Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires (2019)

A few pages into his history, Tim Mackintosh-Smith observes that the Qur’an credits Arabs with two fundamental features, a particularly eloquent form of a high language and turbulence among those who speak it. He then zips back to the earliest known times and proceeds to follow the history of Arabs to the present day. It emerges from his narrative that their rich language has indeed always been towards the centre of their life (Mackintosh-Smith is clearly a formidable linguist and writes intriguingly about language), and that dysfunctional aspects of contemporary Arab political life (a resident of Yemen, he frequently adverts to his experiences in that war-torn country) are a prolongation of millennia-old ways.

Such emphases raise the question of where Islam fits within Arab history. Clearly it has recently become more significant, and Mackintosh-Smith reports fascinating data showing it becoming a more important marker of identity than being Arab in contemporary society. But Islam burst on the scene halfway through the known history of Arabs, which has flowed on around it, the themes that were prominent before Muhammad continuing unabated after his preaching. The unity of Arabs under a caliphate early in the Islamic period, nostalgically regarded by many Muslims as the way things should be and perhaps will be again one day, emerges as something fleeting and exceptional. Even the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, generally interpreted in religious terms, is seen as a family dispute. One of the merits of Mackintosh-Smith’s study is that it recentres Arab history away from Islam, an element that recent events may encourage us to overemphasise.

Along the way we are offered many thought-provoking asides. The massive military expansion of Arabs shortly after the time of Muhammad was enabled by a lethal combination of camels and horses that were used for different purposes. It cannot be accidental that the two languages that are expressed in the world’s most beautiful calligraphy, Arabic and Chinese, are those that were traditionally written on paper. The difficulty of expressing Arabic script in moveable type had negative consequences in the centuries when the world moved towards a culture based on print. That recent Arab nationalism has been expressed in a classical, pre-Islamic register of the language has been fortunate for Christian Arabs, but scarcely helpful in gaining their movement mass support. Mackintosh-Smith’s broad gaze across the millennia allows him to make any number of dizzying observations. We learn that the construction of a railway from Damascus to Medina early in the twentieth century was the first improvement in Arabian overland travel since the Queen of Sheba, while the American intervention in Kuwait in 1991 constituted the largest superpower involvement in the region since the days of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia.

But it is issues of general interpretation that linger in the mind. As its title foreshadows, the book persistently speaks of ‘Arabs’, not ‘the Arabs’, a convention I have tried to adhere to in these comments. Dismissal of the definite article in such cases can be liberating; attributing the sack of Rome in 410 to ‘Goths’ is surely better than assigning it to ‘the Goths’. Similarly, Mackintosh-Smith’s practice allows him to avoid giving the impression that a whole people was doing something when only an element was involved, but it goes beyond this. His book makes the point that we are dealing with people who, from early times, can be seen as belonging to one of two groups, being either settled or Bedouin, that were concentrated in different parts of what he nicely refers to as the Arabian subcontinent and pulled in very different directions. This remains the case in contemporary Yemen.

We are confronted with a stunning book that compels a rethinking of a major component of world history. To close with one quibble. The use of endnotes rather than footnotes is almost universal now, but the failure of this book to indicate to which page of the text a note applies makes them very hard to use. It would have been easy to have dealt with this while the book was in production.

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