God is in the details even of secular history

Some controversies cannot simply be explained in terms of the human lust for power, fame and riches


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The original French title of this book promises une histoire laïque of the Middle East. The publishers of the English translation have opted for the more neutral-sounding “a political history” — “laïcité having rather less cultural cachet in the Anglophone world than in France. Nonetheless, Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sciences Po, begins by declaring that he has adopted a “secular approach” to the subject.

The history of the Middle East, he seems to mean by this, ought not to be seen in terms of the ways in which Muslims, Christians and Jews have interpreted and lived out the teachings of their respective faiths. Instead we should understand it as the product of secular factors, such as political ambition, the competition for resources, and tribalism. Filiu attempts to capture this view by beginning his history with the foundation of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 4th century, rather than the year zero of the Christian or Islamic calendars.

The Middle East: A Political History from 395 to the Present, Jean-Pierre Filiu (trans. Andrew Brown) (Polity, £30)

Whilst the primacy of worldly factors is its starting point, the actual story told is suffused with religion. It ultimately highlights the impossibility of a thoroughly “secular history” of the Middle East. For example, Filiu laments that Middle Eastern history has been “undermined” by a focus on “theological controversies”, yet such controversies — the Christological debates of the early Church, the Mihna (Inquisition) over the status of the Qur’an prosecuted by the Abbasid caliphs between 833 and 848, and the schisms between Sunnis and Shi’a and the Eastern and Western Churches — feature prominently. These were above all about the definition of theological truth. They cannot simply be explained in terms of the human lust for power, fame and riches.

Similarly, in analysing the rise and fall of regional powers, Filiu draws on the 14th century philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun. He highlights a “triptych” of concepts as central to the Khaldunian interpretation of history: “group feeling” (’asabiyya), religious “preaching” (da’wa) and “power” (mulk). In so doing, he implicitly acknowledges the importance of religion within the political history of the region.

Filiu’s case for a secular reading would be stronger if built on firmer foundations. His account of classical Islamic topics in particular is often questionable. The nature of the early caliphate (wrongly presented as a purely secular institution); the teachings of the four Sunni schools of law; the origins of Sufi mysticism; the Greco-Arabic translation movement; the rise of Isma’ili Shi’ism; and the thought of figures such as Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and Ibn Taymiyya (as well as the Jewish philosopher Maimonides) are all presented in ways that specialists would find problematic.

For instance, most scholars of Islamic philosophy now reject the idea that the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad was a centre for the translation of Greek philosophical texts into Arabic. As Dimitri Gutas has argued, it was more likely an Abbasid administrative bureau or library, with no connection to the translation movement. That was centred on several different schools of translators, including those directed by the philosopher al-Kindi and the famous translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq.

Similarly, it does not fit with the now well established scholarly view to claim that the madrasa system, inaugurated in the 11th century, propagated a “combative” Sunni dogma that drew on the “severe” al-Ghazali’s critique of philosophy. Al-Ghazali, whose The Incoherence of the Philosophers was a philosophical critique of al-Farabi and Avicenna, was a proponent of Aristotelian logic who accepted aspects of Avicennian cosmology. His critique actually helped integrate philosophical thinking into mainstream Islamic theology.

Muslim philosophers viewed philosophy as an inherently religious activity

The history of Islamic philosophy also serves as a good example of the religious character of many apparently secular phenomena. The Abbasids sponsored the translation movement partly under the influence of the Sasanians’ Zoroastrian imperial ideology, partly as an assertion of their role as ultimate arbiters of true Islam, and partly as propaganda against the Byzantines. Their purported hostility to the rational sciences was contrasted with the rationality of Islam. The Muslim philosophers viewed philosophy as an inherently religious activity that enabled them to explain rationally the allegories of scripture, culminating in knowledge of “divine things” and the imitation of God.

However, there remains much to admire in the book, not least the author’s attempt to view modern Middle Eastern history against the backdrop of the premodern period, his incorporation of Byzantine and Sasanian history into the history of the region and attention to Jewish and Christian topics, and his alertness to the dangers of presentism.

Particularly compelling, as an example of the latter, is the account of how the interpretation of Francis of Assisi’s encounter with the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil in 1219 changed over time to reflect prevalent fashions. Francis was variously portrayed in Western literature (Arabic sources do not mention the incident) as a preacher to the “barbarians”, a religious fanatic and a paradigm of religious tolerance.

The book really comes into its own in the later chapters covering the modern period. In describing the rise of key ideological trends — the Nahda, nationalism, Islamism — in the 19th and 20th centuries, Filiu gives due weight both to Western influence and interference, and the agency and aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East.

He draws illuminating comparisons, for instance, between the “modernisation without Westernisation” pursued in the Ottoman Empire under ’Abdul Hamid and in Meiji Japan, whilst noting parallels between historical and contemporary events such as the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century. He includes more recent American interventions in the Middle East without pressing these too far. Filiu also writes powerfully of the “hijacking” of newly-independent Arab states by military regimes in the late 20th century, emphasising the need for a political settlement for the Middle East that “will finally be based on the aspirations of its peoples”.

Filiu is right, too, that today’s conflicts in the region cannot simply be explained in terms of “ancient hatreds”. As recent books by Fanar Haddad and Azmi Bishara have argued, “sectarianism” in this sense is an inadequate concept for interpreting the political faultlines of the modern Middle East.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that an adequate history of the Middle East can be written without acknowledging the centrality of religion. To pretend otherwise is to project onto the past the values of our own more secular age.

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