Arab History and Historiography

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies opened the Third Annual Conference on Historical Studies, “Arab History and Historiography: How was Arab History Written, How is it being Written Today?” on April 22, 2016 in the presence of prominent Arab and Lebanese academics, professionals, and interested individuals. The conference is set to continue or three days, closing Sunday, April 24.

Giving the opening address was Palestinian writer and intellectual Saqr Abu Fakhr, who welcomed attendees to an event that, as he said, continued the work of the two previous ACRPS conferences on “Oral History” in 2014 and “The First World War, 100 Years On: Perspectives from the Arab World,” in 2015.

A Lack of Synthesizing Historiography

In his address, historian and academic director of ACRPS publications Dr Wajih Kawtharani spoke about attempts to historicize the Arab nation in the 1950s and 1960s at a point when nationalism was “imagined” as pan-Arab. He saw these early attempts as the intellectual object and conceptual horizon for a political field that extended through Arab historical time and human geography, one stemming from the Caliphate, Sultanate, or Empire. This sultanate or imperial horizon soon went further than Arab or Arabized geography, taking on an Islamic dimension to become Arab-Islamic, or purely Islamic, history. When it contracted, it became a history of emirates or sultanates, less than Islamic, Arab, or non-Arab, but instead the history of regions, cities, dynasties, or in the smallest terms biographies of the famous within Arab and non-Arab geographic boundaries.

It was against this background of history writing that Kawtharani placed the role of the conference, as a place where contributions could work toward synthesizing history and looking critically at the production of contemporary Arab historians, in particular the recent proliferation of national histories that looked individually at one (and only one) Arab country. What the conference sought to stimulate, he said, was the synthesis of history and historiography that took into view a wide geographic scope, for example the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, the Nile Valley, or the Maghreb. Contributions on these topics, he noted, were absent from the Conference, and spoke urging researchers to engage in this sort of wider thinking.

Compiling Documentary Sources

Center director Dr Khalid Ziyadah spoke on the use of documentation in Arab history writing. He said the use of documents for historical writing is nothing new, and is not just related to writing the history of the Arabs and the Arab states, but also the history of post-Ottoman Turkey, Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, and also Egypt, which had an early experience of state building at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

When it comes to archival work, he critiqued, work must not be limited to a single document or even a set of documents that detail a specific event. Instead, archival work must be characterized by a long look across periods, considering the roles of governments, diplomats and religious orders by looking at the whole of their archives. This includes the documents preserved by Sharia courts, religious waqf, habsa endowments, or economic and party records, all of which extend over decades and even centuries.

Archival work has, he noted, radically changed understandings of history and history writing. History, he declared, is no longer reliant on the works of chroniclers or reports by biographers. Instead, he urged, it relies on the accumulation of materials that have transformed history from the narration of facts and events to a confrontation with evolving resources that combine a series of economic, cultural, and sociological data. History, he continued, must also take into account the role of religion and its movements in interpreting the relationships of the authorities with social groups, on to the development of prices and price rises, popular movements and revolutions, and the shift from traditional to modern institutions.

Urging historians to return to the archive, Ziyadah said these rich resources put the historian in touch with the human sciences, sociology, economics, and statistics. He concluded by saying that contemporary historical writing cannot take place without resort to the archives—even a reliance on them—as a main source for all history writing based on the methods and techniques of sociology and anthropology, and so going beyond the writing of history based in ideological assumptions.

The Content of Historiography and its Periodization

The first morning session, focusing on “Writing Arab History: Content, Periodization, Method,” was chaired by Ahmed Baydoun. The first paper was presented by Ahmad Shboul, a study entitled, “Towards an Approach to the sSudy of Arab History from the Perspective of World History: The Issue of Investigating Other Cultures.” The paper raised questions over the utility of other cultures and the methods of some Western historians when writing Arab history.

Looking at concepts related of world history, Shboul considered the effect of a number of trends on the writing of contemporary history given today’s trends in globalization. From the issue of the ‘clash of civilizations’ versus the dialogue of civilizations or  between religions, Shboul gave examples of the works of Arab historians from Ibn Khaldun, to al-Masoudi, to answer to the question: is history writing control or conception?

He reflected on the issue of knowledge for non-Muslims at the time of Ibn Khaldun and al-Masoudi, and focused on the Fihrist of Ibn Nadim, a bibliographical work listing the books of the Arabs, Persians, and other nations; his reading of these texts lead to the conclusion that the successful historian must enjoy a poetic sensibility.

The second paper was delivered by Dr Mahmoud Haddad, which addressed “The One-Sidedness of the Historiography of the Early Arab Nationalist Movement,” and presented a critique of this one-sidedness. Haddad explained how Arab intellectuals who lived in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century were unware that the main concern of the Ottoman sultan was to keep hold of Ottoman territory. He made connections between this position and the contradictions among Arab narratives on the emergence of Arabism.

Arab nationalist thought, Haddad explained, developed in a confrontation with Istanbul, but this was only half the truth, since the rest of the story was in the West, which controlled Istanbul and the other parties. He saw the relationship between the West and the Ottoman Empire as something that should be better accounted for in historical research.  

Haddad indicated that each period of writing had different features, which appear as distinctive in its historiography. Significant within this landscape, he said, was the fact that Arab nationalism as conceived of by the West does not exist. During the time of the Ottoman state, he explained there were nations, but that these existed as states under the aegis of a single state: the Ottoman Empire. He denied the existence of the Arab nation-state in the context of a single nation that held many states, and instead insisted that it was the period of Arab unity between Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) that initiated what we know today as Arab nationalism.

The final paper of the panel was presented by Dr Ammar al-Samar, on “Official Approaches to Writing Arab History.” The paper considered two projects that attempted to write an official Arab history. The first came in the 1950s with the coming to power of the Baath, and the project itself questioned how to write Arab nationalist history. The second official attempt, he explained, came under the Arab League, and involved hundreds of Arab historians. It was funded by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and was opposed by some Arab states, and even saw arguments among the contributing historians.

In his assessment of these two projects Samar said neither was scientific and that both were mostly political in character. He concluded from the paper that efforts to write the history of the Arabs were not a new thing, but that they had historically faced challenges related to both concepts of history and politics.

Periodization and Arab History

The second morning session was chaired by Mahmoud Sweid, and opened with a paper from Dr Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk, who spoke on the problem of “Periodization: Arab-Islamic History as an Example.” The paper showed that there was no single form of periodization, and looked at the philosophical and intellectual dimensions underlying proposed periodization and the hypotheses put forward regarding the history of the Muslims as well as alternative modern Islamic hypotheses.

The underling question of periodization is linked, Abushouk explained, with the knowledge of the historian, which has created a contradiction in periodization as a result of differing intellectual starting points. Looking to examples of Arab and European attempts at periodization, Abushouk showed at once the emergence of Islamic periodization in the Arab Maghreb in the writings of Mohammed Arkoun and European periodization that broke down history into five stages.

Ibrahim Boutchich presented the second paper, on “The Arab Spring as a New Link in the Periodization of History.” He explained that the starting hypothesis of the work was that the Arab Spring formed a distinct period in Arab history. The aim of the question, he explained,  was not to explain political ramifications of the Arab Spring and its outcomes, but to investigate periodization through a new lens.

Arguing that the Arab Spring was a period of Arab history Boutchich explained that the events had a cultural effect, and the term ‘Arab Spring’ itself signifies the transition from one stage to another. He noted that the period was the legitimate son of global transformations, citing three indicators: the end of history, the digital age, and issues of identity in terms of composite, hybrid, or trans-national identity.

Wrapping up the session, Mohammed Ezzeddine spoke about “Time Past: Struggle of the Revolution, Memory, and Justice in Egypt.” He reviewed the history of the Egyptian revolution from 2011, describing it as an explosive event while at the same time questioning the meaning of revolution and of the state. The revolution, he suggested, has smashed the age of dictatorship, and can therefore be seen as a new stage in history, one that disrupted the past through the everyday.

Identity and al-Nawazil in Arab history

The third session was chaired by Nasser al-Kaabi, and began with a presentation from Mohammed Moraqatan on “Ancient Civilizations in the Arab Countries and the Issue of the Formation of the Arab Nation’s Historical Identity.”

Moraqtan pointed to the role of colonialism in Arab countries, and the colonizers’ aim of acquiring things, thus taking them out of the Arab world and removing artifacts from the local historical record. Even more problematic than colonial regimes, Moraqtan said, were Biblical archeologists. Against this backdrop, Moraqatan noted the growth of archeology in the Arab works with nationalist orientations, in addition to colonial archeology. He focused on the latter as it was applied in Palestine and South Africa. Westerners, he explained, believed that the Islamic conquest of the Levant destroyed it as an expression of divine wrath, particularly in Palestine, until the advent of the Zionist movement that worked to rebuild it.  When it came to Palestine, Moraqtan explained, Arab historians were the least on the scene when it came to writing their own history, which was mostly written by Westerners.

When Arab history was written, Moraqtan explained that it was weak due to the absence of academic institutions. The historian drew attention to the limited presence of important Arab sources on the archeological level, which contributed to the shortcomings in history writing. As an example, Moraqtan said he could identify only five archeologists and historians able to read texts written in Sabean, while there are around 5,000 manuscripts in that language in the southern Arabian Peninsula, which could contribute enormously to an understanding of the region’s past.

Mohammed al-Azhar al-Gharbi presented his paper next on “The Western Islamic Economy from the Perspective of Economic History,” and spoke about European studies on Arab economic history, and some of the mistakes they had made. Al-Gharbi’s own reading of the Arab economic past divided this history into periods of conquest, the accumulation of wealth, and then of economic expansion. He said work must still be done to fill gaps in the knowledge of this area, in particular when it came to questions of agriculture and trade. He said work was needed that was free of ideological positions, and called for a unified methodology or approaches for Arab historians.

Dr Anwar Zanati next spoke on “Nawazil Works as a Source for Economic and Sociological Research in the Maghreb and Andalusia.” Reflecting on the state of research Zanati said that assessment and analysis of historical sources could hardly be done objectively, because the historian is bound by his convictions and ideas. Even the history of History writing, he added, was undertaken under the control of the ruler and leadership, meaning it was always written by the powerful, so that the defeated were accused and subject to various kinds of reproach.

Turning to his research on works of legal decision (nawazil) Zanati took the texts as a source for economic and social studies of the Maghreb and Andalusia. The nawazil, he explained, contained the decisions of jurisprudents and judges regarding issues of daily life. The accounts were marked by realism because they involved real events, but at the same time reflected a local flavor because they were related to specific times and places. Zanati explained that the works were of use as historical sources and included valuable historical material documenting both events and phenomena.

Arab Historiography: Content, Periodization and Methodology

The fourth session was chaired by Sayyar al-Jamil with Rashid al-Khayoun as the first speaker. In his paper, Khayoun highlighted the pioneering role of historian Jawad Ali in pre-Islamic history, calling Ali a figure that wanted to change the traditional and religious idea about the Arabs in Jahiliyya, or the pre-Islamic history of the Arabs.

Abdulrahman Shamseddine spoke second, titled “On the Methodology of Kamal Salibi: The Bible Came from Arabia.” Shamseddine saw Salibi as a figure who introduced a new concept in biblical geography when he claimed that the original home of the Jewish people was not Palestine, but the region of Asir, in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia. According to Shamseddine, Salibi discovered a new biblical land, thus providing major solutions to problems encountered by biblical scholars as he presented a new geographical map illustrating events and journeys mentioned in the bible.

George Nassar read Elias Kattar’s paper on “Arab History in Two Approaches: Philip Hitti and Albert Hourani” where the author pointed to the fact that the difference between the two historians resulted from the transformations witnessed by historiography in half a century.  Starting with the classical chronicles influenced by positivist historiography up to the Annales school characterized by its socio-economic orientations, these transformations are critical in understanding what was written during the periods.