History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (2)

The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

3.  The Concept of Civilizations in Middle East History

Arnold Toynbee wrote a book in 1922 called The Western Question in Greece and Turkey which covered the struggle between who would control the Western portion of Greece in the aftermath of World War I.  The subtitle of his work was “A Study in the Contact of Civilizations”.    This is one of the first times that it was postulated that civilizations, as opposed to countries or states, were in some sort of relationship.

Basil Matthews, an important official in the YMCA, wrote a widely appreciated book in 1922 called The Book of Missionary Heroes detailing the lives of those Christian missionaries who had given their lives for the sake of bringing Christianity to various countries in the world.   Matthews wrote a book in 1925 called Young Islam on Track. The subtitle was:  A study in the clash of civilizations.    His book was a deliberate reaction to the more neutral term “Contact of Civilizations” that had been used by Toynbee three years earlier.

Bernard Lewis used the term “Clash of Civilizations” in his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990) published in The Atlantic Monthly, where he argued that the struggle between the West and Islam was gathering strength.   According to one source, this essay (and Lewis’ 1990 Jefferson Lecture on which the article was based) first introduced the term “Islamic fundamentalism” to the general public in North America, and has also been credited with coining the phrase “clash of civilizations“.   Another source said he had first used the phrase “clash of civilizations” at a meeting in Washington in 1957 where it was recorded in the transcript.

Whether Bernard Lewis got the phrase “clash of civilizations” from Matthews or not, Samuel Huntington wrote the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in 1996, based on a theory he originally formulated in a 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, and then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled  “The Clash of Civilizations?”, in response to Francis Fukuyama‘s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man.

You have here the idea that there was something in the region that wasn’t simply the modern nation-state coming into being, which had been suggested in Lord Cromer’s history of Modern Egypt or a book written later in 1931 by Henry Dodwell called the Founder of Modern Egypt: a Study of Muhammad ‘Ali.

4.  Regional histories of the Middle East

When did the idea of having a generalized history of the region start?   There was a book written in the 1938 by George Antonius, a Lebanese Christian, called The Arab Awakening.  This was one of many books about history that originated in Lebanese Christian circles that portrayed the “Renaissance of the Arabs” as going back to the middle of the 19th century.   It focused rather heavily on the American University of Beirut which was founded by missionaries and which many of these historians had attended or taught at.   They associated the Renaissance with the literary and intellectual book that had been carried out largely by Arab Christians.

This irritated certain Muslim Arabs, such as Abdul Talif Tibawi, who wrote A modern history of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine in 1969.   One of his objectives in his book was to show that the Arab Christians were not the only people who created an Arab Renaissance or a new era in Arab History.   What you have, from George Antonius’ book The Arab Awakening to A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (2002), is an identification of Middle Eastern history with the Arabs.

Tomorrow I will post about Prof. Bulliet’s remarks on the concept of “modernization theory” that was prevalent in academic circles from the 1950s until the end of the 1970s, and how it was eclipsed by the rise of political Islam, in particular the Iranian revolution.


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