The ACRPS conference “Arab Historiography and Arab History” resumed for its third and final day on Sunday April 25, at the Bristol Hotel, Beirut, and centered on the question of “History and Memory: The Neglected and the Erased.”
The day opened with a session chaired by Dr Nassereddine Saidouni, who welcomed Abdulaziz al-Taheri as the first presenter with his paper on “Contemporary Arab Historiography between History and Memory: Morocco as an Example.” The dialectic of memory and history, noted Taheri in the opening of his presentation, was a new field of enquiry. It began to expand in Morocco following the establishment of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004, which served to turn the page on the memory of the terrible abuses committed against citizens between Morocco’s independence in 1956 and 1999.
This form of history writing, in Taheri’s view, is interested in the narration of events, political meetings, and the sanctification of myth and identity, and reflected the ideology of the regime. For this reason, most historians were in fact political actors, and this kind of history remains a form of educational myth.
Taheri reviewed the models of Moroccan history prior to, during, and after the French colonial period, and noted how these models attempted to restore Arab and Islamic identity of the country, a trend that he believes was also an attempt to restore the memory of the country. Memory, he pointed out, dominated history writing following the mass of testimonies given by every party amid the reconciliation commissions, and explained how this led to a crisis in Morocco between memory and history, and between the historian and the historical event. Taheri drew attention to the difficulty of writing history objectively, in particular when it comes to investigating memory, and the selectivity involved in the recollection of events.
The next speaker was Dr Massoud Doulaymi, who spoke on “History Writing in Algeria between the Revival of Memory and Academic Research.” Doulaymi described writing Algerian history as a thorny matter and moved on to problematize the boundaries between memory and history, which he saw as both complementary and contradictory. Memory, he said, tends to sanctify while history analyzes using scientific methods and operates in the context of constant critique, based on understanding change over time. Concluding his paper, Doulaymi asked is it only the historian who writes history?
Continuing the theme was Dr Yahia Boulahya who presented on “Mythology and History: Examples for Analysis and Examination.” Boulahya began his paper saying that although mythological texts were largely marginal in Arab historical writings, the production of mythology should instead be considered the true expression of society’s imagination.
Dr Amr Abdulaziz Mounir gave the final paper of the first session, with “Arab Folk Epics (sira) as a Source for Reading the Islamic Conquest of Egypt.” He cast light on the folk epic in Arab and Islamic culture and how it portrayed the ‘other,’ and whether these epics were of use for reading history. He asked why there had been popular efforts to compose these epics about the Islamic conquest in Egypt in numerous and diverse narrations, citing several examples. He described the sira as society’s identity, an invocation of the absent and forgotten self, and a form of contestation with the other.
A History of the Marginalized
The second morning session was chaired by Dr Mohammed al-Taher al-Mansouri, and opened by Dr Mohammed Hamza who presented a paper on “The History of the Marginalized in Early Islam: A New Critical Reading of the Lives of the Prophet’s Companions.” Hamza asked, when it comes to history what does legitimacy mean? What are the requirements of history, and how do we understand the place of protection in the historiography of Islam particularly since the companions of the Prophet were witnesses to the revelation and transmitted the tradition, which kept them from being held to account. Hamza focused on how some companions were made central figures and others marginalized, which also led to an absence of the interrogation of history. He concluded that the historical process of writing the history of Islam formed a barrier that strengthened some companions and marginalized others.
Dr Abdullah Ali Ibrahim next spoke on “Ibn Khaldun in Sudanese Identity Discourse,” in which he referred to politics and mentalities, and the reverberations and legitimacies these gave rise to, and which served the authorities in their interpretation of Ibn Khaldun.
Dr Abdelaziz Labib presented a paper on “Reality among Intersecting Perspectives and the Arab Entry into Africa.” In his presentation he stressed that his aim was not to rearrange moral or cultural values, but to investigate closely the collective narrative. He described his research in two parts, the first of which looked at the testimony of historians on the Arab entry into Africa and the destruction that accompanied it. The second, he said, considered narrative and representational issues.
Finally, Mahasen Abdul-Jalil presented her paper titled “Towards Methodological Avenues and New Tools for Historicizing the Obliterated: The Historiography of Exclusion as Example.” In it she examined the challenges of writing history in the sociological field and the process of obliteration and marginalization of reports. Abdul-Jalil looked at how this occurs in state and academic discourse, as well as through popular narrative or through the “soft” obliteration practiced by historians in the work of archives that resort to hiding events they do not want, or by tampering with official documents by erasing certain paragraphs.
Arab Historiography of Scientific Culture
Afternoon sessions commenced with a closing panel chaired by Dr Zahira Darwish, who welcomed first speaker Dr Samer Akash, and his paper on “The Arab Sciences and the New Centrality of Europe: The Problem of Arab Historiography of Science in Islamic Civilization.” In his lecture, Akash referred to the obsession of Arab historians with responding to the views of Europeans, which he said led to a marginalization that forced Arabs out of the circle of scientific developments.
Asking why writing about science appeared in the West and not the East, despite the role of Arab Muslims during the Middle Ages in scientific renaissance, he called for Arab historians of science to instead focus their efforts on explaining the central role of the Arabs in the formation of the European Renaissance. This sort of question, he explained, makes us ask why Arabs participated in the European Renaissance, but not their own renaissance?
He thought that the history of Arab sciences required going beyond the religious-scientific contradiction, and stressed the rewriting of the history of Arab sciences in terms of lines of contact with the European center.
Dr Hassan Boujarra, who spoke on “Writing the Historical Demography and History of Diseases and Medicine,” focused on current conceptions in history writing and the absence of many historical sources. This state of affairs, he said, reflects negatively on the question of history writing. He indicated that the dearth of historical sources is linked to those who wrote the history of states and the court, instead of histories of diseases based on for example legal and medical epistles, which were excluded from historical writing. The final lecture of the conference was given by Dr Abdel Hamid al-Makkani on his research “The Historical-Anthropology Turn in the Maghreb Countries: The Historian and the Interrogation of the Familiar.”
Dr Ahmed Dallal then followed with a summation lecture, which also prompted thinking on next year’s topic for the conference. Titled, “The Problem of Arab Historiography of Scientific Culture,” Dallal began by explaining how scientific production in classical Arab and Islamic societies was represented in thousands of manuscripts, from widely diverse locations from the borders with China to the Atlantic, and from a time period of around 800 years. Over the past 40 years, he said, the Arab world has witnessed a marked increase in in-depth studies of a large set of Arab scientific manuscripts, which has led to a major increase in the available knowledge of the branches of the Islamic sciences. However, he cautioned, comprehensive historiography of culture still suffers from a great deal of simplification and superficiality, and still draws upon ideas formulated by Orientalism on the one hand, or the tendency to overstate and laud the Arabo-Islamic contribution to science on the other.
Dallal drew attention to the fact that much writing in the history of the Arab and Islamic sciences has been approached from a skewed perspective, explaining that the question of decline dominates other historical questions. This results, he said, in the reduction of 800 years of scientific production to the interpretation of a decline that happened as the result of its historical context. He explained that the main flaws with this approach remain in the ascription of decline to fixed cultural and intellectual features, rather than an analysis of this decline itself as the result of various historical factors. The important thing, he continued, is to understand this ‘decline’ as a phenomenon subject to history, and not the driver of this history. Dallal’s own research, he explained, concentrated on approaches that affirm the opposition between scientific culture and general cultural trends prevalent in Arab and Islamic societies
Announcement of the Title of the Fourth Annual Conference for Historical Studies: “The Arabs from Marj Dabiq 1516 to Sykes-Picot 1916”
The Conference concluded with a speech of thanks given by ACRPS’ Conference chair and director of publications Wajih Kawtharani. Addressing the researchers who spoke at the three-day event, Kawtharani highlighted the pillars on which the Conference for Historical Studies was built “The ACRPS has been committed to organizing this conference for three years, with two principles of particular importance, the first: Respect for freedom of opinion and interpretation and diversity, and the second, maintaining a variety of conference topics in line with the epistemological priorities for developing historical science and study, or for reconsidering fields that have been erased from history.”
Kawtharani also announced the subject for the Fourth Annual Conference on Historical Studies as: “The Arabs from Marj Dabiq 1516 to Sykes-Picot 1916: Transformations in Power and Society over the Long Term.”