This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.
What we call the ‘Middle East’ today used to be the “Near East” and essentially comprehends the lands that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire and Iran. The term expresses a Western European perspective of “the other”; but the other who is next door. Its inhabitants are not like us but they have always been around.
The late Edward Said in his famous Orientalism devoted a lot of effort to demonstrating how “the Orient” (meaning the Near East) as he described it was the source of endless juicy fantasies which helped European intellectuals work out who they were by reference to who they were not. Now Said is a heavyweight intellectual and one of those dreaded post modernists to boot so don’t expect an easy read but the basic point he makes is important to grasp: when we talk about difference we are also talking about ourselves.
Until the seventh century CE of course, the Middle East was politically and economically integrated into Europe. Anatolia, Egypt and the Levant was the core of the Eastern Roman Empire. All that changed with the eruption of Islam from the Arabian peninsular in the mid seventh century so any attempt to understand writing about the Middle East must begin with Islam.
A good place to start is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad which is a sympathetic and well researched biography of the founder of Islam. Originally a kind of response to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it manages to paint a convincing portrait of “one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived”. For the nearest contemporary Arabic historical source about the life of the Prophet see Ibn Shaq’s The Life of Muhammad Apostle of Allah. Shaq wrote about a century after the death of Muhammad so his work is a bit like having Tacitus write a biography of Christ. For those wishing to gain a more detailed understanding of the religion Muhammad founded be aware that many of the works available in English reflect particular schools of Islamic thought. For an insight into the orthodox Sunni worldview Islam History Faith and Politics: the Complete Introduction by Paul Grieve is a workmanlike but unimaginative example. For a balanced Christian view, try Islam for the Western Mind by Richard Drummond. Drummond is an American Presbyterian Minister but his writing is in the best traditions of western secular history. To put it in context try Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History.
What these works tend not to display is any real insight into the struggles within contemporary Islam to free it from what some might call the shackles of its literalist traditions. Indeed, both Greve and Drummond would see it as defined by that literalism. In the Koran, to the believer, there is an intact revelation of God’s word; this severely limits the wriggle room afforded to Christians by the ramshackle textual history of the Old Testament when facing some of the bleaker injunctions in say, the Book of Leviticus. But there are many believing Muslims who adopt a more nuanced interpretation of the Koran – distinguishing for example between ‘law’ (the injunctions issued by Muhammad in his capacity as a secular ruler and intended only for that time) and ‘prophesy’ which is immutable. In particular the status of the authority of the Hadith, the thousands of stories about the life of the Prophet collected following his death and on which Shariah law is largely based, is a matter of some debate. Mind you this is all rather controversial and not recommended for dinner party conversation. Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar brings a perspective which one seldom hears of in this context; by analogy it is like a tour of the world’s evangelical protestant churches by a well educated Uniting Church lay person with a postgraduate degree in Biblical textual criticism. He is not quite the Bishop Sponge of Islam but heading in that direction. For example he argues convincingly that Sharia law is not integral to Islamic faith or practice – but rather a construct of Abbasid jurists of the 8th century. For a more academic perspective, which illuminates some creative attempts to rethink Islam, see Rethinking tradition in Modern Islamic Thought edited by Daniel Brown.
Armed with at least some information about the region’s dominant religion one can begin to appreciate the history and literature.
Following the Islamic conquests the Middle East disappeared from the mental world of most Western European for about four centuries, until the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. In Arab historiography, the glory days were already over. See Bernard Lewis’s The Arabs in History for a concise overview. Beginning in the pre-Muslim period he traces the development of the early Islamic Arab state through its period of expansion, consolidation under the Arab Caliphate of the Ummayads and its transformation into an international non-ethnic empire during the Abbasid Caliphate. He is particularly good at disentangling the strands of ethnic economic and religious influence and in analyzing the internal stresses that ultimately led to the eclipse of an ethnically Arab dominated state and the succession of various Turkish and Iranian polities.
What awaited the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century CE was a fragmented albeit sophisticated and prosperous collection of small kingdoms. Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade: A New History places the extraordinary movement firmly in the context of the reassertion of Papal authority, the revanchist ambitions of a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire and the underemployed warrior castes of Western Europe. Asbridge points out that by this time the Islamic conquests were 400 years in the past and that Christian, Jew and Muslim coexisted fairly harmoniously throughout the Middle East. As so often in the subsequent history of the Middle East, religion was used as a pretext for the violent acquisition of real estate. The Oxford History of the Crusades provides a convenient single volume overview of the Crusader period from the 12th to the 13th centuries.
For the invadees’ perspective The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Amin Malouf is a useful survey of mainly 12th century Arab historical writing on the Crusades. To see yourself as others see you is always a healthy corrective and the Franks do not come out of it well. The sack of Jerusalem in 1099 set a new standard in brutality; according to one contemporary source up to 70,000 Jewish and Muslim civilians were murdered. The hiding place of the true cross was extracted from Orthodox priests under torture. One contemporary compared the Crusaders to wild beasts, inferior to the Muslims in everything except brute force.
Modern scholarship sees the Crusades as a far more sophisticated phenomenon than the unfortunate targets, understandably, allowed. The Arab perspective is one of initial defeats due to disunity, horrific atrocities perpetrated by savage barbarians and then a slow but inexorable recovery, particularly under Saladin which resulted, two hundred years after the First Crusade, in the ejection of the last crusader state in Acre in 1291. In this narrative, the Muslim counter attack was then taken up by the Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks, with its apogee in the capture of Constantinople in 1452.
The power of this narrative and its relevance to the contemporary Middle East should not be underestimated. For a certain tendency within the Middle East the West remain crusaders and Israel is a neo-crusader state. To this way of thinking it is now only about 1150 CE and Saladin is still about thirty years in the future. For those interested in historical parallels, Saladin though a Kurd was based in Egypt and it was the revitalization of Egyptian power that underpinned his success.
The Crusades had a massive impact on both cultures involved. In the House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization Jonathon Lyons makes a convincing case for the centrality of Arab learning (both indigenous and preserved classical knowledge) to the changes which in due course would lead to the Renaissance and the emergence of Europe as the dominant world power. Lyons surveys Arab achievements in preserving and building on classical Greek learning in mathematics, medicine, geography and astronomy. The Arabs developed algebra and the use of zero; gave us Arabic numbers, and were impelled by the requirements of religious observance to become adept at measuring time and geographical position.
All of which has generated its fair share of historical fiction. Jan Guillou’s Crusades Trilogy: The Road to Jerusalem, Birth of a Kingdom, and The Templar Knight bring a laconic Scandinavian perspective to a story of carnage and religious fanaticism. The first volume in particular has touches of the Icelandic saga style – that inimitable deadpan narration that adopts an even tone to describe both acts of saintly goodness and barbaric evil while never ever affording a glimpse of anyone’s internal thought processes.
Stephen Rivelle’s A Booke of Days adopts the first person perspective of a French nobleman on the First Crusade and reads like the diary of particularly dangerous rugby tour. Lionheart is Sharon Penman’s attempt to humanize her eponymous hero (but she has a track record here: if you can humanize Richard III his Plantagenet forbear should be a snack) but it is a fairly demanding read because, due to Penman’s commitment to historical accuracy, it can suffer from a lack of narrative momentum. By the end, you really feel as if you actually walked the Second Crusade.
Ultimately, it was the Turks who saw off the Franks from the Middle East. Which brings us to the Ottomans. The Ottomans were the great rivals of Europe in its formative stage and much of our image of what it means not to be “Western” is derived from centuries of intense competition, trade, warfare, and even coexistence. “The Sick Man of Europe” as described by European Imperialists of the 19th century tends to get a kinder press these days. But by the time Richard Burton traveled to Mecca and Medina disguised as a Pathan doctor in the mid 19th century the European sense of superiority was pretty well out of control. Burton’s A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinah is a fascinating but profoundly annoying book; at times simply offensive but nevertheless a valuable document. For a clever reversal of this perspective try the 1001 Nights of Drummer Donald McLeod by Harry Hopkins about a Scottish Highland soldier who goes native in the modernizing Egypt of Muhammad Ali (an Albanian by the way, which tells you something about what an equal opportunity place the Ottoman Empire could be).
A very conventional but readable narrative history is provided by Kinross in his The Ottoman Empire. Kinross is good on the early centuries but his sources and prejudices let him down by the late 19th century. He minimizes the Armenian genocide in a way which would not happen today. M.E. Yapp’s The Making of the Modern Near East and William L Cleveland’s A History of the Modern Middle East are both sound and scholarly introductions to the Ottoman period and emphasize the massive change that was underway during the 19th century as the Ottomans struggled manfully to come to terms with modernity.
A sophisticated but somewhat tendentious analysis of the ultimate decline of the Ottoman Empire can be found in Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong. Lewis essentially attributes the failure of the Ottoman political economy to a lack of separation of religion and State and the consequences that follow when the dominant mode of religion is a reactionary literalism. Lewis however acknowledges that in earlier times the Islamic world in fact led Europe in science, prosperity and military power. So the answer is by no means obvious and Yapp and Cleveland’s works give a much more nuanced view of the mixed success of the Ottoman state in adapting to western influence and technology.
Certainly the inter communal relationships in the Ottoman Empire (at least until the First World War) bear favourable comparison with the current catastrophe in Syria, or the internecine Sunni Shia rivalry in Iraq. Of course if you really want to get depressed try the intractable Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Charles D. Smith’s Palestine and the Arab Israeli Conflict takes this sorry tale up to about 2004 and is reputed to be a balanced survey. Likud supporters will not however be happy with it.
By contrast, William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain documents the surprising degree of syncretism and mutual respect that existed between faiths in large parts of Turkey, Syria Palestine and Egypt until relatively recent times and is a compelling caution against sweeping generalizations about the inevitability of inter communal conflict.
Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is an ambitious work, which takes up these themes. Fisk, a leading journalist on the region, seeks to combine a memoir, attempts at serious history (particularly the chapter on the Armenian genocide), and large tracts of political analysis and advocacy. Fisk is at pains to avoid ever apologising for or making light of abuses of human rights. An atrocity is an atrocity, be it Iraqi, Palestinian or Israeli. This is as well because the one thing that comes clearly through the mind boggling detail is how fifty years of repression, reprisals and preemption have left every player in the Middle East diminished even as they relentlessly press the justice of their respective causes.
But now there is the Arab Spring. In the Arab Spring edited by Toby Manhire you can read various blogs and twitters by participants and published by the Guardian. It has the merit of immediacy if not objectivity. How that will turn out (to paraphrase Chaou En Lai to Kissenger on the French Revolution), is too early to say.