Posts Tagged Arab nationalism

Empire versus nationalism

I summarize four additional sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (the Arabs and Turkey) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions nine through twelve. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I round out each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.

Class Nine: How the Middle East Map Was Drawn. Up to the First World War, one could go from the European side of the Bosphorus to the shores of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea without crossing a border. Upon the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, victorious Britain and France drew new borders through the vast expanse of Western Asia, cutting the great Ottoman carpet into pieces. Exactly how this new map came into being is the subject of the ninth session of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

There’s plenty of drama in the telling: the secret dealings of Sykes and Picot (1916), the parade of delegations at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and the final Anglo-French carve-up of the region into mandates at San Remo (1920). Hovering over all this is a counter-factual: could the post-war have been handled in any other way? Were the “lines in the sand,” separating Iraq from Syria, and Syria from Palestine, inevitable? It’s a question my students often ask, to which I answer: how would you have done it? Would a unitary Arab state have been more durable, less arbitrary? Doubtful.

And as my students are Israeli, I emphasize the impeccable timing of the Zionists—first and foremost, Chaim Weizmann—who managed to do everything right. At a dozen points, the Zionist plan could have been derailed or just sidetracked. Yet time and again, Zionist leaders made perfectly timed moves. The Hashemites didn’t do badly—they came away with Iraq, Transjordan, and the Hijaz—but they’d dreamt of Syria and an Arab empire. The post-war left the Arabs with a burning sense of betrayal that persists to this day.

Bernard Lewis wasn’t a diplomatic historian, and I don’t think that he ever even mentioned Sykes-Picot. But he wrote a marvelous article entitled “The Map of the Middle East” where he explained the origins of the names of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, and so on. Many simply reflected Europe’s deference to Greco-Roman geography. Palestine was a case in point: Greece and Rome named it so in antiquity, Britain and France drew its borders in our time. Today it’s arguable whether it’s the name of a place (only Israel appears on the map), but it’s certainly the name of a cause.

In the nuttier corners of the internet, one finds ominous rumors of a “Bernard Lewis plan,” an MI6 scheme to divide the Middle East once again. It’s a conspiracy theory pure and simple, but it proves one of Lewis’s points: past grievances lend themselves to endless recycling.

Image: the original Sykes-Picot map versus the final distribution of the mandates.

Class Ten: The Surge of Nationalism. The establishment of British and French mandates didn’t go down well with the inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. And once the First World War had ended, the Egyptians, already ruled by Britain for forty years, also demanded independence. Those disappointed by the new order soon rose against it. Egypt broke out in rebellion in 1919, and Iraq and Palestine erupted in 1920 and frequently thereafter. The French drove the Hashemites from Syria in 1920, only to face a large-scale revolt in 1925. I focus on post-war nationalist resentment in session ten of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

Britain and France took their gloves off. “Bomber” Arthur Harris of the RAF planned the suppression of tribal revolts in Iraq. Arab and Kurd “now know what real bombing means,” he wrote: “that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.” As I emphasize to my students, what’s telling about this statement is that Harris didn’t think he was confessing to a war crime: they were different times. (Harris later led the RAF’s strategic bombing of Nazi Germany.) In 1928, Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner in Iraq, wrote that the Hashemite monarchy installed there by Britain enjoyed “no respect,” but rested only on “the fear inspired by British aeroplanes and armored cars.”

In Palestine, some Brits had second thoughts about their commitments under the Balfour Declaration. About 100,000 Jews came and and stayed in the 1920s: enough to alarm the Arabs, but far fewer than the Zionists had imagined. In the 1920s, Arab increase alone exceeded the total size of the Yishuv. Not surprisingly, the Arabs thought they could kill off the whole Zionist enterprise, and the British began to grow erratic in its defense, grumbling at the cost of it all.

Yet despite the turmoil, the 1920s fostered a kind of liberalism. Islamism hadn’t yet come on the scene (the Muslim Brotherhood was founded only in 1928). British (and French) administration inculcated the practices of good government in educated elites.

But it wasn’t nearly as profound as in India. It’s a point made by Bernard Lewis: “British and French rule in many of the Arab lands was indirect, mediated through such devices as the mandate and the protectorate. Nowhere in the Arab world was there anything remotely resembling British rule in India in its extent, depth, duration, and enduring effects.” So to my students, I raise a provocative question: would the Middle East be better off today had colonial rule lasted longer? I leave them to answer it.

Image: Arab nationalist demonstration near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, 1920. Matson Collection at the Library of Congress.

Class Eleven: Imperial Apogee. When I cover the 1930s in my modern Middle East class at Shalem College (session eleven), I begin by pointing over the hill to Government House (known in Hebrew as Armon Hantziv, the “Palace of the High Commissioner”). Planned in the late 1920s, completed in 1933, it served as the seat of British government in Palestine. (There was a “Government House” at just about every outpost of the British empire, from Barbados to Hong Kong, Calcutta to Singapore.)

The massive scale of the Jerusalem complex made a clear statement: the British were in Palestine to stay. No one imagined that only fifteen years after its completion, an exhausted Britain would shut down its empire and leave Palestine in chaos.

The 1930s, we now know, formed the apogee of Western imperialism in the Middle East. The kingmakers, such as T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, were gone. They had been replaced by bureaucratic administrators and “advisers,” whose job was to run the region, as far as possible, from behind a curtain. Egypt and Iraq, in particular, had to appear to be independent. British newsreels doted on the Egyptian and Iraqi royals, as though they were as venerable as the House of Windsor.

And treaties were signed between Britain and Iraq, and Britain and Egypt. They were vastly unequal: the British kept for themselves the Iraqi airbases and the Suez Canal. “The presence of [British] forces shall not constitute in any manner an occupation,” read both treaties, as if this solved the problem. But on that basis, Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, and Egypt did so in 1937. (France concluded a similar treaty with Syria in 1936, but the French parliament failed to ratify it.) Such symbolic devolution couldn’t happen in Palestine, claimed by Jews and Arabs alike. Beginning in 1936, the Arabs passed into open revolt, which the British crushed. The plan to partition the country was floated, then dropped as unworkable.

By 1938, the prospect of a European war began to affect all imperial calculations. I save the implications to a later class on the war. But one became clear quite early: illiberal Arabs began to look at Nazi Germany as a possible liberator.

Bernard Lewis first visited the Middle East in 1938, at the age of 22, to work on his thesis. Very different times: it was too dangerous to visit Jerusalem, but Syria posed no problem. In his memoirs, he recalled that in northern Syria, “the local French political officer heard of my visit, but did not believe that a dissertation on the medieval Isma‘ilis was the reason for my presence. He suspected that I was a British secret agent engaged in nefarious anti-French activities.” At least the French officer let himself be persuaded otherwise.

Image: Government House in Jerusalem as it appeared in 1943. For the last 70 years, it’s been the seat of UNTSO, the UN Truce Supervision Organization, and totally closed to the public. Some in Israel think the UN should be relocated, and I agree. The building should be made into a museum, open to the public.

Class Twelve: The Saudi Exception. There is only one true instance of independent state-building in the Arab Middle East: Saudi Arabia. A century ago, Ibn Saud and his followers barely registered on the meter. But through a combination of grit, ferocity, and savvy, Ibn Saud conquered a kingdom for himself, comprising a huge swath of Arabia. He struck an alliance with Britain at a crucial moment, and opened the door to American oil companies at just the right point in time. Result: Saudi Arabia kept its independence and developed its own traditions of statecraft. It’s the subject of session twelve of my modern Middle East course at Shalem College.

The founder of Saudi Arabia is a subject of passionate attachment or fervent loathing, and I try to give my students a flavor of both. “A man of splendid physique,” wrote the British Arabist Gertrude Bell of Ibn Saud. “He has the characteristics of the well-bred Arab…. with slender fingers, a trait almost universal among the tribes of pure Arab blood.” The British explorer (and convert to Islam) Eldon Rutter called him “the most humane of Arabs.” For the other view, we watch a bit the biopic King of the Sands, which paints Ibn Saud as a treacherous extremist, lecherous predator, and British agent. (It even absurdly accuses him of signing off on the creation of Israel.) The same polarized vision persists to this day, as demonstrated by reactions to poor Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

One of the most amusing exercises in the course is the students’ dramatic reading of a dialogue from Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt (chapter 10 in Theroux’s English translation; this chapter has been translated into Hebrew). The inhabitants of a desert oasis go to a Saudi emir to complain that American oilmen have made themselves too much at home. “From the first day they came to our village,” complains one, “life has been camel piss.” The emir enjoins them to help the Americans, who will make them all rich: “You’ll have money up to your ears.” Not everyone is persuaded. It’s an excellent way to explore modernization and its discontents.

Bernard Lewis didn’t have a lot to say about Saudi Arabia, and he never set foot there. On principle, he’d never lie about his religion on a visa form. In his memoirs, he repeats the story that Saudi King Faisal once welcomed Henry Kissinger to Saudi Arabia “not as a Jew but as a human being,” to which Kissinger is said to have replied: “Your majesty, some of my best friends are human beings.”

Lewis had a habit of drawing an analogy between Wahhabis and the Ku Klux Klan, which can’t have endeared him to the Saudis. “Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas…. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.” I don’t think the analogy was particularly apt, but it still compares favorably to one used by Juan Cole: “Going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country.”

Image: Ibn Saud and the American oilman Floyd Ohliger on the king’s visit to an American oil installation in 1939.

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Ambition, Arabism, and George Antonius

Martin Kramer, “Ambition, Arabism, and George Antonius,” in Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), pp. 111-23.

An earlier version appeared in The Great Powers and the Middle East, 1919-1939, ed. Uriel Dann (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988), pp. 405-16.

The world first learned the history of Arab nationalism from a book published in 1938. The Arab Awakening by George Antonius eventually became the preferred textbook for successive generations of British and American historians and their students. Yet few now would deny that The Arab Awakening, for all the appeal of its narrative style, is more suggestive of a sustained argument than a history.1 “I have tried to discharge my task,” wrote Antonius in the forward to his book, “in a spirit of fairness and objectivity, and, while approaching the subject from an Arab angle, to arrive at my conclusions without bias or partisanship.” But Antonius did not pretend that his work met the highest standards of the historian’s craft. The Arab Awakening he preferred to regard as the “story” of the Arab national movement, “not the final or even a detailed history.”2 And once the book was near completion in 1937, Antonius wrote that “my contribution should be one not merely of academic value but also of positive constructive usefulness.”3

In this practical bent, he was encouraged by the very practical American patrons who financed his researches and owned all the rights to the book. One of these insisted that the writing of The Arab Awakening “is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end.” It was

an open question just how many problems are solved by the propagation of knowledge. On the other hand, writing a book is an excellent means of establishing a reputation for yourself. It helps you to reach into certain groups which you need to get into intimate contact with, and it gives you authority. In this limited sense, therefore, writing is a useful adjunct to your activities.4

These more urgent pursuits required that Antonius transform himself from observer into participant. Antonius himself wrote that

my particular educational and vocational formation has fitted me to be above all a bridge between two different cultures and an agent in the interpretation of one to the other. I feel that this fitness, so far as it goes, enables me to be of use in the task of studying and understanding the forces at work in the Near East, and of putting my knowledge and understanding to good account both as an interpreter and a participant. That is what I feel to be my true vocation in life.5

The Arab Awakening, then, was written not only to advance an Arab nationalist argument but to establish a reputation in pursuit of a career. That career consisted of casting aside pen and paper and pursuing political influence in a brisk dash across the Middle East—a “short story” of self-immolation that strangely presaged Arabism’s own demise.

The Accidental Author

Antonius came late to authorship. Born in 1891 to Greek Orthodox parents in Lebanon, he had been raised in Egypt and schooled in England. After World War I, Antonius had found his niche in the civil service of Palestine, where he proved himself an able administrator in the education department. During the mid-1920s, he had experienced the exhilaration of high negotiations as an interpreter on loan to a British diplomatic mission in Arabia. Sir Gilbert Clayton, who headed the mission, treated Antonius as a partner and confidant—an experience that lifted Antonius above mundane administration and gave him a taste for politics.6

Still, it was only after his bureaucratic career had reached an impasse, in an acrimonious dispute over his advancement, that Antonius took up a pen. Had he wished, he could have joined his father-in-law, the publisher of a leading Cairo newspaper, who was eager to bring Antonius into his business. But a conventional career in Arabic journalism did not appeal to Antonius, and only briefly did he consider working as a reporter for the foreign press. For in 1930, an American newspaperman suggested to Antonius that he “do the Near East” for a new institute of international relations financed by a wealthy American, Charles Crane: “This is in general (financially and otherwise) far superior to any correspondent’s job; it is dignified and important and the work is useful. If you definitely are leaving the government I don’t think you could make a better arrangement than with Crane.”7 Antonius took a leave of absence and sailed for New York, where he signed an agreement with Crane’s major-domo establishing Antonius as a fellow of the Institute for Current World Affairs (ICWA). His obligations over the next decade included researching and writing his book and accompanying Crane during the American’s annual peregrinations in the region.8

Some who met Antonius during this decade thought him a man devoted to intellectual pursuits and committed to scholarship. He seemed preoccupied with the writing of his book, he corresponded with Western historians and orientalists, and he lectured at universities. His occasional forays into politics, wrote one admirer, “were all examples of people asking George to do something, not of his initiating anything. He was the exact opposite of a busybody. The sort of thing which he did take the initiative in was the big intellectual enterprise like the Arabic lexicon or an Institute of Arabic Studies. It was only occasionally, when a particularly glaring political gap presented itself, that he was moved to intervene.” Others sought his mediation in their disputes, but “he did not himself seek the role.”9 Here was an assertion that only the most pressing of political exigencies could divert a reluctant Antonius from his scholarly pursuits.

But did Antonius welcome an academic career and the opportunity to pursue his work single-mindedly? In 1936, as The Arab Awakening neared completion, Crane learned that Columbia University sought to replace the recently deceased Semiticist Richard Gottheil. Crane immediately wrote to Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia’s president, to propose Antonius as a possible successor. Antonius “is still in the early forties,” wrote Crane, “and might have a long and distinguished career at Columbia.”

He is of a fine old Greek family but says he cannot remember the time when he did not speak Arabic and French. He not only knows classical Arabic as well as any Arab, but speaks some ten or a dozen dialects of it. He has his doctor’s degree both from Oxford and the Sorbonne. His English is quite the best Oxfordian. . . . As he is neither Jew nor Arab he is untouched by the deepest racial problems and carries very successfully an objective outlook.10

Antonius had not expressed any interest in departing so completely from his prior course. Nor could Antonius present the proper credentials, for he held no doctorate, either from Oxford or the Sorbonne, but had only a bachelor’s degree in mechanical science from Cambridge. Yet Butler, perhaps too eager to satisfy so prominent and wealthy a figure as Crane, offered Antonius a visiting professorship for the 1936-37 academic year, in order to allow Columbia to take his measure. Antonius would not be expected to do any formal teaching, but would consult with students and faculty and would “help us to formulate our plans for the continuation of our work in Oriental languages and literatures.”11 The ICWA cabled this remarkable offer to Antonius in Jerusalem.

It would be idle to speculate how Antonius, atop Morningside Heights, might have influenced America’s emerging vision of the Middle East. For Antonius did not wish to parlay The Arab Awakening into an academic position. He bombarded New York with cables asking for detail after detail on the responsibilities he would be asked to bear at Columbia, and the academic year began without him. Had he acted more decisively, Antonius might have thwarted an effort by Gottheil’s widow and Jewish alumni to have the invitation to Antonius withdrawn. They were quick to point out to Butler that Antonius already had a reputation among Zionists as an Arab propagandist, and that Crane’s representation of Antonius as “neither Jew nor Arab” widely missed the mark. Since Antonius had procrastinated, an embarrassed Butler still could retract the invitation without too much loss of face, once controversy loomed.12 This episode, which reflected little credit upon any of the parties involved, underlined Antonius’ ambivalence about the prospect of a career in scholarship, far from the political fray. Not for this had he labored.

In anticipation of the publication of The Arab Awakening in 1938, Antonius was summoned by his American patrons to formulate a program of further research. To the ICWA, he suggested a new program of study that committed him to a busy schedule of writing and publishing. He vaguely proposed to write “a comprehensive survey of my area,” a project which he estimated would require five years to complete. At the same time, he would prepare some half dozen articles for publication each year.13 But over two years later, the theme of this sequel still had not “taken final shape yet, not even in my mind. But the general lines are as I have already written to you, that it will take the form of a commentary, with examples drawn from the current problems of the countries of my area, on the moral and social issues which confront the world today.”14 There is not the slightest evidence in Antonius’ own voluminous papers that he ever began to plan such a study.

“Suitable Work”

If not a sequel, then what further pursuit appealed to Antonius? He briefly considered working as a paid advocate of the Arab case in London. As early as 1935, Antonius was reported to be “keenly interested” in the establishment of an Arab information office in London. But in his view, “the question of the expense and the financial support of such an office would be too important to be undertaken by only one party, and the mutual sharing of expenses by all parties would be out of the question, since no person equally trusted by the several mutually antagonistic groups could be found.”15 Nor did it seem likely that the remuneration could match his ICWA allowance, which was both ample and dependable.

Later, in January 1939, Antonius arrived in London to serve as secretary to the Arab delegations at the Round-Table Conference on the future of Palestine. This signaled his return to high politics, and one of his British opposites found him “a hard and rather pedantic bargainer” on behalf of the Arabs.16 According to a British source, Palestinian Arab nationalist leaders even suggested that Antonius

stay in London to look after the Arab Centre. He anticipated that this meant that the [Arab] Committee in Beirut were contemplating increased Arab propaganda in London. He would rather not accept this post until he had had a chance of learning their mind by travelling to the Near East, but he thought it quite possible he would return.17

But this, too, was not precisely what Antonius had in mind. Open identification with the Arab information effort would have made him an overt partisan and disqualified him from a further role as mediator and possible participant. Instead, he returned to the Middle East, where the anticipated outbreak of war seemed likely to provide him with an opportunity, as war had done for him twenty-five years earlier.

This time, it appeared to Antonius that his opportunity would arise in Beirut. There, in late 1939, he took a furnished flat, explaining that “while the war lasts there does not seem much to choose between residence in Beirut, Jerusalem or Cairo, save for the fact that the first is appreciably cheaper than either of the others.” In April 1940, he reported that he did visit Cairo and Jerusalem, “to discover whether there might be some advantage in shifting my residence,” but learned that “there is little to commend either as being preferable to Beirut.”18

Beirut at this time, while perhaps cheaper than the other two cities, was also the site of considerable intrigue, the work of exiled Palestinian Arab nationalist leaders and local clients of rival European powers. And there is ample evidence that Antonius began to seek out opportunities in this cauldron. From the middle of 1940, he began a quest for wartime employment, a fact which he belatedly confessed to the ICWA:

I have offered my services in turn to the French, the British and the American authorities in my area, and I offered them without restriction as to locality or scope save for two stipulations, namely (1) that the work to be entrusted to me should be in my area, to enable me to continue to watch current affairs for Institute purposes, and (2) that it should be constructive work in the public service and not merely propaganda.19

The instrument of this effort was a memorandum “which I have drawn up on my own initiative in the belief that the public interest demands it,” and which reviewed “the state of feeling in the Arab world in regard to the issues arising out of the conflict between Great Britain and the Axis Powers.” Antonius submitted it first to the British.20 The Arabs, Antonius maintained, were in a state of apprehension, “which is all the more striking as it is grounded not only upon distrust of Italian and German assurances but also upon uncertainty as to British and French intentions in respect of the political and economic future of those countries.” The Arabs, then, were wavering, although in a cover letter Antonius made a protest of loyalty on his and their behalf. He himself believed in the value of Anglo-Arab collaboration,

not only for its own sake but also as a means toward the upholding of those principles of freedom and the decencies of life, in the defence of which Great Britain is setting such a gallant example. My knowledge of Arab affairs enables me to state, with the deepest conviction, that the Arabs are at heart as attached to those principles as any other civilized people.21

He also determined that “there are throughout the Arab world an underlying preference for Great Britain as a partner and a willing recognition of the benefits that have accrued to the Arab countries from their past association with her.”22 (This was a very different approach from that which he had employed in the Round-Table Conference little more than a year earlier. There, speaking of the Italians, “who were always very friendly to the Arabs,” he had warned that while he “did not wish his delegation to put themselves in the hands of any foreign Power,” Great Britain “must not tempt them too much by being intransigent over the terms of our settlement.”)23

The Arabs preferred Great Britain, claimed Antonius, but in order to secure active Arab collaboration, Great Britain necessarily would have to offer certain guarantees. This time there would be no secret pledges or covert undertakings of the kind Antonius had dissected in The Arab Awakening. Great Britain would issue a unilateral “enunciation of principles defining the attitude of the British Government towards Arab national aims,” supporting the independence and unity of the Arabs, and among them the Arabs of Palestine. Then Antonius made this proposal, drawn from the experience of the previous war, and not without due consideration of his own predicament:

I am of the opinion that there is a pressing need for the creation of a special British bureau in the Middle East, whose main functions would be to attend to political and economic problems in the Arabic-speaking countries. The most suitable location for the bureau would seem to be in Cairo, but it should have branches in Jerusalem and Baghdad, and possibly in Jeddah and Aden, and a liaison agency in Whitehall. The head of the bureau should be a personality of some standing to whom a high military rank might be given, and he would have to assist him a small staff of carefully selected men who have experience of Arab problems and contacts in the Arab world. One of the functions of the bureau would be to establish close and widespread contact with persons of all shades of opinion in the Arab world, with a view to keeping its pulse on the movements of ideas, the reactions to military events and to Axis propaganda, the hardships caused by economic dislocation and the underlying grounds of discontent. Another function would be to put the knowledge thus collected to good use by studying possible remedies and devising practical suggestions.

Once armed with “all the relevant information,” this agency would be in a position to make “comprehensive recommendations” as to the action required.24 It was no doubt in connection with such a bureau, fulfilling precisely those tasks for which he felt himself uniquely gifted, that Antonius envisioned his own employment.

Antonius showed a draft of the memorandum to the high commissioner for Palestine, Sir Harold MacMichael, who saw through it. The document, he noted, “suffers from a touch of intellectual dishonesty, coupled, perhaps, with a certain lack of courage; neither is deliberate nor, I think, realised by the writer himself. The fact remains that the Memorandum is more of an essay by an ambitious writer, than a piece of constructive statesmanship.”25 At the Foreign Office, where evidence of Arab collaboration with the Germans and Italians accumulated at a rapid pace, readers of the memorandum found it “valueless” and “of little practical use.”26 As for Antonius himself, the British simply would not have him. According to an American who inquired after Antonius among British officials in the Middle East, they

did not trust Ant., because if put in an office he would be trying to run the whole office in a couple of days. While British recognize that he is in a sense anti-British with respect to Palestine, no one even suggests that Antonius is pro-Nazi with respect to the Arab movement as a whole. The lack of trust is simply on the point mentioned above, that he will be willing to fit in and cooperate, rather than run away with the whole show.27

The ambition which Antonius had borne within him was now common knowledge. And as the author of a book on British policy in the last war with all the character of an exposé, he could hardly be made privy to the formulation of policy in this war. If Antonius had any questions regarding the British assessment of his reliability, British frontier authorities answered by searching his person and taking his papers on one of his crossings into Egypt. “This was considered by A. an affront.”28

Antonius then offered his talents to the Americans. To Wallace Murray, chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, Antonius also had written a lengthy, unsolicited letter sketching the “trends of public opinion” among the Arabs, along with an offer of his services:

I am tempted to offer, if you should find this kind of letter of sufficient interest, to write to you again whenever my studies bring me to the point when I feel I can draw up useful conclusions. My address in Beirut is the Hotel St. Georges, but for the next few weeks I shall still be up in the hills. Perhaps the best way of getting a message to me would be to send it in care of the Consulate, with whom I am always in touch.29

This letter, virtually identical to his overture to the British but with recommendations for British policy removed, was apparently intended to evoke an American offer of employment. But the call from Washington never came.

Antonius had failed in his pursuit of an influential place in the Allied war machines. In November 1941, he wrote to the ICWA that “although I began offering my services over a year ago, I have not succeeded yet in finding some suitable work that would satisfy those two stipulations.” He had some reason to believe that a proposal “of an acceptable nature” would be made “at no very distant date,” but shared no details. There is no evidence in his papers for any Allied proposal of any kind.30

The Allies had spurned him, but Antonius would not relent. He now made a desperate bid to secure a place as an influential mediator between irreconcilable forces in Iraq. In April 1941 he arrived in the Baghdad of Rashid Ali al-Kaylani, where he appeared in the company of the exiled mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni. Antonius had an unqualified admiration for Haj Amin, who, as Freya Stark recalled, “had bewitched George Antonius as securely as ever a siren did her mariner, leading him through his slippery realms with sealed eyes so that George—whom I was fond of—would talk to me without a flicker about the Mufti’s ‘single-hearted goodness’.”31

By this time, Haj Amin and Rashid Ali had placed their trust in the Germans, and Haj Amin’s private secretary already had conducted negotiations in Berlin on precisely how to put an end to the British presence in the Middle East. But for Freya Stark, and through her the British Embassy in Baghdad, Antonius tried to put an entirely different face on events. Antonius “admitted he had heard in Cairo that Rashid Ali is in German pay—but even if this had been so in the past, it did not follow it need be in the future.” Antonius then proffered his services as a mediator.32 Could Antonius have been so unaware of the sea of intrigue whirling about him in Baghdad that Rashid Ali’s German links were known to him only by Cairo rumor? He supposedly wrote an account of the Baghdad events, but it does not survive.33

Antonius felt the first effects of a duodenal ulcer in Baghdad, and he returned to Beirut a sick man, a few weeks before the British campaign which purged Iraq of his associates. Things did not go well in Beirut:

Shortly after, my persecution by the Vichy French and the Italian Commission began. At first they wanted to expel me, and later to put me in a concentration camp. It was only my illness in hospital and the intervention of the American Consul General (Engert) that saved me from the worst effects of that persecution.34

A short time later, Antonius returned to Jerusalem, thwarted and ill. He had failed in his pursuit of a kind of influence for which The Arab Awakening did not constitute a credential. And so thoroughly had he neglected to report his activities and submit expense accounts that the ICWA’s director and trustees began to plan his dismissal.

As early as August 1940, the ICWA’s director had approached the Department of State to offer that “if Mr. Antonius’ connection with his organization was likely to be in any way an embarrassment to the Department he would wish to dissolve the connection without any delay.” American diplomats had no ill words for Antonius. But according to an American official, the ICWA’s director still was “on the lookout for a young American who might be sent to the Near East to learn Arabic and who might eventually be in a position to serve as the Institute’s principal representative in that area. He added that he would appreciate it if we would recommend to him any promising young American with an inclination to Near East Studies who might come to our notice.”35 Antonius had misjudged his employers, who feared that his political activities, about which he now told them next to nothing, might bring their work into disrepute.

Over a year later, their patience ran out. “The trustees of the Institute,” wrote its director to the ICWA’s lawyers,

have a high regard for Mr. Antonius and wish to deal fairly with him, yet they have responsibilities that cannot be disregarded, especially in such conditions as now prevail. After all, he is not an American and he is in one of the most highly charged areas of the world. So in view of his failure to keep in close touch with the office and be frank about his conditions and affairs, they have deemed it inadvisable to continue to finance him.36

The result was to leave Antonius financially embarrassed, and he wired New York repeatedly, demanding money and a reversal of the ICWA’s decision. “When I decided to give up my career in the public service in 1930,” complained Antonius, “I did so on the understanding that our agreement would be a permanent one, and that it was not liable to be terminated without valid cause. It is not easy at my age and in the midst of a world war to embark on yet another career.”37 The plea was disingenuous: Antonius had longed for another career ever since the publication of The Arab Awakening. But now he was without any employment at all, and had reached an impasse. As it happened, a complication of his illness claimed Antonius before idleness or debts, in May 1942. “Poor George Antonius,” wrote Stark, “a gentle and frustrated man and my friend, was dying too, and soon lay in Jerusalem in an open coffin, his face slightly made up, in a brown pin-stripe suit, defeating the majesty of death.”38

Of the later career of George Antonius, it can only be said that it showed more the effects of his ambition than his patriotism. He never doubted that he was too large for the clearly subordinate role suggested to him by Arab nationalist leaders, who would have kept him as a propagandist in London. His vain sense of “true vocation” would not concede that he had served his cause best as an author, and might serve it still better in a great university or in yet another book. To sit, pen in hand, even in the cause of an Arab Palestine, was a form of exile, which ended in a blind pursuit of political influence. And so the poet Constantine Cavafy’s celebration in verse of the Syrian patriot is really most evocative near its conclusion:

First of all I shall apply to Zabinas
and if that dolt does not appreciate me,
I will go to his opponent, to Grypos.
And if that idiot too does not engage me,
I will go directly to Hyrcanos.

At any rate, one of the three will want me.39

© Martin Kramer

Tombstone of George Antonius, Jerusalem: "Arise, ye Arabs, and Awaken"

Tombstone of George Antonius, Jerusalem: “Awake, oh Arabs, and arise”


1. The book has seen many reappraisals, the most important by Sylvia Haim, “‘The Arab Awakening’: A Source for the Historian?” Welt des Islams, n.s., 2 (1953): 237-50; George Kirk, “The Arab Awakening Reconsidered,” Middle Eastern Affairs 13, no. 6 (June-July 1962): 162-73; Albert Hourani, “The Arab Awakening Forty Years After,” in his Emergence of the Modern Middle East (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 193-215; and Liora Lukitz, “The Antonius Papers and The Arab Awakening, Over Fifty Years On,” Middle Eastern Studies 30 (1994): 883-95.

2. George Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (London: H. Hamilton, 1938), 11-12.

3. Antonius (New York) to Walter Rogers (New York), 28 May 1937, file labeled “Antonius: Correspondence, Reports vol. II 1934-43,” Institute for Current World Affairs Archive, Hanover, N.H. (hereafter cited as ICWA Correspondence).

4. John O. Crane (Geneva) to Antonius, 14 October, 1931, George Antonius Papers, Israel State Archives, Jerusalem (hereafter cited as ISA), file 65/854. John Crane was the son of Charles Crane, Antonius’ patron, on whom see below.

5. Antonius (New York) to Walter Rogers (New York), 28 May 1937, file labeled “Antonius: Post-Staff Correspondence,” Institute for Current World Affairs Archive (hereafter cited as ICWA Post).

6. On Antonius’ earlier career in government service see Elie Kedourie, Nationalism in Asia and Africa (New York: World Publishing, 1970), 86-87; Bernard Wasserstein, The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Administration and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 183-89; Liora Lukitz, “George Antonius, the Man and His Public Career: An Analysis of His Private Papers” (in Hebrew; master’s thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1978); Susan P. Silsby, “Antonius: Palestine, Zionism, and British Imperialism, 1929-1939” (Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University, 1985), 1-89; and idem, “George Antonius: The Formative Years,” Journal of Palestine Studies 15, no. 4 (summer 1986): 81-98.

7. Vincent Sheean (Sacramento) to Antonius, 21 January 1930, ISA, file 65/1961.

8. Text of seven-point agreement signed by Antonius and Walter Rogers, dated 9 April 1930 at New York, in ICWA Correspondence. The terms, generous by the standards of the day, stipulated a $7,500 personal allowance per annum, $2,500 in traveling expenses outside Palestine, and office expenses of up to $1,500 per annum.

9. Thomas Hodgkin, “George Antonius, Palestine and the 1930s,” in Studies in Arab History: The Antonius Lectures, 1978-87, ed. Derek Hopwood (New York: St. Martin’s, 1990), 86.

10. Crane (at sea) to Butler (New York), 12 June 1936, ICWA Correspondence.

11. Frank D. Fackenthal (New York) to Crane (New York), 28 July 1936, ICWA Correspondence.

12. Butler (New York) to Antonius (Jerusalem), 6 October 1936, ICWA Correspondence. This episode is discussed in more detail by Menahem Kaufman, “George Antonius and American Universities: Dissemination of the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Anti-Zionist Propaganda 1930-1936,” American Jewish History 75 (1985-86): 392-95.

13. Antonius (New York) to Rogers (New York), 28 May 1937, ICWA Post, for original plan.

14. Antonius (Beirut) to Rogers (New York), 30 December 1939, ICWA Correspondence.

15. E. Palmer (Jerusalem), dispatch of 9 March 1935, National Archives, Washington, D.C., RG59, 867n.00/237.

16. L. Baggalay minute of 12 April 1939, Public Record Office, London (hereafter cited as PRO), FO371/23232/E2449/6/31. According to Antonius, his appointment was the idea of Iraqi prime minister Nuri Pasha, whose suggestion enjoyed British support; Antonius (London) to Rogers (New York), 15 February 1939, National Archives, RG59, 867n.01/1466. For more on the role of Antonius at the conference, see Silsby, “Antonius,” 242-92.

17. Memorandum of conversation by L. Butler on meeting with Antonius, 30 March 1939, PRO, FO371/23232/E2379/6/31. But Antonius “did not think very highly of the work of the Arab Centre. He thought that they had made some useful contacts with M.P.s in London, but that the ‘atrocity’ propaganda of the Arab Centre was a deplorable blunder.” Memorandum of conversation by Downie on meeting with Antonius, 31 March 1939, PRO, FO371/23232/E2449/6/31.

18. Antonius (Beirut) to Rogers, December 30, 1939; Antonius (Cairo) to Rogers, 11 April 1940, ICWA Correspondence. His home in Jerusalem was not a consideration, for Antonius, according to an American diplomat, had “separated from his wife who is living in their house here.” G. Wadsworth (Jerusalem) to Wallace Murray (Washington), 5 October 1940, National Archives, RG59, 811.43 Institute of World Affairs/15.

19. Antonius (Beirut) to Rogers, 25 November 1940, ICWA Correspondence.

20. Cover letter from Antonius (visiting Jerusalem) to High Commissioner for Palestine, 3 October 1940; and “Memorandum on Arab Affairs” of same date; both in PRO, FO371/27043/E53/53/65.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Memorandum of conversation by L. Butler on meeting with Antonius, 30 March 1939, PRO, FO371/23232/E2379/6/31.

24. “Memorandum on Arab Affairs,” PRO, FO371/27043/E53/53/65.

25. H. A. MacMichael to Secretary of State for Colonies, 7 October 1940, PRO, FO371/27043/E53/53/65.<

26. Minute page, PRO, FO371/27043/E53/53/65.

27. “Practically stenograph” of talk between McEwan and ICWA Fellow Samuel Harper, in letter from Harper (Chicago) to Rogers, 22 July 1941, ICWA Correspondence. Harper reported McEwan as saying that Antonius was “evidently living well and comfortably at the home of the wife of former president of Lebanon as I recall description of this aspect.”

28. Ibid.

29. Antonius (visiting Jerusalem) to Wallace Murray, 4 October 1940, quoted at length in letter from Murray (Washington) to Rogers, 2 November 1940, ICWA Correspondence.

30. Ibid.

31. Freya Stark, The Arab Island: The Middle East, 1939-1943 (New York: Knopf, 1945), 159.

32. Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw: Autobiography, 1939-1946 (London: Murray, 1961), 79-80.

33. Antonius (Jerusalem) to John O. Crane, 12 February 1942, ICWA Correspondence, reports that he had sent a “long account” of his month in Baghdad to Rogers, “but I don’t think it could have reached him.” It did not.

34. Antonius (Jerusalem) to John O. Crane, 12 February 1942, ICWA Correspondence.

35. Memorandum of conversation with Rogers by J. Rives Childs, 14 August 1940, National Archives, RG59, 811.43 Institute of World Affairs/11.

36. Rogers (New York) to M. C. Rose of Baldwin, Todd & Young (New York), 21 May 1942, ICWA Correspondence.

37. Antonius (Beirut) to Rogers, 25 November 1941, ICWA Correspondence. Twenty years after the event, Antonius’ widow wrote that in 1940-41, Antonius could not correspond as he was “under strict surveillance from the French Vichy Sûreté. I believe Mr. Rogers wrote in a way which very much disturbed George and he resigned from the Institute—as he said—because he could not send the reports to the Institute.” As to Rogers’s attitude toward Antonius, “I felt it had added to his premature death.” Katy Antonius (Jerusalem) to Richard Nolte (New York), 9 January 1962, file labeled “The Arab Awakening,” Institute for Current World Affairs Archive. In fact, Antonius stopped filing regular reports before his move to Beirut and the fall of France, and his services were terminated against his protest. Within the ICWA, it was Rogers who had always been the most concerned about the political activism of Antonius, which he had tried to check a decade earlier; see Silsby, “Antonius,” 115-18.

38. Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw, 129.

39. “They Should Have Cared,” in The Complete Poems of Cafavy, trans. Rae Dalven (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 163. Cf. the verses of the poem quoted by Hourani, “The Arab Awakening Forty Years After,” 214-15.

, ,

Arab Pen, English Purse: John Sabunji and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

Martin Kramer, “Pen and Purse: Sabunji and Blunt,” in The Islamic World From Classical to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, eds. C.E. Bosworth, et al. (Princeton: Darwin, 1989), pp. 771-80. Scroll down for a letter concerning this article, written by the late Albert Hourani to Martin Kramer.

It is well known that the early Arabic newspapers, particularly those published by émigrés, could not bear their own weight financially. They were subsidized, usually in a secret way, by interested parties. Far from constituting open and sincere platforms of opinion, newspapers often amplified the views of silent benefactors, who were prepared to pay to see their political notions in print. In many cases it is difficult if not impossible to trace the fine lines linking journalists to their patrons. But without such evidence, the history of the Arab “awakening” becomes unintelligible, since the Arabic press provides the earliest evidence for its existence.

In the annals of early Arab journalism, John Louis Sabunji occupies a position of minor eminence. A former priest of the Syrian Catholic Rite, Sabunji entered a turbulent career in journalism, publishing several Arabic newspapers in London and openly calling into question the Ottoman sultan’s right to the caliphate. His newspaper Al-Nahla (The Bee), which he published in London from 1877, was one of the most influential of the early Arabic political journals, and one of the boldest.

Sabunji must have been a heavily subsidized journalist, as another study has suggested.1 But the identity of his patrons was necessarily inferred, since none of Sabunji’s relationships with his benefactors could be documented. Now a packet of Sabunji’s letters sheds new light on his reluctant dependence upon one of his most important clients: the English Arabophile, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.2

Egyptian Adventure

Sabunji’s first employment in Blunt’s service was not as a journalist, but as a tutor in Arabic to his wife, Lady Anne Blunt, in 1880. In this capacity, Sabunji did more than instruct Lady Anne in the intricacies of the language. Her husband had just published a series of strongly anti-Turkish articles in The Fortnightly Review. The articles, which were later published together under the title The Future of Islam, proposed the severing of the Arabs from Turkish rule and the establishment of an Arab caliphate. Blunt was the first to challenge the traditional British support for Ottoman territorial integrity in Asia, and he prompted a spirited debate in London.

But as Blunt himself later wrote, his Fortnightly Review pieces “found their way, to some extent, in [Arabic] translation to Egypt.”3 Such translations were prepared by Sabunji and Lady Anne,4 so that even in Sabunji’s limited capacity as Lady Anne’s tutor, he became swept up in Blunt’s anti-Ottoman agitation. Early in 1881, while the Blunts were away in Arabia, Sabunji began his own campaign, in a newspaper appropriately called Al-Khilafa (The Caliphate). According to Sabunji, this newspaper consisted of “very strong articles against the Turks, their bad administration, and their claim to the title of ‘El-Khelaphat.’”5

There is no evidence that Blunt subsidized this newspaper, although it echoed an indictment of the Ottoman caliphate made by Blunt himself. But after Blunt’s return from Arabia, he did propose that Sabunji accompany him on his forthcoming trip to the Hijaz and the Yemen. Blunt would need the help of an interpreter, were he to get in touch with the “future leaders of reform and liberty in Islam” whom he hoped to identify.6 Sabunji seemed the very best choice.

Although the two men apparently did not enter into a formal contract, Sabunji did set down terms in a letter to Blunt. Sabunji would not be Blunt’s servant, but his “attaché interpreter,” cooperating with Blunt “in your plan as much as it is in my power,” in return for payment and a generous application of patronage. Blunt would cover Sabunji’s travel expenses and provide him with £100 “so that I may settle some of my little affairs, before starting.” Sabunji also asked Blunt “to procure for me an English passport, if it be possible; and I shall try my best to procure a Persian one, if the [Persian] Ambassador be in London before I leave.” On their return to England, Blunt would offer Sabunji a remuneration left “entirely to your sound judgement, and well-known generosity. You and Lady Anne have always treated me kindly and with princely generosity.” Finally, Sabunji asked that Blunt seek to “procure for me some appointment in the British Service, through your good recommendation and influence. . . .I am perfectly convinced, that there will be no lack of energy, or will in this matter on your part, if there will be any hope for success.”7

The deal was done. Blunt set out for Arabia in November 1881, in his quest for men who might refashion Islam. But during a stopover in Egypt, he became fascinated by Ahmad Urabi, whose movement of military officers and Egyptian nationalists quickly won his sympathy and support. And at Blunt’s side was Sabunji, his “attaché interpreter,” who had a dual role. According to Blunt, Sabunji “had a real genius” for collecting information. On arrival in Cairo, he “was presently busy all the city over seeking out news for me, so that in a very few days we knew between us pretty nearly everything that was going on.”8 Sabunji also accompanied Blunt to his meetings with Egyptians, where Sabunji’s role was that of translator, and he was at Blunt’s side when Urabi first received this odd Englishman who so wholeheartedly embraced the Egyptian cause.

Indeed, so adeptly did Sabunji fulfill his mission that in June 1882, Blunt sent Sabunji to Egypt in his stead, to conduct private diplomacy on Blunt’s behalf. “Sabunji is to go instead of me, and will do just as well.” For his trouble, Sabunji would receive £30 a month plus expenses, and left for Alexandria with a £100 advance and Blunt’s explicit instructions.9 Blunt’s Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt reproduces Sabunji’s dispatches to Blunt, written during the crucial months of June and July 1882, and culminating in the British bombardment of Alexandria. Sabunji, dining at Urabi’s table and sitting up late with the nationalist leaders, kept Blunt apprised of the mood in the nationalist camp, and supposedly transmitted Blunt’s detailed advice to Urabi. In his book, Blunt expressed his great satisfaction with Sabunji’s performance of his mission as “my representative”:

I could hardly have used more influence personally with Arabi and the other leaders than I succeeded in exercising through Sabunji. Sabunji was an admirable agent in a mission of this kind, and it is impossible I could have been better served. His position as ex-editor of the “Nahleh,” a paper which, whether subsidized or not by Ismail, had always advocated the most enlightened views of humanitarian progress and Mohammedan reform, gave him a position with the Azhar reformers of considerable influence, and he was, besides, heart and soul with them in the national movement. As my representative he was everywhere received by the Nationalists with open arms, and they gave him their completest confidence. Nor was he unworthy of their trust or mine. The letters I sent him for them he communicated to them faithfully, and he faithfully reported to me all that they told him.10

It is striking, then, to read a rather disparaging comment on Sabunji’s service in Edith Finch’s biography of Blunt. Without providing details, she contradicts Blunt’s clear testament to Sabunji’s reliability: “Although not able wholly to trust [Sabunji], Blunt used him for what he was worth, first as his teacher in Mohammedan thought, afterward as secretary and finally, in the time of the Nationalist uprising in Egypt, as his emissary.” Indeed, according to Finch, Sabunji “turned out later to be something of an Oriental scallywag,” although she accepts Blunt’s testament to Sabunji’s trustworthiness during the crisis of 1882.11

From what seed did this distrust spring, from when did it date? The answers to both questions are to be found in a revealing letter from Sabunji to Blunt. Sabunji arrived back in London in late July or early August 1882. There he found his patron Blunt busily writing about the Egyptian drama, with a considerable emphasis upon his own mediation attempts during the crisis. Blunt’s piece, entitled “The Egyptian Revolution: A Personal Narrative,” was to appear in The Nineteenth Century, a leading London journal of opinion. Inevitably, Sabunji figured in the draft of this account, and Blunt was surprised to discover that this did not please Sabunji at all. True, Sabunji voiced no opposition when Blunt first mentioned the references to Sabunji in his narrative. But there soon followed a letter from Sabunji, seething with resentment at the possibility that his employment might become a matter of record:

Since I left you, I have been thinking, whether it would be expedient or not, to have my name mentioned in the paper you are about to publish. After due consideration I came to conclusion that that portion of the narrative concerning myself, not only would not add any valuable strength to your argument, but it would weaken also [a] great deal my relations with my friends. Since you represent me in your narrative as a hired agent, to carry out your designs, you put me just in that same light in which my bitter enemies attempted to expose me with regard to Ismail. The difference in the eye of the public would consist only in the change of the name of the hirer. You know, however, that our agreement was a confidential one, and it was never meant to be published in the papers. Now, by your putting me before the public in such an unfavourable light of a hired agent, of a tool, as your narrative suggests, you simply confirm my enemies’ former calumnies and pain my friends’ hearts. What excellent recompense for my earnest and honest work! In a time like this, frothing with prejudices, and while the nation’s passions have reached the apex of their effervescence, the most logical reasons and the most convincing proofs will produce no effect whatever. They would rather irritate than sooth. As to myself not being a British subject, nor an Egyptian, I need not give reason to anyone of my political doings, and nobody has any right to question me about my political views; hence, it would be useless to take upon yourself the responsibility of my political career. By doing so, you as an Englishman inconvenience yourself without doing any good to me as a stranger to both belligerent parties. But if you intend presenting the public with a complete and too naive narrative of your eastern politics, you might do so without mentioning the names of those who assisted you. The simple saying that you had carried on your political transactions with the leaders of the National party through the help of trustworthy Mohammadan & Christian friends would do just as well.12

This twisted logic for the suppression of the truth could not conceal what must have been Sabunji’s reason for fearing its publication. Despite the fact that Blunt footed the entire bill for Sabunji’s Egyptian adventures, and regarded Sabunji as his exclusive “agent,” Sabunji must have presented himself in Egypt as an independent actor, working not in Blunt’s employ but on his own. Indeed, nowhere in Sabunji’s dispatches from Egypt did he give any indication that he had informed the Nationalists of his mission and its sponsor. Urabi once introduced him as “a friend of Mr. Blunt,”13 but Sabunji obviously sat with the Nationalists as his own man, never making a clean breast of the fact of his employment. Blunt was indeed “too naive” to have assumed that Sabunji could have presented himself in Egypt as acting in Blunt’s private service–a naiveté matched only by Sabunji’s, for assuming that the notoriously indiscreet Blunt would not wish to publish his version of the Egyptian saga in full. It is Sabunji’s prospect of being found out in a lie which gives his letter of protest a certain vulnerable poignancy.

Did Sabunji’s failure to represent his position frankly to the Egyptians shake Blunt’s confidence in his “emissary”? Blunt not only kept Sabunji but obliged him, omitting all reference to Sabunji from the article. Yet if Sabunji’s Egyptian friends had not even known that he was in Blunt’s service, then Blunt’s own initiatives might well have been lost in transmission. If this likelihood occurred to Blunt, it remained an inner doubt. When he did write his Secret History years later, he made no allusion to Sabunji’s self-misrepresentation. Indeed, Blunt’s overwrought testimony to Sabunji’s trustworthiness (on a page titled “Sabunji’s Good Qualities”) must have come to dispel any doubt as to Blunt’s own influence upon Urabi and the significance of Blunt’s mediation. Sabunji’s letter now casts a shadow upon both.

Anti-Ottoman Journalism

Judith Lady Wentworth, in her embittered portrait of her father, averred that Blunt squandered a great part of her mother’s fortune “in subsidies to the charlatans who besieged his door.”14 In addition to providing services of questionable value, Sabunji also sought outright subsidies from Blunt for his Arabic newspapers. Philippe de Tarrazi, author of the first history of the Arabic press, lists Sabunji’s numerous patrons, who reputedly financed his no less numerous journals, but Blunt does not figure among them.15 A begging letter from Sabunji to Blunt is therefore of great interest, not only for the light which it sheds upon their relationship, but for its detailed revelation of what it cost to publish an Arabic newspaper in exile. The letter was written in May 1882, at the height of Blunt’s confidence in Sabunji, after their trip to Egypt but before Sabunji had been sent as Blunt’s “emissary” to Urabi:

Last year, you were kind enough to promise me, that you will, for this year, subsidize my paper by £100–. You see now, that I did all I could to make the paper attractive & interesting to the Arabs. This number has cost me £24–6–0, for 1000 copies. Here are the details:

Front page 6–7–0
Five cuts 4–7–0
To the compositors of the Arabic types 4–15–0
To the printer & paper 5–2–0
Postage 3–15–0
£24– 6–0

The next number, of course, will not come to that much; It still will not cost less than £15–. So the expenses exceed my scanty means. Hence, I shall be very much obliged to you if would grant me the favour of £150– as a subsidy to my paper, which is, in some sense, yours too. I have been spending a great deal of money lately, & I feel in want of some help to be able to carry on this hard work.16

While the letter does not specify which of Sabunji’s newspapers was in such dire need of a subsidy, information in the letter allows an accurate inference. Sabunji’s Al-Nahla ceased to appear in late 1880. As we have seen, it was succeeded by Al-Khilafa in early 1881, but Tarrazi states that this was soon succeeded, also in 1881, by a newspaper entitled Al-Ittihad al-arabi (The Arab Union) of which only three issues appeared. As Blunt pledged his subsidy sometime in 1881, and was asked to make good his promise in 1882, it seems certain that Sabunji’s begging letter refers to Ittihad al-arabi. This conclusion is supported by Sabunji’s claim that he had done all that he could to make the paper “interesting to the Arabs.”

Of this obscure newspaper, all that Tarrazi has to say is that it appealed to speakers of Arabic “to form one league against the Turks in all the Arab lands.” When Sabunji saw that there was really no hope for such unity, he closed the newspaper after only three issues.17 In content, then, Al-Ittihad al-arabi must have echoed Blunt’s own ideas about the corruption of the Turks and the virtues of Arab independence from Turkish misrule. Sabunji’s letter makes it clear that Blunt had indeed intended to support an Arabic newspaper meant to subvert Ottoman authority in Arab lands.

But less than a month after Sabunji’s appeal, Blunt sent him to Egypt on a more important mission The growing preoccupation of both Blunt and Sabunji with the affairs of Egypt must have been the real reason for the newspaper’s closure: both set aside their anti-Ottoman agitation, in order to expound upon freedom for Egypt and the failings of British policy. Blunt’s revised position after the occupation of Egypt was that “the restoration of a more legitimate [i.e., Arab] Caliphate is deferred for the day when its fate shall have overtaken the Ottoman Empire. This is as it should be. Schism would only weaken the cause of religion, already threatened by a thousand enemies.”18 After the fall of Egypt, Blunt would not have supported a newspaper meant to aggravate precisely that schism.

Yet this did not end Sabunji’s association with Blunt. “Sabunji remained in my employment till the end of 1883,”19 in a capacity defined by Blunt as “my Oriental secretary.”20 Sabunji undoubtedly handled much of the Arabic correspondence and translations involved in Blunt’s support for Urabi’s defense. But Blunt may have backed one of Sabunji’s other pursuits: there is indirect evidence for the irregular appearance of Al-Nahla in 1883, and for the inclusion in it of a laudatory biography of Blunt.21 lt seems not unlikely that Blunt would have subsidized the newspaper of his secretary, along the very lines suggested in Sabunji’s earlier begging letter. Al-Nahla of 1883 would have differed from Al-Ittihad al-arabi of 1881-82 in criticizing British imperial policy rather than Turkish oppression of the Arabs. (Likewise Al-Nahla when it began to reappear regularly in April 1884.) Thus ended the anti-Ottoman and Arab separatist phase of Sabunji’s journalistic career, a phase which coincided almost precisely with Blunt’s own preoccupation with the same ideas. lt seems likely that this embarrassing coincidence disqualified Sabunji and his newspapers from mention by George Antonius in The Arab Awakening, where early Arab nationalism is not allowed to spring from any but the purest of sources.

“Like a raven . . . ”

Sabunji’s last mission in Blunt’s service was to accompany Blunt on a visit to Egypt and Ceylon, beginning in September 1883. Blunt had discovered that Sabunji’s activities had created “so much suspicion” in the Foreign Office, and so resolved not to take him. After all, Sabunji had conducted himself a year earlier as a leading participant in Urabi’s movement. But Blunt’s arrangements for other assistance in Egypt fell through, “and I have consequently determined to take Sabunji. The fact is I should be very helpless without him, and if it should so happen that I could be of any good it would be as well to have him at hand.” But Blunt made this assurance to Gladstone’s private secretary: “I shall caution Sabunji to get into no mischief, and he has always acted as far as I am am aware squarely in his service with me.”22 This utter dependence upon Sabunji had led Blunt to overlook Sabunji’s deceit of the previous year. But Blunt’s vouching for Sabunji in this letter of assurance carried an important rider. Sabunji had served him squarely only “as far as I am aware,” for Blunt could not dismiss the possibility that the Foreign Office had solid evidence to the contrary. During the fruitless Egyptian stopover, Blunt confined Sabunji to Port Said (although he “sent Sabunji like a raven from the Ark to get intelligence” in the town), and was happy to quit Egypt for Ceylon without Sabunji’s getting arrested.23

Blunt had failed in his attempt to have the Nationalist leaders repatriated, and he brought no good news to the Egyptian exiles in Ceylon. Still, once in Colombo, “Sabunji went forth like the raven from the Ark, and did not any more return!”24 Sabunji’s stint in Blunt’s service had come to an end. He would now tie his fate to Urabi’s, in anticipation of an inevitable and triumphal return to Egypt.

As it happened, Sabunji quarreled with Urabi over the bill for Blunt’s stay in Colombo, Urabi not agreeing to pay his share, or Sabunji having falsified the account of expenses, or both. Blunt had largely seen Urabi through Sabunji’s eyes, yet now Sabunji charged that Urabi had “cunningly managed to deceive his best friends.” Sabunji, in another agitated letter to Blunt, called Urabi “a pseudopatriot,” a “degraded & ambitious ignoramus,” “a bigamist and adulterer,” and the “biggest liar I ever saw in my life.”25 lt was an indictment of Urabi which Blunt, as Urabi’s greatest defender, could never accept. “In spite of [Urabi’s] faults and failings,” wrote Blunt, “there is something great about him which compels one’s respect. His faults are all the faults of his race, his virtues are his own.”26 Sabunji returned to London, where he was of much more value to Urabi’s enemies than to Blunt.27 His revived Al-Nahla of 1884 began a violent campaign against Urabi, of which Blunt would not have approved.

Sabunji’s subsequent career warrants separate study, but it may be characterized as a quest for the perfect patron. He had hoped that Blunt could get him “some appointment in the British Service,” but this had become quite impossible. Eventually he fixed his gaze upon Sultan Abdülhamid II, the arch-foe of Arab separatist dreams. When Blunt found Sabunji in Istanbul in 1893, his old friend was “in fine feather, having a permanent post as translator to the Sultan.” The terms were enviable: “He gets £40 a month and a house at Prinkipo, and so is in clover.”28 Sabunji could not have found steadier employment, and he served his former nemesis from 1891 until a revolution cleared Yildiz Palace in 1909. By that time, Sabunji had lost even the appearance of a revolutionary, just as he had once shed his priest’s cassock. Blunt dined with him in London in 1909, discovering that Sabunji had become “a Yildiz Palace spy, a little furtive old man dressed in black with a black skull cap on his head, a jewel in his shirt front and another jewel on his finger.”29

© Martin Kramer

Martin Kramer adds: After publication of this article in 1989, I sent an offprint to one of the very few historians with an interest in these matters: Albert Hourani. He sent me the following letter in reply, in which he offered an alternative interpretation. The letter suggests the ways in which his inclinations as a historian differed from mine. Hourani died in 1993. I never met him.


30 Belitha Villas
London N1 1PD
Tel. (01) 607-0802

27 July 1989

Dear Dr Kramer,

Many thanks for your kindness in sending me your article on Sabunji and Blunt. I have been puzzled by Sabunji for many years, ever since I read some copies of one of his newspapers which I found in the British Library. Now you have found interesting new material about him and his relations with Blunt.

I must admit that I am not wholly convinced by your conclusion, that Blunt’s mistrust of Sabunji goes back as far as 1882. I remember that passage in Edith Finch’s book about Sabunji turning out to be “something of an oriental scallywag”, but I have always assumed that this referred to Blunt’s later meetings with Sabunji in Istanbul and London. Now you are saying that the distrust goes back to 1882. I am sure that Blunt never completely trusted Sabunji, whom he thought to have been in the pay of the Khedive Isma’il; but your conclusion is that Blunt became even more distrustful when he received Sabunji’s letter, discovered by you in the Blunt papers and published on page 774 of your article. Your argument is, I think, summed up in the sentence on line 26 of page 775: “if Sabunji’s Egyptian friends had not even known that he was in Blunt’s service, then Blunt’s own initiatives might well have been lost in transmission”. In other words, while Sabunji would have wished to keep their relationship confidential, Blunt had an interest in making it public.

But one might put the opposite argument: that Blunt’s influence would be the greater if his ideas were put forward not by a hired emissary but by someone whom his Egyptian interlocutors thought to be a person of some weight, who was saying things to them not because he was paid to say them, but because in discussion with Blunt they had come to certain shared conclusions. One might say that, when Sabunji put this point to Blunt, he saw the force of it and omitted the reference to Sabunji in the article. It is difficult, moreover, to explain Blunt’s testimony to Sabunji in the Secret History if he had lost his respect for what he had done in 1882 (whatever he might have thought about his character in general).

I don’t think my argument is stronger than yours, but it at least puts forward a possible interpretation of this puzzling episode. It is many years since I thought about Blunt, and I am glad to know that someone is still studying these distant matters.

With thanks and kind regards,

Albert Hourani

P.S. are you quite fair to George Antonius on page 777? He did not try to give a complete history of the earlier stirrings of nationalism; he does not mention Blunt. If he had ever heard of Sabunji, he may have thought him too unimportant to mention.



1 See L. Zolondek, “Sabunji in England 1876-91: His Role in Arabic Journalism,” Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1978): 102-15.
2 West Sussex County and Diocesan Record Office, Chichester, Acc. 5306, file 53 (hereafter: Blunt Letters). These are a portion of Blunt’s papers, the bulk of which are in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I am grateful to the Right Honorable Viscount Knebworth for permission to examine the Chichester collection.
3 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt (London: Unwin, 1907), 122. Elsewhere Blunt wrote: “My articles in the Fortnightly Review were translated while I was in Cairo [in 1881] and read and approved by my friends in the Nationalist press.” Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “The Egyptian Revolution: A Personal Narrative,” The Nineteenth Century 12 (1882): 332.
4 Elizabeth Longford, A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 163.
5 Sabunji to Lady Anne Blunt, 25 May 1881, Blunt Letters.
6 Blunt, “The Egyptian Revolution,” 328.
7 Sabunji to Blunt, 22 October 1881, Blunt Letters.
8 Blunt, Secret History, 163.
9 Ibid., 296, 298.
10 Ibid., 299.
11 Edith Finch, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 1840-1922 (London: Cape, 1938), 122, 156.
12 Sabunji to Blunt, 9 August 1882, Blunt Letters.
13 Sabunji to Blunt, 18 June 1882, in Blunt, Secret History, 342.
14 Lady Wentworth, The Authentic Arabian Horse and His Descendants, 3d ed.(Canaan, N.Y.: Sporting Book Center, 1979), 74.
15 Philippe de Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa al-arabiyya, 4 vols. (Beirut: Al-Matba‘a al-adabiyya,1913-33), 2:250-53.
16 Sabunji to Blunt, 12 May 1882, Blunt Letters.
17 Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa, 2:252-53.
18 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, The Future of Islam (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1882), viii.
19 Blunt, Secret History, 299.
20 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum (London: Swift, 1911), 45. 21 Zolondek, “Sabunji in England,” 108.
22 Blunt to Edward Hamilton, 14 September 1883, in Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum, 572.
23 Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum, 51.
24 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, India under Ripon (London: Unwin, 1909), 19. 25 Sabunji (Umballa) to Blunt (Allahabad), 6 January 1884, Blunt Letters.
26 Blunt, India under Ripon, 25.
27 Al-Nahla, 16 May 1884. Angry reference to this number of the paper is made by Urabi in a letter to Blunt, 23 June 1884, in file 2 of the Chichester collection.
28 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, My Diaries, Being a Personal Narrative of Events, 1888-1914, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1921), 1:102, 105. Tarrazi speaks of £50 a month, and a well-furnished house in one of the capital’s best suburbs; Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa, 2:74.
29 Blunt, My Diaries, 2:250.

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Arabistik and Arabism: The Passions of Martin Hartmann

Martin Kramer, “Arabistik and Arabism: The Passions of Martin Hartmann,” Middle Eastern Studies (London), vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1989), pp. 283-300. This is the slightly revised version that appeared in Martin Kramer’s collected volume, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival. The original is embedded at the bottom of this page.

The influence of European scholarship upon Middle Eastern nationalisms is a scarcely acknowledged one. The great work of retrieval and compilation done by European archaeologists and philologists served their own inquiring spirit. But the findings extracted from excavations, inscriptions, and manuscripts soon fed the imaginations of those who lived near the digs and spoke the modern forms of retrieved languages. European scholarship breathed life into silent ruins and established the ancient ancestry of languages still spoken in Eastern lands. Such scholarship did not create the discontent which spread through the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century. It did stock a vast storehouse of scholarly findings which fed nationalism with grist.

Yet foreign scholars do not occupy any place of prominence in the conventional catalogue of influences which formed Arab nationalism. By most accounts, the Arabs bestirred themselves, or at least discovered the eclipsed greatness of their language and culture by their own labors. Still, it is impossible not to be struck by the similarity between many of the nineteenth-century theories propounded by European scholars in Arabic studies and the twentieth-century theories propounded by Arab nationalists. The greatness of pre-Islamic Arab civilization and the ingeniously Arab character of pristine Islam were ideas championed by some of these scholars years before similar ideas appeared in the writings of Arab nationalists. This loses the aura of pure coincidence when it is realized just how much of this scholarly and semi-scholarly material quickly found its way into Arab libraries. Perhaps the most influential of these works was Gustave Le Bon’s La civilisation des arabes. The book was well known in the intellectual salons of turn-of-the-century Beirut and Damascus for its author’s premise that the Arabs possessed a special genius, manifest in early Islam but later obscured by Persian and Turkish accretions.

A handful of these European scholars became so enamored of their theories that they themselves embraced a sort of Arab nationalism. One of them went so far as to call for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the restoration to the Arabs of their independence. He was Martin Hartmann, a brilliant if quixotic German student of Islam and Arabic, a socialist visionary, and one of the first truly disinterested foreign friends of Arab nationalism.1

Beirut and Berlin

Young Martin Hartmann, born the son of a Mennonite preacher in Breslau, had the attributes of a prodigy. In 1869, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in university in his native city, and displayed a remarkable aptitude for languages. Later he completed advanced studies at Leipzig under Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer, the eminent Semiticist. Leipzig of a century ago boasted one of Europe’s leading schools of Semitic philology, at a time when philology reigned supreme among Orientalist disciplines.2 Young Hartmann received his doctorate in 1874 with a dissertation on pluriliteral forms in Semitic languages. No scholarly preparation could have been more remote from the living world of the Orient: Fleischer’s school, in the words of one critic, resembled nothing so much as a tidy “French garden,” from which Hartmann sprang like a “wild shoot.”3 Fleischer tagged Hartmann a “flighty youth,”4 and at first opportunity the young man did fly: he made for Ottoman lands, in pursuit of a career far from staid academe.

In 1874, Hartmann arrived in Adrianople, where he spent a year as a private tutor. In March 1875, he proceeded to Istanbul, and there enrolled as a jeune de langues in apprenticeship for a career in dragomanry. Hartmann thus acquired a firm grasp of Turkish, the very practical language of Ottoman administration, as a supplement to his academic proficiency in Arabic. With these formidable credentials the polyglot Hartmann, then twenty-four years of age, earned an appointment as dragoman to the German consulate in Beirut. In 1876, he took up his post in the small Levantine port, where he remained for the next eleven years.

In Beirut, Hartmann’s learning acquired the practical bent exemplified by his Arabischer Sprachführer für Reisende, a pocket-sized phrase book and word list which he published in 1880. The colloquial Arabic of the Beirut market served as Hartmann’s model. His book is enlightening even now, for the conversational predicaments in which he situated the average German traveler and trader and for the prices of goods and services cited in hypothetical transactions. Hartmann made strictly mundane use of his mastery of Arabic during these years, a period closed by his publication of an Arabic translation of the German commercial code. Hartmann also undertook minor expeditions, which were probably intended to gather information on economic conditions and topography. In 1882-83, he visited northern Syria, a journey which provided him with rich material for subsequent publications on the Aleppo region and the Syrian steppe.

Hartmann, in the judgment of one colleague, was transformed by his Syrian stay into a “passionate Turk-hater,” in sympathy with “Arabs groaning under the Turkish yoke.”5 It was during this decade that he formed the prejudices and preferences which would last him a lifetime. Sweeping judgments as to the intrinsic character of peoples, past and present, were the currency of many respected scholars and travelers in Hartmann’s time, and he unabashedly declared his preferences. He had nothing but contempt for “the Stambul Effendis and Hanums,” and the Turkish peasantry struck him as “earnest but dumb.”6 The Egyptian was “intelligent and witty, but from his infancy extremely lazy, and as he becomes older he becomes hopelessly indolent.”7 The bedouin, with their incessant quarrels and lack of scruple, left Hartmann unmoved. He found nothing ennobling in the life of the desert.

But in the Syrian, and especially the Syrian Christian, Hartmann found that essential combination of intelligence and energy. “The Syrian is industrious, consistent, eager for knowledge, has always an object in view, is generally active, and never overawed.”8 Young Hartmann may have been involved in a romance with a Syrian Christian woman,9 but he was no romantic. He firmly believed in the benefits of railways, industries, printing presses, and modern schools in Ottoman lands, and he offered no lament for the passing of old ways. The Syrians (and the Armenians in equal measure) shared his vision of steady progress along modern lines. He regarded both peoples as “the light of the Near East,” and they earned his abiding sympathies.10

But those sympathies found no political outlet at the time. It was not Hartmann’s duty to reflect or report on the politics of Syria. As the German consul’s dragoman, Hartmann handled whatever local business had to be transacted in Arabic and Turkish, and spent most of his time on disputes which came before the commercial court in Beirut. The consul himself assessed provincial politics for Germany’s ambassador in Istanbul. Hartmann occasionally substituted during a consul’s absence from Beirut. In 1883, he wrote a despatch about local agitation against the Ottoman-appointed governor of Lebanon.11 Yet he left no account of the other burning political issues which were debated in the same Beirut Arabic which he had studied so meticulously. Hartmann could and probably did know something about the spread of discontent in Syria following the outbreak of war between the Ottoman Empire and Russia in 1877. In Beirut, Damascus, Tripoli and Sidon, there were a few Arabic-speakers who secretly favored separation from the Ottoman Empire, a step advocated in anonymous placards which appeared on walls near Beirut’s foreign consulates in 1880. Hartmann also knew Ibrahim al-Yaziji well, and later recalled having heard some of the subversive poetry composed by Yaziji in praise of the Arabs.12But Hartmann’s views on the actual state and preferred fate of the Ottoman Empire were not yet a matter of record.

They would not be for some time. In 1887, Hartmann left Beirut for Berlin. Again he put his talent for languages to practical use, no longer in a distant province of a disintegrating empire, but in the confident capital of an ascendant one. To win her due share of world dominion, Germany needed many more men with knowledge of difficult and esoteric languages, a need German universities had failed to meet. Bismarck therefore ordered the establishment in Berlin of the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen, which opened its doors in the autumn of 1887.13 This institute sought to produce not more philologists, but to train aspiring diplomats, colonial officials and missionaries in the languages of peoples beyond Europe. Unlike the university departments, it planned to teach living languages in their colloquial and dialectal forms. Hartmann’s popular Arabischer Sprachführer had established his reputation as an authority on colloquial Arabic. With his many years of service to the Reich in Ottoman lands, he appeared eminently suited to the mission of the new school. Hartmann accepted an appointment as lecturer and began to teach Arabic in the autumn of 1887, the institute’s very first academic year. In a letter to his friend Yaziji in Beirut, Hartmann wrote that his duties involved teaching Arabic fourteen hours a week.14 Hartmann devoted his spare time to philological studies, with a special emphasis on metrics.

There was little in this portion of Hartmann’s career to mark him a political man. His youthful rebelliousness had been played out in a decade-long Levantine adventure, and he now seemed settled in a routine of teaching and philological research. Both activities agreeably immersed him in Arabic. “Arabic is my second mother tongue and my love,” he later wrote. “I am more fluent in Arabic than in French or English.”15 His inspirational abilities as a teacher of Arabic found ample confirmation in the career of Ernst Harder, the editor of a Berlin newspaper and son of a prominent Mennonite congregation leader in Elbing. Under Hartmann’s tutelage, Harder fell completely under the spell of Arabic, and devoted himself to the full-time study of the language and literature. He later became a professor of Arabic in his own right. In 1892, Hartmann married Harder’s sister. After many years abroad, he had entered the fold of a respected Mennonite family.

But in Berlin, Hartmann grew restless. His own notes for an autobiography described this early Berlin period as one of “groping.”16 His old resentment against the narrow range of the philologists grew once he joined their ranks, and finally overtook him after a visit he paid to Egypt and Tripolitania in 1897, when he again immersed himself in the tumultuous reality of the Orient. Did his academic colleagues not realize that a living Arabic and a living Islam existed alongside the time-worn manuscripts? Were these realities not worthy of scientific study as well, through methods developed by pioneering sociologists?

It was the spell of the new sociology which captured Hartmann’s imagination and made him perhaps the earliest critic of his own discipline. He mounted his first siege, a modest one, in an editorial on the pages of the Berlin Orientalistische Literatur-Zeitung in 1898. Teachers of Arabic were lecturing in almost empty classrooms, he complained. Too often their published works were dry recitations. Hartmann proposed to invigorate the field by establishing a German outpost of Arabic studies in Jerusalem, where students could learn Arabic in an authentic setting and apply their knowledge of the language to many other disciplines.17 Hartmann thus took up the professional cross he would bear for the rest of his career: his insistence on the necessity for scientific study of the contemporary history and sociology of Islam. He repudiated Fleischer’s old dictum that “there is no salvation save in Arabic,” 18 calling instead for a “break with Semitics”19 and the creation of a chair for the “new science” of Islamology in Berlin’s university or in his own institute.20 A similar movement had carried the day at the Collège de France in 1902, but not without controversy. Hartmann’s proposal was bound to meet even stiffer opposition from the philologists who set the academic agenda of German Orientalism.21

In the same manner, Hartmann adopted a dissident stand within his own society, gradually embracing socialist ideas. He attributed the political tensions which divided the “high culture” of Europe to “the capitalist order,” which concealed “egotistical aims” behind the “mask of nationality.”22 Hartmann attested to the decisive influence upon his own thought of the Munich jurist August Geyer, whose theories of differentiation among social groups resembled Marx’s concept of class. An ambivalence toward established authority and privilege characterized Hartmann’s mature judgments, and led him to devote disproportionate attention to “movements” opposed to economic and social oppression. Thus, Hartmann wrote at length on the barely audible complaints of women and workers in the Ottoman Empire; theirs was a struggle to reclaim the “democratic-social content” of “pure original Islam.” In this direction Islam could and would be reformed; “new ideas” had undermined the “old orthodoxy,” and their victory was inevitable.23

By trumpeting the inevitability of change, Hartmann soon found himself at odds with some of his conservative colleagues. Carl Heinrich Becker summarized Hartmann’s work in this manner: “In the history of Islam, Hartmann seeks confirmation of his political opinions on state and society, and formulates his subjective value judgments in the terminology of modern radicalism.” Although an enemy of scholasticism, Hartmann had succumbed to yet another set of scholastic dogmas in the course of elaborating a sociological system. The most dubious of these, opined Becker, was the domination of society by capital. By this emphasis on material categories, Hartmann overlooked the vital force of Muslim mysticism and indeed the power of religious belief in Islam, about which Hartmann had nothing to say and without which Islam simply could not be understood.24

Hartmann was not the sort to leave such charges unanswered. As a scholar, Hartmann claimed to have wrestled with the subjective moments that occur in all creative study. At the same time, he had a guiding vision of state and society, which came to him only after much inner struggle. That vision was essentially sociological. Hartmann took offense at Becker’s description of his approach as an expression of “modern radicalism.” Radicalism in the abstract had no boundaries and belonged to no one party. Luther, Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, and Kant could all be tagged “modern radicals.” The notion could not stand up to close scrutiny; it was a phantom conjured up to frighten children. Hartmann did admit to the influence of the new sociology and “sociography” upon his work. But he denied that this “system” represented a form of scholasticism, for its principles were not unalterable, and he cited his many travels as evidence of his demonstrated willingness to confront theory with “human documents.”25 The controversy between Becker and Hartmann embodied antagonisms which were at once personal, professional, and political. It was an unequal match. Becker, despite his youth, represented the Orientalist consensus of his day, and while he too later dealt in grand theories and sweeping generalizations, he did so in the more comfortably German fashion of the cultural historicist.

Hartmann’s fascination with suspect sociology, his “modern radicalism,” and his fiery personality combined to mark him as a dissident. The Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje found Hartmann to be an “able man” of “unmistakable talent.” But Hartmann also had a “wild” and “nervous” temperament, and his work was “disjointed.” So convinced was Hartmann of the “narrow-mindedness” of his colleagues that his conceit shone through, and he came to regard himself as “the brightest star in the dim firmament of scholarship.”26

Becker would later eulogize Hartmann as a tragic figure, saddled with bad judgment, an immoderate temperament, bizarre notions, and a mode of argumentation more like a preacher’s than a scholar’s. Still, behind Hartmann’s “hatred for the church and the priesthood,” Becker discerned “a seeker of God”; behind Hartmann’s “tedious sociological scholasticism” lay “an unfulfilled yearning for inner harmony.” Despite Hartmann’s faith in historical materialism, he remained an idealist.27 Becker did not seek the sources of these conflicts. Perhaps Hartmann’s dissident idealism drew upon the traditional nonconformism of the Mennonite congregation. Perhaps his aggressively opinionated style, which so reminded Becker of a preacher, did owe something to a childhood spent in the world of the parsonage. In this controversial and volatile spirit, Arab nationalism found one of its first foreign champions.

An Arab Movement?

Hartmann dissented not only from the collegial consensus over the contours of his academic discipline. In the same moment he broke with prevailing wisdom about the resilience of the Ottoman Empire and the loyalty of its Arab Muslim subjects.

In his piece on the future of Arabic studies, published in 1898, Hartmann sounded a note which would resound throughout his later writings. Syria, he claimed, was the land in which “Arab national feelings” were strongest, a land which had recently seen the development of a “specifically Arabic cultural life.”28 The following year, Hartmann made the point unequivocally in a piece devoted to the modern revival of Arabic literature and the growth of the Arabic press. In Hartmann’s view, that revival had clear political implications. Strength through unity was indeed the cry of the hour in the Muslim world. But the Ottoman sultan could be ruled out as the focus of this quest for unity. Abdülhamid alone stood behind the campaign to have him recognized by Muslims everywhere as the defender of the faith. But Islam, in Hartmann’s view, was in its inner essence democratic, and even the strongest leaders of Islam’s largest movements have occupied center stage not because of who they were, but as expounders of an idea. The Sultan as a pure representative of the Islamic idea can carry no weight. He is first a Turk, then a Muslim.

For the non-Turkish population of the Ottoman Empire, the regime was above all Ottoman. And the Ottomans, conquering with empty heart and mind, had brought nothing to Islam. Their craniums had been filled only with lust for blood and carnal pleasures. The Ottomans were not the pillars of Islam they appeared to be, for Islam needed no such pillars. As for the Muslims of other lands, many of whom professed a vague allegiance to the Ottoman sultan as a kind of universal caliph, they were not oblivious to the “glaring contradiction” between the Turkish way of government and “strict Islam.” The Turk therefore “has no friends. In the Turkish empire he is detested by the Christians and the non-Turkish Muslims in the same measure, as that element who is averse to every genuine advance, who thwarts all efforts toward progress and knocks to the ground nearly every stirring of national awareness with shocking harshness and brutality.”29

Istanbul could not master the driving force of Islam’s great masses. But the revival of the Arabic language could. In Hartmann’s view, literary Arabic had made tremendous strides as the common language of all Muslims. In Syria and Egypt, a literary renaissance had completely recast the language. In India it occupied an increasingly larger place in Muslim education. In Istanbul the Turks themselves realized Arabic’s binding strength, and conducted their own pan-Islamic policy largely in Arabic. In Arabic-speaking lands, the revival of Arabic had invigorated religious life, making religious reform possible and instilling in the Arab Muslim a sense of special pride in his nation. In Hartmann’s view, Arabic and the Arabs were speedily regaining their place of primacy in Islam. He now pronounced that a sense of Arab cultural supremacy and resentment of Turkish misrule had created the climate for an “upheaval.” “The seed has been sown,” Hartmann announced. A “broad spectrum” of Arab opinion held this view as formulated by Hartmann on their behalf: “We Arabs no longer wish to be the slaves of the Turks. We wish to unite ourselves in an independent state, governed by ourselves, in our own language, according to our own customs.”30

Hartmann did not claim that an organized movement existed. He took up that issue only when an Arab claimed that such a movement did exist and that it deserved external support to achieve the final aim of Arab independence. Negib Azoury provoked a spate of discussion in Europe with his publication of a small book entitled Le réveil de la nation arabe dans l’Asie turque in January 1905. Azoury’s book was of no consequence among the Arabs themselves, and he later confided that the book sought not to describe Arab discontent so much as to create it. This it failed to do. But the message it carried to Europe had a greater impact. Here was an Arab author, a former Ottoman official, who claimed that the Arab provinces were ripe for revolt, and that a movement already existed which needed only the assent of Europe to bring about the final confrontation. The book won serious consideration in various foreign offices, and was reviewed in the prestigious policy periodicals of the day. Azoury first posed to Europe what soon became known as the Arab question.31

Hartmann had an answer to that question, which he felt compelled to offer following the appearance of Azoury’s controversial book. The book itself, wrote Hartmann, was highly suspect. Azoury’s prophesy that the struggle between Arabs and Jews for Palestine would prove decisive to the entire world struck Hartmann as a blatant sign of anti-Semitic motive, an impression strengthened by Azoury’s promise of a forthcoming work entitled Le péril juif universel: Révélations et études politiques. Hartmann observed (correctly) that Azoury was a common family name among Syrian Jews, and speculated (wrongly) that Azoury himself might be an ex-Jew, whose work was an attempt to disown his origins.32

Yet Azoury’s prejudices did not offend Hartmann as much as the alliances which Azoury urged upon the movement he purported to represent. Azoury’s book was written in French for a French audience, and directly appealed to those Frenchmen who were eager to gain an advantage for France at the expense of her European rivals. Azoury proposed to make the Arab national movement an agent of French influence in return for French support. “From a European point of view,” wrote Azoury, “our independence conforms fully to French interests. If Syria and Mesopotamia remain in the hands of the Turks, within ten years all of Asia Minor will be a German colony.”33 Hartmann was outraged, certainly as one who had idealized the Arab cause, but also as a German with a jaundiced view of all reliance upon France. Azoury, he averred, imagined France to be a disinterested “good fairy,” prepared to grant the Arab movement’s every wish. But it was a delusion to think that the French would raise a finger or part with a centime for a free Arabia.34 Hartmann had even harsher words for Azoury’s French collaborator, Eugène Jung, whose book of 1906, entitled Les puissances devant la révolte arabe, was a deemed by Hartmann a “wretched, sorry piece.”35 These were the Arab movement’s “false friends,” whose activities brought “discredit” to the cause.36

Having dispensed with Azoury and his French collaborator, Hartmann took up the more consequential issue of the actual state of Arab opinion. It would be wrong, he warned his German readers, to see the Arab cause as one championed solely by intriguers and careerists. Resentment against Turkish rule ran deep and wide. The “Arabic-speaking masses of Asia and Africa” were “astir.” But it was true that these masses had failed to form one alliance and recognize one of their own as leader. Hartmann attributed the lack of movement to the Arab dilemma of self-definition. “What is the ‘Arab nation’?” Did these disparate elements, settled across North Africa and into Asia, indeed constitute one nation? “The worst enemy of the Arab is himself,” answered Hartmann. The Arabs were “selfish, envious, quarrelsome,” qualities which, throughout their history, had brought them under the domination of foreigners–first of Persians, then of “an inferior people,” the Turks. With the fall of the Umayyads, Islam had ceased to be the religion of the Arab ethnos. A foreign religious autocracy devoted ostensibly to preserving the interests of Islam now held sway. The “dictatorship” of the “deranged” Ottoman sultan rested on religious fanaticism, which preached to Arab Muslims the hatred of unbelievers and foreigners. The reawakening of the Arabs to their identity began only with the literary revival authored mostly by Syrian Christians, who were by disposition “energetic, diligent, and persevering.” Only they were truly free of the mind-shackling constraints of Muslim solidarity.37

But while Arab Muslims still clung to a tradition of self-abnegation in the name of Islam, even here there was “movement.” Hartmann placed particular emphasis on an event which now occupies no place at all in retrospective accounts of early Arab nationalism: the uprising of 1904 against Ottoman rule in the Yemen. The new Imam of Yemen, Mahmud Yahya, had laid siege to the Ottoman garrison in San‘a that year, forcing the Ottomans to withdraw and sue for peace. These Yemeni highlanders were “wild” and defiantly independent, and Hartmann did not rule out the possibility of their northward expansion into the Hijaz and even Syria, uniting Arabia under one rule. It was not clear to Hartmann whether Syrian Christians or Yemeni rebels would ultimately shape the Arab movement. But either could build on the eventual support of the discontented mass of Arab Muslims, who knew Turkish rule to be a “misfortune.”38

Hartmann’s very early claim that the Ottoman Empire had lost the loyalty of its Arab Muslim subjects could only arouse controversy. The prevalent political mood in Germany at the time was strongly Turcophile, a mood inaugurated by the celebrated visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Syria in the autumn of 1898. Such sentiment received crucial validation from other German observers who claimed that the Ottoman Empire most certainly did command the allegiance of its Muslim subjects. The German policy of professed friendship towards Islam rested on the assumption that Islam’s true center resided in Istanbul, and that Turkish primacy in Islam stood uncontested. Hartmann’s bold dissent raised eyebrows. It could only have damaged his simultaneous effort to have a chair of Islamology established in Berlin. The creation of such a chair required the backing of interested official circles, willing to force a door still held shut by academic purists. So it had been in France. But who could possibly be interested in lending the authority of an endowed chair to the kind of ideas Hartmann now propagated? Hartmann, in championing an unorthodox view regarding the health of the Ottoman Empire, demonstrably set aside self-interest.

A decade of these claims reached their culmination in 1908, with Hartmann’s completion of a great grab-bag of archaeological, philological, and historical ruminations on Arabia, published as Die arabische Frage. This was a strangely proportioned book in which the notes occupied five times the space of the text. And it was strangely titled, since only a few pages were devoted to what was widely understood to constitute the Arab question. By this time, the Imam of Yemen had reached an accommodation with the Ottomans, so demonstrating himself to be of “small spirit.” It would be wrong, Hartmann now wrote, to see the Imam’s movement as an Arab nationalist one. Indeed, it seemed to Hartmann that the obstacles to the development of any independent, national Arab polity, “as the kernel of an Arab national state,” were now “colossal.” To think that these could be overcome by bombarding foreign governments with memoranda pleading for help was “the summit of naivety.” To all those who worked on behalf of the Arab cause, he offered this sobering advice: “Act with the courage of optimism, but without self-deception.”39

Here was a telling sign of disillusionment, not with the undeniable justice of the Arab cause, but with the ability of the Arabs to ever see it to fruition. It stemmed, too, from Hartmann’s growing realization that Arab Muslims still held firmly to the rope of Muslim solidarity. In the decade since he had first taken up the Arab cause, Hartmann had been unable to adduce any evidence for his claims concerning the shifting loyalties of Arab Muslims, and he eventually felt it necessary to modify them. It is noteworthy that Hartmann made no mention of Kawakibi’s Umm al-qura, which he might have cited as evidence for the spread of Arab nationalism among Muslim thinkers. But Hartmann believed the British to be behind the appearance of Arab nationalist ideas in Egypt. From England’s “ruthless power policy” had emerged the idea of an Arab state under the nominal rule of an Egyptian king, a state in which each constituent part would enjoy autonomy.40 It was an idea which Hartmann regarded as a betrayal, for again it placed the Arab movement directly under the tutelage of an outside power. If he knew at all of Kawakibi’s work or activities, he might well have dismissed them as a part of this scheme, which owed its life to foreign paymasters. By 1908, Hartmann had come to believe that Arab independence would follow only an arduous “step-by-step” process of enlightening Arab Muslim opinion.

In July 1908, Sultan Abdülhamid restored the Ottoman constitution, ending what Hartmann had long decried as Hamidian “tyranny and terror.” The news from Turkey recalled for Hartmann the stirring days of 1876, when the disastrous Sultan Abdülaziz had been deposed and Sultan Abdülhamid had been persuaded to grant the first Ottoman constitution.41 Hartmann had been a student of Turkish in Istanbul at precisely that time, and the restoration of the suspended constitution after more than thirty years seemed almost a personal invitation to reassess his position. Hartmann passed the months of September and October 1909 in Salonika and Istanbul, making notes along the way. The resulting book, published under the title Unpolitische Briefe aus der Türkei, made it clear that, for Hartmann, the revolution had failed, just as it had in his youth. It had produced mostly chaos and corruption, all portrayed in the book with an unbridled animosity.42

Among the revolution’s many failures, Hartmann included its unwillingness to redress the grievances of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab population. Everywhere Hartmann saw evidence for blatant discrimination against the Arabic language and its speakers. Even before his visit, he noted that Arab representation in the new parliament fell far short of the Arab share of the general population. He also learned of the founding in Istanbul of a Society of Arab-Ottoman Fraternity, and even secured copies of its publications in French and Arabic. The Society, composed of Arab parliamentary delegates and Arabs residing in the capital, did not preach separatism, but it did demand equality for the Arabs and their language. Hartmann cited an article in the Society’s Arabic periodical which attacked the Turkish-language press for presenting the Arabs “in the filthiest way,” a practice which gained currency during a press campaign against the hated Arab advisers of the sultan. All this, in Hartmann’s view, simply hastened the day when “the Arab peasants,” regarded so contemptuously by their Turkish overlords, would “give marching orders for good to the arrogant foreign pests.”43 As Hartmann later ascertained during his visit to Istanbul, the Society quickly broke apart on the rocks of internal quarrel.44 But in its short life he saw the pattern for a future movement, assertive of Arab rights but free from dependence on any outside power.

For nothing so threatened Arab nationalism’s prospects as the continued attempts to win it foreign support. Now another Syrian Christian, Rashid Mutran, busied himself in Paris, posing as the head of a committee “representing all the Syrians of Turkey and abroad,” and issuing proclamations and a publication in order to win foreign backing. Hartmann recognized the “well-known trick” by which an upstart traveled about the capitals of Europe and created the illusion that he headed a movement. Hartmann thought Mutran was a fraud and said so.45

According to Hartmann, those truly working for national independence in Syria knew that its time had not yet come, and so preferred to operate within existing frameworks. Arab eyes were gradually opening to the fact that the Turks were “cunning and violent,” and a clean break between “Ottomans” and Arabs would eventually occur. (The break-up of the Ottoman share into three states–Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian–was only “a matter of time.”) As for an interim strategy, Hartmann speculated freely about how the Arabs might wrest control from the Turks without rebellion or reliance on foreign powers. Against the Turks, the Arabs needed able allies within the Ottoman parliament; the people best suited for such an alliance, both by temperament and shared interests, were the Greeks of Asia Minor. Were the Arabs to join hands with the Greeks, and win the support of Jews, Armenians, and even a few Albanians and dissident Turks, the public administration and finance of the Ottoman Empire might be placed on an even keel.46 But this cooperation would be no more than an interim arrangement. Arab independence, too, was only a matter of time.47

Return to Syria

Many years had passed since Hartmann had last set eyes on Syria’s shores. Since coming to Berlin he had visited Cairo and Istanbul, and had gone on adventurous expeditions through the Libyan desert and Chinese Turkestan. But he had not been through Syria since his departure from Beirut in 1887, and what he knew about subsequent shifts in the mood of its peoples reached him by circuitous routes. Hartmann was an assiduous student of the Arabic press, which he followed as best he could under difficult circumstances. He knew something about the orientation and content of all the principle Arabic newspapers published in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, although he could not follow them regularly and assessed many of them only on the basis of a few issues.48 He conducted some correspondence with various editors of Arabic newspapers, including Jurji Zaydan and Khalil Sarkis, but the letters dealt strictly with literary matters. He also corresponded with German officials and consuls in the Levant and Anatolia, and with a few missionaries. But given Hartmann’s long absence from the region, it had become difficult for him to speak authoritatively in his own country against a growing Turcophile sentiment, fed by German correspondents, travelers, engineers, and advisers who regularly traversed Syria. For lack of first-hand evidence, Hartmann even took to quoting these would-be authorities, when they confirmed his theories about the spread of Arab discontent.49

Hartmann finally resolved to return to Syria and to give an account of his journey in regular despatches to the Frankfurter Zeitung. In March 1913, he arrived in Haifa, and over the next five weeks visited Damascus, Beirut, Hamah, Tripoli, Lattakia, Homs, and Aleppo. The despatches were quickly published as a book entitled Reisebriefe aus Syrien, a valuable account of the state of Syria on the eve of the war.

Hartmann, viewing Syria with an eye for progress, could not but dwell upon the economic transformation of the country in the twenty-six years since he had last seen it. He recognized the tremendous significance of the new railroads, and declared Haifa “the city of the future,” with its railhead and harbor. (There were also Zionist settlers there, but Zionism always seemed to Hartmann a utopian venture, too small to have any political import.)50 As for Damascus, Hartmann estimated that its population had more than doubled since his last visit in 1887, and while the atmosphere of the old marketplace had not changed, even the most modest residential streets had electric light. Beirut, a thriving center of commerce and education, had the look of a European city. All of this progress he attributed to the combination of foreign capital and local ability, and the growth had been in spite of onerous Ottoman policies.

But Hartmann concerned himself above all with charting changes in the political climate, and assessing the prospects for an Arab movement. He himself had no doubt about the ultimate aims of the “Stambul Effendis” and the ruling Committee of Union and Progress. They sought the Turkification of the Arabs through the “swindle” of “Ottoman nationality.” For Hartmann, the very notion of an Ottoman identity seemed riddled with contradictions. The regime, in appealing to its Muslim subjects, emphasized religious allegiance to the Caliph; in appealing to non-Muslim subjects, it insisted they cast aside religious allegiance in favor of a secular loyalty to the sultan. In either instance, Ottomanization amounted only to Turkification, at the obvious expense of Arabic language and cultural expression.51

This Hartmann knew. But did the Arabs know it? His despatches were guarded. In Damascus he met with Muhammad Kurd Ali, “an extraordinary man” and editor of the newspaper Al-Muqtabas, which had published Arab grievances against attempts at Turkification and had been closed down in the past by the authorities. But Kurd Ali was “nervous and excited” during the meeting, which took place in the presence of others, and Hartmann did not find the setting conducive to a frank exchange.52 One can well imagine Kurd Ali being circumspect in speaking with Hartmann, and Hartmann showing discretion in writing about their meeting. In any event, Hartmann attributed no views directly to Kurd Ali.

But once in Beirut, Hartmann began to formulate conclusions about the nature of “the Arab opposition to Turkish rule.” This opposition took two forms, national and religious. In its national form, it obviously sprang from resistance to Turkification and administrative centralization. In its religious form, it arose from the resentment of pious Arab Muslims against the Young Turks, who stood for equal treatment of believers and unbelievers. Most Syrian Muslims did not understand that Arabdom would never have fallen as “booty” to the Turks had Arabic-speakers of differing religious faiths worked together. Few were prepared to work together now. And so the principal obstacles to true national consciousness were international bonds of religion, of the Maronite clergy and of what Hartmann called the international “church” of Islam. It was especially the internationality of Islam which “breaks the courage of the opposition to foreign rule.” Arab national awareness was struggling toward maturity, toward victory over these other forces, and one could discern early signs of a break with the already weakened bonds of international religion. This had produced an Arab national spirit in Syria.53 Now Hartmann looked forward to the day when a reformer of Islam would arise to finally sweep away “the entire debris of ritual” so that Arab Muslims might advance together with Arab Christians as one Arab nation.54

In mid-April, as Hartmann moved through northern Syria, important news reached him. The Ottoman authorities had moved against the Beirut Reform Committee, a group of local notables who had proposed a plan for administrative decentralization in January. This development was a welcome sign of discontent, although Hartmann thought the Beirut plan too modest.55 An informant then gave him an account of the related activities of those Syrians belonging to the Ottoman Decentralization Party in Cairo, and Hartmann began to discern the contours of a wider movement linking Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus. This finally prompted him to question the wisdom of established German policy. Germany had withheld moral support for the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire in accordance with a policy of “non-intervention,” and she had systematically ignored Arab claims in deference to Turkish prestige. But as the Arabs drew apart from the Turks, Arabs were bound to seek assistance from foreign nations, and Germany stood to lose if she did not act. Germany’s position in Syria was still sound, “despite all the intrigues against us,” and Hartmann implied that a German effort should be made to extend support for legitimate Arab claims. Certainly the big German concerns operating in Syria should have demonstrated a measure of respect for the Arabic language. By way of annoying example, Hartmann noted that train information at the Aleppo station on the German-managed Baghdad railroad was offered only in Turkish and Armenian.56

But the remarkable point about Hartmann’s Syrian journey was that he met no one who openly professed the idea of Arab separatism. When he met leaders of the Beirut Reform Committee, they were quick to assure him that they had no intention of undermining the caliphate of the Ottoman sultan, or challenging the inclusion of the Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire.57 Nor did the nervous Kurd Ali confide in him. It was not merely that Hartmann did not enjoy their trust. Obviously a German scholar writing for a newspaper could not expect these new acquaintances to share their innermost thoughts with him. But it also seemed to Hartmann that his Arab interlocutors had not yet convinced even themselves that reform could not work or that their only solution lay in independence. No one took schemes for an Arab caliphate seriously, and when the Sharif of Mecca was mentioned to a prominent Muslim supporter of reform in Beirut, Hartmann heard him dismiss the Meccan grandee as “a wretched simpleton” with a “wild” following.58 And so while Hartmann did not alter his own view–that Turkish rule was “a succession of violations”59–he saw no Arab revolt on the horizon, and did not predict one.

While Hartmann probed for cracks in the Ottoman edifice, Germany committed itself still further to a policy of holding that edifice together. Hartmann obviously had done little to inspire the confidence of official circles with his writings, and it became clear to him that his efforts for establishment of a chair of Islamology in Berlin were bound to fail. He himself would remain a teacher of Arabic in what many scholars regarded as hardly more than a state-supported “Berlitz School” (or, in the uncharitable words of Becker, a “trade school for overseas routine”).60 It is impossible to tell from published sources just how Hartmann’s criticisms of Turkish rule in Arab lands might have worked against him professionally. He had done much else to make himself an unacceptable candidate for such a chair. In print, Hartmann pointed an accusing finger at the narrow-mindedness of philologists and the inertia of Berlin bureaucrats, but unspecified “circumstances” did not permit him to speak “more openly.”61

In the end, Hartmann simply set aside convention by acting as though he did occupy a chair. From the summer of 1910, he began to offer courses on Islamic culture, society, and theology. And in January 1912 he and some like-minded colleagues founded the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Islamkunde, a scholarly society devoted exclusively to the study of contemporary Islam. Hartmann accepted the presidency of the new society, which exercised considerable influence through its journal, Die Welt des Islams. 62 On its pages, Hartmann continued to follow developments in Syria, particularly in his detailed reviews of foreign journals and books. In Beirut he had met the Viscount Philippe de Tarrazi, who had just published the first volume of his monumental history of the Arabic press.63 Back in Berlin, Hartmann reviewed this essential source for the early history of Arabism, pronouncing again that the “religious bond” between Arabs and Turks was weak, and that the deep chasm between them remained unbridged.64

From Arabs to Turks

Then an unnatural transformation occurred. Becker put it delicately in his account of Hartmann’s career. After 1914, “as regards the Turks, he turned from Saul into Paul.” Hartmann’s sudden enthusiasm for the Turks seemed “suspect” to some, wrote Becker, but the change was not for “lack of character; quick reassessments lay at the heart of his character.”65 Yet it was not the speed of the reassessment which seemed suspect. It was the timing, coming as it did precisely when Germany entered a war alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

While Hartmann sometimes wrote impulsively, his views on Turks and Arabs had not changed in any important respect since he first formulated them many years earlier. Hartmann certainly could not have continued to write about the Turks as he had written in the past, even had he wished to do so. Freedom of expression disappeared with the war, and no criticism of an ally could be tolerated in print. Yet Hartmann went still further, substituting adulation for ridicule. In recalling his devastating 1909 account of the new regime in Istanbul, Hartmann insisted that his Unpolitische Briefe aus der Türkei was mistakenly regarded as an anti-Turkish tract. “I have never felt animosity towards the Turks,” he protested in 1916; the harsh words in the book had been directed only against individuals.66

During the war, Hartmann turned his talents almost exclusively to the study of Turkish literature and modern Turkish thought. But more than that, Hartmann began to write pieces which served Germany’s war propaganda needs. Although they never approached Becker’s war articles for sheer polemical distortion, they dealt with similar themes in a similar manner. Most of Hartmann’s pieces were published in two periodicals created especially for the purpose of convincing readers of German that the alliance with the Ottoman Empire served essential German interests and constituted a moral necessity.

Hartmann forged new friendships with the many Ottoman propagandists, Turkish- and Arabic-speaking, who arrived in Berlin during the war.67 He did not comment on the disaster which soon befell some of his past Arab interlocutors. In the editorial offices of Al-Muqtabas in Damascus, he had conversed with Rushdi al-Sham‘a, “a man in his forties with a round, rosy countenance,” and Amir Umar al-Jaza’iri, “a tall, slender man of plain appearance.”68 Both were sentenced to death for treason by an Ottoman military court and were hanged in May 1915. In Beirut, Hartmann had fallen under the spell of Shaykh Ahmad Tabbara, a bold newspaper editor, “cheerful and strong and confident of victory,” whom Hartmann regarded as “a shining example of Arab vigor.”69 He too met his end on the gallows. But other Arabs whom Hartmann admired, especially Muhammad Kurd Ali, stood solidly behind the Ottoman war effort. Their decision made Hartmann’s choice still easier.

And Hartmann, too, had his allegiances. Despite his support for the Arab cause, he had refused to subject Germany’s Eastern policy to trenchant criticism. He shared the wider German preoccupation with the “intrigues” spun by France, England, and Russia against the legitimate interests of Germany in Ottoman lands. He strongly disapproved of any form of Arab nationalist expression tainted by association with Germany’s rivals in Europe. Now the Young Turks had shed their neutrality in favor of a German alliance at a crucial moment in the war, while Arab nationalists entered the not-so-secret embrace of Germany’s enemies. Hartmann did not confuse his allegiances with his sympathies. And as a man too easily given to enthusiasm, he did his duty as a German not with dour resignation, but with the zeal of a true Turcophile. “Hartmann’s present enthusiasm for Muslim prayer and the Turks is as distasteful to me as was his previous slander of them,” wrote Hurgronje.70 Hartmann spent his last days immersed in Turkish texts, and when he died after a short illness in December 1918, representatives of the Turkish colony of Berlin saw him laid to rest.71

From the turn of the century until the war, Martin Hartmann wrote and published as a friend of Arabism. His sympathy was forged by early personal experience and a dissident temperament which were shared by very few of his compatriots. But Hartmann was a lone friend in still another sense. If there had been an organized Arab movement in his time, it almost certainly would have sought him out. The diverse nationalist groups within the Ottoman Empire made a point of cultivating foreign friends in their struggle for foreign sympathy, and they had use for scholars as well as for statesmen. Hartmann would have been a valuable ally to such an Arab movement, for his imagination needed little stoking. As it happened, it was Hartmann who had to rush about Syria in search of a nationalism still without form. He found a “spirit” of Arabism, but did not know of the secret societies and the clandestine dealings. What he did see constituted a movement in its infancy. Arabism could not have known Hartmann, and so does not remember him. It arose too late, and then chose friends of lesser fidelity.


1 The most influential piece of writing on Martin Hartmann (hereafter MH) has been the compassionate but highly critical obituary written by Carl Heinrich Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” in his Islamstudien, (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1932), 2:481-90, first published in Der Islam 10 (1920): 228-33. For other brief descriptions of MH and his work, see Lucien Bouvat, “Martin Hartmann,” Revue du monde musulman 12 (1910): 530-31; Georg Kampffmeyer, “Martin Hartmann,” Die Welt des Islams, o.s., 6 (1918): 67-71; Johann Fück, Die arabischen Studien in Europa (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1955), 269-73; Wolfgang Reuschel, “Zu Werk und Persönlichkeit des deutschen Arabisten Martin Hartmann,” in Arbeiterklasse und nationaler Befreiungskampf, ed. Elmar Faber (Leipzig: Karl-Marx Universität, 1963), 159-66; W. van Kampen, “Studien zur deutschen Türkeipolitik in der Zeit Wilhelms II” (Ph.D. diss., Kiel University, 1968), 298-99; Ulrich Haarmann, “Die islamische Moderne bei den deutschen Orientalisten,” Araber und Deutsche, eds. Friedrich H. Kochwasser and Hans R. Roemer (Tübingen and Basel: Erdmann, 1974), 59-63; Baber Johansen, “Politics and Scholarship: The Development of Islamic Studies in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in Middle East Studies: International Perspectives on the State of the Art, ed. Tareq Y. Ismael (New York: Praeger, 1990), 87-88; and the introduction to Islamkunde und Islamwissenschaft im deutschen Kaiserreich: der Briefwechsel zwischen Carl Heinrich Becker und Martin Hartmann (1900-1918), Abdoel-Ghaffaar: Sources for the History of Islamic Studies in the Western World, vol. 5, ed. Ludmila Hanisch (Leiden: Documentatiebureau Islam-Christendom, Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid, Rijksuniversiteit, 1992), 12-19, 21-24. This last item is a carefully annotated edition of MH’s correspondence with Becker. For MH’s bibliography, see Gotthard Jäschke, “Islamforschung der Gegenwart. Martin Hartmann zum Gedächtnis,” Die Welt des Islams, o.s., 23 (1941): 111-21; Die Welt des Islams, o.s., 6 (1918): 86-87 (for MH’s contributions to Die Welt des Islams); and Islamkunde und Islamwissenschaft, 129-48. The latter is comprehensive. MH’s papers are located in the old library of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft in Halle (Saale), Germany. They are cited here as MH Papers. The collection is uncatalogued; I am indebted to Ludmila Hanisch, who loaned me her priivate catalogue of the collection.

2 See Holger Preissler, “Arabistik in Leipzig (vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts),” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Karl-Marx-Universität Leipzig, Gesellschafts und Sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe 28, no. 1 (1979): 87-105.

3 Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” 481.

4 Kampffmeyer, “Martin Hartmann,” 69, as related to him by Nöldeke.

5 Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” 483.

6 Such judgments pervade MH’s Der islamische Orient, vol. 3, Unpolitische Briefe aus der Türkei (1910; reprint, Amsterdam: APA-Oriental Press, 1976), discussed below (and cited henceforth as Unpolitische Briefe).

7 A judgment formed during visits to Cairo; MH, The Arabic Press of Egypt (London: Luzac, 1899), 3.

8 MH, The Arabic Press of Egypt, 3-4.

9 MH received many love notes, probably in 1885, signed “Labibe Saber”; see MH Papers, packet 260.

10 MH’s attachment to the Armenians also dated from his Beirut years, for it fell to him to arrange the placement of Armenian children in German orphanages after a massacre of Armenians at Urfa in 1882. MH, Reisebriefe aus Syrien (Berlin: Reimer, 1913), 102.

11 This and other occasional despatches from Hartmann are found in the German Foreign Office Archives as microfilmed by the University of California, National Archives Microcopy T-139, reel 275.

12 MH, Unpolitische Briefe, 173. A note from Yaziji to MH from 1880, MH Papers, blue file XI/2, mentions a loan of fifty francs which MH made to Yaziji.

13 The declaration establishing the Seminar, dated 6 August 1887, is preserved in MH Papers, blue file III/40.

14 MH (Berlin) to Ibrahim al-Yaziji, 21 December 1887, MH Papers, packet 141.

15 MH note of 17 August 1912, MH Papers, blue file I/1. The note concerns MH’s meeting with Amin al-Rihani, with whom he spoke Arabic.

16 Undated autobiographical notes, MH Papers, blue file I/9.

17 MH, “Die Arabistik–Reformvorschläge,” Orientalistische Literatur-Zeitung 1 (1898): 334-42.

18 MH, “Neue Bahnen der Orientalistik,” Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Orient 1 (1902-3): 28-29. Fleischer had died in February 1888.

19 MH, “Les études musulmanes en Allemagne,” Revue du monde musulman 12 (1910): 534-35.

20 A proposal which MH first made in his “Islamologie,” Orientalistische Literatur-Zeitung 2 (1899): 1-4.

21 For the parallel controversy surrounding the establishment of a chair for “the sociology and sociography of Islam” at the Collège de France, see Edmund Burke, III, “La Mission Scientifique au Maroc,” Bulletin économique et social du Maroc, nos. 138-39 (1979): 45-46. MH corresponded with Alfred Le Chatelier, first incumbent of the chair. In one letter, Le Chatelier revealed to MH that it had never been his intention to create such a chair. “My chair should have been a chair of African and Muslim politics with a capital P–that is, history and doctrine. But the word ‘politics’ alarmed some people, who asked me at the last moment to change the title. So I invented ‘sociography’ and attached ‘sociology’ to it.” Le Chatelier (Paris) to MH, 15 December 1912, MH Papers, packet 97.

22 MH, “Les études musulmanes,” 536.

23 For MH’s favorable view of Islamic reform, see his “Islam und Arabische,” in his Der islamische Orient, vol. 1, Berichte und Forschungen (1900; reprint, Amsterdam: APA-Oriental Press, 1976), 14-18. MH knew the reformist Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, who sent him books, and MH’s papers include a letter from an intermediary, Edward Elias, conveying Abduh’s regards. “He was just in Europe,” wrote Elias of Abduh. “It would appear that travels in the West give great pleasure to our venerable shaykh.” Elias (Cairo) to MH, 31 October 1893, MH Papers, packet 209.

24 C. H. Becker, “Islam,” Archiv für Religionswissenschaft (Leipzig) 15 (1912): 535-36. In this review article, Becker criticized MH’s popular Der Islam: Geschichte–Glaube– Recht (Leipzig: Haupt, 1909), which he thought had been hastily composed, doing only damage to Hartmann’s reputation.

25 MH, Islam, Mission, Politik (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1912), iv-xvii.

26 Scholarship and Friendship in Early Islamwissenschaft: The Letters of C. Snouck Hurgronje to I. Goldziher, Abdoel-Ghaffaar: Sources for the History of Islamic Studies in the Western World, vol. 2, ed. P. Sj. van Koningsveld (Leiden: Documentatiebureau Islam-Christendom, Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid, Rijksuniversiteit, 1985), 179, 196, 200, 220.

27 Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” 482-83, 490.

28 MH, “Die Arabistik,” 336.

29 MH, “Islam und Arabische,” 6-10; disparaging remarks on the Ottomans in MH, Der Islam: Geschichte–Glaube–Recht, 185-86.

30 MH, “Die Mekkabahn,” Orientalistische Literatur-Zeitung 2 (1908): 5-6.

31 On Negib Azoury, see Elie Kedourie, “The Politics of Political Literature: Kawakibi, Azoury and Jung,” in his Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (London: Frank Cass, 1974), 107-23; Stefan Wild, “Negib Azoury and His Book Le Réveil de la Nation Arabe,” in Intellectual Life in the Arab East, 1890-1939, ed. Marwan R. Buheiry (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1981), 93-5; and Martin Kramer, “Azoury: A Further Episode,” Middle Eastern Studies 18 (1982): 351-58.

32 MH, “Das neue Arabien,” Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Orient 2 (1904-5): 15.

33 Interview with Azoury, La République française (Paris), 21 May 1905. The interview is in MH’s copybooks. Elsewhere, Azoury was cautious not to burn Arab bridges to Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II had erred in pursuing the friendship of the tyrannical Sultan Abdülhamid. Still, Germany’s true interests lay not in Arab lands but rather in Anatolia. Azoury expressed the hope that the cause of Arab independence might yet win the Kaiser’s sympathy. Negib Azoury, Le réveil de la nation arabe dans l’Asie turque (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1905), pp. 131-42.

34 MH, “Die Mekkabahn,” 5. MH did have an indirect channel to Azoury: Edmond Fazy, a Parisian journalist and editor of La République française. Like MH, Fazy was strongly anti-Ottoman, as evidenced by his tract, Les Turcs d’aujourd’hui, ou le Grand Karagheuz (Paris: Paul Offendorff, 1898). Fazy took a keen interest in Azoury beginning in 1905, and interviewed Azoury several times for his newspaper. In 1907, Fazy attempted to persuade MH to reconsider his view of Azoury. MH replied with a scathing letter denouncing Azoury as a peddler of false information. MH also hinted that he had once known Azoury, but that “my friendship with him quickly ended” when he caught Azoury in lies; MH (Berlin) to Fazy, 27 May 1907, MH Papers, packet 3. Fazy replied that he still thought highly of Azoury, and urged MH to correspond directly with him; Fazy (Paris) to MH, 31 May 1907, MH Papers, packet 3. No correspondence with Azoury is preserved in MH’s papers.

35 MH, “Die Mekkabahn,” 5.

36 MH, Der islamische Orient, vol. 2, Die arabische Frage (1909; reprint, Amsterdam: APA-Oriental Press, 1976), 91. This volume is henceforth cited as Die arabische Frage.

37 MH, “Das neue Arabien,” 94-95, 98-101.

38 MH, “Quid novi ex Arabia?” Das freie Wort (Frankfurt) 5 (1905): 257-59, 305-6. MH’s friend, Edmond Fazy, also shared this excitement over events in Yemen, in a series of articles he published in La République française, 18, 26 June 1905. The ultimate source of Fazy’s enthusiasm, transmitted to MH, was none other than Azoury.

39 MH, Die arabische Frage, 88, 91-92.

40 Ibid., 559-61.

41 For MH’s initial enthusiasm about the Young Turk revolution, see MH, Die Frau im Islam (Halle, 1909), 19.

42 The tone of MH’s Unpolitische Briefe drew considerable fire in reviews and correspondence. The Russian Orientalist Vladimir Minorsky took MH to task in a letter: “Despite my respect for the opinions of others, I must say that such books, serving objectives which are purely political and not scientific, can only inflame passions and excite hatreds. You have spent thirty-five years studying Turkey. How much time did you spend forming your abusive generalizations about that country?” Minorsky (St. Petersburg) to MH, 16 October 1910, MH Papers, packet 155. See also packets 21, 51, and 123, which include more reviews and criticisms of the book, and MH’s replies.

43 MH, “Der Islam 1908,” Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen, Abteilung II, 12 (1909): 52-55.

44 MH, Unpolitische Briefe, 172.

45 For MH’s discussion of Mutran, see MH, “Der Islam 1908,” 56- 58, 106.

46 Ibid., 58-60.

47 MH, “Abdulhamid,” Das freie Wort 9 (1909): 130.

48 A catalogue of MH’s library is preserved in MH Papers, blue file IX/47. He owned a wide range of early Beirut newspapers and Ottoman provincial yearbooks. MH was supplied with this material largely by Jurji Sursuq, an employee of the German consulate in Beirut. Sursuq also collected the lyrics of the popular chants of Lebanon which MH studied. MH’s papers include many letters from Sursuq decribing the political situation in bleak tones. “There is no repose in the Orient,” he wrote in one letter. “There is no civilization in Islam.” Sursuq (Beirut) to MH, 27 June 1909, MH Papers, packet 12.

49 In a typical instance, MH quoted an article by a German traveler, with whom he was obviously unfamiliar, as evidence that the Arabs in Palestine expected the revolt in Yemen to proceed northwards and free them from Ottoman rule; MH, “Das neue Arabien,” 105, n. 15.

50 Not long after his return from Syria, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov came to visit Hartmann at his office, and began to explain to him the intricacies of Zionist and anti-Zionist politics. Hartmann professed indifference to the subject. There were only 12,000 souls in all the Jewish colonies, he noted; Tel Aviv, four years after its founding, had only 1,600 inhabitants. MH’s notes of meeting with Sokolov, 23 December 1913, MH Papers, blue file II/3.

51 MH, Reisebriefe, xii, 66-67.

52 Ibid., 13-15.

53 Ibid., 24-25, 34-36, 45.

54 Ibid., 68.

55 For MH’s discussion of the plan, see ibid., 39-43; and MH, “Die Vereinigten Staaten des Osmanischen Reiches,” Das freie Wort,13 (1913): 199-206.

56 MH, Reisebriefe, 91-95.

57 Ibid., 107-8.

58 Ibid., 108.

59 Ibid., 99.

60 Georg Kampffmeyer, “Das Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen zu Berlin,” Die Welt des Islams, o.s., 8 (1923): 10-11.

61 MH, “Les études musulmanes en Allemagne,” 533, 535.

62 Materials relating to the founding of the society are preserved in MH Papers, blue file IV/17.

63 MH, Reisebriefe, 106-7. For MH’s subsequent correspondence about newspapers with Tarrazi, dating from 1913 and 1914, see MH Papers, packet 166.

64 Die Welt des Islams, o.s., 1 (1913): 246

65 Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” 488.

66 MH, “Aus der neueren Osmanischen Dichtung,” Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen, Abteilung II, 19 (1916): 129.

67 The importance of these friendships is mentioned by Becker, “Martin Hartmann,” 488. MH even wrote a sympathetic introduction to a pro-jihad tract by one of these propagandists: Schaich Salih Aschscharif Attunisi, Haqiqat Aldschihad, Die Wahrheit über den Glaubenskrieg, trans. Karl E. Schabinger (Berlin: Reimer 1915), 1. For the circumstances surrounding the publication of this tract, see MH Papers, blue file VIII/1.

68 MH, Reisebriefe, 14.

69 Ibid.,110-12.

70 Scholarship and Friendship in Early Islamwissenschaft, 500.

71 Kampffmeyer, “Martin Hartmann,” 67.

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The Arab Nation of Shakib Arslan

This is Martin Kramer’s review of William L. Cleveland, Islam Against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism, published in Middle Eastern Studies, October 1987, pp. 529-33.


Shakib Arslan, the “Prince of Eloquence,” was a master of self-promotion. As a publicist and self-publicist, Arslan kept his name in print between the world wars by producing a journalistic and literary corpus of formidable proportions: he wrote twenty books and two thousand articles. His polemical periodical, La Nation arabe, had an avid readership in Europe, among sympathizers and critics alike.

It is all the more striking, then, that Arslan should have eluded thorough study in the West, which he made his battleground for Islamic independence. William Cleveland, the author of the first Western biography of Arslan,1 points to one explanation for this neglect: the Islamic unity championed by Arslan was defeated by secular nationalism. His efforts were spent in vain, earning him posthumous obscurity. To this one must add the unwillingness of Arslan’s family to permit access to his voluminous papers. Even Arslan’s Arab biographers, who were competent but never critical, failed to win their full cooperation. Neither did Cleveland, who was told in 1974 by Mayy Junbalat née Arslan that her father’s papers had been sent off to Morocco, where they languish in government custody. To write a subject’s life without his papers is an enterprise fraught with dangers. Yet Cleveland has met the documentary challenge with such resourcefulness that one doubts whether a radically different truth could ever emerge from Arslan’s own papers. Their concealment has now become all the more pointless.

Shakib Arslan was a man of one vocation and many careers. Born in 1869 to a powerful Druze family in the Lebanese Shuf, he might have anticipated a long career as chief of a clan, defending the interests and honor of his kin and folk, and rallying them to arms whenever persuasion failed. This is precisely the role of Arslan’s grandson, Walid Junbalat, who today guides the small Druze community of Lebanon in and out of confrontations with various militias, states, and world powers. Arslan did try his hand at chieftainship, mostly out of a sense of noblesse oblige. But his education, eloquence, and literary ability cultivated within him a sense of mission too ambitious to ever find satisfaction in the service of his sect. Arslan was touched at a precocious age by Afghani and Abduh, and drank from the literary fountains of Istanbul and Cairo while still a youth. In this heady world of ideas, he learned the dimensions of Islam’s crisis, and fixed upon the Ottoman Empire as the last bulwark against the subjugation of Islamdom to an insatiable West. As the nineteenth century closed, Arslan chose as his vocation the defense of all Islam, becoming a fiercely patriotic Ottoman and a cosmopolitan pan-Islamist.

Cleveland adroitly sets the scene for that most fateful of Arslan’s choices: his support for the Ottoman Empire’s entry into a world war that would destroy it and send Arslan into permanent exile. Few Arabs rendered as many services to the Ottoman war party and its German ally as Arslan. His belligerent ardor was matched only by his contempt for those who plotted with the British to foment Arab revolt. A romantic intellectual without a dash of military judgement, Arslan adored the reckless Enver, whom he continued to serve after final defeat, during Enver’s ill-fated exile in Berlin and Moscow.

Enver’s demise cut Arslan adrift. In the prime of his own life, Arslan saw his empire divided, his military idols smashed, his homeland occupied by a foreign power. In his determined defense of Islam, he would have to draw up a new personal order of battle. While others continued the struggle on native soil, Arslan chose to pamphleteer on colonialism’s doorstep, in Switzerland between the two world wars.

Agitprop in Geneva

It is here that Cleveland’s sources become rich and his narrative vivid. Arslan took it upon himself to represent the Arabs before the League of Nations, and especially before the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission. He held his formal brief from the fractious Syro-Palestinian Congress, but actually answered to no one in his campaign against the French and British mandates. He soon became a tremendous nuisance. Arslan bombarded the Mandates Commission with petitions, attended meetings of assorted oppressed peoples, hosted known agitators in his home, and published his views in any journal which would print them. Police and intelligence files bearing his name grew thick with reports of his doings and his intercepted mail. Cleveland makes thorough use of this material, particularly the files of the Swiss, who were compelled by French pressure to keep close a close watch on Arslan’s activities. With Arslan’s publication of La Nation arabe, beginning in 1930, his views found a regular and influential outlet, adding still more to his fame and notoriety.

Cleveland argues convincingly against the claim of Arslan’s Arab biographers that Arslan embraced Arab nationalism during this period, and narrowed the aim of his campaign to Arab independence. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence for a deepening of Arslan’s interest and involvement in the wider struggle of all Muslims against foreign rule. Arslan never made the full passage to Arabism, but formulated an all-embracing Islamic nationalism, which included but transcended the Arab cause. La Nation arabe was misleadingly titled, for it carried dozens of articles on subjects remote from Arab concerns then and now.

It must remain an open question whether this unwillingness to give some focus to his struggle enhanced or diminished its effect. Arslan came to exercise a vast influence in North Africa, and tirelessly sought support in the wider Muslim world for the defense of Islam’s western flank. This campaign reached its apex with his famous agitation against the Berber dahir, and much of Arslan’s later reputation he owed to his success in exciting the Arab East over this dire threat to Islam in Morocco. On the other hand, he sank nearly as much effort into the cause of the Balkan Muslim minorities, whose plight (at the time) failed to fire the imagination of wider Islam. But for Cleveland, this Islamic nationalism is important as evidence for the underlying continuity in Arslan’s values and beliefs, which made him a man of unvarying principle and integrity. He was no precursor, but he did reformulate the familiar message of Islamic solidarity in a rich language that many Muslims found inspiring.

Still, Arslan did not attempt to reformulate Islam itself, a point which Cleveland rightly underlines. Why this hesitation, in a man whose outspoken opinion knew no other limits? Cleveland suggests that Arslan lacked an interest in theology. But to this one must add Arslan’s own awareness that his very standing as a believer was not beyond question.

It is not clear whether Arslan remained in any sense a Druze, having declared quite early that he regarded himself a Muslim like all Muslims. Even so, he was schooled in a climate of religious relativism, and was deeply influenced by radical reformers and freethinkers. Cleveland makes allowance for these influences in describing how Arslan presented Islam to others, but is too wary of his evidence to ask whether Arslan genuinely believed in Islam as religious logic. Did Arslan need the crutch of personal belief? In a chapter on Arslan’s view of tradition, Cleveland seems poised to answer, but he chooses not to leap into the void, and one is left to draw the conclusion that Arslan was satisfied with his claim that modernity and belief could be reconciled.

But if evidence for religious doubt ever does come to light, as it did when Afghani and his papers became the object of critical scrutiny by scholars, the careful reader of this biography will not be surprised. Cleveland has warned us that Arslan preferred to leave the defense of Islam as a theological system to others. When Arslan wrote of Islam, he meant to evoke a sense of group solidarity which could inspire mass resistance to foreign encroachment. Religion was useful since it strengthened that solidarity, and infused it with power. This is a position which has been reconciled as often with agnosticism as with belief, and it is interesting that Cleveland offers no comment on the degree of Arslan’s personal piety. From this account, it would seem that political integrity, not religious piety, was Arslan’s strong card.

Philosopher and Kings

Yet how did he maintain this integrity when faced with the need to raise funds for his work? Subsidies kept Arslan afloat during these years, and he became indebted to many patrons. All of them had political aspirations, regarded him as a good investment, and expected a return on their money. Cleveland is quite right in determining that Arslan could not be bought by such subsidies. But Arslan became expert in misleading his patrons to believe that he could.

Consider Arslan’s relationship with the ex-Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, one of Arslan’s most important patrons between 1922 and 1931. There can be no doubt that Abbas wanted to use Arslan to build support for his bid for the throne of an independent Syria. Arslan knew it. But Cleveland maintains that it was Abbas who deceived Arslan, by concealing his true ambitions for close to a decade. Here Cleveland has relied upon Arslan’s own published apologia, which, like all of Arslan’s accounts of his ties to patrons, smacks of self-justification. No added credibility in lent to this account by its appearance in Arslan’s letters to Rashid Rida (released years ago for publication not by Arslan’s family but by Rida’s heirs). Truth in these letters is twisted by the fact that Arslan dreaded Rida’s moral judgment even more than public ridicule. Theirs was not simply the intimate friendship described by Cleveland, but a relationship infused with moral and religious tension, and worthy of deep analysis.

For an accurate impression of Arslan’s relationship with Abbas, one must turn elsewhere, to file 118 of the Abbas Hilmi Papers at Durham University Library. This file, which somehow eluded Cleveland, contains some 300 pages of Arslan’s letters to Abbas, and here the picture becomes clear. Arslan massaged the ex-Khedive’s vain ambition in a masterful way, leading his patron to believe that Arslan would declare himself for Abbas—when the right moment came. When Abbas finally made his bid, in 1931, and Arslan was called upon to return interest on Abbas’s investment, he naturally defaulted. The relationship ended. Abbas could never have owned Arslan, but Arslan intentionally led him into thinking he could, an Arslanian ruse which the “Prince of Eloquence” would employ whenever it suited him.

Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud also extended his patronage to Arslan, and Cleveland accurately describes the many ways in which Arslan exalted the new king, by publishing praise of Ibn Saud’s regime at every turn. Cleveland tends to regard Arslan’s attachment to Ibn Saud as a complete devotion, inspired by the Arabian monarch’s Islamic fervor and martial prowess. Arslan was so enamored of his hero, claims Cleveland, that Arslan favored Ibn Saud as head of a possible confederation of Syria, Iraq, and Arabia. Cleveland quotes a letter to Rida in 1931 in which Arslan declared that “I prefer no one over Ibn Saud, not even Faysal.”

Not even Faysal? Arslan’s declaration to Rida that he preferred Ibn Saud came in a letter written to persuade Rida that Faysal should have the throne; it was a rhetorical flourish, meant to disarm Rida’s objections. In fact, Arslan’s well-know flirtation with Faysal in the early 1930s led Ibn Saud to cut off Arslan completely. Arslan revealed this in a letter which he wrote some years later to Haj Amin al-Husayni (preserved in a collection described below). When Arslan visited Faysal during the latter’s stay in Bern in 1931, Arslan urged him to unify Syria and Iraq under one throne, on which Faysal would sit. “You needn’t promote yourself,” Arslan told Faysal. “We will handle the promotion.” When Ibn Saud got wind of Arslan’s role in a scheme which would have greatly strengthened his rival, “I lost all my standing with him.” wrote Arslan, “and he cut off relations with me. I had received heavy subventions from him because, the truth be told, he was generous to an extreme. And all this was lost because I called for the unification of Syria and Iraq; that is, I put general Arab interests before my personal interests.” Khaldun S. Husry has published the gist of a remarkable letter by Arslan, in which he actually tried to convince Ibn Saud that Faysal’s occupancy of a combined Syrian-Iraqi throne was in Ibn Saud’s best interest! Ibn Saud understandably could not follow this sort of logic, and shut off the money supply. With the failure of the confederation plan, Ibn Saud relented, but Arslan admitted that he never again enjoyed the same standing with Ibn Saud as before.

The episode confirmed how little personal devotion Arslan felt, even to his most generous patron. To advance his sacred cause, he needed the support of more powerful men, and brilliantly led them to believe they could guarantee his loyalty through their patronage. They inevitably felt cheated in the end. Much more remains to be done in exploring Arslan’s alliances with Muslim rulers, for they resemble Afghani’s in their complexity and volatility.

In the Axis

Cleveland has worked from a more substantial dossier in reconstructing Arslan’s most dangerous liaisons, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. If the British and French were to be ousted from Muslim lands, popular resistance would never suffice. Arslan had seen popular revolts put down time and again. On his own initiative, he sought an alliance with great but disinterested European powers, who would guarantee Arab and Muslim independence in return for Arab and Muslim support in the event of a general war. Cleveland has drawn upon official German and Italian archives to follow the diplomatic dance which produced the understanding between Arslan and the Axis powers.

Obviously, Arslan’s services were needed more by Italy than Germany, since Italy, colonizer of Libya, hardly had the image of a disinterested power in Muslim eyes. Arslan’s campaign to cast Italy in a favorable light (for which the Italians showed their appreciation by occasional donations) opened Arslan to severe criticism, even by his admirers. But Arslan would not relent. Through his dealings with Mussolini, he had concluded that Italy’s Mediterranean ambitions could help to rid the region of the British and French. Once that end had been achieved, Germany could be relied upon to check the Italian colonial impulse. With this in mind, Arslan assiduously cultivated old friends in the German Foreign Office, who thought it useful to hear him out from time to time. Those of his co-religionists who could not fathom the genius of this scheme, and so accused Arslan of selling himself for a few lire, became his worst enemies. Under the hail of their criticism, Arslan became obsessed with the defense of his personal integrity. Cleveland treats this most compromising of Arslan’s liaisons with admirable insight and sensitivity, concluding that Arslan again acted on principles, which he again followed straight into disaster.

It was Arslan’s last shred of sound judgment which kept his feet firmly on neutral Swiss soil during the war. Failing health and force of habit also made a move to Berlin or Rome unthinkable. But the Swiss authorities had become strict with him. They banned publication of La Nation arabe, and informed Arslan that he would not be readmitted if he left the country. Cleveland shows us an ailing and frustrated old man, sliding into debt and bereft of real influence.

It may prove possible to modify this assessment on the basis of a source which was beyond Cleveland’s ken and reach when he conducted his research: the complete collection of Arslan’s wartime correspondence to Haj Amin al-Husayni in Berlin exile. The Americans found these letters with the Mufti’s other papers in Austria, where he had abandoned them during his flight from fallen Germany. The Israeli foreign ministry had the papers microfilmed in their entirety many years ago, and the materials were finally deposited in the Israel State Archives in 1984. The collection contains 370 pages of correspondence from Arslan to the Mufti, conveyed via the German diplomatic pouch.

Here we have Arslan’s running commentary on the course of the war, and his tireless admonitions to the Mufti to pursue this or that line of political action. Arslan exercised an elderly mentor’s influence over the Mufti, who kept Arslan going with occasional subventions. These letters also provide evidence, which Cleveland found lacking, for the wartime appearance of La Nation arabe. By 1943, four issues had been published in cooperation with the German Foreign Office. After an interruption, the journal reappeared in 1944 in Budapest, the product of the same collaboration. According to Arslan, the periodical carried many articles on such subjects as Muslim cooperation with the Axis powers and the “plots of the Jews.” Cleveland’s conclusion that Arslan published very little during the war must therefore be revised. Arslan’s letters relate that one of the journal’s wartime issues ran to one hundred pages, and that he wrote ceaselessly, despite his doctor’s advice against such mental exertions.2

In concluding this balanced and elegant portrait of a controversial life, Cleveland chooses to regard Arslan’s last few years until his death in 1946 as tragic. Arslan was “impoverished, ill, and ignored,” and Swiss police reports “revealed an aging man living apart from his wife and son in a residence hotel, passing the days in tearooms with his newspapers, seeing few visitors other than his son, and spending an inordinate amount of time frequenting his bank.” So he appeared from a distance, to those assigned to tail him. But in a letter to the Mufti, we learn of an inner reflection which gave Arslan satisfaction during his last years. His enemies had “died in my lifetime. . . . I take no malicious joy in death, for I will die as they did. But God made allowance for me, that I might witness the deaths of those who incited aggression and made slander against me.” A strange thought in which to find tranquility, and a stranger one to commit to writing; but perhaps not, for a Druze chieftain.


1. William L. Cleveland, Islam against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985).

2. I have yet to discover copies of these wartime editions, which would have been published in very limited press runs in the last days of the war. They are not included in the reprint edition of 1988 by Archive Editions in four volumes.

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