The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held the Third Annual Conference on Historical Studies, “Arab History and Historiography: How was Arab History Written, How is it being Written Today?” on 22-24 April 2016 in the presence of prominent Arab and Lebanese academics, professionals, and interested individuals. 

A Lack of Synthesizing Historiography

In his address, historian and academic director of ACRPS publications Dr Wajih Kawtharani spoke about attempts to historicize the Arab nation in the 1950s and 1960s at a point when nationalism was “imagined” as pan-Arab. He saw these early attempts as the intellectual object and conceptual horizon for a political field that extended through Arab historical time and human geography, one stemming from the Caliphate, Sultanate, or Empire. This sultanate or imperial horizon soon went further than Arab or Arabized geography, taking on an Islamic dimension to become Arab-Islamic, or purely Islamic, history. When it contracted, it became a history of emirates or sultanates, less than Islamic, Arab, or non-Arab, but instead the history of regions, cities, dynasties, or in the smallest terms biographies of the famous within Arab and non-Arab geographic boundaries.

It was against this background of history writing that Kawtharani placed the role of the conference, as a place where contributions could work toward synthesizing history and looking critically at the production of contemporary Arab historians, in particular the recent proliferation of national histories that looked individually at one (and only one) Arab country. What the conference sought to stimulate, he said, was the synthesis of history and historiography that took into view a wide geographic scope, for example the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, the Nile Valley, or the Maghreb. Contributions on these topics, he noted, were absent from the Conference, and spoke urging researchers to engage in this sort of wider thinking.

Compiling Documentary Sources

Center director Dr Khalid Ziyadah spoke on the use of documentation in Arab history writing. He said the use of documents for historical writing is nothing new, and is not just related to writing the history of the Arabs and the Arab states, but also the history of post-Ottoman Turkey, Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, and also Egypt, which had an early experience of state building at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

When it comes to archival work, he critiqued, work must not be limited to a single document or even a set of documents that detail a specific event. Instead, archival work must be characterized by a long look across periods, considering the roles of governments, diplomats and religious orders by looking at the whole of their archives. This includes the documents preserved by Sharia courts, religious waqf, habsa endowments, or economic and party records, all of which extend over decades and even centuries.

Archival work has, he noted, radically changed understandings of history and history writing. History, he declared, is no longer reliant on the works of chroniclers or reports by biographers. Instead, he urged, it relies on the accumulation of materials that have transformed history from the narration of facts and events to a confrontation with evolving resources that combine a series of economic, cultural, and sociological data. History, he continued, must also take into account the role of religion and its movements in interpreting the relationships of the authorities with social groups, on to the development of prices and price rises, popular movements and revolutions, and the shift from traditional to modern institutions.

Urging historians to return to the archive, Ziyadah said these rich resources put the historian in touch with the human sciences, sociology, economics, and statistics. He concluded by saying that contemporary historical writing cannot take place without resort to the archives—even a reliance on them—as a main source for all history writing based on the methods and techniques of sociology and anthropology, and so going beyond the writing of history based in ideological assumptions.

The Content of Historiography and its Periodization

The first morning session, focusing on “Writing Arab History: Content, Periodization, Method,” was chaired by Ahmed Baydoun. The first paper was presented by Ahmad Shboul, a study entitled, “Towards an Approach to the sSudy of Arab History from the Perspective of World History: The Issue of Investigating Other Cultures.” The paper raised questions over the utility of other cultures and the methods of some Western historians when writing Arab history.

Looking at concepts related of world history, Shboul considered the effect of a number of trends on the writing of contemporary history given today’s trends in globalization. From the issue of the ‘clash of civilizations’ versus the dialogue of civilizations or  between religions, Shboul gave examples of the works of Arab historians from Ibn Khaldun, to al-Masoudi, to answer to the question: is history writing control or conception?

He reflected on the issue of knowledge for non-Muslims at the time of Ibn Khaldun and al-Masoudi, and focused on the Fihrist of Ibn Nadim, a bibliographical work listing the books of the Arabs, Persians, and other nations; his reading of these texts lead to the conclusion that the successful historian must enjoy a poetic sensibility.

The second paper was delivered by Dr Mahmoud Haddad, which addressed “The One-Sidedness of the Historiography of the Early Arab Nationalist Movement,” and presented a critique of this one-sidedness. Haddad explained how Arab intellectuals who lived in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century were unware that the main concern of the Ottoman sultan was to keep hold of Ottoman territory. He made connections between this position and the contradictions among Arab narratives on the emergence of Arabism.

Arab nationalist thought, Haddad explained, developed in a confrontation with Istanbul, but this was only half the truth, since the rest of the story was in the West, which controlled Istanbul and the other parties. He saw the relationship between the West and the Ottoman Empire as something that should be better accounted for in historical research.  

Haddad indicated that each period of writing had different features, which appear as distinctive in its historiography. Significant within this landscape, he said, was the fact that Arab nationalism as conceived of by the West does not exist. During the time of the Ottoman state, he explained there were nations, but that these existed as states under the aegis of a single state: the Ottoman Empire. He denied the existence of the Arab nation-state in the context of a single nation that held many states, and instead insisted that it was the period of Arab unity between Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) that initiated what we know today as Arab nationalism.

The final paper of the panel was presented by Dr Ammar al-Samar, on “Official Approaches to Writing Arab History.” The paper considered two projects that attempted to write an official Arab history. The first came in the 1950s with the coming to power of the Baath, and the project itself questioned how to write Arab nationalist history. The second official attempt, he explained, came under the Arab League, and involved hundreds of Arab historians. It was funded by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and was opposed by some Arab states, and even saw arguments among the contributing historians.

In his assessment of these two projects Samar said neither was scientific and that both were mostly political in character. He concluded from the paper that efforts to write the history of the Arabs were not a new thing, but that they had historically faced challenges related to both concepts of history and politics.

Periodization and Arab History

The second morning session was chaired by Mahmoud Sweid, and opened with a paper from Dr Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk, who spoke on the problem of “Periodization: Arab-Islamic History as an Example.” The paper showed that there was no single form of periodization, and looked at the philosophical and intellectual dimensions underlying proposed periodization and the hypotheses put forward regarding the history of the Muslims as well as alternative modern Islamic hypotheses.

The underling question of periodization is linked, Abushouk explained, with the knowledge of the historian, which has created a contradiction in periodization as a result of differing intellectual starting points. Looking to examples of Arab and European attempts at periodization, Abushouk showed at once the emergence of Islamic periodization in the Arab Maghreb in the writings of Mohammed Arkoun and European periodization that broke down history into five stages.

Ibrahim Boutchich presented the second paper, on “The Arab Spring as a New Link in the Periodization of History.” He explained that the starting hypothesis of the work was that the Arab Spring formed a distinct period in Arab history. The aim of the question, he explained,  was not to explain political ramifications of the Arab Spring and its outcomes, but to investigate periodization through a new lens.

Arguing that the Arab Spring was a period of Arab history Boutchich explained that the events had a cultural effect, and the term ‘Arab Spring’ itself signifies the transition from one stage to another. He noted that the period was the legitimate son of global transformations, citing three indicators: the end of history, the digital age, and issues of identity in terms of composite, hybrid, or trans-national identity.

Wrapping up the session, Mohammed Ezzeddine spoke about “Time Past: Struggle of the Revolution, Memory, and Justice in Egypt.” He reviewed the history of the Egyptian revolution from 2011, describing it as an explosive event while at the same time questioning the meaning of revolution and of the state. The revolution, he suggested, has smashed the age of dictatorship, and can therefore be seen as a new stage in history, one that disrupted the past through the everyday.

Identity and al-Nawazil in Arab history

The third session was chaired by Nasser al-Kaabi, and began with a presentation from Mohammed Moraqatan on “Ancient Civilizations in the Arab Countries and the Issue of the Formation of the Arab Nation’s Historical Identity.”

Moraqtan pointed to the role of colonialism in Arab countries, and the colonizers’ aim of acquiring things, thus taking them out of the Arab world and removing artifacts from the local historical record. Even more problematic than colonial regimes, Moraqtan said, were Biblical archeologists. Against this backdrop, Moraqatan noted the growth of archeology in the Arab works with nationalist orientations, in addition to colonial archeology. He focused on the latter as it was applied in Palestine and South Africa. Westerners, he explained, believed that the Islamic conquest of the Levant destroyed it as an expression of divine wrath, particularly in Palestine, until the advent of the Zionist movement that worked to rebuild it.  When it came to Palestine, Moraqtan explained, Arab historians were the least on the scene when it came to writing their own history, which was mostly written by Westerners.

When Arab history was written, Moraqtan explained that it was weak due to the absence of academic institutions. The historian drew attention to the limited presence of important Arab sources on the archeological level, which contributed to the shortcomings in history writing. As an example, Moraqtan said he could identify only five archeologists and historians able to read texts written in Sabean, while there are around 5,000 manuscripts in that language in the southern Arabian Peninsula, which could contribute enormously to an understanding of the region’s past.

Mohammed al-Azhar al-Gharbi presented his paper next on “The Western Islamic Economy from the Perspective of Economic History,” and spoke about European studies on Arab economic history, and some of the mistakes they had made. Al-Gharbi’s own reading of the Arab economic past divided this history into periods of conquest, the accumulation of wealth, and then of economic expansion. He said work must still be done to fill gaps in the knowledge of this area, in particular when it came to questions of agriculture and trade. He said work was needed that was free of ideological positions, and called for a unified methodology or approaches for Arab historians.

Dr Anwar Zanati next spoke on “Nawazil Works as a Source for Economic and Sociological Research in the Maghreb and Andalusia.” Reflecting on the state of research Zanati said that assessment and analysis of historical sources could hardly be done objectively, because the historian is bound by his convictions and ideas. Even the history of History writing, he added, was undertaken under the control of the ruler and leadership, meaning it was always written by the powerful, so that the defeated were accused and subject to various kinds of reproach.

Turning to his research on works of legal decision (nawazil) Zanati took the texts as a source for economic and social studies of the Maghreb and Andalusia. The nawazil, he explained, contained the decisions of jurisprudents and judges regarding issues of daily life. The accounts were marked by realism because they involved real events, but at the same time reflected a local flavor because they were related to specific times and places. Zanati explained that the works were of use as historical sources and included valuable historical material documenting both events and phenomena.

Arab Historiography: Content, Periodization and Methodology

The fourth session was chaired by Sayyar al-Jamil with Rashid al-Khayoun as the first speaker. In his paper, Khayoun highlighted the pioneering role of historian Jawad Ali in pre-Islamic history, calling Ali a figure that wanted to change the traditional and religious idea about the Arabs in Jahiliyya, or the pre-Islamic history of the Arabs.

Abdulrahman Shamseddine spoke second, titled “On the Methodology of Kamal Salibi: The Bible Came from Arabia.” Shamseddine saw Salibi as a figure who introduced a new concept in biblical geography when he claimed that the original home of the Jewish people was not Palestine, but the region of Asir, in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia. According to Shamseddine, Salibi discovered a new biblical land, thus providing major solutions to problems encountered by biblical scholars as he presented a new geographical map illustrating events and journeys mentioned in the bible.

George Nassar read Elias Kattar’s paper on “Arab History in Two Approaches: Philip Hitti and Albert Hourani” where the author pointed to the fact that the difference between the two historians resulted from the transformations witnessed by historiography in half a century.  Starting with the classical chronicles influenced by positivist historiography up to the Annales school characterized by its socio-economic orientations, these transformations are critical in understanding what was written during the periods.

Questions and Directions of Arab Nation-state Historiography: the Specific, the General and the Comparative 

Frederic Maatouq chaired the first session of the second day, which was devoted to “Questions and Directions of Arab Nation-state Historiography: The Specific, the General and the Comparative.” Maatouq opened the proceedings with his observation, borrowed from Emile Durkheim, that “sociology is the closest discipline to history,” pre-empting fascinating reflections on the study of the past across the region.

The first to present was Simon AbdelMasih, whose paper was titled “The Writing of History in Twentieth Century Lebanon.” The paper examined how existing historical research has defined the various periods of Lebanese history, and elaborated on the traditionally accepted milestones: the First World War, the Declaration of “Grande Liban” and the French Mandate, the Independence Movement and the Civil War of in 1975, as well as the commonly accepted “post-Civil War period.” All of these, AbdelMasih pointed out, could equally be described as political periods, and do not necessarily demarcate grand historical shifts. AbdelMasih then discussed the evolution of styles of historic writing in Lebanon; beginning with a traditional Arab-Islamic school prevalent throughout the early modern period, before the Arab Renaissance (or Renewal), which initiated a more innovative approach pioneered by historians in Lebanon and across the Arab region. AbdelMasih further discussed the prominent role played by Jesuit scholars and Maronite clergy in this regard, singling out Issa Iskandar Maalouf, a Lebanese scholar who was educated in the Jesuit schools.

Pointing out the contributions of Lebanese historian Assad Rostum and other scholars at what would become the American University of Beirut more broadly, AbdelMasih also addressed the overlap between academic history and archaeology, commenting on the growing numbers of historians relying on findings from pre-historic “Phoenician” civilizations to elaborate and justify distinctly Lebanese or Syrian parochial nationalisms today. This is what AbdelMasih described as an ideologically inspired revolution in the historiography of Lebanon, in which events stretching from the Ottoman period, through the “War of the Mountain” in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), were turned into formative turning points in the creation of contemporary Lebanon.

The next speaker was Amal Ghazal, a Lebanese-Canadian historian based at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, whose paper was titled “Modern Arab History: Regional Divisions, Ethnic and Confessionalist Marginalizations—the Case of the Ibadia.” Ghazal’s argued that when it came to a holistic view that bound together all of the various regions of the Arab world, there was a general absence of thinking and scholarship. Ghazal referred specifically to the omission of the Ibadi Muslim religious movements from histories of the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and Omani colonies on the East coast of Africa (such as Zanzibar), and to the erasure of Ibadis from histories of Libya and North Africa more broadly. What this history has been turned into, she noted, was a general sense that Ibadi Muslims in North Africa were from non-Arab/Amazigh groups.

Ghazal decried the way in which, she said, Ibadis and other similar sects and social groups were written out of the Arab historical narrative. She called for a novel approach to the writing of history that would redress this imbalance, so that the diversity and complexity of the Arab world could be included in history writing. According to Ghazal, such a new approach would surpass regional divisions and concentrate, instead, on societal and economic issues as well as shifts in ideological and political focus.

Ghazal then went on to describe how Ibadi writing and society countered this trend of erasure, noting how, beginning in the twentieth century, historians from the Ibadi Muslim community promoted a view of history that emphasized their linkage to wider Islamic tradition while also affirming their link to the Khawarij school of thought.

Moving from the Ibadis to early Egypt and the Levant, ACRPS researcher Jamal Barout used his intervention to address “The Problematic Historiography of the Mamluk Campaigns Against Keserouane.” Barout took a site-specific approach, and talked about “Keserouane and the Metn,” which had been the focus of three separate military campaigns lead by the Egypt-based Mamluk dynasties between 1292 and 1305—at the end of the Crusader era in Greater Syria. As Barout explained, these medieval campaigns were granted religious sanction by the Damascus-based 14-century Muslim religious authority Ibn Taymiah, and showed how the early proclamations continued to have resonance on today’s Lebanon, since the past battles raised the question of which of the two ethno-religious communities in the Metn (sometimes called “Mount Lebanon”) the Druze or the Maronite Christians, were the rightful custodians of the territory.

Arab Historiography and the History of the Arabs: On the Histories of Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco 

The second Saturday session was chaired by Abdelhamid Henia, a Doha Institute researcher, and focused on the past of history writing. The first speaker from that panel, also joining from Doha, was Abdelrahim Benhadda whose paper was titled “The Creation of Historical Knowledge in Morocco Following Independence in 1956.” Benhadda’s paper presented thinking on Morocco’s post-independence period and the creation of a number of universities across the Kingdom, which produced a surge in the country’s historical scholarship. He explained that at the last turn of century, Morocco had more than 300 academic historians engaged in the teaching of history, thanks to the building of educational institutions.

While pointing out the multiplicity of academic approaches to history in Morocco, Benhadda focused his discussion on the professional, academic historians who entered the field between the early 1970s and mid-1980s. Though he said these scholars marked a proliferation of work, he also cautioned that the work they produced came the universities entered “a state of siege,” which resulted in the impossibility of conducting postgraduate research work in Moroccan history departments.

Continuing the focus on Morocco, Dr. Mohammed Habida, spoke on “The Drafting of Moroccan History and the Periodization of Long Memories.” Habaida described the centrality of historians to the process of periodization, suggesting that the credit for periodization is due to the individual genius of the practitioner, but that periodization also had to be understood as a result of a scholar’s political context.

Shifting East to Tunis, Tunisian historian Fatima Ben Soliman addressed the meeting with her paper titled “The Nation-State in Modern Tunisian Historiography.” Ben Soliman used her paper to discuss how historians viewed the nation-state during the late nineteenth century colonization of Tunisia. Ben Soliman explained how the concept of the nation-state was a difficult one in Arab historiography given the sensitivity of this topic for contemporary state governments, as well as questions of national identity and citizenship. However, Ben Sulieman explained, when it came to work on late nineteenth century Tunisia it was critical to see the nation-state concept –at least in its earlier phases—as being a foreign imposition. More than this, she said, the nation-state was at this early stage a form of regimented violence practiced by the powerful on the population.

Rounding out the panel was Mauritanian scholar Hamahoullah Ould Salem, whose final paper was titled “The Crisis of Writing the National History of Mauritania,” and identified the roots of what he described as a history-writing crisis. The problem, he said, came in conflicting claims propounded by Islamists who refused to understand the development of the Islamic religion through a historical prism, as well as Arab nationalists who took issue with the parochial history specific to Mauritania. In addition, said Ould Salem, there was the question of tribalism, which was pervasive throughout Mauritanian society.

Historiography of History Writing: Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan 

The third panel within the second day of the 2016 conference on Arab history was chaired by Lebanese academic Antoine Seif, who welcomed the panel’s interventions in thinking on history writing as a history itself.

The first paper was presented by Nusair al-Kaabi on “Historical Writing in Iraq in Transforming Contexts: Methodological Approaches.” Kaabi focused on how the changing political contexts of Iraq impacted the process of historical writing of and in the country. Discussing the variety of contemporary Arab historical styles, Kaabi isolated two distinct factors which, according to him, characterized Iraqi historical writing and which differentiated Iraqi historiography from the praxis of history in other Arab countries. Within this tradition, Kaabi singled out Saleh Ahmad al-Ali as the historian most representative of this first school of thought. Kaabi also considered the Marxist school of Iraqi history, which he said could be typified by the work of Hussein Kassem al-Aziz. Kaabi then discussed one of the rapidly emerging schools of historical approach within Iraq: the Islamist-nationalist approach, which Kaabi says was pioneered by the late Iraqi historian Jawad Ali. Kaabi also outlined a number of other Iraqi approaches to history, including Economic-Nationalist and Confessionalist History, which he described as having become a growing force since the 2003 US invasion of the country.

From Iraq the panel shifted its attention to Egypt, where Najla Makkawi continued discussions on history writing and its pasts with her paper, “The Transformations of Historical Writing in Contemporary Egypt.” In the presentation, she expounded on the changes in how history has been written in Egypt over the past 100 years. Makkawi explained what she called an “Egyptian National Academy,” which would grow during those 100 years, to act independently of the British colonial authorities. She looked at how this academy made changes to theory, the direction of historical enquiry, the changing role of historians, as well as the changing role of the state authorities in in the process of forming a historical narrative.

Makkawi then discussed the way these new “National” Egyptian historians wrote history to emphasize the role of the individual hero, particularly as this related to the rule of Mohammed Ali and his family. She related this also to the subjective circumstances of Egyptian historians and how their work was used for political ends, as well as for addressing economic and social questions. Makkawi noted that this hero-centric approach to history ended with Egypt’s 1952 coup, which brought the Free Officers and Gamal Abdul Nasser into power, ushering in a new age of social history. Following a National Concord brought into effect by Nasser; Makkawi described how Egyptian historiography took a decided pan-Arab turn, placing Egypt within a broader Arab nationalist setting. Later, with the passing of reins from Nasser to Sadat, a number of Egyptian historians who had formerly been Marxists came to espouse an Islamist worldview. Makkawi explained how Egyptian historiography under the late Ottoman period (which took the Orientalist view of Egypt as being a country gripped by cultural debauchery) was completely rewritten.

Turning attention to Jordan, Mohannad Moubaydeen’s presentation looked at “Contemporary Jordan: National History and Directions in Chronicling,” and began by placing historical research in to a contemporary context, noting that the Hashemite Kingdom would celebrate the centenary of the Great Arab Revolt this year. Moubaydeen prefaced his talk by stating that no fundamental changes to the way Jordanian history was written have taken root, at least on an official level. Mubaydayn also pointed out the government’s appointment of a number of prominent historians to positions of power within the state apparatus, explaining how this empowered the state to dominate historical writing and to reinterpret official history for its own ends, leaving out undesirable episodes.

One important caveat to the general rules, Mobaydeen explained, was the information revolution created by the flood of recent leaks of official documents. These, he said, provided opportunities for Jordanian historians to write the history of their country. Mobaydeen divided Jordanian historiography into a number of periods, beginning with the Arab Revival, followed by a period focused on the history of Emir (later King) Abdullah and the Emirate of Transjordan. This period was followed by one that took a scientific historical approach to Jordan’s past, which has gradually turned into what Mobaydeen called a “fifth school of Jordanian historiography,” pioneered at the country’s University of Jordan, and in particular by the historian Nassereddine Assad.

Language and History: Arabic, Nomenclature, Word Borrowing 

 The fourth and final session, chaired by Mahasen Abduljaleel, started off with a paper from Azzedine Guessous, titled “The Islamic West: Competing Arab and Western Fields of Historical Research.” Jassous examined how Western Orientalists, from the 1980s, were less and less likely to have a command of Arabic, a phenomenon Maxim Rodinson described as the ghettoization of Western thinkers.

The second paper delivered by Saleh Alwani focused on the history of North Africa, and expressed his frustration at the way in which official, state-sanctioned histories have dominated historical narratives across the Arab world. This practice, he said, has been detrimental to the academic use of history. Alwani focused his paper on an examination of how ambiguity of the exact nomenclature—and, in consequence, geographic boundaries—of the Arab Maghreb created problems for historical research He asked: was “North Africa” more appropriate than “North Africa and the Maghreb”? The “Arab Maghreb” or “the Islamic Maghreb”?

The final speaker was Moroccan historian and Doha Institute scholar Mohammed al-Taher Mansouri, whose paper focused on “Byzantine Civilization as Viewed by the Arabs: A Study of the Arabic Language.” Mansouri questioned the possibility of writing about the Arab past in isolation from other histories, noting in particular the large number of loan words that medieval Arabs borrowed from the Byzantines. Mansouri examined the multiplicity of factors that contributed to the overall Arab view of the Byzantine world, not least of which was religion. He showed how the context of the encounters between the two peoples meant that Byzantines—whom the Arabs called Rum, acknowledging a link with the Roman Empire seldom found in the West—were in general terms viewed positively by Arab writers.