Book Review: Tim Mackintosh-Smith – Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

Tim Mackintosh-Smith – Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

A very good survey history written by an Oxford-educated Brit who has lived in Yemen for much of his adult life. This book is especially interesting when read with Azar Gat’s thesis on nationalism in mind. Gat is worth summarizing to better understand Mackintosh-Smith. Gat views nationalism as both ancient and based on ethnicity. Ethnicity, for Gat, is broader than race or genetics, though it includes both of those things. Ethnicities share, in varying degrees, things like language, culture, religion, dress, dietary customs, and more. The list is long, and it can vary, though language is often the most important. The common thread is that taken together, these cultural markers are strong enough to band people together in an in-group that is easy to distinguish from out-groups.

Ethnicities are similar to the small tribal groups our species has lived in for nearly its entire 200,000-year span, just larger in scale. Nation-states, which are historically a very recent concept—just a few centuries old in most of the world—are an additional step up in scale. They are simply one more way for our evolutionarily-ingrained sense of ethnicity to express itself. A lot of today’s nationalism-related troubles are due to square political pegs not fitting into round cultural or in-group holes, which are always moving around and changing shape anyway.

With Gat’s framework in mind, Mackintosh-Smith’s affectionately argued thesis in this book suddenly makes a lot of sense. To Mackintosh-Smith, Arabs are simultaneously among the world’s most unified and its most fractious peoples. They have the Arabic language in common—Gat’s most important unifying ingredient. People in Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Tajikistan, and as far East as Pakistan can all speak to each other in Arabic and have little trouble understanding each other. But High Arabic is also a bit like Latin was in post-Roman Europe: a formal, stilted lingua franca. Many Arabs speak a different local language at home and in everyday life. So Arabs are at the same time united by language, and not.

Arabs also have Islam in common. But the Sunni-Shia split still has echoes today, and sets Shi’ite Iran apart from most other Arab Islamic countries. Just as Christianity has its million and one different flavors of Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and Orthodoxy, Islam has its different flavors of Sufism, Wahabbism, and on down the line, each with ancient, modern, moderate, and radical versions. So Arabs are at the same time united by Islam, and not.

One thing most Arabs have in common is a nomadic heritage. This has made imposing the new convention of national boundaries very difficult, if not impossible. Not only do some people still move across the new boundaries with some mixture of indifference and impunity, the very notion of national boundaries is a very new concept in Arabs’ 3,000-year history. So Arabs are at the same time united by their nomadic history, and divided by it.

Also in the mix is a cultural divide between the few remaining nomads and the now-majority city dwellers, and there is another ingredient in the unified-but-not mix.

Mackintosh-Smith, though likely unfamiliar with Gat’s work on nationalism, is aware of all those competing dynamics. At each stage of his chronological narrative, most of those facets of Arabic life are there, from the establishment of settled agriculture to pre-Islamic empires, to Muhammad himself and the Ummayad caliphate, its succeeding Abbasid caliphate, its eventual displacement by the Ottomans, and on to today’s independent states, unity and discord are always there in tension with each other. It is a fascinating story.

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