History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Abdulhadi Alajmi (History, Kuwait University, Kuwait)

Abdulhadi Nasir Alajmi. Photo by Judith Affolter.

Many universities in the Arab world, which annually publish thousands of theses, dissertations, academic articles and a numerous range of monographs, follow a common framework, which is the extensive collection of information. This shared feature lacks the dialectical spirit and making of hypotheses. This empirical fact produces what I term ‘the passivity of historical scholarship’ ­– its lack of critical analysis and inability to compete within the domain and course of culture and thought in Arab societies.

A Crisis of Roots

The Arabs have produced a very wide variety of written research, which emerged and matured in many directions and is marked by a rich diversity of material. Before going into details of the problem, what particularly concerns me here is to point out that within this landscape, the historical-cultural legacy represented a weighty burden for modern Arab universities, which were established and were also required to teach modern sciences. The question is perhaps posed regarding whether it might have been possible to deconstruct this vast heritage to produce an academic historiography based on modern methods. A straightforward comparison between history and other disciplines engaged with the same material reveals a stark gap and difference, most clearly marked for history because of its huge inheritance and its connection with the ‘sacred’ and ‘political.’ Bizarrely, from the outset, the modern sciences were supposed to rely on the early writings of Muslim Arab scholars. The picture began to change, however, and medicine, physics and other natural sciences in Arab universities took a different turn. While history began from the perspective that ‘history involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth,’ when the Arab universities founded their departments and disciplines, they moved away from the conventional model by drafting new curricula in line with the latest scientific explorations in similar disciplines in the West. Moreover, it seems that this course of evolution went beyond the natural sciences to include other disciplines in the humanities, such as sociology, which was also based on Western works and research and not burdened by any dependence on the writings of Muslim scholars on the subject, with a few exceptions, such as Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). Academic history, by contrast, was saddled by and obliged to use the traditional ways of writing produced by Arab and Muslim historians in past eras. However, these were, in fact, devoid of intellectual and epistemological argument, and that consolidated the roots of this legacy.

History and the Arab Universities: Authentic Reality or Novel Modernization?

Historically speaking, universities, which existed primarily for teaching purposes, did not engage in organized academic research prior to the initiative of the German scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). The first modern Arab university – Cairo University founded in 1908 ­– had a core of four colleges (arts, sciences, medicine and law), and we must remember that a major goal of the university at the time was ‘modernization’ and the importation of modern sciences. The evidence suggests that this approach was put into effect since professors were appointed and seconded from western universities, as were non-Egyptian Arabs. That attitude proved the desire for and importance of modernization, but the signs for history were not as promising. In order to appreciate the extent of the crisis, we can examine the early tacit signs of the problem in the choice of historian Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) to teach Islamic history at the university. This move quickly faced a wave of condemnation rejecting his appointment (which, in my opinion, went beyond his being non-Egyptian to encompass his being a Christian). In an attempt to resolve the dilemma, the university dismissed Zaydan and lectures were given by Sheikh Mohammed Bek al-Khudari (1872–1927). Al-Khudari’s task was limited to the extraction and organization of material from the corpus, material which he then rearranged and presented clearly and in a new summary guise to students. Another illustrative episode concerns Taha Hussein (1889–1973). Once he received his doctorate, there were demands to the Egyptian government that it stop funding the university because it had graduated an atheist (Taha Hussein). In this context, we can understand how the traditionalist view of history has become a condition for the success of modernist academic projects at the university, even if this is ‘on the surface’ and not ‘at the core.’

Historical Modernism and the Question of Investigating Other Cultures

In this reality, the embodiment of the historical canon failed to take on board understandings other than the traditional ones linked to the roots, culture and premodern heritage of the ummah (community), which was also linked to a ‘religious’ or ‘metaphysical’ bent. Accordingly, embarking on the stage of writing based on modern assumptions or debates risked failure in history or other related departments. Students, or more accurately, university researchers given this content were expected to produce a field of knowledge consistent with the traditional requirements of historical scholarship. Even the nature of acceptable research and dissertations moved in the same direction, and only rarely did a monograph, research paper or dissertation break with this approach. The field might appear on the surface to contain new ideas or theories, but these have mostly remained governed by the traditional framework. The clash between Western and traditionalist schools of historiography at Cairo University probably peaked after Taha Hussein had been branded an atheist during the stand-off between him and his teacher Sheikh Mohammed al-Mahdi (1868–1924). Al-Mahdi had already insisted that Taha Hussein receive only a merit for his doctorate, while the examining committee were minded to award him a distinction. Sheikh al-Mahdi then offered to teach Arabic literature without recompense so as to prevent Taha Hussein from teaching the subject. Taha Hussein was fiercely critical of al-Mahdi and compared what the latter taught with what he had learned at French universities. This critique represented the first signs of the debate over the method of making hypotheses and arguments to produce historical knowledge in academic publications at the time. It led to sharp and strong reactions between those who had studied abroad and those who taught the canon in traditional fashion. This may have influenced the following wave that solidified traditionalist readings and the production of the more conservative school, which was more rejectionist of modern suppositions and even hindered the adoption of academic debate as a tool for approaching historical knowledge outside of arguments championing and defending the lexicon of the tradition.

In order to avoid drowning in the details of the polarizations that occurred against that background at that stage, we must point out that some of these cultural battles and the suppositions and hypotheses put forward at these initial stages amounted to a severe shock to Arab historiographical culture and heritage. The conflict quickly widened, and the gap between the two sides grew, but the traditionalist partisans of mainstream history always had the upper hand. In my opinion, the setbacks for the modernist trend were mainly the result of an inability to put forward a suitable hypothesis or proposition that could synthesize and contain the text or accumulated scholarship. At other times, there was a lack of precision to propositions, and it was evident that the other side was more prolific and successful in mustering scholarly material to bolster support for the credibility of the tradition. Perhaps we ought to admit that the modernizing trend might have been poorly trained, but it also lacked a strong societal incubator able to champion its theses. Equally, we cannot explain the traditionalist current in the humanities in general and history in particular without reference to politics and the power structure in our societies. This ‘deep’ struggle in the field of literature and history inevitably reflected on what we are discussing here. History writing produced at the time represented a step towards a form of transformation that paved the way for the continuing victory of the traditional line in historiography.

Two camps formed rapidly: The first was the historical space adopted and preserved by the traditionalist elites committed to the defense of the sources of the Islamic canon in general and the knowledge it presents. The second was the transformation led by those with an alternative vision of the historical corpus, one basically related to the contradictions within this corpus, which it saw as created post hoc and requiring reexamination. Interestingly, this reality cast its shadow widely over the (historical research) outputs of the universities. Researchers of history, for example, were required to amass texts and accounts related to the general textual and observed context and perhaps posit a new idea or view. The ‘new’ here, in my opinion, was on the theoretical/formal level and not on the practical/deep level. Therefore, all a researcher could ultimately conclude had to fall within the same old conceptions based on the same events and personalities and their general form. Yes, re-presentation, rearrangement or reorganization might achieve something formally new, but it mostly remains old in content and style. In my estimation, such a path has been very costly for the course of historical research. It has made its associated cultural achievement a hesitant and consumerist one, even if, at particular times, it has been seen as a leap forward in the course of Arab historiography. Nonetheless, in its deep content, it was a repetition of the very same old traditional horizon.

What Is the Effect of not Having Hypotheses and Arguments?

Before answering this question, we must clarify what is meant by not having a hypothesis. In this article, we have used ‘the lack of hypotheses’ specifically to talk about how most modern Arab historical research production comes within academic works in which the researcher amasses academic material with all its descriptive elements, but without using this narrative and description of facts to produce a holistic picture or formulate new and vibrant horizons for the texts and narratives assembled. We can now answer the question as follows: The skill or ability of the true historian lies in the production of an epistemological awareness, not in the assemblage of historical data. In my estimation, today’s cultural and technological progress has made processes of gathering, organizing or tracking data simply part of the method to produce university dissertations and not an end in itself. What we need today is a historiography that can present modern studies and dissertations capable of verification and falsification. History is a product open to acceptance and rejection, understanding, rebuttal and skepticism. It should avoid the spoon-feeding and prescriptivism that turn the history student or researcher into a vessel of transmission, unable to propose hypotheses or make arguments, thereby causing history to lose its appeal and turning historical knowledge into the arrangement of facts.

Finally, in my opinion, positive signs have started to appear, as represented in those serious attempts by a number of Arab researchers to make arguments and posit different hypotheses. While few in number and within a narrow framework, they are a step in the right direction. I can speak more specifically about the Kuwaiti experience, which, in this context, has adopted a more flexible and positive orientation towards students in terms of their choices for topics and new ideas, which they work on with their professors in history departments. There is also an orientation towards the need for researchers and students to be engaged with existing global debates, which will help the researcher to write papers that reproduce history in a more mature and deeper fashion than the old traditional template. I could point to a number of examples from Kuwait University, particularly its history department, where writing is more liberated from the traditional model based on collection and arrangement. While these models are still influenced by the ubiquity of the old traditional experience, they are, in my opinion, on the right track when it comes to putting forward arguments and problems and avoiding the ideology of oriented history, which, in terms of content and method, remains confined by the traditionalist view of history.

Translated from Arabic by Raphael Cohen.


Abdulhadi Nasir Alajmi (عبد الهادي ناصر العجمي) is a professor in the History Department at Kuwait University. His research interests focus on Islamic history, the concept of regimes, political authority and legitimacy, and their relationship with society and its evolution. He has undertaken many research projects related to Islamic documents and manuscripts. During his career, Alajmi has held various academic positions, including head of the History Department in the Faculty of Arts at Kuwait University. He received the State Incentive Award in the field of Historical Studies in Kuwait. He has more than 30 publications in both Arabic and English to his name, including his books Political Legitimacy in Early Islam (2009) and Pragmatists in the First Hijrī Century (in Arabic, 2019). He has also contributed to the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill).


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Sabine Behrenbeck, Humanities in Germany: Sciences Among Sciences, 08.07.2021


Citation: Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30353, 15.07.2021


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