Commentary Magazine

Cross-Currents in Arab National Feeling:
The Islamic World is Shaken by Modern Tensions

It was not until after World War I that the Arabs became conscious of themselves as a people. Before that, all the Arabic-speaking countries of Asia, with irrelevant exceptions such as the British protectorate of Aden in Southern Arabia, formed part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. It must be remembered that of the present seven autonomous Arab states none existed as an independent state during the school days of most Americans, and among them only Egypt formed a national entity thirty years ago.

If asked, an inhabitant of the Arabic Asia of the early 1900’s would have described himself as a Moslem or Christian of such and such a denomination, a subject of the Sultan, a member of such and such a tribe, or an inhabitant of this or that village or town—but it would hardly have occurred to him to call himself an Arab. Today the chances are he would answer quite differently. What has brought about this change in the national consciousness of the Arab?



The subjection of the Arabs was not confined to the four hundred years of Ottoman rule from 1517 to 1917. In fact, for the last thousand years the Arabic-speaking countries have been almost exclusively dominated by non-Arabs—Turks, Iranians, Mongols, Kurds, Circassians, and others. Nevertheless, the Arabic language and the Islamic religion have persisted as the dominant language and the dominant religion.

When the original Arabs, thirteen hundred years ago, came out of the Arabian Peninsula and swept over the regions east and south of the Mediterranean, they did not—as is often erroneously stated—force their religion, the newly created Islam, on all the peoples they subjected. They simply imposed heavy taxes on the conquered populations and became a ruling class of soldiers and governors living at the expense of the state. This state of affairs lasted for only a relatively short time.



Islam, like Judaism—although intimately bound up with the Arabs’ language, history, and social habits—did not recognize before God differences of race or color. The subject peoples, attracted by the material and spiritual advantages of adhering to the ruling religion, embraced Islam in ever increasing numbers and in so doing acquired the Arabic language, Arab names, and many of the Arab notions of social behavior. At the same time their own heritage of Hellenistic or Oriental culture was reshaped by all these things, chief among them the Arabic language. Although the comparatively small and over-expanded minority of Arab conquerors soon exhausted their military vigor and surrendered the ascendancy to more warlike outsiders, they had already contributed toward the emergence of a new civilization by mixing themselves with the great mass of neo-Moslems. This new civilization, whatever its ingredients, was Arabic in language and, with Islam as its religious base, embraced both Christian and Jewish minorities.

The non-Arab conquerors, not numerous as a rule and with little if any civilization of their own, were easily converted to the dominant religion. Thus Islam and with it the Arabic language survived in the Middle East despite the continual influx of foreign ruling elements. Yet the reliance of the populous Arabic-speaking countries upon successive waves of barbarian soldiers for protection and administration led to an ever deepening decline and made any feeling of national unity difficult. In 1377 Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian philosopher of history, could write: “The state of the Arabs has been wiped out completely; the power now rests in the hands of non-Arabs, such as the Turks in the East, the Berbers in the West, and the Franks (Europeans) in the North.”

Down to the beginning of the present century the stagnation of the Arab world continued almost uninterruptedly in its easternmost part—Mesopotamia or Iraq—and in the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt was aroused from its medieval torpor earlier, by Napoleon’s campaign there, and even more by the subsequent activity of an able ruler, Mehmet Ali, the founder of the present Egyptian royal family (he himself was a Turkish-speaking Albanian). Palestine, the Lebanon, and Syria, benefiting early from European influence, stood somewhere between the two extremes of stagnation and awakening.

Thus the Arabs—that is, the Arabic-speaking inhabitants, regardless of racial or cultural ancestry, of the countries where Arabic is the prevailing language—did not on the eve of World War I form a nation in the modern sense. But they did possess elements out of which Western ideas, and even more, Western politics could create the foundations of national states.



In Europe, as a rule, a cultural and social renaissance preceded the political union or independence of the various nations. In some of the newly-formed Arab states, however, the creation of a national government, instead of being the outcome, became the opportunity for the freeing of spiritual and social forces.

It was a fundamental change in the colonial policies of the great powers during and after World War I that made this reversal of natural development possible.

In the 19th century the European imperialist powers had aimed at the acquisition of colonies and spheres of influence. Conquest or intervention on the side of minorities—never lacking in an Oriental state—was the means to these ends. Today the trend is to exploit the all-powerful “religion of nationalism.” Instead of conquest and intervention, support is given to national states, which are even helped or allowed to oppress their minorities, on the assumption —sometimes precarious—that the satellite state will in return offer itself as a valuable ally. Where no state exists one is invented. Thus the Kingdom of Iraq was conceived and founded exclusively by foreigners in the service of a friendly power. Such experiments, of course, may well prove to be successful in the long run. (Even though in Iraq there have been such unpropitious omens as incessant and often violent changes of regime, the ugly massacre of disarmed Assyrians, the Rashid Ali revolt at a critical juncture of the late war, the slaughter and pillage of the Baghdad Jews in June 1941, and the Kurdish troubles in 1945.)

The new colonial policy was inaugurated most conspicuously by the Germans during World War I when, to strengthen the German- Turkish alliance, they gave the Turks a free hand in murdering Armenian Christians. But no people has benefited from the new policy more than have the Arabs; which helps explain why an ill-defined community of peoples, almost unknown in 914, could in 1944 form a league of seven states.

But it would be an error to attribute this phenomenal development to foreign hands alone. Egypt was for a while a special case of Arab resurgence, but now Arabic Asia is following rapidly. World power politics accelerated rather than initiated what was an otherwise healthy and normal development. It is as if a brilliant undergraduate awoke one morning to discover a doctor’s diploma on his table and an appointment to lecture at a great university. He might live up to his new dignity and continue learning —or he might forget that he still had something to add to his intellectual equipment. A similar choice faces the Arab world today.



The decisive role of foreign politics was felt strongly in a sphere where it was least to have been expected—the development of the Arabic language. The Arab mind meets one of its major difficulties in the question of expressing itself. The term “Arabic-speaking countries,” which was used frequently above, needs some qualification.

There is an immense difference between the Arabic actually spoken in each particular country—by everybody, including the most educated—and the literary Arabic used in writing, public speaking, and, as a rule, in the movies and theater. It would be completely misleading to diagnose this as the natural difference between colloquial and literary style, analogous to the difference between spoken and written English or even German. A more accurate comparison would be with the situation of the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish) at the time when they were already well developed and yet Latin continued to be regarded as the medium for dignified expression.

Literary Arabic ceased centuries ago to be a living language—no mother in an Arab country would speak to her child in it. Ibn Khaldun, the Arab philosopher of history already mentioned, declared five hundred years ago that literary Arabic did not come naturally but had to be learned in school like mathematics. Salame Musa, a famous modern Egyptian writer, complained in a book written in 1927 that written Arabic had to be studied like a foreign tongue and that hardly any author succeeded in mastering it completely. “Even worse,” he goes on to say, “while sitting in my study I am able to name all the things around me in a foreign language but have the greatest difficulty in finding [classical] Arabic words for any of them.” This plight was well summarized by Badawi Pasha (former Egyptian foreign minister and perhaps the most prominent figure among the Arab delegates to the San Francisco Conference), when he said: “Our noble language [the classical] has been in a deep torpor for many centuries, like the nation itself, while the local vernaculars, though seldom put down in writing and therefore open to continuous shiftings, often excel in strength and originality of expression.” Some Arab writers, particularly in Egypt and the Lebanon, have used the local vernaculars in stories and plays. And as late as 1931, Mahmud Taimur, the best known writer of short stories in Arabic, declared in an address to the Congress of Orientalists in Leyden that he had no doubt that the vernacular used in Egypt would soon become the official and written language of the country, with classical Arabic retained only as the means of communication with other Arab countries.

Left alone, the Arab nations might have continued to develop their separate vernaculars in the direction anticipated by Mahmud Taimur. Had not one of the most conspicuous features of the national revivals in post-medieval Europe been the super-session of Latin by the local vernaculars as the most powerful and complete means of literary expression? But the development of local tongues constitutes an element of separation; and the various Arabic dialects do differ widely from each other. (Dr. Van Ess, in his book Meet the Arab, writes: “I was once in Port Said and said to an Egyptian policeman in Iraq Arabic—Arabic in fact: ‘When does the next train leave for Cairo?’ He replied in French: ‘I don’t understand English.’”) Mahmud Taimur, and those who shared his views, did not want to discard classical Arabic altogether; yet the fostering of the various dialects was suspected of leading to separatism and thus it has become unpopular of late with both Arabs and the foreign parties working to create a strong Arab bloc.

While heretofore European and American friends of the Arabs have been enthusiastic about the neo-Egyptian and other neo-Arabic languages, these and similar tendencies are now discouraged; and it can be safely stated that the idea has been abandoned, at least for the present generation. Both the social and intellectual implications of this step are very grave. First, it means that the vast majority of the Arabs are deprived of the right to express themselves on public issues, since the mastery of classical Arabic, with its highly complicated grammar, requires many years of schooling such as only a small minority can afford and actually receives. Today even the Communist Arab press, as far as I can follow it (for it has expanded greatly of late), favors the retention of classical Arabic —with the qualification that it should be adapted to colloquial “style,” which is a meaningless phrase.

Secondly, the exclusive use of classical Arabic means a divorce between life and literature. Classical Arabic is a noble vehicle of expression, but it tends to become rhetorical and bombastic. As long as abstract and theoretical topics are being dealt with, it can be adequately adapted to modern needs; but in literature it compels people to talk in a way they never would in real life; things are described and given names that vary from those given them in common speech; and the result is an unreality and even an insincerity that irritates the honest reader.



The question of the use of the Arabic vernaculars in literature is related to the much discussed problem as to whether each Arab country should develop its own individuality along the lines of local traditions and needs, or whether the aim of an all-embracing Arab civilization should come first.

Naturally enough, separatism is strongest in Egypt, the most advanced of all the Arab countries. “As for the Egyptians,” says Dr. Van Ess in his Meet the Arab, “their interest is Egypt first and all the time; they are basically not Arab in race and their culture is definitely distinct from that of the Arabs in Asia.” Some years ago a so-called “Pharaonic” movement arose in Egypt whose content was a nationalism based on the great ancient traditions of the Nile Valley. The outstanding literary expression of this trend was a novel by Taufiq al-Hakim, one of the best living Arab writers, The Return of the Spirit, published in 933. The “Spirit” is that of agricultural and highly civilized ancient Egypt, which is opposed to the destructive influence of the Arabs, the sons of the desert. But the movement, expressed in this extreme form, has collapsed entirely by this time. After some wavering and under strong foreign influence, Egyptian policy has in the last few years made a complete about-face from self-seeking aloofness and now strives for the leadership of the Arab bloc.

A similar tendency is noticeable in Egypt’s intellectual and spiritual life. A book called The Future of Civilization in Egypt appeared in 939, written by Dr. Taha Husain, the most representative contemporary Arab thinker, in which it is argued that Egyptian culture has always been essentially Western and not Oriental in spirit and that Egypt should in the future look to the West for inspiration. Yet Dr. Husain’s practical proposals stressed Egypt’s cultural mission to the rest of the Arab world. And Dr. Husain did, in October 945, found a monthly that was shortly after regarded as the leading Arabic literary magazine—al-Katib al-Misri (the Egyptian Writer). As an emblematic seal a small picture of the famous statue of the Pharaonic Scribe appears on the magazine’s cover. Nevertheless it is thoroughly Pan-Arab in spirit; and the title of a comprehensive article in one issue, “Egypt is a Link between East and West,” characteristically illustrates the retreat from Dr. Husain’s earlier Western outlook.

On the whole it would be all to the good if a modernized Egypt assumed the intellectual and spiritual leadership of Arab Asia. Yet it remains to be seen whether she would then stick to her mission or adapt herself to the level of her less advanced followers.

Iraq is a case of the opposite. When it was founded in 1920—as was said, under foreign initiative—some Arab poets and savants lived in Baghdad, but the land had no intelligentsia of its own and, in so far as its more advanced Christian and Jewish minorities were unable to render the services required, it had to rely on people drawn from Egypt, the Lebanon, Syria, and other countries for its educational and medical institutions and other public services. But all this has changed now. The minorities are being ousted and the country is rapidly becoming cantonal in its outlook; the services of a non-Iraqi Arab are dispensed with as soon as the shadow of a local candidate appears. Iraq is at present markedly militaristic and aggressive and, despite her small, heterogeneous, and largely illiterate population, already dreams of expansion.

In the other Arab countries of the Middle East, separatism, in so far as it exists, has its roots more in objective historical facts than in contemporary developments. The Christian inhabitants of the Lebanon—who are the Arabs with the smallest proportion of illiterates—are still wondering whether their survival requires the emphasis upon or the surrender of their identity. In any case no other Arab group of so small a size—the Lebanese number less than half a million-has contributed so much to the revival of Arab culture.

The two principal states of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and the Saudi kingdom, are cut off from the rest of the Arab world by their geographical position, their still completely medieval constitutions and administrations, and by the fact that the dominant population of each country adheres to a non-conformist Moslem sect different from its neighbor as well as from the chief denominations of Islam at large. The great military successes of the Saudis during and after World War I were considered by many European observers the outcome of a religious revival; and it was thought that similar revivals would spring up in other parts of the Moslem world. So far this expectation has not been borne out.

But this question brings us to the last and most important aspect of contemporary Arab life that is to be dealt with in this article: the fluctuation between an old and predominantly religious way of life and a new and essentially foreign world of ideas.



A Geneation ago two distinct civilizations, each with a fixed scale of values of its own, lived side by side in the Middle East. A minority, very small, usually preferred a foreign language—in most cases French—as a medium of conversation, and believed in and sometimes strove for the then unquestioned Western ideals of progress, enlightenment, democracy, emancipation of women, and so forth. The majority, largely backward and illiterate, suffered from its own superstitions and the corruptness of the Turkish regime, but was compensated by the spiritual comfort of unshaken religious belief. In the East itself East was still East, and West still West.

After two world wars both of these civilizations are disintegrating in the Middle East because of the workings of inner processes and because they are approaching each other more and more. True, the great majority of the Arabs are still illiterate, still cling to medieval superstitions, still practice polygamy, child marriage, and other such things, and still countenance the oppression of the weak. On the other hand the upper-class Arab still survives, with his complete French education or his manners of an English gentleman; and even more significant, a considerable part of contemporary Arab literature, written by the élite, is so much Western in point of view and even in atmosphere that if translated—or rather, re -translated— into French, with the names changed, one might imagine that what was being described took place in Paris, not in Cairo or Beirut.

Nevertheless there can no longer be any doubt that the two extremes are moving toward each other rapidly; they lose indeed much of their respective inherent value by this process, yet they thus prepare the ground from which something new may rise. Western civilization has lost much prestige in the last twenty-five years and no longer offers its Oriental followers a well-defined and undisputed example that needs only to be learned and practiced like a lesson. This, together with the hitherto undreamed of political successes of the new Arab states, has given rise to a popular slogan which proclaims that, except in technical matters, Western guidance can be dispensed with.



At The same time millions of Arabs have learned to read and write in the last quarter- century; the masses are not as inarticulate as they used to be, and the life has to adapt itself to the—supposed-inclinations and passions of the lower classes in order to maintain its ascendancy. Islamic fanaticism, so strongly decried by enlightened Arabs only a short while ago, is now openly encouraged. The same writers whose altogether Western style was mentioned earlier have been vying with each other for some time in compiling books on the heroes and the virtues of Islam. Some years ago the Arab press mocked at this phenomenon; there is nothing of that sort today. What has now become possible in educated circles may be gathered from the following quotation from an issue of the New East, an Arab monthly periodical describing itself as the “organ of the academic youth of the East”: “Let us fight fanatically for our religion; let us love a man—because he is a Moslem; let us honor a man—because he is a Moslem; let us prefer him to anyone else—because he is a Moslem; and never let us make friends with unbelievers, because they have nothing but evil for us.”

A movement called “The Moslem Brotherhood,” although in existence since 1928, came into prominence in the summer of 1945 and now claims to have over 500,000 organized members in Egypt alone—though it has just been outlawed after the assassination of Nokrashy Pasha. The ultimate political goal of this movement—as prescribed by Moslem law—is the subjugation of the world to Moslem rule. Its social orientation is best revealed by the demand of its reform program that the salaries of lower officials be raised, with a corresponding reduction in those of the higher ranks. The only advance in theology, however, that I could find in the pamphlets published by the leader of the movement is that Fana, the central idea of Islamic mysticism, which once meant the absorption of the individuality of the believer into the all-embracing essence of God, now designates the unlimited sacrifice of one’s time, health, and means to the service of the movement. Alas, this demand has become only too familiar to us from other quarters.

Thus we see that Islam has not ceased to be—or is again becoming—a social force. It still remains a question whether it continues to be a source of creative religious inspiration. It would be rash to answer with either a categorical yes or no. For any observer would confirm us in saying that, despite the talk about the eclipse of Western civilization, it is still to Western thought and Western fiction that the young Arab turns for enlightenment and edification. It is not through business efficiency alone that the publication Al-Mukhtar, an Arabic edition of the American Reader’s Digest, has become the most widely read magazine in the Middle East. The awakening Arab mind still appears to be too preoccupied with assimilation of the Western heritage to be able to fructify the remnants of its own essentially religious civilization. This task, if it is to be done at all, is obviously reserved for a future generation.



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