Friday, December 24, 2004

Arabs in History by Bernard Lewis

Do I need to tell you to go read it?

As the title says, this is a history of the Arabs, not of Islam as such. I learned a lot about things I'd never heard of before, such as the great revolts of negro slaves around Basra.

This was the 1966 edition of a book first published in 1950, and I suspect Bernard would have had his hands on new material by now. It might be, for example, that the three century long devastation in agriculture in Tunisia in the wake of the Hilal and Sulaim tribes invasions owed something to climate change.

I'd be quite interested in knowing if he would revise passages like this:

The word "atomistic" is often used to describe a habit of mind and outlook, recognizable in many aspects of the civilization of the Arab and dominant in the later stages of his history. By this is meant the tendency to view life and the universe as a series of static, concrete and disjunct entities, loosely linked in a sort of mechanical or even casual association by circumstances or the mind of an individual, but having no organic interrelation of their own. Though by no means universal, this tendency affects the life of the Arab in many different ways. He conceives his society not as an organic whole, compounded of interrelated and interacting parts, but as an association of separate groups--religions, nations, classes--held together only by the ground beneath and the government above. His town is an agglomeration of quarters, guilds, clans, houses, only rarely with any corporate civic identity of its own. In contrast to the scientists and philosophers on the one hand and the mystics on the other, the ordinary orthodox theologian, scholar or litterateur shows the same quality in his attitude to knowledge. The various disciplines are not different ways of reaching out towards the same heart, pooling their findings in an integrated whole, but separate and self-contained compartments, each holding a finite number of pieces of knowledge, the progressive accumulation of which constitutes learning. Arabic literature, devoid of epic or drama, achieves its effects by a series of separate observations or characterizations, minute and vivid, but fragmentary, linked by the subjective associations of author and reader, rarely by an overriding plan. The Arabic poem is a set of separate and detachable lines, strung pearls that are perfect in themselves, usually interchangeable. Arabic music is modal and rhythmic, developed by fantasy and variation, never by harmony. Arabic art--mainly applied and decorative--is distinguished by its minuteness and perfection of detail rather than by composition or perspective. The historians and biographers, like the fiction writers, present their narrative as a series of loosely connected incidents. Even the individual is drawn as a sum of attributes, often listed, as a recent writer remarks, like the description on a passport.

Is that oversimplified? Or perhaps an accurate portrayal of the better documented years of decay?

Go read it.

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