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The Splendid Tapestry of Arab Life : A HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES, By Albert Hourani (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 532 pp.)

February 17, 1991|Edward W. Said | Said is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His new book, "Musical Elaborations," will be published by Columbia this spring

There is something deeply reassuring and even redemptive about this very fine book, which appears just when the United States is attempting in effect to destroy Iraq as a modern Arab nation. Its author, Albert Hourani, is now 75, retired and living in London after a lifetime teaching at Oxford.

Born in Manchester and educated as an Englishman, he is the son of prosperous Lebanese Protestant parents who came to England early in the century, but never lost contact with the Middle East, its peoples and cultures. It would not be inaccurate to say that Hourani is today's leading historian of the modern Middle East, a scholar whose earlier books on Syria and Lebanon and on "Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age" (an intellectual history of great insight and craftsmanship) are classics, mined by both scholars and general readers for their scope and their fastidiously refined attention to the fabric of Arab life. In a generously conceived set of essays published over the past several decades, Hourani's sympathy and keen historical sense also have presented to Western and Arab readers a complex structure of innumerable connections: between Arabs and Europeans, Arabs and other Arabs, rulers and ruled, thinkers and their societies.

Now, in what is undoubtedly a masterly summation, the whole story of the Arab peoples is laid out before us by Hourani. There are no other books like it, except--interestingly enough--the similarly grand studies done a generation ago by another Lebanese-Western scholar, Philip Hitti.

Hourani has the advantage over Hitti both in greater amounts of contemporary scholarship to make use of and in relatively up-to-date methods. Hourani's guiding ideas, however, are resoundingly classical, drawn from the life and works of Ibn Khaldun, the extraordinary 14th-Century Arab historian and philosopher. Put simply, Ibn Khaldun's argument in the "Muqaddimah" is that there are variety and unity, stability and fluctuation, shifts in power and permanent realities that have organized the Arab world for about a millennium-and-a-half. These are specific to the cohesion of Arab society, whose inner laws Hourani summarizes in a fine passage near the opening:

"A world where a family from southern Arabia could move to Spain, and after six centuries return nearer to its place of origin and still find itself in familiar surroundings, had a unity which transcended divisions of time and space; the Arabic language could open the door to office and influence throughout that world; a body of knowledge, transmitted over the centuries by a known chain of teachers, preserved a moral community even when rulers changed; places of pilgrimage, Mecca and Jerusalem, were unchanging poles of the human world even if power shifted from one city to another; and belief in a God who created and sustained the world could give meaning to the blows of fate."

The story of the Arab peoples therefore begins with late antiquity as an Arab ethos slowly emerges, based upon the developing splendors of a rich language, a generally pastoral life interspersed with trade and travel, the inherited tradition of Rome, Greece, Judaism and early Christianity. Hourani's naturally synthesizing style next shows how Islam, as energized and articulated in 7th-Century Arabia by the Prophet Muhammad, flung forth an astonishing new civilization; in a matter of decades, it extended all the way to Morocco and Spain.

In describing the diverse peoples, dynasties and styles included in this vast enterprise, Hourani achieves a level of unruffled generalization that is never reductive; conversely, however, he is rarely dramatic or passionate, leaving the reader often wishing for a glimpsed personality, a vignette, a narrative that might somehow deliver the urgency of lived life and compelling advocacy. This lack is especially felt during Hourani's description of Abbasid civilization (749-1258), whose seat in Baghdad brought forth one of the greatest flowerings in the Arab enterprise. Given the present American assault on Baghdad, and the fact that the city last was destroyed by Mongols in 1258, one's sense of outraged grief is only partly attenuated by Hourani's quiet pages.

For he is at his best when he considers not the dramatic bursts but the abiding features and long trends of Arab life and thought as carried forward by the maintainers and sustainers of human community, and not principally by its challengers or rebels. Surely there are no finer pages than his on Sufis such as Ibn Arabi or metaphysicians such as al-Ghazali.

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