As Universal religions, both Islam and Christianity make universal claims on the lives of their adherents. Over the last three centuries, however, Christianity has been forced drastically to curtail its claims, with the result that religious life in the West has been restricted to a narrow sphere; the secular nature of society is now taken for granted. Nationalism, erupting in the French Revolution, gave political expression to secular tendencies that had heretofore found their outlet in philosophy and science; it has been one of the strongest forces in bringing about the sharp Western separation of the sacred and the profane in the West. Nationalism asserted the priority of local interests and loyalties over the universal and ecumenical interests embodied in the Church, and made the nation-state rather than the body of the faithful the essential community.
Islam’s position today more closely resembles that of the medieval than of the modern Christian church, for it still claims a loyalty that transcends (and negates) national and secular ties, and in large measure it receives this kind of loyalty even from Moslems who are no longer devout. Why is this? Why is the conflict between religious universalism and nationalist parochialism so much less sharply defined in the Middle East than was the case in the West? For one thing, several generations, indeed centuries, were needed to reduce the authority of religion in the West and make that of nationalism prevail; Arab nationalism is trying to do the same thing in the space of a single generation. And for another, whereas the Western nationalism had no overwhelming enemy from outside the cultural and political sphere of Europe to reckon with, their opponents all being found among indigenous traditional elements, Arab nationalism sees its main antagonist in an external power, Western “imperialism,” and not in the religious and dynastic forces at home. Arab nationalism, insofar as it is anti-Western, calls on religion as an ally; it has behind it a quasi-religious drive, mobilizes the fanaticism of believers, and exploits Islam’s hostility to everything that is not Islamic. Hence in the Middle East the opposition between secular nationalism and ecumenical religion appears to be dissolved in the larger struggle against the non-Moslem world.
Yet the contradiction between nationalism and religion remains; it is as real and potent in the Middle East as it has been elsewhere. What has happened is that the conflict has transferred itself from the arena of politics to the psyche of the individual—whence it re-enters politics as a highly complicating factor. Nor is this the first time that religious universalism has contended with a form of non-religious particularism within the Arab soul. In the Middle East, this inner cleavage is ancient, with roots that antedate the Western or any other species of modern nationalism.
The contradiction between the universalism of Islam and ethnic separatism lay at the very origins of Islam, and it has survived to the present day. Indeed, it was the effort to resolve the contradiction that gave Islam its eruptive force and expansive élan during the first century of its life.
Before Mohammed the pagan nomads of the Arabian Peninsula—the “Arabs” proper—did not think of themselves as a nation in any sense of the term; their contact with the non-Arab world was far too restricted for them to become conscious of themselves as a separate entity. Much less did they feel any such thing as Arab solidarity. Like other more or less isolated peoples, they took themselves for granted; their first allegiance was to family and tribe, and the sphere of their political life did not extend beyond tribal conflicts and relations.
Mohammed set himself squarely against this primitive outlook, and the upshot of his work and teachings was the replacement of the tribal divisions of the Peninsula with a unitary Moslem community and a Moslem solidarity. Far more than did medieval Christianity, Islam established itself as a dense complex of behavior, belief, and authority embracing the whole of life. It was thanks to their new unity in Islam that the Bedouin tribes were able to undertake aggressive military and political action against the outside world and make their mark on history.
In the beginning, however, Islam was, despite its universal implications, a purely “Arab” affair. During the first decades of the Arab conquests, “Moslem” was synonymous with “Arab,” and to become a Moslem meant entering the Arab aristocracy. The Arabian tribes at this time were acutely “race”-conscious, and the early Caliphate tried to preserve their separate ethnic identity; the universal implications of the Islamic faith did not initially overcome Arab exclusiveness. It is now generally admitted that the legend of Islam’s being spread by the sword is nothing more than legend. It was in fact in the interest of the Arabian Moslems to discourage conversions to Islam, since it was easier to exploit non-believers. The Bedouin hosts that carried the banner of Islam abroad were an essentially secular political force, despite the cardinal role their religion played in unifying them as a group. Thus the Moslem-Arab occupation of the Middle East was in its first stages similar in many respects to the British occupation of Egypt twelve hundred years later: there was the same rigid exclusiveness on the part of the ruling caste, the same abstention from interference with “native” life, and the same financial exploitation of the “natives” in order to cover state expenditures.
Yet Islam was the Arab banner, Islam kept the Arabs united, and the tenor of Mohammed’s gospel was clear and unmistakable: not a parochial, aristocratic, or exclusive message, it proclaimed that all were equal, or could become so, under the new faith. In the long run, the equalizing tendencies at the core of Islam proved inescapable: the Arabs could discourage but not prevent non-Arabs from adopting their faith. The establishment of a religious community in place of the tribal or blood group had given the great clans of Arabia effective political and military cohesion, but their new religion was in its nature bound to spread to non-Arabs; and the unequivocal universalism of Islam worked to obliterate distinctions based on anything but religious adherence.
Thousands and then tens of thousands of non-Arabs, becoming converted to Islam, were able to insinuate themselves into the Arab ruling class: religion, which had originally been that class’s exclusive and defining prerogative, ultimately became the very means by which its hegemony was overthrown. Conversion not only relieved non-Arabs of the heavy taxes levied on infidels, it enabled them to share in the exploitation of all those who remained infidels. In the first stages of what rapidly became a mass movement, appearances were kept up by providing new converts to Islam with “Arab” genealogies on the classic tribal pattern, by making them “clients” of one Arabian tribe or another. But the sheer number of new converts soon made this practice impossible.
In Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia the new converts streamed into the cities from the land, their places being more or less taken by Bedouins pouring out of Arabia in the hope of sharing in the spoils of conquest. These new Bedouins were not part of the conquering armies of Islam—which had anyhow been small in number. Since the Moslem conquests had been swiftly consolidated, the Bedouin newcomers were needed neither in the army nor in the administration. Yet as “automatic” Moslems they were exempt from many taxes as well as possessed of other privileges. The presence of so many superfluous but privileged individuals, together with the mass infiltration of the Islamic religious community by non-Arabs, eventually put an intolerable strain on the fiscal structure of the Arab empire and made necessary its thoroughgoing reorganization. Thereafter the privileged position of Moslems as such with respect to taxation was undermined—taxes had to be levied on a different basis.
The remarkable success of the Arab colonization of the Middle East, which imposed the Arab language and the Arab religion on whole peoples and over vast areas, was hardly the result of a brutal military policy. It was—as the celebrated historian, C. H. Becker, has put it—part of “the final consequences of an economic process the Arabs had neither foreseen nor desired.” And among the other consequences of this process was the destruction of the Arabs themselves as a ruling class.
Once the conquered peoples—the Arameans, the Byzantines, the Persians, and others—had been accepted into the fold of Islam and placed on an equal level with the Arabs, their superior culture worked inevitably to give them the ascendancy: they, and not their conquerors, became the principal exponents of the new Islamic civilization.
Arab predominance in the Islamic empire lasted some one hundred and twenty-five years after Mohammed. until about 750 C.E.; its decline was signalized by the rise of the Abbasid dynasty and the removal of the capital of the empire from Damascus to Baghdad. Thenceforth “Islam” stood for something quite different from the essentially worldly rule of a Bedouin oligarchy that was indifferent to the religion professed by their subjects. Now “Islam” designated a universal state—in fact, the ancient Persian empire resurrected—and a unitary civilization in which the Arabs were one of many peoples, with only their language and some elements of religion remaining to commemorate their role as midwives of the new society. In effect, the true Arabs simply returned to the wastes of Arabia, and the new and unified state they left behind them was thenceforth carried on the shoulders of the older and more cultured elements among the variegated non-Arab peoples they had conquered.
This state was ruled by a despotic, bureaucratic government which treated its subjects as an undifferentiated mass that existed only for purposes of exploitation. The Caliphate bureaucracy was a legacy of the ancient Orient, not at all an Arab creation. The untutored Bedouins had no interest in devising a new administrative apparatus to replace the old one in the countries they had conquered; when they took the old one over they took with it its bureaucratism and the absolutism at its top. The Arab prince, who originally had been primus inter pares, now became an old-fashioned Oriental despot; with state power concentrated in the hands of one or a few persons, both Arabs and non-Arabs were reduced to a common level of subjugation, and the Arab oligarchy that had accomplished the conquests was eliminated.
It was not Islam that produced the new unitary civilization of the Middle East; rather, a unitary civilization whose origins antedated Islam and the original Arabs took on the vestments of Islamic religion and the Arabic language. The extraordinary expansion of the Moslem faith and of the Arabic language was made possible by this essentiallv non-Arab civilization, in whose creation the Arabs’ own role proved to be little more than that of a military and political catalyst.
The peoples subjugated by the illiterate Bedouins despised their conquerors; their conversion to Islam, by making them the Arabs’ equals, restored their morale and enabled them to give effective political and social expression to their disdain. A strong anti-Arab reaction made itself felt among the Arameans, Persians, and Byzantines. This in turn inspired a new accession of religious feeling among the Arabs—understandably enough, since all they could lay claim to in the way of distinction vis-à-vis the urban peoples they had conquered was the religion—and language—they had originated.
By 750 C.E., with the decline of the Arab dynasty of the Umayyads and the rise of the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Arabs proper had lost all genuine power. It was from this time on that religion, which had hitherto been largely a matter of indifference to most Arabs, began to acquire a vital importance. In the beginning they had showed an almost total lack of proselytizing zeal; missionary activity had been left to the newly converted Arameans, Byzantines, Persians, and Berbers. The Arameans, with their acquaintance with clericalism, and the Persians, with their ancient familiarity with a state church and with religion as something universal, gave the resurrected Persian empire its finishing touch in the form of a state ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Once this hierarchy was established, it became a matter of interest to the state itself co add to the flock of the faithful—an interest that had been lacking to the aristocratic, non-clerical, purely Arab regime. Moreover, the learned scribes who were so essential to the functioning of the Oriental despotic state, and who had never existed among the Arabs of Arabia, found their role enhanced by the new importance accorded to religion. The social levelling that occurred under the absolutist Islamic state made it possible for the scribes, who were inspired with an authentic religious fervor such as the Arab aristocrats had never been capable of, to consolidate their spiritual influence over the people.
Only in the third and fourth centuries after Mohammed did Islam begin to acquire the status of a religion that it possesses to this day. For the Arabs of Arabia, the Islamic religion had been little more than a simple body of precepts serving them as justificatory slogans and symbols in their assaults upon richer lands. The very propagation of Islam, and of Arabic with it, was in the beginning the work of a comparative handful of men, who owed their success to the internal dissensions of the affluent and cultivated societies they infiltrated.
The Arabic language, the most precious possession of the otherwise barbarous Bedouins, though it united the world of Islam, did not make it an Arab nation. The conquerors were spread thinly over enormous areas, and as they continued extending their conquests their relative numbers were reduced even further. Owing to this disparity—and to the institution of polygamy—the original Bedouins were ethnically submerged in their subject populations within the course of a few generations.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the term “Arab” only leads to confusion if it is taken to have a uniform meaning over the past two millennia. The term “Arab,” as referring to a political concept, did not exist until as recently as the end of the last century. Before the rise of the national idea in Europe itself, people simply did not think of themselves as members of any “nation.” Their primary social identification was based on religion, class, or locality. Until the emergence of Arab nationalism in our own day, an “Arab” would think of himself primarily as a Moslem vis-à-vis the world at large, or as a peasant, or as someone from a particular town or village. In Arabic itself, arabi means simply “nomad”: thus in the Egyptian censuses of the first part of this century, the term “Arab” is reserved to the 60,000 members of the nomadic tribes wandering about the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere.
The Arabic language itself had no ethnic connotation in the past: anyone might speak it, though it was conventionally understood that its vernacular was spoken best among the “real” Arabs, the Bedouins of Arabia. In the heyday of Islam, spoken Arabic was the lingua franca of a universal state as well as its learned language; with the decay of Islam it became restricted to those peoples among whom it had taken root as a vernacular. Only in this century, after language had become the chief criterion of nationality in Europe, did Arabic acquire its role as an ostensible symbol of potential nationhood.
The crowning anomaly of the contemporary Arab “national” resurgence surely lies in the fact that its seed was sown by Christian missionaries, chiefly from Britain, France, and America, who established missions, hospitals, and schools in the Middle East in the latter part of the 19th century. Modern Arab nationalism had its birth in Syria and Lebanon as the result of the convergence of two interests: that of the Christian missionaries, and that of the Arabic-speaking Christian communities of those countries.
What might be called the ideological interest of the Christian missionaries was selfevident: the reconversion to the Christian faith of the vast schismatic community that was Islam. But the form that this endeavor took cannot but evoke a wry smile from the disinterested observer. The missionaries quickly discovered that the conversion of any significant number of Moslems was out of the question. From its very inception their enterprise proved futile. Yet the collection of funds in Europe and America for missionary work among the Moslems, as among other “backward” peoples, had acquired great momentum; it was too much to expect such a source of income to be renounced. What happened, inevitably, was that the good work was indeed carried on in the Moslem countries, but only inside their Christian communities. To be sure, there were “conversions”—not from Islam, however, but from one Christian denomination to another. In effect, the missions to Islam were reduced to poaching on one another’s preserves.
At the same time the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East, tied to Europe as they were by a variety of historical bonds, proved to be a natural channel for the communication of European, and especially French, ideas to the Arab world. For this reason they were the first Arabs to catch the nationalist enthusiasm.
But the moment the old Christian communities consciously reached out toward nationalism, they were faced with the question of what nationality. Hitherto, Arabic-speaking Christians had defined themselves by their religion alone, in common with the Moslems and almost all the other peoples of the Middle East. In the past, an Arabicspeaking Christian would never have dreamed of calling himself an “Arab”: he would have considered himself primarily a Maronite, a Melkite, or a Greek Orthodox; secondarily as coming from a specific locality, or being of a certain clan or family. The question of language would have seemed trivial or irrelevant—certainly he spoke Arabic, as all sorts of people did, but what did that signify?
This was the usual attitude throughout the Middle East until the latter third of the last century. Then, influenced not only by European ideas, as pointed out above, but spurred by a long-standing, deep-rooted resentment of the Ottoman Turks, Arabicspeaking Christians began to see in “Arabism” a way out of the ghetto in which they were confined. Arabism meant the Arabic language, the only common denominator of Moslems and Christians in the Middle East. Hence the initial impulse to what has since become Arab nationalism was furnished by the attempt of Arabic-speaking Christians to burst their constricting social bonds. It was the Arabic-speaking Christians who were the first to offer themselves as political leaders to the “Arab world.”
Christian, and especially Protestant, missionaries played a seminal role in the matter of language too, which was now becoming of cardinal importance in Middle Eastern life. For it was they who actually revived Arabic as a modern written language, first through Arabic translations of the Bible, and then as the medium of a periodical press. Thus even such a fanatically prized Moslem possession as the Arabic language was raised to its contemporary eminence by the efforts of infidel missionaries.1
It was in the Christian communities of the Middle East, too, that the Arab aversion, ancient and difficult to define, to the Turks first acquired effective political expression. Dislike of the Turks turned out to be a profoundly important factor in the genesis of the Arab national movement. Neither Christians nor Arabic-speaking Moslems could get on with them. The “Arabs,” as representative of a brilliant ancient culture possessing a great literature, despised the Turks for their lack of cultivation. The Turks on their side, enjoying military and political superiority, despised the “Arabs” as impoverished peasants, primitive Bedouins, and grubby tradesmen. Nor were the Turks ever distinguished for their Moslem piety; since Ataturk, indeed, Islamic solidarity has become a negligible factor in Turkish spiritual life, and it scarcely counts for anything more in the arena of political maneuvers.
So much for the historical roots of Arab rationalism, which in its present-day form impresses the observer by nothing so much as its curious hollowness. Owing its impulse largely to negative reactions—against the Turks, the French, the British, and latterly and most virulently the State of Israel—Arab nationalism lacks positive content most of all (as has been pointed out by a number of contributors to these pages). A diffuse, farflung, stagnant society threatening to disintegrate under modern pressures, Islam is basically indifferent or hostile, not perhaps to the feeling of nationalism as such, but to the formulation of the real guiding ideas and the positive ethos which nationalism needs, and without which it seems condemned to remain rhetorical extravagance and empty xenophobia.
The disharmony between the universal perspectives of Islam and the parochialism of Arab nationalism is further complicated by the very number of Arab states now in existence. If it is difficult enough for a Moslem to think of himself as being an Arab by nationality, how much more difficult it must be to think of himself as, say, an Iraqi. It is possible, after all, to conceive of Arab unity on the basis of language, religion, tradition, and other things, including the will to be Arab. But how is it possible to conceive of Iraqi, Syrian, or Saudi-Arabian patriotism? As soon as they are stated clearly enough, these notions crumble. Someone whose mother tongue is Arabic, whose religion is Islam, and who comes from Basra, might—and does—make the leap from this particular cluster of group identifications to an Arab identity, but how can he stop halfway and call himself—with pride, naturally—a Jordanian?
Indeed, he seldom does, and it seems most unlikely that such ramshackle administrative hangovers of the First World War as Jordan have much of a future as a rallying point for patriotism. But the fact remains that the Arab states exist, and however meaningless they may be in other respects, they all now have their hosts of bureaucrats and army officers for whom the survival of these states is a matter of immediate and compelling self-interest. The struggle to preserve them has served to exacerbate the countless factional feuds and rivalries that already rend Arab society.
Egypt is the only Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East which has been successful in inspiring a local patriotism. A large part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that her present national tradition (as well as state structure) goes back to the opening up of the country by Napoleon; and after the withdrawal of the French she remained a distinguishable political entity, first under the Turks and then under the British. However, it is only in our own generation that Egyptian national feeling has become more or less “Arabicized”: most Egyptian nationalists used to look down on the “Arabs,” considering themselves the heirs of a “Pharaonic” culture.
Thus Arab nationalism is handicapped in its effort to define itself by the shorelessness of Islam on the one side, and by the self-interest of local bureaucracies on the other. Yet it is impossible for Arab nationalism to detach itself from Islam, which after all numbers more than 350 million people; and the local governments of the Arab world, however jerry-built, do in fact exist and hold political power. For these and other reasons, Arab nationalism has been unable so far to derive anything positive from the fund of ideas it has imported from Europe. Nor has it been able to kindle a fire among the mass of Arabs themselves, who still live within the moribund but tenacious traditions of old-fashioned Islam, and are paralyzed, on top of that, by a general economic backwardness. Even among the Arab intelligentsia, who are, after all, the main if not the only vessels of its ideas, nationalism has very little to show of substance. Most Western-educated Arabs—and all the real political leaders of the Arabs are Western-educated—strike one as being a sort of Luftmenschen, people with no real economic place or function.
The gap between the old and the new in those Arab countries which are exposed to Western culture is so vast, and the backwardness of the mass of the population so extreme, that a difference in schooling produces an absolute difference that is both social and psychological. In the Middle East, Western education automatically puts one in an “upper class,” regardless of one’s economic status which may well be rather low. Given the general backwardness of the economy, with its very limited demand for specialists of any sort, the educated young man coming from a family without substantial means—and most Arab secondary school and university graduates come from such families—finds himself looking to the government for a job and a livelihood. The government expands its bureaucracy to wasteful proportions to meet this expectation, but it still cannot take care of everybody. This situation accounts for the typical Middle Eastern phenomenon of a swollen class of educated Luftmenschen who are Luftmenschen because they belong socially to an upper stratum while lacking an economic function.
The only refuge of these Luftmenschen is politics. But here too opportunities are limited: the masses are backward intellectually as well as economically, and completely indifferent to those abstractions of Western political thought which form the main commodity that the elite has to offer. Here again the Arab intellectuals are thrown back on themselves and forced to carry on their political activity within abnormally shrunken, sterile, and self-stultifying limits. It is the gap between ideas and actual consequences, between ambition and responsibilities, that is: largely responsible for the hectic feverishness, the combination of an extreme and bombastic intransigence of form with a vast poverty of content, which is characteristic of intellectual life in quasi-colonial countries. Real social and political needs become lost in a dense fog of intrigue, factionalism, and wire-pulling that makes it impossible to put forward or fight for any realistic program related to actual conditions.
What has been said of the young Arab intellectuals could doubtless be said of thousands of young people elsewhere in the world who are educated “beyond their station.” But in the West the educated classes as a whole possess a relative stability, while in the Middle East rootlessness and dissatisfaction encompass the entire educated element and constitute a decisive factor.
Nationalism in general originates in an awareness of contrast; it remains striking nevertheless how little there is in Arab nationalism of anything but contrast. The movement seems to have no inner life: one has the feeling that without its obsessions—its hatred of Israel, France, Britain—it would collapse for lack of any effective goals it has set itself. The goals of Arab nationalism seem quite unrelated to the real problems of the Arab countries, problems of which they have quite their fair share. Putting it another way, the cohesiveness of Arab nationalism seems imposed on it from outside, so that it resembles a soft substance squeezed into a semblance of firmness by an external mold. In view of the fact that Britain and France have both been expelled bodily from the Middle East, and that Israel amounts to a minute fraction among the Arabic-speaking peoples and her territory to a still more minute fraction of the Arabicspeaking lands (less than one four-hundredth!), it is impossible to avoid the impression of an essential vacuousness at the core of the movement.
The lack of real content or ideas on the part of the Arab political leadership does not, to be sure, diminish its importance as a political actor, but it is well to be aware of this lack. The weight of the “Arab bloc,” after all, does not derive from the inherent strength of the Arab countries, but from the Middle East’s strategic position in the tug-of-war between the great powers. International rivalries have made it possible for the Middle East to become more and more irresponsibly self-assertive. But it is evident that such a situation is inherently explosive; tactical successes won by exploiting the conflicts of outsiders can never make up for one’s own basic weaknesses.
And what of Islam today? As indicated above, Arab nationalist ardor possesses a quasi-religious quality which has its source fundamentally in the general Moslem reaction against the West. But if Islam is thus a source of vigor, it is also a source of debilitating confusion. For Islam is not a community in any modern sense of the word; it offers no real alternative to modern Western society, nor can it prevent the break-up of the Moslem world into individual societies pursuing their own goals and ready to recognize their “solidarity” with their Moslem brethren only when it suits some concrete political or economic interest—which in practice occurs astonishingly seldom. Arab political leaders show little interest in exploring the practical significance of the nebulous concept of an Islamic “community” based on theology and social customs. Indeed, the process of modernization creates parvenu groups who are only too ready to turn against what seems to them to be a musty and outmoded tradition. However they may boast of Islamic tradition to outsiders, in their daily lives they have committed themselves to the secularization and nationalization of life that came into existence in the Western world generations ago.
Yet at the same time that Islam provides no basis for an Arab unity more than rhetorical, Islamic universalism encourages megalomaniacal dreams of empire and world sway among Arab nationalists despite or perhaps because of the difficulties inherent in launching the most indispensable social and economic reforms. Contemporary Arab nationalism, which derives a large part of its emotional sustenance from Islam while disdaining its spiritual goals in favor of the fleshpots of the West, doubtless owes its overwhelming ambitions to the boundlessness of the Islamic horizon.
The Middle East has been, politically, a parasite on the world community for a long time; it has made no real contribution either to itself or others. It will not speak with a positive, authoritative voice of its own until the movements now agitating it cease being mesmerized by irrelevant phobias and learn somehow to cope with the real distress, material and perhaps spiritual as well, of the Arabs themselves.
1 The Moslem world as a whole has been able to recall its splendid past with historical fullness and exactitude thanks only to the labors of Europeans. Popular memories of the ancient grandeur of the Caliphate, to the extent that they survived at all, were thin and exiguous. Not until several generations of great European scholars had pieced together the real substance of Islamic culture in its heyday were Moslem Arab intellectuals able to speak grandiloquently about their forefathers’ contributions to world civilization. These triumphs of European erudition, however, had the effect of hiding the present-day Arab reality from the Europeans themselves, by interposing the glittering Arab past. From wretched, illiterate, and oppressed subjects of a worn-out, rotting Oriental empire, the Arabs were transformed into chivalrous Bedouin knights or glamor-out potentates d la Harun al-Rashid. The British Colonial Office was to founder disastrously on both these stereotypes