To write a history of the Arabs as distinct from that of the other peoples with whom their affairs have been inextricably entwined is no easy matter. Since the seventh century and the advent of Islam, when the Arabs emerged from the Arabian Peninsula to conquer an empire in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, the history of the Arabs has been inseparable from the history of Islam. In the seventh century, the Arabian Peninsula was bordered to the east and north by two great empires, the Sassanian and the Byzantine. We do not know a great deal about the Arabs at this time. They were a people partially settled in oases towns, partially nomadic; they shared a form of loose tribal organization that emphasized the primacy of leading families and noble lineage. They worshiped a variety of deities, until Mohammed, establishing control over both Medina and Mecca, imposed a monotheistic religion. They were tied together primarily by language; several dialects of Arabic were beginning to resemble one another, and the Arabic of the Koran soon became a model for the Arabic that spread throughout the Middle East.

At least initially, Arabs dominated the empire that was created by Mohammed and his successors, and Arabic became the language of government, bureaucracy, religion, and scholarship, and of the educated elites. There was a strong sense of a distinctive Arab identity deriving not only from the Arabic language but from the power and influence of the leading Arab families within the empire. The Umayyad dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries, by drawing largely on Arabs to fill the administrative positions in the empire, gave a distinctive Arab character to its rule. But under the succeeding dynasty of the Abbasids, whose leaders, initially messianic, developed a more inclusive idea of empire, the Islamic world expanded, linking the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea basins, and exclusive Arab control could no longer be maintained.

Many non-Arabs were eager to identify with the Arab ruling group, yet the Islamic culture that emerged, although it was given its distinctiveness by the nature of Mohammed’s prophetic message and its Arab background, was also much influenced by the cultures of the conquered peoples. Methods of administration including tax collecting were borrowed from the Persians and the Byzantines. The Persians helped to shape Arab literary forms and sensibility and contributed extensively to Islamic philosophy and sciences and to Arabic grammar. Islamic philosophy was influenced by the discovery of the works of the Greek neo-Platonists and by the religious disputation that took place among the Christians and Jews who were among the conquered peoples.

Arabic became the language of ethnically quite different people in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa, who had not previously been Arabic speakers; and it remained for centuries the language of religious learning and scholarship. But after the tenth century, Persian reemerged in Iran as the language of imaginative literature and sometimes of the court. The Ottomans spoke Turkish. From the middle of the ninth century on, Persians and Turks, Kurds and Mongols, as well as Arabs, became rulers in the Arab world. From the early sixteenth century until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Arab Middle East was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks became overlords of much of the Islamic world and of the Arab provinces within it. The Ottoman system of administration, with its appointment of trusted local governors, allowed considerable autonomy in the Arab lands as in other parts of the empire. As Albert Hourani, for many years a fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, has written elsewhere, Ottoman rule deeply affected the nature of Arab society, and the political and social imagination of the Sultan’s subjects.1 Arab history in the sixteenth century became a part of Ottoman history.

Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples could therefore be written only within the larger, Islamic and, later, Ottoman, setting. Hourani keeps his eye mainly on those parts of the empire that make up the present Arab Middle East and North Africa, those lands where, after the breakup of the Abbasid empire in the tenth century, Arabic remained the primary language of the people. Although he must deal with the entire empire in the first part of his elegantly written history, Hourani concentrates more directly on the Arabs during the Ottoman period, beginning in the sixteenth century, and he sharpens this emphasis further in the twentieth century, with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of independent Arab states. A shared Islamic faith and heritage contributed to the rise of twentieth-century Arab nationalism; but this nationalism, which emphasized a common Arab cultural identity and aspired to create an Arab political unit, was itself a modern phenomenon, the product of European ideas of nationalism.


A History of the Arab Peoples follows the distinctive interpretative approach that Hourani has worked out in many other of his works. He is not much interested in narrative political history. 2 He has little to say about particular dynasties, rulers, events—about, for example, the Zanj slave revolts under the Abbasids, the economic and political disorder that accompanied the disintegration of the Abbasid empire, the material devastation wrought by the Mongol invasion, and the deep scars it left on the Muslim and Arab psyches. He is mainly interested in the style of politics in the Arab world and the manner in which power was won, held, and used. He concentrates on social and cultural history and in shifts in systems of thought and religious sensibility. Like the late University of Chicago Islamic scholar Marshall Hodgson,3 Hourani emphasizes the importance of Islam not just as a religion, but as a culture and a civilization that has shaped the lives, beliefs, and views of Muslims, including Arabs, much as a historian of the Holy Roman Empire might treat the shaping role of Christianity in medieval Europe. And if the historian of the Holy Roman Empire would naturally stress the role of Latin as the language of scholarship and high culture, so Hourani has much to say about Arabic as the vehicle through which Islamic learning was transmitted, trade, travel, and scholarship were made possible, and the educated classes in a far-flung empire made to feel that they were members of a single community.

Hourani’s primary emphasis in his book is therefore on high Islamic culture, rather than on popular culture and religion; on urban elites, rather than on the working and peasant classes; on cities, rather than on villages and the countryside. He devotes sections of his book to popular forms of religious practice, such as the Sufi orders and pilgrimages to Mecca and other shrines, and in discussing cities, he comments on the lives of ordinary people. But his eye is mostly elsewhere.

If Islam is seen as the basis of a cohesive, unifying civilization, then Hourani’s emphasis on the art and the culture of cities becomes immediately understandable. He concentrates on them because, in his view, cities were the centers of political power, wealth, and religious learning, and the sources of the laws and ethical norms that bound Islamic society together. And, in the cities, Hourani is particularly concerned to trace the “alliance of interests” between rulers and the urban elites, not only because these were the people who held political power, but also because, for Hourani, the alliance brought stability and thus made possible the transmission of learning and wealth from generation to generation. He has much to say as well about the urban religious scholars who were the keepers and transmitters of learning; and through brief intellectual biographies of them, he is able to show how shifts occurred in the Muslim view of the world.

Hourani begins his book with his reflections on the life and ideas of the great fourteenth-century North African Arab scholar, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, and there is good reason for this. Ibn Khaldun lived and wrote during the turbulent period when Tamerlane, a world conqueror in the Mongol mode, was establishing his mastery over much of the Islamic world. In his native North Africa, Ibn Khaldun had seen dynasties rise and fall. He had himself on more than one occasion fallen from political favor; and he had served many different rulers, including the ruler of Tunis, rulers in the Maghrib, or northwest Africa, in Granada, the capital of Muslim Spain, in Algeria, and in Egypt.

“It was a world,” Hourani writes, “full of reminders of the frailty of human endeavour. His own career showed how unstable were the alliances of interests on which dynasties relied to maintain their power….Outside the city, order was precarious.” But Hourani notes that Ibn Khaldun could move from North Africa to Granada and to Cairo and still be in familiar surroundings. As a legal scholar he carried his profession with him, and could serve local rulers in different parts of the empire:

Something was stable, however, or seemed to be…. [T]he Arabic language could open the door to office and influence throughout that world; a body of knowledge transmitted over the centuries by a known chain of teachers, preserved a moral community even when rulers changed; places of pilgrimage, Mecca and Jerusalem, were unchanging poles of the human world even if power shifted from one city to another.

This passage captures an idea central to Hourani’s interpretation: that the Islamic religion, articulated and transmitted through the Arabic language, and passed on from generation to generation by religious scholars like Ibn Khaldun, created a common culture that defined, but also transcended, dynasties and politics. Islam provided a common system of religious belief and practice, a shared moral universe, a common language, norms of social behavior, accepted rules for trade and financial transactions, and “a system of shared expectations between those who had to deal with one another without personal contact or knowledge.” All of this was reinforced as Islamic culture was spread through trade, migration, and travel.


Muslims everywhere, Hourani writes, were familiar with similar rituals:

Time was marked by the five daily prayers, the weekly sermon in the mosque, the annual fast in the month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Muslim calendar.

The legal code of shari’a provided a common system of jurisprudence. Muslims were aware, despite local differences, of belonging to the broader Islamic community, or umma, Hourani’s concept of this shared universe of religious belief and practice, moral and social values, law and common expectations, is described in language that can be both concrete and allusive, both clearly expressed and hard to pin down.

The reader becomes aware that Hourani is struggling to define the cultural unity of a world that he is confident exists but that resists neat definition. People in an Arab world, he writes, have “a sense” of belonging to a common community and sharing common values. During the nineteenth century, the officials of the Ottoman Empire were “trained in a new way” and “cities of the new kind” emerged; but the qualities of this shared newness resist explicit description. Sometimes he refers to the “feel” of Islamic or Arab culture, as when he writes of visual impressions and sounds that were to be expected in an Islamic city. He returns again and again to the concept of the unity of the Arab world, formulating and reformulating it.

Hourani is of course concerned to make it clear that he is aware of the local varieties of Islam, the elements that, say, in the sixteenth century made Tunis different from Cairo, and Cairo different from Isfahan. He takes account of the work of Clifford Geertz and of others who built on Geertz’s studies, showing how Islamic culture could take starkly different forms in, say, Java and North Africa. But it is the commonality of the world shaped by Islam that largely concerns him; and the characteristics he emphasizes to convey this shared universe of belief, practice, and values are almost always the same.

For example, he writes that by the tenth century a traveler “would have been able to tell, by what he saw and heard, whether a land was ruled and peopled by Muslims.” In the fourteenth century, the famous itinerant scholar Ibn Battuta, he notes, could go from Tangier in Morocco to Iran and the Arab Middle East, Africa, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Spain, and the Sahara, and everywhere he could frequent scholars “with whom he was joined by the link of a common culture expressed in the Arabic language.” He would be received at the courts of princes and be appointed as a judge by some of them, thousands of miles from his own home.

Writing of the eighteenth century, when the Arab part of the Islamic world was largely, but not entirely, under Ottoman rule, but when Shi’ite and other Islamic lands further east were not, Hourani uses language not much different from that with which he describes the tenth century, or the fifteenth:

Whether they lived within the Ottoman Empire or outside its frontiers, those who professed faith in Islam and lived through the medium of the Arabic language had something in common which was deeper than political allegiance or shared interests. Among them, and between them and those who spoke Turkish or Persian or the other languages of the Muslim world, there was the common sense of belonging to an enduring and unshaken world created by the final revelation of God through the Prophet Muhammad, and expressing itself in different forms of thought and social activity: the Qur’an, the Traditions of the Prophet, the system of law or ideal social behaviour, the Sufi orders oriented towards the tombs of their founders, the schools, the travels of scholars in search of learning, the circulation of books, the fast of Ramadan,…the pilgrimage which brought many thousands from all over the Muslim world to Mecca at the same moment of the year. All these activities preserved the sense of belonging to a world which contained all that was necessary for welfare in this life and salvation in the next.

In discussing Arab rulers, Hourani observes that dynasties might draw their power from the countryside, but that in order to endure, they needed to conquer the cities. The Buyids, for example, were mountain people from the Caspian shore. Under the Abbasids in the tenth century, they hired themselves out as infantry to local governors before they built their own base of power in Shiraz, in southern Iran. When they then entered the Abbasid capital, Baghdad, in 945, they could seize power in their own right. The Saljuqs, a people of Turkish origin who became masters of a large part of the Islamic world in the eleventh century, first entered the domains of Islam as slave soldiers in the service of other Islamic rulers and as nomads in search of pasture. They established themselves in Baghdad and in the great cities of central and eastern Iran, such as Marv, Nishapur, and Isfahan, but long after they had done so, the Saljuqs continued to draw their military force from among their own tribal followers.

In the cities were the men of experience, talent, and education who knew how to collect taxes, manage the bureaucracy, and run the government; clerics who could serve as judges and interpret Islamic law; scholars and poets to adorn a ruler’s court. What strikes the reader of Hourani’s account is the continuity in urban administrative institutions and bureaucratic officials from dynasty to dynasty in Islamic history. Cities also produced the surplus revenue that, once captured by a ruler, could maintain his household and his army. It was also in the cities that Islamic learning flourished.

The city was the home of what Hourani calls the urban “notables”—the landowners, merchants, senior religious scholars, and the governors and local military commanders who, at various times, managed to acquire land and to establish an authoritative local presence. Hourani sees them as central throughout Islamic and Middle Eastern history. He first developed his concept of the urban notables in a highly influential article on the urban elites in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.4 Here he applies the same analysis to the Arab world for virtually the entire period since the advent of Islam.

The urban notables, Hourani argues, carried weight in virtually every Arab society by virtue of their wealth, their religious learning, and their membership in families that had acquired prestige over the years. They were thus in a position to serve as intermediaries between the ruler and the people, and as leaders of the urban population. They could challenge the ruler by arousing the urban mob against the government, by shutting down the bazaar or suspending religious services, or by simply withholding taxes or failing to provide the commercial and military services the ruler depended on. The ruler could not govern the city without their cooperation.

Moreover the families of these notables were able to organize and pass on their wealth and position to their descendants. They were the bearers of Islamic culture, handing down from generation to generation “a system of learning, values, modes of behaviour and ideal types of personality.” In virtually every period he considers, whether the tenth or the fifteenth century, the Ottoman or the modern era, Hourani calls our attention to “the alliance of interests” between the ruler and the urban notables. Yet he also makes clear that the type of influence the notables were able to exercise, however considerable, was not translated into lasting political power. The coalitions of urban elites were loose, their alliances fluid, and the absence of political or professional associations proved decisive.

In addition, the links “between ruler and city,” Hourani writes, “were precarious and shifting, moving on a spectrum between alliance and hostility.” The propertied classes did not often express their discontent in open rebellion; and they tended to support the ruler as long as he maintained order and protected their interests. They needed stability to keep trade and agriculture going and to protect their property; and they were acutely aware of how rapidly the stability of the social order might break down. “They had too much to lose by disorder.”

If the ruler’s oppression exceeded acceptable bounds, the notables could, on occasion, mobilize the workmen, artisans, and riffraff that made up the urban crowd to put pressure on the ruler; or if the ruler grew weak and another rose to take his place, the notables might well accommodate themselves to the new ruler and surrender the city to a new master. In Egypt, the notables transferred their loyalty to the Mamluks, who had been slave soldiers of mostly Albanian background employed as military forces by the local governors or the central government, when the weakened Ayyubid dynasty collapsed in the thirteenth century, and they accommodated themselves to the Ottomans, when Mamluk power broke down in the sixteenth century.

Yet the urban notables were rarely capable of taking and maintaining power on their own. In his quiet way, Hourani implicitly draws attention to a failure of Arab political institutions when he shows that, unlike the urban elites in early modern Europe, the Middle Eastern notables were unable to secure for themselves charters, rights a sphere of autonomy independent of the central government. It is true that in some of the Syrian and Mesopotamian cities the patrician elements often organized coalitions and led the urban crowd against excessively oppressive governors. Notables took over the government in several cities in Muslim Spain when the Ummayad caliphate of Cordova collapsed in the eleventh century. But such periods of ascendancy by the urban elite were brief. In a pattern that repeats itself throughout Islamic history, Hourani argues, power would soon revert to a new, strong, and commanding ruler.

Moreover, if the notables sometimes tried to redress the grievances of the urban population or used their discontent for their own ends their ultimate commitment was to their own interests. Once grievances were partly dealt with and short-term ends achieved, when the oppressive governor, say, was removed, “the market would open again, the coalition of forces dissolve, but the urban mass would still be there, appeased or controlled for the moment but as far as ever from a just Islamic order.”

In fact, it is in the changing coalitions of the urban notables that Hourani traces the shifts in the structure of power in the Islamic world. For example, the declining power of the Ottomans in the eighteenth century permitted the local governors appointed by the Ottoman rulers in such places as Syria, Egypt, and the Maghreb to take over control of administration and tax collection, to raise their own armies and to make alliances with what Hourani describes as powerful and “more or less permanent” families of local notables. In Egypt, most of the high offices and the prosperous farms which were a source of tax revenue fell into the hands of military officers and the families of Mamluks.

Powerful families, such as the Azms in Damascus and the Bashirs in Lebanon, built great houses as their power and influence grew, and they maintained this power and influence well into the twentieth century. In North Africa in the nineteenth century, French and Spanish colonization weakened the old families and created new privileged groups, including representatives of foreign companies, merchants engaged in foreign trade, and those who owned or controlled the land producing the crops for foreign markets such as cotton in Egypt. The combinations of notables vary; but what is striking in Hourani’s account is their persistence as a social force and their lack of legally recognized independent status.

Still, for Hourani an important break in the cohesion of the Islamic world occurs in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hourani once described the 1860s and 1870s as a watershed in the history of the Middle East, a time of “social and moral disturbance” in the lives of educated men. He cited the example of Muhammad Bairam, a member of a Tunisian family of religious notables, trained in traditional religious studies, who abandoned the career as religious teacher and scholar that was expected of him, became a journalist, and took up the cause of reform. “The hereditary ‘alim [religious scholar],” writes Hourani, “had become a member of the new intelligentsia.” Bairam shared with a near contemporary, the Egyptian religious scholar Rashid Rida, a “sense of the moral decay of Islam.”5

Hourani discusses in some detail the sources of this “disturbance” and “decay.” It derives, in his view, in large part from the military, technological, and cultural challenges posed by the encounter of Arab culture with the West, the inability of the Muslims to summon up power to counter this intrusion, and the changes brought about in society, political power, and religious sensibility as a result of European supremacy.

Hourani concentrates on the nineteenth century, although some historians would argue that serious signs of decay were already evident in the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. He notes that modern reforms, adopted by the Ottomans beginning in the 1830s at the behest of the British, French, and Russians or to defend against the intrusion of these powers, tended also to weaken the relationship between government and society. The new methods and policies, including Western-style courts, laws, schools, and armies, were carried out by officials trained in a new way; such new procedures were less clear, and they had no roots in the generally accepted moral system. They also disturbed ancient relationships between government and society, with central officials, for example, dictating standards for education that previously were left to local communities.

European competition also caused economic dislocation as traditional industries (textiles in Syria, sugar refining in Egypt) suffered. By 1850, “beduin in the Syrian desert were wearing shirts made of Lancashire cotton.” Governments borrowed in Europe on unfavorable terms and fell badly into debt. Between 1854 and 1876, the Ottoman government borrowed 256 million Turkish pounds and, after charges were discounted, received only 139 million. Egypt borrowed 68 million pounds sterling between 1862 and 1873 and received only two thirds of the amount. By 1911, France had imposed direct control over Tunisia, England over Egypt, France and Spain over Morocco, and Italy over Tripoli.

The European presence brought about a shift in the composition of the urban elites, one favoring European settlers, traders, bankers, and commercial farmers, local Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian merchants whose knowledge of foreign languages helped them make foreign contacts, and Muslim merchants involved in foreign trade. Ironically, when registration of farm land was introduced in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere as a means of encouraging cultivation by ensuring security of ownership, the result was that smallholders often lost their farms to more powerful large European or indigenous urban landowners and tribal chiefs. Agriculture as a result became organized on a commercial basis, primarily for export of such items as cotton, tobacco, and silk. These new landowners, writes Hourani, did not have to work within “the restraints of a moral bond between themselves and those who worked for them.”

Power shifted away from the old inland cities to the new ports such as Algiers and Oran, Alexandria and Beirut, whose inhabitants included a foreign, often colonial, element, such as the French settlers in Algeria, as well as a Westernized elite of Arabs and others living in European style alongside the more traditional inhabitants, but separated from them.

In cities of the new kind, physical separation was a sign of a deeper divorce of attitudes, tastes, habits and faith. By the 1930s a larger part of the educated élite was no longer living within the bounds of the shari’a…. The number of those for whom Islam was an inherited culture rather than a rule of life increased.

Hourani thus describes what he sees as deep social, economic, and intellectual dislocation brought about by the encounter of the Islamic world with an expanding and colonizing West, and he does so in language all the more striking because it contrasts sharply with what came before. Until he reaches the twentieth century, the emphasis of his reading of Islamic and Middle Eastern history is on continuity, the cohesion of culture and society, the shared moral universe of various groups and classes. If in the past other scholars have emphasized the sharp contrast between city and village, desert and town, Hourani prefers to emphasize the interdependence of city and country, urban and tribal elements.

Hourani does not devote much space to the great upheavals that took place between the seventh and twentieth centuries. He notes that slave soldiers such as the Mamluks of Egypt often established dynasties and became rulers, but does not devote much space to discussing the pattern of slaveholding in the Arab world, which often differs from that of the West. For him, the decline of Ottoman central authority, the military defeats and loss of territory in Europe in the eighteenth century, and the devolution of power to provincial centers and elites are not, as other historians have argued, symptoms of a severe crisis, but adjustments of methods of rule and administration to new coalitions. The upheaval and violence that have characterized political life in individual Arab states such as Iraq since the end of the Second World War get little attention, and not much is said about such brutal regimes as those of Hafiz al-Asad or Saddam Hussein.

Still, Hourani relies more frequently on narrative political history in the chapters on the period following World War II; and while he continues to use the same categories of analysis, emphasizing as before the importance of the ruling elites, he does not do so, it seems to me, with the same sure hand evident in his discussion of the earlier period. The elites themselves become harder to identify; decisive events, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, and the Lebanese civil war are mentioned but not examined in any depth. Hourani’s account becomes less magisterial in tone.

The reasons for this seem apparent. The traditional world to which he applies his analysis has broken down. Many of the religious leaders became relegated to the margins of society (and, in the longer term, the recent Islamic revival is unlikely to alter this development much). In such countries as Egypt and Syria, the urban notables no longer fulfill their traditional function as leaders of urban society. Army officers, government officials, merchants, industrialists, and members of the new rentier class continue to be features of urban life, but they no longer mediate between the rulers and the local population. Such rulers as Nasser or Qaddhafi appeal directly to a more amorphous urban mass. The elites themselves are now more secular in belief, more influenced by Western ideas, and they are often educated in schools with a Western style curriculum or in the West itself; they no longer share a universe of religious belief with the rest of the population.

This may explain something of a paradox in the closing chapter of the book, “A Disturbance of Spirits,” a phrase that echoes the words Hourani chose to describe the social and moral dislocation that affected educated men in the nineteenth century. Hourani attributes this twentieth-century “disturbance” to numerous factors: the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, the failure of Arab states, despite their wealth, to achieve independence from the West, a growing gap between Arab rich and Arab poor, a weakening of the illusion of Arab unity, a continued sense of military weakness.

Educated Arabs, Hourani writes, have had a growing sense of a gap between themselves and the masses; they do not feel a moral bond, “by virtue of which they could claim to be a society and a political community.” There is little agreement among them on how to interpret the Arab and Islamic past. Contemporary thinkers, like Sadiq al-Azm of Syria and Seyyed Qutb of Egypt, have advocated solutions ranging all the way from total rejection of religious faith as incompatible with scientific thought to a belief that the Islamic heritage itself, derived from the word of God, provides a basis for modern life.

In his closing chapter Hourani contemplates the contemporary Middle East as containing “the apparent paradox of stable and enduring regimes in deeply disturbed societies.” Such countries as Syria or Egypt are relatively stable because the state has at its disposal vast bureaucracies, including state security forces, that have succeeded in extending their reach into “every village and almost every house or tent.” As before, in Cairo, Damascus, or Tunis, new elites of army officers, civil servants, traders, and entrepreneurs who are interested in order will support the state. Peasants and others whose interests are not favored by government policies “were not in a position to bring effective pressure upon it.” Governments have been able to appropriate ideas such as Arab nationalism, social justice, or Islam that can on occasion move the popular imagination.

But Hourani also calls attention to the fragility of recent regimes. In countries like Lebanon and Iraq, challenges by excluded groups to once-cohesive ruling elites resulted in bloody factionalism and infighting. Elites almost everywhere in the Arab world gave only passive support to the rulers “partly because they did not participate actively in the making of decisions.” The distance between government and society was rooted in “the weakness of the conviction which bound them to each other.” In language strongly reminiscent of his description of the attitude of Ottoman urban notables toward the state, he writes that by the mid-1980s:

The classes which dominated the structure of wealth and social power…would support a regime so long as it seemed to be giving them what they wanted; but they would not lift a finger to save it, and would accept its successor if it seemed likely to follow a similar policy.

Moreover, once political ideas, such as Arab nationalism, were appropriated by governments, “they were in danger of losing their meaning, [becoming] slogans which grew stale by repetition, and could no longer…mobilize social forces for action, or turn power into legitimate authority.”

Yet, despite this still profound “disturbance of spirits,” Hourani seems to be saying that something like an Arab culture common to the entire Arab region is emerging. He mentions the expansion of both school and university education; the replacement by Arabic of French and English as the language of instruction at elite institutions; the shared consciousness created by radio, films, newspapers, and television; and the movement of goods and people, tourists, businessmen, and workers, “the most important movement…[being] not that of goods but of migrants.” Such developments, he writes hopefully, “must have deepened the sense of there being a single Arab world within which Arabs could move with comparative freedom and understand each other.”

It is a benign vision, somewhat at odds with Hourani’s own depiction of “deeply disturbed societies” and a culture in which moral certainties have been lost and a sense of fragmentation and dislocation prevails. Radio, movies, books, and television no doubt are creating a sense of a shared culture across national frontiers, but they are almost invariably state-controlled, and they also often broadcast political propaganda that spreads venom and enmity across the Arab world and glorifies tyrannical regimes.

Yet Hourani’s view of the cultural unity of the modern Arab world is remarkably reminiscent of the view expressed in the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, which Hourani used to describe the unity of the Islamic world in the fourteenth century. Once again, the elements are the same, or virtually the same: a shared language and culture, a common sense of identity among the inhabitants, some shared assumptions about the world, all reinforced by the easy movement of people from one part of the region to another. Once again, Hourani’s language is suggestive rather than concrete, as he attempts to convey the elusive quality of what he feels makes the region distinct and Arab.

Hourani is trying to describe a condition common to modern Middle Eastern societies, in which the states are swollen with power while the people under the state apparatus are relatively powerless. This too, one might argue, is a source of the sense of spiritual dislocation. Although Hourani does not say so, there is little in his account to suggest strong hope, if not for democratization, then at least for the development of civil society in most of the Arab world. Egypt, he notes, may be moving to a position where, like Turkey, “periods of parliamentary rule and military dictatorship would alternate, and constitutional life would always be restored and always threatened.” But elsewhere, limits on the power of rulers, bureaucracies, and the state are few; autonomous professional or political bodies are rare; constitutional guarantees are weak; urban elites are too often self-interested or overly dependent on the state to lead society; the intelligentsia are ultimately helpless to influence the exercise of state power even as they agonize over its arbitrary character. The brief Algerian experiment in political pluralism has already ended with the familiar tanks on the streets.

At the end of his book, Hourani thus contemplates an Arab world, much as his admired Ibn Khaldun might have contemplated an Islamic one, in which political regimes might turn out to be ephemeral, or unpopular, and to be supported by elites who have largely failed to define their own clear-cut public responsibilities or to organize themselves as independent civic forces. What endures is a culture that ties people and region together, not, as in Ibn Khaldun’s case, an Islamic culture, but, for Hourani, an Arab one.

It is an attractive and in some respects a persuasive vision, even if often it seems to overlook the harsh reality of the region’s politics, and the ways in which these politics intrude on and dominate the life of its people.

This Issue

September 26, 1991