ACRPS’ third annual conference on historical studies “Arab Historiography and the History of the Arabs” continued for its second day on Saturday, April 23 in Beirut. The second day was packed with panels, which brought together researchers from across the Middle East. The four panels of the day focused on a wide range of questions that each probed the idea of Arab history and historiography, examining both local and international contexts. The panels marked the middle point of a three-day program, which closed on Sunday.

Questions and Directions of Arab Nation-state Historiography: the Specific, the General and the Comparative 

Frederic Maatouq chaired the first session of the day, which was devoted to “Questions and Directions of Arab Nation-state Historiography: The Specific, the General and the Comparative.” Maatouq opened the proceedings with his observation, borrowed from Emile Durkheim, that “sociology is the closest discipline to history,” pre-empting fascinating reflections on the study of the past across the region.

The first to present was Simon AbdelMasih, whose paper was titled “The Writing of History in Twentieth Century Lebanon.” The  paper examined how existing historical research has defined the various periods of Lebanese history, and elaborated on the traditionally accepted milestones: the First World War, the Declaration of “Grande Liban” and the French Mandate, the Independence Movement and the Civil War of in 1975, as well as the commonly accepted “post-Civil War period.” All of these, AbdelMasih pointed out, could equally be described as political periods, and do not necessarily demarcate grand historical shifts. AbdelMasih then discussed the evolution of styles of historic writing in Lebanon; beginning with a traditional Arab-Islamic school prevalent throughout the early modern period, before the Arab Renaissance (or Renewal), which initiated a more innovative approach pioneered by historians in Lebanon and across the Arab region. AbdelMasih further discussed the prominent role played by Jesuit scholars and Maronite clergy in this regard, singling out Issa Iskandar Maalouf, a Lebanese scholar who was educated in the Jesuit schools.

Pointing out the contributions of Lebanese historian Assad Rostum and other scholars at what would become the American University of Beirut more broadly, AbdelMasih also addressed the overlap between academic history and archaeology, commenting on the growing numbers of historians relying on findings from pre-historic “Phoenician” civilizations to elaborate and justify distinctly Lebanese or Syrian parochial nationalisms today. This is what AbdelMasih described as an ideologically inspired revolution in the historiography of Lebanon, in which events stretching from the Ottoman period, through the “War of the Mountain” in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), were turned into formative turning points in the creation of contemporary Lebanon.

The next speaker was Amal Ghazal, a Lebanese-Canadian historian based at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, whose paper was titled “Modern Arab History: Regional Divisions, Ethnic and Confessionalist Marginalizations—the Case of the Ibadia.” Ghazal’s argued that when it came to a holistic view that bound together all of the various regions of the Arab world, there was a general absence of thinking and scholarship. Ghazal referred specifically to the omission of the Ibadi Muslim religious movements from histories of the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and Omani colonies on the East coast of Africa (such as Zanzibar), and to the erasure of Ibadis from histories of Libya and North Africa more broadly. What this history has been turned into, she noted, was a general sense that Ibadi Muslims in North Africa were from non-Arab/Amazigh groups.

Ghazal decried the way in which, she said, Ibadis and other similar sects and social groups were written out of the Arab historical narrative. She called for a novel approach to the writing of history that would redress this imbalance, so that the diversity and complexity of the Arab world could be included in history writing. According to Ghazal, such a new approach would surpass regional divisions and concentrate, instead, on societal and economic issues as well as shifts in ideological and political focus.

Ghazal then went on to describe how Ibadi writing and society countered this trend of erasure, noting how, beginning in the twentieth century, historians from the Ibadi Muslim community promoted a view of history that emphasized their linkage to wider Islamic tradition while also affirming their link to the Khawarij school of thought.

Moving from the Ibadis to early Egypt and the Levant, ACRPS researcher Jamal Barout used his intervention to address “The Problematic Historiography of the Mamluk Campaigns Against Keserouane.” Barout took a site-specific approach, and talked about “Keserouane and the Metn,” which had been the focus of three separate military campaigns lead by the Egypt-based Mamluk dynasties between 1292 and 1305—at the end of the Crusader era in Greater Syria. As Barout explained, these medieval campaigns were granted religious sanction by the Damascus-based 14-century Muslim religious authority Ibn Taymiah, and showed how the early proclamations continued to have resonance on today’s Lebanon, since the past battles raised the question of which of the two ethno-religious communities in the Metn (sometimes called “Mount Lebanon”) the Druze or the Maronite Christians, were the rightful custodians of the territory.

Arab Historiography and the History of the Arabs: On the Histories of Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco 

The second Saturday session was chaired by Abdelhamid Henia, a Doha Institute researcher, and focused on the past of history writing. The first speaker from that panel, also joining from Doha, was Abdelrahim Benhadda whose paper was titled “The Creation of Historical Knowledge in Morocco Following Independence in 1956.” Benhadda’s paper presented thinking on Morocco’s post-independence period and the creation of a number of universities across the Kingdom, which produced a surge in the country’s historical scholarship. He explained that at the last turn of century, Morocco had more than 300 academic historians engaged in the teaching of history, thanks to the building of educational institutions.

While pointing out the multiplicity of academic approaches to history in Morocco, Benhadda focused his discussion on the professional, academic historians who entered the field between the early 1970s and mid-1980s. Though he said these scholars marked a proliferation of work, he also cautioned that the work they produced came the universities entered “a state of siege,” which resulted in the impossibility of conducting postgraduate research work in Moroccan history departments.

Continuing the focus on Morocco, Dr. Mohammed Habida, spoke on “The Drafting of Moroccan History and the Periodization of Long Memories.” Habaida described the centrality of historians to the process of periodization, suggesting that the credit for periodization is due to the individual genius of the practitioner, but that periodization also had to be understood as a result of a scholar’s political context.

Shifting East to Tunis, Tunisian historian Fatima Ben Soliman addressed the meeting with her paper titled “The Nation-State in Modern Tunisian Historiography.” Ben Soliman used her paper to discuss how historians viewed the nation-state during the late nineteenth century colonization of Tunisia. Ben Soliman explained how the concept of the nation-state was a difficult one in Arab historiography given the sensitivity of this topic for contemporary state governments, as well as questions of national identity and citizenship. However, Ben Sulieman explained, when it came to work on late nineteenth century Tunisia it was critical to see the nation-state concept –at least in its earlier phases—as being a foreign imposition. More than this, she said, the nation-state was at this early stage a form of regimented violence practiced by the powerful on the population.

Rounding out the panel was Mauritanian scholar Hamahoullah Ould Salem, whose final paper was titled “The Crisis of Writing the National History of Mauritania,” and identified the roots of what he described as a history-writing crisis. The problem, he said, came in conflicting claims propounded by Islamists who refused to understand the development of the Islamic religion through a historical prism, as well as Arab nationalists who took issue with the parochial history specific to Mauritania. In addition, said Ould Salem, there was the question of tribalism, which was pervasive throughout Mauritanian society.  

Historiography of History Writing: Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan 

The third panel within the second day of the 2016 conference on Arab history was chaired by Lebanese academic Antoine Seif, who welcomed the panel’s interventions in thinking on history writing as a history itself.

The first paper was presented by Nusair al-Kaabi on “Historical Writing in Iraq in Transforming Contexts: Methodological Approaches.” Kaabi focused on how the changing political contexts of Iraq impacted the process of historical writing of and in the country. Discussing the variety of contemporary Arab historical styles, Kaabi isolated two distinct factors which, according to him, characterized Iraqi historical writing and which differentiated Iraqi historiography from the praxis of history in other Arab countries. Within this tradition, Kaabi singled out Saleh Ahmad al-Ali as the historian most representative of this first school of thought. Kaabi also considered the Marxist school of Iraqi history, which he said could be typified by the work of Hussein Kassem al-Aziz. Kaabi then discussed one of the rapidly emerging schools of historical approach within Iraq: the Islamist-nationalist approach, which Kaabi says was pioneered by the late Iraqi historian Jawad Ali. Kaabi also outlined a number of other Iraqi approaches to history, including Economic-Nationalist and Confessionalist History, which he described as having become a growing force since the 2003 US invasion of the country.

From Iraq the panel shifted its attention to Egypt, where Najla Makkawi continued discussions on history writing and its pasts with her paper, “The Transformations of Historical Writing in Contemporary Egypt.” In the presentation, she expounded on the changes in how history has been written in Egypt over the past 100 years. Makkawi explained what she called an “Egyptian National Academy,” which would grow during those 100 years, to act independently of the British colonial authorities. She looked at how this academy made changes to theory, the direction of historical enquiry, the changing role of historians, as well as the changing role of the state authorities in in the process of forming a historical narrative.

Makkawi then discussed the way these new “National” Egyptian historians wrote history to emphasize the role of the individual hero, particularly as this related to the rule of Mohammed Ali and his family. She related this also to the subjective circumstances of Egyptian historians and how their work was used for political ends, as well as for addressing economic and social questions. Makkawi noted that this hero-centric approach to history ended with Egypt’s 1952 coup, which brought the Free Officers and Gamal Abdul Nasser into power, ushering in a new age of social history. Following a National Concord brought into effect by Nasser; Makkawi described how Egyptian historiography took a decided pan-Arab turn, placing Egypt within a broader Arab nationalist setting. Later, with the passing of reins from Nasser to Sadat, a number of Egyptian historians who had formerly been Marxists came to espouse an Islamist worldview. Makkawi explained how Egyptian historiography under the late Ottoman period (which took the Orientalist view of Egypt as being a country gripped by cultural debauchery) was completely rewritten.

Turning attention to Jordan, Mohannad Moubaydeen’s presentation looked at “Contemporary Jordan: National History and Directions in Chronicling,” and began by placing historical research in to a contemporary context, noting that the Hashemite Kingdom would celebrate the centenary of the Great Arab Revolt this year. Moubaydeen prefaced his talk by stating that no fundamental changes to the way Jordanian history was written have taken root, at least on an official level. Mubaydayn also pointed out the government’s appointment of a number of prominent historians to positions of power within the state apparatus, explaining how this empowered the state to dominate historical writing and to reinterpret official history for its own ends, leaving out undesirable episodes.

One important caveat to the general rules, Mobaydeen explained, was the information revolution created by the flood of recent leaks of official documents. These, he said, provided opportunities for Jordanian historians to write the history of their country. Mobaydeen divided Jordanian historiography into a number of periods, beginning with the Arab Revival, followed by a period focused on the history of Emir (later King) Abdullah and the Emirate of Transjordan. This period was followed by one that took a scientific historical approach to Jordan’s past, which has gradually turned into what Mobaydeen called a “fifth school of Jordanian historiography,” pioneered at the country’s University of Jordan, and in particular by the historian Nassereddine Assad.

Language and History: Arabic, Nomenclature, Word Borrowing 

 The fourth and final session, chaired by Mahasen Abduljaleel, started off with a paper from Azzedine Guessous, titled “The Islamic West: Competing Arab and Western Fields of Historical Research.” Jassous examined how Western Orientalists, from the 1980s, were less and less likely to have a command of Arabic, a phenomenon Maxim Rodinson described as the ghettoization of Western thinkers.

The second paper delivered by Saleh Alwani focused on the history of North Africa, and expressed his frustration at the way in which official, state-sanctioned histories have dominated historical narratives across the Arab world. This practice, he said, has been detrimental to the academic use of history. Alwani focused his paper on an examination of how ambiguity of the exact nomenclature—and, in consequence, geographic boundaries—of the Arab Maghreb created problems for historical research He asked: was “North Africa” more appropriate than “North Africa and the Maghreb”? The “Arab Maghreb” or “the Islamic Maghreb”?   

The final speaker was Moroccan historian and Doha Institute scholar Mohammed al-Taher Mansouri, whose paper focused on “Byzantine Civilization as Viewed by the Arabs: A Study of the Arabic Language.” Mansouri questioned the possibility of writing about the Arab past in isolation from other histories, noting in particular the large number of loan words that medieval Arabs borrowed from the Byzantines. Mansouri examined the multiplicity of factors that contributed to the overall Arab view of the Byzantine world, not least of which was religion. He showed how the context of the encounters between the two peoples meant that Byzantines—whom the Arabs called Rum, acknowledging a link with the Roman Empire seldom found in the West—were in general terms viewed positively by Arab writers.