Two reference works that represent the state of Middle Eastern studies have appeared in the past two years. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (hereafter, Islamic World)1 came out in 1995 and the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East (hereafter, Middle East) in 1996. They share many similarities. Both consist of four hefty volumes and have almost the same number of pages (1,877 vs. 2,182). They deal with the same time period, starting around 1800, and with closely related topics. Both draw on the resources of a major university (Georgetown, Columbia) and are published by a major New York house. They even cost about the same amount ($395 vs. $350).
And yet, the result is substantially different. The Islamic World suffers from so much bias and tendentiousness that this reviewer concluded an assessment of it (in MEQ, Sept. 1995) with the observation that
Apologetics, once the preserve of Islamic polemicists, has invaded the universities ... . If only the editor had the wisdom and discipline to rule out politically tinged submissions from his contributors, the Oxford Encyclopedia would be an excellent tome. But then, that would be asking for a very different academy than the one we actually have.
The implication of that review -- that American editors could not put together a trustworthy encyclopedia of the Middle East or Islam -- is happily disproved by the Middle East. The editorial team here has resisted the temptation to indulge in posturing and post-modern subjectivity. Instead, it has produced a reliable encyclopedia with (and this is high praise) an old-fashioned feel.
The two most contentious topics, Israel and fundamentalist Islam, show this best. Israel is not isolated in a scholarly ghetto but treated as just another country of the Middle East. Its foods, dances, and artists get as much (indeed, probably more) coverage than those of other countries. Such delicate subjects as anti-Semitism and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are not only raised by dealt with faultlessly. On the other side, Palestinians and fundamentalist Islam are neither whitewashed nor glorified.
Two biographical entries found in both the Islamic World and the Middle East may help show this difference. In the Islamic World, Ann Mosely Lesch of Villanova University minimizes the association of the Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husayni with Hitler's war effort, acknowledging only that he tried "to persuade Hitler to pledge support for Arab independence." Also, she writes only that he "appealed over the radio for Arabs and Muslims to revolt against Allies," obscuring the fact that he made this appeal on Nazi radio. In contrast, Mattar of the Institute for Palestine Studies unapologetically asserts in the Middle East that Husayni
Cooperated with the Nazis ... and he assisted in anti-British and anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns and in recruitment of Muslims for the war effort. He attempted but failed to limit the number of Jews leaving Axis countries for Palestine. His association with the Nazis tainted his career and his cause.
And while Lesch pointedly omits Zvi Elpeleg's critical account of Husayni's life from her bibliography,2 Mattar no less meaningfully includes it.
The biographical entries for Hasan at-Turabi, the Sudan's leading fundamentalist intellectual, the speaker of its parliament, and the eminence grise of the current regime, are equally telling. In the Islamic World, Peter Woodward (University of Reading) tells of Turabi's "relatively liberal interpretation of Islam" and his winning "a reputation for pragmatism and flexibility in the pursuit of resurgent Islam." How very different the entry of Jillian Schwedler (New York University) in the Middle East:
Turabi's views and writings on Islam would seem to place him in the category of moderate Islamist thinkers, but the practice of his authority in Sudan suggests otherwise. Although he has called for freedom of association and multiparty representative bodies, the current Sudanese government has systematically destroyed most civic associations and remains one of the most oppressive regimes and egregious human rights violators in the Middle East.
Beyond specifics, perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Islamic World concerns its implicit assumption that objective knowledge is neither possible nor worth pursuing. In contrast, the Middle East reassuringly emphasizes facts, lots of them. Indicative of this difference, the editors of the Islamic World sought out Muslim authors to fend off a Western inclination to see Islam in terms of government needs: "The inclusion of a significant number of scholars raised in diverse Muslim environments ... guards against the potential pitfalls of Orientalism." (The encyclopedia subsequently defines Orientalism as "an ideological discourse inextricably involved with European power.") Objectivity, in other words, can be achieved only by balancing prejudices. In contrast, the Middle East's editors simply state that they "made a concerted effort to assign articles to scholars from the region itself," without adding epistemological or political overtones.
Of course, some dubious politics slip in here and there. Perhaps the most egregious example is the entry on the Syrian city of Hama, which describes the city's geography, its famed water wheels, its 1922 and 1980 population statistics, and its monuments. But it says not a word about the events of February 1982, when the Syria government launched an assault against the city and killed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 of its residents. Such a lapse, which borders on disinformation, is inexcusable. Almost as bad is describing Hafiz al-Asad, Syria's dictator, as a "statesman" with a "proud and vigorous personality." In a similar spirit, Saudi Arabia is defined as a country that adheres to "conservative, traditional Islam while making use of technology and education to create better lives for its people." (Is someone trying to sell lots of encyclopedias to the University of Riyadh?) The entry on the U.S.S. Liberty (an American ship that Israeli planes attacked during the Six-Day War in June 1967) without justification dismisses the official U.S. investigation that concluded the attack was an accident. Instead, it imagines what motives Israeli authorities might have had for a premeditated attack on the ship. A reference book should not engage in such speculation.
Looking beyond politics to substance, the Middle East has a mix of good and bad points. It has a very useful critical apparatus -- a listing of biographies by profession, dynastic trees, and a nearly two-hundred-page index. Some of the longer entries provide original perspectives on major issues: the economics entry contains a particularly interesting table 603 that lists per capita oil production in the Middle Eastern countries (a slightly adapted version of the table appears on this page). The food entry explains the Middle East's five culinary regions (Iranian, Turkish, Iraqi, Levantine, and Egyptian). We learn that the Middle East experienced 52 military coup attempts between 1936 and 1995, of which 25 succeeded, 44 had a nationalist orientation, and 40 involved senior officers.
Hundreds of minor entries, just a paragraph or two long, deal with a pleasingly wide range of subjects. They cover a coffee shop in Cairo, prominent hotels, an outstanding high school, a major book store, and important corporations, museums, and periodicals. Foods are explained, as are dances and art forms. While routine, these brief entries have real value in making arcane aspects of the Middle East accessible; they also give the encyclopedia an inclusive quality that would otherwise be missing.
Unfortunately, some authors (especially Zachary Karabell and Elizabeth Thompson) wrote hundreds of these brief entries, some of them pretty cursorily. All the information on belly dancing appears to derive from a short anti-Western screed called Europe's Myths of the Orient, and not from the interesting and substantial books that deal specifically with belly dancing; the entry is predictably weak.
This is hardly the only shortcoming, as one might expect in a work of such size and complexity. Many of the technical details are weak. The bibliographies that accompany virtually all the entries are also disappointing. Rather than indicate the specialist literature, platitudinous citations too often steer the reader to general studies and other reference books -- not major specialized studies. The entry on the Palestinian National Charter cites two very general and undistinguished books on the PLO, and not Y. Harkabi's excellent Palestinian Covenant and its Meaning.3 You wouldn't know from the entry on the Supreme Muslim Council that Uri M. Kupferschmidt wrote a book by the same name.4 The same goes for such important subjects as the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and Greater Syria. Given the huge literature on pan-Arabism, the references for that entry are astonishing: to William Langer's Encyclopedia of World History, Yaakov Shimoni's Political Dictionary of the Middle East in the Twentieth Century, and an introductory study about the Arab peoples. The same criticism also applies to such minor topics as St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai (the Blue Guide?). On some occasions, authors refer to their own unpublished papers and on others to newspaper articles. Peck always refers to self Some publishing data is incorrect. In all, the bibliographies are a minor disaster.
Names and spellings get confused. The political party known variously as the Partie Populaire Syrien and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party has entries under both names. Hafiz al-Asad is listed thus but his family is separately listed under "Assad."
As in any work of this kind, the entries have been written over many years. Some cite information as of 1989, while the biography of Binyamin Netanyahu ends with his election as prime minister in May 1996. Inexplicably, by far the longest entry in the book is the 23 pages on Britain in the Middle East, which is out of proportion to everything else (France gets 4 and the United States a measly 2).
The pictures are unsatisfactory. While the editors are to be congratulated for pictures in the first place (not present in the Islamic World) and doubly so for supplying so many that are previously unpublished, their quality is severely lacking; they are snapshots, not serious photographs for a serious reference work.
But these faults are secondary. The Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East's editors made a sincere effort to offer a compilation of knowledge and they largely succeeded.
1 Edited by John L. Esposito, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
2 The Grand Mufti (London: Frank Cass, 1993).
3 London: Valentine, Mitchell, 1979.
4 Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987.