When Albert Hourani died on January 17, 1993, at the age of 77, the field of Middle East studies lost one of its most prominent scholars of the twentieth century. Hourani was not only a prolific writer, but also a highly committed teacher who was instrumental in developing Oxford's Middle East Center, which he directed from 1958 until 1980. In this capacity, he served as a mentor to several generations of students of the Middle East. Among them are the contributors to Middle Eastern Politics and Ideas, which is a tribute to Hourani by leading Israeli scholars.
What had made Hourani's contributions unique was their combination of precision, elegance, and insight. Thus, Hourani's erudition and attention to detail never distracted him from the necessity of highlighting major themes and trends. He understood the need for detailed studies of specific periods and regions, and his own work indeed served as an inspiration to students and colleagues who undertook such projects. Yet Hourani also knew that analyses of small communities over short periods of time could only be meaningful if they were placed in a broader historical and comparative framework. In this fashion, he hoped that historical research would not result in knowing more and more about less and less, but in enabling scholars to make empirically-grounded, broad-based generalizations.
And this was indeed where Hourani excelled. His work reflects both an intimate familiarity with the fabric of Arab society and an uncanny ability to engage in broad brush analysis that allows the reader to identify trends and see familiar material in a new light. His wit, elegant writing, and capacity for making complex material accessible to the general reader also contributed to the appeal of his work. This was reflected in the success of his last major work, A History of the Arab Peoples, in which Hourani distilled a lifetime of scholarship. Published in 1991, that book provided in approximately 600 pages a summary of Arab history from the rise of Islam through the 1980s. In vintage Hourani-style, the analysis provided was expressed with the grace and clarity required to make the work accessible to a wide audience, but also with the flashes of insight and novel interpretations that also made it valuable to scholars in the field.
In the preface of Middle Eastern Politics and Ideas, Roger Owen highlights the rich variety of ways in which Hourani approached the Middle East. For instance, Hourani relied on traditional Orientalist scholarship, but did so using concepts and methods of analysis derived from the modem social sciences. Similarly, while he made major contributions to the study of the intellectual history of the region one thinks in particular of his classic Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962) he also developed new frameworks for analyzing the changing socioeconomic and political realities of the Middle East from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. He focused on the politics of the elite as much as on popular culture and societal trends. And more than any other Arabist before him, he recognized the powerful influence that the Ottoman experience had on Arab society and politics.
In Chapter Two, Israel Gershoni analyzes the intellectual evolution of Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888-1956), one of the most prominent intellectuals in Egypt and the Arab world between the two world wars. Haykal always sought inspiration in European (especially French) culture. Initially, he was very much attracted by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte, and felt that the key to progress in the East lay in the adoption of positivist thought. By the early 1930s, however, Haykal had come to feel that reason and science could not on their own deliver development. His dogmatic and naive faith in positivism progressively gave way to a heightened emphasis on the need for spirituality. By the mid-1930s, his proposed road to an indigenous form of modernity relied heavily on Islamic-Arab cultural themes.
Gershoni describes Haykal's "recantation of positivism" and endeavors to account for it. He argues that Haykal's intellectual reorientation was due to both shifts in European thought and the need to articulate a discourse that could appeal to larger sections of the Egyptian public. Thus, Haykal was strongly influenced by the works of Andre Malraux, Oswald Spengler, and, most importantly, Henri Bergson. All of these key writers of the interwar period highlighted the limits of rationalism and positivism, and stressed the need for supplementing science and reason with faith and spiritual inspiration. But Haykal's new philosophy did not merely mirror intellectual developments in Europe. It also stemmed from his heightened awareness of the need for Middle Eastern intellectuals to articulate discourses to which the masses could relate.
As an intellectual with political interests, Haykal was sensitive to the growing political power of the Egyptian masses. He also realized that popular energies could be harnessed in the process of political change and modernization only if intellectuals developed a culturally authentic discourse grounded in the region's past and traditions. Gershoni thus provides an account of Haykal's intellectual shift with which Hourani certainly would have felt comfortable, as it shows the influence that a given sociopolitical context exercised on the evolution of a scholar's thought, without denying ideas an autonomous role in steering that process of intellectual change.
In Chapter Three, Gabriel Piterberg summarizes Hourani's views on Orientalist scholarship. Hourani never felt satisfied with the text-based, philological approach of traditional Orientalist writers. In fact, his career was largely devoted to developing alternative frameworks for understanding the Middle East. In this as in other respects, Hourani therefore shared in Edward Said's critique of Orientalism. And yet, Orientalism to Hourani was always a far more heterogeneous body of scholarship than Said had portrayed. Hourani was never willing to accept that all scholars writing in the Orientalist tradition had consciously or unconsciously distorted Middle Eastern realities in order to further a colonialist or neocolonialist agenda. Nor did he feel that the profession as a whole had been driven by a combination of prejudices and negative stereotyping. In fact, Hourani always showed respect for the works of such Orientalist scholars as Louis Massignon, Hamilton Gibb, and Marshall Hodgson.
In Chapter Four, Amikam Nachmani provides a detailed examination of the only instance in which Hourani was engaged in political advocacy. This took place early in his career, when he was invited to present the Palestinian case to the Anglo-American Committee (AAC) formed in 1946 to investigate the situation in Palestine. Never again was Hourani to repeat such an exercise in politics. Even then, however, Hourani's testimony reflected the moderation and reasoned judgment that would later become one of the hallmarks of his scholarship. Still, Hourani pulled no punches in his effort to undermined the Zionist cause, and his was by far the most eloquent, substantive and effective statements made to the AAC on behalf of the Palestinians.
The book's last three chapters are all inspired by Hourani's work on the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and in particular by his seminar essay on "the politics of notables." In the eyes of this reviewer, the book's most interesting essay is Chapter Five, by Ehud Toledano. Toledano reminds us that one of Hourani's main contributions to the field of Middle East studies was his emphasis on the profound and lasting political, cultural and social influence that the Ottoman experience exercised on the Arab world. Toledano then notes that the studies of Arab provincial elites spawned by Hourani' s work unfortunately have tended to rely almost exclusively on local Arabic sources, neglecting both Ottoman sources and the ways in which Ottoman elites and culture influenced the behavior and outlook of Arab notables. In an attempt to correct this bias, the author presents the outlines of a framework for analyzing what he calls "Ottoman-Local elites" during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Underlying this framework are the simultaneous processes of Ottomanization of Arab provincial elites and localization of Ottoman elites which Toledano argues was one of the distinctive features of the last two hundred years of the Ottoman Empire. By Ottomanization, the author refers to the progressive incorporation of notable Arab provincial families into the Ottoman elite. Going hand in hand with Ottomanization were education in the imperial system (whether locally or in Istanbul), as well as the acquisition of Ottoman culture and tastes. Paralleling this process was the localization of Ottoman elites, i.e., the gradual integration of Ottoman administrators and officers into the local society and economy, as these Ottoman appointees developed local interests, married natives of the region to which they had been assigned, and perfected their knowledge of, and appreciation for, its culture, political intricacies, dialect and history.
The joint processes of localization and Ottomanization yielded "Ottoman-Local elites" that spoke a common language (Ottoman Turkish), shared in a sophisticated culture, and, most importantly, were adept at a specific, flexible style of government and politics based on moderation, caution, bargaining, coalition building, and a careful balancing of social forces against one another. It is those elites, Toledano argues, which after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire often led the struggle against colonial occupation, and ultimately steered their country toward independence. Toledano's essay thus serves as a useful corrective to the downplaying of Ottoman influence on the course of Arab history from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. It also underscores the adaptability, effectiveness and resiliency of the Ottoman imperial system - a phenomenon distorted by simplistic notions of an unmitigated "Ottoman decline" from the 1700s onward.
Chapter Six, by Ilan Pappe, concentrates on the history of a leading Jerusalem-based Palestinian family, the Husaynis, from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. Pappe highlights the ability of that family to adapt to the momentous socioeconomic and political developments taking place in Palestine and in the Ottoman Empire from the late 1800s through the early 1920s. Hourani had concluded that in most cases the "politics of notables" was unable to survive the onset of the Tanzimat and the centralizing and modernizing reforms of a new generation of rulers in Istanbul. This, Pappe shows, did not apply to the Husaynis and to Jerusalem, where a unique combination of international and economic circumstances allowed the politics of notables to remain intact until the outbreak of World War I. The author analyzes the factors that account for the resilience of the Husaynis' power, and the strategies and tactics used by that family to adjust to rapidly changing conditions. But he also shows that this very type of political maneuvering proved ineffectual in the 1920s, when the family confronted the formidable challenges posed by Zionism and British power. It was then that the politics of notables proved antiquated and inadequate.
A short and insightful chapter by Moshe Ma'oz concludes the volume by tracing the evolution of the notion of political community in Syria from late Ottoman times through the 1970s. In that essay, Ma'oz displays the very quality for which Hourani is perhaps best remembered: the capacity to provide panoramic views without being superficial in treatment. More specifically, Ma'oz shows how the slow emergence of a sense of Syrian national identity was shaped by both structural-historical factors and intellectual developments. In so doing, he weaves together Hourani's two main fields of interest the history of ideas and the analysis of broad processes of socioeconomic and political change. He also highlights, as Hourani was prone to do, the interrelationships between societal and intellectual trends.
Overall, historians of the modem era should find much to like in this volume. Still, the book would have benefited from more careful editing, in particular, tightening and trimming three of the over-long essays. In spite of these minor flaws, Middle Eastern Politics and Ideas makes a useful contribution to the field and is a fitting tribute to Albert Hourani's long and distinguished career.