I spoke to a friend the other day, who said I didn’t need to start at the beginning, when writing an Arabic history. He was right in the sense that the modern-day situation seems far removed from that of the 6th century. This history was never meant to be linear and time centred but it is useful to explore the origins of Arabism and its relationship to Islam, so I will continue with the Caliphates for now. Firstly though a bit about the BBC’s latest take on the Arabic world.
The Making of the Arabic World?
I listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme,’The Making of the Arabic World’, by Tarek Osman; that focuses on Egypt and Syria. This week’s episode gave a short account of the Napoleonic invasion, that was the beginning of modern-day colonialism in Syria and Egypt. It then went on the discuss the effects on Egypt and its culture, of the ”Liberal Revolution”, that ocurred between the two world wars. A commentator admitted that this revolution benefited only ”notables”, and did not extend to the ordinary people.
The liberal revolution and the poverty gap
When I visited in 2005, I was surprised at the poverty gap in Egypt, which was state socialist but had suffered from the aftermath of former President Sadat’s Camp David agreement with Britain and the Israelis. A process that invoked a major backlash in the form of further polarisation between the Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the seaside town of Hurghada, the civic centre was both opulent and uninhabited and of course there was a huge tourist resort that had its own society. The old town is a vibrant port but not as touristic. In Giza, a suburb of Cairo, the tiny village next to the pyramids, is a virtual shanty even though the pyramids, as a tourist attraction, brings an enormous revenue to Egypt. In my view tourism represents a new colonialism, and its absence in Syria meant state socialism did better, resulting in less wealth inequality.
The photos on the right show the pyramids and a place where the tour horses take a rest. I didn’t do the whole rounds as I couldn’t face the aggressive taxi drivers and tourist guides, who I had encountered on my first visit five months before; then I returned to Cairo immediately. This time I had a guide who let me ride alone when I showed I could rise to a trot, so I taught him the song ”Riding through the desert on a horse with no name”, which made him laugh.
The photos on the right are views from the walk between new and old Hurghada, where I ate some fish, bought from a street seller. The walk is pleasant but no-one does it. The ferry port is large but when I got home I heard there had been a major accident involving a ferry; as it sail for Saudi Arabia; a routine trip as well.
Ideas of openness and tolerance or a colonialism that would keep the Arabic world divided forever?
The last section of the programme gave a brief account of Pan-Arabism or Ba’athism and of the Christian philosopher and founder, Michel Aflaq. Needless to say they had a pop at Aflaq, his legacy is associated with both Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq and President Assad of Syria, or more precisely his father, former President Hafez Assad; as well as socialism.
According to the programme Aflaq, who studied at the Sorbonne in France, rejected the ideas of ”openness and tolerance” associated with the French and British philosophers in favour of ideas of ”exclusivity”, that originated in Italy and Germany. (read what you like into that one). The broadcast also discussed how Ba’athism was ”welded” to ideas of ”socialism”. Of course socialism is a stepping stone to Communism, the main tenets of which, are equality and community; as is that of the Ummah (the doctrine of the Quran).
Of course life under French and British colonial rule could not have been better for the people of Egypt and Syria. A bad joke folks, as we will see further down the line. I would give a link here but haven’t got a clue how to do that; there are some books around though. Anyway there will be more gems next week as the series focuses on the rise and fall of Arab nationalism; hair tearing stuff for me; I dare say.
History continued: Ummah or Sha’b; Return to the Caliphates
The last section of the programme also referred to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna and his desire to return to the good old days when Islam was sacrosanct under the Caliphate system and the West was excluded from the equation. That view was meant to be flippant but on a serious note, al-Banna felt as disillusioned with Western secularism as his opposites in the Pan-Arabic movement; as they considered Western power to be morally bankrupt and sought to establish a united front against it. The difference lay in the significance of the Sharia or quranic doctrine in the state process and the definition of nation.
The Ummah and Sha’b are two conceptual words for nation in Arabic: the former refers to a nation united by Islam while the latter refers to nations united by ancestry and geography (compliments of Wikipedia). This of course is a gross over-simplification on my part; but as a general definition it gives a basis for understanding the ongoing differences in the modern Arabic world. Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated in his forties, his followers include the late Palestinian ambassador and leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat. His wish was to return to a Caliphate style of governance, which provides good reason to return to that period.
Hassan al-Banna might have idealised the Caliphates but As Karen Armstrong writes, in the 9th and 10th centuries, most muslims, regardless of sect, felt that the way of life in the Caliphates ”did not live up to the standards of the Quran” and that many believed they were in a state of decline. A response to this might be that politics and religion do not mix particularly as Islam had proliferated rapidly; a fact that may well have impacted its integrity.
Karen Armstrong describes how ”the philosophy, law and spirituality of Islam was profoundly political” and how the Quranic writing were interpreted and adapted to situations as they arose. Thanks to an entrenched idea of absolute monarchy, the Abbasid Caliphate, which replaced the Umayyad (mentioned in an earlier entry), remained the religious leader of the Islamic world. The Turkish or Seljuq victory over the Byzantine empire, saw individual amirs or army officers, establishing individual states, which competed with each other for military authority. This was a turbulent period but was not the end of the system of Caliphates and Islamic doctrine continued on its merry way. Though how much of this was due to the philosophy of the Ummah and how much to military force and land grabbing is debatable.
More next time folks