The Times of History: Universal Topics in Islamic Historiography

By Aziz Al-Azmeh | Go to book overview

applying its critical principles to a specific body of writing on, in, and about the various societies, religions, and cultures that comprise the world of Arabic culture and that congeries of religious ideas referred to as “Islam.”

A principal target of Al-Azmeh's critical reflection is culturalism, product of a tendency especially in ideologically motivated political discourse to gather up everything of a given historical configuration (he calls it a “mass” of historical phenomena) into a comprehensive totality conceived as manifesting an identifiable “essence” or substance—something like the Hegelian “Geist”—which at once determines the history of this mass and explains everything about it in terms of cycles of fulfilment and/or degeneration caused by “corruption” from within or “pollution” from without. Thus, both popular and scientific research into the history of the Middle East can speak of an “Arab world” in which all of the various social, political, economic, and cultural differences that appear therein are melded into a single ideologically defined entity. Or we hear of an “Islam” or a “Muslim civilization” produced by a particular “sectarian” version of this complex of religious traditions, stretching from North Africa across India to Indonesia and beyond, and creating a stereotype which can justify any number of hostile (xenophobic) and/or sympathetic (xenophilic) responses to any of its manifestations anywhere. Al-Azmeh insists that this historical “mass” should not be gathered under a single name (“Islam”) and treated as a cultural unum. He holds that a properly “historical” approach to this complex entity can liberate both Westerners and Middle Easterners of the myths that have been fostered by Muslim thinkers themselves and swallowed whole by Western scholars. No simple “historist” pietism will be adequate to this task. It requires a genuinely modern and rigorously scientific historiography to accomplish it.

In this respect, Al-Azmeh's book may be seen as a major contribution to the project popularized by the late Edward Said, which was nothing less than an effort to explode the myth of “Orientalism.” But Al-Azmeh's work is much more than a continuation or extension of Said's project. And this because: Said, for all his learning, insight and passion, did not have the scholarly gear to dismantle this Orientalism which he had correctly identified as the product of an effort to provide ideological justification for the West's “molestation” of a quarter of the world's population. Said's was a literary sensibility. He did not know the history of the portion of the globe whose cause he tirelessly publicized in the Western media. Said was outraged at the Western misrepresentation of the Arab world, and he acutely criticized the scholarly,

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