Library Spotlight: History of the Arabs | Salisbury Cathedral

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Library Spotlight: History of the Arabs

Posted By : Guest Blogger Wednesday 16th December 2015

1650 A History of the Arabs (Specimen Historiae Arabum)


This blog post was written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger.


Between the 15th and early 20th centuries Ottoman Turkey was considered by many Muslims as Islam’s sole Caliphate – the political term for a country or territory lead by a successor of the Prophet Mohammed. Territorial expansion of the Ottoman Empire from eastern into central Europe (threatening Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683) had the unfortunate effect of endowing upon the Muslim faith a military embodiment that stoked already widespread Islamaphobic sentiments. During the 17th century in particular, any reference to Islam or the Prophet Mohammed in academic literature would include, as standard practice, a slanderous statement or derogatory term to distance the author from his sources. But there was at this time an English academic who exposed himself to harsh criticism in refusing to participate in this anti-Islamic discourse, who instead championed a reasoned approach to dealing with the Muslim faith, paying due respect to his sources and avoiding baseless slander of any kind. That academic was Edward Pococke, and a first edition copy of his landmark work A History of the Arabs, from 1650, can be found in Salisbury Cathedral’s library.


Pococke, widely considered the most gifted Arabic scholar of the 17th century, was born in Oxford, the son of a parish priest, and raised in Berkshire. Almost unheard of for his time, Pococke was widely read in Arabic literature, fluent in the language, and was well accustomed to Middle Eastern practices (having lived for 6 years in Aleppo, Syria – then one of the Middle East’s largest and most culturally important cities). Upon his return from the East, Pococke cemented his place in history by being appointed as the first Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, a position he would hold until his death some 55 years later. As well as returning with a wealth of first-hand knowledge of Middle Eastern life and culture, Pococke brought with him a multitude of Arabic manuscripts which he would draw upon (over 100 of them, most of which had never been translated by European scholars) to write a history of the Arabic people and to expose England’s prejudices to an authoritative and unbiased account of the origins of the Arabs, the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and the institutions of the religion of Islam and its many sects. Pococke used as the basis for his work a much earlier Arabic History of the Dynasties written by Abu al-Faraj, who was a 13th century Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo. Pococke transcribed al-Faraj’s original Arabic text with an accompanying page-by-page Latin translation and provided an appendix of his own extensive notes, drawing on a wide range of Arab sources from historians to poets, philosophers and geographers. Once his work was in print, Pococke was not only the first professor of Arabic at Oxford, but also the first scholar in England to publish in that language – an exceptional achievement given that this was only Pococke’s second ever published academic work.


Furthermore, A History of the Arabs was a remarkable attempt by Pococke to claim that Arabic Studies (or any other non-Western studies) should be read on equal terms to the Classics. Though standard practice in academia now, this was nothing short of a revolutionary idea in Pococke’s day, for a well-rounded education in the 17th century would have insisted on the primacy of Hebrew scripture, Greek philosophy, and Latin history. Pococke argued that one should not think that one’s own culture is superior to any other, or to be surprised when in fact people from centuries gone by and from the furthest reaches of the globe were also considered wise in their own time and place. Pococke also used his History of the Arabs to critique contemporary disputes between Christians, doing so by highlighting the historical quarrels between the various Islamic sects – which in many cases were almost identical to the feuds between Protestants and Catholics. Such arguments covered the status of Holy Scripture, champions of free will vs. predestination, sources of religious authority, and whether it can ever be justified to kill a ‘heretic’.


Though Pococke was lauded throughout Europe as the finest Arabic scholar of his time, his academic fame came at a heavy personal price. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 many of Pococke’s academic contemporaries, who had suffered greatly under Puritan rule, ascended to senior clerical positions (such as Seth Ward, the professor of Astronomy at Oxford, who became Bishop of Salisbury) but Pococke was not among them, and was to remain in his (relatively underpaid) Arabic lectureship for the rest of his life.


This may have been of Pococke’s own choosing, for he was a prolific scholar and produced many further ground-breaking works in his long academic career, but it could also have been that his principled stance towards Islam deemed him unfit for high ecclesiastical office.


Three hundred and sixty-five years after it was first published, A History of the Arabs finds new relevance in understanding an increasingly complex Middle East that is fracturing along sectarian and ethnic lines. Pococke knew that it is only by recognising and respecting other people’s historical narratives and cultural viewpoints that we can achieve the enlightenment needed to avoid discrimination, resolve conflict justly, and to make future disputes all that more unlikely.

View a gallery of Pococke's book here.