Author: Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Publisher: Yale University Press

Year: 2019

Pages: 630

ISBN: 9780300180282


Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s 600-page plus masterpiece of historical explanation and insights into the Arab psyche comprises six sections: Emergence, 900 BC – AD 600; Revolution: 600-630; Dominance: 630-900; Decline: 900-1350; Eclipse: 1350-1800; Re-emergence: 1800-Now. It includes a 20-page timeline summarising key civilisational events, wars, treaties, political transitions and upheavals right up to 2018, that has as its final entry, “Saudi regime implements limited social reform but silences dissent ever more vigorously”.

The author has lived his adult life in Yemen, including the most dangerous of recent times. He was recruited by another erudite travel writer, Peter Clark, to work there as a British Council teacher in the 1980s – they belonged to a diminishing cadre that saw this institution primarily a means for bridging cultures rather than providing Britain with commercial opportunities.

Though The Arabs is a big book in more senses than one, it is leavened by the author’s quirky humour and ability to make connections between the past and present.  It makes no bones of the mess the Arabs are in today, “suffering from so much self-harm”, and, like a flock, “raided, penned in the station of history and periodically slaughtered”. He describes his own position in candid but eloquent terms,

My earliest Arab memories being those of Nasser’s smiling face and, more vaguely, of the Brits getting the bum’s rush in Aden on a flickering black-and-white TV screen, I am inevitably a post-imperialist. Arabist and historian by education but Arabian by experience – living in a land, not a library, in peace as well as war in my tower on its tell; living in a present built on a many-layered past – I am a post-Orientalist: the ‘Orient’ is my home, not just my subject of study (or, God forbid, object of domination). Because of all this, while I look around and see disorder, injustice and, nowadays, the faces of dead youth smiling down from their martyrs’ posters, siles blown up in both senses – while I see all this, I know that there can be no justification for imperialism, territorial or cultural, ‘Western’ or whatever. Those days are long over.

His connecting motif for the two millennium shaping Arab identity is the interplay and tension between Badawah – non-settled society, mobile pastoralist – and Hadarah – settled social groups, settled agriculturalists. He offers a novel and interesting reading of a familiar Qur’anic verse,

O mankind, We have created you from male and female, and made you into peoples [Sha’uban] and tribes [qaba-ilah] . . .  [49:13]

By connecting badawah with ‘peoples’ and hadarah with ‘tribes’,

The Qur’anic verse alluded to in the title of this book suggests that is a duality, an antithesis as basic as that of gender [. . .]  Most commentators have interpreted the verse as referring to settled Persian peoples and nomadic Arab tribes; some scholars argue, more convincingly, that this interpretation is anachronistic, and that the pairing in fact refers to the fundamental and age-old social duality within the Arab sphere itself [. . .] a sha’b, a people, is defined by place, not by kinship, and – apparently from early on – united in large and relatively stable blocks by allegiance to a single chief deity. In contrast, a qabilah, a tribe, defines itself not by shared residence in a particular area, but by an idea of kinship [. . .]   these interwoven dualities (never dichotomies) of hadar/badw, ‘settled/nomadic’, sha’b/ qabila, ‘people/tribe’, only become clear with time [. . .]

Hadar and badw can also counteract as well as interact. The Qur’anic verse quoted above expresses, with beautiful economy, the ambiguous relationship between the settled sha’b and mobile qabalah. God has created them, ‘that [they] may know one another, i.e. by mutual contact’; but there is also a background shade of ‘distinguished between each other/tell one another apart’. The hope of unity and the lurking possibility of disunity coexist [. . . ] a ‘dialogue’ between badw and hadar [. . .] is one of the keys to understanding Arab history as a whole, not just in but also beyond Arabia, and from the earliest times right up to the present.

The author draws on this conceptual framework to explain an aspect of the Prophet’s impact,

Muhammad was sent out as a very small child to the badiyah, the badw-land or steppe hinterland of the town, to live with the nomad tribe of Sa’d ibn Bakr  [. . .] the experience seems to have left Muhammad with a positive view of the neighbouring nomads, and a sense of their symbiosis with Mecca. Much later, when his wife A’ishah referred to the nomads of the Meccan hinterland as a’rab, Muhammad retorted, ‘They are not a’rab. They are the people of our badiyah, and we are the people of their qarayah.’ From this, however, it is also clear that Muhammad was wary, to say the least, of the further-flung, wilder nomads [. . .]

Looking at the wider Meccan milieu and the broader currents of Arabian history, Muhammad was from a perfect background to mediate in the long-running dialogue between hadr and badw, and eventually to try to gather their word into one. He was from an urban, commercial background, but one that was embedded in a nomad environment  and had to rely on the nomads for its trafficking [. . . ]

To put the dilemma another way, the Bedouin a’rab were dynamic, but also potentially disruptive and destructive; the settled members of the ummah contributed security and stability, but also the likelihood of stasis [. . . ]

it is clear once again how much the success of Muhammad’s project was due to the way in which it brought together both hadar and badw, settled people and nomads, however shaky the equilibrium between them.

However, the author is stretching a point when connecting the hadar/badw dualism to present-day ‘state boundaries’ and ‘the demographies of loyalty’. He refers to ‘ruling cliques’, who through the force of arms and terror impose the will of the state on recalcitrant ‘tribes’, “sometimes disguised as sects that were religious, political, or both together [. . .] the old debate between hadar and badw, peoples and tribes, was continuing with new vigour”.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s chapter ‘Revolution’ reveals his erudition in the areas of pre-Islamic poetry and Islamic sources. He makes several references to Imru’ al-Qais, quoting his famous ode to she of the ‘breastbone burnished like a looking-glass’ . . . And hair cascading black to grace her back, intensely black And hanging dense and tangled as the bunches of the palm-tree fruit,
The tresses at her crown piled high in plaits – a maze of straight and twisted ways where hairpins stray. . .

He notes that the Qur’an “is the masterpiece of the Arabic language and, in a sense, the centrepiece of the Arab story – the  hidden thread of history made suddenly, dazingly visible [. . .] The Qur’an is therefore not only the scripture of Islam; it is also the founding text of Arabdom as we know it, with all the historical weight of a Pentateuch, a Manga Carta and a Declaration of Independence.” While some aim at ‘de-Islamizing’ Arab history, Mackintosh-Smith dismisses this trend: “looking at Muhammad in Medina, I realise it is not possible fully to do this”.  

There are traces of a residual Eurocentricism – “Figures like Thomas Becket and Thomas Moore are rare enough in Christianity; they are all but unknown in Islam” – and a selective dipping in the seerah, but this is a monumental work of scholarship and erudition by an Englishman clearly more at home in Yemen and amongst Arabs rather than in England.

Jamil Sherif, April 2020