The peculiar Middle Eastern sense of history

All the 7th century events are very vivid in the minds of the Middle Easterners, something inconceivable in the Westerners minds. Noteworthy, the Battle of Al-Qadisiyya (637 CE), constantly cited by both sides of the Iran-Iraq in the 1980’s  

For a westerner, talking about a dynasty from the 7th century might sound absurd and outdated. In the western world, in our day and age, if we mention something from 300 years ago, we’re talking about “ancient history”. However, in the East, especially in the Middle East, the sense of history and its current relevancy is acutely diverse. The very sense of time lapse related to history is different.

According to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a man (and therefore a whole nation or people) can see, experience and use history in three distinct ways. If a man who wants to create greatness uses the past, he seizes upon it for himself by means of monumental history; in contrast, one who is habituated by tradition and custom insists on cultivating the past as an antiquarian historian; and only one whose breast is oppressed by a present need and who wants to cast off his load at any price has a need for critical history, i.e., history which tries and passes judgment.

Several scholars agree that, by Nietzsche’s definition, the Arab people are totally oriented by what he calls “antiquarian history”.

That fact is broadly known in the academic circles but unknown for the general public. One of the world’s leading experts in the Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis FBA, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, speaks frequently about the matter in his books and lectures.

Even the concepts of history and identity require a redefinition for the Westerner trying to understand the contemporary Middle East.
In current American usage, the phrase ‘that’s history’ is commonly used to dismiss something unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns, and despite an immense investment in the teaching and writing of history, the general level of historical knowledge in our society is abysmally low. The Muslim peoples [and all the Arabs], like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but unlike some others, they’re keenly aware of it. Their awareness dates however from the advent of Islam, with perhaps some minimum references to Pre-Islamic times, necessary to explain historical allusions in the Qur’an and in the early Islamic traditions and chronicles.” (“The crisis of Islam – Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xviii-xix)

From that citation, we can easily conclude, that what happened in the sixth and seventh centuries, keep being amazingly ‘fresh’ for the Arabs all over the Middle East. Everything from that period is very current and relevant.
All the 7th century events are very vivid in the minds of the Middle Easterners. Like the Battle of Al-Qadisiyya (637 A.D.) was constantly cited by both sides of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.

References to early, even to ancient history are common-place in public discourse. In the 1980’s, during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, both sides waged massive propaganda campaigns that frequently evoked events and personalities dating back as far as the seventh century, to the battles of Qadisiyya (637 C.E.) and Karbala (680 C.E.).” (“The crisis of Islam – Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xxiii)

A very good proof of that is the adoption of the Sharia (Islamic) Law, shaped and used in those times and today with the very same importance and usage.

Islamic history, for Muslims, has an important religious and also legal significance, since it reflects the work of God’s purpose for His community – those that accept the teachings of Islam and obey its law.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xviii-xix)

Outside the few developed metropolis, the great majority of the Arab people still live in the very same way as, at least, a thousand years ago.

Rather than living in the present with their eyes turned toward the future, the Arabs lived in an illusory museum of petrified images of their past, a past that, in their presumption of its immortality, was in actuality absurd.” (“Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930”, Israel Gershoni, James P. Jankowski, 1987, p.108)

The Arab sense of history, they [Egyptian intellectuals] claimed, did not see its purpose as one of advancing the present through an understanding of the past. Rather, it tended to embalm and mummify the present in the image of the past. Rather than harnessing and using the past for the sake of the present, the Arab approach buried the present in the sarcophagus of the past.” (Ibid.,p.109)

For the Arabs, the study of the past was not a means of creating a better present and future; instead the present and future were perceived merely as an extension and continuation of the past.” (Ibid.)

The very same cultural and social behavior as well the code of etiquette and manners. Also, the usage of outfits both ethnic and religious had changed very little from those centuries.

Even in the 21st century, Arab outfits are almost the very same as the ones in the 7th century

It was in modern Psychology that [Arab scholar Salama] Musa found the explanation for the inner drive behind the anti-historical, petrified Arab sense of history. In his view, the Arabs were attempting to ‘flee’ their dismal present through their addiction to the presumably more perfectly era of salaf [forefathers]. The constantly changing realities of the modern world which the Arab personality by its very nature was not adapted to, was replaced by the ‘fortified shelter’ of a more glorious and more perfect past.” (Ibid.)

Noteworthy, the Muslim rulers of today claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammad (i.e. Hashemite Family of Jordan and Alaouite Family of Morocco). Hence, the sense of what could be called in the West of “Ancient Genealogy” is not considerate as such by the Arabs.

“Caliph ‘Umar [6th and 7th Centuries] is quoted saying to the Arabs, “Learn your genealogies, and do not be like the local peasants who, when they are asked who they are, reply: I am from ‘such-and-such place.’” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xxi)

Also is worthy to mention, that Arabs have no sense of country as a nation as we have in the West.

“…because Arabs simply did not think in terms of combined ethnic and territorial identity.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xxi)

So, in other words, until very recently, in the Arabs’ minds there was only one great nation, the Islamic nation. By implication, all the Arabs, should be Muslims. That’s perfectly understandable because the countries we see today in the Middle East are simply recent European creations and its frontiers drawn mostly by British and French bureaucrats. There’s no historical legitimacy, fact that it’s constantly debated in today’s societies in the region.

We can also understand that, regardless of all the time that had passed, all the different dynasties that ruled the region, it’s common (and legal) understanding that the land was inhabited and ruled before by non-Muslims and it was taken away from them by the religious authority invested in the Muslims by God. The Muslims have been dwelling and ruling the land ever since.

In the early centuries of the Muslim era, the Islamic community was one state under one ruler. Even after that community split up into many states, the ideal of a simple Islamic polity persisted.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xxi)

All the other detail and minutiae, historically and legally regarded as important by Westerners are simply not valid in the eyes of Muslim Arabs, especially any claim that non-Muslims may had or have

“The Arab’s sense of history is not stretched out on a time line; rather, it is focused on the occurrence of clusters of important events.” (Saudi Arabia: a kingdom in transition, Abdulaziz I. Al-Sweel/Saudi Arabia – Mulḥaqīyah al-Thaqāfīyah/U.S., 1993, p. 87)


“The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 of the Muslim era, corresponding to 641 C.E., the Caliph ‘Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia, in fulfillment of an injunction of the Prophet uttered on his deathbed: “Let there not be two religions in Arabia.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xxix)

The consequences of that can be seen and felt even today.

The expulsion was in due course completed, and from then until now the Holy Land of the Hijaz has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims. According to the school of Islamic jurisprudence accepted by the Saudi state and by Usama bin Ladin [Osama Bin Laden] and his followers, for a non-Muslim even to set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense. In the rest of the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], non-Muslims, while admitted as temporary visitors, were not permitted to establish residence or practice their religions. The Red Sea port of Jedda for long served as a kind of religious quarantine area, in which foreign diplomatic, consular, and commercial representatives were allowed to live on a strictly temporary basis.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003,

“Their presence [foreigners non-Muslims, especially Americans], still seen by many as a desecration, may help to explain the growing mood of resentment.” (Ibid.)

Once more, capital evidence that there’s no difference for Arabs regarding the lapse of time in history; a fourteen centuries old decree, is still in force today.

Another good example of that is the whole legacy of the Christian Arabs. Even the term is new. May be one of the reasons that Christian-Arabs never had a voice is because they were never seen by the Muslims as such, but as “Greeks” or “Romans” or by the famous pejorative “infidels” or “unbelievers”. You either have Christians (regardless of ethnicity) or Arabs, in their minds by implication; an Arab is a synonym of a Muslim. Everything belonging to the Christian Arabs was outlawed.

The history of non-Muslim states and peoples conveys no such message and is therefore without value or interest. Even in countries of ancient civilization like those of the Middle East, the knowledge of pagan [in this case, non-Muslim] history – of their own ancestors, whose monuments and inscriptions lay around them – was minimal. The ancient languages and scripts were forgotten, the ancient records buried, until they were recovered and deciphered in modern times by inquisitive Western archeologists and philologists.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.xix)

In Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), in which Muslim governments rule and Muslim law prevails; and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels. The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule. Those who fight in the jihad qualify for rewards in both worlds – booty in this one, paradise in the next.” (“The crisis of Islam– Holy war and unholy terror”, Bernard Lewis, 2003, p.31-32)


[according to] Arthur Jeffrey (1942):
The classical works on jurisprudence define it [jihad] quite badly as ‘the religious duty of spreading Islam by force of arms’ and lay down five propositions concerning it:
* It is a duty because such war was ordered by the Prophet
* It must continue until the whole world is under the domination of Islam
* The sovereign must be at the head of it and direct it – not some upstart, self-appointed leader 
* The offer of Islam or Dhimmi status [second class citizenship for non-Muslims] must be made before the attack is launched
* Any Muslim who dies fighting on Jihad is a “shahid” (martyr) and as such is assured of Paradise will have particular privileges.” (“The Legacy of Jihad – Islamic Holy War and the Fate of non-Muslims”, Andrew G. Boston, MD, 2008, p. 95)

We also have to understand that, although there were some times of relative peace between Muslims and Christians, the latter were never considered to be equals by Islamic rulers. Even in times of truce and when collaboration flourished between both religions, the Christians were always considered second class citizens and although their religious practice could be relatively free, they always had to pay the tax (Jiyza) and even the absurd of paying differentiated prices in goods and services. There was a lowest price for Muslims, an intermediary for Jews and the higher price for Christians.

The renowned Ottomanist Roderick Davison has observed that under the Shari’a (Islamic Holy Law) the ‘infidel gavours [‘dhimmis’, ‘rayas’]’ were permanently relegated to a status of ‘inferiority’ and subjected to a ‘contemptuous half-toleration”. Davison further maintain that this contempt emanated from ‘an innate attitude of superiority’, and was driven by an ‘innate Muslim feeling’.” (“The Legacy of Jihad – Islamic Holy War and the Fate of non-Muslims”, Andrew G. Boston, MD, 2008, p.521)

There are Sharia Law Courts today all over the Middle East and even other non-Muslim countries. The rule of law is based upon the 7th century jurisprudence 

By all the above, it’s also easy to conclude that in the Arabs minds, there are only two historical periods: before Islam and after Islam. For Christians, the division of history in “before Christ” and “after Christ” is symbolic and subdivided in hundreds of other periods. And although Christians try to follow or even imitate Jesus, He stands in “ancient history” and albeit many religious leaders try to bring His teachings to our times it’s imprinted in Christian’s minds the words “at that time” as it was something holy but far away from our reality.

There’s a theological reason for that. Christians believe that the Bible was “inspired” by God. Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God “ipsis literis, ipsis verbis” i.e. word by word, dictated to the Prophet Mohammad, therefore, it’s immutable.

For the West, the separation of church and State is a reality. For Arabs, it’s a sacrilege. Islam was conceived to be a political regime, not only a code of spiritual beliefs as Christianity or other religions. For Muslims, there’s no other identity but the Muslim. Everything else is secondary, even the modern phenomena called nationalism.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, with the Pan-Arabism movement, a secular alternative was tried and with that a considerable degree of modernization for the Middle East. However, with the advent of the Six-day war of 1967 and the Arab coalition’s defeat against Israel, the modernization was seen as a sacrilege and almost completely abandoned creating even a setback with more severe and radical religious allusions reinforcing the hatred against the West. It was clear at the time that, any tentative of abandoning the ‘old ways’ wouldn’t work and the real solace and source of so many past glories should come back to power. That just reinforced the sense of “antiquarian history” of the Arabs.

In conclusion, the Arab sense of time related to history, because of Islamic influence, is completely different from the Western. All the events of the 7th century are very alive for the Arabs as the WWII events are for the West. If for westerners, 300 years is a lot of time, for Arabs is just “yesterday”.

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