It is sometimes forgotten that the content of history—the business of the historian—is the past, not the future. I remember being at an international meeting of historians in Rome during which a group of us were sitting and discussing the question: should historians attempt to predict the future? We batted this back and forth, with differing, even contrasting responses. This was in the days when the Soviet Union was still alive and well. One of our Soviet colleagues finally intervened and said, “In the Soviet Union, the most difficult task of the historian is to predict the past.”
I do not intend to offer any predictions of the future of Europe or of Islam, but one thing can legitimately be expected of the historian, and that is to identify trends and processes—to look at trends in the past, at what is continuing in the present, and therefore to see the possibilities and choices which will face us in the future. spread of European-style dictatorship, the idea of freedom in its Western interpretation is also making headway in the Islamic world. It is becoming better understood, more widely appreciated, and more ardently desired. It is perhaps in the long run our best hope, perhaps even our only hope, of surviving this latest stage—in some respects the most dangerous stage—of a fourteen-century-old struggle.
In dealing with the Islamic world there is a special reason for paying attention to history—that this is a society of unusually keen historical awareness. Unlike what is happening in America and, to an increasing extent, Europe, in the Islamic lands, and especially in the Middle East, historical knowledge, back to the advent of Islam in the seventh century , is widespread, extensive, and, if not always accurate, both vivid and detailed. During the war fought from 1980 to 1988 between two Muslim powers, Iraq and Iran, the war propaganda of both sides, addressed both to their own people and to the enemy, was full of allusions to history—not stories told from history, but rapid, passing allusions, sometimes no more than the name of a person or a place or an event. These were used in the sure knowledge that they would be picked up and understood, even by thatsignificant part of the intended audience that was illiterate. Many of the allusions referred to events of the seventh century of the Common Era—events that are still vividly remembered and deeply significant. Some knowledge of history is essential if one is to understand the public discourse of Muslim leaders at the present time— both at home and in exile, both in government and in opposition.
A favorite theme of the historian is periodization—dividing history into periods. Periodization is mostly a convenience of the historian for purposes of writing or teaching. Nevertheless, there are times in the long history of the human adventure when we have a real turning point, a major change—the end of an era, the beginning of a new era. I am becoming more and more convinced that we are in such an age at the present time—a change in history comparable with the fall of Rome, the advent of Islam, and the discovery of America.
Conventionally, the modern history of the Middle East begins at the end of the eighteenth century, when a small French expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer Egypt and rule it with impunity. It was a terrible shock that one of the heartlands of Islam could be invaded and occupied with virtually no effective resistance. The second shock came a few years later with the departure of the French, which was brought about not by the Egyptians nor by their suzerains, the Ottoman Turks, but by a small squadron of the British Royal Navy commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson, who drove the French out of Egypt and back to France.