had used the word class I replaced it by other terms, more precise where the evidence permitted, less specific where the evidence did not permit.
There are other words that have changed or lost their meaning, and words that have simply become unacceptable. Sometimes, as I said, even where I had no desire to change the meaning of words that I used in 1947, I found it necessary to change the words themselves in order to convey the same meaning more accurately to the present-day reader.
Re-reading the old text, I was also jarred in a number of places by the use of what now struck me (though obviously it didn’t then) as ideologically slanted language; terms, forms of words which were fashionable and acceptable at that time but are no longer in accord with contemporary opinion, including—more especially—my own.
All these were verbal changes. Of far greater importance were those that affected the substance. These were of several kinds. One kind might reasonably be described as corrections, that is, changes the purpose of which is to bring the text into line with the current state of knowledge and climate of opinion among scholars. Since the book was originally published in 1950, many scholars in many countries had worked on most of the subjects and periods discussed in it and, to quote the University of London requirements for Ph.D., they had contributed to knowledge “through the discovery of new evidence and the achievement of new insights”, and thus in significant respects transformed our perception of the Arab past. Obviously I had to take account of this in a book marketed as revised and updated.
The progress of research in history, as in other fields, has as at least part of its general purpose to make clear what was obscure. But students of medieval Islamic history will recognize what I mean when I say that very often its result is to make obscure what was once clear. In certain subjects our knowledge diminishes from year to year with the progress of scholarship and research, as one generally accepted view after another is attacked, leaving a terrain strewn with demolished or endangered hypotheses and assumptions.
When I wrote my chapter on the Prophet in 1947 (a book on the Arabs obviously has to have at least a chapter on the Prophet), there were many disagreements among scholars as to the authenticity of this or that tradition, of this or that narrative, but the broad outline of the Prophet’s career, as also the actions and achievements of his companions and successors, was generally accepted. Writing at the time, I was able to present the advent of Islam in the form of a narrative of events and then try to interpret its significance in the framework of Arab, Muslim and general history. I was at that time blissfully unaware of a group of iconoclast scholars in the Soviet Union (Klimovitch, Belayev, Tolstov and others) who already, before the outbreak of the Second World War, had begun to question the historical authenticity of the Quran and the historicity of the prophetic biography, some of them even the historicity of the Prophet himself. Later, of course, similar and even more radical criticism developed in the Western world, and while one need not go all the way with the more radical critics, obviously one can no longer proceed blithely with the kind of narrative which was normal until that time.
Radical, critical scholarship has called one source after another, one narrative after another, into question. In a brief but broad-ranging historical essay of this type, it would not be possible—nor indeed would it be appropriate—to examine the arguments of the radical critics of early Islamic history, but neither is it possible to disregard them. Matters previously presented as simple statements of fact must now be presented in a more tentative, a more hypothetical form. Nor can they simply be omitted, which would be the easy way of handling it, because their importance and influence still remain. The past as remembered, the past as perceived, the past as narrated, is still a powerful, at times a determining, force in the self-image of a society and in the shaping of its institutions and laws, even if the factual base on which this image rests is shown by historians, centuries later in distant countries, to contain more fantasy than fact.
This is probably the most important of the major changes due to historical scholarship of which I had to take account, and probably the most difficult—to preserve a chapter on the Prophet, retaining as much of the traditional narrative as was necessary in order to make the Muslims’ own perception of their past intelligible, without committing myself as narrator to too many simple declaratory statements.
Another view that needed modification was of the role of the half-Arabs in the early Islamic empire. The tendency at one time was to divide the Muslim population of the early empire into the Arabs and the non-Arab converts to Islam, known as the mawali. In 1947 I, like others at the time, gave far too little importance to another group—the half-Arabs, that initially small but rapidly growing population who were the children of an Arab father and a non-Arab mother. The exercise by the conquerors of the rights of conquest had rapidly created a considerable number of such people. These, belonging on their father’s side to the ruling conquistador aristocracy, and on their mother’s side to a conquered and subjugated population, formed an extremely important intermediate social group. By the mid-8th century the distinction between these and the “pure” Arabs was ceasing to matter, and even the Caliphs were now the sons not of free Arab ladies but of foreign slave concubines. But in the period of the Conquests, the half-Arabs played a role of some significance, which was underestimated by earlier historians, including myself.
It is hardly necessary for me to add to this list of subsequent research and revision the extensive work that has been done on the Arab world in the Ottoman period—a subject which had been barely touched upon at the time when I was writing, before the opening of the Ottoman archives.
A second category of changes derived not so much from the advancement of scholarship as from something of a more personal character—the evolution of my own views, interests and concerns. This is after all, my book—I wrote it, it has my name on the title page, and it is shaped inevitably by my own preoccupations then and my different preoccupations now.
Looking back, I felt that the amount of space I allocated to the Isma’ili movement was disproportionate. I was, shall we say, somewhat obsessed with the Isma’ilis. I had done my doctoral dissertation on the Isma’ilis; my earliest attempt at field work had been in the Isma’ili villages in Syria; most of my other early work had been in connection with the Isma’ilis, and for me at that time they were the most important thing in Arab history. So I gave them a whole chapter and they tended to infiltrate from that chapter even into other places. It was too late to do anything much about that. Restructuring to the point of omitting a chapter would have been much too difficult, but I did try to restore some better proportion between the Isma’ilis and other elements in the history of the time.
If I paid too much importance to the Isma’ilis, there were other subjects to which—looking back—I felt I gave too little importance, and I tried to remedy that in the new edition. One might argue (and I think I would have to concede some truth in this) that I was merely replacing my old obsessions with my current obsessions. Slavery, for example, hardly occurred in the old edition, whereas it figured quite prominently in the new one. But that again, I think, is not only inevitable but quite reasonable.
There are many other things in Arab history, as in other topics in general, which I no longer saw or, for that matter, see now as I did in 1947. It would have been self-defeating and utterly pointless to try to re-write the book as I would have written it 45 years later. I was indeed inspired, a few years later, to attempt a longer view of a broader topic, in my book The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last Two Thousand Years, first published in 1995. The aim of the revisions of the earlier book was more modest: to remove statements which I now found unacceptable, to use cautious language where I was no longer as sure as I was half a century ago (and that applies to practically everything in this world and the next), and to add new material where this seemed necessary in order to present a balanced picture. In both respects I proceeded by addition, by omission and by emendation while still preserving the original structure of exposition and analysis.
I began by saying that the original idea of the publishers and of myself was to update The Arabs in History in the sense of re-writing the sections dealing with more recent history and with current events. Obviously there were major changes in the Arab world and beyond during the years that had passed since the book was written and first published. These events are important in themselves and some of them at least had to be discussed. They are important in another respect, and that is in the way in which they affect the perception and presentation of the past. It is commonplace that we use the past to illuminate the present and perhaps the future; it is also true, though less well realized, that we sometimes use the present to illuminate our understanding of the past.
Let me illustrate this with some examples. In 1947, when I finished this book, the Cold War had not yet begun; in 1992, when I prepared the new edition, it was over. Looking back at my chapter on pre-Islamic Arabia, I could not but be struck by the parallels between the situation of the modern Middle East between the two rival superpowers, and the position of the Arabian peninsula between Byzantium and Persia, for the most part beyond the direct rule of either but affected in many ways by the competing strategic, commercial and diplomatic efforts of both superpowers of the time, in war, in peace, then in war again. The impact of their rivalry on Arabia provoked new reflections on the ending of the Cold War and its probable consequences for the Middle East. It might also help, by looking at the present situation, to achieve a better understanding of what was happening in Arabia before the advent of Islam.
Another topic where recent and current events could help achieve a better understanding of the past is the relative importance of socioeconomic and ethnic-national factors. In the 19th century, that age of liberalism and nationalism, it was assumed generally by scholars that the great struggles of the early caliphate were basically national: especially Persian nationalism in revolt against Arab domination. By the time that I was writing this book, these ideas had been generally abandoned and we were all quite sure that nationality did not matter very much, that ethnicity was of secondary importance, that what really mattered were the economic and social factors. So, along with most others at the time, I also presented these early struggles in primarily socioeconomic terms. Looking at the world in 1992, who would have said that ethnicity didn’t matter? Who could say with certainty that socioeconomic factors are more important and more decisive than ethnic—and one might add religious—loyalties and allegiances? There again, I felt that some revision was required.
Arab history offers a wide range of experiences where one may engage in the usual exercise of looking into the past to help understand the present and even prepare for the future. We have a wonderful selection of seemingly relevant events in the Arab past: invasions from the north, south, east and west; triumphs and defeats; the waxing and waning of imperial power, their own and that of others; the blooming and withering of cultures; tensions and releases in economic and social change. Not least important of the lessons of the past are the things that didn’t happen—the changes resisted or attempted without success, the revolutions that failed or, to borrow a phrase, the roads not taken.
The events of the last few decades have demonstrated with blinding clarity the impact of technological change, both in peace and in war; and the penalties paid by those who fail to keep pace. This may help us now to achieve a better understanding than before of the impact of firearms in late medieval and early modern times in the Middle Eastern Islamic world and the cultural causes and political consequences of the late and reluctant adoption of modern weaponry. The communications revolution of our time and its consequences have illuminated another contrast in the Arab and Islamic past: the swift and early acceptance of paper—an import from China which made possible the rapid and relatively inexpensive production of more durable books and affected not only literature and science but also government and commerce; and after paper, the long-delayed and reluctant acceptance of printing. Social choices of this type are no less important, and at the present time seem a good deal more relevant, than cataclysmic events like the Crusades and the Mongol conquests.
Of all the pages in the original edition, the ones that had become most badly out of date were of course the ones that at the time of writing were the most up-to-date—the final pages dealing with recent and current affairs. These date very rapidly, even in the brief interval between the proof-reading and publication. I was more careful this time. I did, of course, re-write these final pages to take some account of the massive changes that had taken place in the Arab world since the first edition appeared, but after some reflection I decided not to include even the barest outline of recent and current history. In a region and in a period of rapid and often violent change, some distance is needed for serious evaluation, and any attempt to keep pace with new developments is swiftly outdated. The past is somewhat more stable.