“Egyptology: The Missing Millennium” of Medieval Arabic Sources

In this paper, I would like to discuss the missing millennium of Medieval Arabic sources in the study of Egyptology. Much of the arguments that I present here are detailed in my book. These include: The demonstration that Medieval Arabs were interested in, had knowledge of and attempted to interpret the culture of Ancient Egypt: To show the relevance of these materials to the study of Ancient Egypt by bridging the gap between the works of the Classical writers and those of later Europeans: To encourage further study of the medieval Arabic material available, some of which could help archaeologists with descriptions and with the excavation and interpretation of sites, and perhaps even to reconstruct monuments which have long since disappeared. The word ‘Arabs’ has been employed here to indicate sources written in Arabic regardless of the ethnic or geographical origin.

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A short summary of the chapters in my book will be found in Appendix 1 here.

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Dr Okasha El-Daly

The reasons underlying my research methodology were to collect and make available as many Arabic sources relating to Ancient Egypt as possible. Although as somebody of Egyptian heritage, I was aware of some of these Arabic sources which could fill the gap between the Classical sources and those of the late European Renaissance, I was not made aware of such valuable amounts of material from the missing millennium during my studies in Egyptology. It is important to note that prior to this book, some of these sources had never previously been published. This was with the intent of spurring other Egyptologist researchers to pursue similar aims of getting more medieval Arabic sources published. The historiographic corpus in medieval Arabic sources concerning Ancient Egypt amounts to several hundred thousand volumes, so further research requires much more time and many more people to give this subject justice.

Topics which seemed to garner a lot of public and academic interest in particular include the role of Cleopatra as a scholar, the Arab decipherment of hieroglyphs and how Egyptian Egyptology has been overlooked. For example, I argue that the Ancient Arabian, Ancient Persian and Ancient Indian contacts with Ancient Egypt had a more important impact, yet these remain unstudied in detail as there appears to be a Eurocentric focus.

Though I may be accused of being overly abstract and ardent with some of the points that are made in the book, some of the findings outlined open up exciting possibilities for those thinking of pursuing further research in to this subject matter. For example, references made to strong interactions between the Arabian Peninsula and Ancient Egypt long before and during the Greco-Roman period. What is more, how the famous Ancient Egyptian institution entitled “_Xrdw n k3p_” may have survived and came to be known as the “Children of the Room” in medieval Egypt.

I also explored how Cleopatra, one of the most renowned ancient Egyptian women, was represented in Arabic sources. Here, I discuss her contributions in terms of science and diplomacy. Some critics have highlighted that “fanciful” conclusions have been made regarding Cleopatra’s role as an intellectual as opposed to how she is largely depicted in the Global North.


Bronze coin of Cleopatra VII, Egypt, Ptolemaic Dynasty, 48-30 BC, Minted at Cyprus, A portrait of Cleopatra and her young son Caesarion (Source)

However, it could be said that the same interest which drove medieval Arabic scholars to research and write about Cleopatra in such a manner were owing to the larger reasons driving them to take an interest in Egyptian scripts – that of Ancient Egypt being observed as a land of treasures and wisdom. This was both in terms of material and immaterial wealth. This led to the development of wide interest in the Egyptian scripts where Arabic writers, notably Dhu Al Nun Al Misri and Ibn Wahshiyah among many others, matched hieroglyphs with the Arabic alphabet. In addition, how as a result of transmitted knowledge and/or bilingual scriptures obtained to seek these “wisdoms”, Arabic writers came to know the meanings behind some of the hieroglyphs. Moreover, how these hieroglyphs were not just interpreted as symbols, rather, as phonemes, also. This led some historians to hold that scholars such as Champollion were inspired by such Arabic works.

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A stela of King Amenemhat II (ca 1928-1895 BCE) of the Twelfth Dynasty, as copied in Alu ‘l-Qasim al-Iraqi's Al-Aqalim. Source: The British Library, MS Add 25724, folio 50a; reproduced in El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 24. (Article)

Another method in which I found medieval Arab Egyptologists transmitted knowledge of Ancient Egypt was through noting down oral testimonies. Examples of these oral testimonies include the lost ancient Egyptian Demotic stories. I also shed further light on how medieval Arab scholars may have gathered the information on ancient technology which they documented during the missing millennium.

In selecting source material and deciding on its relevance to my objectives I have been guided by my training in Egyptology.  I am conscious that my views as a native on what is relevant may often differ to those who are not native to Egypt.  This problem has been expressed much more ably and fully both by Abdul Latif Tibawi (1979) and Edward Said (1995) in their analyses of Orientalism.  I have mainly selected writers who are recognised scholars in their fields, and who show a profound interest in Ancient Egypt. I have also used some reliable narratives of epics and stories which reveal perceptions of Egypt’s past.

Medieval Arabic can be difficult to translate because of the variety of meanings derived from the same root, and I have come across many serious errors in previous English translations, which have been widely used without awareness of their pitfalls. The task of translating such Arabic texts into English, for someone whose mother tongue is not English, is even more daunting; this was commented upon long ago by no less an authority than Edward Sachau, the translator of Al-Biruni, who called this task “an act of temerity” (Sachau 1888 1: xlviii). With all this in mind, I have relied on my own translations of the Arabic sources unless otherwise stated.

The sources used were all written in Arabic, with a few exceptions of material written in Persian and translated into Arabic (eg. Naṣir-e Khisraw Sefernama).

I concentrate on Muslim writers, again with a few exceptions, regardless of their ethnic background, as it is usually Islam which incurs blame for cutting Egyptians off from their ancient heritage and Pharaonic past.

With the spread of Islam, Arabic became for some centuries the lingua franca of science and knowledge, used by Muslims and non-Muslims along with Arabs and non-Arabs alike.    

These sources may be classified as:

  1. Accounts of travellers and geographers;
  2. Historical and hagiographic writings;
  3. Books on deciphering ancient scripts;
  4. Accounts and manuals of treasure hunters;
  5. Books on alchemy.


Dr. Okasha El Daly, FSTC Director of Projects, interviewed in the show Science and Islam produced and presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili on BBC4. (Source) (Article)
 

Conclusions

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Front cover of Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Okasha El Daly (London: UCL Press, 2005).

It is clear from the Arabic sources that the study of ancient cultures was genuinely valued for knowledge and guidance, believing that all human history was one, albeit of different peoples living in different places, essentially sharing a common origin and common destiny. The medieval Arab study of Egyptian culture is part of this universal historical approach rather than a narrow attempt to validate Holy Scriptures.

Close ties between pre-Islamic Arabs and ancient Egyptians ensured a sense of identity and continuity with this ancient culture, among the newcomers under Islam from the seventh century onwards.   

Arab writers drew on rich and varied sources, both pre-Islamic and contemporary. Their approach to their written sources is at times critical, but not always so. The mere fact that many writers repeated accounts of their predecessors verbatim, suggests a continuous interest in their subject matter. Visiting sites and talking to local people also featured as a major source of information. But even previous eyewitness accounts were not always accepted uncritically, as Al-Baghdadi’s writings in particular have shown.

The exploitation of Egyptian sites for treasure continued from Ancient Egypt, sadly some of it being still in evidence today. But this exploitation became an established profession in medieval Egypt, organised by the state. Treasure hunting manuals, produced to meet public demand, were often forgeries with fantastic claims, but some may prove to be useful for current archaeological work and, as I have shown,   have contributed some of the earliest known drawings of archaeological sites. The extant copies of these manuals in manuscript collections are a testimony to their popularity among different classes of medieval society, which was encouraged by folklore about Egypt as the land of treasure.      

For more scholarly writers, ancient sites and materials provided opportunities to study the past and bring its people back to life. Many writers had an approach to and appreciation of archaeological processes which are almost identical to the most recent approaches in the field (e.g. Al-Hamadani in Yemen, and Al-Idrisi in Egypt).

Serious Arab works on local archaeology and culture have been shown to contain accurate accounts of antiquities and a scholarly approach to understanding their function as well as their symbolism.

Hieroghlyphic signs with their phonetic values below in a different colour in Abu al-Qasim al-'Iraqi Kitab al-Aqalim. Source: The British Library, MS Add 25724, folio 21b; reproduced in O. El-Daly,Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 21.

Egyptian scripts intrigued Arab writers, and were for many the key to profound knowledge and wisdom. The fact that spoken Egyptian was still alive in its Coptic phase made it possible, in conjunction with knowledge of other languages and scripts, to reach a correct understanding of the nature of ancient Egyptian language. Whatever the motives for medieval Arabic interest in Egyptian scripts, they undoubtedly succeeded in realising that ancient Egyptian was linked to Coptic, that Egyptian signs had phonetic values and that some were grouped as an alphabet.  In addition, a few writers were able to distinguish between signs used alphabetically and those used as determinatives. The whole process of decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was undoubtedly assisted by the view that the ancient Egyptian and Arabic languages had so many features in common as to indicate a common origin.  

There remains a large corpus of material for a future survey and study of ancient scripts in the medieval Arabic sources, as hundreds of scripts were included in their studies.  It is clear that in the case of Egyptian scripts, those medieval Arab writers who concerned themselves with decipherment were mainly alchemists and often Ṣufis as well. This suggests that a detailed study is required to establish the connection between ancient Egyptian alchemy and religious philosophy, and Muslim alchemists and Ṣufis.  Studies of the sources of Muslim Sufism tend to focus on its Indian and Persian roots, with an almost total absence of any consideration of an Egyptian source or input (among exceptions are Witteveen 1997: 1-4; Roberts 2000: 201-225; and DuQuesne 2001b).  A rich reward awaits any researcher who compares the sun hymns of Akhenaton to the Muslim Sufism of Ishraq, Illumination, as represented by its famous master Suhravardi (cf Corbin eg. 1976, 1983, 1986). Any proficient Egyptologist will see clear parallels. Concepts such as the “Perfect Being/God”, “Transfiguration/Transformation of the Body/Soul”, “Luminous Ones”, amongst others, are common to both ancient Egyptian religion and to Muslim Sufism, and any serious student of Egyptian religion will benefit from reading studies, such as those of Corbin and others.  Further, a detailed study of current religious practices of the Mandaeans/Ṣabaeans of Iraq and Iran and beyond  might shed further light on Egyptian religion,  based not only on their  claim to be descended from Egyptians, but, more importantly, on the many similarities between their rituals and beliefs (eg. Celestial bodies, water rituals, the tree mother who suckles children, divine birth, the sun barque, the five divine epagomenal days that are counted at the end of the 360 days of the year but not regarded as part of the year, the book of the two ways, the unification of the deceased with his likeness…and so on).       

It was probably access to ancient Egyptian texts written in Demotic and Coptic, often with Greek translation, which helped Arab scholars to a better understanding of the complexity of Egyptian religion. But to comprehend the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians, many Arab writers resorted to contemporary observation as well as to information from earlier accounts, in particular the Greek sources.  In this process, attempts were made to accommodate ancient Egyptian religion within the rich mosaic of Islamic teachings, and even to bring some eminent figures from the past, for example Thoth/Hermes, into the fold of Islam.

This approach was greatly helped by the fact that the fabric of many of the ancient Egyptian temples was still almost intact in medieval times, displaying their rich iconography, with scenes of prayers, offerings, and other rituals, many of which were correctly interpreted. The temples were perceived by Arab writers as institutions of wisdom and learning, where magic played an important part in religious practice. Egyptian magic for Arab writers was a science practised by kings, queens and priests, as part of the formal structure of Egyptian religion.

Egyptian alphabet deciphered in Abu ‘l-Qasim al-'Iraqi's book Kitab al-Aqalim al-Sab'a. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, MS arabe 2676, folio 18a; reproduced in O. El-Daly,Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 23.

The medieval writers also recognized the sanctity of Egyptian religious sites, particularly the pyramid area.  Not only did they describe the survival of some ancient Egyptian practices among medieval Egyptians, but many tried to find common ground between Islamic teachings and ancient Egyptian religion, in common with some modern scholars (e. g. Kamal 1909: 51ff; Al-Sayyar 1995:153ff). Many place names in Egypt still show their ancient origin, and modern Egyptians, like their medieval forebears, Muslims and Christians alike, regard as holy, places which their ancient ancestors sanctified.  Colleagues in the field of Egyptology should build bridges with scholars of medieval Arab philosophy who have studied the history and origins of philosophical thought  (Indian, Persian, Greek, Arabic  ...etc), because their insights may help to shed light on ancient Egyptian philosophical issues which are still regarded by Egyptologists as obscure. I believe that many ancient Egyptian philosophical ideas regarding the creator and the created, the sun and celestial spheres, astronomy and astrology, cyclical time, the nature and fate of the soul, to name but a few, formed the basis of later Greek and Arabic philosophy, and scholars working in the latter field have already developed methods to understand such ideas. Conversely, we can draw on ancient Egyptian texts, in order to understand some the ambiguities that still baffle those working on Greek and Arabic philosophy. Some of these ambiguities may have been an understandable result of translating a concept from ancient Egyptian into Greek or Persian, and then into Arabic.

Another subject which might benefit from further study of the medieval sources is the cult practices of the earlier Egyptian kings. Many popular practices involving royal cults are considered in some detail by the medieval sources, and certainly merit further study:  this might help Egyptologists to understand the effects of cult practices on the general populace, and the folk traditions which arose from them.

The same may be said of Arabic appreciation and study of animal cults and oracles, which are valuable for their sympathetic treatment and provide an indication of the survival of some of these practices well into the medieval period. 

Popular and scholarly interest in the subject of mummia and mummification, of both humans and animals, and the medicinal uses of the former, is common in medieval Arabic sources, and some scholars actually studied Egyptian mummies to settle anatomical problems. Questions were raised about burial contexts, and on the types of animals mummified, with reasons for the choice, and there are some accurate insights based on direct observation.  It is also clear that the trade in Egyptian mummia and its export to the West was rampant much earlier than has been previously thought.

Like their Classical predecessors, Arab writers believed that Egypt was the land of science and wisdom originating with Hermes the Egyptian, to whom they attributed the invention of writing as well as the sciences of alchemy and medicine, among others disciplines. This created a corpus of writings in which accounts of Egyptian scientific mirabilia became very popular, and these should not be dismissed out of hand by modern scholars on the grounds that they appear fantastic.  In fact, evidence is still buried in the land of Egypt, and also in our museums, awaiting serious investigation, and it is quite possible that evidence for some of the scientific inventions described will be uncovered.

Symbols in medieval Arabic alchemy inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs: Kitab al-Aqalim by Abu ‘l-Qasim al-‘Iraqi (British Library in London, MS Add 25724, folio 11a). Source : El Daly 2005, figure 12.

Many Arab writers believed that the Egyptian kings had been greatly concerned with the wellbeing of their subjects and had utilized all available sources, including magic, to achieve this.  They knew that the Pharaoh of Moses, as portrayed in the traditions, was a single monarch who was not a typical representative of Egyptian kingship. They depict Egyptian rulers as very learned and often pious figures, as well as efficient administrators who were mainly concerned with the well-being of their nation.  Medieval Arab sources also describe institutions which appear to have survived without interruption from pharaonic Egypt and which continued to function, offering potential to augment the evidence of the ancient Egyptian records. The example shown here, that of the “Children of the Room” could serve as a model for further research.

The medieval Arab epics kept alive the memory of long departed pharaohs of Egypt, sometimes reproducing their Romances interwoven with those of known Arabian figures such as Saif Ibn Dhi Yazan, the pre-Islamic king of Yemen, or current monarchs such as Sultan Baybars I.  Some ancient Egyptian rulers still appear under the names known to us from the archaeological records, for example Zoser, Amasis, Inaros, Nectanebo and Cleopatra. Some of the reasons for this survival, as well as being found in Coptic and Greek sources, must surely lie in the Demotic sources, many of which remain still unstudied in museum cupboards.

Cleopatra was chosen as a case study, not because there is insufficient material in the Arabic sources about others, but to show how very differently her image appears in the Arabic sources from her more usual portrayal in some classical as well as modern sources.  She is represented in medieval Arab sources as a philosopher and scholar without reference to her physical attributes. But this may also be seen as a reflection of the medieval Arab cultural environment which viewed powerful, intellectual women as normal, based on the well recorded history of such women from pre-Islamic Arabia and Egypt until the medieval period when many of these writers worked.

The brief background of many of these writers which I have given in appendix 1, is intended to give a cursory glimpse of the seriousness of their knowledge and modes of enquiry, which are characteristic of most medieval Muslim scholarship. It is also important to note the range of backgrounds of these scholars, who treated Egypt’s past and present with utmost respect and appreciation. They ranged from scholars of tradition such as Ibn cAbd Al-Ḥakam, historians such as Al-Idrisi, Ṣufi masters such as Dhu Al-Nun Al-Miṣri, scientists such as al-Biruni, and alchemists such as Ibn Umail and Abu Al-Qasim Al-cIraqi. Also important is the wide range of their place of origin.  In addition to native Egyptians, Muslim and non-Muslim, they came from countries as far apart as Spain in the West and Iran and beyond in the East. Almost all spoke and wrote in Arabic, the lingua franca of their day.

If I may end this conclusion on a personal note, it is to say that I started this journey as an Egyptologist in search of a missing link in the history of our discipline, but of no less importance to me as an Egyptian is the light which this study has shed on the continuous links which the Egyptians maintained with their ancient heritage throughout the medieval period.  It has highlighted for me the need for us as a nation to revive this collective interest and to take a more active role in the study and preservation of its heritage. This may not be easy after two and a half centuries in which the study of Egyptology has been dominated by a Euro-centric view which has virtually ignored more than a thousand years of Arabic scholarship and exploration. 

Egyptian alphabet according to Ibn Wahshiyya (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff).

Archaeologists working in other parts of the Near East are also beginning, as a result of local concerns, to be aware of and to address this problem of Western dominance and interpretation of their fields (Matthews 2003: 200), something which their colleagues in Egyptian archaeology are yet to address seriously.  But at the same time, we must acknowledge our immense debt to our Western colleagues for their invaluable contribution.      

I hope that by affording a glimpse of the richness of medieval Arabic sources and the breadth and depth of their interest in Ancient Egypt, a gap in the history of the study of Ancient Egypt is at least narrowed, though certainly not filled completely.

One of my major conclusions has shown the long kinship between Egypt and her Arabic neighbours. But to this I must add some quotations from an eminent recent scholar, Gamal Hamdan from his groundbreaking study, “Character of Egypt”:

Egypt’s four dimensions African, Asiatic, Nilotic and Mediterranean,- each aspect has played its role in certain periods of its long history (1: 42-45).

It was impossible for Egypt to live in isolation; it was at the centre of the world. The isolation brought about by its deserts was one-sided and it was always a magnet for people. Indeed, everyone and everything came to Egypt and seldom did Egypt have to go out: trade, sailors, immigrants, conquests, colonialists, even the Nile and the winds came to it (1: 43).

Egypt is Pharaonic through its grandfather, but Arabic through its father.  Yet both father and grandfather have common origins and descend from the same great grandfather. Family relationships are well established from prehistory, Islam and Arabization were merely a reaffirmation of these ties. There is no contradiction between Egyptianism and Arabism for both are the warp and the weft in a single national fabric (1: 45).

I finish as I started, with a quotation from a medieval Arabic scholar:

We have dealt- as we think, adequately- with the problems connected with that (subject). Perhaps some later (scholar), aided by the divine gifts of a sound mind and of solid scholarship, will penetrate into these problems in greater detail than we did here. A person who creates a new discipline does not have the task of enumerating (all) the (individual) problems connected with it. His task is to specify the subject of the discipline and its various branches and the discussions connected with it. His successors, then, may gradually add more problems, until the (discipline) is completely (presented).  (Ibn Khaldun Muqaddimah 3: 481)


Coptic Text with Arabic Translation Verses Rosetta Stone (Source)

Appendix 1

Chapter One: Introduction

In this chapter, I demonstrate how past and present Western scholars have, what appears to be, largely overlooked the medieval native Egyptian interest in Ancient Egyptian history and the importance of studying this important link. Here, I also attempt to debunk the myth that Egyptian Egyptologists have paid little attention to their medieval heritage, which is partly due to the domination of Euro-centric interpretation of Egyptology and the institutions which invest in research regarding it. This is not to say that Western colleagues have not made noteworthy contributions in Egyptology, rather that the need to translate and promote medieval Arabic sources will augment and enrich the existing corpus of sources relevant to Egyptology.

Chapter Two: The Making of an Interpretatio Arabica of Ancient Egypt

Here, I present some of the sources available to medieval Arabs for their knowledge of Ancient Egypt, and explain the various elements that contributed to the making of an interpretatio Arabica of Ancient Egypt. I raise the argument that Ancient Egypt was a point of interest to native Egyptians and their Arab/Muslim neighbours due to the mention of Pharaoh in the Qur’an and generally, the interest in the universal history of mankind. What is more, the observations made by Arabic travellers, Copts, Classical and Jewish sources, as well as contacts made by pre-Islamic and Islamic figures further outlining this interest in Ancient Egypt.

Chapter Three: Treasure Hunters

Chapter three explores Egyptian monuments being perceived as places of concealment of great treasures. It describes treasure hunters, their manuals, state regulation, and the economics of the profession which in some cases led to their discovery of monuments etc. and unfortunately in others their destruction.  Examples are given of these manuals and their relevance to current archaeological work.

Chapter Four: Medieval Arab Archaeological Methods and Descriptions

Within this chapter, I highlight how medieval Arab archaeological methods, and descriptions of ancient sites and objects, are in many ways as clear and scientific as those of present day archaeologists. In example, voyagers are said to have given extensive descriptions of monuments visited such as the pyramids, the Sphinx and Ancient Egyptian temples.

Chapter Five: Medieval Arab Attempts to Decipher Ancient Egyptian Scripts

This chapter outlines the interest in ancient Egyptian scripts continued beyond Classical writers, and describes attempts by some medieval Arab scholars, mainly alchemists, to decipher the hieroglyph script, having realised that it has an alphabet.  With the assistance of people from Coptic origin, I give examples of Egyptian writing correctly deciphered.

Chapter Six: Medieval Arabic Concept of Ancient Egyptian Religion

In this particular section, I explore the great interest medieval Arabs had for the Ancient Egyptian religion and attempt to illustrate their understanding of its multi-faceted nature and their interpretation of the many intact temples. In example, accounts suggesting that some, notably, the Sabeans of Haran, made pilgrimages to Ancient Egyptian sites such as the Sphinx. I also discuss the role of magic, the nature of royal cults, animal cults and holy sites as seen through their eyes.

Chapter Seven: Egyptian Mummia, Mummification and Burial Practices in Medieval Arabic Sources

Chapter seven deliberates Egyptian mummia, mummification and burial practices of both humans and animals as well as the medicinal use of mummia in Arabic medicine.  Subject matter such as which natural products were utilised to conserve Egyptian bodies is also visited along with the trade of these natural products. The definitions of uncovered mummies are also mentioned.

Chapter Eight: Egyptian Science in Medieval Arabic Sources

Within this chapter I relate how Egypt was thought of by medieval Arabs as the land of science par excellence, in particular in alchemy, and give examples of different scientific mirabilia attributed to scientists of pre-Islamic Egypt.

Chapter Nine: Egyptian Kingship and State Administration

Here, I consider the mention of the Pharaoh in the Qur’an, the Arab concept of Egyptian kingship and state administration, along with the survival of some ancient Egyptian institutions such as Xrdw n k3p-  ‘Children of the Room’- into the medieval period. I also include a case study of Queen Cleopatra to show how the Arabic romance of this queen differs significantly from its Western counterparts.

Chapter Ten: Conclusions

This chapter summarises the main arguments constructed throughout the book and makes recommendations for further work that I hope others may be inspired to pursue.


Images from a series of astrological and alchemical treatises in British Library MS. Oriental. Add. 25724. (Source)
 

Bibliography

  • El Daly, O. (2005) "Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings" London: UCL Press.
     
  • Sachau, E. (1888) "Al-Biruni’s India" 2 volumes. London: Trübner & Co.
     
  • Said, E. (1995) "Orientalism" (with new introduction). London, Penguin Books. First published London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1978.
     
  • Tibawi, A. (1979) "Second Critique of English-Speaking Orientalists and Their Approach to Islam and the Arabs" London: The Islamic Cultural Centre.

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