Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the
Present, Revised Tenth ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 [originally
published 1937]). 822 pp, $32.95.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan, and later Iraq, maps were referenced
and great detail was given by news anchors attempting to habituate the minds
of their American audience to a region whose culture and politics seemed
so wholly foreign to their own. Yet the Middle East has long maintained
a presence in the minds and imaginations of Americans, whether in popular
culture or through religious and archaeological fascination. Throughout
the years Americans have frequently turned to the work of historians in
an attempt to supplement the more generalized ´pop culture' history lesson
they receive in novels and film. It is, in fact, to such works as Philip
Hitti's 1937, History of the Arabs, that both academics and non-academics
alike have turned to add depth to their own educational foundations. Altered,
revised, and edited over ten times since its first release, History of
the Arabs offers scholars and interested laymen alike a chance to understand
one of the most influential ethnic groups of the world in a straightforward
and detailed manner.
Monumental in scope, History of the Arabs
is well laid out and is ideal as a reference work for anyone interested
in knowing more about Arab, Middle Eastern, or even Islamic history. The
structure of the work is one expected from a typical Middle Eastern text.
It follows the history of the Arabs by offering a brief account of the Jahilyyah,
the Age of Ignorance — the era before Arabs had received the Qu'ran
and were typically Pagans or Christian — through the birth of the Prophet
Muhammad and the rise and spread of Islam, to the capture of Constantinople
and the era of Ottoman rule. Although mentioned at the end of the text,
the twentieth century receives little discussion. Indeed, the central focus
of the work examines the rise and fall of Arab and Muslim empires across
the Middle East and North Africa.
For the purposes of world historians, History
of the Arabs is significant in its discussion of non-Arab influences
on the changing dynamics of the ethnic group. Perhaps more so than other
instruments of cultural change, Hitti points to language as one of the most
important forms of non-Arab influence. As Arabs fanned out across the Middle
East, South Asia, and North Africa they met much less resistance to their
new religion and political structures than they did to changes in language.
Although Arabic became the language of learning and society, particularly
in places like Persia and Spain, native languages were rarely extinguished.
Hitti observes that in places like Lebanon, for instance, Syriac was able
to survive down to the modern era (361). Language, Hitti leads us to believe,
is a channel of adaptation and cultural diffusion that, particularly in
the case of the Arabs, allows us to understand the experiences of non-ruling
peoples under the rule of vast, foreign, empires.
Hitti also argues that as Muslim Arabs spread
out of the Hejaz (part of the Arabian Peninsula), they ran into cultures
wholly different from their own. Out of these encounters grew the more dynamic
culture that came to dominate much of world trade between the seventh through
the end of the fifteenth centuries. Hitti goes to great lengths to describe
how Arabs acquired and acculturated new technologies, philosophies, and
other advances in the process of expansion. Equally, Hitti does not shy
away from explaining how structural decay and degrees of decadence eventually
eroded the greatness of the Arab empires. While adaptation and cultural
change allowed the empires to grow, stagnation and later refusal to change
helped to destabilize the empires and allowed other powers‚such as the Mongolian,
Turkic, and European empires‚to take control.
It is clear that Hitti's work is intended
for the educated reader. Readers are, for instance, expected to have read
The Thousand and One Arabian Nights and to have some sense of Biblical
and regional history prior to reading this work. To illustrate the importance
and significance of slaves in Arab society, for example, Hitti refers to
the story of Tawaddud, giving only a brief explanation of her part in the
legendary Arabian Nights (342). However, one should not be deterred
by this warning; Hitti's work is primarily an introduction. The detail that
one may gain from more specific readings, particularly from those primary
sources upon which Hitti relies so heavily, is generalized in this text.
Its use varies from that of a supplementary or reference work for undergraduates
and perhaps even advanced high school students, to an essential historiographic
work for the graduate student in Middle Eastern, Islamic, and indeed world
Washington State University