It is a welcome discovery to come across a scholarly study of early American religious thought as it relates to the Middle East by a Syrian Arab Muslim. Countless volumes on Islam in all its aspects have been churned out by Western scholars and not a few religious cranks over the years, so a perspective of our own religious development seen through the eyes of someone to whom it must seem foreign, indeed, even as he says in his preface, "obnoxious to me [as] an Arab Muslem," offers interesting insights. The author, who is professor of American literature at the University of Damascus, has delved deeply into many books on the Middle East-the Holy Land in particular-written by selected American missionaries, travelers and diplomats through the end of the nineteenth century. And while concentrating on the religious writings and memoirs of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors, he includes an interesting final "secular" chapter on the impact of the Arabian Nights on the minds of American travelers as a conflicting image of what they expected to find side by side with the bucolic vision of Old Testament idylls found in contemporary Sunday school literature. The reality was considerably different in both cases.
The basic message of Shaban's study is that Americans from the earliest days had a vision of themselves as latter-day children of Israel who were establishing God's kingdom in a new Promised Land. Because they saw themselves as somehow "chosen" they therefore felt an irrepressible urge to extend the joys of their earthly paradise to other parts of the world, leading to the idea of Manifest Destiny and finally, according to the dust-jacket notes, to the establishment of "an 'American Israel' in the Holy Land." To support this thesis, the author quotes liberally from the writings of a large number of American missionaries, much of it in the form of third-rate paeans and odes, and endless diatribes against the heathen Muslim hordes who unjustly held the Holy Land under their tyrannical sway. Call after call goes out to the American faithful for the launching of a new crusade to redeem the old Promised Land just as God has seen fit to bless them in their own new Canaan only recently won from the heathen native inhabitants. In Shaban's scheme of things this American vision of what the Holy Land ought to become has led to the political impasse of American-Arab/ Muslim relations in this century, culminating in the establishment of the state of Israel.
Much of what the author concludes is founded in truth, but it is a conclusion which is greatly over-simplified and which ignores many trends in American religious thought which are not Puritan, millennial or fundamentalist. Anyone who can state as Shaban does on page 86 that "The American Protestant Church considered itself to be the true Church of Christ" has not done his homework. There is, as any American can tell you, no single American Protestant Church. there are scores of individual sects with major differences of theology and form of worship separating them who have as often as not been at each other's throats throughout the last three-and-a-half centuries of North American history. The Puritan element among them has never been anything like a majority and after independence became an increasingly minor force in terms of numbers. The first English settlers who landed at Jamestown were, after all, Anglicans. Puritan dissenters, when they did come thirteen years later, confined themselves to New England where they were gradually overwhelmed by other Protestant groups and finally in the 1850s by Roman Catholics.
The basis of much of the author's thought is summed up in the idea of one Sidney Ahlstrom who is quoted on page 1 to the effect that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which followed were the product of Puritanism ("the architects of the 'Puritan way' [were]... in a very real sense the founders of the American nation"). This is a very dubious assertion. The real founders of the American nation-Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Edmund Randolph among them-were chiefly Virginians (or other southerners) and Anglicans whose political beliefs were grounded in the writings of John Locke and the tolerant attitudes of the eighteenth century Whig establishment in England, augmented by the ideals of the French Enlighten ment expressed by Voltaire and Montesquieu. They had no use for Puritans. It was these founding fathers who insisted on the strict separation of church and state. If the Puritans had had their way, there would have been religious freedom for Puritans only. Most of the American presidents during the first 50 years of the republic were Virginians and Anglicans (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe); only John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, gave the Puritan New Englanders two terms of power during this period 1797-1801 and 1825-29).
It is true that the majority of the missionaries who went to the Middle East from America in the early part of the nineteenth century were from New England and the product of a Puritan background, but we get the impression from the author that there were few, if any, others. In fact the British missionary effort in the area was every bit as strong as the American and had considerable impact in the Holy Land, particularly among the Palestinian Christians and the Druze of Mount Lebanon. American missionaries from non-Puritan mainstream churches like the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian (American Anglican) came in increasing numbers as the century wore on. Shaban makes much to do about the continuous references by early American religious writers to the biblical imagery of the Promised Land, but it should be borne in mind that the Bible was the one book most Americans knew well. What could be more logical than making reference to an imagery that every literate person could relate to? And if the early visitors to the Middle East found the local Muslims to be backward and bigoted (p. 94), degraded, enslaved and benighted (p. 197) they had good reasons to do so. The Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century were indeed a primitive, ill-governed backwater which compared rather unfavorably with the bustling, prosperous, industrious young America with its democratic society and almost universal education. The continued existence of slavery at home was a niggling worry but it was already on its way out, whereas slavery in the Muslim world was solidly entrenched with no prospect of disappearing.
Shaban concentrates on the negative aspects of the American missionaries and fails to take note of their positive influence. This is his second main theme in which he challenges the observations of another Syrian (Palestinian) Arab Muslim, A. L. Tibawi, that the ''American missionary work derived no prestige from... colonial or political background. Hence its spiritual character was not in doubt." For Shaban "American missionaries had strong political opinions regarding the area [and] such aims were bound to influence missionary behavior and activities" (p. 84). But whatever political ideas the handful of American missionaries may have had, there were, unlike the British and French cases, no imperial armies to implement them. When the Americans discovered fairly early on that Muslims weren't interested in becoming Protestants of some sort or another (the punish ment for apostasy under then prevailing Islamic law was, after all, death), they settled down to establishing schools and hospitals and to sharing their religious zeal with the few Armenian, Assyrian and Arab Christians who found Protestantism more suited to their personal religious views than either Catholicism or Orthodoxy whose ancient ecclesiastical establishments were in many places corrupt and indifferent to the needs of their faithful. And when the United States was considering the thorny issue of the partition of Palestine after World War II, it was the descendants of these very missionaries who testified most strongly against the establishment of the state of Israel.
Nearly all Americans who visited the Middle East, whether missionaries, pilgrims, traders or diplomats, came down rather harshly on their fellow Christians of the Eastern tradition, but then there were fairly intolerant of the Catholics at home as well, not to mention the Jews. To say, as Shaban does, that the "predominant American attitude toward the Jewish people was that of sympathy for their plight and dispersion and a genuine commitment to the cause of Israel" (p. 163) is contrary to history. Israel, first of all, did not exist at the time Shaban is discussing (the 1840s) and Zionism as an international Jewish movement was 50 years away. The Jews in America at the time were barely tolerated and often the object of open distrust and scorn. Although many visitors deplored the emptiness of much of Palestine and the degraded state of its Arab inhabitants, it was not with Jews they would have liked to populate the land, but with like-minded Protestants. The idea of returning Jews to their ancient homeland found far greater support in England. Indeed one of the most popular oratorios of the Victorian era was William Crotch's Palestine (composed in 1812) which set to music the Oxford prize poem of the then-young Reginald Heber, later Anglican bishop of Calcutta and author of some of the most famous of all Protestant hymns, whose final recitative calls for the return of the Jewish people to their unpopulated native land ("And shall not Israel's sons exulting come... and claim their ancient home?"). The roots of the Balfour Declaration do not lie in the fields of American missionary endeavor.
For all his scholarly digging, Shaban seems intent on finding only those sources which will support the view of Americans as Puritanical Messianic meddlers who refuse to understand the Arab and his Islamic religion. This is apparent in his reference on page 198 to "the all but universal American public support of Israeli policy and practices and heartless disregard of the plight of over two million [sic, there are over four million] Palestinian Arabs," a statement which is as unfair as it is inaccurate. Many American churches have opposed official American support for Israel at all costs, including the Catholics, the Orthodox churches, the Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and many small groups as well, such as the Quakers, the Brethren and the Mennonites. And American public opinion today is far from universal in its support of the Jewish state. But apparently for this author, all Americans were and presumably still are, bigoted, anti Muslim, anti-Arab "Members of the true Church of Christ [since]... American religious spokesmen consistently referred to themselves as the 'true church'" (p. 86). But he never says who these spokesmen were and which "true church" they belonged to. Again his confusion in a mistaken belief that American Protestantism is a single Puritanical monolith gets the better of him. That there was an element in the American religious community in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which thought that way is undeniable, but they were in nearly every case preaching from the periphery, not the mainstream, and that is where the author got it wrong.
By and large Shaban's research work, if highly selective, is admirable, and his style of writing is a pleasure to read. I do find his new spelling of "Muslem" instead of the commonly accepted "Muslim" for reasons he does not make clear (p. xi) to be a bit pedantic and an unnecessary irritation. Typos are few, although two ("shald" instead of "shalt" and "nobels" instead of "nobles") appear on one half-page (p. 140), and on page 66 there is the rather unforgivable "Gibralter" (or are we to believe that the Muslim conqueror of the mount that bears his name was not Tariq but "Teriq"-after struggling with "Muslem" one can't be sure). Also the first American missionary to the Middle East was Pliny, not "Plinny," Fisk. Shaban is occasionally imprecise in his attribution of sources as when he refers to remarks "made by a Dr. Durbin" (p. 170) when he could have found the quite popular nineteenth-century work (John B. Durbin, Observations in the East, 2 vols., New York, 1845) by that American Methodist cleric and cited the primary source. Overall, however, the author's effort is commendable and, though narrowly focused, deserving of a wide readership as well as a companion reply written, preferably, by a non-Puritan.