A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 7, 2012

Philip K. Hitti, "History of the Arabs" at 75, and the Birth of Arab Studies in the US

Philip K. Hitti at Princeton
Philip Khuri Hitti (1886-1978) may not be a familiar name among younger students in the Arabic Studies field in the US today, but once, he virtually was the Arabic Studies field in the US. This year marks 75 years since the publication in 1937 of the first edition of  History of the Arabs, which he started writing a decade earlier. That book, still in print in its 10th edition (revised), was for many years (including when I started out in the field 40 years back), not just the history of the Arabs but virtually the only one-volume history of the Arabs that took the story from the beginnings to the present in anything like a comprehensive manner. Today there are many, of which Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples perhaps replaces Hitti's work most effectively.  Today, re-reading Hitti, it strikes one as rather old-fashioned, a lot of it a narrative of names and dates, but it is still a useful compendium of the basic narrative. Hourani is better written and more modern and nuanced in its sensibilities. (Eugene Rogan's The Arabs: A History is impressive but only begins with the Ottoman conquests, and so is limited in scope. I omit multi-volume and multi-author histories here.)

A Maronite from Shimlan, Lebanon, born under Ottoman rule, Hitti, trained at AUB and Columbia, came to Princeton in 1926 as a Professor of Semitic Languages, at a time when "Oriental Studies" was mostly linguistic and literary. But most of his writing was to be history.

Hitti wrote many other books, on Lebanon, Syria, and much else; for a long time he was the only Middle Eastern scholar writing in the US in English on Middle Eastern history (though he was soon joined by Aziz Atiya and other pioneers). He was a man of his times; some of his books on Lebanon dwell a bit awkwardly on trying to interpret the "racial" characteristics of Maronites, Druze, and others. (A friend, himself a distinguished historian today, once privately told me Hitti spent too much time "measuring noses.") But that is a product of his era. Hitti was a founding father.  Without him, and without History of the Arabs, the whole Arab Studies field would look quite different today. Medicine has outgrown Galen, and mathematics has outgrown Euclid; so in the light of today's Arabic Studies literature, Hitti's work seems old-fashioned, stuffy, and incomplete. But if we see farther today, as the cliche goes, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and in the US Arab Studies community, the man at the bottom of that inverted pyramid is Philip Hitti.

I am told that there is, or was, a Lebanese cedar growing at Princeton, where Hitti taught for decades, because he had brought it over from Lebanon. Cedars can live a thousand years; may it do so. Seventy-five years since History of The Arabs first appeared and nearly 35 years after his death, we still owe much to Hitti, who brought much more than that cedar to this country.

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