Divided by a Common Language

‘Arabs’
A Current and Correct Depiction of Arabia Felix, Arabia Petraea, and Arabia Deserta, Jan Jansson, 1658 (Qatar National Library)

Western views of the Arab peoples have long been rife with misconceptions. In late nineteenth-century America, the term “street Arabs” was applied to the homeless children on city streets, whose plight was captured by the photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis. Such children were often pickpockets and petty thieves, and “street Arabs” hinted at the American view of Arabs themselves. During World War I, Colonel T. E. Lawrence—with help from the writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas—popularized the struggle of the peninsular Arabs against the Ottomans, making both himself and the Arabs seem heroic. In the 1920s, the misspelled “Sheik of Araby” conjured images of sultry-eyed Rudolph Valentino or Jazz Age tap dancers entertaining corpulent sultans downing grapes amid a harem of beauties.

Few of these popular views of the Arabs had much relationship with reality. The discovery of petroleum in the Middle East did gradually lead outsiders to distinguish some Arabs from other Arabs—especially rich Arabs from poor ones. They have also come to recognize that Iranians, Turks, Kurds, and Armenians are not Arabs, any more than Irish, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, and Americans are English. In this regard the title of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book holds the key to its significance. It is not only about “the Arabs,” or the rise of Islam in the seventh century among some Arabs, or the current prominence of oil-rich Arab nations. Rather, the book attempts to encapsulate significant characteristics of a wide-ranging population united by a language—one of the few Semitic languages still currently in wide use. 

Not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all of them understand each other when they speak; the many regional dialects of Arabic make an illiterate Arab farmer in Egypt unable to communicate easily with one in Syria. But both probably know that there is a language that unites them—and, at the same time, divides them. No one ordinarily speaks what is called al-fuṣḥȧ, the most elegant version of the language, but all educated Arabs recognize it as the best example of Arabic eloquence. The nationhood of the Arabs precedes the era of Muhammad in the development of Arabic oral literature, especially pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. As Mackintosh-Smith aptly remarks, however, “written Arabic is no one’s mother-tongue: speakers of Arabic have to learn to read and write in a ‘foreign’ language.”

After finishing a degree in Arabic at Oxford in his early twenties, Mackintosh-Smith decided to learn to speak the language like an Arab, rather than like an Oxford don. Since then he has authored three books about Ibn Battutah, the greatest Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century. Ibn Battutah is the “Tangerine” in the title of the first of these books, Travels with a Tangerine (like the hybridized orange fruit, he took his origins from Tangiers in Morocco). Mackintosh-Smith has lived for decades in Yemen, a place known in classical Roman times as Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”), distinguishing it from Arabia Deserta to the north. Far from felix today, Yemen has fallen apart for internal reasons made worse by a major military assault by its wealthy northern neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both of these oil-rich plutocracies, despite their supposed Islamic piety, are starving Yemen into submission, and doing so with the active connivance of the Trump regime, the major arms supplier in the region. Mackintosh-Smith poignantly dedicates his book to the memory both of the unified Yemen that existed for the quarter century prior to 2014, and of a Yemeni youth of eighteen who died in the effort to save it.

 

The collapse of Iraq, Syria, and Libya has flooded Europe with an exodus of Arabs, sparking widespread xenophobia. The author sees an ancient motif acted out in this tragedy.

The book’s introduction and first four chapters provide a nearly unparalleled understanding of the context for the rise of Islam in seventh-century Arabia—though the author generously acknowledges his debt to the late Philip Hitti and his History of the Arabs, first published in 1937. As Mackintosh-Smith explains, the difference between the majoritarian, Sunni version of Islam, and the minoritarian, Shiite version originally reflected differences between the traditions of north and central Arabia, on the one hand, and those of southern Arabia on the other. (Curiously, none of the four countries where Shiite tradition today holds majority status—Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Bahrain—is actually in southern Arabia.) Yemen’s current problems are aggravated by one little-known Shiite subgroup, the Zaydis, usually designated in the press by a clan name, Houthis. The whole of the Arab world is now plunged into what Mackintosh-Smith calls “the Age of Disappointment.” The collapse of Iraq, Syria, and Libya a decade or more ago has flooded Europe with an exodus of Arabs, sparking widespread xenophobia. The author sees an ancient motif acted out in this tragedy: “The sufferings of Isma’il, the Qur’anic child-migrant and legendary Arab progenitor, are relived by millions.”

Mackintosh-Smith has a genius for recognizing parallels in the Islamic history of the Arabs. I was particularly struck by the connection he saw between the career of an early tenth-century Muslim mystic and martyr in Baghdad, al-Hallaj, and the fate dealt out to a Muslim reformer in twentieth-century Sudan, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. Al-Hallaj championed the piety of the poor and insisted that close union with God was achievable by all, not just the scholarly hierarchy. Taha was executed in Khartoum by the dictatorial regime of Nimeiri in 1985 for heretically suggesting that some of the later, more political passages of the Qur’an, revealed to Muhammad while he was governor of Medina, were of less religious importance than the longer, more ecstatic portions communicated while he was still a persecuted prophet in Mecca. Mackintosh-Smith sees a parallel between the fate of Taha and the fate of al-Hallaj a millennium earlier, both of them accused of making God more accessible to mere mortals. “Shaykh or charlatan, martyr or mage, al-Hallaj undermined the Abbasid order…. [H]e would be regarded as equally subversive if he were alive in the Arab world today, when truth is still what it is instructed to be, and those who speak independently—like the Sudanese visionary Mahmoud Muhammad Taha—can still pay with their lives.”

This extraordinarily learned and perceptive book reveals an author who is no casual British tourist, but an explorer of the greatest acuity, the Ibn Battutah of the twenty-first century. “We shall not cease from exploration,” T. S. Eliot once wrote, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Mackintosh-Smith has not ceased from exploration, and readers who now know about the Arab world—many for the first time—are the lucky beneficiaries of all that he has witnessed.

Arabs
A Three-Thousand Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires
Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Yale University Press, $35, 630 pp.

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Patrick Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, New York.

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