Sir Hamilton Gibb bolsters Islamic studies and advocates an interdisciplinary approach

Area studies to Islamic studies 1955

Sir Hamilton Gibb Bolsters Islamic Studies and Advocates an Interdisciplinary Approach

Sir Hamilton Gibb resigned from his position as Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford and became Jewett Professor of Arabic and University Professor at Harvard in 1955. During his time at Harvard, Professor Gibb drew many students and faculty to the university including George Makdisi, George Kirk, and Albert Julius Meyer. Professor Gibb sought to move beyond the rigid Orientalist approach of European scholarship and embrace a more interdisciplinary one to train each student to be an “academic amphibian” who could be at home in different academic environments while remaining grounded in classical training, with philology and history at its core. In February 1964, Professor Gibb tragically suffered a stroke, leaving a leadership void in CMES for many years. His publications include The Arab Conquests in Central Asia (1923), The Islamic Background of Ibn Khaldūn’s Political Theory (1933), Modern Trends in Islam (1945), Mohammedanism (1949), and The Life of Saladin: From the Works of Baha' Ad-Din and 'Imad Ad-Din (1973). Among his notable students is Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Research Professor of History.


Sir Hamilton Gibb: Preeminent Arabist and Islamicist

Roy Mottahedeh

The next year I took his course in the history of the Islamic Middle East and it was magnificent. He spoke extremely well. He was very considerate in his choice of words. It was really a rahurrah performance. He had an enormous range, because, you know, he had worked, his very first published work was on the Arab conquest of Khorasan. He was very interested in Saladin for a long time, and one of his last books is on Saladin, whom he admired as a chivalric, medieval gentleman very much. Anyway, he had a sort of large vision of what the whole thing was. He had worked on the Ottomans. He knew Ottoman Turkish, he knew Persian well. So he had a large view of Islamic civilization through those three sources, maybe he didn't know quite as much about East Asian Islam or Indonesian Islam, but he knew the regular central subjects very well. He was Olympian in stature, he was an enormously tall. As we went on and on, up in years of Arabic, he saw that I was really dedicated to the subject. I took his seminar in Arabic poetry three times because I had so much to learn from it. He had a very great sense of the range of meanings for a word in Arabic and he was very good at choosing the one appropriate to the context of the text we were reading, and he would discuss that sometimes it was very enlightening discussions. He was a deeply moral man. Reading what he writes, you see this moral element. And one of the things he liked about Saladin was that Saladin seems to have kept his word all the time. He never made a false promise or anything. And Gibb saw that sort of moral dimension of history. Perhaps it would be a little bit less in fashion today, but never mind. I mean, if you understand it, it still doesn't make it bad history. He insisted that he was first and foremost an Arabist. And, of course, his little History of Arabic literature, which he wrote, I don't know, in his late 20s or something, is a gorgeous book. It's a lovely book. Everybody can benefit from reading it now. I read Ibn Khaldun with Gibb. Gibb was a great admirer of Ibn Khaldun, I mean, just as a thinker, and thought he was sort of more significant than just for his time. He wanted people who had very sound philology, but had some training in the social sciences, he was fascinated by the social sciences. Gibb's desire was to have people who have some strong idea about social bonds and the composition of society. After he had a stroke, I went to see him and it was tragic. Here, this man, who had such a wonderful feeling, both for the English language and for Arabic, was just barely understandable. He was understandable. And he, in fact, finished his Saladin book at that time, but a lot of his learning was beyond reach to him, tragically. Very sad. But it gave me a standard for the study of Arabic and history, he didn't claim to be an historian, and history, that is very hard to live up to, and I treasure it.

Sir Hamilton Gibb
Sir Hamilton Gibb (1895-1971)