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Book review: A Concise History of the Arabs 'lucid and erudite'

A sense of irritation impelled John McHugo to write his new work about the complex history of this region. His thoughtful work may yet become required reading, writes Nick March
Druze soldiers defend the city of Damas in south-west Syria, part of a revolt from 1925 to 1927 to gain independence from France, which ultimately suppressed the rebellion. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Druze soldiers defend the city of Damas in south-west Syria, part of a revolt from 1925 to 1927 to gain independence from France, which ultimately suppressed the rebellion. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

A Concise History of the Arabs

John McHugo

Saqi Books

When John McHugo began to think about writing his new book, A Concise History of the Arabs, a growing sense of anger coursed through his veins. And anger, he says, "is not a good thing to base a book on".

McHugo, a British intellectual who undertook undergraduate and postgraduate Arabic studies at Oxford University and at the American University in Cairo, is a seasoned lawyer who worked for long periods in Egypt, Bahrain and Oman.

As a board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, he is also an advocate of calm thought and reasoning over provocative and partial commentaries.

So what irked him so badly?

To answer that question, one has to wind back the clock a decade to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"If you occupy a foreign country by war, you have responsibilities to preserve normal life as much as you can in those occupied territories," says McHugo.

You may not bring in legislation except to preserve order.

"The whole approach of the Coalition Provisional Authority [the transitional government which presided over Iraq for 14 months beginning in April 2003] was not even to notice that. I became increasingly angry and I thought the root of it all was this ghastly rhetoric about the 'clash of civilisations'. I thought that someone had to try to show that this is actually not the case.

"I know that anger is a very bad counsellor. So I have tried to put things in perspective to show faults on each and every side and to keep things in proportion - and keeping things in proportion has turned out to be the hardest task I set myself."

Keeping things "in proportion" also involved settling on a digestible length for his book - 100,000 words - to deliver on the promise of a "concise" history. A figure short enough not to be either overwhelming or intimidating, but long enough to be rich in context, detail and nuance. (In comparison, the exhaustive Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, published earlier this year, had a cumulative word count of 500,000 words.)

Published by Saqi Books, McHugo's volume has been praised by a clutch of reviewers for being highly readable, lucid and erudite. Joy Gordon, who wrote Invisible War: The US and the Iraq Sanctions, described the book as "invaluable for those seeking to understand the depth and complexity of the contemporary issues in the Arab world".

The debunking of the notion of the so-called "clash of civilisations" - a loaded and generally intellectually lazy term - emerges as absolutely central to McHugo's concise historical survey.

"Even before 9/11," he writes "there had been loose talk of a 'clash of civilisations'. For many people, this put Islam - and therefore the Arab world - in existential opposition to the democracies of the West.

"I believe that history shows that [this clash] does not exist. Civilised cultures influence and benefit each other. If they do not, they are quite simply not civilised. The expression 'clash of civilisations' has come to be used as a slogan. The 'clash' has a resonance for people with a certain attitude of mind - and a certain view of history.

"Misguided policies and willful ignorance have opened an ever deepening rift," he tells me during our interview.

"This has led to moral nihilism and I don't say it on one side or the other. The ends justify the means and it is much easier to justify the means if you haven't made an effort to understand and sympathise with the decision of the people who you consider yourself to be opposed to."

The book's stated aim is to help readers, particularly those outside this region, understand "how the Arab world has arrived where it is today, and that can only be done by learning about its history. If we do not do so, we cannot heal the rifts between us." McHugo assumes no prior knowledge by the reader, but his concise history will, nevertheless, be of interest to both novice and scholar.

Spread over nine chapters and a conclusion dealing with the consequences of the Arab Spring, the book "begins at the beginning" with the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Later chapters deal with the West's power grab in the region in the 19th century, the subsequent retreat of imperialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and its ramifications, as well as Iraq, the era of autocrats and the rise of Islamism.

Fascinating historical figures emerge as the story fans out, such as Evelyn Baring, later the first Earl of Cromer, who restored Egypt's finances and its fortunes in the early 1890s - a period and a place which McHugo eloquently describes as representing "the cockpit of European rivalry" - through a combination of a rationalised taxation system and public works.

But this is not simply a history of the other, the unwanted foreigner imposing his will on a faraway land: "I have been very concerned to try and show the extent to which Arabs have been able to make their own history," says the author.

McHugo devotes space to an engaging discussion of the so-called "golden age of Arabic science", the confluence of circumstance and intellect that promoted discovery and scholarly conquest of an unprecedented nature over a protracted period, beginning in the 9th century.

"There was something very systematic about the evidence-based approach many Arabic scientists took to their work, anticipating the development of the 'scientific method' in Western Europe hundreds of years later.

"Arabic was the language in which the principles of algebra were first set out and the first systematic textbook of ophthalmology was written," he records in the book.

But still the question persists as to why this golden age eventually faded away?

"The answers are not clear cut," says McHugo. "None of the given explanations are satisfactory on their own," although he does offer two reasons in his text: namely the appearance of printing presses in Europe in the 15th century, which must have helped scientific development (Arabic printing really didn't get under way for another four centuries) and the "shock" of the Mongol invasions in the late 13th century, which "had a very bad influence on all of this, because it led to some kind of defensiveness. Maybe it led to the lessening of intellectual inquiry. Defensiveness does not promote independence of thought."

His book, always erudite, also includes some interesting diversions on the changing nature of language, particularly on the usage of the words "crusade" and "jihad" in both English and Arabic.

"Philologists say that when words change their meanings more often than not, the meaning becomes more derogatory," he says, in reference to the now commonplace use of both words in contexts other than their literal meanings.

Moving to the modern era, the question of the impact of the Arab Spring must inevitably cloud any historical volume concerned with the region.

If nothing else, McHugo finds certainty in the current uncertainty and upheaval: "Whatever the future of the Arab world may be," he writes, "a genie has popped out of a bottle and cannot be put back."

While drawing parallels between the great Syrian rebellion in 1925, the French Revolution and the present day, McHugo adds that "history never repeats itself exactly".

"It took France a century or longer to heal the wounds the revolution had left," he writes in his closing notes to his book. "The revolution could not be rolled back … over the following decades, rulers increasingly accepted that they needed to govern by consent, and that it was better from their own point of view to make concessions to popular demands than to be engaged in a cycle of endless and fruitless repression."

Just as it was then, so it is now. It will take years, decades even, for the events that began in December 2010 in Tunisia to truly settle into their rightful place in this region's long and rich history.


Nick March is editor of The Review.


Updated: June 8, 2013 04:00 AM