Ayad Al-Ani, The Arabs from Alexander the Great until the Islamic Conquests: Orientalist Perceptions and Contemporary Conflicts (Gorgias Press, 2021).*
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ayad Al-Ani (AAA): My initial aim was to study the period between Alexander the Great and the coming of Islam. I wanted to understand the role played by Arabs in the conflict between Rome and Persia, a fundamental conflict that in many ways is still ongoing in the area that was then Oriens, the Roman Diocese of the East. To my astonishment, it became clear that the period in question was formative in laying the foundations of current Western perceptions of Arabs. Also—unsurprisingly and not unrelatedly—the history of the Arabs before Islam has been, and still seems to be, an exclusively Western field of scholarship. Arab historians have for the most part been excluded from the construction of that history, their contributions dismissed as biased and unscientific. This subtle, and sometimes not so subtle regulation can be explained in the context of a thousand years of history that paradoxically does not fit easily into the antagonistic “clash of cultures” paradigm.
Nevertheless, there are sources that permit an alternative view: that the Arabs were not an obscure group that suddenly entered history bearing a religious book composed in an inexplicably sophisticated language and script, but rather can be considered as a “Kulturnation” long before Islam. According to this view, the Arabs had contact and knowledge with monotheism for centuries and were deeply embedded in the Hellenistic and Roman world as citizens, scientists, senators, Caesars, warriors, saints, and popes—while holding onto their underlying Semitic identity. This view can hardly be reconciled with the perception of Arabs as “Others.” Its acceptance has been hampered by the fact that the dominant narratives of the period have generally deconstructed the Arabs before Islam into several distinct civilizations with no concept of their own “Arabness,” all speaking different languages and with no significant role in the Eastern Roman Empire. In this view, their almost simultaneous success against Rome and Persia remains largely mysterious. As Philip Hitti concluded: “Who living then could have guessed that such a happening was within the realm of possibility?”
The more this historiography, with its contradictions, political intrusions, biases, and academic mechanisms unfolds, the clearer it becomes that without a new, more objective (and so also less racist) interpretation of the sources of this period of history, a reimagination of the relationship between the Arabs and the West remains out of reach. The Arabs will continue to be depicted as inferior, peripheral antagonists who were and are excluded from the political core. It was this conclusion that provided the impetus for writing the German original version of the book in the midst of the refugee crisis and now the updated and enhanced international edition in times of severe upheaval of the region.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AAA: The book covers the emergence of an Arab sphere of politics, culture, religion, and language before Islam. The presence of Roman Arabs and Foederati living in some of the most significant metropolitan centers of late antiquity laid the groundwork for the Islamic conquests of these areas; without them, the Arab empire would never have been feasible. To describe these groups, the book also focuses on the problems associated with defining the term “Arab” and the concept of an “Arab” culture, language, and script before Islam. Many Western sources label the ethnicity of these groups differently; local dialects of Arabic are treated as separate languages, and the ethnic roots of many Arab Rhomaioi are obscured. Those who try to argue that there was an integrated Arab sphere before Islam run up against the prevailing narrative of Semitic, rather than Arab, ethnicities and languages. Nevertheless, the existence of an Arab Kulturnation before Islam more than accounts for the “easy” integration of Roman Oriens into the Islamic empire and casts a fascinating light on “Orient and Rome”: the afterglow of a thousand years of common history that lasted for centuries after the fall of Rome in the east.
When we investigate why the significance of the Arab sphere before Islam has been downplayed, two principal reasons emerge. First, the loss of the Christian heartland in Oriens was deeply traumatic for Christianity, which needed to be re-founded as a Western religion. For this to be successful, its connections with the Orient had to be neglected or disregarded and the Arabs had to be recast as the “Other,” an inferior ethnicity that conquered Roman Orient “by stealth and deceit” (Kaegi) against an otherwise superior and more sophisticated empire. Second, this perspective, founded on fear and arrogance, has clear racist undertones. Christianity, as a now primarily Western concept, was assimilated with the “European spirit,” creating a peculiar role for science: the European spirit “subdues the external world to its purposes with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world” (Hegel). Surprisingly, despite these powerful mechanisms, many Western scholars held a more integrative view of the region’s history until the Great War, culminating in German attempts to join forces with Islam and encourage a Jihad against the British. In a strange twist, after the Great War the idea emerged that the degeneration of Europe was somehow connected to the effects of the Islamic invasion in the seventh century, which substituted “Frankish roughness for the old Mediterranean sheen” (Fowden). Islam and the Arabs could then be blamed for destroying the old order. And by extension, they could also be held responsible for the carnage and war in Europe itself, absolving Western powers of guilt.
These are the perspectives and topics that the book seeks to address: a combination of historical analysis and political reflections that tie this long-gone period to our current thinking.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AAA: In many of my works, I focus on institutional change. But this is the first time I have used historical analysis to understand the political, cultural, and religious framework directing such transitions. To do so, I had to “recapitulate” the historical analysis to some extent, so that the reader can grasp the significance of the events and processes discussed. I also had to evaluate different historical interpretations and linguistic concepts both from within the mainstream historical community and from outside it, which is always a risk. Writing a political book about history is challenging and humbling in the sense that historical interpretations must be evaluated, or new ones put forward, which crosses academic boundaries. This is even more true when the political intentions and backgrounds of historians themselves are considered as well. I saw this as a challenge, but it may be said that a study like this can only be written by a non-historian. I must admit that I was frustrated at times by the excessive self-assurance of some of the traditional historical interpretations I was dealing with. And I was impressed and sometimes unsettled by the invisible forces that prevent alternative views from surfacing, even when current narratives are clearly unsatisfactory. I have never experienced this in any of my other works.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AAA: Generally, I think the book should be relevant for anyone who is interested in Western-Arab relations. Strangely enough, that relationship is still determined, haunted, and sustained by aspects of the period of history covered in this study. Science also plays an important role in contributing images, perceptions, and biases to this relationship. Students of the Middle East might also gain insights into how the coming of Islam was affected by the cultural, religious, and political realities of the Roman East. Historians might appreciate some perspectives, concepts (i.e. the role of the imaginary) and alternative interpretations that include Arab voices. My hopes and wishes for the book’s impact are twofold: first, an enhanced appreciation of how the period under investigation still shapes our political realities; second, a better consideration of how conventional historical writing of this period is affected and shaped by these events and influences perceptions of the Arabs and their relationship with the West.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AAA: Together with Carsten Siebert from the Barenboim-Said Academy I am currently working on a project to support Arab cultural institutions in digitizing their artefacts and research. This platform will connect museums in the region, enabling the exchange of expertise, and help to build a database of cultural assets and labels. Institutions will also be able to upload their digital assets onto the platform, which could then function as a sort of Arab cultural Wiki enabling anyone to access their artefacts and research without restrictions.
Excerpt from the book (from "The Disappearing Arabs Before Islam: Beyond Orientalism. Preface to the International Edition," pp. vii-xi)
This is not a conventional history book. It is rather a study of the sociology of historical writing about a period that, although quite distant in time (330 B.C. to A.D. 670), still influences political discourse about the Arab world, and especially the relationship between the West and the Middle East.
This book focuses on the riddle of the disappearance of the Arabs from history before Islam, their sudden appearance be-hind the banners of the Prophet, and the powerful and traumatic effect this emergence into world history has had on the relationship between the Arabs and the West.
Although the mainstream Western historical narrative does not see the Arabs before Islam as a political or cultural force, or even as members of a defined cultural unit, Arab historians and more traditional Western sources do permit a rather different picture once misguiding or obscuring labels have been removed. In this study, Arabia and the Arabs appear as a region and people that enjoyed considerable linguistic, cultural, religious, and political cohesion centuries before Islam. The appearance of the Prophet was, from this perspective, the culmination of a historical process that had already been long underway – perhaps delayed by Roman interference in the East and the establishment of the Roman diocese of Oriens, but also reinforced by Hellenistic-Roman culture and religious thought. In this scenario, the rise of Islam is in no way surprising or in need of explanation as a retrospective forgery, as the revisionist school would have it.
Uncovering this historical process involves answering two questions: what was the history of the pre-Islamic Arabs under their Hellenistic and Roman rulers, and why has that history disappeared?
There is evidence that the Arabs, under different names and labels (Semites, Saraceni, Barbaroi, Indignae…), were in fact a kind of consolidated union with a shared cultural consciousness, although of course not in the form of an Arab nation in the modern sense. The situation was perhaps similar to that of the Germanic tribes, who would not have described themselves as “Germanic” even though they were aware of their shared characteristics, which were also clear to the Romans who fought and colonized them. Although it may seem surprising in the context of contemporary attitudes to the Middle East, this Arab Kulturnation was closely politically and culturally integrated into the Hellenistic-Roman world. Moreover – contrary to the current prevailing view – the Greeks themselves were well aware that a considerable portion of their own culture had originated in the Middle East and Africa. The Greek and Arab regions were by no means antagonistic poles, but rather mutually influencing spheres – as would be expected of cultural systems that had been interacting for many centuries. This allows us to move past the idea of “Orient oder Rom,” the belief that Rome and the East were elements of different historical systems. Instead, we can show that such a belief is the result of current political and cultural circumstances being projected back onto the past.
Why did this history disappear? Although the period was certainly no “dark age” with silent sources and scarce archaeological remains, there seems to be a desire to deconstruct the Arab world into smaller elements – local or regional cultures, civilizations, and languages–that make it difficult to identify a wider Arab sphere, an area of shared Arab language and culture. The Arab victory over Rome and the loss of the Christian heartland in the Middle East, sealed by the unsuccessful crusades some centuries later, were a traumatic experience for the West. Christianity had to be reimagined and redefined as a Western religion. Suddenly, the joint historical experience of East and West, their common roots and cultural exchanges, became a burden. As Edward Said showed, Arabs needed to be seen as different, as the “Other.”
This led to two reactions. First, Arabs and their long history of interaction with the Hellenistic-Roman world had to be suppressed. Second, the Arabs’ military success against Rome and Christianity in the seventh century had to be explained away as an opportunistic seizing of the “critical moment,” or even as the result of dishonest strategies used against an otherwise more sophisticated and culturally and religiously superior power. Arab integration and participation in the Greco-Roman world had no place in this narrative. When the West began to return to the Orient in the 18th century, the imperialist and colonial idea was legitimized by a belief in the superiority of Western culture and religion. Ethnically Arab Roman Emperors, senators and scientists were a clear contradiction and even an impediment in this context, which also saw the rise of an intellectual anti-Semitism that further reinforced the underlying processes and attitudes.
Of course, history could not be fully suppressed, and memories remained. To strengthen the idea of Western superiority against a once and perhaps still dangerous adversary, negative images of the pre-Islamic Arabs were absorbed into the narrative of the “Clash of Cultures” introduced by the Orientalist Bernhard Lewis in the 1990s. As this book shows, these negative images are the result of a highly selective approach to historical sources that, in reality, portray a much more nuanced situation. The Arabs appear in these sources as Roman allies and citizens, bound to Rome in a difficult and complex relationship in which Christianity played in important role.
Edwards Said’s groundbreaking work on Orientalism and its arguments can now be updated: the portrayal of the Arab as the “Other” was a necessary step in the process of muting a thousand years of close interaction between Arab and Greco-Roman culture. The image of Arabs as barbarians draws selectively on historical sources that have been stripped of their context, concealing their writers’ individual circumstances and attitudes towards the Arabs.
At the least, this book should make available a fascinating stretch of history that seems to contradict current views of the Western-Arab relationship. What are these powerful sources – we may wonder – that are capable of shaping historical narratives in such a specific, antagonistic way, despite the fact that traditional Western sources were able to admit other explanations? If the writing of history depends – more even than we perhaps wish or imagine – on interpretation, interpretation itself is always molded by the attitudes, values, and motives of the commentator. Moreover, as this book shows, interpretations, once set in motion, are then reinforced by scientific methods that deconstruct the field into smaller pieces, digging deeper into specific subject areas while neglecting the overall historical system and its longue durée.
Such conclusions may make us feel uneasy. If such a significant piece of history can be so severely contested and interpreted in so many different ways; if the Arabs themselves seem to be unable to reclaim their history, being for the most part seen as outsiders to the Western scientific community, what hope is there for a relationship between the Arab world and the West that is based on mutual appreciation, recognition, and trust?
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