Review of Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind
★★★★★ Insight to the Arab and inadvertently the traditional Chinese mind, May 25, 2014
By Yong Huang
I read the book not, or not just, for the purpose of understanding the Arab mind, but more as a comparative study of different cultures, Arab and Chinese in my mind, although Dr. Patai would consider the Arab and Latin American states to be more comparable. The Chinese civilization flourished about one millenium ago, just like the Arab and Islam culture, and declined about two hundred years ago, later than the Arab culture. Both had strong negative impact on the intellectuals as well as the general public: disbelief in the Western supremacy, shock, complete abnegation of its own tradition, and slow change to more reasonable evaluation of the two civilizations. The traditional Arab and Chinese cultures share many traits distinct from the Western counterpart: obsession with honor, "face" or self-respect, familial feud and revenge, hospitality, sexual honor of the women, superficial adoption of the Western technology, i.e. without embracing the whole spirit of science (what the Chinese called in the late Qing dynasty "zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong", or "the Chinese knowledge as the essense, the western learning for uses"). This book offers insight from the psychological and anthropological perspective to understanding the historical process and analyzing the elements in the cultures.
It may be pointed out that the book cites numerous isolated examples and generalizes in conclusions. This fault is difficult to avoid, at least until recent decades. There's one way I can think of to solve the problem: statistics. Traditional humanities are migrating some of their studies to social sciences, in the sense that research is done more in the fashion of science, e.g., data collection, statistics, questionaires, data modeling. Unfortunately, this approach was not popular or difficult to implement back when Dr. Patai wrote the book. No doubt there's a risk in exagerating special cases into general trends, but to say there's nothing about the general Arab mind because every country has its own features is cheap, cliché, critique, or simply wrong. The experience of other reviewers or their friends in successfully using this book as a guide when they live in the Arab states is strong enough evidence.
The book may also be criticized for politically incorrect remarks on the Arab states and people and for its apparent western supremacy. But we have to keep two facts in mind, that Dr. Patai is whole-heartedly sympathetic toward the people and their culture, and that the book was written before the modern concept of political correctness was accepted. If he could rewrite the book today, many terms and phrases would be changed to fit in the civilized environment of the twenty-first century. If he's accused of his condescending tone from a Western scholar's perspective, we may imagine mechanically replacing "they" to "we" and "we" to "they" in the book so that it appears to be authored by an Arabic scholar, leaving all the analysis of the Arab mind in place. It would be awkward then to continue to hold the critique on this masterpiece.
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