Obituary: Albert Hourani

Albert Hourani, historian, born Manchester 31 March 1915, Lecturer and Reader Modern History of the Middle East Oxford University 1958-80, died Oxford 17 January 1993.

ALBERT HOURANI was a leading historian of the Middle East. As both teacher and author, he illuminated the development of Arab nationalism and the long and often troubled relationship between Islam and the West.

He was from a Christian Lebanese family. In 1891 his father moved from Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, to Manchester, where Albert was born in 1915. He received his secondary education in London and studied PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, the city which was to be the intellectual centre of his life.

After a spell of teaching at the American University of Beirut, he joined Chatham House in 1939 under two men who were to influence his life and thought, Arnold Toynbee and Hamilton Gibb. British officials valued his opinions on developments in the Middle East, particularly the Palestine problem. He gave eloquent testimony to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine in 1946, arguing the Arab case with skill and moderation.

He will be remembered, above all, as a particularly gifted teacher, who taught, lectured and wrote with calm lucidity and wise judgement. He was a fellow of Magdalen College from 1948 to 1958, and from 1958 until his retirement in 1980 he was first Lecturer, then Reader, in the Modern History of the Middle East. In 1958 he became the director of Oxford's Middle East Centre, where, together with another distinguished historian, Elizabeth Monroe, he built up a unique collection of papers on the modern Middle East.

He was a popular lecturer on American as well as European and Arab campuses, visiting Harvard, Chicago and other universities. When ill-health forced Gibb to give up the chair in Arabic at Harvard in 1964, Hourani was offered the position but decided to stay in Oxford. Many colleagues were left with the feeling that he never fully achieved the academic recognition he deserved.

Hourani wrote on a wide variety of Middle Eastern and Islamic themes. While occasionally addressing recent political problems (the Arab-Israeli conflict and the tribulations of Lebanon), his main interests lay elsewhere - in the impact of Europe on the development of Arab thought and Arab nationalism, and in the images formed by Western scholars and travellers who encountered the world of Islam.

At least two of Hourani's books seem certain to remain classics for students of the Middle East. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962) is a masterly study of Arab nationalism in the formative period from 1798 to 1939. Then, almost 30 years later, he published A History of the Arab Peoples (1991). Coming out at a time when the world was preoccupied with Saddam Hussein and Kuwait, it achieved great success, becoming - to its author's surprise and amusement - a runaway best- seller in the United States.

Hourani was above all interested in the history of ideas. A theme to which he returned time and again was the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and more particularly between Europe and the Arab East. In addressing issues which often evoke passion and prejudice, he spoke with a voice of reason, humanity and integrity.

His family had originally been Presbyterians, but in the early 1950s he converted to Catholicism. A kind, modest and courteous man, Hourani was devoted to his wife, Odile (whom he married in 1955), and their daughter and granddaughter.

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