Understanding the Arab World Between Language and Culture

Lawrence Rosen on Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Arabs: A 3000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 656 pp. $35.00

A civil war rages outside Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s window, trapping him in his Sana’a, Yemen home. This travel writer, expatriate, and student of Muslim cultures finds himself attempting to make sense of the long course of Arab conflict and achievement. He is reluctant to reduce Arab history to some distilled essence or tragic flaw. Yet, he is confronted by patterns that appear to repeat themselves over the centuries. He faces a dilemma: How should one characterize an entire civilization and its history?

One could choose a familiar route focusing on territories or conquests, genealogies or creative arts, economics or political organization. But might it not make more sense to focus on a shared language? For if one assumes that it both shapes and reflects one’s overall orientations, then a people’s language may provide a point of entry into an entire worldview, even if all such cultural inclinations are not uniformly shared by everyone. Taking a linguistic approach may also help focus attention on what the author chooses as his central concern, namely the perpetual absence of Arab unity. Without  asking “What Went Wrong,”(as did Bernard Lewis) the author implicitly suggests that at virtually every point in Arab history a pattern of divisiveness reappears, a pattern that presents itself in such binary oppositions as that between the settled and the nomad, the Arab and the non-Arab, the quietist Sufi and the ardent Wahhabi. Although he appreciates that such dualities are not wholly reliable indicators, he suggests that this pattern of contraries is deeply writ in Arabic itself, a language that has obviously captivated him just as it has “ensorcelled” native speakers.

Macintosh-Smith argues that historically Arabic has prevailed even when rulers and scholars who dominated the region were speakers of Turkish or Persian or Berber. Delving into the Arabic lexicon for whatever purpose would seem to validate the old saw that every word means something, its opposite, and one of the camel’s delights. Thus, the word for ‘throne’ may also mean a ‘bier’ and the word for ‘right’ may mean ‘duty,’ while the word for ‘child’ shares the same root as ‘to arrive uninvited or be a parasite.’ From its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, as embodied in the capacity of the Prophet to be ‘a gatherer of words,’ through to the contemporary use of social media by kings and autocrats, Arabic has succeeded as “the deepest strand of being Arab, its defining feature and its genius,” even though it has not led its speakers to a common peace. Islam, by comparison, plays a secondary role throughout the author’s survey of Arab history, “the rule [being] that trade follows raid in swift succession, while faith lags far behind.” Through hundreds of pages of expert and readable descriptions of the dynastic history of the Arabs – where “time holds its breath,” creating a kind of “temporal vertigo” – we are mainly introduced to those “wielders of word,” the poets and commanders, the writers and the Quranic voice of God who have effectively used the language to garner followers and define the times.

The author’s analysis of specific moments in Arab history may exercise specialists for years to come, but general readers perusing today’s news from the region may still resonate to the author’s characterization of a distinctively Arab ethos. The ethos to which the author points is one that emphasizes physical mobility, the assimilation of outsiders into a system of fictive kinship, the ever-present allure of raiding ventures, and the historic willingness to displace leaders with those “personalities whose legitimacy rested above all on their control not of institutions, but of rhetoric” – all of which he ascribes to the tribal background fashioned in southern Arabia well before the advent of Islam. This ethos (“a power more elemental than organized religion”) plays out in town as well as in the desert and underscores the relation between a language replete with ambivalence and a political history fraught with polarities that constantly pull Arabs back into the vortex of unity and disunity. Whether in the distant past or in the wake of Tahrir Square, Arabs, he says, suffer from a kind of “Mass Stockholm Syndrome” where “you are in the thrall of all-powerful men and you begin to declare that your masters are good.” Long engaged in “a flight to nowhere but high-flown words,” the alluring binaries of the language nevertheless constitute an instrument for capturing the attention of prospective allies. In such a linguistic maelstrom “time refracts, as if bent by a prism” and the Arab past, despite its release from the colonialist’s gaze, “is still under occupation, from within.” For the cycle of discord to be broken, he concludes, Arabs must realize that freedom, individualism, inclusiveness, and liberating theologies can all be found in their own persistent ethos and irresistible speech.

In so vast a caravan of history it may be unfair to expect that a single theme can embrace each moment and personality. And yet the author’s choice of emphasis not only raises certain questions, but his version of the Arab ethos may also be susceptible to a quite different interpretation. Indeed, for all its allure, the author’s approach never quite connects all the dots. What, for example, would constitute Arab “unity” and why is it a necessary good? The European Union has not adopted Latin or Esperanto as a precondition to meaningful peace and cohesion, so why should Arabic have to carry the burden of unity? Similarly, can one rely on ‘tribalism’ as the source of many aspects of Arab history without carefully considering what ethnographers have learned about such social and cultural entities? Although there is brief reference to the role of trade and Islamic law the author’s obvious lack of interest in these aspects of Arab culture shortchanges the reader’s ability to see the fuller picture of everyday life. Indeed, in what is essentially a series of self-contained dynastic histories little attention is given to the constant stream of influences that rendered each regime and period far less isolated than portrayed. Throughout, the author’s fascination with language is that of the lexicographer, rather than the socio-linguist: even in his English he takes delight in distinctive words (eremism, armigerous, caprine, ogival, mangonel, bemerded) that send readers rushing to the nearest OED. Yet he rarely gives a sense of the actual use of Arabic in social and political life. As a result he fails to grasp that the Arab Spring, for example, was not a Facebook revolution that depended mainly on using the media to gather protests or that being ‘a man of word’ (in the Arabic idiom) is not simply about rhetoric but about being a person who is so embedded in a network of negotiated relationships that language, obligation, and interdependency cannot be disentangled.

One could, however, use Mackintosh-Smith’s account as source material for a rather different view of the Arab ethos and the role of language in that process. For it is a process, not a ‘thing’ that is at issue. If we were, in the spirit of the author’s own approach, to consider such an alternative view one might begin with an anecdote and a metaphor.

The anecdote concerns a dispute that occurred in the early days of Islam about the correct game for the newly-minted Muslims to play. Proponents of a game of dice called nar argued that since people are like dice in the hands of Allah that is the appropriate pastime for believers. No, said the proponents of chess: God endowed mankind with reason to overcome his rivals and benefit his dependents, and thus a game that requires such maneuvering talent is the proper one for Muslims to play. Ultimately, nar was declared heretical and chess the religiously correct game. The metaphor that may help the analysis is that of the amoeba. If you ask what is the shape of an amoeba you have already missed the point, since it is the entity’s shape-shifting capabilities, not its momentary form, that is crucial. Like the amoeba – which contains a vast history in its complex DNA – Arab tribes have been able to adapt to changing circumstances and even go dormant, thus contributing to their survival.

Taken together, the anecdote and the metaphor may yield an interpretation of the Arab ethos and its implication that is not inconsistent with, but more precise than, that offer by Mackintosh-Smith. Among its key features are a dislike of too much power in too few hands for too long a period of time, a concentration on the person as the concatenation of his or her web of indebtedness, and hence a strong orientation toward legitimacy as stemming not from any institutional base but from the capacity to build a bigger and more effective network than one’s opponent. Seen in this light, Arabic is well-adapted to the task of alliance formation inasmuch as its inherent ambiguities keep alive alternative avenues for negotiating relationships. Moreover, “God,” as the saying goes, “put contention between buyer and seller” in order to make them learn about each other’s associations and how they, in turn, might form a useful alliance. Islam reinforces this pattern, not only through the Prophet’s constant reminder that contract is of the essence of human interaction but because the fear of social discord arises precisely out of the failure to constantly reconstruct and service one’s alliances and envision present enemies as future friends. Local custom can also be maintained as Islamic, not just something set alongside the formal religion, thus allowing for relatively little disruption to converts’ earlier modes of relationship. In a social universe as flexible as an amoeba and as alluring as a game of chess it is, therefore, not always necessary to change the foundational rules by which one gains a measure of security in a world of premonitory chaos.

As outsiders view the news of the Arab world, it is tempting to reduce events to a few stereotypes. Mackintosh-Smith is far too keen an observer of all that surrounds him to give in to such enticement. Confined in his “adopted homeland” by the civil war raging beyond his “tower on its tell,” one envisions him leafing through the forty-volume dictionary of a medieval lexicographer seeking the ultimate reconciliation of those binaries that might lead to the peace of union, only to fear that, for each word he encounters, there may also exist a level of ambivalence that continues to tempt its opposite. “The Arabs like to talk a good deal,” said Teddy Roosevelt. But just how their speech connects with their actions is an issue that, notwithstanding this elegant and provocative history, both they and we will need to keep on talking about.

Lawrence Rosen is Cromwell Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Princeton University and Adjunct Professor Emeritus of Law at Columbia Law School. Among his books are The Culture of Islam, The Justice of Islam, and Varieties of Muslim Experience. He is currently writing a book about tribes and will spend 2019-20 at The University of Oxford and Harvard Law School’s Program in Islamic Law.