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Perplexed

In response to:

Not So Grand Illusions from the November 23, 1967 issue

To The Editors:

I am delighted that Mr. Kedourie, in his review of my Shaping of the Arabs [NYR, Nov. 23] agrees with me that the conventional Western view of the Arabs, shared by the Arabs themselves, is so widely at odds with their historic past.

Thus, since he seems to confirm my major thesis, I find myself perplexed by his reservations.

It does not seem to me particularly “paradoxical” to point out that Arab identity has altered very radically since the days when the original Arabs under Muhammad triggered the collapse of the Persian and Byzantine Empires, thus laying the foundations of a Muslim world empire in which for many centuries they were completely over-shadowed. It was their very success in implanting the Arabic language as the vernacular of a vast and complex society that enabled other groups, by becoming Muslims, to shoulder aside the less sophisticated parvenus so recently from the desert.

It seems to me remarkably irrelevant—though of course interesting!—to recall what Muhammad thought he was doing, if indeed we can recover something so elusive. As far as we know Muhammad started out merely with the intention of conveying to his people in their own language the Jewish message of monotheism. When the bickering tribes of Arabia accepted Muhammad’s leadership and soft-pedaled for a time their rivalries, they then went abroad for conquest quite independently of their religious views; indeed, except for Muhammad himself and his immediate entourage, hardly any of them had any interest in religion to begin with.

The proof of this—surely a banality for modern scholarship—is that the Arabs carried abroad with them no procedure for, not even the concept of, conversion. For generations you could become a Muslim only by becoming an Arab, i.e., by affiliating yourself with some Arabian tribe.

That is what I meant by indicating that Islam, despite its universal implications, was in the beginning an “appendage” of the Arabian tribes. It was surely this contradiction, i.e., the parochial possession of a universal faith, that accounts for the length of time it took for Islam to make many converts.

Not only were non-Muslims taxed quite heavily, but when Islam first appeared it did not seem to be a new religion at all; there was, in fact, nothing repellent about it to the populations of the Middle East, already seriously alienated from both the Persian and the Byzantine Empires.

We know this because only a few generations later, when the populations subject to the Muslim-Arabs had learned Arabic, they absolutely poured into Islam, disrupting the basic principle of the Muslim treasury and ultimately dislodging the Arabs proper from their initial primacy.

In a word, the traditional view of Islam’s being carried abroad at the point of the sword—to this day accepted by most people—is really altogether silly. It was in the interest of the Muslim-Arab aristocrats, to keep their taxable subjects out of Islam, and they managed it quite successfully for some time.

As for the modern period, Mr. Kedourie’s somewhat niggling objections to my book seem even more baffling. It is surely “historical,” on my part, to try to extricate the movement of modern Arab nationalism from the claims made by its propagandists. Since Arab unification is far from realized, and is at best no more that a movement in the midst of becoming, I thought it sensible to indicate the background—i.e., forces pro and con—that it is trying to realize itself against.

Mr. Kedourie’s remark that “all” states are artificial seems to me quaint; I am unaware of any human community living in anarchy, so I suppose some state form or other is “natural.” What I meant by saying that some of the Arab states are artificial is that they are artificial not as states, but as Arab states—i.e., in terms of the pan-Arab movement that all the leaders pay lipservice to.

In reading Mr. Kedourie’s review I had a vague feeling that he agrees with me on most of my major themes, but because of some of the collateral material was annoyed with me—or with himself!—just because of this.

In any case I agree with him that it is high time for the whole fog surrounding the Arab national movement to be dispelled.

Joel Carmichael

New York City

Elie Kedourie replies:

I do not know why Mr. Carmichael should be “perplexed” by my comments on his book. He had the good idea—which, however, was not exactly original—of pointing out that all this talk of Arabs is a recent European invention. I complimented him on his good idea, but pointed out that his development of it left something to be desired. In this there is nothing perplexing.

I do wish Mr. Carmichael would attend more carefully to what I wrote and to what he himself had written. In his letter he discusses at length the domination of the conquered territories by the Arab tribes under the first four Caliphs and the Umayyads. This issue I did not query. What I queried was his statement, which I quoted and which I quote again, that the “paradox of Muhammad’s life was that though he formed the Arabs into a people, he did so through a modality that was essentially self-contradictory, by laying the foundations of a universal religion.” This, I pointed out, attributes to the Prophet “intentions” which he never entertained and purposes alien to his thought. Mr. Carmichael now says that we cannot know what Muhammad’s thoughts were. If he believes this, why does he so categorically attribute to him the desire to form the Arabs into a people? But in any case, it is not true that we are utterly ignorant of Muhammad’s thoughts. We have, in the Koran and in other contemporary records, a large body of evidence from which we may form an idea of his thoughts, of his world-view and of his personality. And nothing is more certain than that the idea of forming the Arabs into a people would have been utterly unfamiliar to him.

In this part of his letter, Mr. Carmichael makes what is, for an historian, an extremely bold assertion. He says that the Arab tribes “went abroad for conquest quite independently of their religious views.” What we do know is that the conquests were, and were considered to be, Muslim conquests carried out under the banner of Islam. How then does Mr. Carmichael pretend to know what these tribes would have or would not have done “independently of their religious views”?

Again, I do not know what Mr. Carmichael means by complaining that I make “somewhat niggling objections” to his book. If by “niggling” he means “detailed,” then it is not for him, who has embarked on historical authorship, to make such a complaint. For as he ought to know, detail is of the essence of history, and it was my duty as a reviewer to comment on details alleged in the book in order to enable your readers to judge of its soundness.

Once more, I would wish that Mr. Carmichael had attended to what he himself had written in his book. In his letter he writes: “What I meant by saying that some of the Arab states are artificial is that they are artificial not as states but as Arab states—i.e., in terms of the pan-Arab movement that all the leaders pay lip-service to.” In other words, Mr. Carmichael is now saying that in describing Arab states as “artificial” he is only reporting the attitudes and beliefs of Arab Nationalists (who, it is true, assert that existing frontiers in the Arab world are artificial and created by imperialism). Had he done merely that, I would have had nothing to object to. But in his book it is on his own authority (and not as a mere reporter) that he advances such a view; this appears quite clearly from the passage I quoted; my objection, as expressed in the review, was to this view as an historical and a considered judgment. As such, it is misleading and without substance.

Mr. Carmichael describes the idea that states are artificial as “quaint.” I am puzzled by his choice of words. Does he by any chance believe that states are like trees and just grow out of the ground?

Finally, Mr. Carmichael hazards the supposition that I am “annoyed” with him or with myself. If authors must engage in controversy with their reviewers, let the polemic at least be concerned with thought which is publicly expressed rather than with feelings which are private and elusive. Readers are entitled to a reviewer’s considered judgment; an exhibition of his feelings would be a poor substitute. But since Mr. Carmichael compels me to discuss feelings, I will confess that reading his book occasioned in me not annoyance, but tedium.

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