In praise of Hitti

When young, Ibrahim, a descendant of a noble Persian family, was kidnapped outside al-Mawsil and during his detention learned some of the brigands’ songs. He was the first to beat the rhythm with a wand and could detect one girl among thirty lute-players and ask her to tighten the second string of her ill-tuned instrument. Later, al-Rashid took Ibrahim into his service as boon companion, bestowed on him 150,000 dirhams and assigned him a monthly salary of 10,000 dirhams. From his patron the artist received occasional presents, one of which is said to have amounted to 100,000 dirhams for a single song. Ibrahim had an inferior rival in ibn-Jami`, a Qurayshite and stepson of Siyat. In the judgement of the `Iqd “Ibrahim was the greatest of the musicians in versatility but ibn-Jami` had the sweetest note”. When a favored court minstrel was asked by Harun for his opinion of ibn-Jami`, his reply was: “How can I describe honey, which is sweet however you taste it?”

Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. (Revised 10th Ed.), New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Pg. 424-5 (2002).

Of all the histories of the Arabs I have seen, Hitti’s is the best. When compared with Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, History of the Arabs is more meticulous, detailed, and complete. Hitti carries a pep in his pen that one does not find in Hourani’s. Stylistically speaking, A History of the Arab Peoples is dry and less readable than Hitti’s mammoth magnum opus. Hourani’s work was written as an updated version of History of the Arabs, but it does not match up. Hitti regards the Ottoman period as one of decline for the Arabic-speaking lands, where Hourani somewhat disagrees, and makes a decent case in the other direction. Insofar as Hourani removed the very much early twentieth century biases that infected Hitti’s book — especially those which lend themselves to ahistorical dismissals and descriptions of Ethiopian civilization, for instance (which were seen in many contemporary writings). Hourani’s history does away with the negative aspects of Hitti’s, and adds decades of history that took place after History of the Arabs was published and new insights and perspectives to the remainder. However, the work is not a replacement, merely a modern substitute for a work that only runs through to the bare end of the colonial period in most countries’ history. A History of the Arab Peoples moves quickly, to suit recent conventions on brevity (hard believe given the book’s large size). Its emphasis is away from the minutia of Arab history, focusing on a more panoramic image, to a degree simplified for a wider audience, an effort for which it deserves some praise.

Hitti offers a holistic lesson in the Arabs’ history up through his own time. Hitti’s description of the various heterodox Islamic communities, the varied Christian sects, and his thus far unsurpassed accounts of ancient Syria and Arabia make History of the Arabs far more worthwhile to read through in its entirety (as far as general histories of the Arab world are concerned). Students whose professors use Hourani’s work as the primary text (or at least without supplementing more modern texts with Hitti’s account) when studying the region miss a chance to very clearly ascertain what the differences, similarities, and origins are when it comes to not just Sunnis and Shias, but Ismailis and Alawites, and others as well. They miss vivid and illustrative descriptions of Sufism and its place in Islamic history, and wondrous descriptions of the practice of Arabo-Islamic culture, music and art. Parts of history to which Hourani devotes mere pages or paragraphs — often with good reason but at other times without — have whole, fascinating chapters in Hitti’s monstrous tome. One cannot find details like those quoted above in Hourani’s book — to the extent that they are, they are scanty and dryly stated. Both are fine works, representing some of the greatest works written on the Arab world in English, but they are not equals.

6 thoughts on “In praise of Hitti

  1. I like these posts. More please.

    Also, I agree: lots of old Orientalist works strike me as very readable still. The writing and style is, as you say, often far superior to the almost mechanical-sounding stuff you’ll find in much political science today, or the dreary American newspaper prose that has infected the think tank PDF produce. As long as you’re aware of the obvious limitations and other marks of the time, a good book will likely remain good book for a hundred years.

    For example, a few years ago I bought a recent English translation of Ignaz Goldziher’s Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. I don’t know offhand how old it is (turn-of-the-last-century, something), and I can’t recall much of it right now — but I clearly remember how much I loved reading it. Excellent, very stimulating, but mostly forgotten.

  2. A coherent laud of a well deserving and under appreciated scholar. You are quite well read in the history of the Arabs. I am curious to see what Hitti has to say about Arab presence in Iberia. Nice work Nouri!

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