A fun Hitti quote:

No people in the early Middle Ages contributed to human progress so much as did the Arabs, a term which in our usage would comprise all Arabic-speaking peoples, including the Arabians, that is, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula. Arab scholars were studying Aristotle when Charlemagne and his lords were reportedly learning to write their names. Scientists in Cordova, with their seventeen great libraries, one alone which included more than 400,000 volumes, enjoyed luxurious baths at a time when washing the body was considered a dangerous custom at the University of Oxford.

Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 1943, Princeton University Press, pg. 5.

Philip Hitti (1886-1970) is considered one of the fathers of Near and Middle Eastern Studies (especially Arab Studies) in the United States. He was the first head of Semitic literature at Princeton University, and built the Near Eastern Studies program there, modernizing and refashioning it for the modern day.

[W]e started—my dear sir, you won’t believe me—we started in the tower of the old library building. They gave me a desk and a chair in the stacks. Pages and readers were coming and going, picking up books, and I would be holding my classes. My work seemed very peripheral.

[ . . . ]

Twenty years, from 1926 to 1946. It took me that long to establish a department of Near Eastern studies with emphasis on Arabic and Islam. Twenty years, and do you know what pulled the thing off? The Second World War.

I felt there was a need for Islamic studies in American education and I worked to make a place for them. But I was a voice in the desert. No one would listen. I had difficulties. First the university. “Where do we get the money? A university has no money for that kind of thing.” Then I would go to the State Department and tell them “You will need people trained in Islam.” They send you from one man to another. You get nowhere.

“Teach Arabic? Why should we teach Arabic? Harvard doesn’t teach Arabic. Yale doesn’t. Why should we?” “Because,” I said, “there are 500 million Muslims and 100 million speak Arabic. We have to deal with them and understand them.”

My dad actually knew Hitti as a student (in the 1960’s). He said that one day during a meeting with students, Hitti explained the difficulty of setting up the Near Eastern Studies program; “They were all archaeologists, and wanted to keep on teaching Akkadian and Hebrew. They didn’t think they needed Arabic. I told them, ‘people live there now! You have to understand them now!'” He was obviously right. In the interview from which the above paragraphs are quoted, Hitti stated the following:

My dream has been that every university or every college that want its students trained for the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century have on its faculty at least one man who can give the students a little sample, an hors-d’oeuvre as it were, an introduction to the Middle East. This professor need not be an orientalist. He may be a historian, he may be a political scientist, he may be an economist, he may be a linguist. He’ll be in the department where he has a specialty. He’ll have his citizenship there.

I think his dream might be coming true…


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