June 15, 2014

"Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord"


Committed to Obama’s forest road, Western security chiefs are already warning a new generation of al-Qaeda, more powerful than the last, has been forged in the furnaces of Syria, Libya, Iraq, Africa and Afghanistan ready to attack. We already know, if we haven’t guessed already, that Obama’s is not going to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, which in any event, Pakistan already has. It’s more than likely the West will face attacks in the near future that will make 9/11 look like a Sunday School picnic by comparison. -- Belmont Club サ In Search of Plan C

Chapter 3 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

This people was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice. Sometimes inconsistents seemed to possess them at once in joint sway; but they never compromised: they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity. With cool head and tranquil judgement, imperturbably unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.*

They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative. There was so little Arab art in Asia that they could almost be said to have had no art, though their classes were liberal patrons, and had encouraged whatever talents in architecture, or ceramics, or other handicraft their neighbours and helots displayed. Nor did they handle great industries: they had no organizations of mind or body. They invented no systems of philosophy, no complex mythologies. They steered their course between the idols of the tribe and of the cave. The least morbid of peoples, they had accepted the gift of life unquestioningly, as axiomatic. To them it was a thing inevitable, entailed on man, a usufruct, beyond control. Suicide was a thing impossible, and death no grief.

They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius. Their movements were the more shocking by contrast with the quietude of every day, their great men greater by contrast with the humanity of their mob. Their convictions were by instinct, their activities intuitional. Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions. Three of these efforts had endured among them: two of the three had also borne export (in modified forms) to non-Semitic peoples. Christianity, translated into the diverse spirits of Greek and Latin and Teutonic tongues, had conquered Europe and America. Islam in various transformations was subjecting Africa and parts of Asia. These were Semitic successes. Their failures they kept to themselves. The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.

It was significant that this wrack of fallen religions lay about the meeting of the desert and the sown. It pointed to the generation of all these creeds. They were assertions, not arguments; so they required a prophet to set them forth. The Arabs said there had been forty thousand prophets: we had record of at least some hundreds. None of them had been of the wilderness; but their lives were after a pattern. Their birth set them in crowded places. An unintelligible passionate yearning drove them out into the desert. There they lived a greater or lesser time in meditation and physical abandonment; and thence they returned with their imagined message articulate, to preach it to their old, and now doubting, associates. The founders of the three great creeds fulfilled this cycle: their possible coincidence was proved a law by the parallel life-histories of the myriad others, the unfortunate who failed, whom we might judge of no less true profession, but for whom time and disillusion had not heaped up dry souls ready to be set on fire. To the thinkers of the town the impulse into Nitria had ever been irresistible, not probably that they found God dwelling there, but that in its solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.

The common base of all the Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present idea of world-worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty; and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the minds of the desert pitilessly. A first knowledge of their sense of the purity of rarefaction was given me in early years, when we had ridden far out over the rolling plains of North Syria to a ruin of the Roman period which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert-palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded for greater richness, not with water, but with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room, saying, 'This is jessamine, this violet, this rose'.

But at last Dahoum drew me: 'Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all', and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed to fret and linger, murmuring in baby-speech. 'This,' they told me, 'is the best: it has no taste.' My Arabs were turning their backs on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had had no share or part.

The Beduin of the desert, born and grown up in it, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness too harsh for volunteers, for the reason, felt but inarticulate, that there he found himself indubitably free. He lost material ties, comforts, all superfluities and other complications to achieve a personal liberty which haunted starvation and death. He saw no virtue in poverty herself: he enjoyed the little vices and luxuries--coffee, fresh water, women--which he could still preserve. In his life he had air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and a great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath. There unconsciously he came near God. God was to him not anthropomorphic, not tangible, not moral nor ethical, not concerned with the world or with him, not natural: but the being , thus qualified not by divestiture but by investiture, a comprehending Being, the egg of all activity, with nature and matter just a glass reflecting Him.

The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great; yet there was a homeliness, an everyday-ness of this climatic Arab God, who was their eating and their fighting and their lusting, the commonest of their thoughts, their familiar resource and companion, in a way impossible to those whose God is so wistfully veiled from them by despair of their carnal unworthiness of Him and by the decorum of formal worship. Arabs felt no incongruity in bringing God into the weaknesses and appetites of their least creditable causes. He was the most familiar of their words; and indeed we lost much eloquence when making Him the shortest and ugliest of our monosyllables.

This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought. It was easily felt as an influence, and those who went into the desert long enough to forget its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being. The Bedawi might be a nominal Sunni, or a nominal Wahabi, or anything else in the Semitic compass, and he would take it very lightly, a little in the manner of the watchmen at Zion's gate who drank beer and laughed in Zion because they were Zionists. Each individual nomad had his revealed religion, not oral or traditional or expressed, but instinctive in himself; and so we got all the Semitic creeds with (in character and essence) a stress on the emptiness of the world and the fullness of God; and according to the power and opportunity of the believer was the expression of them.

The desert dweller could not take credit for his belief. He had never been either evangelist or proselyte. He arrived at this intense condensation of himself in God by shutting his eyes to the world, and to all the complex possibilities latent in him which only contact with wealth and temptations could bring forth. He attained a sure trust and a powerful trust, but of how narrow a field! His sterile experience robbed him of compassion and perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hid. Accordingly he hurt himself, not merely to be free, but to please himself. There followed a delight in pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods. The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self restraint. He made nakedness of the mind as sensuous as nakedness of the body. He saved his own soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness. His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God. To it sometimes the seekers from the outer world could escape for a season and look thence in detachment at the nature of the generation they would convert.

This faith of the desert was impossible in the towns. It was at once too strange, too simple, too impalpable for export and common use. The idea, the ground-belief of all Semitic creeds was waiting there, but it had to be diluted to be made comprehensible to us. The scream of a bat was too shrill for many ears: the desert spirit escaped through our coarser texture. The prophets returned from the desert with their glimpse of God, and through their stained medium (as through a dark glass) showed something of the majesty and brilliance whose full vision would blind, deafen, silence us, serve us as it had served the Beduin, setting him uncouth, a man apart.

The disciples, in the endeavour to strip themselves and their neighbours of all things according to the Master's word, stumbled over human weaknesses and failed. To live, the villager or townsman must fill himself each day with the pleasures of acquisition and accumulation, and by rebound off circumstance become the grossest and most material of men. The shining contempt of life which led others into the barest asceticism drove him to despair. He squandered himself heedlessly, as a spendthrift: ran through his inheritance of flesh in hasty longing for the end. The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.

Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants. None of them would escape the bond till success had come, and with it responsibility and duty and engagements. Then the idea was gone and the work ended--in ruins. Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it; but if on the road, led in this fashion, they met the prophet of an idea, who had nowhere to lay his head and who depended for his food on charity or birds, then they would all leave their wealth for his inspiration. They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and colour-blind, to whom body and spirit were for ever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardour and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail. Since the dawn of life, in successive waves they had been dashing themselves against the coasts of flesh. Each wave was broken, but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed, and some day, ages yet, might roll unchecked over the place where the material world had been, and God would move upon the face of those waters. One such wave (and not the least) I raised and rolled before the breath of an idea, till it reached its crest, and toppled over and fell at Damascus. The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, will provide the matter of the following wave, when in fullness of time the sea shall be raised once more.

Chapter 3 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 15, 2014 2:43 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and colour-blind, to whom body and spirit were for ever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardour and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.

One could say that this description of a people is just as aptly applied to the generations of progressives plaguing America at this time in its history.

Posted by: John Venlet at June 15, 2014 7:17 AM

"Nihilism in the Middle East: From Colonel Lawrence to Mohammed Atta

Posted by: Christina M. at June 15, 2014 7:53 AM

Apologies for the duplicates. My computer is acting wonky.

Posted by: Christina M. at June 15, 2014 7:55 AM

I've never read the whole book because its all written like this and incredibly dense and slow going in a way modern authors do not write. To read and understand T.E. Lawrence you need a very good education and mind, and its a struggle.

But he's very clear and good in his observations, and his warnings are many. He has more than a few slams at the men who sit at home and pretend these things are not true, as well.

But he's not right about Christianity: it didn't come from a prophet in the wilderness, it came from a Baby in manger - and in truth, far before that.

Nor does Christianity or Judaism preach the emptiness and worthlessness of the world, only the evil of man's sin-taint upon a good and beautiful world. God made stuff, as Michael Horton puts it, and He likes it.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at June 15, 2014 8:06 AM

The tilt toward Allah's plan, which I have observed in the Muslim mind, distracts them from creating anything new.

Training Muslim pilots to deal with aircraft emergencies is difficult because they interpret mechanical failures as Allah's will. They shouldn't do anything to thwart the will of Allah. That is a no no.

The only time they seem willing to take matters into their hands is when following the dictate of converting or killing all infidels. The Islamists follow that dictate with great creativity and hard work. Improving their lot in life - not so much.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at June 15, 2014 9:13 AM

I first read Seven Pillars in eighth grade. again early in the eighties after Beirut. I had a beautiful hardbound copy printed in the thirties and now I cannot find it.

Shared this on Facebook.

Posted by: TmjUtah at June 15, 2014 9:50 AM

"I've never read the whole book because its all written like this and incredibly dense and slow going in a way modern authors do not write." Best recommendation for a book I have ever seen.

Posted by: james wilson at June 15, 2014 9:55 AM

James Wilson, yes. There is a certain richness to the dense writing of the past. Some of those "olden days" authors of the 18th and 18th centuries, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, could create sentences of beauty and story telling that modern day authors must envy.

Posted by: Harry at June 15, 2014 1:50 PM

He's describing a people alienated from their own nature; and submitted here, no culture is more alienated from its own nature than ours. They understand that intuitively and that's why their hatred for us is so "unreasonable". We are all "of" matter. That's the grand design, for 'Christ's' sake. Look at the Star of David. What do you think it means? I'll tell you. Two isosceles triangles superimposed over each other. One points down, the other up. God descends into matter in order to (re)emerge a self realized being. That is the story of Christ taken as metaphor. So, the most salient statement here is when he says "...we lost much eloquence when making Him the shortest and ugliest of our monosyllables." Maybe the lyrical appellations of G_d of the ancients is more apropos.

Posted by: John Hinds at June 15, 2014 5:22 PM

John Hinds:

"Maybe the lyrical appellations of G_d of the ancients is more apropos."

Yes, absolutely. And each name carries different connotations relative to context:


The band, Lamb, sings and praises God with Hebrew lyrics. They are of the Messianic, or Completed Jews; those Jews that have accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

here they are, do click on some of their songs:


Posted by: chasmatic at June 15, 2014 7:46 PM

Chas, I have to say you have me there with the different names for different contexts. I had a more limited view that the (unpronounceable) names were meant to convey that the deity couldn't be owned, wasn't subject to mere human understanding and would be thereby severely limited, anthropomorphized, by a mere name. The Word cannot in turn be confined by A Word; God cannot be a mere man, but man cannot help but be a spark of the divine. My reading of this T.E. Lawrence excerpt gives me pause to consider his subject people rather avoid this trap more than popular Christianity. I don't know. I'm given pause. The desert, images thereof, the silence, emptiness, yet fecund with expansive grandeur.

I guess within silence rests infinite potentiality.

I will follow your link.

Posted by: John Hinds at June 15, 2014 8:24 PM

John Hinds: I don't mean to be cryptic and I agree, God should not be anthropomorphized. The several names of God are found in Old and New Testament. Let me provide the link:


Most of the names originate in the Old Testament; a few are carried forward in to the New Testament.

Quite fascinating. I'm just an ordinary Baptist and I try to keep it simple.

Posted by: chasmatic at June 15, 2014 11:01 PM

Seven Pillar is one of the great books of the 20th Century. I'm not sure if I should call it non-fiction. I think Lawrence was interpreting rather than reporting part of the time, but it is essential none the less.

Posted by: mushroom at June 16, 2014 7:34 AM